Opinion |

In Diaspora Jewish Communities, Just Don't Call It the 'Occupation'

Denial runs deep. Five decades on, it's still the one word you mustn’t mention in polite Diaspora Jewish society

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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roadblock El Khader near the West Bank town of Bethlehem October 23, 2003
From Canada, you can’t see the occupation: An Israeli soldier checks Palestinians at a roadblock in El Khader near the West Bank town of Bethlehem. October 23, 2003Credit: Reuters
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

What’s in a word? If you’re a Diaspora Jew, and the word has something to do with Israel, apparently a lot.

After all the column-writing I’ve done, something unprecedented happened last week. Owing to significant reader criticism, my editor at the Canadian Jewish News felt compelled to publish a note defending the running of my latest piece. The source of the complaints? That I used the word “occupation.”

Two issues cry out for attention here.

The first concerns what the nature of Jewish community dialogue is, and should be, around matters relating to Israel and Palestine. The second - how is it that for so many in the Jewish community and more generally, the term ‘occupation’ is regarded as a matter of opinion, rather than fact.

I often hear the familiar refrain that, to Diaspora Jews, Israel is like our child and so we shouldn’t criticize the country publicly. But it’s a weak metaphor. The State of Israel is no helpless infant: it has millions of citizens that it must serve and protect, and millions of non-citizens under its control. When it comes to civil rights and human rights, all states must be held accountable as adults.

But even if we did accept the Israel-as-child metaphor and thus agree that Diaspora criticism of Israel should be done en famille, I have to ask: where are these vigorous intra-community debates actually happening? With a few notable exceptions, they certainly aren’t taking place in our day schools, summer camps, JCCs, Federations, synagogues or campus Hillels.

The fear of the word is not confined to North America. Chemi Shalev recently described how the term “occupation” is becoming taboo among many Israelis. But that doesn’t give Diaspora Jews a free pass to gloss over it as well; nor can they, evidently, leave the debate over the occupation to Israelis. In fact, the discourse in Israel is moving in Orwellian directions: the head of Army Radio has now forbidden the station’s journalists from using the term “West Bank.” So who is having the conversations that need having?

Rabbi Moshe Levinger and Hanan Porat celebrating the establishment of the first West Bank settlement in 1975.Credit: Moshe Milner

Curiously, in my piece, I restricted my discussion of Israel to the post-1967 occupation, and did not touch what I would assume to be the far more provocative, if not radioactive, subject of 1948 or the question of restitution for the Nakba. I did, however, compare the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation with Canada’s 150th birthday (since both fall this year), arguing that we need to end the occupation just as we need to honor the truth and reconciliation demands towards the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.

Perhaps reminding my fellow Canadian Jews that I am well aware that our own country is not free of social justice imperatives had the opposite effect. And even though I made no mention in my piece of who may or may not have indigenous status in Israel-Palestine, perhaps collective defense mechanisms kicked in, activated by the emotional discomfort of thinking about how we, as, Jewish immigrants, benefitted from Canada’s settler-colonial project.

And what about the occupation?

Let’s start with Gaza, the most obvious candidate for ‘non-occupied’ status after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal. Though Israel withdrew all its ground troops and settlers then, the state maintains a naval, air and, along with Egypt, ground blockade around the Strip. And despite having a political body — Hamas — ruling day-to-day affairs in the territory, Gaza is still dependent on Israel for its electricity needs; the state supplies Gaza with electricity (charging the PA $11 million per month as Israel refuses to deal with Hamas on this issue). So while it’s not the kind of ground occupation we see in the West Bank, it is still a serious situation of external control.

Over in the West Bank, Palestinians do not have freedom of movement. Israel maintains a network of 59 fixed internal checkpoints well within the West Bank (meaning they cannot be simply seen as quasi-border controls protecting pre-Green Line Israel from the territories), as well as additional surprise checkpoints, hundreds of roadblocks, and some separate roads — nearly 60 kilometers of West Bank roadway is fully or partially barred to Palestinians. The separation barrier, which in some areas separates Palestinians from their land, and leaves dozens of communities either partially or totally encircled or else West of the barrier altogether, further restricts movement.

Israeli settlers stand on the roof of a synagogue in the West Bank settlement of Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem on November 4, 2015.Credit: AFP

The Oslo agreement, which divided the West Bank into three sections, does not negate the fact of occupation. The PA controls Area A, which constitutes around 18 percent of the West Bank, and is where most West Bank Palestinians live. Area B’s security matters are controlled by Israel, with the PA having civil control. Israel controls all facets of Area C, which represents 60 percent of the West Bank; here, 300,000 Palestinians and over 300,000 settlers live. But despite this tripartite division, one should not forget that the Israeli military can — and does — enter or exit any part of the West Bank at will.

Most importantly, and though the degree to which they are governed by Israeli military law is most apparent for Palestinian residents of Areas B and C, Palestinian residents of the West Bank are under Israeli military law while Israeli settlers are under Israeli civil law.

This is occupation.

Now, we can debate what should be the fate of Israeli settlers if Israel did withdraw, how the question of Palestinian refugee return should be adjudicated, how access to holy places in Jerusalem can be ensured, and how both peoples, and every individual, can be protected culturally and physically in the event of a one-state or two-state agreement.

But to deny that the West Bank is under military occupation right now, and has been for 50 years, is to deny the most basic of facts. It is also to raise another troubling point: If occupation isn't the right word, I can think of another term that captures things equally well, if not better. But I don’t think those same readers would prefer to hear it.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov



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