The fight against the occupation is the critical struggle for activists of our generation. As Israelis, we bear collective responsibility for everything that happens in the Occupied Territories.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was the most prominent Jewish leader to participate in the U.S. civil rights movement. There is a famous photograph of him, arm in arm with other protesters in the first row of the march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
But the civil rights movement was not the only cause for which Heschel raised his clear moral voice. In the late 1960s, he joined the fight against the Vietnam War. In a television interview in 1972, a few weeks before his death, he explained his need to protest the war: he, too, he said, was "co-responsible for the death of innocent people in Vietnam." He told the somewhat bemused interviewer, "In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible."
The distinction Heschel drew between guilt and responsibility is the foundation of the Jewish notion of tikkun olam. It is the understanding that a person’s moral obligation toward another is as broad as the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and it clearly goes beyond the legal responsibility that defines guilt.
As Israelis, we are all responsible for the realm of occupation, even if we do not man the checkpoints, live in settlements, or hand out permits, because our society, its institutions, and its governing bodies make their discriminatory decisions in partnership with us and implement their discriminatory policies in our name; and, inasmuch as this injustice yields profits (financial profits, for instance), Israeli society benefits as a whole.
The occupation is an Israeli project, not only the project of those who support it. The Israeli government draws the resources to sustain the occupation from all the country’s citizens, not just those who support its continuation, and the benefits of the occupation to the country’s economy are enjoyed by all its citizens, whether directly or indirectly.
Our responsibility, even for decisions and actions we oppose, comes from our belonging to a collective, being part and parcel of its behavior toward outside parties; the fact that the majority of the collective takes decisions in opposition to the minority, with which we might identify, does not free the minority from responsibility for the actions of the collective to which they belong.
In this sense, external injustice is very different from injustice that occurs within a society. In that case, the opposition’s responsibility is light. They are not a part of the collective act against an external element. They have tried to prevent harm to themselves or to others at the hands of forces in the same collective. These internal victims were not harmed by society as a single body (they themselves are members of the society and have participated in the process that produced the decision that has wronged them), but by one section of the society to which they belong, a section that initiated and supported the injurious practice or policy.
In most cases, that section is the majority, but it can also be a minority that has managed to leverage political power. For this reason, the occupation is an Israeli act, whereas discrimination against the LGBTQ community, for example, is an act of homophobes and their political allies. For this reason, local environmental activists hold only local polluters and their allies responsible for environmentally unsound policies rather than society at large, whereas a whole country that suffers from the pollution of a neighboring country holds its neighbor - including the domestic opposition to the polluters - responsible for the damage and compensation.
Collective responsibility is the moral responsibility society bears for external actions carried out by the collective. It derives from belonging and also from partnership. Being part of a collective enriches both the whole and its members. Each individual supplies the collective with energy and power. A citizen gives his or her country political, economic, and social wealth, and in turn feeds off what others bring in.
Other than the family, it is hard to imagine a more nurturing relationship between an individual and a collective than citizenship. For the individual, it permeates almost every area of life; for the state, it provides resources and power. Partnership comes with individual responsibility for the actions of the society in which people live and to which they contribute every day and every hour.
That is our situation as Israelis, even for those who oppose the occupation. We are responsible. To take Heschel’s words, some are guilty of the occupation but all are responsible for it, and this responsibility can-not be erased. It is with us wherever we go as Israelis. But our responsibility is not guilt. Guilt is personal. It stems from a wrongful act committed by an individual, and the acts of others cannot be attributed to that individual.
Nonetheless, responsibility creates a moral duty that is incumbent on members of the collective, even if they themselves carry no guilt. And the primary moral duty is to fight to end the injustice. It is the duty to resist.
Michael Sfard is the author of "The Wall and the Gate: Israel, Palestine and the Legal Battle for Human Rights", just published by Metropolitan Books, of which this is an excerpt. Twitter: @sfardm