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Occupation, imprisonment of refugees defile Israeli identity

Israeli-Jewish identity should be one that pursues justice for the collective and perseveres in the fight against oppression. Plans to destroy hundreds of homes or imprison thousands of refugees defile and contradict all that is good in that very identity.

By Moriel Rothman

A view of the new section in Saharonim prison destined for imprisonment without trial of asylum seekers and refugees, August 31, 2012. (photo: Activestills)

Scenario One. Imagine: You wake up in a place that is not familiar. You are disoriented: this is not your home. And then, it floods over you like a wave: your home was destroyed. So was your brother’s home. And your parents’ home. And the place that you worked. And your children’s school. And your entire village. And the entire village next to yours. And five more.

Scenario One could be a description of a part of the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” which is used to describe the traumas and expulsions Palestinians underwent in 1948. Or, it could be a description of what will happen next month in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank, in what will be known as “Firing Zone 918″, should the Israeli government have its way. Over 1,500 Palestinians face expulsion. Over 8 villages face demolition. Over 30% of Area C in the West Bank is defined as “Firing Zones.” Palestinians can build freely in less than 1 percent of Area C.

These numbers are shocking. But numbers can also distort reality: the reality of people being expelled from their homes, their villages destroyed, their lives wrecked for no reason other than the expansionist and racist goals of a foreign occupying military power. Imagine the fury, the despair, the sound of bulldozers running over your home.

Scenario Two. Imagine: You wake up in a place that is not familiar. You are disoriented: this is not your home. And then, it floods over you like a wave: you were imprisoned in a massive facility. So was your sister. And your friends. And your children. You are guarded by men with lighter skin and big guns and stern expressions. You are surrounded by other people with skin the color of your skin who are also confused, afraid. 15,000 others.

Scenario Two could be a description of any massive ethnic round-up in history. Or it could be a description of what will happen next week if the Israeli government has its way and begins to round up 15,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Sudan, and transfer them to a massive detention facility in the Negev, starting on Monday, October 15th. There are over 60,000 African asylum seekers in Israel.

Even numbers like these, though, can distort reality: the reality of people being who have fled death and torture, looking for safety, being rounded up en masse and stuck in a detention center by a government who sees them not as humans who are suffering but as “invaders,” as “outsiders,” as “non-Jews.” Imagine the fear, the terror, the feeling of being trapped and completely at the mercy of people who are struggling not to see you as a person.

I can’t imagine it, fully, but I know with all of my soul that these two things must not happen. I am an Israeli and a Jew. These identities were both assigned to me at birth, but they are also identities I have chosen to reaffirm again and again, and that I am proud of. I am proud to be an Israeli, even as I have no pride in the Israeli government. I am proud to be part of a culture of warmth despite hardship, of perseverance and passion and concern with the collective. And I am proud to be a Jew, even as I feel repulsed by much of the mainstream Jewish establishment, proud of our history of struggling against oppression, of pursuing justice, of speaking truth to power.

Israeli-Jewish identity, then, should be one that passionately pursues justice for the collective, one that preservers in the fight against oppression. Plans to destroy hundreds of homes or to imprison thousands of refugees are plans that defile and contradict all that is good in Israeli and Jewish identities. And indeed, there are efforts underway by various groups to prevent these twin injustices. Israeli activists and groups are monitoring the situation in the “918 Firing Zone,” working on the legal ends of the story and planning potential responses and campaigns if and when Israel decides to move forward with the destruction. And on the more immediate front, a group of U.S. Jews under the banner of “Right Now” is spearheading a letter campaign to Israeli authorities, telling them “not in my name,” affirming that it is anti-Jewish to oppress the stranger.

I think it is upon all of us, regardless of background or views on the conflict, to imagine the feeling of these refugees or these people living in “Firing Zone 918″ before we allow ourselves to slip into the comfortable world of justifications, rationalizations, the world of “it has to be this way.” It does not have to be this way. Although it may sound glib and trite and cliche, sometimes cliches actually hold the most truth: before you justify, rationalize or ignore either of these cases, imagine if this were to happen to you.

Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli activist and writer based in Jerusalem.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Sol Salbe

      I was under the impression that the far fewer South Sudanese have already been forcefully repatriated to their homeland. The ones who are being rounded up are from (northern) Sudan. If I’m right, then the article needs to be corrected.

      Reply to Comment
    2. rsgengland

      The majority of African refugees are ‘economic refugees’ trying to find a better place to live .
      Unfettered immigration tends to distort and damage the host country , and can eventually destroy the very reasons that the ‘illegal immigrants came in the first place

      Reply to Comment
    3. Susan

      The Torah, in numerous places, reminds Jews that we were once strangers and to treat the stranger in our midst well. Yet, it is the religious parties that are against treating the stranger badly.

      The African immigrants are not just “economic refugees”. One could have said that Jews immigrating to America were just economic refugees, but we know they were fleeing antisemitism and persecution as well.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Israeli corporate identity rests on millennia of Jewish persecution, cumulating in the Shoah, followed by perceived perpetual war before and after statehood. Adversary defines existence, externally in occupation and Iran et al., but internally as well, via “infiltrators,” originally designating enemy or defeated Arabs, later expanding to terrorists, now used for foreign refugees and, somewhat whispered, the “demographic threat” of Arab Israeli citizens. At statehood, purity was (sometimes) expulsion of the enemy. Now purity is the expulsion of infiltrators damaging Jewish life by their very presence (Lieberman even considered expelling entire villages of Arab Israeli citizens in a “trade”). The Diaspora network, having to live in a hostile world, recognized justice to the stranger as they hoped for themselves. Israeli State action has become incompatible with the historical reasoning of (part of) the Diaspora.

      What will happen to children born in the refugee camps? Will they be educated? Where is home? Refugees are assembled solely to remove then in a gentle final solution. They may leave Israel at any time, perhaps otherwise expelled when their home country by race is no longer “dangerous.” The presently ruling coalition has successfully defined stability as removal of the impure other. The logic is at work in the Bank and, while Arab politician citizens want the refugees out as well, these citizens are themselves subject to purity control by other means. Israel cannot continue this path without quashing the values evolved in Diaspora. War readiness does not apply to the refugee case; this should warn that “purity” is once again evolving as a means of social control. Winning can make a new enemy–oursleves.

      Reply to Comment
      • The rest: The presently ruling coalition has successfully defined stability as removal of the impure other. The logic is at work in the Bank and, while Arab politician citizens want the refugees out as well, these citizens are themselves subject to purity control by other means. Israel cannot continue this path without quashing the values evolved in Diaspora. War readiness does not apply to the refugee case; this should warn that “purity” is once again evolving as a means of social control. Winning can make a new enemy–oursleves.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Palestinian

      “I am proud to be part of a culture of warmth despite hardship, of perseverance and passion and concern with the collective. And I am proud to be a Jew, even as I feel repulsed by much of the mainstream Jewish establishment, proud of our history of struggling against oppression, of pursuing justice, of speaking truth to power” …what culture ? what is the thing that makes you feel proud of being an Israeli ? You may be living on a house built on stolen land that its people were massacred , expelled and are oppressed today.Since when Judaism has anything to do with fighting oppression ? You are just repeating sentences that we hear over and over ,beh

      Reply to Comment
    6. Matt Graber

      I worry that the assertion of ‘Jewish values’ replicates the Zionist discourse that asserts Jewish supremacy. I contend that the occupation, the imprisonment of refugees, the siege of Gaza, and the refusal to grant Palestinian refugees all defile human morality. If Jews wish to be moral, then a clear demonstration of these ethics would be to oppose the brutal policies of the state of Israel. But I would not say that it is Jewish values which preclude one from ethical opposition to Israeli brutality.

      Reply to Comment
      • Palestinian

        Amen

        Reply to Comment
    7. Moriel Rothman

      Dear “Palestinian” and “Matt Graber,”

      First off, I want to say that I understand where both of your hesitation comes from around my use of Jewish and Israeli values to equate values of anti-occupation and anti-racism. It is certainly not clear that that is what they are– but at same time, Matt, while I agree with you that Israeli policies of cruelty and violence could certainly be opposed from a place of universal values, I think that there are also other systems of values that could lead one to oppose these policies- feminist values, Palestinian values, American values. For me, Jewish values inform my opposition to such policies, not in a sense of “superiority,” but rather in a sense of what I know. Do all Jews share these values? Of course not. But can these values be based in Jewish texts and history? I think so. And as for Israeli culture- I understand that this one is even more tricky, as a national identity, but I want to clarify that I am not talking about policy or politics or certain elements of our history like expulsion and hatred. Those exist, certainly, but so to do the warm and positive elements of the culture which I pointed out and want to uplift. Will most Israeli Jews agree with my description of what Israeli Jewish culture should lead us to believe? I don’t know. Probably not in full. And yet, I find these to be anchoring forms of identity. So, while I hear your hesitancy, I would challenge both of you to think about whether it is worth attacking my formulation if it leads us to similar values of anti-racism and anti-occupation as do humanistic or Palesitnian values in this context.

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        I have, with great pain, come to the conclusion that you do have to separate Israeli from Jewish, Moriel. I seem to have been inculcated with the same values as you and confess, by now, to feeling as exiled here as I do abroad. I know that some Muslims post-revolution in their countries question their identity in a similar way. So it’s not as though others won’t know what you’re talking about.

        Reply to Comment
    8. The Trespasser

      “You may be living on a house built on stolen land that its people were massacred , expelled and are oppressed today.”
      Arabs have been doing exactly that – living in stolen houses – for at least last 1500 years.

      Reply to Comment

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