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The fight for justice begins at home

Rather than focusing exclusively on Israel-Palestine, Western leftists should use the occupation as a starting point to examine their own role in oppression at home.

By Jakub Zahora

Activists hold mock sections of the Separation Wall during a protest against the occupation on the West Banks main Jerusalem-Hebron highway in full view of Israeli settlers, Beit Jala, West Bank, January 15, 2016. (Activestills.org)

Activists hold mock sections of the Separation Wall during a protest against the occupation on the West Banks main Jerusalem-Hebron highway in full view of Israeli settlers, Beit Jala, West Bank, January 15, 2016. (Activestills.org)

In early October last year, dozens of activists staged a “Global Sukkot against Demolitions” demonstration in front of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) building in Jerusalem. I participated in the event, which involved a coalition of anti-occupation groups and Bedouin citizens of Israel protesting against JNF-led plans to demolish four Palestinian and Bedouin villages in the Negev and the West Bank.

The protest was purposefully organized during Sukkot in order to appeal to the Jewish values and historical experiences underpinning this holiday, which in addition to its agricultural elements, also commemorates Jewish wandering and plight after the Exodus. Indeed, Jewish and Palestinian activists explicitly evoked themes of homelessness and dispossession during the protest in order to show the parallels between historical Jewish experiences and the current treatment of non-Jews by the Israeli state. The demonstration ended with activists declaring, “Not in my name.”

To my surprise, the slogan left me somewhat uneasy. Indeed, the discriminatory policies we were protesting had never been conducted in my name: I am not Jewish. Thus, this occasion made a question that had been haunting me for a while even more pressing: what is my position and that of other non-Jewish researchers and activists in Israel and Palestine, and what can we contribute?

I came to the region in fall 2015 to conduct my doctoral research on so-called “quality of life” settlements. Over the course of the year I spent in Israel/Palestine doing interviews, making observations and analyzing documents, I became deeply conscious of my own position there. Without buying into the narrative that equates criticism of the State of Israel with anti-Semitism, I became critical of what I perceived as the Western Left’s excessive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when compared to other instances of mass suffering and oppression around the world.

On the one hand, I am inclined to agree with opinions that single out Israel for its colonial policies, which stand in stark contrast to its self-proclaimed status of being “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Protesters demand that Airbnb stop renting properties in West Bank Israeli settlements, Dublin, June 3, 2016. (Courtesy of JVP)

Protesters demand that Airbnb stop renting properties in West Bank Israeli settlements, Dublin, June 3, 2016. (Courtesy of JVP)

On the other, I also became convinced that being strongly opinionated about, and actively involved in resistance against, the Israeli occupation has become a sort of identity politics on the part of those Westerners who are eager to be seen as progressive. It seemed to me that involvement in pro-Palestinian activism for a month or two served as a kind of rite of passage for mostly young, college-educated leftists.

What further bothered me was that this exceptionalizing perception of Israel/Palestine was often accompanied by a rather essentialist take on the situation in the region, that went beyond the Orientalist, xenophobic and patronizing attitudes towards Palestinians I had steeled myself for when beginning my research. Thus, an acquaintance’s remarks that the untidiness of “Arab” cities in the West clearly demonstrated Palestinians’ cultural inferiority vis-à-vis Israelis, did not really surprise me.

More disturbingly for me, I repeatedly came across simplified and even dehumanizing language from some foreigners when discussing Israelis, a pattern I had a hard time reconciling with the self-declared leftist views of these individuals. I vividly remember another researcher, whose project also involved interviewing settlers, referring to them as “imports.” As I objected to this perplexing language, she seemed surprised and retorted “So how would you call them? Immigrants?”

I very much agree that settlers are part of the Israeli occupying regime. Yet, as I reflect on my personal and national history, I am forced to question certain leftists’ hasty condemnations. My family owns a large cottage in a mountainous area in the northern part of the Czech Republic. Located near the top of a hill, it has a beautiful view over a picturesque village and the surrounding hilly areas.

Yet this peaceful scenery is in fact a sort of monument to massive ethnic cleansing: before World War II, the village had been predominantly German, its inhabitants deported by the Czechoslovakian authorities in late 1945. Overall, around 2.5 million Czechoslovakian citizens of German background were expelled in the aftermath of the war, and several thousand instances of murder and rape occurred. With this in mind, I can hardly see the situation in Israel/Palestine as unique.

Protest in front of JNF office in Jerusalem (photo: Max Schindler)

Protest in front of JNF office in Jerusalem (photo: Max Schindler)

But most importantly, I found myself resentful of my own role in the research and activist industry focused on the region. I can understand the need of Jewish activists to protest and critically analyze Israeli policies, given that the State of Israel claims to represent them because of their religion/ethnicity.

But what am I to make of myself, an Eastern European gentile who has almost no personal connection to the region? Given that there is an abundance of racist policies and practices in my home country as well, how can I possibly justify my own research of the Israeli settlement project as opposed to, for instance, investigating the mistreatment of refugees by Czech authorities?

I do not have any definite answers to these questions, only tentative ideas. In terms of my research, I gradually started considering “quality of life” settlements as a somewhat extreme example of a wider phenomenon of how can people shut themselves away from violence that underpins their everyday lives.

Indeed, in my interviews with settlers the disturbing policies and practices of the Israeli rule that take place literally a hundred meters from them never came up. This perspective then helped me to see the power structures in the occupied Palestinian territories as less exceptional and more similar to other contexts, including the one I was born and brought up in.

I believe this attitude could be productive for others when approaching the conditions in Israel/Palestine. Perhaps it is not just about seeing parallels between the Israeli army’s daily harassment of Palestinians on the one hand, and mass incarceration of blacks in the U.S. or ghettoization of Roma citizens in the Czech Republic on the other. I came to the conclusion that we should also acknowledge how few differences there are between “economic” settlers commuting on Israeli-only roads in the West Bank, and us (non-settlers, non-Israelis, and in some cases non-Jews), in our comfortable gated communities and gentrified neighborhoods.

Adopting such a perspective thus does not call for refraining from criticism towards Israeli policies. Indeed, as racism and xenophobia once again become legitimate in Western public debates and political programs, practices that sustain the Israeli occupation of the West Bank should be seen as alarming examples of how easily violence against some segments of the population can become concealed, normalized and eventually accepted. Maybe, then, the case of Israel/Palestine can help us, Jews and non-Jews alike, to see more clearly our own daily compliance in oppression and dispossession in other contexts.

Jakub Zahora is a PhD student at the Department of International Relations at Charles University in Prague. In his dissertation he is looking into the politics of space and sight in large settlements in the West Bank.

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    1. Isabel Batke

      Thank you so much for this article!
      so many leftist activists from european countries, that come to Palestine, seem to be really bewildered by the supposedly “unbelievable ignorance” of most Israelis. As if it were something particular to this place. How many german people really oppose the neo colonial politics of german corporations abroad?

      Reply to Comment
    2. R5

      I love the slogan “the last day of occupation is the first day of peace” – its great because its true. For about 2-3 days there will be peace, and then Hamas will start a kamikaze war and destroy what’s left of Palestinian society.

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      Jakub is a good European “progressive”. He is outraged at the supposed plight of the Palestinians. However, he correctly points out how so many fellow “progressive” seem to lose interest in human rights problems around the world when the spotlight occasionally shifts off the Palestinians.
      He is motivated, like many Germans and other central Europeans over feelings of guilt over what their countries did during and shortly after the Second World War. Note how Jakub feels great remorse over the expulsion of the German-speaking population of Czechoslovakia (even though they collaborated with the destruction of Czechoslovakia, but that is another matter). This motivates him to support the Palestinians and work against Israel. It is interesting, however, that another significant segment of the pre-war Czech population also disappeared, that is, the Jewish population as well, but Jakub didn’t mention it. No doubt, if we remind him of this omission, that will grant him even greater motivation to work against Israel. He is a good “progressive”, after all.

      Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      Jakub’s mentioning that he has encountered “progressives” who call Israeli Jews “imports” reminds me of the fact that before the Second World War, so many Europeans told their Jewish neighbors “Jews Go to Palestine!”. Now they are saying “Jews get out of Palestine!”. You just can’t please some people.

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    5. TA

      While yelling “Not in My Name” might have seemed awkward, and it may not have been immediately clear how it applies to a non-Jewish Czech citizen, Israel nonetheless depends on significant international support from Jews and non-Jews alike in order to maintain the occupation. This is more apparent with the U.S., but the arms trade between Europe and Israel, as just one example, is still a flourishing enterprise. Israel also presents itself as an island of ‘modern, Western values’ in the Middle East, and another way “Not in my name” could be interpreted for you is that you don’t believe this to be the case, that the occupation does not represent the West. Finally, while it’s important to fight more ‘native’ injustices at home, it’s also important to realize that, because the Israeli occupation is only really able to sustain itself with significant international support, one of the the most critical things a foreigner can do to help is to incorporate this into your fight for justice at home.

      Regarding the uniqueness or non-uniqueness of the conflict, you can certainly find other examples throughout history where similar or much worse things have happened to more people. What is, or at least should be, different now, however, is that we are supposed to have learned from many of these mistakes, and we have a series of treaties and other international mechanisms that have been put into place precisely in order to keep those things from repeating themselves, and which should have been able to prevent at least the worst excesses of the Israeli occupation, but haven’t. The entire settlement enterprise, in particular, violates the Geneva Conventions as understood by every country in the world except Israel, but as of yet, no way to enforce this has been found. Also, while historical perspective is necessary, one shouldn’t fall into the trap of excusing or trivializing injustices in Palestine, or anywhere else, because other injustices have happened elsewhere.

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      • i_like_ike52

        Oh, dear, the Geneva Convention. What does the Geneva Convention say about Assad, with the approval of his Russian, Iranian and HIZBULLAH allies using poison gas against his own population, and dropping barrel bombs on deliberately targeted civilian targets like hospitals in Aleppo? What about it?

        Reply to Comment
        • TA

          All the things you’ve listed Assad and Russia and Hezbollah doing in Syria are wrong, and, yes, also against the Geneva Conventions, but this is a red herring in the current discussion. Also, “But at least we’re not Syria!” is an absurd and embarrassing defense of Israeli policy. If your intent is to speak in Israel’s interest, this is a questionable line to follow.

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          • i_like_ike52

            Of course I am not comparing Israel with Syria. What I am saying is that it is pure hypocrisy when people suddenly discover “international law” in order to criticize Israel when they completely ignore it when dealing with REAL, serious violation of human rights in other places. Remember that Obama was praised by these same critics for NOT involving the US in the horrors that are occurring in Syria.

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        • Ben

          ​Ike excuse me but what are you talking about? This time worn fake pose of yours that the West gives Assad a pass while it comes down on Israel is a reversal of the truth. The West gives Israel a pass it gives nobody else.

          There are and have been sanctions galore on Iran, Syria, Russia etc. Zero similar sanctions on Israel. Zero. Ever. This is fake posturing. Whataboutism (literally too, as in your own words, “What about it?”) False moral equivalences. Propaganda. “We are not as bad as Assad so leave us alone. We don’t gas the Palestinians we just use skunk water and ruger rifle snipers against demonstrators and shoot kids in the back and indefinite detention and protect marauding settlers and violate the Geneva Conventions every single day so leave us alone you anti-Semites!”

          Hypocrisy. Israel is the whining spoiled brat of the international community. It can be that only because of its peculiar relationship to the United States all the while it thumbs its nose at American presidents and American Jews who don’t submit to the brainwashing and don’t toe the propaganda line.

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