When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; love him as you love himself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.– Leviticus 19:33-34
February 2012: A temporary wall representing the divide between Israel and Palestine has been raised on the grounds of the small liberal arts college where I am a first-year student. It is “Israel Apartheid Week“. I do not know the people who stand in front of the wall all day. On my way to classes, I walk around the main square so that nobody hands me a flier or yells at me. I feel personally under attack because these people are attacking Israel, and as a Jew, Israel is part of me.
One day, in a dorm room, I complain about the wall to two other Jewish students, expecting them to share my discomfort. They tell me in quiet, patient voices, that the people with the wall are right. That the state of Israel, a place I have visited twice, whose flag is on my bedroom wall, whose parade I have marched in, whose national anthem I know from memory, has done some truly horrible things that go far beyond the prerogative of self-defense.
In the decade since that conversation, I’ve been trying to answer four questions: 1. What, exactly, is going on over there? 2. Where do I stand? How do I reckon the abuses that Israel commits with the very real fear of globally surging anti-semitism and my people’s commitment to a safe haven? 3. Did the people in my youth group, my synagogue, my religious school, my summer camp – did they know about this? And why didn’t they teach me any different? And 4. If most of the Jews I know are “liberal” in the casual American sense of the word – yes to same-sex marriage, to trans rights, to abortion rights, to environmental protection, to a social safety net, to welcoming refugees – then why are they not on the side of justice when it comes to Palestinians, the people who they probably have the greatest obligation to help?
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve messed up – a lot. I’ve lost many arguments because I haven’t known what I was arguing for. I’ve avoided some arguments for fear of social repercussions, and I’ve felt ashamed for not being as brave as my two friends. Fortunately, Sylvain Cypel‘s The State of Israel v. The Jews offers rare and refreshing clarity. For a Jewish person, it is emotionally and morally grueling to read – but indispensable. It even answered a few of my questions.
The book is divided into two parts, although not officially. The first handful of chapters are dedicated to documenting Israel’s crimes: against Palestinians, against democracy, against dissidents, even against Jews themselves. A few stand out as particularly alarming: Israel’s legal denial of full citizenship to non-Jews and; the way its compulsory military service spends much of its time committing “planned, [apparently incoherent]” violence against the Palestinian people and how that training seeps into the moral and racial conscience of the country; how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cozies up to the global anti-Semitic right in an attempt to fortify anti-Islam sentiment; the disproportionate criminal penalties between Israelis and Palestinians and more. The chapters also discuss the intellectual and cultural exile of dissidents who are against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
The analysis Cypel provides is exceptionally penetrating for American Jewry. Many of us like to intellectually separate the Government of Israel from the Israeli people and also from the Land of Israel itself. Why make this distinction? If, say, you work at a Jewish religious school in America, you can use these separations to teach children about Israel’s progress with irrigating the desert, and you can discuss the geography of the Dead Sea. By siloing discussions of Israel, you can teach about cooperation within kibbutzim, or Herod the Great’s Masada, or the cultural and historical significance of the Western Wall, or Israel’s modern-day technological innovations, or even about the popular snack, “Bamba”. An educator can teach these things without getting into contemporary political controversies. This allows children to “build a connection to Israel” (a phrase I have heard many times in my life, the object and precise meaning of which remains elusive) without involving its government in their learning process. The staff of the summer camps / religious schools / synagogues / and youth programs I attended, however, have wildly different opinions about Israel’s government.
Cypel’s greatest achievement is his fusing of these concepts of citizens, land, and government. While some of the objectionable actions committed by Israel are governmental in origin, the land and the citizenry are undoubtedly implicated. Cypel argues that the impunity with which Israel has acted in Palestine has repercussions for the nation’s culture, which he depicts as being given licenses for racism by the occupation itself (60). Essentially, a nation that enforces a racist occupation will have a racist culture.
This conclusion must be qualified because it obscures the complications and permutations of the country’s national psyche. These are things that I do not feel qualified to assess as a non-Israeli, but they are undoubtedly complex and non-monolithic. Still, the fundamental premise – that a citizenry conscripted into a military would be culturally inseparable from that military and all of the baggage that comes with it – holds. When the Israeli military ransacks – or destroys – Palestinian people’s homes to show them who’s boss, the Israeli culture is infused – wittingly or not – with a sense of superiority.
This means that the classic American denial mechanism of dividing up people/land/government of Israel is no longer tenable. It means that only talking about felafel and Bamba and not talking about “culture” as tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a non-starter because it does the government’s bidding by allowing the state of Israel to continue to exist – even within a conversation – unscrutinized. It is this lack of scrutiny that leads to the brazenness of Israel’s disregard for Palestinians.
It seems that many American Jews, myself included, are looking for the emotional courage to admit that commentary on Israel that is not also supportive of the Palestinian people implicitly approves – wittingly or unwitting – the state’s mission of avoiding accountability. More than anything, Cypel’s book succeeds in pushing us to reckon with this reality.
Another important pillar of international Jewish support for Israel is the concept of Israel as a safe haven that would protect its citizenry in case another influential anti-semite like Hitler should come to power. However, as Cypel points out, that argument does not hold water when scrutinized in the context of modern Israel, wherein its government consorts with anti-Semites to shore up its anti-Islam bona fides.
Further, as the state attempts to fuse Zionism with Judaism in the popular imagination, it hopes to turn anyone critical of Israel into an anti-Semite by definition – a move that renders anti-Semitism, which is a very real threat to Jewish people throughout the world, into a political cudgel used to silence criticism. Essentially, the two big pillars that Jews in the United States use to rationalize disengaging with Israel’s atrocities – the separation of government from land and people and the concept of Israel’s status as a safe haven for Jews – collapse.
The second half of the book focuses on the global Jewish community and how Jews in Israel, the United States, and France have responded to the ongoing crisis. Cypel positions American Jewish organizations as refusing to toe Israel’s political line (208). While this is true in the sense that Israel’s political line is, at this point, preposterously far to the right, it is essential to not read this commentary as implying that American Jewish organizations are actively attempting to bring the occupation to a swift conclusion. Many among us are not there yet. This is a growing problem in US Jewry as a younger contingent of Jews want to push dialogue much further and faster than the older, slower-moving organizations they grew up in are willing to do.
Cypel describes the path of Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of the American Jewish organization IfNotNow, who spent much of her early life immersed in pro-Israel spaces and ideologies, only to learn more about Palestinian suffering as she got older. As Cypel points out, this is not a universal path for young Jews, but it is becoming more common (hi). As more young Jews immerse themselves in social justice conversations online, in schools and universities, and elsewhere, they begin to see that there is one issue on which they are out-of-step with many of their non-Jewish peers. For those of us taught that Jews are generous people who believe in justice and peace, it becomes a matter of personal dignity and moral imperative to bring our organizations in line with our values. It is in these conversations that the concepts discussed in the first part of the book will be most useful.
This is the path I find myself on. After reading Cypel’s The State of Israel vs. the Jews, I feel more confident about my history and identity in these difficult times – but certainly not less nervous about the difficulty of having these conversations with other Jews. Indeed, what I have learned promises me more difficult conversations in my lifetime. But Cypel’s work makes me feel less alone, more courageous, better informed – and some of my questions now have answers.