Council for the National Interest

47 years a slave: A new perspective on the occupation

Feb 7 2014 / 9:17 pm

By Eva Illouz.

Haaretz – Open Haaretz on any given day. Half or three quarters of its news items will invariably revolve around the same two topics: people struggling to protect the good name of Israel, and people struggling against its violence and injustices.

An almost random example: On December 17, 2013, one could read, on a single Haaretz page, Chemi Shalev reporting on the decision of the American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions in order to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society.” In response, former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers dubbed the decision “anti-Semitic in effect, if not in intent.”

On the same page, MK Naftali Bennett called the bill to prevent outside funding of left-wing NGOs in Israel “too soft.” The proposed law was meant to protect Israel and Israeli soldiers from “foreign forces” which, in his view, work against the national interest of Israel through those left-wing nonprofits (for Bennett and many others in Israel, to defend human rights is to be left-wing). The Haaretz editorial, backed by an article by regular columnist Sefi Rachlevsky, referred to the treatment of illegal immigrants by the Israeli government as shameful, with Rachlevsky calling the current political regime “radical rightist-racist-capitalist,” because “it tramples democracy and replaces it with fascism.” The day after, it was the turn of Alan Dershowitz to call the American Studies Association vote to boycott Israel shameful, “for singling out the Jew among nations. Shame on them for applying a double standard to Jewish universities.”

This mudslinging has become a normal spectacle to the bemused eyes of ordinary Israelis and Jews around the world. But what’s astonishing is that this mud is being thrown by Jews at Jews. Indeed, the valiant combatants for the good name of Israel miss an important point: the critiques of Israel in the United States are increasingly waged by Jews, not anti-Semites. The initiators and leaders of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement are such respected academics as Judith Butler, Jacqueline Rose, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Rose and Larry Gross, all Jews.

If Israel is indeed singled out among the many nations that have a bad record in human rights, it is because of the personal sense of shame and embarrassment that a large number of Jews in the Western world feel toward a state that, by its policies and ethos, does not represent them anymore. As Peter Beinart has been cogently arguing for some time now, the Jewish people seems to have split into two distinct factions: One that is dominated by such imperatives as “Israeli security,” “Jewish identity” and by the condemnation of “the world’s double standards” and “Arabs’ unreliability”; and a second group of Jews, inside and outside Israel, for whom human rights, freedom, and the rule of law are as visceral and fundamental to their identity as membership to Judaism is for the first group. Supreme irony of history: Israel has splintered the Jewish people around two radically different moral visions of Jews and humanity.

If we are to find an appropriate analogy to understand the rift inside the Jewish people, let us agree that the debate between the two groups is neither ethnic (we belong to the same ethnic group) nor religious (the Judith Butlers of the world are not trying to push a new or different religious dogma, although the rift has a certain, but imperfect, overlap with the religious-secular positions). Nor is the debate a political or ideological one, as Israel is in fact still a democracy. Rather, the poignancy, acrimony and intensity of the debate are about two competing and ultimately incompatible conceptions of morality. This statement is less trivial than it sounds.

For a long time, the debate between different factions of Jews was framed as an ideological, strategic or political one (“when, how and what to negotiate with Palestinians”). But with time, in the face of the systematic colonization of the land, the pervasive exclusion of Arabs from the body collective, the Judaization of Israel, the tone of the debate has changed and been replaced by a question about the moral nature of Zionism. Moral evaluations – whether we think people are “good” or “bad,” “just” or “unjust,” “worthy” or “unworthy” – are more fundamental to judgment than political opinion or aesthetic taste. In that sense, moral evaluations are far less negotiable than any other form of evaluation.

I will call one group the “security as morality” group. For this group, Israel is twice morally beyond reproach. First, because Jews were the super victim of history and because of Israel’s inherently vulnerable state amidst a sea of enemies. The status of victim – whether potential or actual – disculpates Israel from the crimes of the strong. Second, because its weakness commits it to the forceful defense of its military security, its land and its identity.

Surveying history, the “security as morality” group observes that might has regularly been right, and that Israel is no less entitled to its violent policies than America or other countries have been to their own. For this group, then, Israel is exonerated by the fact that it’s at once a victim and doesn’t have a worse historical record than the strong nations of the world. Israel’s morality becomes defined by the outrages of its enemies, Nazis or Hamas, and by the worst deeds of the enlightened nations.

The second group of Jews derives its positions from universal standards of justice, and from the observation that Israel is fast moving away from the pluralistic, multiethnic, pacific democracies of the world. Israel stopped being a valid source of identification for these Jews not because they are self-hating, but because many of them have been actively involved, in deed or thought, in the liberalization of their respective societies – that is, in the extension of human, economic and social rights to a wider variety of groups.

From the standpoint of that struggle, successfully waged in most Western countries, Israel makes an unacceptable demand: it requests from Jews loyalty to its policies, claims to have a moral and political status superior to that of its neighbors, yet consistently violates the human rights of Palestinians, Arabs, and liberal Judaism; uses violence; violates international law; and practices state-sanctioned discrimination toward non-Jews. For liberal Jews, Israel bullies like a Goliath, yet persists in wanting to be admired as a David.

Interestingly enough, there are not many episodes in history where groups have fought over moral issues. Most struggles in history are usually connected to belief and dogmas (e.g., religious wars), economic interests (class struggles) or to political power (nationalist liberation movements). Very few struggles have been about a moral debate on how a group or nation should treat a third group of people.

There is, however, one well-known episode of history in which a single group divided itself in two sides around the moral question of how a third group of people should be treated, and this episode was the American antislavery movement.

In using this example as a soundboard to think about the moral debate that is dividing the Jewish people, I do not claim that slavery and the occupation are equivalent. They differ significantly. But there are some analogies, in that the Jewish world has become splintered around two intractable moral claims about the treatment of Palestinians. An analogy is nothing more than a tool to probe thinking. Suppose someone didn’t know what a tiger was. If I had to explain what a tiger is, I’d say: “It is like a lion, only with stripes.” In giving this answer, I remain fully aware that a tiger is not a lion, but only like a “lion,” and this is because a tiger is closer to a lion than it is to a fish, a bird or a horse. An analogy helps us imagine and think about something we do not fully grasp, even when that analogy is an imperfect one.

The debate about the occupation is not equivalent to the debate about slavery, but it bears, here and there, some resemblance to it. And it is for this reason that I use it as a strategy for thinking.


The United States was established as a British colony in the 17th and 18th centuries. Slavery was a crucial part of the violent colonization of the American territory. Great Britain then allowed the slave trade with the Caribbean, the Americas and Brazil, thus enabling the wide use of slaves in the vast and powerful plantation system in the South and in cities such as New York. Both the North and South enjoyed the benefits of labor produced by slaves in houses, farms, land and small workshops. At the beginning of the 19th century, however, Britain – which had a vast and brutal Empire – forbade the transatlantic commerce of slaves. This was because Britain, like much of Europe, was caught in its own contradictions: it became aware that the violent use of other people went against the value of “progress” and “enlightenment” it otherwise used to justify its own superiority over world populations.

Arguments against slavery were advanced in the 18th century, but only in the 19th century did the argument against slavery gain momentum and become widespread, especially among city dwellers. Many reasons were offered for the striking change of attitude, the most obvious being the circulation of enlightenment ideas about the basic rights of human beings; the emergence of mass circulated newspapers and novels that depicted stories of suffering and made empathy into a civilized emotion; the increasing recognition that distant strangers were human beings equal and similar in rights. The eminent historian of slavery, David Brion Davis, claims that, ultimately, it was a moral argument that compelled England to claim the Transatlantic Commerce of Slaves illegal, and it was a moral argument that gave rise to what historians have called “humanitarian sensibility” in Britain and in the United States – that is, a new awareness for the suffering of strangers and for the sacredness of the human person.

In the United States, once the American Constitution was written, many started to question the flagrant contradiction between the ideals it endorsed and the brutal domination of an entire group of people that slavery represented. Christians (Quakers and Methodists mostly) joined in this struggle as well, because some slaves were converted to Christianity – and as Christians, they had a soul, and if they had a soul, they could not be animals and were by definition free. (As early as 1772, James Somersett, a black man who had escaped from his master, was freed by the judge because the slave had been baptized.)

In the United States, abolishing slavery proved to be a difficult task, as the internal slave system was very lucrative (slaves being sold within the American territory rather than imported) and so much of the plantation economy relied on slave labor. But the most significant obstacle was the proslavery ideology that was everywhere: in schoolbooks, political speeches, Church sermons, laws and fictional literature. As is always the case in history, once a group of people controls economic, human or territorial resources, it justifies its domination over a group with an ideology.

What is ideology? The set of beliefs and stories a group that dominates another tells to itself in order to make its domination seem natural, deserved and necessary (for example, if Jews are both powerful and dangerous, it is easy to justify their persecution; or if Mizrahim are stupid and uneducated, they naturally deserve to live in the periphery). When the ideology is pervasive, present in different arenas (school textbooks, politics, newspapers) and when it is sustained by concrete economic and political interests, ideology becomes an automatic way of thinking, an irresistible way of explaining reality and acting – or not acting – in it.

In order to defend and justify their domination over Africans, the proslavery camp used a number of arguments and diffused them widely: the first argument was a hierarchical view of human beings. Whites were unquestioningly superior to Africans, who were compared to animals, and as animals they were dangerous, to be domesticated and controlled. It is interesting to note that here, as in other and subsequent forms of racism, blacks were viewed both as weak (inferior) and strong (dangerous).

Proslavery people in Britain and the United States further argued that Africa itself practiced slavery, and that Britain and America in fact were contributing to the cultural development of the slaves – because African societies were unskilled and primitive, they stood to benefit by being exposed to the “advanced” European civilization. The domination of a people is not only caused by the belief that a people is inherently inferior and dangerous, but the very act of domination makes these beliefs seem true: the proof of the racist was in the pudding of the plantation owner.

Proslavers also argued that the land itself was crucial for the nation and for economic prosperity. Owners of farms and plantations viewed the land as something to fight for and cherish, a source of national pride and moral identity. In England and America, the proslavery lobby despised industrial and wage capitalism, which they viewed as creating a society of selfish strangers. They, the plantation owners, defended a less selfish view of society and the nation. Slaves were a part of the household and could help maintain a society of large units who cared for each other.

But perhaps the strongest element justifying the proslavery outlook was the use of the Bible. For the many Christian believers who made up the South, control over human beings was based on, and justified by, the famous Bible passage (Genesis 9:18-27) in which Noah curses Ham (presumably of dark color) and dooms him to be subjugated by Japheth (presumably of lighter color). This biblical narrative played a crucial role in justifying slavery because it made God and the holy scriptures give it a seal of sanctity and inevitability (it was later shown by Christians themselves that this interpretation had no basis in the actual biblical text). Any domination of human beings is far more powerful if it uses grand historical and collective narratives that lend to it an aura of historical mission.

Slavery provoked one of the greatest moral wars of modern times and, for a while, threatened to divide the nascent American nation into two distinct national entities. The two camps went to war and although the reasons for the war were not only connected to slavery, both parties saw slavery as the essential moral cause to oppose or defend.


Roman law defined human beings as either slaves or as free, and history has inherited this dichotomous division. Because of this legal division, we conventionally think that slavery has disappeared from the modern world. But slavery has not disappeared. It is more accurate to think of slavery on a continuum, as one of the most extreme forms of human domination, characterized by the fact that a human being is treated as the property of another person, and can be sold and bought like an object or animal.

But slavery is not only that. If a person or group creates mechanisms to alienate the freedom and life of another, that person is not technically speaking a slave, but s/he is subject to conditions of slavery. If an immigrant worker’s passport has been taken away from them by their employers and made to work 12 hours a day without legal rights and protection, they live in conditions of slavery. If women are trafficked for sex purposes and held in conditions of quasi-captivity by their pimps, they live in conditions of slavery. Slavery, then, is not only the fact of being turned into a tradable property. It is a set of social conditions that make someone’s existence closely determined by someone else’s decision, will and power.

Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, a specialist in the history and sociology of slavery, defines slavery thus: “The permanent, violent and personal domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (quoted in Brion Davis’ “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World”). Note that this definition does not assume that a slave is necessarily a tradable property. Rather, as Patterson defines it, a slave is someone who is born in a condition in which his life at birth is dependent on the will of a master; it is someone who is born in a condition of dishonor. From this definition, we can describe a condition of slavery as having a number of characteristics.

Slavery is a state where one does not have access to citizenship. In that sense, slaves are by definition deprived of the security that membership to a sovereign political community provides. It also means that they don’t develop the skills that come with the exercise of rights and duties toward a political community. This is what Patterson means when he speaks of general “dishonor”: a slave is deprived of the possibility of being recognized by a sovereign cultural or political community.

Another characteristic follows: a slave is submitted to a different legal system than the one by which the ordinary, free population is regulated (in many cases in the American South, the law was changed so as to be applied specifically to African-Americans). Hence, in a slave society, the law is naturally made to fit the needs of the ruling group, to exonerate them when needed, and to be especially harsh on the slaves.

Third, slaves are used to maintain and extend the property of a master but are denied the right to acquire or extend their own property, through various legal and forceful means. The capacity of slaves to own or increase land and property is very limited or nonexistent.

A fourth characteristic is that slaves are the object of arbitrary physical punishment, and their life and death are often the master’s decision. Slaves live in fear, because they know that they can be physically punished, beaten, lashed, killed at any time.

Fifth, slaves have very limited social space to move in and out of. In the 19th century, seeing an unknown African-American somewhere was enough to raise suspicion that he had run away. Sixth, the personal life – sexuality and marriage – of slaves is controlled by the master – such as the fact that slaves could marry only with the permission of the master (in the Roman world, masters had almost unlimited rights to rape slaves).


Ideology is made of stories and powerful metaphors that define how we perceive and understand reality. Thus, when Israelis cast their relationship to Palestinians as a purely military one, the label of “military conflict” has a number of logical, moral and political consequences. Palestinians are “soldiers,” not civilians; they are enemies to be subdued, not ordinary civilians; they threaten Israelis, are not helpless; they must be subjugated by force, in a zero-sum game – if one loses, the other wins.

But the military metaphor with which Israelis have made sense of their relationship to Palestinians hides a disturbing fact: what started as a national and military conflict has morphed into a form of domination of Palestinians that now increasingly borders on conditions of slavery. If we understand slavery as a condition of existence and not as ownership and trade of human bodies, the domination that Israel has exercised over Palestinians turns out to have created the matrix of domination that I call a “condition of slavery.”

The Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Ministry has documented that between 1967 and 2012, Israeli authorities arrested some 800,000 Palestinians by power of the “military code.” (A more conservative assessment from Israeli sources documented that 700,000 Palestinians were detained between 1967 and 2008.) This number is astounding, especially in light of the fact that this represents as much as 40 percent of the entire male population. When a large part of the adult male population is arrested, it means that the lives of a large number of breadwinners, the heads of a family, are disrupted, alienated and made into the object of the arbitrary power of the army. In fact, which nation would create a Prisoner Affairs Ministry if imprisonment was not such a basic aspect of its life?

These facts also mean that a significant portion of the non-incarcerated population lives under the constant fear and threat of imprisonment. The Israeli NGO Public Committee against Torture in Israel (PCATI) has established that, once arrested, hundreds are categorized as “ticking bombs” or “serious threats.” Once labeled as such, they are treated with a violence prohibited by international law: prisoners are bound to their chairs in painful positions for hours, held in isolation, beaten, shaken, prevented from sleeping, verbally abused, cursed and psychologically humiliated.

The violence exercised by the military does not stop there. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, the IDF used Gazan civilians as “human shields,” a practice prohibited by Israeli and international law and conventionally viewed as barbarian. Using others as human shields consists of taking civilians as hostages, using them for Israeli military purposes, threatening their families with injury if they don’t cooperate with the Israel Defense Forces’ attempt to obtain information.

Palestinian boys, from age 13-17, are frequently arrested by the IDF. Military Court Watch, an Israeli NGO, has found that 50 percent of these children are arrested in night raids, and that 80 percent  are blindfolded.

To the military violence, we must add the fact that Palestinians are regularly exposed to acts of violence by civilians. The settlers known as “hilltop youth” and “price tag” attacks aim to hurt Palestinians in various ways, in their lands, property or body. These acts are only sporadically prosecuted by Israel, and when they are, more often than not it ends with no conviction.

Indeed, Palestinians are subject to a legal system that is different from the one in Israel. As the Calcalist blogger Yossi Gurvitz writes: “[R]esidents of one street in Hebron are judged according to one legal system, and residents [of a] nearby street under a different legal system. If a Palestinian child is suspected of throwing stones at soldiers, IDF gunmen break into his home at night, take him, blindfolded, to interrogation, accompanied by torture at times, and he will be put in custody. If a settler is suspected of throwing a stone at a soldier, it is likely nothing will happen to him. Naturally, no one would think of breaking into his house during the night.”

Another example of the stringency of the laws existing in the territories is that there’s no possibility for a Palestinian to get a verdict of “non-conviction” in relation to petty crime. Or a Haaretz editorial titled “An apartheid legal system just got worse,” which addresses the new military order issued by the GOC Central Command, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, prohibiting Palestinians from appealing military court decisions to confiscate their property.  As the article argues, the order “embodies the essence of the story of the occupation and demonstrates the different law applied to Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories. This order violates the rights of the Palestinians, and allows arbitrary damage to them, contrary to international law and the laws of basic justice. The military can make decisions of this nature – contrary to justice – due to the existence of two different legal systems in a given geographical area: one for Jews and one for Arabs.”

These facts mean, de facto, that Palestinians live not only with a legal system different from the one used in Israel, but without serious legal protection as well. Moreover, since the 1990s, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank. During the second intifada, Israel placed dozens of checkpoints in the West Bank that impede the movement of Palestinians within the area itself. To the Israeli, this seems only a problem of wasted hours, but the hindrance of movement touches on the very essence of freedom. It creates a wide-reaching feeling of imprisonment. (As prime minister, Ariel Sharon cut Gaza City from Ramallah, for no other reason, probably, than to create such constraints on movement.)

This feeling of spatial imprisonment is accompanied by economic strangulation. An essential part of Israeli domination is achieved by making Palestinian livelihoods depend on Israel, and monitoring permits of entry to Israel. By making entry to work in Israel conditional upon good behavior, Israeli powers create fear and extreme psychological dependency. Moreover, because Israel restricts Palestinians’ capacity to build new industries, they force them to work in the very settlements that take their own land, thus increasing their sense of humiliation and expropriation.

As for the capacity to own property, Israel has long practiced land expropriation, and made it impossible for Palestinians to extend their property. The NGO Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) established that, in 2013 alone, 634 Palestinian buildings were demolished, 1,033 people displaced and 3,688 injured by the IDF. From these figures, it can be inferred that a basic condition of life – to have a shelter and home – has been systematically and widely undermined by the policy of house demolition.

Finally, when it comes to marriage, here, too, the occupation has torn families apart. According to a report by B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Israeli restrictions on the passage from and to Gaza Strip split families and force on couples – where one of them is from Gaza, and the other the West Bank or Israel – a series of bureaucratic restrictions, with no possibility of conducting a reasonable routine. The simplest thing – raising a family, living with spouse and children, and maintaining contact with families of origin of both partners – become unachievable.

In traditional Palestinian society, the custom is that the women will move in with the husband’s family, so the procedures established by the Israeli offensive affect mainly women: Married Gazans living in the West Bank are forced to leave their family and familiar surroundings, without any possibility to visit the Gaza Strip, except for the most exceptional cases. Those who failed to update their address are in constant danger of expulsion from their homes.

We can say conservatively and impressionistically that 70 percent of the Palestinian population live with a permanent sense of dishonor, conduct their lives without predictability and continuity, live in fear of Jewish terror and of the violence of the Israeli military power, and are afraid to have no work, shelter or family. When we put these numbers under a single coherent picture and ask sociologically what kind of life this is, we are compelled to observe that a large quantity of Palestinians live in conditions in which their freedom, honor, physical integrity, capacity to work, acquire property, marry and, more generally, plan for the future are alienated to the will and power of their Israeli masters. These conditions can only be named by their proper name: conditions of slavery.

It should be clear, however, that the occupation is a condition of slavery, but not slavery: a striped lion is like a tiger, but isn’t a tiger. The occupation started as a military conflict and, unbeknown to itself, became a generalized condition of domination, dehumanizing Palestinians, and ultimately dehumanizing Israelis themselves. This magnificent people – which distinguished itself historically by its love of God, its love of texts and its love of morality – has become the manager of a vast enterprise of brutal military domination.


Without ever intending to, Israelis have become the Lords and Masters of a people, and the only interesting question about this is not how we got there (domination has its own internal incremental and implacable dynamic), but why so many Jews outside and inside of Israel are not more disturbed by this.

The reason for this is that Israel has its own proslavery lobby, which is now in the corridors of power, shapes Israel’s policy and has successfully managed to make the occupation appear to be a containable casualty of war and nation-building. The settlers’ discourse – which only 20 years ago was marginal in Israeli society –has become mainstream, and one can only be struck by its resemblance to the 19th-century American proslavery ideology.


The idea that Jews are inherently superior to Arabs is so widespread, deep and unquestioned, that it is hardly worth my time dwelling on it here. The idea of Jewish superiority exists everywhere in Israel, but is most blatant in the territories. Like the whites in the American South, Jews view themselves as obviously more moral, superior, civilized, technologically and economically far more accomplished than the inferior Arabs (Arab nations are indeed politically and economically backward, but this in no way makes Arabs inferior). In the same way that it was entirely obvious to proslavers that Africans were primitive and animal-like, Arabs are viewed as unreliable, liars, stupid and dangerous. These views dictate official policy. And in the same way that the whites in the South claimed to be civilizing the primitive Africans, one can frequently hear that Arabs have benefited from the technological and political enlightenment of Israel.

An example of Jewish supremacy can be seen in the book “The King’s Torah” (“Torat Hamelech”), written by the head rabbi of Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai (which was located in Nablus and then moved to the Yitzhar settlement). According to the book, Jews are superior to non-Jews, with Gentiles being close to animals because they did not accept the Seven Laws of Noah. In an amended world, killing a non-Jew who does not accept the commandments of Noah will become necessary. The book also suggests that because Jews are now at war, it is permissible – based on traditional sources – to kill Gentiles, including children, because of the fear that they will grow and become dangerous adults. In a review of the book, the highly respected historian Yehuda Bauer suggests that the book is not a marginal phenomenon of a handful of extremists. According to him, the book was endorsed by famous rabbis, such as Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg (the former head of Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai) and the well-known Hebron Rabbi Dov Lior. Yeshivas teach this book or at least contents that are very similar to it, and Yeshiva students are recruited into the IDF in increasing numbers. Some of these young people become an important nucleus of hilltop youth and price-tag launchers who reject the laws of the state, illegally take possession of the land, and attack Palestinians. Even the Hebrew University Hillel hosted an official event to discuss the book with its author, thus putting it on a par with academic books.

Prof. Bauer concludes that the book should be taken seriously because it indicates the direction of a growing part of the settlers’ movement. One hopes that the price tag attacks, which have grown at a staggering rate in the last few years, create an atmosphere of (Jewish) terror among Palestinians and have remained unpunished by the state, do not end up resembling the Ku Klux Klan in the American South.

Like their 19th-century counterparts, the settlers hold in contempt the “individualism” and “egoism” of the city dwellers of Tel Aviv, the city most likely to oppose the occupation – much like the white farmers held in contempt the abolitionists of America’s urban east coast. They view the “state” of Tel Aviv as a place in which raw economic forces and crass materialism destroy the idealism of the land.

Israel Harel, the first chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements, claimed in a Haaretz article that the environment in Tel Aviv projects an atmosphere that encourages evading military service, and that Tel Aviv conveys a degree of detachment from Israel’s survival needs. In his book on the settlement movement (“The Settlers and the Struggle over the Meaning of Zionism”), Gadi Taub quotes Harel as saying that the Israelis have lost their identity and spine, and are a metastasis of the West. Using fears of decadence familiar to the European right, Harel claims that the West has observed a steady deterioration in values, materialism and Nihilism.

Finally, and most strikingly, exactly like their southern 19th-century counterparts the settlers have abundantly sanctified the land through Bible narratives and see themselves, like the proslavery owners, as executing God’s will. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the son of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, claimed that the “Lord of the universe has its own politics, according to which the politics of Earth is managed … part of this redemption is the conquest of the land and settlement in it. No earthly politics can stand against this assertion of divine politics.” Hanan Porat, one of the leaders of the settlement movement, argued that the “commandment to settle the land increases the lifetime value of the individual.” The Bible has been used both as a way to sanctify the land and justify its conquest.

Given what precedes them, the positions of MKs such as Miri Regev, Yariv Levin, Danny Danon and Naftali Bennett seem to be a “vanilla” version of the worldview defended by settlers. If indeed the settlers and their representatives in the Knesset have “mainstreamed” views that are strangely reminiscent of those of slave owners, then this only begs further the question of why so many are unable or unwilling to grasp this.

I will venture one explanation. Jews around the world view themselves as a minority in need of protection. Israel itself, because of its inherent connection to the Jewish people, has kept alive the memory of persecutions. Jews around the world live their identity as a weak one, as belonging to a minority, as bound to a history of perennial struggle against Amalek. Such vision is bound to project its own existential anxieties and sense of vulnerability, even on a military superpower such as Israel and to view its justification of military violence as a simple strategy of (ancestral) survival.

Undoubtedly, there are major differences between Palestinians and black slaves: Some Palestinians are virulently anti-Semitic and are supported by even more violent anti-Semites in the surrounding Arab countries; Palestinians have their own police force; from time to time, they send suicide bombers or launch missiles on Israel.

But my point is precisely the following: The occupation is like a photomontage that superposes two different pictures of two different realities. I ask my reader to see two images at once: the occupation as a humanitarian disaster, superposed on the occupation as a military conflict. More than that, the enslavement of the life condition of Palestinians has prevented the possibility of making this conflict into a military one. Israel, the most security-conscious state on the planet, has failed to make its conflict with the Palestinians into a military one. Instead, it has been dragged into a humanitarian disaster that has provoked a moral war and unbridgeable rift within the Jewish people. The public relations strategies of the state will not silence this moral war.


What does it mean for a country to have created such conditions of slavery for a people, and yet fail to register it? The question here is not only about the (im)morality of the occupation, but, more fundamentally, about the increasing difficulty of articulating a moral language to grasp the very nature of the occupation – initially the result of a military conflict and now a humanitarian disaster. If 19th-century slavery was known as slavery to all involved, the occupation has not produced its own adequate moral label.

We do not know what the occupation is, and we do not know what it is because language itself has been colonized. By defining it in military terms, Israelis fail to see what the world sees. Israelis see terrorists and enemies, and the world sees weak, dispossessed and persecuted people. The world reacts with moral outrage at Israel’s continued domination of Palestinians, and Israel ridicules such moral outrage as an expression of double standards. The world sees Israeli tanks and military technology against Palestinian, homeless people, but Israel sees these denunciations as self-hatred or anti-Semitism. The world wants a just solution, and Israel sees the demand for justice as a threat to its existence.

In that sense, the debate dividing the Jewish people is more difficult than the debate about slavery, because there is no agreement even on how to properly name the vast enterprise of domination that has been created in the territories. If Britain at the beginning of the 19th century understood that it couldn’t keep claiming that it represented the enlightened values of freedom and humanity and engage in the barbaric commerce of slaves, Israel is more embarrassed, for in a way it doesn’t know that it’s engaged in an enterprise it cannot justify.

Israel is dangerously sailing away from the moral vocabulary of most countries of the civilized world. The fact that many readers will think that my sources are unreliable because they come from organizations that defend human rights proves this point. Israel no longer speaks the ordinary moral language of enlightened nations. But in refusing to speak that language, it is de facto dooming itself to isolation. Israel will not indefinitely have the cake of “democracy” and eat it in the occupation.

Update: After original publication of this article, it came to our attention that the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel released an amended version of its report, in which it acknowledging that the information from the Public Defender’s Office about child prisoners being kept in cages did not refer specifically to Palestinians. We have amended our report accordingly and wish to make the position clear.

Posted by on Feb 7 2014 . Filed under Boycott Divestment & Sanctions, Commentary & Analysis, Israel Lobby . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 . Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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