Ending the Occupation Would Undo Israeli Identity as We Know It

by Inna Michaeli

The argument that opposing the occupation does not contradict a love for Israel has been heard over and over in the Israeli Left for years. This isn’t just a matter of PR — it is the personal experience of many Israelis.

The problem, however, is that it does not manage to convince the public at large. But what if the public has good reason not to be convinced?

Take for example the unbridled attacks on B’Tselem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad following his appearance before the UN Security Council. B’Tselem and El-Ad responded to the attacks by arguing that the organization speaks specifically about the occupation. Others sought to strengthen El-Ad’s public legitimacy as someone who is “pro-Israel, anti-occupation,” including high-ranking members of the military establishment who knew El-Ad as an outstanding soldier during his service in a prestigious field intelligence unit. It is doubtful, however, if they could ever convince the public that El-Ad’s opposition to the occupation is patriotic.

So why is it so difficult for the Israeli public to accept the “pro-Israel, anti-occupation” formula?

I believe this formula is not as simple as it appears. It presumes a fantasy in which Israel can end its rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and continue to exist just as it does today.

But taking over Palestinian land and lording over every aspect of Palestinian daily life is too deeply rooted in Israelis’ day-to-day experience, as Mairav Zonszein wrote recently. In fact, we have no idea what Israeli society really looks like — or what Israelis themselves look like — without the occupation.

The array of national myths and beliefs that allow continual military rule over Palestine and the Palestinians is at the basis of Israeli identity. It is in our national memory and narratives, which tell us who we are, which justify how and why we arrived at this point. It is everything we learned at school.

We learned about an Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) bereft of destroyed Palestinian villages covered by pine and eucalyptus trees. We learned about making the desert bloom, about a “land without a people for a people without a land.” We learned about the most moral army in the world; about a tiny country surrounded by enemies; how “they fled”; the myth of the Zionist pioneers.

We learned about our undisputed, inherent moral superiority over the Arabs. We imbibed a contradictory understanding of religion (“There is no God, but he promised us the land”) and the Holocaust (which happened because we didn’t have an army, of course). I cannot even promise that the most ostensibly innocent elements of Israeliness will still exist after the occupation: Menashe Kadishman’s sheep, Eyal Shani’s cauliflower, Ori Shavit’s carrot sausages.

An end to military rule in the West Bank and Gaza poses a real threat to Israeli society, so it is no wonder that people are no longer buying the “pro-Israel, anti-occupation” mantra. Even so much as recognizing the existence of the occupation — without even calling to end it — undermines the way Israelis see reality. In order for Israel and Israelis to continue existing as is, the occupation must be maintained and silenced.

In the best case scenario, ending the occupation will allow us to cope with up the Nakba and its consequences. In the best case scenario, the end of the occupation will bring about the end of Israel and Israeli identity as we know them — toward building a healthier society and a collective identity that is built less on crimes and lies.

I suggest we begin to take this threat seriously, and welcome it with open arms. Let’s begin by recognizing the need to decolonize our society and dismantle the foundations of our very identity as Israelis. We must come to terms that without the occupation we will be different people. We will be a different society. Let us recognize that this will be a very scary process. We always fear the unknown, especially when it comes to our existence as people or as a society.

The occupation will not last forever, and change is inevitable. I believe that the prospect of a new identity should not only serve as a source of anxiety and fears, but also a real political horizon to aspire to.

Inna Michaeli is a feminist activist, a PhD student of sociology at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and a blogger at Local Call, where this piece was first published in Hebrew. Reprinted, with permission, from +972Magazine.

Photo: Street scene in Hebron courtesy of CPT Palestine via Flickr.

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  1. A valuable read by a valuable human being. Kudos to Ms. Michaeli and to Lobelog for this post! Viva Palestine! Zionist Israel, in its present configuration and uber-abusive actions, not so much.

  2. This issue of Jewish Israeli identity is paradoxical. Is it an issue of “We are brutal occupiers of someone else’s state — that’s who we are”? Or is it that the brutal occupation, in its ability to provoke strong criticism among non-Jews which can then be (falsely) interpreted by Israeli Jews as antisemitism, which is crucial to Jewish Israeli identity?

    That is to say, maybe it’s not the occupation per se that defines the Israeli Jew but rather, the antisemitism the occupation supposedly keeps alive.

    I think it was Daniel Boyarin who once asked: “Can Israelis live without antisemitism?” My answer would have to be: “I doubt it, since it has become a substitute belief system among Jews who no longer — or never did — believe in religious Judaism.”

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