The Occupation Comes Home

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

A recent news item in a niche publication about a new recruitment program for Israel’s national police force obliquely provided some of the most telling testimony I’ve seen recently about the importance of the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It said nothing about the talks, yet read properly, it was a reminder that reaching a two-state solution is essential not only as a means of achieving peace — critical as that is in itself — but also of protecting Israel’s own society from the rot caused by occupation.

I spotted the article in Olam Katan (“Small World”), a free weekly given out in Israeli synagogues on the Sabbath. The target audience is religious Zionists — Orthodox Jews who generally favor integration into the wider Israeli society but who often nurture a strong minority identity, a tribal sense of “us” and everyone else…

Since the 1980s, religious Zionists have also been gradually taking the place of Israel’s old secular elite in the army’s combat units and officer corps. A key element in the shift is a set of religious academies where young men can spend a year between high school and their compulsory military service, getting a mix of physical and doctrinal training. A new study shows that over the past 20 years, the proportion of infantry officers who are religious rose from 2.5 percent to more than 25 percent. (For comparison’s sake, the proportion of religious soldiers in the army as a whole is less than 14 percent.)

Now, Olam Katan happily reports, the country’s single, national police force wants to acquire members of that new fighting elite. A new program offers ex-army officers who are graduates of the religious academies a three-and-a-half-year course, at the end of which each will receive a college degree and a police rank equivalent to being an officer in the military. As part of the course, they’ll spend another seven months at the religious academy of Elisha in the West Bank. Two nongovernmental organizations associated with the religious right have helped set up the program.

There are a few small problems with this transfusion of new blood. These officers generally come to the army with a highly politicized religious ideology, which regards evacuating settlements as an unconscionable sin. “I’m not going to break religious law if all the rabbis tell me not to,” one student at Elisha academy told me last year when I asked what he’d do if ordered to take part in an evacuation. …

In general, the military has made little effort to stop lawbreaking by settlers. The Elisha academy, where the new police recruits are to study, is a prime example. According to the government-commissioned Sasson Report of 2005 and to an army database, Elisha is an illegal outpost, a wildcat settlement built without the planning approval required by law. Nonetheless, according to the academy’s 2007 financial report, the Israeli Education Ministry provides 40 percent of its budget. The Housing Ministry spent $300,000 on construction there, and the army allocates soldiers to guard the spot. At Elisha, future police commanders will get an unintended lesson that the rule of law can be put aside for political goals and for political groups favored by the government — a lesson from the occupation that they will take with them to duties inside Israel.

Read the rest here, and return to SoJo to comment.

9 thoughts on “The Occupation Comes Home”

  1. I think this article made its point really powerfully. (I could have done without the condescension towards members of the settler movement, but that’s to be expected.) It’s not good to have lots of policemen who think that the law of the state is in conflict with the Torah. And there’s no denying, this dilemma is a result of the 1967 occupation. Usually I dismiss the charge that “the occupation is corrupting Israel” because it’s almost always made without any evidence. This article gives evidence. Well done.

  2. Perfect timing on your post. See this article in Haaretz today concerning police behavior regarding Palestinians.

    The more I follow events in the occupied territories and the more American Jews I meet who are as outraged as I am at what is going on there, the more I agree with you that it is now or never for the peace talks. If they fail things will only get more extreme. Though I never thought it might happen before, I now believe that the path Israel is on will alienate it even from the Jews of the wider world that it so dearly wants us all to believe it represents.

    The Jewish state repudiated by the Jews of the world. Stranger things have happened.

  3. “The new police program is one example of how the occupation comes home to Israel, undermining institutions and the rule of law, defining the relation between Jewish and Arab citizens as one of conflict, feeding political extremism. The effects of occupation and settlement can’t be safely quarantined in occupied territory.

    Back in 1968, only months after Israel conquered the West Bank, the Orthodox philosopher and dissident Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that continuing the occupation would “undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab.” Leibowitz’s warning has proved all too prophetic. One reason for reaching a two-state solution is to bring peace with the Palestinians. Another is to repair Israel itself. ”


    Not quite, I will say. What is happening will continue to happen, in Israel, until full equal protection and political access is granted to your Arab Israeli citizens. The flip side to this remains my mantra: your Arab citizens are your best wedge into the unending “ethnic” conflict. The boundary of Israel is porus for Jews, this its foundation, the return. But it is also de facto porus for its Arab citizens. This latter too makes Israel different, as the exclusion of full Arab citizenship augments feeling towards the occupied Palestinians. Both of these breaks in the nation state, return for the Jews and Arabs denied full participation, so somewhat bonded in imagination to the occupied, make Israel distinct; and I suspect or want to believe that both will keep Israel alive as a state of hope.

    Those in political power always try to use the State to amplify their support base. Upon the election of Linclon, a major fear of the South was his presumed appointment of Republicans into post offices in their land, thereby allowing anti slavery tracts to proliferate. Seems tiny by the repercussions of extra state training of national police officers in religious venues. Perhaps a more efficient mechanism than the old boy clubs of the Jim Crow South.

    Thank you, Clif, for the Haaretz flag, as all your flags. Could be a minor episode of Kalfka’s “Castle,” or, again, from the Jim Crow South.

    As to the Settler’s attitudes (or at least some Settler’s attitudes), alone unto God makes all else secondary; may also impress some Settler women, but that can’t be important. I do so hope God is a stranger to us all. I really don’t think he began with the Jews; or I need to think this.

  4. Sobering. And also part of a long standing trend.

    As young American students in Israel we used to joke about how nice it was to be in a country where there was basically no police force as we knew it, since cops are the only real adversaries whoh can get between privileged American youth and their fun.
    Of course, the situations in Israel and America are not really comparable, but it would certainly be a lot less fun, even for Jews in Israel, to have to countenance people with fundamentalist religious educations who have the power of the badge. Although, last time I checked, the police don’t interface with the civilian population in Israel to anywhere near the degree they do in the USA.

    Also, as to the broader theme of this article, I understand how the occupation is viewed as synonymous with the increased level of religious fundamentalism in Israel, but I wonder if withdrawing from the territories will be a magic bullet that somehow puts an end to the messianism and the strong fundamentalist religious overtones affecting Israeli society. You can take the Israeli out of Kiryat Arba, but can you necessarily take the Kiryat Arba out of the Israeli?

    Besides, was 1967 the problem or was 1973? After 67 Israel felt invincible and many Israelis grew comfortable with the notion of perpetual stewardship over the territories. But it wasn’t until the sting of the Yom Kippur War that the messianic movement gained in fervor and intensity to the levels familiar to us now.

    As another aside, I just read a review on about a book written by an Israeli government insider to four prime ministers. One of the things he mentioned was that nowadays Begin is viewed among surveyed Israelis as the favorite prime minister of all time, edging out Ben Gurion. The writer himself seemed to have nothing but praise for Begin for being a mensch, seemingly overlooking the fact that behind a wave of demagoguery, Begin led the nation into a disastrous war and occupation in Lebanon at the same time as he destroyed the economy and ushered in four digit annual inflation.
    If Israeli society is at the point where this is what they consider their greatest Prime Minister, then how possible will it be to turn back the clock to June 4, 1967 simply by exiting the territories?

  5. It is a natural that more and more kippah wearers are defending the State of Israel. It is an inevitable consequence of more and more Telavivians claiming psychological deferments and fleeing to Germany and France. Israel may not be home to these Israelis, but in Europe, the most they can be is guests. And well behaved guests do not overstay their welcome

  6. To paraphrase- you can get Israel out of the occupation, but you will not yet be getting the occupation out of Israel. That will be another struggle.

    This is very urgent business but Netanyahu is not going to make it happen, pardon my pessimism. An don’t expect the Obama administration or, in the near future if Obama is a one term president, for any Republican president here ( save us!) to help matters. Quite the opposite.

    So, hardly being a pessimist, always looking for the bright side of life ( sung by Eric Idle in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”)I find myself not able to see it for Israel.

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