The Vengeance of the Occupation

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

I know that the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch didn’t intend his classic play, God of Vengeance, as an allegory about Israel and the impact of the occupation. The play was first staged 60 years before Israel conquered the West Bank. All the same, what’s happening in the Jewish state keeps tempting me to read Asch’s drama as an allegory.

In “God of Vengeance,” a character named Yankel Chapchovich in an unnamed Eastern European town runs a brothel in his basement while trying to bring up his daughter as a chaste Jewish girl on the floor above. To protect her purity, he installs a Torah scroll in his home. His plan naturally fails: There’s a limit to how much tribute vice can pay to virtue before the line between them vanishes.

Likewise, there’s a limit to how long a fragile democracy can maintain an undemocratic regime next door, in occupied territory, before democracy at home is corrupted. A border, especially one not even shown on maps, cannot seal off the rot.

Take, for example, the Admission Committees of Community Settlements bill, presently before the Knesset. A “community settlement” is a kind of membership-only exurb invented by West Bank settlers. The community is managed by an association responsible for “preserving the character of the settlement,” in the words of a late 1970s report from the Gush Emunim settler movement. New residents have to be approved by an admissions committee, to ensure a shared “ideological-social background,” the report states. Residents enjoy “single-family homes, quiet streets, fresh air” in a community limited to a few hundred families — an “island” of a “selected population.”

The design made it possible to enforce ideological conformity and social snobbery at the same time. It was assiduously implemented in settlements across the West Bank, then imported to sovereign Israel. In particular, the government has used the community-settlement model in efforts to “Judaize the Galilee” — to draw Jews to northern Israel, which has a large Arab population. The policy applies the concept of the West Bank settlement enterprise to part of Israel: The land is treated as an arena where two ethnic groups struggle for control, acre by acre; the Arabs are seen as a hostile population rather than as citizens.

Read the rest here.

18 thoughts on “The Vengeance of the Occupation”

  1. Good opinion piece. I was debating someone in a forum of a Dutch newspaper a few days ago, and the opponent told me to show respect for the Israeli democracy. I wish I had the link to your piece then. (Argumentatively her reaction was a logical fallacy anyway. No matter how advanced the Israeli democracy might be, it does not follow that the Palestinians don’t have the right to self-determination, which she tried to deny.)

  2. This is great news! I admit that I do sometimes agree with Mr. Gorenberg, but on this topic, whatever makes him sad makes me happy. I hope this Admission Committees of Community Settlements bill passes. The last thing Israel needs is for its domestic policy to be dictated by a bunch of Freedom Riders. Hell, it’s bad enough that Gal Galatz still sometimes plays “A Hard Rain’s a’ Gonna Fall” in Hebrew. Israelis have a very realistic understanding of ethnic conflict compared to Americans.

    It’s kind of funny that the Israeli courts cite Brown v. Board in their decisions. I mean, I understand importing American music, fashion (well, trying to), and entertainment, but do we have to import American jurisprudence too? And it’s American jurisprudence at its worst. Even many defenders of Brown v. Board concede that it’s flawed from a strictly juridical viewpoint, whatever one thinks of it as social justice.

    Even viewing this in Mr. Gorenberg’s own terms, I don’t see how this is a case of the 1967 occupation corrupting Israeli democracy. I mean, it’s not like Israeli Arabs and Jews were living together harmoniously in perfectly integrated neighborhoods until 1967. This bill may have roots in the territories, but it’s just ratifying the “undemocratic” reality that’s existed since 1948.

    There’s also the point – my hobby horse around here – that Israel is not now and never has been a democracy of Jews and Arabs. Which is not to say that it can’t be, by the way – only that it hasn’t been. The sooner left-Zionists like Jeffrey Goldberg come to grips with that fact, the better for everyone. I think Goldberg is correct on the facts: when Israeli Jews will be forced to choose explicitly between a Jewish and democratic state, they’ll choose a Jewish state. If that happens, it might be a bloody constitutional crisis. Understanding the nondemocratic nature of Israel sooner rather than later might mitigate that future crisis.

  3. Is this such a huge problem? I mean, I imagine it is for the Ka’adans, though their daughters are probably past the age when Katzir’s excellent schools are going to help them get into a good university. But they’re a small minority. Most towns in Israel aren’t community settlements, and Arabs overwhelmingly decline to join the many Jewish clubs that would have them as members. And vice versa, of course. Even in the U.S., where elite opinion and public policy is way more favorable to integration than in Israel, schools are more segregated than they were when Martin Luther King was assassinated. Israel is more willing than most Western countries to tailor public policy to community, as opposed to individual, preferences, so it’s not really surprising that these living preferences are facilitated by the law. Even the Israeli Supreme Court agrees, according to your link — at least when it came to preserving an exclusive Bedouin community.

    If you ask me, the bigger problem is that the government doesn’t actually allocate land for Arabs. In the case you link to, the Jewish Agency took the position that the ILA was willing to allocate land for Arab settlements, but that never happens in practice. (As the court noted.) In fact, I think Rahat in the northern Negev is the only new Arab city that’s been established since 1948. This seems to be the main objection to the proposed law from Arab politicians like Ahmed Tibi.

    God of Vengeance is great, but it won’t teach you much about the occupation. Read it for the lesbian scenes instead.

  4. Aaron: Okay, Israel isn’t a democracy for the Arabs because they don’t accept the fundamental premise of the state. Is it a democracy for the Arab residents of Hanin Zoabi’s hometown? (“We don’t have a problem with such a declaration [of loyalty to the Jewish state]: there’s always been a Jewish state here, so what’s new about this?”) I think Israeli Arab political opinion is a lot more complex than Jewish Israelis realize. They’re not all just worried about losing their welfare.

  5. Brown v Board held that separate was inherently unequal. At the time of its writing (mid 50’s) that was de facto the case. White children had school buses in the south; mostly, black children walked, no matter how far. All black schools mostly had inferior teaching materials and, often, teachers, who either gave up or so inherently viewed the world through racism as to expect little from their charges.

    Brown held that the State cannot enable separation through exclusion of opportunity. Later challenges against de facto seggregation (which has indeed become worse) failed, for schools are local, and when residents are of one race one will have seggregated schools. But no race may thereby be legally excluded. In Phoenix, AZ, high schools have open enrolement. Students may attend any, in their district, to which they can travel. This has created mostly black, mostly hispanic, and mostly white schools, all through personal choice, not State sanction. Nothing in State neutrality forces some intergrative mix of races.

    The question is whether the State of Israel should sanction exclusion or let individual choice, perhaps, create the equivalent of such exclusion. If you are proud of your race, let individuals of that race show how they will associate only with their kind; no need to force the matter through State support. Or perhaps, rather, individuals must be told what race they are.

    Reading Israeli public discourse (when in English, admittedly) as a tainted American, I can no longer discern difference between major opinion and that at the end of the Weimer Republic. I am drawn to the inference that Nazi racism was not wrong; it just focused on the wrong race. While it is true that Israel will have no death camps, Gaza is a bold experiment in righteous defense, erasing cost to others. Our deep primate tendencies are very creative; they need not duplicate their past.

    The IDF has ignored several High Court orders. Even the Ministry of Interior has ignored a High Court order. Your country is in constitutional crisis. Like Heiddeger, glazed eyed, the time is now to manifest the people into a new way. But you will find, once again, that the people will eat themselves alive.

    The Arabs who do no like you are your best ally. Society is the mutual endurance of enmity. Why is it so hard to understand that, victor today, you may be vanquished tomorrow?

  6. Raghav, good comment on allocating land to Arabs. I don’t know the facts (as usual!), but I like that practical, concrete approach. I hate these attempts to apply American ideology to Israel, especially when it doesn’t even work as intended in America.

    I’d never heard of God of Vengeance, but your review seems insightful.

    Back to my hobby horse, of course the whole ideas of democracy, demos, and public opinion are legal fictions. Obviously they vastly oversimplify a complex reality. But do Israeli Arabs truly will Israel to be a Jewish state and not a binational state or “state of all its citizens”? I believe that article you linked represents one facet of Arab public opinion – that is, one facet of the opinion of the Arab public, and not just the opinion of one facet of the Arab public. When Arab opinion supports the Jewish state as opposed to a binational state or “state of all its citizens”, then it could be said that Israel’s democracy includes the Arabs. I didn’t see that question asked, much less answered, in the article you linked.

    And you’re right they’re not just worried about losing their welfare. In the sentence following the one you quoted, the speaker said he wants their children to be able to work in hi-tech like the Jews.

  7. Bizarre statement:
    Take, for example, the Admission Committees of Community Settlements bill, presently before the Knesset. A “community settlement” is a kind of membership-only exurb invented by West Bank settlers

    The “West Bank Settlers” came up with something like this? What about the kibbutzim decades earlier? They are open-minded liberal multi-cultural pluralistic people, who inherited the Marxist idea of “workers of the world unite”. How many Arabs are members of kibbutzim? How many Kibbutzim have built mosques in them? Could anyone join a kibbutz in the days of their golden socialist past? Didn’t they define themselves as pioneering Zionist settlements?

  8. Aaron, only slightly altered:

    “When Black opinion supports the White State as opposed to a binational state or “state of all its citizens”, then it could be said that America’s democracy includes the Blacks.”

    You didn’t see that question asked because it answers itself, doesn’t it? That notion of “democratic” is taken straight from old Dixie, but the world outside Israel has revolved a few times since then. The difference between a “white Christian state” and a state populated by a majority of white Christians has played out politically in the US and many other places. Not that all is perfect, but you seem to cling to the flaws as if they were the model to be emulated.

    Zionists never tire to stress that Jewish assimilation and acceptance of a “white, Christian” Europe, their inclusion in and distinguished service for it (as in WW I and Weimar Germany) did not spare them the anti-Semites’ wrath. Why should the Palestinians be eager to repeat that experience? They are just as much natives to the land as many Jewish Israelis, they deserve and need as much of a stake in the state.

  9. The difference is simple and clear: Israel is constituted as a Jewish state, but the US is (now) constituted as a “state of all its citizens”, not a “state of the white Christian nation” or whatever. America is in one sense more democratic than Israel because American public opinion supports the US as currently constituted. Israeli Jewish public opinion supports Israel as currently constituted, but I think that Israeli Arab public opinion prefers a “state of all its citizens”. Largely because of that, there is essentially no such thing as Israeli public opinion, just Jewish public opinion and Arab public opinion.

    I never suggested that Israeli Arabs ought to desire a Jewish state instead of a “state of all its citizens”. If I were an Arab I probably wouldn’t want a Jewish state either, even if nice, open-minded Jews like Gershom Gorenberg were running it.

  10. By the way, I like the references in the comments to the Weimar Republic. I agree with Gregory Pollock that the parallels between Weimar-era Germany and today’s Israel are extremely compelling, and I’m surprised that Israeli historians aren’t studying the Weimar Republic intensively. As some people know, much of what I say here is just channeling the Weimar-era writings of the legal-political theorist Carl Schmitt. His thought is excruciatingly relevant to Israel, unfortunately.

  11. Speaking of parallels, anyone interested in a comparative analysis of the Israeli situation should check out Tom Mitchell’s new blog, The Self-Hating Gentile. Both his academic work and (so far) his blog focus on comparing Israel to other settler societies, like South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the pre-Civil War United States. Nothing on the Weimar-era Germany, though.

  12. Aaron,

    Without trying to sound belligerant, do you think that the racial thinking of the last Weimar years (which was held world wide– for instance, Justice Holmes of the US Supreme Court held opinions on racial and interstate, as race, competition) was largely correct, that the Nazi view of a prefered race is not wrong, only that, being Jewish, you prefer the Jewish race? This does not commit one to death camps, but, perhaps, to an indefinite Gaza seige. And it would seem, to me, to force belief in an unending war (of some kind) with other races. Or at least to the view that races should not mix–perhaps not even in marriage, as that will lead to evolutionary foundational racial conflict (by the way, in the US one sees a great proportion of interracial marriages in the lower classes; people need each other and seem, overall, to put race aside).

    The claim that Israel is inherently a Jewish State rests on the law of return, which rests on the Declaration of Independence. In my view, the law of return (I actually prefer “refuge”) is constitutionally basic and DOES define Israel. But the Declaration also commits the polity to a uniform democracy without reserve to race, creed, or sex. This too I see as basic to Israel’s constitutional foundation. That is: only Jews are guaranteed ingress into Israel; but just as fundamentally, no Arab Israeli citizen may be deported for being an Arab, or stripped of citizenship in some peace deal or for any other whim of any Knesset.

    I am indeed aware that you live this struggle and that I am just a kibitzer. But I think a false choice is implicit in “Jewish before democratic.” As no Knesset can abridge the law of return, no Knesset can abridge the other Declaration provisions. The political deck is stacked in favor of Jews via the law of return–but only there.

    And lastly, the prevalent stance in the Knesset and, it seems, the Jewish Israeli polity generally (but I hope not) will, in my view, force the High Court to embrace the Declaration for institutional protection. While Justices generally refer to the Declaration as informative only, I have seen one concurrence (not a majoity opinion) which afirms the Declaration as the law of the land. I think there is a fair chance that the Court will be forced into the views I have sketched in response to a growing racial purity ideology.

  13. I frankly find comparisons between Israel and the Weimar Republic ignorant and offensive. If you want to go around and look for racist fascism around, I suggest you look at Syria, Iran and the Palestinians and their official state-run propaganda. But that is what I have learned to expect from “progressives”…complete disregard for what Israel’s enemies think or do, as if they are retarted children who we can’t expect anything better from.
    The Weimar Republic had armed paramilitary militias battling it out on the streets every day, including the Nazi SA, the Communist Rotfront and the supposedly pro-Republic Social Democratic Reichsbanner who disappeared suddenly when the Nazis came to power. There were both right-wing and left-wing attempted coups (the Kapp Putsch, the Beer Hall Putsch and the Spartikasbund uprising). There was massive economic dislocation due to the hyperinflation of 1923 which led to most families losing their life’s savings, leading to the massive unemployment of the Great Depression starting in 1929.
    By 1931 (IIRC) the majority of seats in the Reichstag were held by the anti-democracy Nazis and Communists which parlyzed parliamentary activity so that President Hindenburg had to rule by Presidential Decree.

    Anyone who claims Israel is anything like that is either an ignoramus or a liar. There are no mobs of right-wing Jews beating up left-wing Jews, there are no mobs of Jews going into Arab areas and smashing the place up.

    The Israeli Left is always moaning about their decreasing power and influence. Maybe a little soul-searching regarding abuses such as deceitful rhetoric and propaganda such as we see here with the Weimar comparisons could convince the non-Leftist majority that the Left can once again be a responsible political bloc and not just knee-jerk supporters of Israel’s enemies.

  14. I think you are right, Ben-David–save for your belief that Israel need only meet the standards of its inferior neighbors.

    Weimar became coalition unstable; Israel is beginning to seem so now. Weimar began to gravitate to elmination logic, both left and right socialist (good old William F. Buckley, Jr. liked to point out that he found it hard to distinguish historical facism/national socialism from communism); Israeli opinion, governmental and apparently public, seems inclined these days to consider eliminationist logic for its Arab citizens. What is missing, as you forcefully show, are armed camps; the IDF and State police control all organized coercion–indeed, did not Ben-Gurion destroy the weapons stock of a Jewish militia while in port to insure State control of force?

    The political side of Weimar was a bit different–manifesting the will of the people as absolute power. You have only one check on that–the courts. If the Knesset is sovereign without bound, what prevents any citizen from losing her status if against the spoken mouth of the people? Some Israeli conservatives seem to think Carl Schmitt relevant to present Israeli politics. Lieberman says you can remake your State. What can stop him, in law? Your IDF is still in violation of High Court orders. Is there a check on the Knesset save for plurality opinion?

    Are Arab Israeli citizens Israeli’s enemies?

    This is the best response I have seen here in a good long while.

  15. Gregory-
    When you say “Israel only need meet the statndards of its inferior neighbors” are you implying that Arabs are more primitive than Jews? Are you saying Jews are smarter than Arabs or superior to Arabs? Why should Israel hold itself or be held by others to a different standard than its Arab neighbors?

  16. “OCCUPATION”. Oh boy. Wish I had a nickel for each time I heard that term thrown around! This harsh, loaded and damaging term unfortunately has worked its way into the daily discourse about Israel to the point where people use it automatically and without considering its ramifications. By using this expression, we unwittingly do our enemies’ dirty work by not only delegitimizing the Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria (the so-called “occupied territories”) but by also weakening our claim to all of Israel, in its entirety. Because when you think about it, if the Jewish People have no claim to ancient Biblical Shechem (Nablus), the central Samarian city linked to Jewish history since the time of Abraham, then they certainly have no claim to Tel Aviv, a modern day creation of no historical, national or religious significance. This is a crucial point that the Israeli left has never seemed to understand. In fact, there is no and never was any “occupation” of “Palestine”! This patently false charge has NO BASIS in either fact or law, as explained in this discussion, and has been hugely damaging to Israel’s morale, self-image, sense of purpose and of course its public image.

    For more on this, click here:

  17. Theodor Herzl the founder of Zionism wanted a “homeland” for the Jews, preferrably in Palestine, but “if it was not available”, then he was willing to consider Argentine, Uganda,etc. We seem to have forgotten that Herzl was not too concerned about the Biblical connection/promise.

  18. I do not think, Ben-David, that one’s standards need be defined by one’s neighbors. In fact, I would chance saying that study of Torah basically asserts this position. It simply makes no difference who around me is better or worse if I can make myself better.

    As there are many things I do not like in Torah, there are many things I do not like in the Qur’an. But one verse therein stays with me: “Vie among yourselves in good works, and leave your differences to me.” Hard to define “best” there.

    If I try to shout myself king from a hill of corpse I know I will fail. I will never make it to the top, others, stronger in this, will pull me down, perhaps making me a corpse step in their own climb. And if, purchance, I did summit, I would find, soon enough, that even kings become a step in greater climb.

    Several on this blog have labeled me, indirectly, as kibitzer without investment in your land’s struggle. It is so. But is it not possible to find something beyond that corpsed hill? Is not Torah equally as wonderous as Qur’an?

    The quote you take from me, above, is my inference of the position you were advocating, not my own. I will neither disdain the history of Zionism or Arab. In the rubble of reciprocal accusation I want to built, vying in good works, or at least hopes.

    I ask again: if the IDF ignores High Court orders, is there any check beyond electoral plurality on what a Knesset can do? I want to find a way out of this, in imagination. But I cannot do so alone.


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