Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Six Day War, and the Occupation, after 40 years--A Personal View

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the 1967 "Six Day" War.

"Forty" is a highly consequential number in Jewish reckoning: 40 days and nights of the flood in the days of Noah; 400 years (sort of) in Mitzraim; 40 years of wandering in the desert following the Exodus. "Forty" marks "a long time", a period of radical transformation, a cycle of completion.

I mark my own period of Jewish awareness and identification to the weeks preceding the war of June 1967, when it seemed to so many American Jews that Israel's very existence might be in danger, that the world might be on the brink of permitting a repetition of the Holocaust. What had become of American help, of the UN, of the international community in which I had come to trust?

Israel's ability to protect itself, and its swift triumph over multiple adversaries, came as a miracle in my consciousness, and radically transformed the way I thought about Jews in the world and in history. Much more would follow, after a brief first visit to Israel in February of 1970 and a longer visit spanning calendar 1971. By that time, an air of military triumphalism (and an Israeli admiration of Richard Nixon and his perceived steadfastness in Vietnam) had set in, and my reactions and identifications became more complex, although always in conjunction with deep love for the land, people, and national and cultural project of Israel as a focal point of Jewish life and culture, and, in some respects, of a Jewish return to history as a collective actor in world society.

The 1967 War also marked the onset of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In the early years, it was perhaps possible to view the occupation as a temporary (and exceptional) necessity, to be held in reserve for a trade of "land for peace", once the Arab world was ready to recognize Israel's permanent place in the landscape of the Middle East. "Settlements" would be temporary military expedients, planned along the periphery of populated areas to serve narrowly-tailored security needs, pursuant to the "Allon Plan" of the time.

It has not turned out that way.

Israel has never fully confronted the legal and moral challenges of the Occupation. The juristic basis for Israeli policy has been cobbled together from emergency regulations dating to the British Mandate (when they were applied by the British against both Arabs and Jews, and hated), aspects of international law (often interpreted in ways rejected by most non-Israeli authorities and institutions), and domestic laws and regulations as interpreted by Israeli military and security authorities, with light superintendence by the Israeli courts. It has been claimed (although not so frequently in recent years) that the Israeli occupation was an enlightened or benign one; today, I think, it is recognized that terms like "enlightened" or "benign" do not go with a long-term occupation of the lands and lives of one people by another.

While there are reasonable arguments (in my view, persuasive ones) that this point was reached long ago, it seems to me overwhelmingly clear that the "legal fiction" of a "temporary occupation" cannot survive the passage of 40 years, and that Israel's failure to define constitutional limits on its exercise of authority over the lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories cannot be legally or morally justified or, any longer, excused.

My own strong preference is now, as it has been for decades, for two independent states, one primarily Jewish and one primarily Palestinian Arab, living in political harmony and in economic cooperation with one another. My own view is that Palestinian (and more broadly Arab) leadership, and followership, bears a large responsibility for the failure to reach this resolution (most particularly in the waning days of the Clinton Administration, but not only then), but so does Israel. I am greatly saddened that American policy under the current Bush Administration has, under the false label of a "pro-Israel" policy, been so derelict in its woefully deficient efforts to bring a peaceful resolution (along the general lines of the 2001 Taba negotiations, the Geneva accords, and the Nusseibeh-Ayalon negotiations) to fruition. I have profound differences with those parts of the American Jewish community (and so-called "Christian Zionist" supporters) who have enabled this abdication of American responsibility. My principal hope is that this or a future administration will rekindle efforts to move toward a comprehensive peace treaty between Israel and its Palestinian and other Arab neighbors, and the wider Arab and Islamic worlds.

All that said, pending any such wider resolution, it is incumbent on Israel to radically rethink its approach to disputed territories that it currently occupies, and to the people under the Israeli boot. (My language is harsh, but considered: it pains me to say, but pains me far more that I think it is true, and requires saying by those who pray for Israel's future.) The long occupation has corrupted Israeli and Jewish values and ideals, bred and reinforced racism, and permitted a level of brutality and disregard for fellow human beings (all of us created in the image of G!d) that has become a source of shame to many who love Israel and share the ideals reflected in its 1948 Declaration of Independence. Forty years puts a definitive end to any claims of temporary emergency measures. Difficult though the challenges may be, Israel must assume full and explicit responsibility, legal and moral, for its actions as the superior power regarding those with whom it must find a way to live in peace and neighborliness.
---Alan Jay Weisbard
(Permission granted for republication in full, with appropriate citation)

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