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Thoughts on Israel, Democracy, Occupation, and Freedom

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Photo by Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash

During Easter break, we visited Israel. I’ve been fretting about the situation there for a while now. I didn’t write about it before because I didn’t feel like I had anything to add. Many knowledgeable people have written extensively about the situation in Israel. I haven’t lived in Israel in almost twenty years. At what point do I lose the right to criticise a government? When I missed the last three elections? Five? Ten?

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t stopped disagreeing with the government. Many of my friends and family in Israel were surprised by the latest anti-democratic developments, and everyone still there started protesting in the streets. But for me, this is a continuation of the last thirty-odd years. On November 4th, 1995, Yigal Amir, a religious Zionist extremist, shot and killed Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister. Shortly after, in May 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was allied (not openly, of course) with extremist Zionist organisations before the murder, was elected as the Prime Minister.

I was almost 17 when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered, and I couldn’t vote in the 1996 elections. For me, though, the direction in which Israel has gone since was clear, linear, and not at all to my liking. I’m not the one who thought about this link: even Yitzhak Rabin, in his last speech, noted that “violence erodes the foundations of democracy.” There were periods of hope, for sure. Still, the Israeli discourse generally does not connect the violence against the Palestinian people to the fascist approach that undermines Israeli democracy.

It’s not only the government, although I do blame the government. Our leaders do everything they can to ensure that children growing up in Israel are indoctrinated into the Zionist narrative of “the poor Jewish people have been and still are persecuted, and whatever we do here is self-defence”. And the people living in Israel have allowed these blinkers to limit their compassion.

The Jewish people have been and still are persecuted. There’s still racism against Jewish people, even in progressive circles. But that doesn’t justify the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people. It doesn’t justify the massacres carried out in the name of the Jewish state, beginning in 1948. It doesn’t justify driving people from their homes, treating them as second-class citizens even when they are given citizenship, and oppressing a minority group within and outside the borders of the country.

The situation in Israel is complex. Many people have strong, differing opinions, and they’re willing to use violence to get their way because they are afraid of the other side and believe (often correctly) that the other side is also willing to use violence. To complicate things further, several groups within Jewish society in Israel disagree about fundamental things, like whether women should be allowed to wear what they want or sit at the front of the bus.

As I mentioned last year, for me, Passover is about freedom. The traditional text is horrifying in many places, but the story is inspiring. We celebrate the Jewish people’s escape from slavery into freedom. The religious aspect of it, especially this year, was jarring. But I can’t help thinking we should remember that freedom is a fundamental right. It was thought of as a basic right when the Old Testament was written (at least, for the Jews. I’m not saying they got everything right), and it’s still a fundamental right we need to fight over today. Freedom to be self-governed. Freedom to disagree with your neighbours but still live a dignified life alongside them.

For me, this year, the freedom is from my past. I want to learn from my past, from our history as a people. But I also think holding on to grudges and prejudices isn’t serving me. And I keep reminding myself that the history I’ve been taught in school is biased at best, and I always try to understand the whole story before I come to the lessons that can be taken from the story. And right now, I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that my worst nightmares seem to be coming true in Israel, around my family and friends. Of course, this isn’t Sudan—not yet. But I can’t see a scenario where this situation is resolved peacefully. That’s sad and depressing, and no one wants to read that. Hell, I don’t want to be writing that.

So how do we move forward? I don’t know. One thing I learned from my mindfulness journey is that we don’t need to know how to move forward. We’ll be doing it anyway. The question is only whether we do it while we live in the present or the past.


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