November 10, 2021: Twenty Israeli settlers, armed with guns and clubs, their faces masked, descend upon the hamlet of Halat al-Dab’ in the South Hebron hills. They attack the Palestinians who live there, smash windows, cars, and whatever else they find. Six Palestinians are wounded, at least one from gunshots. There are Israeli soldiers nearby who make no attempt to interfere and who leave the area while the pogrom is going on. I use the word deliberately. What happened that day in Halat al-Dab’ is not different in kind from the pogrom in Nikolayev, in Ukraine, in the early years of the twentieth century, when my grandmother’s brother was killed by Cossacks.
September 28, 2021, Simchat Torah, the end of the Sukkot holiday: Dozens of masked settlers storm the tiny Palestinian encampment of Mufagara, also in the South Hebron hills, wreaking havoc. Basil al-Adraa, an activist from the nearby village of at-Tuwani, reported that the settlers
went from house to house, and broke windows, smashed cars with knives and hammers. A large stone they threw hit a 3-year-old boy, Mohammed, in the head, who is now in the hospital. The soldiers supported them with tear gas. The residents fled. I can’t forget how the villagers left their houses, terrified, the children screaming, the women crying, while the settlers entered their living rooms, like they were possessed with violence and wrath.
September 17, 2021: A convoy of activists from the Israeli-Palestinian NGO Combatants for Peace and other organizations is bringing a water tanker to a village near at-Tuwani, which has no access to running water. The army violently attacks the convoy with tear gas and stun grenades. Six activists and a journalist are wounded; one of the activists is thrown to the rocky ground by the senior officer in command and has to undergo surgery on his eye. Seven Palestinians are arrested.
No one should think that these events—a random selection—are aberrations or exceptions to the rule. They are now the norm in the occupied Palestinian territories. Settler violence, backed up by Israeli soldiers, happens every day. Government ministers and high-ranking officers, including the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, make bland statements condemning the violence but do nothing to stop it. Some of them actively support it. The goal, by no means a secret, is to expel Palestinians from their homes and lands and, eventually, to annex as much of the West Bank as possible to Israel.
Any means to achieve this goal is acceptable. The minister of defense, Benny Gantz, has recently outlawed six Palestinian human rights organizations on the pretext that they are connected to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.* The vehemence with which the government and the security goons have defended this pretext is evidence that they know it is false—yet another attempt to stamp out Palestinian protest and dissent. Some readers might be reminded of the days when the ACLU was attacked by Joseph McCarthy as an alleged Communist front organization.
All of this is Israel in 2021. So what is a onetime liberal Zionist like Sylvain Cypel supposed to make of it? His father, Jacques Cypel, was an outstanding leader of labor Zionism in France and also the editor of the world’s last Yiddish-language daily newspaper, Unzer Wort. (It closed down in 1996.) The young Sylvain, bilingual in French and Yiddish, grew up in Bordeaux and Paris, where he was a member of a labor Zionist youth group. He went to Israel after high school, served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army, and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After living in Israel on and off for twelve years, he returned to France, where he eventually became a senior editor at Le Monde and then editor in chief of Courrier International.
In The State of Israel vs. the Jews, Cypel describes the change that came over him in the years following the 1967 war:
I had always thought that when Israel was founded as a refuge for the persecuted Jews of the world, justice had been on the Israeli side…. But I was gradually discovering that the expulsion of the Palestinians and the seizing of their land had been deliberately brutal.
By the time he left Israel, he was an anti-Zionist, hence ostracized by some former friends. He clearly couldn’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance that so many of us in the Israeli peace movement have to live with. As he puts it, “Israel was evolving into something no idealist could stomach: a racist, bullying little superpower.” The raison d’être of his book lies in documenting and substantiating this thesis.
Cypel’s trajectory is not unusual. I know quite a few originally left-oriented, idealistic Zionists who have been similarly disillusioned and who have given up on the Jewish state. Some of them think that from the very beginning, the Zionist movement was caught up in, indeed defined by, a teleology of increasingly violent crime against the Palestinian “other” who inhabits the same small chunk of land on the Mediterranean coast. I don’t subscribe to this overdetermined view.
But Cypel’s story has a particularly French, or rather French Jewish, dimension, spelled out in a chapter of his book subtitled “The Blindness of French Jews.” France was the first European country to emancipate the Jews (in 1791; their rights were confirmed and expanded in the following decades), and the Jews of France had good reason to identify with the liberté, fraternité, and égalité of the French Revolution, even if these slogans were often honored in the breach. But with the influx of more than 300,000 French-speaking Jews from Algeria and elsewhere in the Maghreb during and after the Algerian War of Independence of 1954–1962, the French Jewish community underwent significant changes. Many of the new immigrants to France carried with them bitter memories of their formal status as dhimmis, a tolerated but humiliated minority, under Islam. They took vicarious pride in the rise of Israel and even felt a slight taste of revenge on their Arab oppressors.
And while French Jews are by no means uniformly “Israelized”—the term used by the historian Pierre Birnbaum to refer to an unthinking commitment to the ethnonationalist program of the Israeli right—Cypel has only harsh words for the community and especially for the organization that claims to speak for it, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France. He also mocks French Jewish intellectuals for their public silence when it comes to Israel.
There is another element in the transformation of this former Zionist into a ferocious critic of Israel. Cypel remembers from his childhood the war the French fought to maintain their colony in Algeria. As a student in Jerusalem in 1969—only seven years after Algeria achieved independence—he was shocked to hear Israeli students who “talked about the Palestinians exactly the same way French settlers there [in Algeria] used to talk about the Arabs.” French Jews on the left had mostly, sometimes passionately, opposed the French colonial war in Algeria. Now it was all happening again in Palestine, even if the historical parallel was inexact. (The French colonists in Algeria had, at least in theory, a home country they could return to, unlike nearly all Israeli Jews.)
For Cypel, just out of the Israeli army and haunted by recent memory, the result was the discovery of the “yawning gap between the promise and the reality of Zionism.” But for people like me, who still remember the late 1960s and early 1970s in Israel, before the settler movement began, those years call up memories of the old, moderately humanistic, mildly socialist Israel. Make no mistake: the underlying project of dispossession, or “thinning out” the Palestinian population, as it was then euphemistically called, was very much underway. And the occupation had clearly taken root. Israel was no utopia, yet it was utterly unlike the shameless hypernationalist state we have today. Cypel shows us, in strident but truthful tones, the dystopian world of an ethnocratic polity immersed in systemic repression, institutionalized hatred toward Palestinians, and quotidian criminal acts in the occupied territories, where a colonial settler regime is firmly in place.
He also gives us chapters on other kinds of transgressions, like the sale of sophisticated Israeli spyware to the world’s most cruel and despotic states, among them South Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar, for use against their own citizens—a business, he writes, that earns “Israeli companies an amount estimated by various sources at between $1 billion and $3.4 billion a year.” He describes the increasing attacks on Israeli human rights activists by the state security forces; the rehabilitation and relegitimation of Kach, the overtly racist party of thugs founded by Meir Kahane, now once again represented in the Knesset by the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party; and the antidemocratic legislation initiated by the Israeli right, such as the “nation-state law” that enshrines inequality among Jews and non-Jews within the state. Jewish privilege—and the concomitant discrimination against Israeli Arab citizens—are now no longer a latent, though widespread, Israeli dream but a legal reality. All of this leads Cypel to quote with approbation—as the book’s epigraph—the late Tony Judt’s statement in 2003 that “the depressing truth today is that Israel is bad for the Jews.”
This seems a lot like saying that Italy is bad for the Italians, which may well have been true, in some sense, from the 1920s through the early 1940s but can hardly be an enduring theorem; or that the United States under Trump was bad for the Americans. Most states, especially ethno-nation-states, are quite often bad for their citizens, and it sometimes, indeed often, seems that a self-destructive telos is built into the very notion of an ethnocratic nationalist polity. But Judt’s statement, and Cypel’s citation of it, smack of Jewish exceptionalism. For centuries the Jews, with good reasons to habitually fear the worst, have viewed any event in light of the question “Is it good or bad for the Jews?” Now they have a state of their own, and the question is still there. It might be better to ask if Israeli policies are good for Israeli citizens and for the Palestinians who share with them the land west of the Jordan River. To the extent that Jewish communities throughout the world support current Israeli policies, they, too, bear some responsibility for the evils of the occupation. On a good day, I sometimes manage to believe that a time will come when Israel will revert to its roots in the humane side of the Jewish tradition and the universal values articulated by the Hebrew prophets. That day seems far away.
There is not much point in rehearsing here the well-known litany of state terror and abuse that define the Israeli occupation. The information is there for all to see, in Cypel’s eloquent J’accuse and elsewhere (the website of the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, for example). The disjunction between the ethical vision of the biblical prophets and the reality of life in the West Bank and Gaza has already opened up a fissure between Israel and some progressive Jewish communities in the Western world, especially in America (not yet, perhaps, in France, if Cypel is right). That gap, I believe, will widen. It also exists in the liberal, younger wing of the Democratic Party in the US. That doesn’t mean that the Judt-Cypel axiom is acceptable to these critics of Israeli policy. It does mean that new and perhaps more effective forms of pressure on Israel are beginning to take practical form.
It is important to note, however, from an internal Israeli perspective, that the days are over when presenting the crimes in the occupied territories to the Israeli media, and thus to the wider public, might have some positive, constraining effect. Put simply, no one really cares. More precisely, judging by the results of the four recent elections, something like a third to half of the population ardently support the policy of repression, expulsion, and escalating violence directed at Palestinians. Many among the other two thirds or so are unhappy with this policy, but only a tiny minority are prepared to do anything to stop it.
That passivity and/or indifference constitute the heart of the problem. They are far worse and infinitely more consequential than anything the settlers or soldiers can do. Without the compliance of the vast majority of Israelis, state-sponsored terror on the West Bank could not continue to run wild. One can sometimes hear the clucking of tongues—not much more than that. Perhaps the great defender of human rights Michael Sfard is right when he says that someday, when the occupation has finally ended, nearly everyone in Israel will claim retroactively that they were against it from the beginning.
A form of mass protest did develop in Israel over the last two years with the aim of removing Benjamin Netanyahu from office—certainly a worthy goal. For months, many thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, came to Jerusalem every Saturday night to demonstrate outside the prime minister’s residence. Ultimately, they succeeded, at least for now. But Netanyahu was an easy target. How much mendacity, venality, and sheer selfishness on the part of a leading politician does it take to get a decent citizen into the streets? However, it was not the occupation that moved many of these protesters. They wanted to rid themselves of a prime minister who, in order to remain in power, was undermining the entire fabric of state institutions, including the courts, and who had cultivated a culture of rabid hatred for any opponent, from within or from without, along with a personality cult such as one sees in authoritarian regimes.
Urgent ethical quandaries remain to torment those of us who live in Israel. What about the minimal moral basis of statehood, and the social contract rooted in some notion of decency, that political theorists from Locke to Rawls and Walzer have posited? What happens to a state in which moral abominations serving utilitarian considerations become routine? Does such a state forfeit its legitimacy? Can it redeem itself, and if so, how? Or is sheer force, in the end, immune to ethical considerations? Cypel quotes Netanyahu:
In the Middle East, and in many parts of the world, there is a simple truth—there is no place for the weak. The weak crumble, are slaughtered, and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.
I’d like to bring such questions down to a concrete, more personal perspective. There is, unfortunately, no lack of instances we could examine. Here is one not atypical of the Israeli-Palestinian situation—the case of Harun Abu Aram, twenty-four years old, from the village of al-Rakiz in the South Hebron hills.
On January 1, 2021, Harun’s neighbor Ashraf was fixing a roof over his sheep pen. Five soldiers, apparently summoned by the settlers of the nearby illegal outposts of Avigail or Chavat Maon, came to the village, invaded Ashraf’s house, and discovered there, horror of horrors, a small electric generator. (Al-Rakiz is not attached to the electrical grid.) The soldiers seized the generator. Ashraf protested. A scuffle developed. Harun’s father, Rasmi, came running to help his friend and, like Ashraf, was beaten and kicked by the soldiers. Harun, hearing what was happening, rushed to the scene. For a few minutes, there was a tug-of-war between the soldiers and the Palestinians, and the generator changed hands several times. Then one of the soldiers, standing to the side and in no danger, shot Harun at point-blank range, hitting him in the neck. He fell to the ground, his spinal cord severed between vertebrae six and seven.
The soldiers, now the proud owners of the generator, set up a roadblock at the main road in and out of the village. Here comes the worst part of the story. Rasmi and Ashraf managed to get Harun into a car in order to drive him to a hospital, but the soldiers, including the one who shot Harun, stopped the vehicle and shot at its tires, puncturing one of them. Miraculously, Ashraf managed to drive the car on three wheels past the roadblock and into the village of at-Tuwani, where Harun was transferred to another car, which, after running into another military roadblock, finally got him to a hospital. The doctors said that if they’d come ten minutes later, Harun would have died.
Harun is paralyzed from the neck down. After many months in hospital, he can again breathe without assistance. He is now in a specially equipped house in the town of Yata and requires twenty-four-hour care. His life is ruined. Before the incident, he was about to be married. The army demolished the house his father had built for the young couple, one of many recurrent demolitions in al-Rakiz. The soldier who shot Harun has not been punished, and the State of Israel has refused to take any responsibility for Harun’s fate or to cover any of the enormous costs of his hospital stay.
This is a single instance among thousands. The essential point is that whatever the soldier who shot Harun was thinking—maybe he panicked, maybe he was taught to hate Palestinians—the incident illuminates the inner logic of the Israeli occupation as a whole. A Palestinian should not have a generator, nor should he fix his fence or sheep pen. A Palestinian must never protest or disobey a soldier. A Palestinian can be killed by settlers or soldiers with impunity. A Palestinian will never receive justice in the military courts that operate in the territories. And so on. Given that logic, what happened to Harun, and to countless other Palestinians over the past decades, was natural, in fact inevitable. It is wrong to class it as a tragic mistake. Once the soldiers entered the village on their ugly mission, all the rest unfolded along familiar lines. The ultimate malice, no doubt a decision on the part of those same soldiers, took place at the two roadblocks.
Charles de Gaulle, reelected president in 1958 to keep Algeria French, came to realize that the very survival of France as a civilization among the nations of the world required that it extricate itself from Algeria. Israel has yet to achieve a similar understanding about the occupied Palestinian territories. Even one Harun vitiates the state’s claim to common decency and indelibly stains its ethical core. And Harun is by no means alone.
I don’t believe in a statistical calculus of morals. Any evil act has its own intrinsic horror, its own lurid integrity. We will never be able to tally up the number of crimes committed by Israelis against Palestinians and weigh them against the crimes committed by Palestinians against Jews, as if one side could “win” in the giant sweepstakes of victimhood. Ultimately, the two sides will either lose everything together or win together, despite their shared belief that the conflict is a zero-sum game.
What we can say is that the Israeli side is still, after fifty-five years, maintaining in the Palestinian territories a system that ruthlessly causes the death or wounding of innocents in large numbers, just as it continues to steal more and more Palestinian land with the backing of the Israeli courts. It would also be fair to say that the situation is deteriorating from day to day. Those who know that situation firsthand also know that there is no possible way to justify it or to make sense of it without resorting to a claim that eternal Israeli supremacy over all Palestinians is a worthy and attainable aim.
—January 12, 2022