I never heard the word growing up.
It definitely was not uttered at the dozen AIPAC events I attended, or throughout the Israel advocacy training I received. The word has been taboo for as long as I can remember.
Someone forgot to mention that to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie before he used it in his remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition three weeks ago. A subsequent apology to philanthropist Sheldon Adelson assured that we won’t be hearing the word from Christie again anytime soon.
But what must be taken from this whole ordeal is that “occupation” is still not a word the American Jewish community is comfortable hearing. When it is used, even when euphemized, we shut down. The conversation becomes a road congested with defense mechanisms that ultimately leads nowhere.
The majority of American Jewry knows that responsibility for the suffering in this conflict is shared.
Why then is there still the necessity to qualify any acknowledgment of a Palestinian narrative with a “yes, but”? –“Yes, but there’s a reason for the wall and the checkpoints”; “Yes, but they aren’t a partner for peace.”
Even before catching a breath after recognition is this knee-jerk reaction to “put it in context.”
The pro-Israel community should be disturbed by occupation. Not because the characterization is lacking in truth, but because it accurately describes how the Jewish state, our homeland, has been oppressing the gerim (strangers) in our midst. We must stop acting as if this is debatable; as if our own narrative is delegitimized by this confession.
There is nothing “disputed” about Israel effectively ruling the West Bank with a standing army for almost 50 years. It is not under debate whether young Palestinians get stopped in their own streets in Hebron by IDF soldiers, and asked to show their IDs.
It is not questionable whether many Palestinian children wake up hours early so they have enough time to go through checkpoints on their way to school. These may be the consequences of terrorism, but even if military occupation is the necessary response, can’t we at least come together in admitting that this is unfortunate? The Israeli intelligence community has spoken in unison on this issue. In the 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers, six former Shin Bet chiefs laid to rest any feasibility that this term is under dispute. “Occupation” was used unapologetically throughout the film, and it is about time our discussions about Israel reflect that rhetoric.
Because we need to start being honest with ourselves; because we do not have a monopoly on this conflict’s suffering.
But this candor regarding Israel’s troubling situation extends past the intelligence world. During his premiership, Ariel Sharon admitted, “You cannot like the word, but what is happening is an occupation.”
So why has the mainstream American Jewish community been so reluctant to accept this reality? Why are many Hillels still passing out Mitchell Bard’s Myths & Facts books? This “Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict” characterizes the notion that Israel occupies the West Bank as “myth.”
The full chapter that addresses that “myth” is even posted on the website of the Jewish Federations of North America. The umbrella organization for all Jewish communities in North America refuses to recognize an occupation that a hawkish Israeli prime minister admitted existed years ago.
This is not about pressuring the Israeli government into concessions it is not ready to make. Conversely, the inflammatory language our community uses when talking about Israel is often less progressive than what is heard in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Exclusively gloating about the amount of Israeli start-ups and how there are Arab members of Knesset is just as one-sided as the propaganda against Israel that we are quick to denounce. Acknowledging imperfections and complexity is not a weakness, but a necessity for healthy dialogue.
Doing so may not change the facts on the ground tomorrow, but it does allow for healthier relationships with Israel.
“Occupation” should strain the heart of each pro-Israel advocate honest enough to let the word slip. Its meaning should become heavier each time it is heard, if only to bring about a swifter commitment to see its end.
The term can no longer be one that requires its users to subsequently prove their pro-Israel credentials. Just as the “Jewish state” eventually needs to be part of Palestinian discourse, occupation must become part of our community’s rhetoric, because it is this rhetoric that demonstrates a serious desire to bring an end to conflict.
The author recently finished his service in the Paratroopers Brigade of the IDF and is now a freshman at the University of Maryland and deeply involved in campus pro-Israel activity.