I protested in front of the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles last Sunday. I never thought that I would do that. In doing so I allied myself with the thousands of Israelis who have been rallying in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his annexation plan. Just like them, I support Israel, I am a Zionist– and yet, I believe the annexation plan is so deeply immoral and disturbing that I feel compelled to act.
And I hope that all American Jews will join me.
Growing up in Israel, political arguments swirled around me for as long as I can remember. At the dinner table, at school, in the youth movement. At the heart of all the arguments was the question of the occupation and Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.
People on the right argued that the Occupied Territories, Judea and Samaria in their terminology, were, in fact, ours all along, a divine, biblical gift. If this argument failed they quickly resorted to more practical considerations, offering a conditional willingness to withdraw if only a “trustworthy Palestinian partner” would one day appear. In the meanwhile, their suggestion was to temporarily hold onto those territories, conveniently ignoring the people that lived there.
Those on the left, like myself, argued that keeping millions of Palestinians under military occupation for decades was immoral. If this argument failed to gain traction, they cautioned that in the long run, the occupation would result in international isolation, economic drain, and, ultimately, cripple Israel’s democracy.
Given my views on the occupation, enlisting in the Israeli army posed a bit of a challenge for me. Ultimately, my belief in Zionism and my motivation to serve my country overcame my doubts. Israel was the haven that embraced my mother and her family after the Holocaust, and it had served as a haven for so many others since.
Now I realize that the key factor that allowed me to serve was the belief that the occupation was temporary. This assumption allowed me to avoid reckoning with the fact that I personally contributed to the oppression of millions of Palestinians.
A lot has changed since. After the army, as an undergraduate, I met and fell in love with a wonderful Jewish American woman who became my wife. We later moved to the United States where we established a family. Living in the United States, surrounded by mostly liberal Jews, sharpened my understanding of the wrongs of the occupation. Things that seemed natural in Israel, like the near-total separation between Jews and Arabs, are deeply unsettling from here.
Yet even after almost two decades here, my heart is still in Israel. I remain a political junkie. Every morning, I still check news from Israel first. But today, much of the old arguments between left and right seem stale. My way, which once seemed like a vibrant alternative, has been so marginalized that people now use the term ‘lefty’ as a curse. It is painful.
Looking back, I see that some of my anti-occupation cautionary predictions were wrong. Despite the deepening of the occupation, Israel has not become a pariah state in the eyes of the international community. The post-Cold War world, it is now clear, cares little about Israel’s actions in the occupied territories. Furthermore, despite deepening inequalities, Israel’s economic growth continues unabated. One can even argue that the occupation, which secured a flow of cheap labor, construction jobs in settlements, and demand for hi-tech security-related technologies has spurred Israel’s economy, even if not everyone shares the bounty.
But the warnings about the corrupting effects of the occupation on Israel’s democracy, unfortunately, proved accurate. In an effort to cement their hold over the government, Netanyahu and his allies presented Palestinian citizens as undifferentiated enemies, effectively rendering their votes illegitimate. Their success was so complete that in recent elections even the centrist parties that have sought to oust Netanyahu embraced the anti-democratic idea that Arab parties are not legitimate partners when it comes to forming a governing coalition. Netanyahu’s intensifying attacks on liberal NGOs and the legal system are designed to further delegitimize anyone who dares to contest the idea that only Jews should partake in the political process.
Even from the United States, I feel the effect of this shift very personally. While my political beliefs have placed me in the opposition for most of my life, only in recent years do I feel unwelcome in my own state. In the past, I used to talk with strangers about politics to get a sense of the street. It used to be enlightening even if sometimes unsettling. I recall a conversation with a taxi driver who related that prior to 1967 it was his father who waited for a day’s job at the junction and now has become the contractor who picks Palestinian day laborers. In recent visits to Israel, when I broach such conversations, the response is often hostile.
The plan to annex large parts of the occupied territories, I fear, will make it even worse. It will turn the occupation, which I long considered a temporary aberration, into the norm which will destroy the possibility that sometime, in the future, a just Israel may reassert itself. The annexation will make it clear that this country, which I love so deeply, is no longer mine. While my own story is unique, I suspect that this is true for all American Jews who care about Israel and about the equality of all people. If the occupation becomes permanent, loving Israel will be impossible.
This is why, on July 19, I went to protest with dozens of other L.A. Jews against the annexation in front of the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles. I believe that protesting against the current Israeli government is the duty of every American Jew who cares about Zionism and about Israel’s future. I hope you will join me in consulates around the country. Our voices must be heard.
Dan Lainer-Vos is an adjunct assistant professor of sociology at University of Southern California and the author of “Sinews of the Nation: Constructing Irish and Zionist Bonds in the United States.”