The first time I stepped into a settlement was during my military service. I did a job that let me go home every night, but every now and then we were required to do something they called AVTASH, or SetSec: settlement security. I was a guard in Ganim, in Kadim, in Homesh and in one other settlement whose name I do not recall. Every one of those settlements has been removed since then, as part of the Disengagement. We’d travel there in a military jeep. Somewhere near the city of Afula the officer who rode with us said we had entered Area A, and that we had to load our weapons. With our ridiculous guns we traveled through the car-part stripping facilities of Jenin, along ragged roads, until we came to the settlement. These were “quality of life” settlers and were quite nice, in a superficial acquaintance. I remember Homesh in particular. We were guarding in the winter, and the guard booth was covered with perennial fog that had a metallic aftertaste. Around us were mountains, Arab villages, and rock rabbits. I loved those guarding shifts.
The next time I would enter a Palestinian area would be on the way to a demonstration in Bil’in. I took a rideshare bus which left from Tel Aviv’s central bus station. It was odd to be there without a loaded weapon, to hope that the soldiers wouldn’t stop me at the checkpoint. It was even stranger to see the Palestinian Authority flag. Not strange – frightening.
Israelis don’t know Arabs. Left-wingers don’t, either. I met one at the university, another at work. I have never witnessed a meeting between an Arab and a right winger, but I find it hard to believe that it would be as amusing as a meeting between a left-winger and an Arab. They do a special dance at one another. And it’s mostly the left-wingers. They use a careful series of gestures to make it abundantly clear they are ok, and that they carry all of the right opinions. Having taken part of this very dance at least once I can tell how very embarrassing and inarticulate it can be. Arabs are not exempt of this, and perhaps they are even more committed to it. A meeting between a Jew and an Arab, even when it is full of good intentions – especially when it is full of good intentions – has explosive potential. The embarrassment remains with you thereafter, and you wonder if the problem is yours or if you just don’t like the person.
Relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel are so very charged that I had a hard time even writing the actual word “Arab”. In such a situation, where an entirely reasonable word has already been linked to a euphemism of its own – they’re called “minorities” in the Israeli discourse – it is something of a shock to enter Bil’in. These are not “Israeli Arabs” but Palestinians, and the village looks exactly as you’d expect a Palestinian village to look like, just like the ones in the press photos. I came to the demonstration after Bassam Abu Rahmeh died. Old cars were driving down the main street, covered with pictures of him and Palestinian flags. A kid rode his bike with a Bassam poster waving in front of his face, blocking his field of vision. Suddenly when you’re there, afraid, you understand just how many layers separate you from this experience, just how much a Palestinian still seems to be a creature of evil intent. You’re still there, with your weapon loaded.
Looking back it seems to me that this was an important demonstration. My criticism of the radical left was much sharper. Today I can’t even remember what it was. In his essay on nationalism Orwell described a condition of reverse-nationalism – the automatic, instinctive revulsion at one’s own country. Currently I have to double-check myself twice a day that that’s not where I’m at. Before Bil’in that was one of the things that infuriated me about the radical left, i.e. the demonstrating left.
I’m not sure this is a positive condition, but it does seem to be a relevant one, and to encompass more than just my own personal experience. You have to be there, and go there yet again, to see how a Palestinian flag can suddenly be taken for granted, almost as if you’ve come to a safe harbor. If you’re a left-winger there is no doubt that Bil’in is safer than the nearest checkpoint or settlement. Your identification framework shifts.
I think that most of us cannot understand the craptacular extent of the situation here. Keren, a friend of mine, phrased it well: for us, everything works. If we see cops down the street, they will obviously not harass us; we’re not afraid of a security guard or of a soldier on the bus. That’s not how it is for Arabs or, in some cases, for Mizrahi Jews. A young woman I know once told me about the calculus of stepping into a taxi: an older driver will try to lay you; a young driver will try, but only hesitantly; an Arab driver will try. This stunned me: the fact that entire chunks of my existence and hers were so radically different. A man doesn’t engage in this calculus, he doesn’t even know it exists. And what’s true for women is even more so about other populations. I am not sure that I can imagine how an Arab in this country perceives authorities, what it means to know that if you have a beer outdoors and a cop goes by, he’ll likely pour it out. As Keren put it, he’s entitled to, of course, but I don’t think this would happen to me.
It is for this reason that the debate about recent cancellation of performances in Israel make me tired, more than anything else. Because I don’t think it can actually, truly be explained. Singer Ninette Tayeb, Israel’s rags-to-riches darling, phrased it well in response to the cancellation of the Devendra Banhart performance: “why would you mix politics, which is the height of filth, with the purest thing, music, in the first place? I find it hard to understand this, I am quite agitated. What’s happening here is most upsetting.” How can you even explain to her that it’s not politics, that it’s people? She won’t understand. For her to start understanding she has to go through a checkpoint, and she’ll never-ever do that, because she does not understand.
And it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a left-winger, because even as a left-winger, the number of times you butt heads with the state is very low, if ever you do. Because, even as a left-winger, you don’t really understand how extensive the occupation is, how much it trickles into every part of your life. The Israeli rage about the boycott of products from the settlements demonstrates a bit of that. The left likes to mention the economic price of the occupation and of the fact that we don’t actually have any clue about the budgets being diverted to the settlements. That’s true, of course, but to be fair, the occupation also yields profits. The boycott of settlement products concerns the regime for a good reason – the Palestinians are a market, and apparently a serious one. Journalist Amira Hass suggested that the prohibition on conveying coriander, cardamom, cumin, and hummus is in place in order to make Israel a monopoly in the field. In other words, it is quite possible that Israeli companies enjoy the siege of Gaza and support its continuation. Our lifestyle here, the economic growth, the tax income, the very existence of some Israeli companies – these all require that Palestinians be kept in conditions of starvation.
Ninette could not even say the word “occupation”. As far as she’s concerned, that’s politics. Her music can only remain pure, absent any politics, if Ninette can refrain from seeing the occupation. Orwell once wrote about the rough people, the ones who do the dirty work so the decent folks can sleep well at night. In Israel there is a whole army that does that work, and the decent folk can still live their lives without seeing it for even a moment.
I have no issues with apolitical art. Quite to the contrary. But our fear of the politicization of art does not pertain to aesthetic considerations. It is merely the simple fear of knowing that our lives here are political. A band cannot visit Israel today without making what looks like a political declaration. “We tried to make it clear that we are coming to share a human and not a political message, but it seems that we are being used to support opinions that we do not share”, said Devendra Banhart. He is wrong. There is no need for an agent to use him. Performing here [in Israel] is a political statement, and it is the wrong political statement.
Israelis like to claim that boycotting Israel only pushes Israeli discourse to the extreme. It is likely that they’re right, to a certain extent. But it seems to me that after 43 years, thousands of administrative detentions, thousands of casualties, and tens of thousands of homes demolished, Israel has lost the right to ask to be left to solve this problem alone. In fact, I am not sure that there is anyone who seriously believes that Israel is capable of doing so. This is why the cancelled performances gladdens me. Because it is only the beginning. When this snowball starts seriously rolling, and sanctions are imposed, Israel will no longer have any option but to make a decision. That keeps me optimistic. And I know this text will make many Israelis loathe me, and I know they will not understand. But, really, you’ve got to be there, by the Palestinian flag, with tear gas all around you, to start understanding. There is no other choice.
Itamar Sha’altiel is an Israeli blogger and an ex-journalist. While he should been writing about literary theory and cognitive studies, in which he majored, living in Israel compels him to engage mainly with politics and human rights. This article originally appeared in Hebrew on the Friends of George blog, on June 16th, 2010, here. http://www.hahem.co.il/friendsofgeorge/?p=1613 it was translated by Dena Shunra [ http://Hebrew.shunra.net/]