Kingdom of Olives and Ash and the Need for "Selfie" Confrontation
What does it mean to “confront” the Occupation with a “selfie”? Is it helpful? How different is it to the way most American Jews experience Israel?
I ask these questions in response to two of the reviews of Kingdom of Olives and Ash, the new volume of essays by 26 leading writers who were brought to Israel/Palestine in 2016 for a short period by Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (BTS) and asked to write about their experience. The book was released in May and followed by a book tour (full disclosure: I have been a sporadic volunteer for BTS for many years and helped organize one of the side events on the book tour).
The New York Times and Washington Post reviews conclude that this type of “parachute” work, at best, does not contribute anything particularly useful or meaningful to the debate and, at worst, may belittle it through a version of “selfie” journalism where the authors try to draw deeper conclusions from mostly pre-arranged situations and admittedly fleeting experiences.
There is much I would want to respond to in the reviews, but this is not a review of reviews. And certainly none of Waldman, Chabon, the other authors, or anyone from Breaking the Silence needs me to defend them from a few negative reviews.
But the reviews raise these questions above for me, especially relevant as I think through how to talk to my kids about the Occupation from afar, and how they respond to their friends when they come back from their own experiences in Israel.
First, is it enough to show up in Palestine and “confront” the Occupation? Whether on your own, or part of a mission like the Center for Jewish Nonviolence mission in May or Sumud resistance camp? Is it enough to spend a day, a week, a month and encounter/witness a version of what Palestinians face? Or even not to go, but just read the stories and feel the outrage at the incidents described in the book or in the perspectives brought to us by If Not Now and others?
The reviews would say no – that this is reductionist and unhelpful. But I find this hard to square. The principal conclusion you draw from the book – in reading about Gaza, Palestinian soccer, or a simple attempted cab ride from Ramallah to Ben Gurion Airport – is that the Occupation is not about Israel’s security, but something much baser and, when you strip the excuses and propaganda away, focused on destroying Palestinian society. And that in many ways it is succeeding. So Is this the wrong conclusion to draw?
For my part – absolutely not. The reviews seem uncomfortable with the concept of “confronting” the Occupation and coming away with such a conclusion because it misses “context.” To me, after spending 20+ years immersing myself in the “context” – whether spending time there, volunteering, reading, attending lectures, and engaging with friends there – the bottom line for me is that confrontation is precisely what we as a community and people never do enough of. Context is crucial, of course, but it is not at all sufficient.
The reality of the Occupation is largely buried in “context” for most Americans, certainly for most American Jews. The “context” of security, conflict, the Holocaust, religious identity, and the future of the Jewish people to name a few. All absolutely critical concerns and factors – but not when they are used to provide a shield against an understanding of the human cost of Occupation. When we hear mostly collective silence as Israel unleashes harsher and harsher collective punishment on Palestinians, including the unconscionable electricity crisis that is barely making a ripple in American Jewish thinking, then confrontation with that reality is precisely what is called for.
In my view, if our views are formed entirely from academic “context” and not confrontation with human reality, then they are not fully Jewish. Because the one thing that can be said of “selfie” journalism is that it requires the self. [pullquote align=left] In my view, if our views are formed entirely from academic “context” and not confrontation with human reality, then they are not fully Jewish. Because the one thing that can be said of “selfie” journalism is that it requires the self.
[/pullquote] The writers in this book were present and forced to struggle with the issues that context shields many from. Did they come to the conclusions that others would after decades of learning and experience? Maybe not. But those conclusions were rooted in human experience and questioning, which makes them an essential component of any Jewish approach.
So if it takes a group of mostly non-Jewish, non-Israeli writers to go and “take selfies” with Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers, then so be it. We have brought it on ourselves. That will only be moot as a necessary effort when enough American Jews are doing the same. That is certainly what I want to see from my boys – go and experience, learn directly, do not rely on books and the “context” as presented by others.
Of course, many American Jews who speak out in defense Israel actually do the same thing as these writers when they visit Israel. They “take selfies” at the Kotel, the Dead Sea, and with an IDF soldier (for crying out loud, they are now standing alongside soldiers for “fun” and pretending to shoot Palestinians). They experience life in Israel as a Jew for a week, a month, or even a year and decide they have all the context they need, usually without any effort to engage on the Occupation outside of something sanitized for them.
So if the criticism applies to these writers, then let it apply to anyone who shows up in Israel for a week and decides they understand things without actually confronting the Occupation. Let everyone join a Center for Jewish Nonviolence delegation, show up to Sumud, or take a Breaking the Silence tour and put aside the “context” to experience the humanity, or lack thereof, of the situation.
Let the furor over the Netanyahu government failures to let women pray at the Kotel, something many American Jews have confronted directly in their own experiences in Israel, be matched with furor over the same government’s decisions that have contributed to the recent crisis, contradicting the advice of their security experts. Let American Jews understand what it means to be a Palestinian denied access not just to the Haram al-Sharif, but to so much of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and their own society.
If everyone who visited Israel actually confronted the Occupation — especially my boys and their friends who represent the future of our community — I believe firmly it would change. [pullquote] If everyone who visited Israel actually confronted the Occupation — especially my boys and their friends who represent the future of our community — I believe firmly it would change.
[/pullquote]The critics of this book are right that the Occupation is not the same as Syria, Yemen, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, or many other crisis situations in the world. But not being as horrific as Syria or North Korea is not a reason to take solace, turn one’s attention, or to somehow think that concerns about the Occupation are exaggerated.
So this is what we must be doing – confronting. Context is critical to understanding that confrontation, of course, so I am not advocating we leave context behind. But I believe we rely on it as a crutch at our peril.
We must experience the Occupation as much as we experience our Judaism when visiting Israel. In my view, the identity and future of diaspora Judaism depends on it. The authors of this book have done their part; now must we all, especially my boys and their generation.