How to talk occupation at a Rosh Hashanah dinner and make it out alive

What were you thinking? Everyone in the family noticed that anti-war status you posted this summer, and the hasbara video they sent that you didn’t ‘like.’ Tonight they are going to air it all.

The Rosh Hashanah holiday dinner is a dangerous event for Israeli leftists — especially after this past summer. Remember that angry post you uploaded to Facebook about Shujaiya, or the settlement budget, or about people who put Israeli flag badges on their profile pictures? Present at your holiday dinner will be at least two cousins who noticed and have been waiting two months to take it up with you. And let’s not forget about mom’s elderly uncle. He may not have noticed that you didn’t ‘like’ the hasbara video he posted on your Facebook wall, but you better trust that he won’t miss his chance to explain, at first with a smile but quickly with a face flush red from wine, about the true nature of “the Arab” (in the third person singular).

The keyword of the evening: ISIS. You’re going to hear it a lot. Because the Israeli leftist is a specimen: an object to identify, educate, and if that doesn’t work, to chop up and make meatballs out of. It really doesn’t matter if you’re one of those provocateurs who at Passover says that “freedom is for Palestinians, too,” or if you shelter yourself by “hiding” everyone on Facebook with whom you disagree in order to fortify your safe and pleasant bubble — the family thought-police will catch up with you. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about not getting married, or about the kids you need to have already. This time, the interrogation will go in an entirely different direction.

The recommended strategy is desertion. A long weekend out of the country, or at least out of town, will stop you from becoming the central attraction that keeps all the guests in their seats until midnight. But if you don’t have a viable escape plan, or if you’re one of those masochists who is still planning to convince those who aren’t really even part of the debate, you should probably come prepared, and use only the leftist strategies that have been proven over the years to work. The occupation has been around since 1967, which means that we’re the second and third generations of annoying polemicists, so we might as well make good use of our accumulated experience.

Illustrative photo of Rosh Hashana family dinner. (Photo by Rache Barenblat/Flickr/CC)
Yes, we are looking at you. (Illustrative / Rache Barenblat/Flickr/CC BY-NC SA 2.0 )

1. The “so what do you propose” method (for use in a diverse crowd): This is by far the most effective tactic we have in our arsenal. The trick is to never allow yourself to be dragged into historical arguments of “who started it” and other similar traps. Look only forward. I’ve always wondered about interviewers who allow right-wingers to pour fire and brimstone on the Left, on Arabs and on “the world’s anti-Israel bias,” but who don’t ask them, “OK, so what do you propose?” The first thing that always happens is that the angry tone of the security-oriented Right immediately drops by at least 20 decibels, and their monologues start to become much less matter-of-fact and much more foggy. Now you’re going to hear slogans about an “iron fist” and “if we pull out of the West Bank they’ll shoot at the TLV airport,” and so on and so forth.

At this point, all you need to ask is, “and then what?” In other words, after we crush and eliminate and scorch, what do we do next? Do we annex it all? Do we expel them? Withdraw from the territories? Because those security problems will also be there in five or 10 or 20 years, along with the same West Bank hillsides and the same mortars and the same airport they can hit. Indeed, the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere, so what do you propose?

The Right doesn’t have an actual operative plan, and therefore, you can continue in these circles endlessly, or at least clear through to dessert. As it becomes obvious that your opponent has nothing to offer, the rest of the family will lose interest. Maybe they’ll even appreciate you and your rational thinking. You might be a lefty Arab-lover, but not an idiot. Under the present circumstances, that’s something.

There is, of course, the possibility that your opponent will double down and yell: “There is no solution! We’ll always live by the sword!” From my experience, that answer is not a crowd pleaser — especially for those in the crowd who have children to be drafted into the army soon. If they choose to get involved, you’ve won.

2. The Ehud Barak method: As everyone knows, Barak’s only contribution to the public discourse in Israel was in that old interview with Gideon Levy, in which Barak said that if he was a Palestinian he would have joined one of the terrorist organizations and fought against Israel. Despite all of the hasbara efforts, there’s something about that sentence — the simple truth in it — that most Israelis understand. Use that to your advantage.

The challenge here is timing. If you ask, “what would you do if you were Palestinian,” at the right moment, you may just get some surprising answers. If the conversation wanders to the refugee camps and general misery in Gaza, know you are on the right track – you may even be able to mention the siege.

Ehud Barak (photo: Yotam Ronen /
Your friend in this fight. Ehud Barak (photo: Yotam Ronen /

The problem is that after this past summer many people think that if they were Palestinians they would fight against Hamas because it’s fighting against Israel. So you need to demonstrate that those Palestinians who don’t fight against Israel (like Abbas) still don’t get anything from the Israeli government. At the end of the day, you can explain, the tragic truth is that Israel makes concessions only to those who fight it with force. After the First Intifada we agreed to Oslo, after the Second Intifada — the Gaza Disengagement. “And in order to agree to withdrawing from Sinai,” you should add, “we needed the 1973 War, with thousands dead.” The older crowd will give you a point, if not for the idea then at least for the historical reference.

3. The strategist approach (suitable for an audience with a tendency for geopolitical analyses): A simple argument, which should only be pulled out after the whole family has already talked about ISIS. After they recite the Netanyahuian argument that we can’t make any concessions right now because there are animals like the Islamic State all over the Middle East, you should say something like, “you could also look at things in a different way.” For the first time in the history of Israel, you’ll explain, there’s no functioning army within hundreds of kilometers of our borders. Not Iraq, not Syria and not Hezbollah, which are all busy with civil wars. Even the Egyptians are occupied with their own internal matters, and their coordination with Israel isn’t actually all that bad.

The Israeli existence has never been so secure. What will destroy us is the occupation, and so it’s actually now, when we’re in a strong position and secure, that we need to make a fair deal with the Palestinians. If your audience puts up too much resistance, revert to Method 1: “So what do you propose?”

4. The Leibowitz method (for the Labor/Meretz crowd — or really, for anyone who worries about “the conflict”): The basic argument is that the occupation is destroying Israeli society. All of the tension, the violence, the fact that people can’t imagine a future here more than three or four years ahead, is the inevitable result of the occupation. And in the prophet’s own words, many, many years ago:

A state ruling a hostile population of 1.5 to 2 million foreigners would necessarily become a secret-police state, with all that this implies for education, free speech and democratic institutions. The corruption characteristic of every colonial regime would also prevail in the State of Israel. The administration would suppress Arab insurgency on the one hand and acquire Arab Quislings on the other. There is also good reason to fear that the Israel Defense Force, which has been until now a people’s army, would, as a result of being transformed into an army of occupation, degenerate, and its commanders, who will have become military governors, resemble their colleagues in other nations.

Explain to them that everything is happening exactly as Leibowitz foretold. So, maybe let’s change direction?

If among the guests there are any couples whose twenty-something children ran away to New York or Europe (with the encouragement of their parents, as is acceptable today), it’s possible they might nod in agreement. The problem is that most of the Israeli public is living pretty well with today’s status quo, so this approach won’t bring you any further than a draw.

5. The one-state method (best used with a very right-wing crowd). This is your nuclear option. After you voice it, most of the table will probably think you’re delusional, but that’s still better than getting beaten up. In order to use it, you need to understand that the Right’s premise is that the entire Left falls somewhere between Tzipi Livni and Peace Now — that the only thing we’re interested in is dismantling settlements. The goal here is to stupify your opponent by completely agreeing with them, and then to end the argument before they have time to recover.

For most of the discussion let the other side presume that you are only in favor of withdrawal from the West Bank. After they pull out their “security borders,” and ISIS, and the mortars fired at the airport, and maybe even something about our right to live in Hebron (strangely, the Right rarely raises this argument anymore), in a calm voice tell your interlocutor that they’re 100 percent correct, that the two-state solution has no chance, and that the only people who understand it are Uri Elizur, Tzipi Hotovely and Reuven Rivlin.

Yeah, yeah, it turns out that since the Pasover Seder you’ve become a one-state supporter, and they’re actually the ones who convinced you, cousins from Ariel who were always disappointed by your political views. They won. Therefore, clarify that you support Naftali Bennett’s plan to annex Area C — because it will inevitably lead to granting voting rights to Palestinians in areas A and B. We will have it all: democracy, security – and Hebron. Just in case your cousins don’t think of it on their own, remind them that we didn’t come to this land in order to settle Herzliya.

From there, the rest of the argument becomes irrelevant. It’s even possible that silence could prevail. Exploit that moment to clear your plate, quickly thank your hosts, and dash home. It’s late, and you have to catch a flight in the morning.

From my old blog: Talking to Israelis is so useless these days
There’s nothing static about the West Bank ‘status quo’

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