As Israelis, as Jews, as human beings, we must confront the daily reality that takes place throughout the occupied territories. And in doing so, we must face ourselves.
By Frima (Merphie) Bubis
As we began building our sukkot, the Yom Kippur reading from the Book of Jonah echoed in my head: “How can you be sleeping so soundly!” (Jonah 1:6). As though I myself heard the captain crying out, over the roar of the raging storm to the prophet fleeing his mission, as he hid away, asleep, below deck.
Other moments in the story flash through my mind, as though in fast-forward: how Jonah was thrown into the stormy sea and found himself “in the fish’s belly three days and three nights” (Jonah 2:1); how after he had agreed to his mission and went to the city of Nineveh to rebuke the people, he was surprised to see that “the people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5); how the prophet refused to accept God’s mercy on the people of Nineveh and “begged for death, saying, ‘I would rather die than live’” (Jonah 4:8); and finally, how change came only at the last moment, after the Lord had rebuked him: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city!” (Jonah 4:10-11).
Perhaps only then did he finally see how blind he’d been, and finally understood his purpose and the true meaning of being a prophet.
Three years ago, I was still spending Yom Kippur in uniform. I served as a soldier in the Civil Administration — the military body that is entrusted with controlling and monitoring the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. I was part of a huge bureaucratic apparatus and saw how us soldiers frequently presented orders and enforced rule. I learned with time about the vast spectrum of everyday arbitrary actions that are concealed behind the headlines that have long since become familiar to us.
For example, I learned how we prevented dozens of Palestinian farmers from harvesting their olive trees because of their proximity to Israeli settlements. Or alternatively, a conversation that the brigadier general held with soldiers about the sacred concept of “proportionality” in order to reemphasize the open-fire regulations after Palestinians were shot by mistake. I knew that the lives of hundreds of thousands under our full control were always subject to “security needs,” and I did not truly understand my role in all of it, what it was that I had done.
It is not the extraordinary events that now come to my mind, but rather the day-to-day ones. I remember the conversation I had in the operations room the morning after we imposed a closure on a village of about 3,000 Palestinians. While this closure was the answer to a Molotov cocktail thrown the previous night at an Israeli car, it meant the soldier at the checkpoint had a question: whether or not to let a couple and their ill son pass through to reach a clinic in the next village. To me, the answer was a clear yes, since this was exactly what we meant when we used the term “humanitarian cases,” which could enable us to allow movement even under closure. But the approval of the regional commander was needed. The brigadier general emphasized that while it was permissible this one time, we must examine every case individually — that we should not consider this decision a set policy.
Our outward gaze comes so easily. We look at the “other,” at Nineveh, and we and judge his or her responsibility. We count sins so effortlessly. When I encountered cases of Jewish terrorism against Palestinians and their property, I knew how to identify clearly who were the perpetrators and who were their victims. When I processed complaints from Palestinians about violence from IDF soldiers, I could discern instantly who was in the wrong. It was much harder for me to identify my own responsibility, to understand that I was an active participant. It was much harder to grasp that no occupation can be moral, orderly, or enlightened. To discover that, indeed, the opposite is true. It is the very premise — that 18-year-old Israeli soldiers hold the power, through our laws and military orders, to administer the ‘civilian life’ of millions whose basic rights are denied — that is unacceptable.
In Professor Haviva Pedaya’s beautiful interpretation of Rabbi Israel Najara’s poem “I Will Go” (Ana Elech), she identifies Nineveh as “a focal point of evil, about which the alarm must be sounded, and which must be denied.” She defines the giant fish as a place that teaches Jonah “to be a man who does not refuse his mission.” She explains that Jonah’s mission was not to predict what was to come, and that the proof that he was a true prophet was not whether Nineveh would be destroyed and his vision realized. Rather, his role was to illustrate the choice between fleeing and fighting to change, to be “a messenger who brings the Word of God in order to rock the foundations and thereby create new possibilities.” This, according to Pedaya, is the essence of the Book of Jonah: the transformation of the heart from evil to righteous, from self-inflicted blindness to a willing gaze. The desire to be exposed, to expose and to become open to repent.
During the holiday of Sukkot, as the sukkah inspires us as a symbol of transience and uncertainty, we must not forget the decision of the Minister of Defense to impose an unusually long closure on the occupied territories by closing all the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank. But the closure is not really imposed on the “territories”. It is imposed on the millions of Palestinian residents who live there, and on over 100,000 workers who are prevented from providing for their families. On the Eve of Sukkot, I read about this decision and thought about the shift between closure and repentance. Between denial of our role in this dark reality, and the possibility of rebirth, recognition, and choosing a different path.
I pray for us. I wish to remind God of the lesson he taught Jonah: see us, see the repentance we seek to create in this Land, and show mercy on Your creations.