Marking the festival of liberation as the occupation hits 50

As we celebrate Passover this year, we will also be marking the 50th year of the occupation. It’s time to reflect on what liberation really means when you’re holding another people captive.

By Frima (Murphie) Bubis

Israeli soldiers patrol in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 1, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers patrol in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 1, 2016. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

This year, as we celebrate the holiday of Passover, commemorating the Jewish people’s release from the shackles of slavery, we will also mark 50 years of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and the people living there.

Not much will be different from all the other nights. While we sit around the holiday table with our glasses full and quibble over the story of the exodus from Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza Strip will not only be under Israeli control, but also under complete military closure — as is typical during Jewish holidays.

The Passover Haggadah weaves together moments of celebrating national victory alongside moments of looking outwards toward the ‘other,’ and recognizing their suffering. It seems that over the years, Israel’s collective memory increasingly revolves around, “In each generation, they stand [against] us to destroy us,” and less and less on the commandment, “In each generation, one must see himself as though he personally came forth from Egypt” (from the Passover Haggadah).

The commandment to recall the feeling of hunger and slavery is not aimed at self-victimization. “Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is a moral claim with which God confronts the people of Israel numerous times in the Bible, regarding why we must take responsibility for the other, even more so when we are directly responsible for their suffering. “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19, 34).

This text reminds me of my military service in the IDF Civil Administration in Nablus. Throughout my service in the operations room of the District Coordination Office, I saw myself changing and undergoing a numbing process, in light of the daily routine of systematic humiliation and institutionalized violence.

I recall dozens of phone calls with Palestinian civilians who had called the operations room to find out the status of their permits, to file complaints against the system that controlled their lives, or to warn of settler violence. I often found myself losing patience, blaming the victim, and undermining their credibility.

In my bureaucratic position, I felt a constant tension between managing the daily needs of Palestinians, (livelihood, health care, education) and the dehumanizing approach of the army which is inevitable so long as they are subject to military control. This approach makes it inherently impossible to fully respect Palestinians’ rights, even according to military law. With time the complaints from and needs of Palestinians became a nuisance, like an annoying buzzing in your ear.

Immediately after Operation Protective Edge was launched in the summer of 2014, the Ramadan holiday celebrated by millions of Palestinians started. The Civil Administration stated that “for the holiday spirit,” it had ordered an increase in the number of entry permits to Israel for the first holiday of Ramadan, which allowed entry to Israel for three days.

Palestinian workers stand in line next to a portion of the separation wall, waiting to cross through the checkpoint in Bethlehem into Israel, November 11, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Palestinian workers stand in line next to a portion of the separation wall, waiting to cross through the checkpoint in Bethlehem into Israel, November 11, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But the Palestinians in the region were informed only days before the holiday, resulting in hundreds of Palestinian youths storming the reception hall where the permits are issued, breaking the front door, climbing over the bars, skipping the line on which elderly people were standing — all in order to seek what they were yearning for: a sheet of paper on which ‘Entry Permit to Israel for Holiday’ is written.

The chaos lasted for several hours, during which the soldiers were helpless and could not decide who should be given priority. There was shouting, commotion, and even crying. Eventually the senior officers decided that it was impossible to continue handling the Palestinian applications, and that the Nablus region would not distribute its quota of permits because of the Palestinian youths’ misbehavior.

I was on shift in the operations room at the time, watching the commotion through the security cameras. On the phone with the other soldiers who were updating me on what was happening, there was a sense of panic but also laughter and mockery. Only a few hours later, as we sat in the early evening to digest what had happened, did the soldiers share the desperate sight that met their eyes.

The image of dozens of young Palestinians vandalizing the reception hall was instilled in them. “They are so dependent on us,” they said. “It’s crazy what they are willing to do for this permit.” “They live in a ghetto,” one of them let slip. And suddenly it was clear as the sun, how much they were dependent on the grace of the occupier. Palestinians our age, who might get to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for the first time, or visit family in Haifa or in Jaffa, and maybe even get to see the ocean.

Although our service in the occupied territories was part of the mandatory military service that we theoretically did not choose, we each carry the responsibility to look deep within ourselves and seek out the moment that our heart hardened. Hardening our hearts is our defense mechanism against the daily madness in the occupied territories, a personal moral dissonance in light of human rights violations and continual violence.

Three times in the negotiation process between Moses and Pharaoh to free the people of Israel, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and punishes him by not giving him the opportunity to retreat from his evil intentions. Here arises one of the fundamental questions in Judaism concerning free will and human nature. Does the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart absolve him of responsibility for his actions? Or is it his intentions that count?

Breaking the silence about the occupation is no absolution of personal responsibility. Breaking silence is an act of taking responsibility — personally and collectively. Dealing with the hardening of our hearts as soldiers is not an egocentric practice in order to dismiss ourselves of responsibility, but on the contrary — it is an essential step in understanding the process of corruption in looking to carry out Teshuva (repent of our sins).

This year more than any year prior, the 50th year of the occupation, Passover must be a time for deep introspection that will express itself as a call to end the occupation. Moral corruption is an inherent part of the occupation, and as long as we are in a state of mind in which we are masters we will not be able to free the enslaved, nor ourselves.

Frima (Merphie) Bubis, 23, was raised in the religious-Zionist community, and today is the Jewish Diaspora coordinator for Breaking the Silence.