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Sartre and the Israeli occupation

I’m fascinated by Sartre. He is one of the most important thinkers in my life. His concept of Freedom has guided me for years. And one of the things that impresses me most about him is the feeling of utter intellectual honesty.

Yet, there is one specific aspect of his life that bothers me a lot: his obsession with defending the USSR. Unlike other intellectuals of his time, he didn’t deny much of the horrible acts carried out under Stalin. He justified them. Saw them as a price humanity had to pay on its way to liberation.

This upsets me. A lot.

Obviously, it’s easy to be retroactively upset. Sartre wasn’t aware of everything we are. Yet, I feel it upsets me for another reason: I recognize it from a situation much closer to me, to my own experience, to my own time and context. What in fact upsets me is Jewish relativism when it comes to the Israeli occupation. More specifically, it’s US American Jewish apologetics regarding the Israeli occupation.

So why do I feel the need to drag Sartre into this? First of all: because any opportunity to mention him is a welcome opportunity. But as well because I feel his attempts to justify Stalin’s atrocities were honest. Tragically mistaken, but honest. He wasn’t there to witness them. He had never set foot in a Gulag. The KGB had never interrogated him. He wasn’t unaware of Gulags and the KGB, but his awareness was very theoretical. So it was easy to let that awareness be consumed by an ideological enthusiasm that was entirely justifiable in France of the 60s and 70s. Sartre’s opinion was hence an internal French opinion, possible only in a context in which Soviet Russia was an idea, a dream, a projection, safe to be admired from afar. Regardless, in retrospect it seems like an inexcusable failure to grasp the obvious.

I believe that maybe US American and European Jewish justification of the occupation works in a similarly honest yet slightly mediated way. I know lots of US American Jews come to Israel on Birthright trips and return to the US with the feeling of now knowing Israel. But those trips hardly ever confront the participants with the truly tough questions of Israeli existence. Birthright trips are carefully designed to avoid the tough Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem [other than the occasional, hand-picked, smiling Humus place owner], checkpoints on the way to the Dead Sea and open, honest discussions about if Gaza is still occupied or not.

Looking at the situation through the looking glass of European lefties in the 70s, Birthright alumni can be compared to those compañeros who flew to Cuba, took a few selfies with a machete at a banana plantation and then returned to their homes in Paris and Berlin: yes, they had been in Havana. But their image of the communist paradise was still shaped almost entirely by their books and university discussion groups, rather than the reality on the communist ground. They hadn’t met the proletariat they were dreaming about in their bourgeois beds in Europe.

Similarly, Zionism in the US and Zionism in Israel are two entirely separate issues. Not only in the sense that the “resolution” of the Zionist reality may be higher in Israel. Rather than that, the basic needs, the basic questions of a Jew, when confronting the issue of Zionism are completely different, depending on where he or she lives. The occupation, when not directly experienced, may look like an unfortunate secondary issue to someone in New York or Rio or Berlin. Yet, just like Gulags and KGB interrogations, the occupation is a central, maybe the most central issue Zionism deals with, since 1967. It is essential in the sense that it determines and defines and reflects the very essence of the Zionist movement today.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz saw this coming, already in 1967, literally a few weeks after the 6 Days War, when warning us that a continuous occupation would corrupt us to the core as a society. Leibowitz couldn’t have been less interested in Palestinian rights or even human rights. He was interested in Jews and in the Jewish people. And so I believe that we don’t have to be bleeding hearts or lefties or even humanists in order to view the occupation as a central issue to not only the Zionist movement, but rather to Jewish identity in its entirety. If we don’t want a cruel military occupation to keep corrupting us as a people, shaping us as a nation and harden the hearts of each of us to the suffering of others, we should make the occupation the most important issue in our own communities, at our own tables, in our own internally Jewish discussions.

For our own sakes, let’s get rid of those terrible shackles Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs are enchained by.