If you’ve been to Israel, you’ve almost certainly seen it. Maybe you weren’t sure what it was, if it was the Separation Wall or just a wall — or a fence, barrier, or Apartheid Wall, depending on the political views of your tour guide. Maybe you asked someone about it, or maybe you didn’t. Maybe you quietly checked Google Maps on the bus to see if it was what you thought. Maybe you actually sought it out, squinting in the Jerusalem sun to identify its path over the hills, feeling the need to bear witness to this barrier in the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s government has announced plans to start the process of annexing parts of the West Bank to Israel starting on July 1. But you couldn’t fault any casual visitor to Israel for thinking the annexation had already happened. Because the wall, however much it may have inspired Trump’s Mexican border wall, is not, in fact, a border, because the same Israeli soldiers in olive green uniforms patrol both sides. That’s not a border. That’s an expression of Israel’s de facto sovereignty over the West Bank.
Since the Israeli Cabinet voted in favor of a separation barrier in 2002, the Wall has been seen as a huge success by many Israelis, who consider it the reason why the barrage of suicide attacks of the second Intifada ended. The wall did much more than that, though. The vast majority of it runs through the West Bank rather than along the Green Line, including all-Jewish settlements and buffer zones around them on the Israeli side while making no qualms about cutting directly through Palestinian cities and separating Palestinian farmers from their lands. By unilaterally building a de facto border of their own design, the Israeli government quite literally paved the way for annexation.
Many people who identify strongly as pro-Israel are uncomfortable with the annexation to the point of hysteria — and rightly so. In the long run, annexing any part of the West Bank will cause irreversible damage to the chances for a two-state solution. In the short run, the annexation threatens Palestinians’ freedom of movement, their access to their own properties, and their livelihoods. I am an Israeli American Zionist, and I am against it. If you ask just about any pro-Israel Democrat, they’ll tell you that they are against it, too. How did it come to this? they ask themselves, wiping away a tear for Zionism’s socialist utopian fantasies.
How did it come to this? It’s actually pretty simple. Annexing the West Bank is the natural outgrowth of 53 years of land expropriation and suppression of Palestinian rights since the occupation of the territory by Israel in 1967. And if progressive Zionists didn’t notice how close Israel was creeping to annexation, it’s because we were actively not paying attention to the occupation’s corrosion of Palestinian rights.
If you ask most Palestinians about the annexation, they will tell you why they oppose it in the strongest possible terms — but many will also tell you that it won’t change anything for them, because they already have had their property destroyed, walls built through it, settlements built on it. As Palestinian landowner Mohammed Yehya Ayer told the BBC, “it doesn’t mean anything. These areas are already [as good as] annexed… It’s all in their hands.”
Why have progressive Zionists been so weak at protesting the occupation? First of all, we must acknowledge all the work that has been done by so many Jewish organizations, including Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem, and J Street.
It’s far more common, though, for progressive diaspora Jews who discover the toxicity of the occupation — how it orchestrates collective punishment of terrorists’ families, devastates the Palestinian economy, tears down Palestinian homes while building whole new neighborhoods in Jewish settlements — to eschew Zionism altogether. Many become active in anti-Zionist social movements. Many more, though, simply detach. They don’t make a scene of it, but they choose not to go on Birthright. They don’t care much for Israeli culture, they roll their eyes at diaspora Jews who celebrate Israeli Independence Day, and they’ll tell anyone who asks that Israel does not represent their values.
The Jewish progressives who stay in the Zionist camp, then, spend a lot of their time in conversation with people who fall outside of it. They tend to focus on supporting all of the things Israel is doing right: the coexistence initiatives, the social start-ups, the ongoing miracle of the ingathering of the exiles. They have no problem calling for justice for victims of domestic violence in Israel, for African refugees in south Tel Aviv, for the Israeli LGBT community. But when it comes to the occupation, the excuses start to come out.
“The occupation is a strategic necessity! Look what happened in Gaza!” Opposing the occupation does not necessarily mean calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops, which could create a power vacuum and lead to more Palestinian suffering. It does mean standing in solidarity with Palestinians, understanding their lived realities, and constantly applying pressure for change.
“The occupation is only temporary!” It’s been 53 years and there is no just peace in sight. If you want to claim the occupation is only temporary, you had better be doing your best to end it.
“The occupation isn’t the worst human rights violation in the Middle East, let alone the world!” This is the worst excuse, in my opinion, because it isn’t even an excuse. I agree that the world — and specifically the United Nations Human Rights Council — takes particular, disproportionate pleasure in pointing out Israel’s moral failings, while giving totalitarian regimes far more leeway. But that doesn’t change the fact that the occupation is wrong. It is illegal; it is immoral; it is the primary driver of a cycle of violence that traumatizes and even kills our children and forces us to live in fear.
No more excuses. The absence of a just peace agreement with the Palestinians is the biggest threat there is to the continued existence of the state of Israel. To be a Zionist today, to promote the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, we have a duty to recognize that Palestinians also have that right, and that there can be no peace or justice while Israel continues to occupy their lands. Jewish Israelis’ safety, our communities, and our livelihoods depend on the cause of Palestinian justice. Let’s start acting like it.
Header image: Israeli West Bank barrier in Bethlehem. Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images.