The Vengeance of the Occupation

I know that the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch didn't intend his classic play, God of Vengeance, as an allegory about Israel and the impact of the occupation. The play was first staged 60 years before Israel conquered the West Bank. All the same, what's happening in the Jewish state keeps tempting me to read Asch's drama as an allegory.

In "God of Vengeance," a character named Yankel Chapchovich in an unnamed Eastern European town runs a brothel in his basement while trying to bring up his daughter as a chaste Jewish girl on the floor above. To protect her purity, he installs a Torah scroll in his home. His plan naturally fails: There's a limit to how much tribute vice can pay to virtue before the line between them vanishes.

Likewise, there's a limit to how long a fragile democracy can maintain an undemocratic regime next door, in occupied territory, before democracy at home is corrupted. A border, especially one not even shown on maps, cannot seal off the rot.

Take, for example, the Admission Committees of Community Settlements bill, presently before the Knesset. A "community settlement" is a kind of membership-only exurb invented by West Bank settlers. The community is managed by an association responsible for "preserving the character of the settlement," in the words of a late 1970s report from the Gush Emunim settler movement. New residents have to be approved by an admissions committee, to ensure a shared "ideological-social background," the report states. Residents enjoy "single-family homes, quiet streets, fresh air" in a community limited to a few hundred families -- an "island" of a "selected population."

The design made it possible to enforce ideological conformity and social snobbery at the same time. It was assiduously implemented in settlements across the West Bank, then imported to sovereign Israel. In particular, the government has used the community-settlement model in efforts to "Judaize the Galilee" -- to draw Jews to northern Israel, which has a large Arab population. The policy applies the concept of the West Bank settlement enterprise to part of Israel: The land is treated as an arena where two ethnic groups struggle for control, acre by acre; the Arabs are seen as a hostile population rather than as citizens.

The challenge to that approach came from Adel and Iman Kaden, a couple from the Israeli Arab town of Baqa al-Gharbiyah. In 1995, they tried to buy a lot in the community settlement of Katzir. As young professionals eager to live in a place with good schools so their daughters could get into the right universities, they fit the Katzir profile. As Arabs, they were rejected. As citizens of a democracy, they turned to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which filed suit before the Israeli Supreme Court. In its judgment five years later, citing sources ranging from Genesis to Brown v. Board of Education, the court ruled that "equality is one of the foundational principles of the State of Israel" and rejected housing discrimination. To evade that decision, Katzir's admissions committee claimed that the Ka'adans were "unsuited" to "fit in socially" and again denied their application. It took another round before the Supreme Court until the couple could start building their house in Katzir. More recently, a set of human-rights organizations has asked the Supreme Court to ban the entire admissions-committee procedure.

The Admission Committees bill is a bid to preempt the court. It will protect committees' authority to reject candidates who "do not match the social-cultural fabric" of the community. The lead sponsor is David Rotem, a West Bank settler and a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's far-right Israel Is Our Home Party. The bill is likely to pass.

The positive side of this story is that Israel's flourishing civil society is rich in human-rights organizations. The country's legal system allows them to apply directly to the Supreme Court, which is often sympathetic. Groups such as B'Tselem, Yesh Din, and Breaking the Silence also monitor and publicize what's happening in occupied territories. This has not escaped the Israeli right, which has been mounting an ever more vicious campaign to silence criticism.

The latest move: Last week, the Knesset approved a proposal for a parliamentary inquiry commission to investigate the funding of organizations purportedly engaged in delegitimizing the Israeli army. The sponsor was Israel Is Our Home legislator Faina Kirshenbaum, who railed that "these groups provide material to the Goldstone Commission."

After the vote, Likud Knesset member Danny Danon suggested that Peace Now secretary-general Yariv Oppenheimer "and the heads of other fifth-column organizations in Israel start fixing up their CVs because they'll be out of work soon." This week Danon started pressing for legislation that will require organizations filing suit before the Supreme Court to list their sources of funding in their suits. Since nonprofits must already file annual reports of their funding, the Knesset moves are pure propaganda. The aim is to convince the public that anyone criticizing government activities in the occupied territories or discrimination within Israel is an enemy of the state.

There is some funding that does deserve more attention, though: the money from the government itself that supports organizations of the anti-democratic right. One glaring example is the Od Yosef Hai yeshivah in the settlement of Yitzhar. The cash flow from the Education Ministry continued even after the yeshivah self-published a 2009 book, The Law of the King, that purports to elucidate religious law on when it is permitted for a Jew to kill a gentile. It took a letter from a lawyer at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), a civil-rights wing of Reform Judaism, before anyone in the ministry questioned the yeshivah's budget. Yet the ministry insists that it's only reviewing the funding because the yeshivah might have misreported how many students it has. Officials appear frightened to admit that they might check the legality of funding a blatantly racist institution.

A couple of weeks ago, Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg surprised readers with a blog post titled "What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?" I'm glad he's confronting the issue. But the scenarios he raises -- starting with Lieberman as prime minister -- are too obvious. Democracy doesn't necessarily end with a bang; it can fade out, bit by bit. Rather than wait for the end of the process, Israel's friends in America should be expressing their concern right now, publicly and in every conversation with an Israeli official.

Back to Sholem Asch for a moment: When God of Vengeance was first staged in English, in New York in 1923, the entire cast and the producer were arrested and convicted of giving an immoral performance. The judge, identified in a March 24, 1923, New York Times article only as "McIntyre," decried the play's "desecration of the sacred scrolls of the Torah." One of the leaders of the campaign against the play was Rabbi Joseph Silverman of the ultra-establishment Temple Emanu-El in New York. "This play libels the Jewish religion," he said. Neither Silverman nor McIntyre understood that Asch was defending Judaism against desecration. The rabbi and judge have been forgotten. Asch's literary reputation has not suffered.

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