I have opposed the Israeli occupation and its settlements in the West Bank for as long as I can remember. I have been public about these views in my teaching, my public presentations, and in some of my writings. But until last July, I had never actually visited an Israeli settlement and seen how it works and how some of the people live. The experience has not changed my mind; indeed, it has actually reinforced my view that these settlements remain a colossal impediment to peace in the region and are an egregious violation of international law.
How it happened: I was part of a group organized by Academic Exchange for almost two weeks in early to mid July, 2018. Consisting of approximately 30 academics and a few other legal and diplomatic professionals, the group toured Israel and listened to experts from several fields with multiple perspectives. We mostly heard from Israeli authorities and spent the majority of time in Israeli settings but we also listened to several thoughtful Palestinian figures when we visited Ramallah. To its credit, Academic Exchange provided a multiple perspectives and experiences without any attempt to indoctrinate any particular viewpoint. It offered an outstanding opportunity to gain first-hand experience in Israel and Palestine, including a moving tour of Yad Vashem, and to meet and talk with many people living in this troubled and complex region of the world.
One of the early Academic Exchange visits was to the settlement of Eli in the occupied West Bank. Our bus from Tel Aviv had no trouble entering the area and going through the Israeli checkpoint; that, of course, would not be the case for Palestinians. Shortly before we arrived, an energetic, American-born, middle-aged woman joined us. She became our guide for the next several hours. Well educated, articulate, and extremely engaging, she accompanied us to her home in the settlement.
It is unimportant to identify her by name. She is an experienced guide to what the settlers call Judea and Samaria and a skillful defender of her particular settlement and of the settlement movement generally. She has conducted these tours professionally, leading her to be glib and verbally adept as she conducted our tour on a hot July evening.
Eli, as I learned then but mostly later, is a large and mixed settlement near biblical Shiloh, which our guide spoke about with great vigor and pride. It has a population of over 4,000 people, a sports academy, cultivated gardens, a shopping center, synagogues, ritual baths, and other amenities and facilities. It includes many highly religious Jews and secular Jews. The latter presumably come to Eli because housing there is less expensive than in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, both of which are relatively close by.
Our guide’s home was extremely pleasant and from what I could observe, the community looked like the kind of well-groomed suburb that I could find in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles or in many other regions of the United States. She was extremely gracious as she invited us into her home. She introduced us to her husband and some of her polite eight children; her three-year old, though shy, was absolutely adorable. She laid out a delectable spread on her table for us. She also provided an abundance of bottled water, which was essential in the Palestinian July heat. In her backyard, we had a stunning view of the mountains and our guide told us of the long Jewish presence in the region and of the recent archeological discoveries from those ancient Jewish civilizations.
In her home and earlier on the bus, she told of meeting Arabs during shopping excursions and having friendly relations with them. She spoke of connections with Arab mothers and of the obvious and universal bonds of mothers and children that transcend religious and political boundaries and differences. I had absolutely no reason to doubt her sincerity when she made those comments.
Shortly thereafter, we had dinner in a nearby restaurant, where we had a superb meal and tasted the outstanding wine produced from a winery in the occupied territories. As it happened, our guide sat at my table and we had the opportunity for some informal conversation. During dinner, I asked the single most important question of the entire trip: if, in a hypothetical political settlement in the future, this land were returned to an independent Palestine but she and her fellow settlers were permitted to remain in their homes and become Palestinian citizens, would that arrangement be acceptable? She bristled at the question and reiterated strongly that she and her family were eternally Israelis, living in a land that was theirs by divine right. She remained as outwardly friendly as ever, but I discerned a crack in her façade.
Our experience that evening was markedly different from the image of gun-toting Israeli settlers ready to shoot any intruding Arab marauder who dares threaten a settler’s territory or hegemony. To be sure, there are such examples. Extremist settlers have set fire to Palestinian orchards with olive trees and other acts of violence, including fire bombings resulting in deaths, have occurred. Attacks on Palestinian shepherds and graffiti markings on Moslem and Christian sites have also been reported.
Academic Exchange was clearly not going to bring us anywhere near any of these religious zealots. My sense was that my temporary academic colleagues on this trip probably found the visit educational although some expressed unease at the Occupation in general. In subsequent conversations with a few of them, I shared my own critical views, but with little of my accompanying emotion. I actually had a stronger, angrier response, although I refrained from expressing it at the time for two reasons: one, I saw no reason to be impolite to a woman who, after all, was gracious and hospitable to the group and two, I was unfamiliar with my temporary cohort and saw no particular reason to reveal any excessive negativity or emotion under the circumstances.
That is not the case with this essay. Over the years, some of my writings (and much of my teaching) have reflected a sublimated aggression where I have attempted to turn my strong feelings of anger about political events into what I hope will be constructive outlets. And my expressions are often passionate, which makes some of my academic colleagues uneasy. Reasoned discourse is the usual (and entirely proper) hallmark of academic discourse, but we are not cognitive machines. The academic world’s unease with passion and anger, in fact, reflects the subtle way that it often reinforces the dominant political order. I offer no apology for this; since my early days as a civil rights activist on the front lines in the South with SNCC and beyond, the world has deeply disappointed me. Organizing, protest, and demonstrations, then and now, are all proper examples of sublimated aggression. Writing and teaching need not be any different.
The Trump regime today only underscores my sadness as I enter my senior years. Its assault on reason and truth, its attacks on members of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and the LGBTQ communities, labor, and on a free press are appalling. All of that should and does evoke my anger and I should hasten to add (unnecessarily, I hope) that my political anger does not mean being personally disagreeable or unfriendly, even to adversaries.
The trip to the Eli settlement and the comments from the guide there evoked powerful feelings from my past. Above all, seeing a lovely suburb in a region that I believe belongs to Palestine evoked distant personal memories where strong feelings of anger also rose up within me. Many years ago, for example, my wife and I were briefly in Panama before total sovereignty returned to that nation. We walked through the Canal Zone where we saw beautifully manicured houses that looked right out of affluent Southern California. Then there was the fence dividing it from the grinding poverty of Panama City – a striking visual signifier of U.S. colonialism. My emotions of anger at the glaring disparity of privilege and wealth remained with me for the rest of the day and beyond.
Likewise, I visited South Africa after the fall of apartheid, after years of personal anti-apartheid efforts in the U.S. I couldn’t resist a quick glimpse of Sun City, the luxury resort and casino two hours from Johannesburg. During apartheid, it had been the venue for several performers who broke the international boycott of South Africa on the fraudulent ground that Sun City was located in a bogus independent state. On my visit, I saw mostly affluent white “guests” playing golf, enjoying drinks, gambling, and being served by black waiters and waitresses. A few kilometers away, black South Africans continued to live in squalor, dramatically contrasting to the manufactured entertainment of Sun City. My personal rage manifested itself again; I found myself muttering under my breath and sought to exit that place as quickly as possible. That was remarkably similar to my feelings in the West Bank settlement of Eli in July.
Two other examples from my past welled up in me during our Eli visit. Our host mentioned that she had pleasant relationships with local Arabs, especially mothers. I have no doubt that this is her perception. When I worked in the South in the early civil rights movement in the early 1960s, I recall many whites who remarked how friendly they were with local “Negroes.” But I stayed with Black communities during my civil rights efforts and I had ample opportunity to talk at length with many African Americans at the time. Their perceptions were usually very different; they often remarked that they feigned friendliness with whites to avoid conflict. Typically, they noted that they well understood that they were the subordinate parties in an oppressive racist hierarchy. Some even expressed open hostility at the act they seem required to play. I cannot, of course, extrapolate this specifically to the Eli experience. But in all candor, it would hardly surprise me.
Finally, I visited the North Shore of Chicago synagogue of the rabbi who officiated at my marriage in 1971. This was, I recall, in approximately 1977 or 1978, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. I attended a meeting where a Jewish woman from South African spoke and, in a subsequent question/answer session, noted that blacks were not ready for self-government. Once again, the anger rose in my body. This time, I put decorum aside and went at the woman with whatever verbal resources I could muster–and aggressively to the evident discomfort of some audience members.
All these reactions are, I believe, perfectly righteous. More important, they are specifically relevant to the presence of Jewish settlements in Palestine. Our Eli guide’s graciousness and hospitality only served as a malevolent cover for a fundamental colonial injustice. Those settlements violate international law, despite Israeli denials and propaganda and the attempts of some Israeli and American lawyers to argue the contrary. Those attempts are among the worst examples of legal sophistry.
The settlements need to be dismantled and a new progressive Israeli government must reverse this movement as quickly as possible. I would rather see this done peacefully, but I have no personal objection to the use of force. I’m not unconcerned with the emotions of our guide’s children, especially the little three year-old and the profound dislocation they would face. But Eli and the others are in Palestinian territory and our guide’s biblical injunctions about Judea and Samaria are smokescreens for colonialism and racism. American complicity in the construction of these settlements must also end, although this is unlikely with Donald Trump as President, Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, John Bolton as National Security Advisor, and David Freidman as U.S. Ambassador to Israel.
These prescriptions are, for the moment, utopian. But so was the end of Jim Crow, the end of apartheid, and many other progressive political advances. All these developments required the energetic and relentless organizing of angry women and men. That, more than anything, was my personal take away from my first and final visit to an Israeli settlement.
Paul Von Blum is a senior lecturer in African American studies and communication studies at UCLA and author of a new memoir, A Life at the Margins: Keeping the Political Vision, and a short biography of Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson For Beginners(2013).