Distance, dissonance, occupation

Your World - Tel AvivCraig Jones 01/02/2013
Your World – Tel Aviv
Craig Jones 01/02/2013

I’m no photographer, but when I stumbled across this street art this morning I couldn’t help but snap it. I’m in Tel Aviv, and this is far away from the green line that marks the 1967 borders. The message obviously has a thousand inflections, and almost certainly the artists intention is not to draw attention to the Occupation. Unsurprisingly, however, my initial reaction is precisely that: I read Occupation into the art, and note the layers of irony in such an ostensibly ‘innocent’ image.

The electricity box that the art adorns is located outside a trendy cafe in the Dizengoff area of Tel Aviv. Its a very middle class neighbourhood with cute shops, plenty of restaurants and cute walkways. There is a verb in Hebrew which translates to English as something like ‘to Dizengoff’, which means literally to take a walk up Dizengoff: so popular is the street, and I need not, therefore, say more about what kind of area this is. Friday (today) mark the beginning of the weekend in Israel and its the most popular day of the week, with everyone out and about, shopping, cafe-ing, seeing and being seen. So again, the art is probably not about the Occupation.

Chris Harker long ago warned against reading Palestine and Palestinian life solely through the lens of Occupation (paper here). In his work he has attended to the everyday lives of Palestinians and Palestinian families which are touched – but not thoroughly structured – by the relations of Occupation. The question that pre-occupies me today, thinking about Chris’s work and about the street art, is whether and to what extent we should read Israel and Israeli lives through the lens of Occupation. My gut tells me that this is the most important thing (for me), but to be sure there is more to life here than Occupation. Everything can’t be about Occupation, and one really gets the sense that for many people – at least in Tel Aviv – it really isn’t on the radar. And why would it be? Life, for the most part – and relatively speaking – is just so good here. I’m being facetious, of course, and Israel has its own problems just like any other society. But the distance of Occupation in the everyday imaginary does raise important issues.

The question is not, should we see everything through the lens of Occupation?, but rather: at what cost do we read Israel through lenses other-than-Occupation? Of course, the ‘distance’ of occupation and conflict is something of a paradox in the Israeli context: compulsory conscription means that every family has direct experience of the military, and everyone knows someone that serves ‘operationally’, whether in the territories or international conflicts. This makes the dissonance simultaneously both easier and yet more difficult to understand. I interviewed a military lawyer earlier this week who did 25 years of service for the IDF and he finished up by telling me that he is terrified of the idea of his son joining the military, not because he will be in any danger but because “it isn’t the nicest culture”.

It is not unproblematic for a scholar – and a white male one at that –  to arrive anywhere in the “Middle East” and see only conflict and Occupation. The actual geographies of this imagined region far exceed the iconography of Arabs and Jews blowing each other up: surprise surprise. An obvious point to make, but you would be surprised at how many of my friends and colleagues warn me about coming here, and one even commented “I guess you’re not taking your bike…I mean you don’t want to get blown up by a suicide bomber”.  (I didn’t reply; I did bring the bike).

There is a dissonance between life in Tel Aviv (and elsewhere in Israel) and the Occupation. It’s not too far geographically, but it may as well be in Iraq or Afghanistan (more on this in a second). I interviewed Israeli journalist Gideon Levy on Wednesday and he recounted how, walking along the beach in 2006, he saw fighter jets and helicopters on their way to bomb southern Lebanon and Beirut.  The sun drenched Tel Avivans heard them above but they didn’t even turn their heads. The war was above them, beyond them: there, not here. A woman in a cafe last week told me that it was hard for her to imagine that Israel is a country at war – which is how Israel defines its relation to Gaza and parts of the West Bank. I pointed out to Gideon Levy that the same dissonance is present in the U.S., and that most Americans were/are not even aware of the ‘covert wars’ in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and take very little interest in Iraq and Afghanistan. “yes” he said, “and I understand that: but Lebanon is just down the road, and Gaza is just a few miles away”.

I’m conflating war and occupation here, but the point still stands. The cost of taking our minds off the Occupation is that ‘we’ do not feel it – figuratively and literally. Late modern occupations, just like late modern wars have this effect: one occupies without being an Occupier, one colonises while not being a Colonizer. I sense here an incapacity of many Israeli publics to think of their beloved state as an Occupying Power, of themselves as citizens of an Occupation regime with any responsibility that this may – or should – entail. It is much the same as the lack of capacity of many Canadians to think of Canada as as a setler colonial state (something, I can only hope, that will begin to change with movements like Idle No More). And so on.

‘Peace’ talks are going nowhere, and the outlook politically in Israel for a change in direction does not look good in the near future. Many Israeli’s are disillusioned with the conflict and the most disheartening thing I have experienced since arriving here is to hear – repeatedly – that so many have “lost hope”. What do Israeli’s want then, if not to think about the Occupation? I’m in no place to say, and thankfully I don’t have to, because Gideon Levy says it better and with more authority than I ever could:

“Israel made a decisive statement regarding what it wants: it wants nothing, only to be left alone. Voters want a quiet, good life, peaceful and bourgeois, and to hell with all those pesky nagging issues.”

If this really is ‘their’ world, and ‘we’ just want to live in it, perhaps we could start by asking rather than taking, and returning that which is not ours. Halting West Bank settlement expansion would provide a perfect place to illustrate the meaning of such street art – if indeed art like this is to have such meaning…

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