The Common Good
January-February 1998

A Sophisticated Colonialism

by Jeremy Milgrom | January-February 1998

Under Israeli occupation, peace eludes Palestine.

"The next time you need day laborers, just go to Damascus Gate—there’ll be dozens who’ll work for half the price." This tip was given to me yesterday by the guard at the gate of the campus in which I live, in the pastoral Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka, also known as "The Village." The guard had detained the son of my former Arabic teacher and his friend, assuring me that it was nothing personal; he had distinct orders not to let Palestinians from the Occupied Territories into the complex.

Until yesterday, I considered myself lucky to have 24-hour "security": I rarely lock my car or my back door. But I’d rather face the occasional burglary than have one more nail driven into the coffin of decency and sensitivity.

On the declarative level, Israelis want peace; on the operative, conscious level, what they mean is they want their own security. When you look at the full picture, what actually is going on (which Zionists and even Westerners in general would rather deny) is a 20th-century settler colonialism—in which an Israeli-Jewish society, superimposed upon a native Palestinian society, has taken most of the land and water for itself, and expects peace and security in exchange for a few crumbs.

The gate in my neighborhood has been guarded for the last seven years, since three Jews—one of them my children’s 19-year-old occasional babysitter—were knifed to death just down the street by a Palestinian laborer. All my Israeli friends know someone who almost became a victim—along with the three teen-age girls who were killed—in the last "successful" suicide bomb attack; vigilance against suspicious packages is drummed into children’s minds as early as preschool. But terror is also the state of mind that made my friends surrender their IDs at the gate yesterday to "al-Yahud ("the Jew"), the guy in uniform, pistol in belt.

The guard is not atypical of most Israelis, who since 1967 seem to consider Palestinians to have been created for the menial jobs we won’t do—Palestinians who otherwise (or simultaneously!) are only viewed through gun sights. But even Israelis who are not obsessed with security are not much more likely to have an appreciation for Arab culture, to have Palestinian friends, or to have an unmediated sense of what life is like in Palestine. For a colonial society, insularity is an integral part of its ideology. Its self-image, its rationalizations—even its staying power—require filtering out the reality inflicted on the other.

THE OSLO PROCESS was all about Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory and Palestinian self-rule; if it fully achieves that goal—an unlikely prospect at this moment—would it have a broadening, enlightening effect on this tunnel vision? It’s doubtful, because the barely viable Palestinian state will remain subservient to the far stronger—25 times stronger—Israeli economy, which will continue to exploit the last natural resource of the Palestinians: their workforce. The two-state solution does not provide an adequate answer to the injustices of colonialism; in fact, it is simply a more sophisticated form of it.

During the first decade of my life in Israel, I was intoxicated with Zionism; during the second, with social action within Israel. During these 20 years, I hardly knew a Palestinian from across the Green Line that passes a few hundred yards east of my home, marking the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank. Then the intifada began and, like many Israelis, I took part in activities protesting the moral erosion of the Israeli army.

The glue that turns acquaintance into friendship began to hold when a foreign journalist took me to meet a woman denied a heart operation by vengeful Israeli authorities. I brought my kids to visit her in Hadassah Hospital when she finally got the operation, and they bonded with the children of her cardiologist.

A year after the first Oslo accords were signed on the White House lawn, I met my Arabic teacher, a refugee from a now-destroyed village in the Judean foothills. I overcame my anxiety about entering his refugee camp at the same time we discovered we’d rather pursue a friendship than private lessons. There is a richness of life there that makes it hard to go back to the colony.

RABBI JEREMY MILGROM, founder of Clergy for Peace, an interfaith initiative for justice and peace, lives in Jerusalem and has a fellowship on Islam and Judaism at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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