An ethical test

Since I came back to Denmark three weeks ago, lots of people have asked how I feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what I have learned about it in my three months there.

I have a lot of friends on the progressive left who were taken aback by the fact that I chose to volunteer at a kibbutz. To them, working at a kibbutz is a kind of indirect expression of support to the state of Israel. And thus, by extension, it is an expression of support to the Israeli Defense Forces, which has been occupying the Palestinian Territories for 44 years now. An occupation that continues to cause Palestinians to suffer – both directly through the IDF’s oppressive control in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as indirectly through the continued exclusion of Palestinian refugees stuck in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere.

In this perspective, working in an Israeli kibbutz means helping to produce Israeli goods (such as dates and jams and wine), some of which will be exported to Europe and North America, which can provide the Israeli government with increased tax revenue, which in turn can be used to fund the continued occupation of Palestine. And so, volunteering at a kibbutz can be seen as an indirect way of condoning and supporting the Israeli part in the conflict.

In this way, relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict posed something of an ethical test for me: Should I discard the kibbutz experience out of hand because of its relation to the Israeli state? Should I refuse to work and live among Israelis because of how their elected government has chosen to act in the conflict?

But as I see it, there is already plenty of preconceptions of how the two sides of the conflict act, and a big part of the conflict does seem to be that both sides relate to their own preconceived, stereotypical representations of one another rather than to each other as human beings.

And I realised that I would only be reinforcing such unfruitful and segregating preconceptions by acting on a perspective that any action that can be construed as an expression of support for the state of Israel cannot be condoned. It would be to support the vilification of an entire nation and a whole people without ever even deigning to meet them and talk with them. And surely, no good has ever come of such an approach.

Indeed, much the same argument, built on similar preconceptions, could be used to claim exact opposite: that any visit and volunteer effort in the Palestinian Territories can be construed as an expression of support to Palestinian terrorists who use suicide bombs and kidnappings to pressure Israel.

The complexity of the conflict seems to escape easy schemes of categorization. And no set of preconceptions can do justice to all of the ethical and political nuances of the intertwined peoples and lands of Israel and Palestine.

I find that to be pretty intriguing. So I decided to postpone my judgment of the conflict as a whole until I had had the opportunity to experience everyday life in Israel and the kibbutzim, and to see how the Israelis themselves relate to the conflict.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll write a series of posts on what I’ve learned during my stay in Israel. About the conflict. About the kibbutzim. About how the Israelis relate to all of it. And about how I feel about the conflict now that I have seen it for myself.

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