"The occupation is the bureaucratization of evil"


The Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz fears that the occupation of Palestinian territories 50 years ago has undermined the moral fundaments of Israel.

Eva Illouz55 is an Israeli sociologist who deals with consequences of Israeli occupation of Palestinians territories on the Israeli society. Illouz was born in Fes, Morocco, she grew up in Paris and has been living in Israel since. The professor at Hebrew University has become known for her provocative thinking for many years in America and Europe, where she has been teaching at various universities – Princeton, École des hates études en sciences sociales, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. Her books include: “Hard Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best Sellers and Society”, University of Chicago Press and “Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation Polity.” Illouz writes editorials for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and other publications.

Fifty years ago Israel conquered Palestinians territories which the country occupies since. Two generations already grew up in Israel with the occupation. about 800.000 Israeli settlers lives in the territories which according to international law do not belong to them. Israel retreated from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the small territory between Egypt and Israel is today governed by the Islamist movement Hamas, but still sealed off to the outside by Israel. East jerusalem with its 350.000 jewish settlers was annexed by Israel in 1980, which is not recognised by the International Community.

profil: In your essay about Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” you are debating, “what, if anything, has made Israel an evil state”? Can you explain this?

Illouz: Israel has undermined its own moral right by engaging in an illegitimate colonial project of the Occupation. A population that arrived in a land that seemed uninhabited, which people conquered by pushing back the local population. When you dominate the life of others through arms, imprison, kill and block movement and when a significant part of the Israeli nation is oblivious to this, or even justifies, then yes, we are in the category of evil. Evil starts by being indifferent or blind to raw power. The occupation is a bureaucratization of evil.

profil: Hannah Arendt discussed the banality of evil in the Nazi-dictatorship. Is it not too sensitive to go anywhere near a comparison with Israel?

Illouz: Don’t get me wrong: I find the analogy, which many use with Nazi politics preposterous and unacceptable. I am not willing to enter a conversation with anyone who would compare Israel to Nazi-Germany. The Jewish people in 1948 was entitled to its own nation, morally and politically. Morally because the Jews objectively had been the most persecuted people in history and were more entitled to a country than many peoples, if I may say so. The Jews had become the problem of Europe, and it was Europe’s responsibility to fix it. Secondly, there had been an official partition in 1947 of the territory of historical Palestine, which was refused by the Palestinians. I can understand why they refused it. It’s not that I think that this proves – as many Israelis have done afterwards – that there is nothing to talk about with the Palestinians. But what the Jews did was legitimate and necessary. I don’t think Israel was born in sin even though before 1948 there were all kind of actions of local power struggle between the Jews and the local population. Jews bought land and used that purchase for a very smart strategy to start slowly conquering land around. I don’t know whether they had an alternative. History and moral philosophy is the capacity to think about the one who has the greater right to something given that one has the greater suffering. So I am on the one hand very clear that Zionism was born in violence but it was also born in right. Many people have difficulties holding these two things at the same time.

profil: Almost seven decades have passed since Israel was founded. This year marks 50 years of the Six-Day-War between Israel and the Arab countries and half a century of the occupation of Palestinian territories. How does the occupation influence Israeli society?

Illouz: At the beginning there was a clear understanding that the occupation was temporary. There was recognition that Israel won and that there were international laws that everyone had to abide by even if they did not respect them. At least the norm was there. But there has been a massive change in the respect for norms. Many young people are taking the domination of another people for granted. I sense a complete lack of understanding that Israel is bound by international treaties to negotiate these territories back for peace. They view the respect for international law as something superfluous and cumbersome.

profil: Is it true, as you wrote, that the distinction between crime and war is fading in Israel’s occupation policies?

Illouz: What has happened is an erosion of the moral and legal underpinning of Israel in the relation to the territories. Many Israelis think that democracy is only for Jews and that it is in fact not opposed to imposing powerful and cruel military rule over a minority or denying the right of minorities to vote for example. This comes from the occupation. A total distortion of what democracy means. Democracy had to be accompanied with universalism. But universalism is absent from Israeli polity.

profil: Nobody can enforce UN-resolutions that say the occupation is illegal. Maybe Israel can get away with it?

Illouz: Getting away with it is a result of power relationships in the region. Whether Europe and the USA need Israel as the regional power or not. Israel is a subcontracted state. The complexity now is that the entire Middle East is changing. We don’t know anymore who is the enemy and who is not. Saudi-Arabia is suddenly the friend, Egypt is kind of friend, too. Lebanon is not anymore. The Shia and Sunni conflicts are far more intense today than they were say 30 years ago. Irak and Lybia have been destroyed. So there is a sense of constantly shifting terrain, of strange and unpredictable alliances. If Israel’s importance shrinks, the international community can put more pressure on Israel – with more massive economic sanctions or it could even involve the International Tribunal at The Hague. The international community does not use these measures because it needs Israel to be a local regional power. But at some point the price for not doing anything will become too high.

profil: Do you see the shift, when Israel changed from liberation movement to a repressive national religious power in 1967, when the occupation began?

Illouz: Not exactly in 1967 because there was a period right after when there was no war and the two populations lived next to each other in a strange way. There was territorial continuity, Jews and Arabs came and went very freely and did not see the evil of the occupation. Around 1987 when the first Intifada started, it became clear the Palestinians are not lambs that are accepting everything what we are doing to them. The first Intifada produced a shift in the Israeli conscience.

profil: Yassir Arafat and the PLO engaged in terror attacks before.

Illouz: In the first Intifada it was the first time when the Palestinian as a civilian population and not as an organized terror organization fought back. I think this is very significant. The Israelis were remarkably blind to the existence, the presence and the right of the Arabs. In that sense they represented the oppressive element of European colonialism. They arrived and viewed both, the local Arabs and the Jews of Middle Eastern origin as inferior and displayed a similar blindness and denial of what happened to them. The same colonialism that obliterated the Arab, obliterated the non-European Jew. After that and because of that there was a progression with the Oslo accord, the Camp David accords. When it failed, each side accused the other, then you had the second Intifada in 2000. This is when the occupation became a truly bureaucratized domination over another people: building checkpoints, walls, demolishing houses, administrative detention. It becomes a system, a state within a state. The administration develops its own means to fight against a population, which is perceived as enemy.

profil: But isn’t this development mainly an outcome of the settler movement? That started much earlier, soon after 1967 and gained steam in the early Seventies, when Gush Emunim became a real movement.

Illouz: The settler movement at the beginning was quite marginal.

profil: But very much determined.

Illouz: Sure, it was like Trump, nobody took him seriously. The settlers were viewed as being from La-la-land. People like the hardcore Rabbi Levinger for example were radical and had nothing to do with the secular Ashkenazi establishment. So on the one hand as Jews they deserved a kind of preferential treatment, on the other hand they were somehow outcasts, outside mainstream Zionism. Democracies are very vulnerable to extremist but determined groups or individuals.

profil: Can we compare the political developments in the US and in Israel?

Illouz: In Israel the rightwing Likud party says: “Wir are the tre people.” That is what Trump managed to do in America. But the Americans will survive the Trump phenomenon. The American institutions are too strong. Parts of the public are too strongly set against him. In four years or before the United States will be going back on track. Not Israel. Israel does not have any basis to build on. Its democratic institutions were weak from the beginning. This is what brought us where we are today: to the moral bankruptcy of land grabbers, to the moral weakness of the left and to the corruption of the Right.

Keep me updated!

© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz