The Price of Immorality

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 21“Social Justice and Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Yair Assulin

In the end, you understand that so much of what happens now in Israel – how we think, speak, love, hate – is, more than anything, a result of the occupation. A result of more than half a century of repressing, shutting our eyes, pursuing power, and kitsch. A result of not listening or giving account, of acting as though there’s no tomorrow, so why worry about the future. A result of stubbornly refusing to “do not unto others what is hateful to you.” A result of fear. And when, again and again, you hear that members of Knesset have passed yet another law doubtless designed to save the Prime Minister from his investigations, intended, no doubt, to impede the pursuit of truth, to prevent the public from following events and taking part in determining norms, you understand how deeply public integrity has been eroded. When you hear members of Knesset declare in empty, flowery phrases that these are “laws for the benefit of the People of Israel,” you realize how much all of this truly, deeply springs from the occupation, from the consciousness that it creates, from the corrosion that is inherent to occupation.

And you understand that the goal of fifty years of discourse is to blur reality, to misrepresent it, to tell a story that doesn’t really exist the way it is depicted. You realize that its sole purpose has been – and still is – to lump millions of ordinary human beings who live there into “the ultimate evil,” the “eternal enemy,” regardless of what each of them does, irrespective of the fact that each person is “a whole world.” And when you think about it, about the mechanism of this discourse, this instrument to shape consciousness, you understand just how ideas diffuse throughout a society, how the absence of morality is never limited to the goal that it ostensibly aims to serve. You realize that the impact of the mind set it creates goes far beyond what one can even imagine.

And when you consider this regime, this discourse, this country that makes things “holy,” that uses these religious concepts, you can’t avoid the thought, the knowledge, that it’s connected. That this, too, is part of the erosion. That this, too, is part of the price that Israeli society pays for what happens, we would like to believe, “over there,” beyond the mountains of darkness, in that place that a majority of Israelis support but have never visited, have never personally experienced, don’t really know. Who have never truly seen the face of the “other.”

In exactly the same way, when you think about smear campaigns about traitors that have simmered here for years, when you think about the attenuation and simplification of the term “patriotism,” about the pervasive cynicism, about the very possibility to brand – with a gesture, a sentence – an entire group of people, to ridicule them, to establish a clear hierarchy between you and them, when you think about all of this, you cannot avoid the thought that this too has seeped in here from the occupation. You realize that the cynicism of “there” is the cynicism of those who can legislate laws which, by their very essence, damage Israeli society, that by their very essence corrode the place of the Israeli, the ability to know, to understand. And when I write “the ability,” I mean the ability of all of us, of everyone who inhabits this space. Including that of the legislator.

Indeed, when you see it, you can no longer avoid the thought that, at the end of the day, everything springs from fifty years of control over other human beings, from a sense of unlimited power over the weak, over those who are dependent upon you. From Israeli society’s ability to shut its eyes, to repress, from the schizophrenia by which you are ostensibly a moral person in your own home, a person who considers herself moral and continues to support – or at least not to really oppose – our control over other human beings. Israeli society has come to believe in the illusion of separation, partly because of our sense of fear, partly because we have learned to hold our nose and move on, because we choose to believe what is convenient, and to attack and to ostracize anyone who seeks to clarify, to ask, to examine, to expose. Because of laziness. Because, like Jeshurun, we have waxed fat and kicked. And this illusion is perhaps the most dangerous thing for a person and for a society.

Whoever relinquishes the right and the obligation to know about the occupation and its ramifications, whoever refrains over the years from encounter with the other, whoever does not demand it and, with a terrible passivity and an uncritical eye, accepts the pre-digested content of the official Israel discourse again and again, without reflecting on the most basic issues, should not be surprised when the Israeli Parliament works to make sure he knows nothing at all about anything, ever. Premise: a regime, any regime, by its nature, aims for the public to know as little as possible while believing that it knows as much as possible. The responsibility of the public is to demand the truth.

The price of blindness that immoral behaviour demands is so high that it causes the individual to sin against himself, his family, and the people whom he truly loves and is committed to. And this is an important point. The means become the end. You forget what you were aiming for … and how can you get there with your eyes closed? The recognition that these things seep so deeply is the first step toward a conversation about morality. Judaism has always understood this. It has never viewed morality as some sort of action unconnected to a context, unconnected to life. The fundamental principle of morality is that it is an expression of life, of human consciousness, of the human soul.

And thus, you suddenly understand that the occupation is not a political issue after all. It is in fact a question of whether you support Israel, that is to say, whether you support a society that asks hard questions, wants to understand, and is committed to moral values. Do you support an ethical Israel that believes that all persons have value, by virtue of their simple humanity? Do you support a society in which the Jewish discourse is not reduced to spiritualist kitsch but is translated into action; a society that can admit its mistakes? Or are you, perhaps, in favour of a society that careens daily from manipulation to manipulation, using its power to distort reality. Do you want a society driven by a lust for power, concerned only for itself? Is the soundtrack of the society you want the voice of a salesman who debases significant issues into kitsch, destroying the ability of this country, of this society, to develop and survive? That is the choice.

Most of the Israeli public, in its heart, is disgusted by such laws, or at least offended by any attempt to undermine its self-image as a western democracy. You hear it everywhere. Nonetheless, we must face the fact that such laws, indeed the arrogance that allows our legislators to think in these terms, to formulate and advocate for these and other laws, grow out of the miasma of occupation: the belief that we can control another people and deprive them of rights forever. When we try to evade morality, when we sneer at the very question of morality, we are left with contempt for anyone who seeks to clarify, who insists on knowing, who is not willing to “go with the flow.”

The power of morality is that it is neither an idea nor a rarefied intellectual position. Morality is first and foremost a sensibility, the lively existential experience of a person who faces the world and recognizes the limits of power, indeed the limits of his existence. Morality is meaning in the world. Whoever thinks it is possible to behaviour immorally in one place and smile blithely in another, will ultimately discover that one cannot escape morality. Morality cannot be contained by fences or walls. Like the wind, it is boundless. And everything is connected.

Yair Assulin is a philosopher, poet, author, and scriptwriter. He has published two award- winning novels, “The Voyage” and “The Things Themselves,” and numerous short stories. His column, “Endpiece,” appears weekly in Haaretz.

* An abridged version of this essay first appeared in “Endpiece,” Assulin’s weekly column in Haaretz.