Identity, Israel

7 Lessons from 36 Interviews with Israeli & Palestinian Peace Activists

This piece was originally posted on the American Jewish Peace Archive listserv. The photo above is of feminist Palestinian peace activist, Nabila Espanioly. 
I recently traveled with American Jewish Peace Archive director Aliza Becker to Israel-Palestine to interview a diverse array of Jewish Israeli activists — from a settler leading Israeli-Palestinian dialogue on the West Bank to a leader of the Boycott from Within movement — and a smaller number of Palestinian activists from both sides of the green line. Our goals were both to document the history of the relationship between American and Israeli activists working for peace and justice in the region, as well as to listen to ideas on how American Jews can most effectively work to end the occupation.
Below are seven reflections from the 36 interviews that I found of interest as a young adult American Jewish activist, and which I think are relevant to American Jews currently working on this issue.

1. The massive scale of the Israeli peace movement in the 1980s can be a source of inspiration for young activists.

I was surprised to learn from Janet Aviad, a longtime leader of Shalom Achshav (Peace Now), that they gained popular support from the majority of Israelis at the height of their activism in the early 1980s. “During the Lebanon War,” Aviad recounted, “which started at 30 or 20 percent [of Israelis] objecting, we finished up with 60, 70 percent. When we did the big demonstration of Sabra and Shatila, we had the majority of Israelis.” I was surprised to learn that they had hundreds of thousands of protesters in the street.

The fact that it was possible to win over the majority of Israelis to an anti-war position was inspiring to me in that it showed the potential of street demonstrations to play a role in mobilizing a movement.

One of the reasons I was surprised by this is because the Israeli peace movement has been very small in my generation. This particular piece of the history of nonviolent protest reminded me one of the values of learning history: challenging one’s assumptions about the immutability of the status quo and being able to dream of new possibilities.

2. There is a wide diversity of political opinion within Palestinian society; we as American Jewish activists should aim to understand this nuance and avoid generalizing. 

Khalil Ma’ri and Grace Gleason on 5/25/17 in Tel Aviv.
Several Palestinian activists we spoke with urged American Jewish activists to better understand the diversity within their community. Khalil Mar’i, Director of Partnerships at the high-tech Palestinian employment initiative Collective Impact, explained that the diversity of political opinion among Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is often oversimplified, as if there is “a single vision of peace” instead of many. But with respect to American activists,

Mar’i explained: “Everybody speaks of Palestinians and the Palestinian community and Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens, but the knowledge is so superficial that we’re all perceived as one voice, one mind, one aspiration…We’re fragmented just like everybody else. And just like the Jews, every two Arabs have three different opinions. That knowledge is very important.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous arrested in Washington, DC on 7/18/17 for protesting healthcare bill.

3. Progressive American Judaism can contribute sources of religious inspiration to the Israeli peace movement.

As Combatants for Peace activist Moran Zamir explained, “when we as left wingers look for a source of inspiration that connects to Judaism, we can a lot of times find it inside the American Jewish culture, like Rabbi [Abraham Joshua] Heschel…knowing that the struggle for social and human rights could be connected to Judaism is something important.” Kids4Peace Assistant Director Yakir Englander also spoke about the “miracle” that American Judaism has forged new models of gender-egalitarian Judaism.

Speaking with Israeli activists about the contribution of American strands of Jewish religion made me realize that I take it for granted that my religious identity in the U.S. is associated with progressivism and a struggle for justice.

Hearing this perspective reminded me that American Jewish theologies of justice such as that of Rav Heschel should continue to be sources of empowerment for us; they are a treasure of American Judaism. I was particularly reminded of this recently when I saw Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR being escorted from the Senate offices in handcuffs for protesting the Republicanhealthcare bill. As American Jewish activists, we must also remind ourselves that our American Judaism is authentic in and of itself. Instead of outsourcing our Jewish identity to the Israeli state we can find it right here. American Judaism has a rich history of progressive activism which we can continue to draw on for inspiration.

4. American Jewish activists have a unique potential to strategically work with Israeli activists if we so choose. 

Mikhael Manekin
There is a widening gap between progressive American Jews and progressive Israeli Jews, in part due to the call for anti-normalization. Anti-normalization seeks to delegitimize relationships that support the status quo of the occupation and do not acknowledge the inherent structural imbalance between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.This movement has deeply impacted my generation and has resulted in the rejection of alliances with Israeli activists, especially those who view the grievances of Israelis and Palestinians as parallel.

While I respect the decision to adopt anti-normalization as a nonviolent strategy for resistance, I think that we American Jewish anti-occupation activists should also acknowledge that we have a unique potential to work with Israeli initiatives because of our shared Jewish identity and our institutional and personal relationships.

We can simultaneously build pressure from the outside and also support progressive forces within Israel. Mikhael Manekin, Breaking the Silence activist and co-founder of Israeli think tank Molad, shared his vision that American Jewry serve as a liaison to help Israeli progressives build alliances with American progressives, i.e. think tanks, trade unions, Jewish institutions, and the like. He explained: “I would like American Jewry who want to help, to understand that the only way, in my mind, to end the occupation without extreme violence is to do so through getting [Israeli] progressives in power.” Although some would argue that Palestinian activism and international pressure are just as important as a progressive Israeli government in ending the occupation, I was impressed by the point that American Jews have a connection to Israelis by virtue of our cultural/religious identity, and that one way for us to be effective is by helping build progressive forces within and not only pressuring from without.

5. If we as Americans are going to be involved in activism on the ground, we must be sensitive to our status as outsiders, and play support roles rather than lead. 

Grace Gleason and Sarai Aharoni on May 29, 2017 in Haifa.
Several Israeli and Palestinian activists spoke about the way that American Jews have occasionally caused harm by intervening on the ground, insensitive to our status as outsiders. Something I realized through the course of the interviews is the way in which Israeli national identity, and specifically army service, is being used as an identity tool in the peace movement, which Avner Gvaryahu, director of Breaking the Silence, related directly to their strategy. Combatants for Peace activist Moran Zamir spoke about one potential harmful effect of American involvement in public demonstrations being that the mainstream Israeli public is able to dismiss these actions as being un-Israeli and therefore illegitimate, propped up by Americans and Europeans.

Yakir Englander of Kids4Peace also expressed dismay over short-term American involvement and a desire that American Jewish peace activists speak with a more diverse section of Israeli society.

He explained: “It’s so easy to come and to be beaten a little bit by the police and then to be a hero back in America….You want to be involved in the conflict? Come, look at the face of the people who disagree with you. Sit with my settler people. Sit with my brother and sister in the ultra-Orthodox community. Come and look at the faces.” Professor Sarai Aharoni echoed this sentiment, expressing her wish that young American Jews who get involved in peace work on the ground maintain contact when they return home and make a commitment to be involved long term.

6. Women’s peace activism has been and will continue to be essential to Israeli and Palestinian peace movements.

Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Center
Since the 1980s, Israeli and Palestinian women have organized their own initiatives for peace –the Women’s Network for Peace, the International Women’s Commission, and Nashim Osot Shalom (Women Wage Peace), to name a few. Leaders of these movements explained how feminism was connected both ideologically and strategically to the fight for peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. Strategically, women make up more than 50% of the population, are able to unite bi-nationally around their identities as women and as feminists. According to scholar and former Member of Knesset Naomi Chazan, women “were able to get more done because we weren’t taken seriously.”

Ideologically, my understanding from these conversations was that when all people embrace the values of feminism — equality, listening, non-hierarchical leadership, anti-militarism, empathy — justice becomes more possible and our movements work better.

As activist Noam Shuster-Eliassi put it: “Feminism is the answer to all of this.”

7. One last thing I was surprised by was several interviewees’ confusion over why American Jews would be concerned aboutIsraeli-Palestinian peace in the first place.

IfNotNow protest against March 2017 AIPAC convention in Washington, DC
For me the answer to why we care is obvious: the state of Israel is completely interwoven into Jewish life in America; we have no choice but to contend with it. We are intertwined in the situation by virtue of being Jewish, and by how the American government uses us American Jews as a justification for its actions in perpetuating the conflict. This confusion made me realize that we as American Jewish activists must continually try to articulate why we are motivated to work on behalf of peace and justice in a place so far away and be honest about our motivations: if it’s guilt, if it’s wanting a safe place for ourselves in the event of some future catastrophe, if it’s wanting to prove ourselves as “good Jews” among our progressive American peers — we should be honest about it.

That the reason behind American Jewish involvement was not clear to Israeli and Palestinian activists who we talked to caused me to go back to the basics of why I am involved,

which was a useful process, and it made me realize that we need to understand and be able to communicate our own stakes if we are to build trust with those activists.

These are just a few of the themes that I personally found interesting. Over the next period of time, we will share more insights that we learned from our final phase of interviews in which we asked Israeli and Palestinian activists how they view the role of American Jews in the conflict.
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