"I Don't Underestimate Power"

AJPA Director Aliza Becker, Dr. Naomi Chazan, and AJPA Project Assistant Grace Gleason in Jerusalem on June 1, 2017

Activist, politician, academic, writer, and founder of several women’s peace initiatives, Naomi Chazan is one of Israel’s most respected and seasoned peace advocates and has served as an unofficial ambassador to American Jewish peace groups since the 1980s. In her June 2017 interview with the American Jewish Peace Archive , Chazan shared some of her insights on the Israeli peace movement, as well as the realities she considers most important for American Jews working on this issue to understand today.
While a doctoral student at Hebrew University in the mid-1970s, Chazan became involved in dialogue with Palestinians sponsored by Friends of Bir Zeit, an early Israeli-Palestinian joint peace effort between the Hebrew University, the West Bank-based Bir Zeit University, and others. “I think the starting point for people like me,” she said, “was a very strong feeling that the occupation was wrong.” While on sabbatical at Harvard University in the early 1980s, she began to become serious about her peace work when she participated in structured dialogue with members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).
In 1985, Chazan attended the United Nations (U.N.) World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya as a member of the Israeli delegation. While there, she was part of a group of Israeli women who met privately with the conference’s PLO delegation in the back of a church. This cohort of Jewish and Palestinian women “continued the meetings [in Jerusalem], and some of those women actually became good friends later on.”

United Nations Decade for Women World Conference and NGO Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, July 1985.

After she attended a 1989 peace seminar of Jewish and Arab women in Brussels, Chazan helped to found several women’s Israeli-Palestinian initiatives. These included  The Jerusalem Link, Engendering the Peace Process, and the International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace.
Chazan emphasized that most of the funding for these women’s initiatives did not come from American Jews, but rather from Europeans. Today, however, she noted that Women Wage Peace is getting much more direct support from American Jews than any of the other women’s peace initiatives in the past did.
Over the past three decades, Chazan has been a frequent guest speaker for American Jewish peace groups as well as an important advisor for many American activists. While born in Jerusalem and Israeli in her identity, Chazan spent significant periods of her childhood in the U.S. and Canada. “American Jews,” she said, “passed their Israeli sources one to the other,” and that included her.
According to Chazan, American Jewish public opinion has “shifted monumentally” since the 1980s. She remembers “speaking in American Jewish venues [in the 1980s]… and being literally hissed [and] booed for daring to say ‘Palestinian state alongside Israel.'” The monumental shift is that now, in the 2010s, if she doesn’t ” start with talking about two states,” she will be equally rejected outright by liberal American Jewish groups. Chazan did, however, add the caveat that “what [some American Jews] mean by two states and what I mean by two states is not the same. [They] want two states, but all of Jerusalem, the settlement block, [and] the Jordan Valley… which is not my idea of two states.” Still, she considered this shift in the way American Jews react to the idea of a two-state solution — from knee-jerk rejection to majority support — a function of the hard work of peace advocacy groups and a victory of grassroots organizing.
Chazan explained that American Jews have not supported Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives consistently; rather, they have “kept coming in and out.” “Your [American] problem is more difficult than ours in Israel,” Chazan said, “because [for you] the option to opt out is much greater and easier. You can opt out. You don’t have to deal with it.” “There’s an inbuilt contradiction between one’s liberal values and one’s identity with Israel,” she continued. “Israel does not represent the values of the bulk of American Jews. And people don’t like to live in dissonance. So what do they opt for? I’ll stick with my liberal values, thank you very much.”
“The bottom line is a failure,” Chazan said, with respect to both Israeli and Diaspora efforts at peace. “Fifty years have transpired and we have not resolved what is under our noses — and that is a failure. It’s a major failure that can bring about the downfall of Israel — and that pains me enormously… It is a monumental error of the Jewish people that we have not been able to resolve the conflict and 50 years after the fact, we are controlling another people against their will and that is unacceptable, morally, Jewishly and democratically. I can’t be more blunt…And, therefore, much more interesting is not what happened but can we try again to get out of this?”
For Chazan, the answer to this question is yes. And as to how, she suggests that peace-minded groups in Israel must engage more directly in electoral politics. “To avoid or to sidestep engaging in formal politics,” she said, “has been something that has hindered the left and has left the remnants of the peace camp in office really terribly paralyzed and collaborating with right wing elements — and that’s not what it’s about. The left has to maintain a very strong interest in gaining power in order to make a difference.”
Although Chazan herself had been deeply involved with civil society initiatives in her capacity as the president of the New Israel Fund, she is also critical of the limits of civil society. She explained, “It’s an assumption in many circles that civil society is the answer and if one expands interactions to civil society level, then everything will be okay. And that one will build a groundswell of support and that will in itself defy those in power. Now, I’m a big believer in speaking truth to power on the one hand. On the other hand, I don’t underestimate power. And I think that one has to understand that ultimately decision are made by those in power.”
Naomi Chazan envisions the Israeli left building political power and making these decisions for themselves. And yet, she still does not give up on the face-to-face meetings between Israeli and Palestinians that have also characterized her approach over the years. As Americans, in looking back on how significantly our collective public opinion has changed with respect to Israel over the past two decades, perhaps we can learn from reflecting on the transformation of our alliances – that supporting two states has become the mainstream where it was once taboo. What else might we be able to transform?
Dr. Naomi Chazan currently serves as co-director of the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. She is professor emerita of Political Science and African Studies at the Hebrew University; and Dean of the School of Government and Society at the Academic College of Tel-Aviv-Yaffo.
She holds BA and MA degrees from Columbia University and a PhD from the Hebrew University. She is former director of the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University, former chair of HEMDAT (The Association for Freedom of Religion in Israel), served as Vice-President of the International Political Science Association, and was a member of the Executive Committee of Parliamentarians for Global Action. Chazan attended the Third and Fourth World Conferences on Women as part of the Israeli delegation respectively in 1985 and 1995. She is also active in a variety of women’s, human rights, and peace organizations and served as the president of the New Israel Fund from 2008 to 2012.
Chazan served three terms in the Knesset with the Meretz Party from 1992 to 2003. She served as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and was a member of the Economics, Foreign Affairs and Defense (concentrating on issues of the peace process and Israel’s foreign relations), Education, Immigration, and Status of Women committees.
She has written and edited eight books on comparative politics and has published numerous articles on African politics, the Israeli-Arab conflict, Israeli politics, and women and politics. She currently writes a column for the Times of Israel.
This is the ninth in the American Jewish Peace Archive series of profiles of Israeli peace activists, based on interviews about the relationship between American Jewish and Israeli peace activism. They are being cross-posted on the blog Jewschool: Progressive Jews and Views.< href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noopener">Sarai Aharoni on Feminism and Peace Activism in Israel and the Diaspora

Putting Out Fires: An Interview with Israeli Human Rights Lawyer Nery Ramati

Anat Saragusti on Women Wage PeaceHillel Ben Sasson on Progressive Leadership and Jewish Identity in Israel and the Diaspora
Karen Isaacs on her Journey to Achvat Amim (Solidarity of Nations)

Yael Patir on Traversing Bridges between Israelis and Americans in Peacemaking

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