Contradictions of a Peace Activist: Review of Hillel Bardin, A Zionist Among Palestinians (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 2012).


In his first-hand account of his peace activism from the time of the First Intifada and until 2011, Hillel Bardin documents a remarkable series of efforts, which he initiated or was closely involved in, to bring Israelis and Palestinians together and to mitigate the ill effects of occupation. The core of Hillel’s activism was the establishment of several dialogue groups between Israelis and Palestinians from Jericho, Beit Sahour, Jabel Mukabber, Deheisheh, Wadi Fukin, Husan, Nablus, and Salfit, between 1988 and 2000, most of which led to some joint pro-peace community action. In addition, he set up the Runners for Peace group which operated from September 1989 to April 1991, to try to circumvent the ban on political demonstrations. As a reserve soldier serving in Ramallah in August 1988, he tried to arrange a truce so that the Israeli army would allow non-violent demonstrations, but was jailed for his troubles for two weeks when the story got out. Hillel also saw the worst aspects of the Occupation, being one of the Israeli documenters of the Nahalin massacre of April 13, 1989.

In the 1993 Jerusalem municipal elections, Hillel was one of the founders of the bi-national Shlom Yerushalayim party that hoped to mobilize the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote for the first time, though the initiative did not get back the full backing of the Palestinian leadership, despite visiting PLO chairman Arafat in Tunis. Hillel also sought to initiate peace tourism in Jericho following the Oslo agreement, and led tours of the Jerusalem for the Jerusalem Information Center to highlight the discriminatory practices of government services to the Jewish and Arab sectors of the city. He was a key figure in a legal struggle from 1999 until a partial victory in 2011 to force the Jerusalem city government to provide obligatory free public schooling for East Jerusalem Palestinians. He led another long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign, from 2004 to 2010, to have the route of the Separation Wall changed to include the neighbourhood of Sheikh Sa’ed along with the rest of the village of Jebel Mukabber within East Jerusalem. Hillel’s activism has been tireless, stubborn in the face of many obstacles, and resourceful in the sheer range and persistence of initiatives. I was involved in the Beit Sahour dialogue group from 1990 to 1995 (with a break for the academic year of 1992-93) but I was unaware of the range of Hillel’s peace-seeking efforts.

I was also unaware that Hillel’s bridge-building between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis began before the first intifada, when in 1978 he decided that rather than going to the police, he would approach the mukhtar of the neighbouring East Jerusalem village of Sur Bahir after his son’s bicycle was reportedly stolen by youths who lived there. Even in retrospect Hillel cannot explain how or why he overcame his ingrained Jewish Israeli fear and distrust of Palestinians, leaving behind the rifle he usually carried on the rare occasions he ventured into the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem captured during the 1967 war (23). Hillel grasps the negative role of Israeli education and media, as he says ‘our [Jewish Israeli] children were poisoned against the Arabs from the cradle; our adults had their fears reinforced daily’ (233). A little more introspection would be welcome here: what enabled Hillel to break free of such negative perceptions – his childhood in the US, his sense of decency?

In any case, the successful encounter (the bicycle was returned) in Sur Bahir lead Hillel to become a community organiser across national lines in 1985 when more of the village’s farmland was being taken over by the Jewish National Fund for afforestation. His next project was to have a water supply connected to the village of Obeidiyah. Most significantly, the experience of positive contact prompted Hillel to return alone to Jericho the day after serving there as a reservist in April 1988, to find out what had happened to Wajiha, a young Palestinian woman mistakenly arrested for stone throwing whom Hillel had been assigned to guard. When Wajiha’s brother-in-law Sa’ed (who had been injured by one of Hillel’s comrades dispersing a mock funeral by force) told Hillel that he and all his neighbours wanted peace with Israel, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside Israel, Hillel was astounded to the point of disbelief. So, he arranged with Sa’ed and his wife Yusra to bring a group of Israelis for a dialogue in which their  peaceful intention was reiterated by more Jericho residents, a message that Hillel found mind-boggling, contradicting ‘everything we Israelis understood about the Palestinians’ as violent opponents of peace (12). The meetings continued for a while, tellingly ending after Sa’ed was arrested, beaten and held in a cage by the Israeli authorities. The dialogues in Beit Sahour that lasted until 2000 began the same year.

There is a wealth of small detail in Hillel’s accounts that accentuates the delicate contingency of significant peace activism, which requires the appropriate alignment of people, connections, and political circumstances. More often than not, the conjuncture of circumstances was unfavourable. For example, when the dialogue with Nablus turned into community activism in 1992, the Israelis found that their main political ally on whom they had relied to speak on high profile events, Member of Knesset Ran Cohen, was now constrained by his party’s (Meretz) membership in Premier Rabin’s coalition government. Although Hillel for a short while had a helpful contact in military intelligence who facilitated permission for activities and travel, events worked against the implementation of plans for large, public events, first when a Palestinian blew himself up in the adjacent Balata refugee camp, and two weeks later when Rabin deported 415 Hamas activists to the Lebanese border. In a perfect example of the institutional complexities of the context for activism, the deal sorted out through the military intelligence officer for the travel permits was thwarted by the Civil Administration (167-69). By contrast, when it finally became possible to bring the Palestinians from Nablus for a peace march in Jerusalem on 29 August 1993, the press photograph of the event provided the perfect accompaniment to the breaking news of the Oslo accords.

Looking on back on his activist ‘career’, Hillel engages in some critical self-reflection. Although at first he thought a single exposure to the Palestinian desire for peace would be enough to convince Jewish Israelis and overcome their fears, Hillel learned that ongoing dialogue was needed to build trust and came to think of dialogue as the basis for community activism and Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Moreover, such activism should be determined by strategic goals, arrived at in consultation with experts, assessed for its effectiveness, and pursued through the coordination of groups and organisations. His assessment is in line with other views of Israeli peace activism, that it is too fragmented and spends too much time ‘putting out fires’, responding reactively to events and the abuses of occupation, to set and pursue strategic goals (see, for example, Maia Carter Hallward’s book, Struggling for a Just Peace, (University of Florida Press, 2011)).

There is, however, not much in the book by way of such retrospective analysis. In general, Hillel’s account shows both the benefits and limitations of activism grounded in personal relations and individual initiative. On the one hand, the motivation for Hillel’s peace work is often deeply personal, such as his trip back to Jericho to find out Wajiha’s fate, the old Palestinian man living in a hut in Jericho who kissed Hillel when he was introduced as an Israeli seeking peace (14-15), and his deep friendship with Jalal Qumsiyeh of Beit Sahour. Hillel is also a persuasive face to face operator, effective in turning personal connections to activist advantage, such as persuading his army commander Shamai to allow him to negotiate a truce with Palestinians in Ramallah, talking Sarah Kaminker into splitting from her own party, Ratz, for the 1993 Jerusalem municipal elections, or persuading a journalist for the Good  Morning, Israel programme to stay to film the picnic part of a dialogue with Salfit, not only make do with footage of complaints about the nearby settlements’ sewage.

On the other hand, Hillel tends not see the power structures behind the faces he deals with. As he says, he could never understand how to get the press ‘to pick up on a story that had no blood on it’ (19), generally being frustrated by the media’s disinterest in the positive news stories that he worked so hard to make, and remaining unaware of the institutional pressures of editorial policies and news frames within which individual journalists operate. Although aware of the factional politics within Beit Sahour, Hillel ‘never understood’ why certain initiatives such as posting peace stickers were not implemented (115), or why certain dialogue groups folded (138). Familiar with Israel’s institutional discrimination against East Jerusalem Palestinians, Hillel was nonetheless ‘amazed that the [Israeli High] court did not jump at the chance to redress the wrong’ of the city’s education policy (216).

Hillel notes that ‘this is a book of contradictions’ (240), and perhaps his own embodiment of contradictions obscures his vision of the power structures his activism, and the chances of just peace, are up against. The most obvious contradiction is that until his spell in military jail, Hillel was volunteering for reserve military service that took him to the occupied territories. The book opens with an account of the situation and incident in Jericho during which Wajiha was wrongfully arrested, in which Hillel humanizes the soldiers, drawing distinctions between their individual behavior, while the book itself is dedicated to his commander Shammai, among others.

For Hillel it’s a contradiction that ‘the same army that carries out sadistic oppression of the Palestinians is led by officers committed to a decent end to our conflict’ (240), but perhaps that is a necessary condition for the occupation to continue. Although he devoted much energy to ‘neutralizing’ the army’s obstruction of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, including the peace runs (132), he was ‘overjoyed’ when the military intelligence officer opened up the short-lived coordination for the Nablus events (165). Hillel identifies with the Israeli army, often referring to it by its Israeli acronym Tzahal (IDF). He is unable to understand the anger of more radical Israeli activists from the End the Occupation group about the army escort for their buses that had just been prevented from entering Beit Sahour to protest (45).

Yet, Hillel was unable to live with this internal contradiction. In one of the most poignant moments of the book, he describes the point at which, while serving in Ramallah, he handed his rifle and army shirt to another soldier as he left to join some Israeli protestors that his unit had been ordered to disperse forcefully. His commander Shammai saved him from arrest, crying as he led Hillel away from the scene (60-61). Hillel’s act was immensely courageous, but there is no enlightened occupation, as we tell ourselves in the peace movement, and there are no enlightened occupiers.

Throughout his activism, Hillel was guided by a single strategy, ‘to bring hundreds and thousands of Israelis to … meetings’ with Palestinians (12) who ‘had a message of peace’ that needed to be formulated ‘in a way my fellow Israelis could hear’ (85) instead of watching the violence of stone-throwing. By 1996, he felt ‘that one of my basic beliefs was being undermined, namely that if the Palestinians could only reassure Israelis of their peaceful goals, and stop terrorism, our own desire for peace would lead us to reasonable compromises’ (232). In other words, the main obstacle to peace is Israeli fear, while it is the Palestinians’ responsibility to dissipate that fear which they struggled to comprehend (81) and which was inculcated by Israeli media and public education. Repeatedly, Hillel holds Palestinians responsible after the 1993 Oslo agreement for not feeling ‘a pressing need … to send positive messages to worried Israelis … reassuring the Israelis, who hold the key to freedom, was not on the agenda’ in Nablus (184), in Beit Sahour (108), or the Palestinian Authority (203). It was up to the Palestinians to ‘convince us of their sincerity’ but ‘they did not prove their readiness for peace as a top strategic priority’ (237). For all his understanding of the terrible suffering of Palestinians, his heavy conscience about ‘our Israeli failure to protect our Palestinian friends from our own army’ (130), his acknowledgement that Israeli peace activists are a marginalized minority unlike Palestinian dialogue partners who represented their whole community (231), and his closing comments that ‘cast-doubt on our long-held beliefs that we [Jewish Israelis] are the forces of peace while the Palestinians are the sole rejectionists’ (239), Hillel never wonders whether ‘we’ need to convince the Palestinians of our sincere desire for peace.

With the benefit of hindsight (as I was no wiser at the time), I disagree with Hillel’s strategy, though not because, as he complains of Israeli peace activists more radical than himself, I am one of those ‘Jews whose sympathy for the sufferings of the Palestinians renders them insensitive to, unmoved by, the persecution and oppression that have pursued our people throughout our lengthy exile’ (44). The source of our fear that Hillel wanted the Palestinians to dispel is precisely in that history of persecution, not in what Hillel understands to be their reasonable sense of being threatened by Zionist colonization (231), or even in terrorism. Rather, out of deep compassion for myself and the historical suffering of the Jewish people I believe a key goal of the Israeli peace movement must be to rid ourselves of the existential fear and deep trauma that we brought with us from another place. Our insecurity began before we came to Israel/Palestine, and in fighting wars here we have also been fighting another war, a war which began earlier, somewhere else, with a different enemy who has become displaced onto the new enemy. This confusion of wars is a constitutive confusion, a confusion of traumas around which the long war of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been fought. We keep fighting another war against another enemy, an enemy we brought with us, an enemy that we carry within us, whom we see in all our enemies. In order to be at peace (shalom) with ourselves, to be whole (shalem), we Jewish Israelis need to take responsibility for our fear, to work through our trauma. By doing so, we can also make peace with the Palestinians.

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