Author Archives: Jon Simons

Open letter to Rachel Reeves MP: Why I won’t vote Labour, though I hope for a Labour-led government

Dear Rachel,

You don’t know me but I’m one of your constituents and I wanted to take the time to explain why I won’t vote for you in this election, even though I hope to wake up on Friday morning to a Labour-led government that can implement its manifesto promises. I look forward to a government that will restore the NHS, mitigate the environmental crisis by investing in new energy and cutting fossil fuels, and bring vital services back into public control. I am filled with dread by the prospect of another Conservative government led by Boris Johnson, following his party’s lurch to the right, crashing us out of Europe and further into the social division and inequality that successive Tory governments have exacerbated.

Yet I won’t vote Labour because the party, especially its leadership, has utterly failed to deal with the antisemitism that has surfaced in its ranks. At first, this was something I didn’t want to believe was happening. I came back to the UK, to Leeds, after just over a decade in the US in December 2016, happy to be returning to the NHS – though not yet aware how much the years of austerity had reduced it . I was also looking forward to voting in a country with a mass social democratic party with a real chance to govern. Yet I could already sense that the Brexit referendum had let some dark genies out of the bottle, scapegoating various “others” for various wrongs, just as Trump has done. How, though, could such resentful racism have any hold in the Labour Party? I also didn’t want to believe that as a Jew I would be made to feel unwelcome in the party, especially after an earlier decade during which I lived in Israel, where I was very much on the left of politics, critical not only of Netanyahu’s government’s policies but the systemic oppression of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and Israel itself. That oppression is shielded in part by pernicious efforts, some of them funded by Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs, to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. So, it seemed too convenient that no sooner did the Labour Party elect a left-winger than the ‘socialism of fools’ – antisemitism – took root in it. Surely it must be the case that anti-progressive politicians and press in both countries, and further afield, had found common cause in amplifying a few marginal cases of antisemitic expression on social media and occasional branch meetings? At first, then, I discounted some of what I heard. I have Israeli friends and know other Jews still in the Labour Party who continue to do so.

But I was learning too much from old friends, some of whom stayed in the party, some of whom left, as well as in regular news reports, to hold out on to my wishful thinking and denial. One friend was very much in the thick of it, trying to counter antisemitic tropes on new media and being constantly abused for doing so. Others were not finding their MPs willing to speak out and some began to find their local branch a hostile environment. Some of what I was told about is reflected in the Jewish Labour Movement evidence submitted to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, an investigation which in itself must cause the Party shame. I do not doubt that there is a concerted right-wing political and media campaign to discredit Corbyn and the Labour Party as much as possible. That’s what they do. But I also do not doubt that a trend has developed among some party members and supporters to substitute a genuine critique of capitalism with conspiracy theories featuring the Rothschilds, George Soros and other “Zios.” There is both antisemitism in the party and coordinated efforts by opponents of Labour and its current leadership to capitalize on it. But if the party really dealt with antisemitism, its opponents would have little ammunition.

Increasingly it became apparent that the party leadership was not interested in challenging the antisemites robustly, taking action that could easily have knocked this issue on the head. What I could justly expect of Jeremy Corbyn – or his staff – would be to call people out on the use of antisemitic tropes as they were posted on social media platforms and spoken at meetings, making it clear that nobody could count themselves as his supporter if they were also a racist. Instead, he hid behind disciplinary processes which have in any case proved inadequate. Of course, to call others out Jeremy Corbyn would have to begin with himself, expressing horror rather than mealy-mouthed “regret” that he had defended Mear One’s antisemitic mural. He would need to admit shame that he had slipped into the worst sort of English “polite antisemitism” by referring to British Jews as Zionists who don’t understand English irony. As a committed anti-racist, he must know by now that we have all been socialized into damaging racist attitudes and that we need to keep working to decolonize ourselves. If Jeremy Corbyn cannot demonstrate political, cultural and intellectual leadership on this issue, why not?

So, sadly I cannot vote for you on Thursday, even though I believe you are a good constituency MP – you’ve written in support of my partner’s PIP appeal – and have an admirable record in Parliament, not least on environmental issues that are close to my heart and current activism. I admit that if your majority were less secure, I would be agonising more on whether to vote for you or the Green candidate. Yet, I expect that you will understand my decision and hope that one day soon you will be able to let me know that the Labour Party is once again a safe political home for progressive Jews.

With best wishes,

Jon Simons

Taxi Driver – A short peace.

Guest blog by Ariel Katz

I’m returning to Be’er Sheva from Tel Aviv. I’ve been to the August 11 demonstration for equality to protest the controversial nation-state law in Tel Aviv. It’s late, so I hop in the front seat of the next cab in line. The driver, who looks about 30, has bluish eyes and a crew cut. When I tell the him the address, a man hears me through the open window and asks if we are going to Ramot. The driver invites him to hop in the back seat. He and the driver have some friendly banter and I wonder if they know each other.

The man has a strong Arabic accent and though he may be a Jewish immigrant from an Arab country, I think he’s a Palestinian citizen of Israel. He starts to complain about the people on the train, and that they were loud and unruly. “It’s a matter of culture,” he says, and I wonder what culture he’s referring to.

The driver points out that I sound American. I too have a strong accent when speaking Hebrew. To find out more about the backseat man’s culture, I mention that I was at the demonstration for equality.

The driver turns to me in anger. “Why? We have equality here. That demonstration was against the nation-state law. Are you against that?” The back seat man says he doesn’t support the law. “Why not?” asks the driver, and I get the information I was looking for. “Because I’m Arab,” the man says.

“But you have equality here. Where do you work?” The driver asks.
“At the supermarket.”
“You have jobs, you have access to the same services. You see, there is equality here in Israel. The law doesn’t change that.”

“From your experience there is equality in Israel,” I say to the driver. “But there are experiences that you haven’t had, that Arabs have had, so they have more information about the inequality. It’s hard to see that when you’re the majority.”
“Like what?” He wants to know.

We’ve arrived at my house but he doesn’t stop the car. When he turns around, I ask what he’s doing. “I’m taking the other guy home first.”
I ponder my situation for a moment to assess my personal safety. The driver is clearly distressed. If I insist he let me off here, there’s a good chance he’ll comply. But if this man is dangerous and I get out, then the Palestinian is at risk. And if the driver is dangerous, who is he more likely to harm, a female American Jew or a Palestinian man?

My conscience and my curiosity allow him to drive off with me still in the car.
The Palestinian lives the next street over, and it’s a quick and silent trip. The driver brings me back and tells me he’s Beitar football supporter. Beitar fans are known for their hatred of Arabs, anti-Arab chants and racist slogans. He says it as if it’s a bit of a dirty secret, in a ‘between you and me’ kind of voice. He doesn’t want any Arabs or Muslims living in Israel. He also doesn’t like Jews going to the West Bank to
live next to ‘them’ he said. I appreciate he’s consistent.

 

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Contrasting headlines: Ha’aretz – “Tens of Thousands of Arabs and Jews demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the Nationality Law.” Yediot Aharonot – “The Palestinian Flag in the Heart of Tel Aviv.”

He asks me who was at the demonstration. Surely it was only Arabs, he says. I explain it was a mix, probably mostly Jews.
He heard on the news that they were waving the Palestinian flag in the demonstration. The Yediot Aharonot headlines said in huge letters, “The Palestinian flag in the heart of Tel Aviv.” The headline was successful in activating his nervous system. The use of the word ‘heart’ was particularly effective.

“The flag is a symbol of someone’s identity. The flag itself doesn’t carry a message about harming the Jews, nor did those people carrying it. They were peacefully asking for equality.”
“This neighbourhood is 30% Arab now,” he informs me.
I ask him if he personally has ever had a bad experience with an Arab.
“The ones in this area are educated. They are doctors and professionals,” he explains.
“Yes, they want to work and raise families and be healthy, like us. They don’t want to hurt us.”
“And what do you do for work? He asks.
“I’m a psychotherapist.”
“How much do you charge?”
“55 pounds an hour.”
“I have panic attacks. Do you work with that?”
“Yes. It’s scary.”

I’m referring to everything. To his panic attacks, to the terrorist attacks, to seeing flags and not knowing what is the meaning for the flag waver, to me being alone with him in his taxi.

By driving me safely home he’s proved my point. “It’s scary for all of us, but the truth is the majority of Arabs and Jews are just typical people trying to live their lives in peace.”

The Provocation: Ta’ayush and the Picnic

taayush.soldier hitting“Whose provocation?” asks the Ta’ayush activist who has recorded on video an Israeli soldier striking one of her fellow activists. Rightly, she says the provocation came from the soldiers who had come only to see what was happening, not even to serve a “closed military area” order, not even to make the Palestinian farmer stop ploughing the field next to the olive grove, not even to tell the other Palestinians, Italian volunteers and Israeli activists to get lost. So, in that sense, the blows dealt by the soldier to another activist filming him were unprovoked. He seems to have worked himself up into aggression by his own monologue about the “traitors” who were accompanying Palestinians from the town of Bani Naim to work on their land under the noses of the settlers of Pnei Hever. The local relations of occupation between the two places have been rehearsed many times before but of course the settlement has an army on its side in this uneven conflict. On this occasion, and following reports of the incident in Ha’aretz and other news outlets, even the Israeli army deemed that the soldier, Alon Segev, had used excessive force and discharged him from reserve duty. His blows were unprovoked.

Yet, in another – and good – sense, Ta’ayush were being provocative. I was with the Ta’ayush activists in the South Hebron Hills that day, August 10th 2018, but I was elsewhere, accompanying a shepherd, when this incident occurred. When after a short hike I joined the group near Pnei Hever the activist who had been hit was just being driven off to an emergency room as he was feeling unwell. Then I found this provocative scene. While the guy on the tractor got on with his ploughing, Israelis, internationals and Palestinians sheltered from the hot sun under a tree. Hot, sweet tea and coffee were served, some snacks were passed around. Various conversations murmured on in different languages, in a blend of Hebrew and Arabic about the spring connected to a cave whose water used to feed the fields we were in but is now within the fence of the settlement, about politics and peace, about Catalan and linguistics, about how the Israeli matriculation exam in Arabic doesn’t enable students to speak Arabic. By the time the ploughing was done and the picnic was packed up, I had given my address to two of the Palestinians, one who is already studying a PhD in the UK and the other who is about to come to study.

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Picnic at Bani Naim, 10 August 2018

So why is this picnic provocative? Because the co-resistance to Occupation by Israeli Jews, non-citizen Palestinians and internationals defies the accepted logic of separation between “Jews” and “Palestinians” that underlies the conflict. This relaxed togetherness and well-practiced partnership resist all the opposing practices of dispossession, estrangement, demonization and denial that fuel enmity and convince Israeli Jews that “there is no partner for peace” and they must always “live by the sword.” The picnic provokes further because it shows that peace is not made by living behind secure borders and in isolation from each other, but by confronting injustice together.

That evening I participated in another provocation, a demonstration in Tel Aviv by Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel against the new Nationality Law that enshrines already-existing inequality by asserting the rights of the Jews in Israel above all others. The law is itself a provocation against democracy, but much of the Israeli press chose to focus on the “provocation” of the display of Palestinian flags by some of the demonstrators (against the wishes of the organizers). A provocation to show that there is a Palestinian as well as a Jewish nationality in this land between the river and the sea. A provocation to gather and march together in the sultry humidity of a summer night, to protest the racism of ethno-religious superiority in a territory in which two peoples dwell. I preferred the hum of conversations under the tree to the long speeches at the demonstration, but in their own way each was a provocation to resist oppression and struggle for just peace.

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“Jews and Arabs together”. Anti-Nationality Law demonstration. Tel Aviv, 10 August 2018

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In this blog written for British Friends of Rabbis for Human Rights, I explain how my research into Israeli-Palestinian Peace Activism feeds directly into my teaching at Leeds Trinity University in the UK. For my class on Religions, Justice and Peacebuilding I use Rabbis for Human Rights as a case study. RHR provides a great example of the concept in Peace Studies of “justpeace” in the ways it combines religious peacebuilding with non-violence, social justice advocacy and human rights activism.

When an Arab man and a Jewish man kissed (almost).

It has been a difficult week in which to remain optimistic about the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Whether or not one is committed to a two-state solution, the dispossession and displacement of Palestinians – daily acts of the ongoing Naqba – push the chances of a just peace further over the horizon. Measures taken by different branches of the Israeli state upped the pace of creeping annexation of Area C of the West Bank. The military served notices – if being pinned to an iron post counts as serving notices – to some 300 Palestinian families from Ein Al-Hilweh and Umm Jamal in the north Jordan Valley that they must evacuate their homes and take all their possessions with them within a week. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit ruled that it is legal to confiscate private Palestinian land to build roads to thirteen illegal outposts. That legalization of dispossession would reduce yet again the land in Palestinian hands and increase the fragmentation of Palestinian presence in Area C while solidifying the process of exclusive Jewish settlement.

Perhaps what got to me most this week wasn’t even that bad news. The steady flow of information I have about the harassment of Palestinian farmers in the north Jordan Valley by settlers and soldiers comes mostly from Guy Hircefelds’s Facebook page. Guy records what the grassroots activists of Ta’ayush  and other groups encounter when they go to work in partnership with the Palestinians there. There are some good days when his photos are of pastoral scenes of shepherding. There are much worse days when buildings have been destroyed, when the army block access to land, when a settler breaks an activist’s arm.

Guy leaves his page open for comments and by now he is well known to right-wing advocates of exclusive Jewish settlement. There have been some extended exchanges, mostly full of mutual insults and accusations, but the occasional hint of openness. Guy invites adversaries who claim there is no violence against Palestinians to come and see for themselves, and some settlers invite him to come and see how they live. Well, invitations of sorts.

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Solidarity visit to the Jordan Valley, 18.11.17. Photo Guy Hircefeld

But the comment on his page that made me most glum came in response to his report of a relatively large solidarity action – the visit of a group of Israelis, including Combatants for Peace,  members of the Israeli Parliament, and Palestinian leaders. On Facebook Lital Miller mocked the activists as miserable, self-hating traitors, adding that their action would make no difference. And I thought she’s probably right about the last point. There will probably be a concerted legal campaign that will delay the expulsions, maybe similar to the one that has so far prevented the removal of Palestinian Sussiya. Perhaps some European consular staff will come to visit and their Foreign Ministers will send a rebuke to the Israeli government. But sooner or later, the creeping annexation will creep further, Area C will be emptied of Palestinians and so why (according to the Israeli consensus) shouldn’t it become part of the State of Israel? She could be proved right.

I couldn’t even comfort myself with the thought that Palestinian allies in the Arab world will muster to block this coming dispossession. It looks as if Prime Minister Netanyahu has succeeded in his goal of turning Saudi Arabia – and other Sunni Arab states – into a regional ally. So what if this relationship of common enmity to Iran might drag Israel into an unnecessary war with Hezbollah and maybe Syria, so long as it means the autocratic monarchs will let Israel do what it wants in the West Bank? Just as 40 years ago in 1977 when the Likud-led Israeli government opened itself up to a peace accord with Egypt, another Likud-led government seems to be doing better at making friends in the Arab world than the Israeli ‘left’. In other words, the Israeli government is going to get away with its intensification of the settlement project and its gradual Naqba.

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PRESIDENT SADAT AND PRIME MINISTER MENACHEM BEGIN IN SERIOUS TALK AT THE KING DAVID HOTEL DINER IN JERUSALEM.

So is there any hope, even dark hope, as Ta’ayush  activist David Shulman calls it. Yes, precisely in the determination and commitment of activists such as Guy there is hope not only for the future, but more significantly hope in the present. Hope because I can see in his photos what peace looks like – the partnership of Israelis and Palestinians on the ground. Not all of them, of course, but enough righteous people for it to be worthwhile not to give up. Hope too in the memory of 40 years ago, when Israeli jubilation about Egyptian President Sadat’s visit showed what lies in Israeli hearts – to be accepted, to be understood, and maybe – as the wonderfully angled shot of Begin and Sadat apparently about to kiss suggests – to be loved in the Middle East. But goodness, most Israeli Jews, including those making nasty comments on Guy’s Facebook page, have a very odd way of showing that they just want to be loved by their neighbours.

Feeling demolition in your fingers

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Wadi Ejheish, June 25, 2016

It is one thing to look at pictures of demolished homes. It is another to feel the rubble with your fingers. It is one thing to see a photograph of the wreckage of a building left by a bulldozer and another to pull the twisted wreck apart with your hands. It is one thing to cast your eyes on documented destruction and another to put your back into repairing the damage. These are two things, two different types of experience. Perhaps neither is better than the other, but they feel quite different.

btselem.reportTwo buildings in the hamlet of Wadi Ejheish were demolished by the (un)Civil Administration, a branch of the Israeli military government ruling over Area C of the West Bank, of Palestinian Occupied Territories. The demolitions are part of an undeclared process of creeping annexation of Area C, part of a pattern of dispossession and displacement of Palestinians, especially Bedouin. As part of that pattern, the demolitions in Wadi Ejheish were routine, although in this case they broke understandings about refraining from executing demolition orders during Ramadan.

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Detail from B’tselem map

 

Visual and written documentation of the destruction is also routine, notably by B’tselem which shares the information in the hope that it will halt the expulsion that is designed to follow from repeated demolition. Other anti-occupation groups and organizations supporting Palestinian human rights, such as Rabbis for Human Rights, have worked actively for the preservation of communities in Area C, such as in the high-profile campaign to Stand with Susiya. Wadi Ejheish is known as “south Susiya,” somewhat separate from it. While the activists of Ta’ayush do also take part in the sharing of the documentation of destruction, they share experience with the inhabitants of Wadi Ejheish in more tactile, physical ways.

I accompanied the activists on their weekly work in the South Hebron Hills area on June 25th, during which we went to Wadi Ejheish not to look but to touch. The sight is certainly distressing, poignantly marked by the remains of clothing and toys caught in the rubble. Yet as we tried, along with the people who live there, to clear away the mess and salvage the building materials that could be reused, I was struck by the heavy materiality of the destruction. Heavy both literally – the concrete blocks that are thicker for external walls, thinner for internal ones, that had to be sorted separately – but also heavy mentally. No doubt it was easier for we Israelis to regard the work as a job to be done without having to overcome the despair of those whose homes had been destroyed. But still, we were working with the men whose buildings had been crushed days before.

The materiality of demolition is not only about what is found among the ruins – I chanced across the ID card of the wife of the Palestinian man working next to me – but the material of the ruins themselves. To disentangle the tangle of metal poles, rope, tarpaulin, concrete blocks, stones, plastic pipes, electricity cables, corrugated metal is to linger in the violence of demolition. This is a stage between witnessing destruction and the defiance of rebuilding, maybe something like a stage of mourning in which you begin to get through the devastation and, with the help of friends or relatives, start putting a life back together.

But it’s not quite so pat. There are different ways of working together. For some time we worked without much conversation, as men do, coordinating actions by observing what others are doing. After a while two Israeli women came back from accompanying a shepherd elsewhere, and there was more chatter and verbal coordination. It also became more necessary to coordinate as we worked further into the tangle of rubble and it was less easy to pull out individual poles, tarps or pieces of corrugated metal. In any case given that some of us can’t speak Arabic or Hebrew well, some of the cooperation had to rely on gestures. Nonetheless, it was working together, the partnership that Ta’ayush embodies.DSC00205

It’s an odd partnership, not one of equals, but one in which equality is valued rather than achieved. Urban, middle class, and often intellectual Israelis doing Hebrew-Arab labour as if redefining Zionist halutziut (pioneering) alongside poor Bedouin shepherds. For all our privilege, what we offer is what anybody could volunteer. In the shade of a broken down cart, a couple of mathematicians burble away to each other incomprehensibly  (to the rest of us) about zeros while I can’t converse with the guy next to me as he doesn’t speak Hebrew and I don’t speak Arabic. As his son works with a couple of us later, I can only gesture to where he should cut string binding metal grating to corrugated metal. And then a thought flashes into my mind about the common Jewish Israeli saying about Arabs sticking a knife in your back. This work in common, a boy eager to help adults, shows how silly such thoughts are. But I don’t know what he’s thinking. They, the Jews, come with guns and bulldozers to demolition his home, then some other Jews come almost empty handed to help clear the rubble. It’s hard to make sense of that.

By the time we stopped work I’d been close to calling it quits for myself, my strength drained by the hard physical work under the unrelenting sun. I was deeply fatigued, but not in terms of the compassion I could feel by looking at yet another photo or video of Israeli occupation forces demolishing Palestinian homes and work places. I was deeply fatigued by the sheer effort of undoing destruction, and I wish that the photos could convey just a fraction of that difficulty to the Jewish Israelis in whose name the demolitions are executed. For all the sensuous power of visual experience, perhaps you have to feel demolition in your fingers to experience how cruel occupation is.