Tag Archives: Imagined peace

Fields and Facebook: Ta’ayush and the peace that will have come

taayush.facebook cover image

I am posting here a link to an academic journal article that I have just published about Ta’ayush. Here is an abstract (outline) of the essay:

Israeli peace activism has increasingly taken place on new media, as in the case of the grassroots anti-Occupation group,Ta’ayush. What is the significance of Ta’ayush’s work on the ground and online for peace? This article considers the former in the light of social movement scholarship on peacebuilding, and the latter in light of new media scholarship on social movements. Each of those approaches suggest that Ta’ayush has limited success in achieving its strategic goals or generating outrage about the Occupation in the virtual/public sphere. Yet, Ta’ayush’s apparent “failure” according to standard criteria of success misses the significance of Ta’ayush’s work. Its combination of grassroots activism and online documentation of its work in confronting the Occupation in partnership with Palestinians has assembled an impressive archive. Through the lens of Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, Ta’ayush can be seen to enact a “future perfect” peace that will have come.

And here is the link to the journal article: http://www.cogitatiopress.com/ojs/index.php/mediaandcommunication/article/view/390

 

When Peace Is Not Enough: Review of a Book by Atalia Omer

Atalia Omer, When Peace Is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

During the first intifada, for most of which I was a graduate student at the Hebrew University, I went on many demonstrations at which I chanted what then seemed to be the radical slogan “Israel and Palestine; two states for two nations.” Since the 1993 Oslo accords the principle of “two states” has been the official position of Israeli governments, and the cornerstone of both international peace diplomacy and the “mainstream” Israeli peace movement, much of which (including Peace Now) is now connected under the umbrella of the Peace NGO Forum. Yet, since 1993, and especially since the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2000, Israel’s more radical peace, anti-Occupation and human rights activists have not only come to understand that the Oslo process entails the perpetuation of the Occupation in the post-1967 territories and the infinite deferment of Palestinian self-determination, but also that the “two state solution” would not be a solution at all, not for the Palestinian refugees seeking to return, not for Palestinian citizens of Israel seeking equality, not for the internal ethnic and religious conflicts within Israeli society. For them, the “peace” of Oslo is not enough.

When Peace Is Not Enough is a thoughtful, deeply felt and well-researched book that, while critical mostly of the mainstream or liberal Zionist peace camp, also challenges some of the perceptions and actions of the radical peace camp. It does so not by formulating another solution, such as some version of a one state, binational state, or federal state, but by interrogating the question of “who we are,” the underlying logic of the conflict in terms of Zionist, Jewish Israeli identity, which Atalia Omer argues is particularist, Orientalist and ethnocentric (though she doesn’t go as far as to call it racist). “Euro-Zionism is the “root cause of the conflict” (p. 275) and the source of multiple injustices.

Omer musters an impressive range of disciplinary and theoretical approaches. From peace studies, she adopts the principle of “positive peace” according to which the transformative practice of peacebuilding leads to “justpeace.” From cultural theory she expands the analysis of power relations and structures that perpetuate injustices to include symbolic violence. From political theory she considers critically liberal models of multiculturalism and theories of socioeconomic redistributive justice that take cultural recognition into account in order to avoid the “misframing” of justice for Palestinian Israelis as a question of minority rights. From postcolonial theory she borrows the notion of hybrid identities, in this case those of Arab (Mizrahi) Jews and Palestinian Israelis, whose subaltern voices, she argues, must be integrated into an inter-Jewish and inter-Israeli reformulation of national, religious and ethnic identity that attends to the differences between each of those terms. From poststructuralist theory she attends to the defamiliarization of stable identities so that the colonial subjugation that is “forgotten” in Israeli ethnorepublicanism and the illiberalism of its liberal version of nationalism can be acknowledged. At the same time, and not entirely consistently, Omer insists that deconstruction of Jewish and Israeli identity be matched with reconstruction: “reimagining belonging, without dismissing and decontextualizing collective passions of identity” (p. 225) as in the formulation “a state of all citizens.” The ethical insights of Western, Ashkenazi Diasporic Jewish thought, its embrace of alterity and self-estrangement, need to be reconfigured along with Mizrahi experience of belonging in the Middle East. That is an impressive array of perspectives, and it comes at the cost of some “theoretical belaboring” (p. 113) and repetition but, as I will suggest below, it may not be comprehensive enough.

Central to Omer’s multiperspectival approach is her inclusion of religious peace studies, through which (in Chapter 1) she argues that the secular, liberal Zionist peace camp is fundamentally flawed by conceptual blindness: its unacknowledged reliance on a political theology, its incorporation of Jewish religious symbolism at the same time as it attempts to secularize Biblical mythology. Consequently, liberal Zionism is immersed in a messianic historical narrative even as it excoriates the militant illiberalism of religious settler Zionism and marginalizes the non-secular voices of Mizrahim. Redemption of exile by means of return to the land, according to this eschatology, and the subsuming of Judaism by the secular religion of Zionism, blinds the Zionist peace camp to the injustices (colonialism and conquest) entailed by establishing and sustaining an ethnodemocratic Jewish state. Hence, the Zionist peace camp, as exemplified by Peace Now, focuses on ending the Occupation of 1967 in order to ensure a majoritarian Jewish state, while overlooking the Nakba of 1948. In contrast to such militant secularism, Omer calls for a post-secular secularism through which Jewish religious tradition can be reinterpreted and pluralized, such that its role in Israeli nationhood can be directed away from a messianic teleology and reimagined as “distinctly Middle Eastern” (p. 265). Similarly, in overcoming the Orientalist ethnorepublicanism of Euro-Zionism, especially through the polycentric multiculturalism of the new Mizrahi discourse, Omer calls to reimagine “Israeli identity as Levantine” (p. 240).

Omer understands that a de-Zionized Israel would need more than a “thin” civic identity if it is “to be invested with a substantive meaning that will generate commitment for its continuous cultivation” (p. 83). Middle Eastern identity could surely be part of the “reimagining of collective passions” (p. 273). Perhaps some of that imagining could also be a remembering of shared lives in Palestine.[1] Perhaps some of that imagining could be the revival of the music of the piyutim, Jewish liturgical music and lyrics that embrace Diasporic culture, both Middle Eastern and European, and which appeals to secular as well as religious Israelis (and Diaspora Jews). Perhaps some of that imagining could be the work of Zochrot which not only advocates redress of the colonial injustice of the Nakba but also engages in projects that plan an Israel in which the refugees will have returned.

Taken together, Omer’s multiple perspectives provide with an analytical-normative “metric by which [she] … evaluate[s] peace agenda” (p. 156). Omer judges Israeli peace activists and subaltern social discourses according to a set of “criteria … for thinking about peace and justice in zones of ethnoreligious national conflicts” (p. 252). She does so on the understanding that the Israeli Zionist peace camp’s efforts at peacebuilding have been hindered primarily by conceptual blinders which could be removed by incorporating the subaltern voices of the victims of Euro-Zionism, Palestinian Israelis and Arab Jews, into an intra-Jewish and intra-Israeli conversation, which she calls a “hermeneutics of citizenship” (elaborated in Chapter 3).

The liberal Zionist peace camp is found wanting on all levels, although it would have been helpful if the book had considered a group that has more current standing than Peace Now, which is a shadow for its former self. Would an analysis of Combatants for Peace, which is an Israeli-Palestinian group advocating a two-state solution, have the same flaws as Peace Now, or does its bi-national composition modify its apparent adherence to Jewish majoritarianism in Israel? The religious Zionist peaceniks, exemplified by Rabbis for Human Rights, are credited with challenging ethnocentrism through an ethos of recognition of the non-Jewish Other (the “stranger in our midst”) and distinguishing the Judaic tradition from Zionism. But they fail the test because they accept the political theology of Zionism and Jewish majoritarianism, while mistaking the ethnoreligious Israeli context for one in which Western, liberal religious Zionism could thrive.

In addition to the discourses of peace organizations Omer turns to those of the subaltern social groups whose voices are vital to the conceptualization of justpeace. Israeli Palestinian parties and coalitions certainly challenge Zionist ethnocentrism and articulate socioeconomic and civic equality with peace, critiquing the colonial character of Zionism and foregrounding the Nakba in their narrative. But, she says, they misframe their status in term of minority rights, separately from the injustice suffered by other Palestinians, while assuming that the framework of Israeli democracy is liberal enough to accommodate their demands. They also treat religious affiliation as an individual right, in secularist terms. Omer finds more promise in the coalitions and discourse of “New Mizrahi” intellectuals, who deploy postcolonial and multicultural perspectives as a challenge to Ashkenazi Eurocentrism. They articulate socioeconomic injustice with Euro-Zionist orientalist antagonism to Arabs and the denigration of Middle Eastern Jewish religion, ethnicity and culture (which Mizrahi immigrants were compelled to abandon in favor of hegemonic Israeli nationalism, culture and religious orthodoxy). Mizrahi reattachment to Diasporic life offers Israeli Jews a sense of belonging in the Arab-Muslim world, and an Arab-Jewish hybrid identity. The New Mizrahim, however, have not yet elaborated a post-secularist conception of the relationship between national identity and religion.[2]

There are some aspects of these subaltern voices that might deserve more attention for Omer’s holistic approach to peacebuilding than she gives them. She points out, correctly, that the Zionist “left” is not left because it offers no alternative to neoliberalism which is incompatible with the social justice aspect of justpeace (pp. 54-55). Omer does note that a core voice of new Mizrahi discourse, the Black Panthers, was informed by the radical left anti-Zionism of Matzpen, and she does include the Israeli Communist Party among the voices of Palestinian Israelis. Yet she does not develop a perspective that would, as do these marginalized voices, offer a systematic critique of neoliberalism and capitalism. There might be two reasons for this. First, the holistic approach to peacebuilding on which she draws, which entails “concern with systematic injustices” (p. 67), is ill-equipped to analyze such injustices without some recourse to theories (such Marxism and neo-Marxism) that identify the root causes of social injustice and social conflict in systematic exploitation. Secondly, Omer wants to both uphold “the principles and values undergirding liberal democracies” and critique “the systems of domination that rearticulate and limit their implementation” (p. 220). But what if (as Marxists and some poststructuralists claim) liberal democracy necessarily entails domination?

Even without incorporating more radical perspectives, Omer would clearly be too radical for some. Her approach to justpeace entails recognition of Zionist colonialism, the injustice of the Nakba, and Ashkenazi ethnic supremacy. Omer speaks from the perspective of the radical Israeli (more appropriately, now Palestinian-Israeli) “peace” activists, some of whom regard themselves as post-, non-, or anti-Zionists, and who often refer to themselves as anti-occupation or human rights (rather than peace) activists. Similarly to Palestinian-Israeli discourse, which as Omer notes is unpalatable to liberal as well as mainstream Zionists, such activism is rejected by most of the Jewish Israeli public as delegitimization of the Jewish character of the Israeli state, if not as treason. Moreover, the book will not be persuasive to Zionist Israelis (and Diaspora Jews), as well as many others inside and outside academia, who regard Arab (and Muslim) hostility to the Jewish state and intransigence as the obstacle to peace, a point Omer notes on p. 23. From their perspective also, the peace movement is blind – in this case to a harsh reality.

Omer also acknowledges that Jewish (even if mostly Azhkenazi) Diasporic history of persecution and in particular the Holocaust frame the way in which Jews experience the conflict as victims, and she conceives a holistic approach to conflict transformation to entail “a form of cultural therapy” and “trauma healing” (p. 67). Yet, social psychology is not among the many perspectives and disciplines she includes in her approach to peacebuilding,[3] nor does she refer to the extensive literature on and examples of dialogue in this and other conflicts.[4] It is hard to see Omer’s approach as the starting point for the intra-Israeli debate which she advocates about the character of Jewish and Israeli ethnic, religious, and national identity, rather than as a desirable point along that journey. At the same time, Omer gives the radical activists much to think about with regards to the role of religion in the conflict and in peacebuilding, even if she offers little by way of analysis and reconceptualization other than the notion of post-secular secularism. Would de-Zionized Israeli Judaism look like Jewish liberation theology?

When Peace is not Enough stands out from other studies of the Israeli peace camp by not approaching it as a social movement, but instead by focusing on the concepts and texts of the groups and social sectors, for which the book pays a price. Tamar Hermann’s analysis of the shortcomings of the Israeli peace movement[5] recognizes its failure to attract Palestinian Israelis and Mizrahim. Omer notes that “broad and effective coalitions” that articulate ‘“domestic” struggles of the Mizrahim and Palestinian Israelis for justice and the “external” struggle of the Palestinians for national self-determination” (p. 258) have not materialized. But does her framework help us understand why such coalitions have not formed or grown? Why, for example, has the Arab-Jewish group Tarabut which directly addresses “the division in Israeli oppositional politics between struggles against the occupation and struggles against inequality and for social justice within Israel itself,” not had more traction than it has?  Is it because it has a secularist conception of religion, or because of its organizational structure, or something else? Hermann analyzes the waxing and waning success of the peace movement, and its public appeal, primarily in terms of the changing political circumstances of the time.[6] In other words, there are material circumstances, not only conceptual blinders, which explain why peace activism has not been enough.

In her focus on conceptual blinders rather than material practices, Omer also assumes that the former are the key hindrance for the latter, but is that the case? For example, Omer argues that Rabbis for Human Rights differentiates normatively between the rights of Israeli Palestinians (among a Jewish majority) and Palestinians in the occupied territories (p. 158). During the week in which I read this book, in June 2015, Rabbis for Human Rights was engaged in its usual work, combining solidarity activity on the ground with legal activism to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian village within the Green Line (Umm al-Hiran) and one beyond it (Susiya). In practice, whether or not its members define themselves as Zionists committed to a two-state solution, its activities blur the normative boundary. Omer devotes only half a sentence to the concrete activities of Rabbis for Human Rights that address “house demolitions, poverty, foreign labor rights, and uprooted olive groves” (p. 160). She may well be right that in doing so, the group deals only with “practical subsystemic problems” rather than systemic ones. That is the sort of question that a social movement study of the group might pose.

Maia Carter Hallward’s study of several Israeli and Palestinian peace activist groups, including Rabbis for Human Rights, looks for answers to such questions by focusing on “actions and deeds” rather than “beliefs and visions.” The subtitle of Omer’s book is “How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice.” But perhaps the question should be how do peace groups perform and practice peace in what they do, in how they relate to each other, their opponents, and their publics? Even if Hallward’s conclusion is that the activists lack “an overall strategy for undermining the regime’s ‘pillars of support’,” they also engage in significant acts of peacebuilding in that they “used rhetorical, positional, and relational forms of power in an effort to combat structural violence and exclusivist categories of identification.”[7] If Hallward also concludes that the peace activists have not been able to do enough to bring just peace, she suggests that they need to change their strategies, not their concepts.

Omer might consider that many of the multiple, generally small groups and organizations active for peace, human rights and resisting occupation are engaged in different fragments of a “hermeneutics of citizenship.” Yet, that is an odd phrase for the radical practice of peacebuilding she envisages. Repeatedly, she turns to the terms “imagination” and “reimagination” to characterize the work that has to be done on the way to “justpeace.” Omer is leading us towards an inspiring vision of Israel-Palestine, one which is at home in the Middle East and enables all its inhabitants to feel at home. To achieve that vision what is required are not only multiple perspectives but also multiple material acts, affects, bodies. Perhaps the vision is utopian, but as co-founder of Zochrot Normah Musih puts it: “Utopia is a form of concretization that requires detailed planning.”[8] As I see it, it’s enough that the peace activists who still engage in Palestinian-Israeli peacebuilding, in spite of the difficult circumstances under which they work, imagine peace concretely.

[1] See for example Menahem Klein, Lives in Common : Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron (London : Hurst & Company, 2014).

[2] An interesting development in that direction is the Tikkun movement in Israel.

[3] See, for example, Daniel Bar-Tal, “Psychological obstacles to peace-making in the Middle East and proposals to overcome them,” Conflict and Communication Online 4/1 (2005): 1-15.

[4] An interesting example of intra-Jewish dialogue that engages deeply with Judaic conceptions of peace and challenges Western ones is the Talking Peace project.

[5] Tamar Hermann, The Israeli Peace Movement: A Shattered Dream (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[6] See also Lev Grinberg, Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine: Democracy versus Military Rule (London: Routledge, 2009), who analyzes the failure of the Oslo process (rather than the peace movement) in terms of changing political circumstances, the fluctuating openness of the political system, and the actions of and power balance between political elites.

[7] Maia Carter Hallward, Struggling for a Just Peace: Israeli and Palestinian Activism in the Second Intifada (University of Florida Press, 2011), p. 49, p. 104, p. 232.

[8] Norma Musih, “Hannah Farah – Kufr Bir’im”, in Solution 196-213: United States of Palestine-Israel, ed. Joshua Simon (Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2011), 72.

Peace of Ass / Walking the Peace Talk

The Peace Superhero

The Peace Superhero

Peace of Ass / Walking the Peace Talk” is an exploration of the symbolism of national identity that is at play in what’s called the  “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict.  In a mock fashion show that includes dance our project employs humorous, irreverent contact-based physical activity to displace the psychic investments of national subjects and to activate alternative enjoyment that entangles the national identities of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs with each other in symbols of peace. The project consists of six sections: playing with flags, walking the peace talk, shouldering peace/heading for peace, getting comfortable with peace, peace superhero, and “Peace of Ass” contact improvisation dance.  In a static exhibition of clothes and flags from the performance, participants are invited to try peace on for size.

The project was staged and performed at the International Zizek conference, “Parallax Future(s) in Art and Design, Ideology, and Philosophy,” held at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, April 4-6, 2014.

The project is discussed by its producers and directors, Ariel Katz and Jon Simons, in “Peace of Ass / Walking the Peace Talk: A non-artists’ statement.” International Journal of Žižek Studies, Special Issue on Žižek & Art (Guest Editors – Kristopher Holland and Hallie Jones), Vol 9 No. 1 (2015).

The essay is available on line: http://zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/view/513/541

World War Zion: or Trumpeldor’s Return

Zombies rush the wall in World War Z. Paramount Pictures

Zombies rush the wall in World War Z. Paramount Pictures

(spoiler alert)

By now word is out that the new Hollywood summer blockbuster zombie movie, World War Z, includes a controversial section about Israel/Palestine. In the rapidly paced plot, driven at the speed of an action movie, the world is overrun by a viral pandemic of fast-moving zombies. Gerry Lane, the hero of the film, an American former UN investigator (remobilized for the emergency), played by co-producer Brad Pitt, learns from a former CIA operative in a US military jail in South Korea that Israel knew of the outbreak and had time to quarantine itself behind a wall. Lane flies to Jerusalem, where Mossad agent Jurgen Warmbrunn dispels the hint of a global Zionist conspiracy by explaining that they had intercepted Indian military communications about fighting the zombies, then implemented their survival plan based on prior experience of persecution and attack. As Lane is shown around Jerusalem, the film shows scenes (filmed in Malta) of a huge wall on the edge of Jerusalem that clearly resembles the existing notorious separation wall that encloses and cuts off most of the Palestinian West Bank. As in reality, the film portrays an elaborate military checkpoint through which healthy people of any background may pass into the safe zone, apparently allowing Palestinian Arabs as well as Israeli Jews to enter. But the joyful survivors celebrate together noisily, attracting the zombies outside, who pile on top of each other to climb over the wall, bringing the safe haven of Zion to an end. Lane narrowly escapes by plane, taking with him one of the Israeli military escorts, a woman who calls herself by her rank segen (lieutenant) and whose left arm Lane amputated hastily after she was bitten by a zombie, thereby saving her. Segen becomes Lane’s lieutenant for the rest of the film, a heroine who assists him in discovering and obtaining the medical means to camouflage the survivors from the zombies, namely, injecting the healthy with terminal but curable pathogens.

Al-Jazeera reported that some viewers have interpreted the film (both critically and favourably) to be ‘pro-Israeli’ because it justifies the separation wall as a means to keep out an implacable enemy bent on the annihilation of the Israeli population. Others noted the irony of Palestinians as well as Jewish Israelis being admitted through the checkpoint in the film, while others pointed out that the wall failed to keep out the threat. In a piece published in the Washington Post, Jake Coyle noted the ambiguity of the film’s message about the wall, wondering if it might be a symbol of peace, a haven for Jews and Muslims, which unfortunately is not secure enough. In light of the film’s sympathetic treatment of Israel’s brief, militarized survival as the world’s last civilized state, Jordan Hoffman approvingly takes it to be ‘the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since Otto Preminger’s Exodus’, even while noting that it is the ‘joyous cherished vision of unity and peace’ – Israel’s admission of Palestinian as well as Jewish survivors who celebrate together – that leads to its downfall. Jesse Benjamin notes the same point in her critical reading according to which the audience is treated to a ‘not at all veiled justification of Israel’s current and widely condemned Apartheid Wall’ along with the usual (for Hollywood) racial and gender hierarchies.

The ‘message’ of the film regarding Israel goes deeper than whether the wall failed because it was not mighty, high or exclusive enough, or because the survivors were too noisy in their celebration, or because the wall is a failed strategy for security. The real wall itself is often credited by the Israeli government with preventing terrorist attacks, especially suicide bombers. ‘Zuicide’ bombers appear akin to zombies in that they are implacable, irrational, inhuman, and are already dead, or committed to death. Yet, the wall is neither complete yet, nor hermetically sealed, and the Palestinian Authority’s security force’s sustained cooperation with their Israeli counterparts, along with changes in Palestinian attitudes towards such violence, probably explains as much about the reduction in suicide bombings as does the wall itself. Nor is it one wall that encloses Israel, but a series of walls, fences, barriers and checkpoints built around Palestinians in the West Bank, in addition to being a target of protest and resistance itself.

Less significant than the portrayal of the wall in the film is its very character as an action drama infused with the terror of human annihilation by the mouths of the insatiable zombies. If, as I did, viewers suspend all disbelief, mortal fear is rarely more than 30 seconds away. Such existential anxiety in the film has been carried over from the books by Max Brooks on which it is loosely based, who explains in an interview that his books are not horror that conjures up fear but instead a vehicle for ‘a baseline level of just anxiety about the world I live in’ (emphasis added). The child of anxious and protective parents, Brooks enables his readers to ‘metabolize’ their fears about the world – HIV/AIDS, post 9/11 instability, natural disasters – into science fiction. The zombies are not real, but the grounds for fear are.

In the case of Israel and Zionism, such existential fear for survival is rarely far from the surface. For many, probably most, Jewish Israelis, fear of collective annihilation by a ferocious, implacable enemy underlies their felt need for security embodied in armed force and high walls. Zionism’s first military hero was Joseph Trumpeldor, a decorated former officer in the Russian army, who lost his left arm in battle (like Segen in the film), emigrated to Palestine in 1911, and died as the legendary defender of the Tel Hai settlement in 1920. Given Trumpeldor’s fate, I was relieved that Segen survived the movie, but by now Trumpeldor is very much a faded legend in Israel, as much a target of satire as a heroic figure, as Yael Zerubavel explains in her book Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. Segen, self-identified only by military rank, is always serious. With her shorn head, she appears in the scene in which she and Lane survive a plane crash wrapped in a blanket, looking every inch like a death camp survivor. The connection between near annihilation in the Holocaust and survival through military might is blatant. In the face of such inhuman hostility, much Israeli policy operates under the conviction that ‘the whole world is against us’, and ‘there is no partner for peace’. In World War Zion, Israel faces the zombies alone, and there can be no peace with zombies, or zuicide bombers.

Segen (Danielle Kertesz) with Brad Pitt in "World War Z" (photo credit: Courtesy)

Segen (Danielle Kertesz) with Brad Pitt in “World War Z” (photo credit: Courtesy)

The fear is real, but the zombies are not. The Palestinians are not zombies, but people who want what Israelis have: civil rights, independence, and so on. Not all Israeli Jews see the Palestinians and other Arabs (and Muslims) as zombies, and Israeli perceptions and policies change over time. But the upper hand is with those who see zombies everywhere, build walls to keep them at bay, and disregard the value of their lives. The lives of the Palestinians do not count. Their lives are not, as the American Jewish philosopher Judith Butler puts it in another context, grievable when Palestinians are framed in Israeli discourse as zombies.

The ‘zombies’ that many Jewish Israelis fear came from elsewhere, from another time and place. Like the fears that Brooks channels into science fiction, these Israeli Jews displace their just fears of former persecutors in Europe and other places onto Palestinians and Arabs in general. It is a fear that I carry too, a fear that also allowed me to feel, for a while, in the movie that if only Israel survived, that would be good enough. But in order to avoid the injustice of treating Palestinians as zombies, as ungrievable lives, I and other Jewish Israelis need to understand – and feel- that we are not the only ones who are afraid, whose lives are lived in the shadow of existential anxiety, whose lives are, as Butler says, precarious. Out of concern for own precariousness, we have imposed it on the Palestinians. We have sought to be exclusive and pure in our precariousness, yet in the film it is not purity that immunizes human beings against the zombie threat (by camouflaging them), but self-contagion with pathogens. So long as we seek to be utterly secure at the cost of the insecurity and precariousness of Palestinian existence, we will not be secure, nor will we be at peace. Acknowledging the shared human condition of precariousness, and the unjust imposition of it on those we frame as zombies, is a precondition for a future peace.

Fostering Peace through Communication and Culture

Now back in Bloomington, Indiana, I’m teaching a class to undergraduate college students about “Images of War and Peace in Israeli Public Culture.” As part of their learning about the history of the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism, I devised a simple role play to try to convey a little about how it all stated. Half the class was told on green cards that they belonged to a group of people who were being persecuted in their current homes and felt the need to flee, and believed they had a former home elsewhere. The other group, located in a square of tables, were told on their orange cards that this was their home, and that some other people might want to come too. Each group had to decide what to do, but not necessarily as a single body.

 

It turned out that the Greens were all Zionists – they all wanted to go back to their old home, rather than stay in Russia, or find their America. But these were Zionists with a very different approach. First, they selected several delegates to meet and negotiate with the leaders of the Oranges. They brought coffee, expressed their fondness for the Oranges, their desire to learn the Oranges’ cultural customs, and asked if they had room to take in the persecuted Greens. The Oranges first of all denied they had leaders, asking the Green delegation to address the whole group. They were unsure of the Greens, wanting to know how many of them there were, expressing unease about letting others into their home. But they suggested they could take some of them, following some sort of application process. Between themselves, they’d wondered why the Greens were disliked by other people in their current home, and if they’d bring trouble and danger with them. Once the Green delegation had gone back home, some of the Oranges were suspicious that the visitors had been too nice and friendly. But the majority thought that in any case they needed to get to know the Greens better before they decided what to do. Being American college students, speed-dating seemed like the best way to go about that. When the Greens came back over, their leader was careful to ask the Oranges to run the process. After a couple of rounds of getting to know each other, the Oranges opened the gates, admitting all the Greens without delay or conditions. And once they all got in the space, it seemed cozy rather than crowded.

 

The role play, of course, does not simulate the complexities and messiness of the historical events. There was nobody representing the Ottoman or British empires, no external power controlling the space of the Oranges, or serving as an address for the Greens to turn to. Instead, the Greens and Oranges were positioned as equals, each in control of their destiny. The situation didn’t begin with a few Greens already living in the Orange space, then being joined by a few more, and then by many more – instead, they all came at once. Beyond the dictates of the game, there was no urgency or deep emotion to the process, no sentiments of nationalism, no scars of persecution and domination. So, this role play was a long way from the actuality of the Zionist movement to settle in Palestine.

 

Yet, a direct match with reality matters less than the principles which these students brought to bear on the situation. They may not know that much about world affairs, but they have been educated to approach other people through a prism of cultural respect. They recognize that when meeting new people, it takes time to learn about them, and it helps to be friendly. They understand the importance of communication, both as a group that can build consensus about how to act, and as a group that needs to build a bridge to another group. And if speed-dating works for them, why not try that? After all, it’s an approach that’s close to the straightforward sentiment of the Israel loves Palestine and Palestine loves Israel Facebook communities. Communication and culture, working in tandem to bring people together.

 

How different would the tragic history and present of these two people be if communication and culture had been their guiding principles? Imagine a Zionist movement that sent delegates to the towns and villages of Palestine with a request to come and settle instead of seeking favour with colonial powers or distant Arab autocrats. Imagine a Zionist movement that sent envoys back to the old homeland to find out about its current inhabitants, learning their language, their recipes, their way of life. Imagine a Palestinian people in charge of its land and borders, hearing of the plight of strangers, opening its doors to them and welcoming them into their homes. Imagine the two peoples communicating with each other, and sharing each other’s cultures as equals. That would be to imagine peace.

Opinion Polls and Imaginary Peace

On December 30th 2012 the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz published a report by Barak Ravid on some seemingly surprising opinion poll results (followed the next day by an English version of the report). Two parallel polls in December asked the same question about voting intentions in an imagined referendum on a peace agreement along the lines of a two-state solution. What made the poll results newsworthy was that they showed that “most Likud-Beiteinu and the further-right Habayit Hayehudi voters would support a peace agreement establishing a demilitarized Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, Israel’s retention of major settlement blocs and a division of Jerusalem.” Not surprisingly, support among the general Israeli public was higher, being significantly higher among voters for the centre-left parties.

As Israeli peace activist Adam Keller writes in his Crazy Country blog, these poll results present a puzzle: “Half of the voters for both these parties are willing in principle to support a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but in practice they are about to fill Knesset seats with dozens of extreme right Members as well as those from the even more extreme right, who are completely opposed to even the most petty and cosmetic of concessions.” What are we to make of these people who in an opinion poll say they want one thing (peace) but at the same time declare their intention to intensify occupation? Are they subject to some sort of cognitive dissonance, or suffering from sort of neurotic ailment whereby they deny their own desires by fulfilling the demands of a nationalist super-ego?

Adam Keller’s answer is that “they believe what they had been repeatedly told over the past twelve years: there is no partner, the Palestinians do not want peace, there is no chance for peace, and all talk of peace is a pipe dream.” So, the poll asks the polled to engage in a game of “fantasy peace-making”. It’s not a problem to say you’d agree to a peace agreement when you’re asked to imagine a series of qualifying conditions, as in this case, where support was given to an agreement “whose implementation would take place only after the Palestinians would fulfil all their commitments with an emphasis on fighting terror, and the implementation would be monitored and verified by the United States”. The poll was also conducted in a way that sweetened the deal even further by offering “a number of additional favorable (from an Israeli viewpoint) elements” such as building a strong security fence along the border, disarming Hamas, and a US security guarantee, which increased support for the imagined agreement by about 8%. The basic principles of the agreement without these additional enticements already excluded any Palestinian right of return to Israel (only to the future Palestinian state), as well as consideration of Israel’s security needs in any territory exchanges based on the 1967 lines. (The full details of the polls can be found here).

As reflected in the Ha’aretz headline – “Most rightist Israelis would support Palestinian state, dividing Jerusalem” – the polls were conducted as part of a well-meaning effort to convey a message that most Israelis really do want peace, and so there is still hope for a two-state solution to the conflict, so long as Israelis’ security concerns are addressed. The polls were commissioned by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which “works with leaders and policymakers in the United States and the Middle East to help reach a just and comprehensive peace that will bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.” It’s not a grass-roots peace organisation bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to understand and trust each other. The opinion polls are produced for the benefit of the policymakers.

So, what can the policymakers learn from such polls? Not that most Israelis have a deep desire for peace, but that they are happy to play fantasy peace negotiation, in which they deal with themselves about what the right conditions would be to vote “yes” in an imagined referendum. As the Dachaf poll organisation states in its report, among the polled public there is significant “disbelief that the Palestinians will uphold the conditions of peace and especially those elements dealing with security.” The solution then is to present those polled “with a peace plan that fortifies security elements.” The poll doesn’t actually show that most Israelis want peace: it shows that they want “security”.

It is this pursuit of security that is the real fantasy. It is a pursuit of security that seeks solutions in technical, instrumental notions of security: fences, counter-missile missiles, demilitarized zones. It’s the pursuit of security without building peaceful relations with one’s enemy. It’s security that does not secure, because it addresses the needs of only one side. Somehow the Palestinians, most of whom have known Israelis only as military conquerors and occupiers, are supposed to feel secure without the means to defend themselves. It’s a pursuit of security that will bring no peace, because it imagines the enemy will always be an enemy, always need to be held at bay, in check, in a vice. It’s a pursuit of security that will bring no peace to Israel, because it does not bring Israel to be at peace with itself, with its past, with the deep trauma that underlies its insecurity. So, yes, in the meantime it’s fine to be distracted by polls about imaginary peace agreements, so long as nobody asks too closely about what would really make Israelis feel secure, or about what peace really means.

Putting Peace in the Elections Picture?

Hatnu'a election poster: Bibi & Lieberman - disaster; Tzipi Livni - peace.

Hatnu’a election poster: Bibi & Lieberman – disaster; Tzipi Livni – peace.

Israeli electoral politics shift quicker than sand dunes in a storm. At almost the last minute, before the lists of candidates for Israel’s general election for the 19th Knesset on January 22nd 2013, a new electoral slate was established. Tzipi Livni, former, deposed chair of the centrist Kadima party, announced her latest centrist political vehicle, minimally called Hatnua (the movement) on November 27th. Her move made Israel’s political centre even more crowded, competing with not only the sorry remnants of Kadima (most of its remaining members of Knesset switched to join Livini), but also the Labour Party, and Yesh Atid (There is a Future), headed by former media personality Yair Lapid. Yet, Livni’s campaign planning was clearly not last minute, as soon enough billboards, bus stops and buses were bearing Hatnua’s election posters. The basis of the campaign, visually and conceptually, is to focus negatively on the dangers posed by the likely winners, Likud Beitenu, while presenting Livni as a sensible, saner alternative to another term of premiership by Benjamin Netanyahu, as Walla! News has noted.

The most recent of Hatnua’s posters continues the contrasting colour scheme, using alarming black, red and yellow lettering for Likud Beitenu and a gentler font, along with the calmer blue and white national colours, for the text referring to Livni. But it goes one step further, contrasting Netanyahu and Lieberman as a disaster (ason) and associating Livni with peace (shalom). Does this mean that the next Israeli elections will come to focus on the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, on ending the occupation? Should we have a little hope that the Israeli electorate will focus for a while on peace, that the growing desperation of Palestinians in the occupied territories will be addressed, that a third intifada will be averted?

For sure, Hatnua’s campaign is designed to distinguish it clearly from the Labour Party, whose leader Shelly Yachimovich is convinced (following the advice of American campaign strategist Stanley Greenberg) that her party’s best chances depend on emphasizing social justice issues in the light of the massive social protests of the summer of 2011, while downplaying diplomatic and security issues. This  strategy is causing consternation in the Labour ranks, according to Ha’aretz, as it doesn’t seem to be working, and also was a significant factor in the defection of a former Labour leader, Amir Peretz, to Livni’s list days after it was set up. Yossi Beilin, a former Deputy Foreign Minister closely associated with the Oslo accords, delivered a scathing, humorous analysis of Yachimovich’s doomed adherence to the campaign strategy, pointing out that each time Labour had won in 1984, 1992 and 1999 it had been on a promise of peace. His address to an audience at an event of the Geneva Initiative was well-received, but the chair of the subsequent election panel about the parties’ political positions on peace and security issues found it hard to pin them down to anything specific.

Hatnua’s election poster doesn’t indicate an opening of political space for peace and the ending of Israeli occupation. Livni is an heir to Kadima’s founder, Ariel Sharon, who established it as a vehicle to drive forward his plan for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, with the aid of high-level defectors from the Labour Party and much of the business, military and media elite, and as a way of avoiding negotiating further with the Palestinian Authority following the death of Arafat. As Israeli sociologist Lev Grinberg notes in his book Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine, the Gaza “disengagement” signaled the reappearance in Israel of an  ‘imagined peace’, a peace figured as Israel’s separation from Palestine, it’s maintenance of a ‘Jewish democracy’ within (more or less) the 1967 borders. The peace promised on the side of a bus in Tel Aviv is also imaginary, but in a different way that figures peace as diplomatic process, without explaining why renewed talks would succeed this time when they failed previously. The ‘peace’ on the side of the bus remains an empty word, a hope for something better, but not a willingness to engage in the painful, frustrating yet necessary process of making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The bus pulled away from the stop just as I photographed it, becoming a dim shape in the Tel Aviv twilight.