Tag Archives: Israeli peace activism

Standing together, standing in one another’s shoes

IMG_20160605_234815For this first time (June 3, 2016) I’ve been able to participate in the monthly Palestinian-Israeli “Freedom March” held at “machsom haminharot,” an Israeli checkpoint on Route 60 to the south of Jerusalem, just by the Palestinian town of Beit Jala. The march is organized by a coalition, in which Combatants for Peace are a key partner, called “omdim beyachad” in Hebrew (standing together). The group has operated since an upsurge in violence in October 2015, offering a clear alternative to the usual pattern in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians each increase their antipathy to and fear of the other.

Being who I am, I had already seen video clips and photos of the event posted on social media, and was expecting the colourful cloud of balloons in the hands of the marchers when our bus from TDSC00067el Aviv arrived at the meeting point. The protest procession crossed the main road slowly, but did not block it, and amid the shouting of slogans and the displaying of placards, found shelter from the sun under the monumental concrete overhang of the separation barrier at this point.

DSC00079The protest ended with short speeches (translated into Hebrew and Arabic) by MK Aiman Oudeh, the charismatic leader of the Joint List, Leah Shakdiel, a long time feminist and social activist who represented the religious peace group Oz v’shalom, and representatives of Combatants for Peace. But I won’t talk today about the content of the speeches, the formulation of slogans (also translated and transliterated between Hebrew and Arabic), or even the ritual of releasing the balloons from under the concrete canopy into the freedom of the skies.

Instead, I want to focus on another part of the protest, the performance of a short scene in which Palestinians and Israelis role played soldiers and themselves in a typical encounter at a checkpoint, an encounter which involves verbal and physical violence, detention, constriction, humiliation, pushing people to the ground. The performance ends with a call for non-violence, to the applause of those who had gathered round the scene. An upper level of the walkway by the separation barrier served as a stage, and some but not all  of the demonstrators gathered together to watch – although it was difficult to hear. Yet, the point is not the production or acting quality of this performance.

DSC00094“Standing together” itself performs the vital political position of “refusing to be enemies” at a time of hightened tension, and in the context of a conflict to which no political resolution can be seen on the horizon. Combatants for Peace, along with other groups participating in the freedom march, such as the Bereaved Families Forum, and the Jewish-Arab parliamentary bloc Hadash, have performed this partnership, including acts of co-resistance, for years now. Combatants for Peace has also turned consistently to the “theatre of the oppressed” as a key element of its activities, often in more rehearsed ways and in settings in which the audience could participate more easily. They have documented some performances, and I have written about one I saw a few years ago.

In the setting of the demonstration the performance has particular significance. We can stand together, we can march together. But we can do so meaningfully better when we have learned to stand in the shoes of the other, whether through role play or dialogue or hearing each others’ stories. Combatants for Peace is a partnership if Israelis and Palestinians who have seen how their armed force and violence of the other feel from the point of the other. They stand together by seeing themselves from the other stands, When you have stood in the shoes of the other, and experienced with them what it’s like to commit or be subject to violence, then standing together just feels a whole better than standing against each other.

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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

 

Without Palestinian Susiya, what would be Peace?

I cannot imagine what any sort of peace in Israel-Palestine would look like if the planned demolition of the Palestinian village of Susiya by Israeli occupation forces and the displacement of its residents to outside of Area C of the West Bank goes ahead. The case of Susiya is by now well known and has been a focus of sustained legal and grass-roots campaigns by Rabbis for Human Rights and B’Tselem (click on the links for detailed information). But it is astounding that the village is now facing its third destruction and dispersal. It began with the establishment of the Israeli settlement of Susiya in 1983 on Palestinian land, followed in 1986 by the eviction of the villagers after their land was declared a Jewish archaeological site. That says a lot about how occupation works – the justification of Jewish presence of the land in the past comes at the cost of Palestinian presence on the land (documented since Ottoman times) in the present. The Israeli settlement project in the West Bank (and elsewhere) entails an exclusive Jewish right to settle on the land, and hence the dispossession of the Palestinians who are already settled.

Since 1986 the villagers have been trapped in a Kafkaesque Catch 22. They relocated to other agricultural land and built temporary structures in addition to using caves, but the occupation authorities never approved any plans for reconstructing the village, meaning all construction was technically illegal. In 2001 the occupation authorities demolished the village as revenge for the murder of an Israeli settler in Susiya, and since then there have been a series of demolition orders, petitions to the Israeli High Court by the villagers, and temporary stays of demolition. Since 2001 the villagers and their property have been attacked repeatedly by settlers who have also blocked access to their land, Despite numerous complaints filed with the Israeli authorities, there has been almost no redress. In 2013 the occupation authorities rejected a plan for the village, proposing instead to relocate the villagers into Area A, which the villagers have petitioned against. The Israeli High Court is due to consider the case again on August 3rd 2015, but on May 4th the court denied a request for an interim injunction against demolitions, and occupation authorities announced that the destruction would go ahead between July 20th and August 3rd.

susya mapI have posted previously about how the relocated village of Susiya is itself an archaeological site that tells the story of occupation. Now it has become the site of an intensive campaign to save Susiya. As usual, there is an online campaign: the hashtags #savesusiya and #standwithsusiya; the Facebook page Stand with Susiya; a Thunderclap petition; an email campaign by Jewish Voice for Peace to John Kerry; a letter campaign by the International Solidarity Movement to EU officials and Israeli embassies; and no doubt some more. The impending demolition has already attracted international attention. Spokesperson for the US State Department John Kirby said on July 16th that the demolition “would be harmful and provocative,” and Israeli Channel 2 TV news broadcast his statement. The Guardian newspaper was among the international press that had already covered the story in June.

Yet, what will matter more than all of this will be non-violent direct action on the ground. Rabbis for Human Rights are trying a last minute intercession through their lawyer, who referred to the planned eviction as transfer. At the same time, they and other groups, such as the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee have called for action in the village, including a demonstration on Friday 24th and a constant presence of Israeli and international supporters. Maybe all together, the campaign will halt the demolition until August 3rd, but even then there is no guarantee that the court will spare Susiya from destruction.

area cWhy does Susiya matter? What difference would it make if a couple of hundred Palestinians moved a few kilometers? The case of Susiya is clearly a part of a pattern in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel retains full civil and military control, and where the “Civil” Administration’s planning powers are used cynically to enforce the creeping annexation of the area. As Area C is 60% of the territory of the West Bank, that would leave very little space for Palestinians to live, work and build on. It is not only a question of leaving no place for a Palestinian state, should the “two state” solution ever come to fruition. Whether there be one state, two states, or seven, there can only be peace if there is room for everyone to live. If there is demolition, eviction, displacement, transfer, and even if then there is no more violence as there is nobody left to oppress, but “quiet instead, there will not be peace. What follows victory is not peace but the shadow of war. The peace that might come, however, will be prefigured by the activists resisting occupation together.

As the threat to Susiya grows, so does the need for action.

This is an emergency! Stand with Susiya.

The Leftern Wall

[Graphic put together by Rabbis for Human Rights]

Between July 20th, the end of Ramadan, and August 3rd, the date on which the Israeli Supreme Court will hear Susiya’s case against demolition, there are expected to be a number of demolitions in the village of Susiya.

This is hideous news.

We cannot allow ourselves to be made drowsy or apathetic. Yes, Susiya has been under threat of demolition since 2012. Yes, there have been times when the call to action has been framed as urgent, and in the end, nothing happened (thank God and citizen-activists). Yes, the issue of Susiya, for those who follow this blog or the work of many other human rights NGOs and activists, is not a new one.

And yet: The essence of the story is that residents of a village are threatened with the their homes and medical clinics and playgrounds being demolished simply because…

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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.

Susiya is here

"Yesha is here" sticker

“Yesha is here” sticker

In the days when Gaza was treated by Israeli settlers as  “liberated” territory along with Judea and Samaria, under the acronym “Yesha,” the settler movement used the slogan “Yesha is here” to win support among the Jewish Israeli public. The logic behind the slogan was clear: there’s no difference between Jewish settlement within the Green Line and beyond it as the right to the Land of Israel applies on both sides. But the slogan also contained a warning: if you “give up” the West Bank and Gaza, the Arabs will come after Tel Aviv too. The slogan was accompanied by claims that the post-67 settlers are not doing anything different to the pre-67 settlers, that the Zionist movement has always done what’s needed to establish and maintain “the Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.” “What’s needed” has included military force, expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians, and certainly that was the case before 1967.

The slogan’s currency has not waned since Gaza was cut off from the West Bank (and the rest of the world). The already relocated Palestinian village of Susiya in the South Hebron Hills, in Area C of the West Bank, is facing immanent demolition following a ruling on May 5, 2015, by Israel’s High Court of Justice. The case of Susiya is well documented and has been a focus of sustained campaigns by Rabbis for Human Rights and B’Tselem (click on the links for detailed information) and it has also attracted a good deal of international attention, with EU and UN representatives visiting the site. The villagers were evicted 30 years ago not in the heat of battle, but to make way for an archaeological site that became a settlement, and now they face further expulsion from the private land they moved on to, to give the settlement more space. The case of Susiya is clearly a part of a pattern in Area C, where Israel retains full civil and military control, and where the Civil Administration’s planning powers are used cynically to enforce the creeping annexation of the area. The Israeli settlement project in the West Bank entails an exclusive Jewish right to settle on the land, and hence the removal and dispossession of the Palestinians who are already settled.

Demonstrators protesting against the planned evacuation of Bedouin villages in the Negev, June 11, 2015. Photo by Ilan Assayag

Demonstrators protesting against the planned evacuation of Bedouin villages in the Negev, June 11, 2015. Photo by Ilan Assayag

This is not, however, only the story of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, because “Yesha” is here in pre-1967 Israel too. Dedicated to human rights in Israel as well as the occupied territories, Rabbis for Human Rights also campaigns against expulsions and displacements of Arabs within Israel, notably the Bedouin of the Negev and most recently the village of Umm al-Hiran, which is also slated to make way for a new town for Jews. Neither on this nor that side of the Green Line is it mostly a question of extremist, fundamentalist settlers taking the law into their own hands and forcing Palestinians from their land. In each case, it is Israel’s High Court that has judged that the inhabitants of the land have no right to it, or to build on it, but the State does. “Yesha,” the State-backed project of exclusive Jewish settlement, for which the law is as much a force as its military, is indeed here.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the connection between dispossession there and dispossession here, on either side of the Green Line, is inherent to the activity of Rabbis for Human Rights, and that it is practiced under the heading of “rights” not “peace.” If “peace” signifies two states, one Palestinian and one Israeli, and the assumption that drawing a line between them is enough for there to be peace, then what would that peace be? The Palestinian State, one hopes, would allow the villagers of Susiya to return to their land, but what would peace be for the people of Umm al-Hiran? Peace can’t only be there but not here. And that is why the practice of Rabbis for Human Rights is not only about rights but also about peace, because there is no peace without justice and no justice without peace.

Divine Violence, Divine Peace: Gaza 2014

This blog is an opinion piece I wrote during the time of the Gaza 2014 war, which has been published in a special supplement (which I edited) of the journal Theory & Event about the war. The whole collection is available free on online, and includes essays by smart, insightful and sometimes sad essays by Adel Manna, Amir Nizar Zuabi, Lev Grinberg, Ofer Cassif, Muhammad Ali Khailid, Louise Bethlehem, and Trude Strand.

IAF strike on Gaza (Photo: EPA)

IAF strike on Gaza (Photo: EPA)

On July 7th I flew back to the US after a month-­long trip to the UK and then Israel. On the same day, the Israeli assault on Gaza began, called in Hebrew “Operation Steadfast Cliff” (tzuk eitan). In my summer schedule, I had set aside time after my return to Bloomington to work on a paper titled “Peace: An Emergent Norm of War and Conflict,” for the American Political Science Association (APSA) conference. I intended to consider Walter Benjamin’s essay “Critique of Violence” among other texts.1 But I had not taken into account that during the summer I would be trying to write against the background of a war that I felt immediately, a war that interrupted my daily schedule as I constantly listened for and looked at updates.

As I tried write I was facing the “steadfast cliff” of the Israeli war on Gaza. The utter pointlessness of the deaths, injuries and damage weighed heavily on me. I didn’t want to be in Bloomington. As an Israeli citizen I felt a duty that outweighed my professional duties, a civil duty to participate in the activities of the Israeli opponents of the war, my Israelis, who are increasingly subject to intimidation by ultra­-nationalist phalanxes on the streets and on social media.2

It was impossible to separate my work from my anxiety, anger and frustration. I had to submit to the interruption in order to think critically about the normal abnormality of what Benjamin refers to as a “state of emergency.” By contrast, a “real state of emergency” 3 would interrupt not only our professional normality but also the regular flow of history – in this case, the repetition of warfare. What, then, with Benjamin’s help, did I think about peace while rockets, bombs and shells fell on Gaza and Israel and the anti­-war demonstrations went on? How could protests constitute an “effective critique” of military violence?4

Through Benjamin’s eyes, the predominant, juridical ways of critiquing the violence of this war are not an effective critique of military violence because they partake in the same means that justify it. In his critique of the legal critique of violence, he argues that all law rests on a “common basic dogma,” that “just ends can be attained by justified means, justified means used for just ends.”5 In the legal framework of the self­defense of nation­states, or peoples, Israel condemns the military violence of the other as aggression, as a means to unjust ends contrary to the sanctity of human life. At the same time Israel justifies its own force as self­defense, as a means to a just end – national and individual survival. Legal norms do not rule out extensive use of military violence as a means of self-­defense, while the spiral of condemnation and justification speaks to a diabolical logic of “we are good, our enemy is evil.”6

Significantly, Benjamin considers military violence to be paradigmatic of all violence, including the “lawmaking”7 violence of the state, whose ultimate end is in preserving itself. Law cannot provide an effective critique of violence because law itself has a “violent origin.”8 The origin of law is war, in the “peace ceremony” that sanctions “every victory” by “recognizing the new conditions as a new ‘law’.”9 The peace that follows victory establishes the “frontiers” in which the law operates and establishes the “power” of the law.10 Israel historically has been the victor that has used military violence to determine the frontiers in which the state’s civil and military law apply. It has determined who has a right to live within these frontiers, as well as granting partial rights to some of the vanquished, denying them entirely to others.

The “mythical violence” that constitutes law is, Benjamin says, the violent anger of the gods, which humans experience as fate. Indeed, fate, anger and retribution are the terms in which military violence is felt, not the reasonable language of international law. Many Jewish Israelis experience rockets falling like bolts of lightning cast down by the gods, as terror, as the manifestation of the anger and hatred of an enemy who has no rational motive, only a will annihilate them. For their part, Gazans experience unrelenting violence from the skies and on the ground as the anger and rage of their implacable Zionist enemy who denies them national and often personal existence. Military violence is their recurring fate.

As an alternative to the fate of mythical military violence, Benjamin asks whether violence is ever justified as a means, irrespective of its ends. His controversial, affirmative, answer is that there is pure, immediate divine violence that halts mythical violence” and initiates “a new historical epoch”.11 Benjamin’s conception of the pure means of nonviolence comes down to pure language that is neither intersubjective nor communicative. It is not a means to an end, nor a medium, but an immediacy that “corresponds … to the messianic end of the history.”12 The pure language of nonviolent means is the same as divine violence.

But Benjamin also takes us in a different direction – towards the non­violent resolution of conflict, towards peace. On the face of it, he has a conventional understanding of the nonviolent means of conflict resolution, referring to the values of courtesy, sympathy, and trust in resolving disputes, along with conferences and diplomacy. 13 Yet, it seems to me, that along with Benjamin’s notion of divine violence is a notion of divine peace that also does the Messianic work of interrupting the cycle of mythical violence.

Must we then wait, perhaps forever, for the coming of the messiah for this violence to stop, or can there be peace now? Perhaps, but perhaps the interruptions of mythical and military violence are performed and witnessed on an everyday level even as the violence continues. As an example, I turn to the activities of the Parents Circle Families Forum ­ Bereaved Families a joint Israeli­Palestinian organization of about 600 families. For them reconciliation between nations is a prerequisite for conventional, negotiated peace. 14 During the Israeli war on Gaza the Bereaved Families have interrupted the military, mythical violence in two ways.

In a video that they disseminated through social media, they interrupt the repetition through which mourning for the fallen is sanctified by further military violence which leads to more bereavement.15 At a time of war when the impulse is for each nation to unite, to become one camp, the video repeatedly tells us in Hebrew and Arabic that they don’t want us “here,” with them, in a circle of bereavement.16 The solemn faces against the grey background speak a pure language, the sharing of language as a sharing of existence.

Parents Circle Families Forum - Peace Square, July 2014

Parents Circle Families Forum – Peace Square, July 2014

The group’s second interruption of military violence is the “Peace Square” next to Tel Aviv’s Cinémathèque, in which they counter the media propaganda and hatred running rampant in Israel by sharing their stories, and their choice for reconciliation, providing a space for dialogue.17 The talk under their canopy will lead to no peace treaty, but it is a sharing of language and a persistent presence. 18 Their slogan is “it won’t stop until we talk” and though “it” hasn’t stopped, their talk interrupts momentarily the flow of violence.

Of course, I do not mean that in actuality the violence stops. The messiah is not here, and history continues. The language of divine peace is a language we don’t yet understand, but through it passes the “weak Messianic power” that each generation has.19 One of the Bereaved Families’ projects is a dialogue on Facebook in which posts are translated from Hebrew and Arabic, and vice versa. The site is called “Crack in the Wall,”20 and it indicates how “every second of time … [can be] the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”21 Through these small cracks in the wall, the Bereaved Families interrupt mythical violence, making room for a different history that might burst through at any time. Peace.

Notes

1.  Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz (Schocken Books, New York, 1978): 277–300.

2.  Omer Raz, “Unprecedented’ violence stalks anti­war demos across Israel,” +972 blog, July 29, 2014. http://972mag.com/unprecedented­violence­ stalks­anti­war­demos­across­israel/94530/. Accessed August 3 2014.

3.  Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, (Schocken: New York, 1968), 257.

4.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 284.

5.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 278; 293.

6.  See for example Ari Shavit, “In this sad war story, Israel is in the right,” Ha’aretz online, English version, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium­1.606865. Accessed July 29th 2014.

7.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 283.

8.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 288.

9.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 283.

10.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 295.

11.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 297; 300.

12.  Carlo Salzani, “Purity (Benjamin with Kant),” History of European Ideas 36 (2010), 444.

13.  Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” 289.

14.  Its mission is to prevent further bereavement through dialogue, tolerance, peace and reconciliation. http://www.theparentscircle.org/Content.aspx? ID=2#.U4Ss7PldWSo. Accessed May 24, 2014.

15.  See Jon Simons, “Mourning the fallen: working through bereavement,”  Picturing Peace blog, July 26 2014.

16.  Parents Circle Families Forum, “We Don’t Want you Here,” video, July 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dgo1MpWuwgE&list=UUxz­1IROo6QyjY8fheIA9AQ. Accessed August 1 2014.

17. Peace Square Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/483960538374211/?ref_newsfeed_story_type=regular. Accessed August 3 2014.

18.  Israeli Social TV “Peace Square.”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KrilbWAei4 Accessed August 1 2014.

19.  Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 254.

20. Crack in the Wall Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/crackinthewall/info.

21.  Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” 264.

Test is Copyright © 2015 Jon Simons and The Johns Hopkins University Press