Tag Archives: israeli peace movement

A Hot Field in Hebron: Ta’ayush and the Gleaners

On one of Saturday’s weekly activities by Ta’ayush in the South Hebron Hills area, nothing dramatic happened. Neither settlers nor soldiers used direct physical violence, and nobody got arrested. And yet, a lot was happening, a set of connected features of settlement, military rule and the symbiosis between them that characterise the banality of the injustice of occupation.

For once, I would have wished to get up earlier, as by the time the van load of seven Ta’ayush volunteers arrived from Jerusalem to Abu Anan’s house on the outskirts of Hebron, it was already hot. It didn’t help that (on instructions from above) the guard at the road entrance to Kiryat Arba hadn’t let us through, forcing us to find a different, longer route.

The police station above Abu Anan's field.

The police station above Abu Anan’s field.

Abu Anan lives in a difficult neighbourhood, sandwiched between the settlement of Givat Ha’avot and Kiryat Arba, and overlooked by a police station. He’s been jailed three times for short periods on charges he denies but is not deterred from remaining in place.  We had come to help Abu Anan harvest the grain crop on his terraced field, with which he would feed his goats.

DSC00146No sooner had we made our way on to the field than the military welcoming party arrived, brandishing a “closed military  zone” order which somehow drew a red line that excluded most of the area where harvesting was still to be done. The officer’s interpretation of the map would have meant that we could have worked on only a fraction of the field. He couldn’t explain why we were not allowed in the zone but the settlers are, other than that he believed (incorrectly) he has the authority to decide who the order applies to and where. When we questioned him further, he just said “the discussion is over,” and at one point referred us to his regiment’s (Yehuda) spokesperson, but couldn’t give us their number.

A policeman also came to the scene and tried to come to an agreement with Abu Anan himself, but the latter kept saying that he wanted to work the whole length of the field. We agreed for the time being to work within the permitted zone – vaguely delineated from a white building at the top of the hill to a tree near the bottom – until the “makat” (an officer who is supposed to coordinate civil and military affairs) turned up to negotiate. He never did.

DSC00149We were doing what we could in the permitted space when the real reasons for the military closure appeared. We shifted to the main road to watch the procession of settlers set up their mobile synagogue on the path, dressed in their clean shabbat clothes and the men wrapped in their prayer shawls. It seemed like an odd place to pray, but the prayer is politicized, less an expression of heavenly spirit and more a reflection of the sense of superiority, guaranteed by the guns carried by the soldiers and policemen, that is entailed in holding the prayer there.

DSC00164After a while we resumed our work, focusing on a corner of the field that was outside the zone and still had enough left to harvest. It extended to the road at the bottom of the hill and took us close to the forbidden path, where one of the settler canopies stood. There were a few comments shouted from their side, but for the most the settlers preferred to dialogue on friendly terms with the soldiers and police, until they eventually moved on.

We were working with our hands (fortunately wearing gloves) as agricultural tools are considered a threat. We tore the chaff along with the grain from the earth as fodder for the goats. The harvested piles were packed into bale bags and hauled up the hill to the pen. That part of the field was cleared, other than thorns that not even the goats would eat and some trash by the side of the road.

DSC00170Yet a small strip of the crop remained alongside the path. As we got closer to the path, we were also close to the red line on the map of the closed zone order, now guarded by a few remaining soldiers, at whose feet we found ourselves working. We had to leave the last few sheaves behind and between their boots, as if for the gleaners.

Last week was the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot, at which time the Book of Ruth is read. Ruth, who was not Jewish, was a gleaner, providing also for her widowed Jewish mother-in-law Naomi. So the Biblical commandments and rabbinical teachings about leaving gleanings for the poor, orphans, widows and strangers should have been in the minds of the religious settlers and soldiers.

In close up, in that section of the field, we were leaving the gleanings. But in a broader perspective, and with regard to the Biblical simplicity of our work with our hands, gathering bundles in our arms, we were the gleaners confined to a corner of the field.

That is what occupation has made of Abu Anan and the Palestinians: gleaners on their own land. The settlers are the lords of the land, the soldiers their sometimes willing, sometimes unwilling henchmen, their fiefdom granted by the civil and military establishment of Israel. The occupation encroaches on more and more of the Palestinians’ life, their place, their fields, until they should feel grateful that they are allowed by these lords to glean from the corners of what was once theirs.

We did not strike a blow against the occupation today, at best a pinprick. Maybe the officer and those under his command realized how unjust the “closed military zone” order is, and how absurd it is to enforce it for some people but not for others. Maybe some of the settlers were reminded that their bullying does not go unnoticed. But many pinpricks, the accumulation of little acts, might tip the scales towards justice in the end. In the meantime, as we gleaned together with Abu Anan in the permitted corner of the field, we practiced quietly, under the unkind sun, what life could be like without occupation, Palestinians, Israelis and internationals working together without lord and master,

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.

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.


Promoting Peace: Peace Now as a Graphic Peace Movement, 1987-1993

This blog post is a link to an academic journal article I wrote that has been published online. I give an outline of what I wrote below, about the graphic work of Peace Now (Shalom Achshav) from 1987-1993. I would like to thank, Marcella Simoni,  the editor of the special issue of the journal, Quest: Issues in Jewish History for her hard work in putting together this collection of papers about ‘Israelis and Palestinians Seeking, Building and Representing Peace. A Historical Appraisal

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover


Peace Now,’ the leading Israeli peace organization, has mobilized the public to press governments to reach peace agreements, protest wars and oppression of Palestinians, obstruct settlements in the Occupied Territories and develop dialogue with Palestinians. Focusing on 1987-93, this essay conceptualizes the advocacy of peace by ‘Peace Now’ as public relations activity that promotes images of peace. It communicated its ideas by means of slogans in the form of material signs which were figured graphically in print media, on posters, flyers, placards and stickers. The images of peace that ‘Peace Now’ promoted belong to the category of political images, which are not simply pictures or visual images, but condensations of complex ideas, conceptions and experiences of peace. ‘Peace Now’ promoted three main images of peace from 1987 to 1993: peace as negotiation and compromise; peace as the ending of the oppression of occupation; and peace as separation between Israelis and Palestinians. While there are ambiguities within and tensions between all three images, the key trouble for the advocacy of peace of ‘Peace Now’ was that its third image of peace as separation undermined the other two, ultimately creating a recipe for ‘unilateral peace.’

– Pressing for peace, protesting war, obstructing settlements and developing dialogue: an historical overview

– The Medium of Peace: Public Relations and Political Images in the Public Sphere

– Peace Now’s Images of Peace
A.  Peace as negotiation and compromise
B.   Peace as the ending of the oppression of occupation
C.   Peace as Separation

– Conclusion: Dilemmas of action, divergence of images

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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