Trump is bulldozing hope for two states

Ben Reiff

Just when you think he couldn’t possibly get any more arrogant, ignorant, careless, mindless, insolent, deluded, self-righteous, moronic, reckless, imprudent…

Does he actively try to seek out the most provocative actions? Those with the most people telling him not to do? Just to prove that he doesn’t take orders from anybody?

It’s simply impossible to attribute any rationality to the man, after the leaders of the world have warned him against using Jerusalem as a political chess piece. A city of such historic and legendary significance to Jews, Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians. A city so volatile and fiercely contested that throughout the last hundred years the tiniest developments have sparked almighty violence and bloodshed. A city that people have died for, and a city that certainly hasn’t seen the last drop of spilled blood.

But for Donaldo it’s just another campaign pledge ticked off the list. Words on a page, not real people who face the very real consequences of his actions 6,000 miles away.

The days following Trump’s announcement have seen clashes erupt across Israel and the Palestinian territories, from Hebron to Ramallah, from Bethlehem to Khan Younis, and from Nazareth to Damascus Gate. Israel has mobilised its troops across the region, and security at American sites has been intensified for fear of targeted retaliatory attacks. There have been rocket attacks from Gaza, and Israeli counter-strikes. Hamas called for an intifada in defence of the freedom of Palestine and Jerusalem, and at the time of writing the Palestinian health ministry is already reporting 300 injuries and three deaths: Mohammed al-Masri, killed on Friday near Khan Younis, and two Hamas members reported killed on Saturday. If anything is inevitable in this Trump-induced crisis, it’s that there will be many more injuries and probably more deaths.

Maybe the embassy will stay where it is. Trump only told the press that he’s instructed the State Department to begin preparations for moving the embassy, which is not to say that the move will actually materialise. But the damage has already been done, and the repercussions will long outlive his presidency.

Israelis know their capital is in Jerusalem, and so does most of the world. The parliament is there, the government offices are there, and international diplomacy takes place there. But the world is happy to comply with the internationally agreed, UN-sanctioned position that Jerusalem is to be negotiated in final status talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The rest of the world has deemed this sensible and appropriate, and so has maintained this status by keeping their embassies in Tel Aviv and reasserting that Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, and continued expansion of settlements in that side of the city, is illegitimate and illegal under international law.

But to hell with the world, says Donaldo. To hell with the UN. To hell with 70 years of UN resolutions, and 50 years of US policy.

If he’s so eager to make the ultimate deal, to advance the cause of peace, there are plenty of other things he could have done, and statements he could have made. How about condemning violence by Israel and the Palestinians? How about condemning settlement construction and incitement? How about reaffirming America’s commitment to achieving a just and lasting peace in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolutions 181 and 194, and UN Security Council Resolutions 242, 338, and 2334? How about acknowledging that, as well as the true capital of Israel, Jerusalem is also the true capital of Palestine?

He told the media that the US still supports a two-state solution if this is what the Israelis and the Palestinians desire, but his unilateral declaration does nothing to advance a two-state solution. What Trump fails to understand, and what all supporters of two states must understand, is that we have reached a point, with the complete absence of any peace process, whereby any action against a two-state solution serves to advance the wrongheaded cause of one state between the river and the sea. And that is exactly what this has done.

If the state that has assumed the role of peace-maker between Israel and Palestine is making unilateral, partisan moves, then Israelis on the right will take this as a green light to advance their expansionist agenda, which the world will reject and call instead for one democratic state. Palestinians, meanwhile, will read it as the final nail in the coffin of the peace process, and the trigger for the PLO to abandon its two-state position in favour of one state once again. After all, this is what the Palestinians have wanted for the last hundred years; they only gave up on it pragmatically in the hope of achieving their own state and an end to the conflict (and many, indeed, never gave up on it).

The UN Security Council convened an emergency meeting on Friday evening to discuss the situation and how to deal with the aftermath of Trump’s recklessness. I’m all ears as to their suggestions

Meet the Candidate: Hannah Rose

There are three candidates vying to be the next President of the Union of Jewish Students. Zionish sent them each ten questions on the key – and not so key – political issues they may face. In the last of our profiles, here are the responses from Bristol student Hannah Rose:

Zionism: the national liberation movement of the Jewish people or racist settler-colonialism?

Zionism is our national liberation movement, it is our right to self-determination fulfilled, and the expression of 2000 years of yearning for our return to the Jewish homeland. In the diaspora, our Zionism means we should be invested in Israel’s values and its future, and to me, that means we should fight for the State of Israel to live up to its founders’ ideals as a Jewish and democratic state, and we should support all those in Israel campaigning for peace and a two-state solution.

How would your views on the Israel-Palestine conflict translate into policy as UJS President?

I want to open up our Israel conversations to a wide range of Zionist perspectives. The Jewish community can often be an echo chamber, but no two Zionist identities are the same, and we need to be making space for a range of opinions on left and right in order to all work together for peace.

How should Jewish students in the UK react to the rise of the nationalist right?

Nowhere has racism and antisemitism been more devastating than on the nationalist right. We should be unequivocal in our stance that racism and any form of discrimination are unwelcome in our society and against our values. As a Jewish community, and a student community, we need to do more to stand by other minority identities against discrimination, not just in the spirit of Martin Niemoller’s poem ‘First they came for the Communists’, but because fighting racism is simply the right thing to do.

Which Jewish political figure – dead or alive – best represents your politics?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg – a strong Jewish woman who stands up for her liberal values and who is a trailblazer for women in the legal world.

Should JSocs do Israel events?

I think JSocs should be careful not to take polarising stances on Israeli politics so as not to isolate Jewish students, but it is important to remember that 93% of British Jews feel that their belief in the State of Israel is central to their Jewish identity. Given this, it would be wrong to completely cut Israel out of JSocs as for so many Jewish students their Jewish and Zionist identities are inseparable. We should be able to discuss Zionism and Israel in UJS without enforcing a narrow  point of view. Having said that, no two J-Socs are the same, so what may work in Bristol, for example, may not work in London.

How should UJS engage with the BDS movement?

Jewish students have re-affirmed the same two motions with overwhelming majorities year after year at UJS Conference. One is to support two states for two people, and the other is to combat BDS on campus, as Jewish students see BDS as trojan horse for antisemitism and as a threat to their Jewish identity. I fully believe in both of these motions and support UJS democracy too, and so I will stand strong with Jewish students on these issues.

Does the Labour left, and its student equivalent, have an antisemitism problem?

Unequivocally, the Labour Party does have a problem with antisemitism that hasn’t yet been solved. I’m proud to have been a part of UJS’ response to far-left antisemitism over the past few years, and together we have fought hard against some incredibly problematic figures in the student movement and won. However, there is always more work to be done, and we must continue to stand strong and call out antisemitism wherever we find it, on the left or on the right.

Who would you have voted for in the 2016 US election? Primary candidates allowed.

Hillary Clinton. She was the most qualified candidate, with the most realistic vision for a progressive America.

Let’s say you become UJS President, and are given £10,000 for a political project or campaign. What would you do?

I believe meaningful and effective Holocaust education is one of the most important issues of our time. With the rise of the far-right across the world and deepening refugee crises in both Europe and Myanmar, we have a collective responsibility to take action and ensure our message is heard by all. I worked this summer with the Holocaust Educational Trust, and I’ve seen what we can achieve, but also how much there is left to be done. I look forward to seeing the success of UJS’ campaign Our Living Memory and building on it next year if elected.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Theresa May, Donald Trump. Shag, marry, kill?

Kill Donald Trump, marry Theresa May, and leave Bibi at home with his wife.

Meet the Candidate: Annie Cohen

There are three candidates vying to be the next President of the Union of Jewish Students. Zionish sent them each ten questions on the key – and not so key – political issues they may face. In the second of this series, here are the responses from History and Yiddish student Annie Cohen:

Zionism: the national liberation movement of the Jewish people or racist settler-colonialism?

 Zionism means different things to different people. Historically, Zionism was conceived by some of its founders as a racist settler-colonial project, however there were also left wing Zionists who didn’t seek to build a state in Palestine, but believed Jews would be forced to move there by antisemitism in Europe. Today, a lot of Jews understand Zionism as a belief in a Jewish right to national self-determination, but we have to understand that Zionism has, at least in the eyes of Palestinians now become inseparable from the racist nationalist state of Israel. To me, the fact that all the earlier ideas of diasporism and autonomism have been abandoned in favour of a nationalist oppressive state is a tragedy for Jews as well as Palestinians.

How would your views on the Israel-Palestine conflict translate into policy as UJS President?

UJS policy is created by UJS conference, and I would respect that. However, I would make changes with my remit. I would initiate a review of UJS spending on Israel programmes – which from the current website seem to be a main part of UJS activity, to see if funding could be diverted to student welfare, to support more students in the UK. I would seek to cut ties with birthright, as stated in my manifesto.

I would also take action to reduce the ostracization of non-Zionist Jewish students from JSocs, and make sure their views are represented centrally, on panel discussions and in our partner organisations.

How should Jewish students in the UK react to the rise of the nationalist right

Oppose it by any means necessary. I am an experienced antifascist campaigner, have helped to organise demonstrations with and fundraisers for groups within the antifascist network, and I would make resisting the far right a priority. To me to be Jewish is to be an antifascist.

Which Jewish political figure – dead or alive – best represents your politics?

Moshiah

Should JSocs do Israel events?

I think Israel advocacy should be done by Israel societies, not JSocs. However, Israel, as a land, people and scriptural concept is a core part of Judaism. Many Jewish students have a strong connection, whether it be positive or negative, with the State of Israel, and I think that JSocs should provide a space for students to engage with and discuss that connection when wanted.

I would also encourage Jsocs to run events and programmes that celebrate the diaspora, and increase education about other political ideas that used to dominate Jewish political thought alongside Zionism. As a non-zionist community organiser, I have a lot of experience and ideas for creating these types of events.

How should UJS engage with the BDS movement?

If it were up to me entirely I would want UJS to support BDS, and at the same time consistently advocate for Jewish students for whom BDS is obviously a lot more difficult, and can feel very hostile (and have you ever tried to find non Israeli kosher houmous?!). However, I am not running on a pro-BDS platform, and I can see that a U-turn in policy would be too difficult to bring about. What I would want to do, as a priority, is to end UJS blanket opposition to BDS, which is being used to shut down the work of Palestine societies and to silence Palestinian voices on campus, and at the same time preventing real instances of antisemitism from being address.

Does the Labour left, and its student equivalent, have an antisemitism problem?

Yep it does, and I’m in a good place to fight this and have experience doing so. Part of the problem is that when antisemitism is used as a political tool against the left, it confuses things and actual antisemitic incidents are not addressed. Antisemitism is present across the entire political spectrum, left, right and centre, and we should be ready to fight it wherever we see it.

Who would you have voted for in the 2016 US election? Primary candidates allowed.

Bernie

Let’s say you become UJS President, and are given £10,000 for a political project or campaign. What would you do?

Invest that money in student welfare and grants, help struggling JSocs, and importantly, ask students to tell me where that money is needed.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Theresa May, Donald Trump. Shag, marry, kill?

I’d kill all of them 🙂

Meet the Candidate: Lawrence Rosenberg

There are three candidates vying to be the next President of the Union of Jewish Students. Zionish sent them each ten questions on the key – and not so key – political issues they may face. In the first of this series, here are the responses from University of Manchester student Lawrence Rosenberg:

Zionism: the national liberation movement of the Jewish people or racist settler-colonialism?

National liberation movement of the Jewish people, simple as.

How would your views on the Israel-Palestine conflict translate into policy as UJS President?

I am a proud Zionist and my message is clear. As UJS President, I will work with any group which helps students to engage with their identity. As an estimated 93% of students identify with Israel, I will be supporting policy which ensures we keep students both safe and engaged in relation to Israel based activities.

How should Jewish students in the UK react to the rise of the nationalist right?

However they want to. UJS isn’t here to dictate how Jewish students politically affiliate themselves and indeed some students’ may identify with the nationalist right.

Which Jewish political figure – dead or alive – best represents your politics?

Golda Meir, she was a patriot who loved her country and generally the gift of life.

Should JSocs do Israel events?

Each Jsoc is autonomous and should cater to the needs and wants of their specific society. Some JSocs are Jewish and Israel societies, and some are just Jewish Societies, so that is up to committees to decide – but UJS will support any and all Israel events that JSocs put on however it can.

How should UJS engage with the BDS movement?

The BDS movement is not nationally organised and I would not endorse national cooperation if they did. I think this has to be left to individual JSocs to decide what course of action to take. UJS should support them in whatever path they choose to take, like they did when I met with the BDS leader in Manchester. Sometimes on a more localised level creating an understanding can help Jewish students to feel more safe, so if that’s what works for them then it works for me. Giving support to localised committees and ensuring constant lines of communication is key to helping ensure Jewish students feel safe whatever action they wish to take.

Does the Labour left, and its student equivalent, have an antisemitism problem?

I don’t think Labour is antisemitic. I think there are though people within the Labour left which are antisemitic and they do seem to keep cropping up more and more frequently. Whether their antisemitism is linked to their politics, their race or their background seems to vary with each individual case.

Who would you have voted for in the 2016 US election? Primary candidates allowed.

I followed the election a lot and I hopped around. Probably most likely Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.

Let’s say you become UJS President, and you are given £10,000 for a political project or campaign. What would you do?

Give it to students to run localised campaigns which are appropriate for their campuses. Go and speak to students who want to create greater engagement in the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and work with them to create a campaign which works for them.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Theresa May, Donald Trump. Shag, marry, kill?

Bibi- Shag.

Donald- Marry (for the big old inheritance which I can donate partly to UJS).

Theresa- Kill.

What is Hidden in Dimona?

Jonathan Shamir

President Trump’s disdain for the Iran Nuclear Deal, the inflammatory exchanges with North Korea, and new pressure in Japan to respond to its volatile neighbour, have rewritten the nuclear landscape – and it could spell Armageddon. Meanwhile, the arid planes of Dimona are hushed. They are unremarkable and inconspicuous. Even Israel’s mass forestation projects never managed to tame the Negev desert, but these inhospitable conditions make the perfect location for Israel’s worst kept secret.

How did the young state of less than two million people get away with it?

When Israel began nuclear production in the fifties, the fledgling state was under existential threat: it knew that the new lines drawn on the map could be erased just as quickly. The retreat of Israel’s Western patrons from the Middle East did not placate these fears, either. Historically, the Jewish people had always been dependent on other nations, but Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided that to survive, Israel had to embrace their newfound independence and pursue the ultimate insurance policy – they had to go nuclear.

It was such vulnerability which contributed to Israeli exceptionalism. As countries were preaching non-proliferation, the components for Israel’s programme came from all over the world: the French, drawn into the project by the doubled-guilt of Vichy and Suez, provided invaluable technology and experience. Norway provided the deuterium oxide, while America and South Africa provided the uranium. Shimon Peres later wrote in his memoirs that half of the money for the reactor, over $40 million, came from Israel’s allies. Against all odds, the inconspicuous sliver on the world map joined the ranks of the most powerful nations on earth in acquiring nuclear weapons: the USA, the USSR, and the UK.

In the next decade, John F. Kennedy would express distaste at Israel’s nuclear activities, but the inspections are circumvented or delayed into farce. The mutually-acknowledged façade eventually turns into acceptance when Golda Meir presses Richard Nixon to halt pressure on Israel to sign the NPT. This unwritten understanding has been upheld ever since. This contrarian accommodation cannot simply be explained by what was sold as existential necessity. After all, diplomacy is governed by interests. For a long time, Israel has been perceived as a stable frontier in an otherwise tumultuous region. Although Benjamin Netanyahu’s abrasive gallivanting has raised questions about the unconditional bipartisan support in America, as well as antagonising many countries in Europe, this status endures.
Therefore, the former speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg’s description of Israel’s official line of non-disclosure as “childish and outdated” three years ago is wrong. The proclamation of nuclear power from other non-signatories of the NPT, such as an India and Pakistan, forces the hand of diplomatic pressure, but opacity can make this unpalatable truth easier to conveniently ignore.

The same tactic of denial did not work for Iran. Unlike Israel, Iran’s defiant enrichment of uranium prompted international outrage. While the concoction of an unstable regime and unstable weapons elicits the full force of diplomatic pressure, mutual interests can grant diplomatic immunity. After all, on the North Korean Day of Sun and the annual Iranian Quds Day, Israeli and American flags are set alight in common fire. Dimona therefore reveals an unsavoury truth about the nuclear arms race: Israel dilutes the heavy brunt of nuclear responsibility, and many Western nations want to turn a blind eye. The status quo, and the unique blend of historical circumstances, allows them to do so.

For Umm al-Kheir, Awareness is Resistance- By Ben Reiff

Umm al-Kheir is under attack. You probably haven’t heard that the village has been on the receiving end of rocks thrown by settlers for more than 30 consecutive nights, or that Ta’ayush activist Guy Butavia was attacked during a solidarity visit to Umm al-Kheir last month after confronting the settlers about their harassment, or that the IDF came to erect a razor wire fence to cut off the villagers from even more of their own land. And yet none of this is new; Umm al-Kheir has been under attack for a long time.

The Israeli Civil Administration has been threatening this tiny village, home to 150 Bedouins, with demolition for more than two decades, while settler violence here has also been a commonality. What makes Umm al-Kheir such a target for demolitions and violent attacks? The primary factor is geographical: the village sits adjacent to the settlement of Carmel. Or rather, the settlement of Carmel sits on the land of Umm al-Kheir, purchased by the Hathaleen family – 1948 refugees from the Negev – in the early 1960s.

The Israeli government began the construction of several settlements in the South Hebron Hills (including Carmel, Maon and Susya) in the early 1980s, with no regard for the rights of the Palestinians in the region whose lands it was expropriating. The subsequent division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C at Oslo saw the villagers of Umm al-Kheir’s misfortune double; due to the cluster of recently constructed settlements, many of the small, rural Bedouin communities in the region found themselves under full Israeli control in Area C.

Hence, by the mid-90s, the villagers of Umm al-Kheir had lost not only a large chunk of their land but also the ability to build on that land, for with Oslo came an almost total prohibition on Palestinian construction in Area C, despite some 50% of that land being privately owned by Palestinians. According to B’Tselem, stated Israeli restrictions automatically block Palestinian construction in 70% of Area C (with 36.5% designated as “state land”, 30% firing zones etc), but this doesn’t mean the remaining 30% is available for unrestricted construction; the Civil Administration has exclusive authority over planning processes, and has refused to approve any master plans for more than 90% of the Palestinian villages in Area C. As such, it is almost impossible for Palestinians there to obtain building permits, making all construction (even on their own land) illegal and thus liable to demolition. Meanwhile, expansion in the settlement of Carmel continues.

What does the international community have to say about all this? The efforts of activists (for example the recent Center for Jewish Nonviolence-led Global Shabbat Against Demolitions to pressure the government into ending the demolitions in Umm al-Kheir and Susya in the West Bank as well as Umm al-Hiran and al-Araqib inside Israel, or the ongoing attempts to restore life to Sarura) have helped to raise the profile of these villages and put them on the international agenda somewhat. The Obama Administration was critical of the demolitions but failed to apply any real pressure on Netanyahu’s government, while the EU has funded structures to replace those that have been demolished. Still lacking the Civil Administration’s approval for building, however, these face the same risks of demolition as Palestinian-built structures, and Israel doesn’t hesitate to destroy these too.

In an attempt to add a carrot to the sticks of demolition threats and settler violence that are pressuring the residents of Umm al-Kheir to leave their lands, the Civil Administration has fully connected another village, a kilometre or so away, to the water supply and provided building permits for construction on site. Presently, Umm al-Kheir’s residents are unable even to dig water wells since this would constitute construction, forcing them to illegally tap into the system at the nearby village in order to fill up their own tanks. The settlers of Carmel have regularly been flying drones over Umm al-Kheir to spy on any secret construction the Palestinians might be attempting, ready to report any developments to the Civil Administration. But even in these conditions, the villagers see acquiescing to Israeli pressure as completely unfathomable, refusing to allow the government free rein to expand Carmel further onto their lands.

Regardless of their desire to remain, the situation for the residents of Umm al-Kheir, much like the situation for the residents of nearby Susya, is very grave. The recently erected fence cutting them off from their lands is another obstacle to grazing sheep, with settler harassment already preventing them from wandering freely with their flock. The reduction in the size and health of their flock that this has provoked has taken its toll on the villagers’ ability to be self-sufficient, forcing them in recent years to adapt to a new way of life.

One manifestation of this change has been a focus on education for the younger generation in the village, which in turn has led to a greater ability among residents to tell their story to a larger, global audience. With the Jewish Agency deciding that it doesn’t want young diaspora Jews collaborating with Palestinians on their programmes anymore, it is even more important to ensure that the story of Umm al-Kheir (and the many others like it) doesn’t fall on deaf ears.

The Sensible Transgression of Fauda

Jonathan Shamir

The symmetrical prostration of Muslim men against the backdrop of the acid-green carpeting. The serene cinematography is suddenly interrupted. An Arabic man in need of medical assistance is dragged into the mosque, but just as a congregant moves closer to assist, the whole façade reaches an equally abrupt end. The woman outside in a full burka, who was attempting to peer into the mosque, and the man attempted to prevent her entrance, pull out their guns. The disguised Israeli soldiers get their man with startling efficiency.

The ability of Israeli agents to posture as Palestinians in the opening scene of Netflix series Fauda (Arabic for ‘chaos’) and the interchangeability which recurs throughout the series, with one Palestinian nicknamed ‘the Jew’ due to his lighter complexion and another widower successfully infiltrating a nightclub to commit a suicide bombing, illuminates the novel path which Lior Raz and Avi Isaacharoff’s series treads. Fauda follows the overlapping stories of a former Israeli soldier, Doron, portrayed by Raz himself, and Abu Ahmad, a notorious Hamas operative masterfully portrayed by Hisham Suliman. The rumours of his survival soon bring Doron out of a retirement, away from his vineyard-fantasies of family, and back into the Palestinian Territories.

The arch similarity exploited by Raz and Isaacharoff goes beyond the ethnic similarity between Israelis and Palestinians, back to basics: to their shared status as human beings. The humanisation of both narratives may seem obvious to those uninitiated in the bloody conflict, but in two societies which adamantly refuse to acknowledge the legitimate grievances and desires of the other, Fauda stands out as a truly ground-breaking series. To allow, indeed, encourage the audience to sympathise with the fictional Abu Ahmed, who orchestrated the death of 116 Israeli civilians, is transgressive.

In June 2016, Fauda won six Ophir Awards, the ‘Israeli Oscars’, including Best Drama Series. But its loyalty to Arabic language and Arab narrative has led to unprecedented ripples of success. Raz also claims that “It was also the most-viewed show among Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. We also know that it was very popular in parts of the Arab world where it was available. And that’s because we are respecting the Arabic language and the Arabic narrative as well. Not all who are perceived to be good are that good and not all who are perceived to be bad are that bad.” The decision to cast Palestinians as the Palestinian characters removes the prospect of any discomfort, and evidently paid dividends for Raz: it is the stakeholders that tell their story, together. The show does not attempt to blunt its fingers by attempting to scratch the worn surface of politics. It instead opts to present two narratives with imperfect protagonists, whose political inclinations stain their familial ties, often with blood. In Fauda, each side could sympathise with and even be its hated counterpart.

On the right-hand side of the Netflix frontispiece, the word ‘Fauda’ is written in Hebrew, and on the left in Arabic. If you want to watch a show that will acquaint you with one of the most complicated geopolitical situations from the human angle, you better be ready to relinquish the comfort of the English language, but this is a fundamental component of the reward of a series which disavows national mythology in favour of gritty realism. The twelve episodes of the first series are available now on Netflix, with the second series already in development.

The Problem with Religion?

Ben Reiff

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
Like the air over industrial cities,
It’s hard to breathe.
– Yehuda Amichai, Ecology of Jerusalem

In November 2014, the Yad B’Yad (“Hand in Hand”) bilingual school in Jerusalem – one of six joint Jewish-Arab schools in Israel – was the victim of a religiously-motivated “price-tag” arson attack attributed to Jewish far-right organisation Lehava. Graffiti reading “there’s no coexistence with cancer” and “death to Arabs” was also found at the site. For many, this must have been proof that coexistence and interfaith efforts are futile in the Holy Land. The fact that only six such schools exist throughout Israel-Palestine attests to this further.

I recently visited this school as part of an interfaith trip with other students from my university – a trip that took us from East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem, and from the Galilee to Bethlehem. Having spent my gap year in Israel last year I’d already seen much of what we were shown in our short time there. I’d also seen enough of the damage done by religion in the region to make me overwhelmingly pessimistic about religion altogether.

The arson attack on the Yad B’Yad school is but another in a centuries-long line of religiously-motivated attacks in the Holy Land which Jews, Muslims and Christians have perpetrated in the name of God – and but another in recent history too. 25 members of the Jewish Underground were arrested in 1984 after being discovered plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, in order to liberate Temple Mount for the creation of a Third Temple. The activities today of the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, which is preparing items with which to decorate a future Third Temple (under the motto “may it be rebuilt speedily and in our day”) will do little to allay Muslim fears that this phenomenon is in the past. The Second Intifada (or “al-Aqsa Intifada”) saw over 100 Palestinian suicide bombing attacks in little over five years, which were fuelled at least in part by fears over the future of that same piece of holy land – sparked by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon entering Temple Mount/ al-Haram ash-Sharif with other Likud politicians and hundreds of Israeli police officers. And aside from the holy sites themselves, the violence of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict (Operation Protective Edge) was triggered largely by the kidnapping and murder by Palestinians of three religious Jewish teenagers in Gush Etzion.

One of the first people we met on the trip was a Palestinian-Israeli Christian woman from Haifa, named Soher. “In Haifa”, she tells us, “you can’t tell who’s Jewish and who’s Arab. You don’t see people walking around wearing black hats or hijabs.” It has always struck me that Haifa, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, is almost never mentioned in the news for incidents of religious violence. When asked why Haifa doesn’t see the violence Jerusalem sees on a daily basis, Soher replies “coexistence is so easy because everyone is secular.”

Secularism creates peace; religion creates war. With the region’s history of religious violence, it seems only logical.

And yet this exact logic, according to Holy Land Trust (a Palestinian Christian organisation in Bethlehem) director Sami Awad, was the reason for the failure of what he calls the “Oslo two-state framework”. “Oslo completely ignored the religious voice”, he explains. “It failed to address, for example, the fact that over 80% of Jewish historic religious sites are in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” And the story is similar for Palestinian Christians: “Jesus lived in Nazareth; what did he do in Bethlehem? He left when he was two years old. If you want to study Jesus’ life, it’s Jerusalem, Nazareth and the Galilee. Yet I cannot go there without a specific permit.” Clearly, when the secular elites of Tel Aviv and Ramallah come together to make secular peace, there is always something missing. “We have to have the religious voice involved in peacemaking”, he concludes. “They said religion was the problem, but look what happened when they took religion out.”

We also met members of a grassroots organisation called Roots, which is aiming to build bridges between religious settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank that will serve as the foundations on which a future peace can be based. Shaul, a Jewish Israeli living in a settlement in Gush Etzion, follows a similar line to Sami: “We need to talk about 1948 more [rather than 1967]. Jaffa was a part of Palestine as much as Hebron and Nablus were parts of Israel.” He too is critical of the current formulations of the two-state solution, suggesting that “if a peace agreement is signed tomorrow, there will be terror attacks and price tag attacks on both sides”, since there are too many people – many of them religious – to whom these solutions are unsatisfactory. As such, Roots has set itself the goal of creating trust between the two peoples on a grassroots level. “Negotiation is the so-called ‘short way’ which is actually very long, while grassroots trust-building is the so-called ‘long-way’ which is actually more short.” Another problem, Shaul explains, is the claiming of ownership over the land, which he and his counterparts have a different way of seeing: “The land doesn’t belong to anybody; we belong to the land. Both peoples deeply belong to this land.” The secular peace-makers would do well to bear this in mind.

The religious voice is not some tiny minority that might go away if left on the outside for long enough. In the vast majority of formal and informal peace efforts in recent decades, the religious voice has indeed been excluded, and naturally there is no peace to show for it. Too often it is labelled “extremist” in an attempt to silence it; the peaceful majority are lumped together with the violent minority and the whole lot are stigmatised. But it’s time we learnt to listen to what those voices have to say. Sami explained that “religious leaders here have a much bigger influence on their followers than secular and political leaders.” So regardless of whether or not you believe in God, it is both illogical and dangerous to neglect the religious voice – on either side.

During our tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, we were told a story that took place in the 7th century C.E.. Caliph Omar, the Muslim ruler at the time, went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Upon arrival, he was invited to pray inside. But, knowing that if he did so his Muslim followers would order that the church be turned into a mosque, he declined. So instead he prayed outside the church, and on that location now stands the Mosque of Omar. It serves as a constant reminder of the need for religious understanding.

This understanding was on display everywhere we went. In Nazareth, we met the Imam of the White Mosque who is preaching passionately in favour of the two-state solution. In Bethlehem, Sami told us how the Holy Land Trust is raising money to send a handful of Palestinian leaders each year to Auschwitz in order to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish people’s trauma. In Gush Etzion, Shaul told us how Roots activists on both sides pay visits to the sites or families that have just experienced violence or loss, to show solidarity with them and to condemn the attacks. And finally in Jerusalem, at the Yad B’Yad school, we heard how they received messages of love, support and strength from Jews and Palestinians alike, encouraging them to stand up in the face of adversity and persevere with their interfaith mission.

It is critical that religion no longer be viewed only as something that is problematic to peace in the region. A two-state solution will simply not be possible unless the fears of the religious are addressed. But if indeed their concerns are taken into consideration, and their leaders are brought into the peace process, then religion has the ability to serve as the means to that very peace. Religion might just be peace’s best hope.

A week with family and friends in Israel

Anonymous

Jerusalem 11am

Glossy orange bags of expensive coffee line the shelf. Underneath, the dreadlocked cashier tongs shiny sufganyot into paper parcels for Chanukah-giddy customers. We’re still sitting with our empty mugs and croissant crumbs gazing keenly through the big windows onto the endless stream of hats, sticks, buggies, and shades. Every three minutes a silver tram glides past, dispatching the hats, sticks, buggies and shades to Mamila, the Old City, and Machane Yehuda. Inside, our excitable nattering competes with infant squeals and rapid-fire Ivrit from neighbouring tables. We’re revelling in old stories until one of us lowers her glasses and interrupts the familial niceties:

“You know… I hate driving there. The Arabs, if they don’t kill us with bombs they’ll get us on the road!”

‘There’ is a religious Jewish settlement located midway between Ramallah and Nablus. The drive is straightforward: an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on Route 60. ‘There’ is where her son lives with his wife and five children. Once I am over the delicious irony of an Israeli critiquing somebody else’s driving, a series of questions dart across my mind: is her fear of Arabs in cars extrapolated from recent ramming attacks? Is this an ill-judged quip or concerted racism? Can such an endearing woman be capable of concerted racism? Is there genuinely a paucity of quality driving instructors in the area? Did she think we’d laugh? Did she think we’d sympathise? Should we? Why does this son—my cousin—choose to live in a place too dangerous for the grandmother of his children to visit, a place presumably dangerous for his young family too? In a flash we’re onto somebody’s fiancée’s job and I swallow my questions.

Tel-Aviv 8.15pm

The English menu is an iPad and its black leather case is thick. Amid the standard options on the screen—Starters, Pizza, Fish, and Salads etc. — is Vegan. A finger’s punch transports you to a grid of guiltless dishes that make up in colour for what they might lack in calcium. It’s midweek and mid-winter but we’re wedged in, abreast the crowd, at a slender rectangular table. If this is the last supper I’ll pass on the vegan options. The Azrieli Towers glint above the restaurant. They loom behind me, two above my shoulders like good and bad consciences, the third skewering my head. With two big hands on the table one of us, an English-born Israeli, opines:

“Soon contemporary English will become Old English, and Arabic will be what’s known as contemporary English!”

This time somebody conjectures that this might be a bit racist; swiftly somebody else, perhaps averting confrontation, rules out the possibility. The comedian cum demo-linguist is an intelligent man with a big heart; his jest is all the more perturbing for these reasons. In the moment’s pause when I’m expected to laugh but unable to muster the faintest of chuckles, questions bubble: Does the joke reflect his fears about Israel’s demographic course? Is this even related to Israel: maybe he’s parroting xenophobic British relations living among large immigrant populations? What gives him the idea that Arab-directed prejudice suffices as comedy? Is Arab-directed prejudice his best means of finding common ground? The arrival of dessert diverts my attention to waffles.

Suburb near Jerusalem 5.30pm

Here we have the luxury of placing a Chanukia outside the front of the house, as well as on the windowsill. A spread of quiche, salads, cheeses and latkes endure small prods from the children cramming their paper plates. The antics of the various nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren are a welcome distraction. They mitigate the awkwardness of language barriers and meeting relations that you last saw before puberty. The oldest in the room, swelled by the coming together of his progeny, speaks from his armchair:

“The whole world is against us… Anything is better than Barack Obama ”

At last, I can stop teasing political prejudice and social conclusions from off-hand remarks! This is a bold critique of UN Resolution 2334, and a Trump-accepting disavowal of the USA’s 44th President. The statement reflects analysis I’ve heard all week, and matches multiple headlines and Facebook posts I’ve seen. Yet, it shines in its own light, framed by, and adding colour to, the fragments I have already picked out.

From coffee shop, to restaurant, to lounge; and from Jerusalem, to Tel-Aviv, to Suburbia: casual racism, and a sense of having one’s back against the wall, pervades innocuous social interactions. Each of the comments I have extracted, lie somewhere on a spectrum between caution and paranoia; battle-hardened know-how and exaggerated, even fantasised, victimhood.

I did not conduct any surveys nor did I organise any samples. The conversations I had do not represent the varied and complex pockets of Israeli society. But, I think there are two general points we can draw. Firstly, the oppositions we are used to: legal and illegal; tolerant and racist; good people and bad people, are not clear-cut (and I’m not talking about when these lines are intentionally blurred for political reasons). In Israel, tolerant people live in illegal places, and good people say racist things. The web of conflict is tortuous and sticky; it is hard to wriggle every limb free. This leads me to the second point: hostility and fear, whether substantiated or not, grip like pliers on the mind. It will take more than the UN Security Council to abate this, on both sides of the Green Line.

Building Peace at Givat Haviva

Rose Vennin
July 2015: As I am shown around the Givat Haviva campus in Northern Israel, I walk past a three-meter high wooden sculpture similar to a totem pole. Curious, I ask Lydia Aisenburg, educator at the center, whether it is indeed a totem pole. She swiftly corrects me: it is a peace tree, sculpted by a group of Israeli and Arab children in one of the day-long sessions organised by the kibbutz to bring the two cultures together and further dialogue. It has symbolically stood there for a decade, persisting throughout the innumerable acts of violence in the region.

A year and a half later, this visit has a special significance to me: that of a tiny light of hope at the end of an increasingly darker tunnel. In the past eighteen months, the prospects of both an international agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an improvement in the treatment of Arab Israelis by the state have furthered.

Months before my visit, Netanyahu had already sparked great upset among the country’s 1.7 million Arab citizens when he had asserted “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out” on March 2015’s Election Day. Following international condemnation and Netanyahu’s two apologies, I had hope that the Israeli right would seek to mend the situation, maybe even make a commitment towards treating all citizens equally. Instead, the divisive rhetoric has prevailed. Most recently, in December 2016, coalition chairman David Bitan’s statement that he would prefer that Israel’s Arab population didn’t vote was telling of the further deterioration of relations between the official Israeli right-wing establishment and the Arab citizens of the state.

What is more, there have been little signs of inclination towards a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Last month, the Knesset voted to approve the draft legislation of a bill which would retroactively legalize four thousand settler homes in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli military control. In the same month, the UN resolution condemning settlements as lacking legal validity led to outrage among the Israeli right, with Prime Minister calling out the Obama administration for “colluding” with a “gang-up” against Israel. Netanyahu, caught between his domestic competition with right-wing leaders and his supposed support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, appears to be focusing the former rather than the latter.

The Palestinian leadership is no model either. Its President, Mahmoud Abbas, is desperate to cling to power despite being in his eighties, suppressing any opposition to his rule. Abbas was once again elected head of Fatah at the party’s most recent conference, using undemocratic practices such as preventing dissenting members from attending the conference and disqualifying others. He is now in the 12th year of his rule, despite having been elected to serve only four years. In this quest for survival, Abbas has been leading a sort of double act: declaring that he is promoting a two state solution, while refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and implicitly inciting violence towards the latter. On multiple occasions, Abbas has failed to publicly condemn Palestinian terrorist attacks. Other Palestinian officials taken the rhetoric a step further, glorifying this type of violence: in October, chief PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat praised terrorists incarcerated in Israeli prisons “for their acts of heroism, and for their ongoing battle with the occupation”.

With such tensions mounting, discussing local efforts to foster harmony, such as the work of Givat Haviva, seems particularly relevant. When considering the matter, most think that peace building is a top-down affair, that authorities will be the ones bringing an end to conflict. Yet is a peace deal possible if Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t trust each other? If there is both division in Israel between Jews and Arabs, and division between Israelis and Palestinians, how long would peace last? While mutual trust and support may not be a sufficient condition for a just and permanent peace, it is a necessary one.

Hence, more than ever, long-term stability in the region needs to come from local communities, with Arab and Jewish civilians working hand in hand, starting with Israel where profound separations remain. This is where an organisation like Givat Haviva comes into play. Founded in 1949 as a national education center, it is a recipient of the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education for its longstanding work in promoting Jewish-Arab dialogue and reconciliation. During my visit, I met with Yaniv Sagee, the Executive Director, who detailed the center’s strategy: striving for a shared society, the programs created aim to enhance cooperation, equality and understanding between what are today divided groups in Israel. Although this may appear to be an impossible goal in a region with such tumultuous history, Givat Haviva’s record is quite convincing at showing that change on a societal scale begins with the socio-political unit closest to the people – the community level. Projects like the implementation of common educational programs and the establishment of Arab-Jewish municipal cooperation are small steps in the longer stride towards regional peace, developing interaction and understanding between the two groups.

Although it may sound idealistic and trivial given the current conflictual situation, it is these small steps that matter today. By instilling shared values at an early stage in Arab and Jewish children’s political maturation, concrete programs like these lessen the separation between the two. In 99 per cent of the encounters Givat Haviva organizes between students, it is the first time a Jewish child has met an Arab child, and vice-versa. As witnessed during my two-week trip to the region, hatred of the “other” is instilled from a very young age on both sides. Arab and Jewish communities can live 5 kilometers from one another, yet a world separates their views regarding the region, its history and the future they envision. The Racism Index, resulting from a poll conducted by Tel Aviv University, is an embodiment of this gulf. Jewish and Arab children are asked if they would be willing to live in the same apartment building as an Arab or Jewish family: in the most recent poll, 68 per cent of Jewish kids and 52 per cent of Arab kids said no. However, when the same question was asked to participants of Givat Haviva’s programs, the percentage dropped to below 10. Through positive engagement, these programs humanize the other: by giving children the experience of human interaction, they can relate to their counterparts through Arabs or Jews they have personally met. Not only do these perennial educational processes build a basis for trust, but they also promote equality and integration when politics fails to do so.

Hence, as Arab-Jewish relations are put to a test and the peace process appears at a standstill, “the time to build a society of dialogue and understanding between all groups, has come, and not only at the governmental level, but even more importantly between local communities and civilians,” concludes Lydia Aisenburg. It is time to put the work of organisations like that of Givat Haviva further into the spotlight, promoting the notion of a shared and fruitful peace between two societies. And then only will the peace tree stand firm for centuries.