Coexistence and Hope in the Shadow of Occupation

Emma Brand

Last time I wrote for Zionish, I was quite critical of Israel. I received a fair amount of positive feedback from fellow 20-somethings, many of whom had difficulty articulating the conflicting feelings they had towards the Jewish state. But one response stands out. I was told I had omitted to offer a sense of hope for the future. I had said a lot of negative things, but left out some of the positive steps that are being taken to make changes in Israeli society.

If my last piece focussed too much on Israel’s inconsistencies and inadequacies, I would like to put a spotlight on some of the organisations working in Israel which inspire me and give me hope for the future.

There are a plethora of organisations working to improve the lives of those who find themselves at a disadvantage in Israeli society. But in the midst of another round of violence, I felt I should focus on the vital work of organisations set up with the aim of promoting coexistence in what must be one of the world’s most divided countries.

There are an inspiring number of groups that bring together Arabs and Jews to work on interfaith projects in which they share a common interest. Many of these groups are arts-focused; Jaffa boasts two interfaith theatres, the Arab-Hebrew Theatre and the Elmina Theatre, the second of which is headed by a husband and wife who are Arab and Jewish respectively. Both of these theatres promote coexistence in everything they do, from the writing, to the casting, to the audiences they reach. Also of note is the Western-Eastern Divan Orchestra, established by Daniel Berenboim and Edward Said in 1999, which brings Palestinian and Israeli musicians together for an annual tour. Similar initiatives abound in dance, film, and even clowning in the form of the Galilee Youth Circus, whose act requires Arab and Jewish teenagers to learn to trust one another and work as a team.

Sports initiatives have also been developed in response; PeacePlayers International, active in both Israel and the West Bank, brings together Jews and Arabs to play basketball, and the smaller-scale Soccer for Peace, is a residential soccer camp for boys in the north of Israel that was piloted this year.

The north is also home to the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center in Akko, which is notable for its provision for women and children in particular, providing low-cost childcare for both Arab and Jewish children, and working to educate and empower Arab women.

Other incredible organisations also tackle the conflict head-on. The OneVoice movement seeks to empower the moderates on both sides, and has over 700,000 supporters in Israel and Palestine. In my last article, I mentioned the repulsive “Price Tag” – Tag Mechir, so here it is important to give a spotlight to the response; Tag Meir, an anti-racism campaign that acts as an umbrella for many other groups that are fighting the prejudice propagated by Jewish extremists in Israel. The Bereaved Families Forum, also tackles bereavement on both sides, with members promoting peace by standing as living examples of the human cost in continuing to fight.

Rabbis for Human Rights also tackle the injustice of occupation. They have recently been in the news for defending the Palestinian village of Susya from demolition, protecting Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest season, and being attacked by extremist settlers for it. Their work has inspired Jewish supporters to accompany farmers on the way to their crops as a sign of solidarity, but also to be a barrier against settler aggression. They put their lives at risk in doing this, because this is how they wish to enact Torah.

Givat Haviva, a kibbutz whose whole ethos is “a shared future”, is a particularly admirable organization. In line with this ethos it has established partnership programmes, twinning the Jewish town of Pardes Hanna-Kahur with the Arab village of Kfar Kara as an example. They are currently in the process of developing other partnerships due to the success of this trial. These areas are chosen specifically because of recent discussion of landswaps – the kibbutz seeks to promote coexistence in areas that might come under one rule or the other. Givat Haviva also promotes economic cooperation between Jewish and Arab municipal areas, and the NGOs and Special Interest Groups Forum supports local NGOs from nearby Arab and Jewish communities.

The people of Givat Haviva also operate on an incredibly human level. When I visited the centre, I was given a tour of a local Arab village, Barta’a, which was cut in half by the Green Line. We were really given the sense that our guide, Lydia, knew the village, and that she counted Arab-Israelis and Palestinians among her close friends. That their lives were driving some residents of Barta’a towards radicalism was clearly a source of personal pain to her.

These organisations, and many others, give me genuine hope. But this all feels trite when Israelis and Palestinians are dying in the streets. Whatever these organisations do, Israel has poison at its heart in the form of the occupation, and whilst these coexistence projects assuage its symptoms, that poison will always be toxic.

Could the friendship of an Arab actor and a Jewish actor, cultivated during interfaith theatre work, survive if the Jewish actor, now in a soldier’s uniform and following orders, raided the Arab actor’s home in response to other people throwing stones? And could it survive if the Arab actor, already vulnerable to radicalisation, joined the extremists stabbing Jews out of a combination of desperation and incitement? Probably not. And even if these two actors were not directly involved, would either be blamed for feeling suspicious or unsafe around the other?

These coexistence projects are absolutely vital for the future of Israel. They are a source of hope and offer a way for diaspora Jews who are aghast at the likes of Lehava to engage with Israeli society. But in order for Arab-Jewish relations to truly flourish, the occupation must end. The future of coexistence depends on it.

Violence and Moderation in the Tug of War

Aaron Simons

Yet another wave of violence engulfs Israel and the Palestinian territories. The illusion of peace has been shattered once more, although perhaps the only surprise is that the illusion existed in the first place.

A peaceful resolution to the conflict looks further away than ever. Oslo seems dead and buried. Netanyahu and Abbas appear more interested in preserving personal power than in helping their people.

The effects of violence run far deeper than the immediate tragedy. The widespread broadcast of brutal and evocative violence pushes the conflict into ever widening polarities, cementing rival narratives and creating opposing camps unable to engage with or even comprehend the viewpoint of the other.

The two narratives are obvious to anyone who dares trawl through their facebook or twitter feed. The typical pro-Israel narrative holds that Palestinians are addicted to violence, that Israel will never be safe, that Israel is the victim of Islamic extremism on its doorstep, and that the occupation remains a security necessity. The opposing pro-Palestinian narrative sees the IDF as willing murderers, the stabbings a cry of help against endless oppression, and Israel as a country engulfed by anti-Arab racism.

As long as the narratives remain entrenched, neither progress nor peace will come. Each narrative inoculates its side against the suffering of the other, unable to see, and unwilling to look. So long as each side remains encamped in its own worldview, Israelis and their advocates will never even begin to understand what it is like to live under occupation, and Palestinians and their advocates will never empathise with the all-encompassing fear that keeps Israelis inside their homes, terrified of walking to the shops and being stabbed in the back.

Genuine debate between the two narratives is sparse, if it exists at all. All too often, anything labelled ‘debate’ descends into an extravagant shouting match of repetition and avoidance. Neither side engages but both fire away, shouting the same phrases over and over again. When someone mentions the Israeli fear of being stabbed, someone else mentions the Palestinian fear of being shot, unable to comprehend that both are real and not a counterweight to the other. One side shouts incitement, the other shouts settlements. Both exist, but neither side cares if it the point doesn’t fit into their predetermined perspective. The Israeli-Palestinian debate is like trying to untie a knot through a game of Tug of War.

The effect of violence is to catalyse this process and drive each narrative further and further away. In the drama of heart-wrenching violence, both sides close ranks, unwilling to cede any political territory to the other. This is hardly surprising – it would be unhuman to not be affected by this violence. Spasms of grief close minds to reflection. Attitudes harden, and whatever remained of open discussion becomes angry and emotive polemic. In the game of Tug of War, violence just makes both sides pull harder.

Good people become racists when ethnic conflict causes innocent people to die. Violence like this is an extreme act, so it should be no surprise when it produces extreme opinions. When the path to peace requires each side to humanise the other, acts of violence only serve to dehumanise.

Even conciliatory opinions espoused by usually moderate journalists disappear when lives are on the line. It’s only natural. Why would one lend an ear to an opinion shared by a murderer? This is the final effect of violence. It firmly delineates both sides, and two peoples become entrenched in even deeper opposition, pushed into increasingly intractable polarities.

Social media inflames it all. Videos of violence are provided with no context, creating an analytical vacuum which radicalises pre-existing perspectives. If you were pro-Palestinian but didn’t think the IDF were heartless murderers, you’ll think exactly that after seeing this context free video of a Palestinian child bleeding on the ground. If you were pro-Israel but sought to understand the Palestinian plight, you sure as hell won’t bother understanding any more after watching this video of a meat cleaver being plunged into a Rabbi’s chest.

Violence’s final effect is its ultimate tragedy. Violence drives each side further and further apart, when peace will only come when both sides meet in the middle. And as violence increases this distance between Israelis and Palestinians, violence itself becomes even more likely, in an endless spiral of blood.

I want to end this piece with a call for understanding, a call for empathy, and a call for moderation. But I understand, amongst all the violence, if people won’t listen.

Newton’s Third Law of Palestinian Stabbings

Aaron Simons

Where there is an action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This has been the line taken in a series of op-eds on the recent wave of violence in Israel and Palestine. Many of them say the same thing over and over again: Palestinian violence is the inevitable response to the occupation.

Gideon Levy wrote Even Gandhi Would Understand the Palestinians’ Violence. In the Guardian, Marwan Barghouti argued There will be no peace until Israel’s occupation of Palestine ends, whilst Mairav Zonszein opined that Israel’s domination of Palestinians makes violence inevitable. In September, Samah Salaime asked Why do they throw stones? The answer, of course, is the occupation.

It seems like an obvious point. The Palestinians live under a violent occupation. Many live in refugee camps, with little or no basic rights. Jewish settlements in the West Bank proliferate. Settlers and Palestinians are treated under two different legal systems. Settler violence is often ignored, whilst snipers are used against stone-throwing Palestinian children, who are then tried in military courts.  The settlers have vastly more rights and resources than the Palestinians. Is violent resistance any surprise as the occupation nears its 50 year anniversary?

Yet this point is often lost; the occupation is often ignored. Palestinian violence is seen as the product of incitement and incitement alone, in a sort of Jew vs Arab clash of civilisations. It’s easier to pretend not to see the occupation and to portray the Palestinians as an implacable enemy, as this allows for the avoidance of any degree of self-reflection, or recognition of Israel’s role in perpetuating the conflict.

But pieces such as Barghouti’s and Levy’s do more than just explain Palestinian violence in the context of the occupation. Explanation moves quickly into justification.

In many of these op-eds, it follows that if one recognises that the occupation is the core motive behind the stabbings, then terrorism is merely a functional response.   Terrorism is not condemned, but rather seen as the inevitable output of the structural logic of the occupation.

It’s Newton’s third law of Palestinian stabbings. The occupation is the action, terrorism is the reaction. Nothing else occurs within this logic, and no other causes of violence are deemed important.

This neutral functionalism, where the terrorist is solely and exclusively the product of occupation, absolves the terrorist from any moral judgement. Occupation and terrorism is understood exclusively as action and reaction and nothing more. Under this argument, it doesn’t make sense to condemn a causal inevitability. The terrorist is not condemned for murder in the same way that a balloon isn’t condemned for popping under pressure. Both are the inevitable reaction to the initial action.

This argument goes further. Under this logic, the blame for violence shifts to what is perceived as the root cause. What this means, quite literally, is that it is Netanyahu’s fault that there are stabbings in Tel Aviv. If Netanyahu creates occupation, and occupation creates terrorism, then under Newton’s third law it follows that terrorism is Netanyahu’s fault. Zonszein writes “This current round of violence… is a direct result of government policy”.

And if one thinks the occupation is wrong, then following this functional logic, ultimately terrorism is justified as a form of opposition to it. If not justification, there is sympathy for those carrying out the stabbings. At the very least, the terrorist is blameless. All these arguments have been made explicitly and implicitly in discussion of Palestinian terrorism on social media and in the wider press.

But Newton was a physicist. Not a political theorist, not a sociologist. It is a complete and utter fallacy to reduce Palestinian terrorism to such a simple and monocausal explanation.

Palestinian terrorists are not merely physical objects in the Newtonian world of action and reaction. A terrorist has moral agency.  The terrorist who picks up a screwdriver and stabs five Israelis in Tel Aviv has made an explicit choice to do so. Zonszein reduces the Palestinian terrorist to the “noble savage”; unthinking, unchoosing, and unaccountable for his or her actions. It is only by the Newtonian logic of the noble savage that Zonszein can dismiss the agency of the terrorist, and make Netanyahu directly to blame, rather than the actual perpetrator of the attack.

Yes, the occupation is the central cause of terrorism. But it is also not the only cause. This most recent wave of violence was triggered by the (false) rumour that Israel was planning on changing the status quo on Temple Mount. And that’s to say nothing of brutal and violent incitement. Say, for example, Hamas creating handy ‘how to stab’ videos. Or the Gaza Imam commanding Palestinians to form stabbing squads in a terrifying sermon given last Friday.

Commentators like Levy also seem unable, or simply think it’s irrelevant, to differentiate between just cause and just method. Opposing the occupation is just. Using terrorism as a method is not. But again, all this is lost when terrorism is reduced to nothing more than inevitable reaction to occupation, where Palestinians are conceived of as an unthinking mass, for whom violence is the only way.

Contextualising Palestinian violence in opposition to the occupation is important. But it should never mean reducing terrorism to this logic of inevitability, where the terrorists are blameless or their actions justified. There are indiscriminate stabbings, shootings, and car rammings of civilians on Israel’s streets. Newton’s law just won’t cut it here.