1 Our paths first crossed in 2007 when I heard you speak at a meeting in West Jerusalem. At the time, you were with the Alternative Information Centre (AIC), an NGO that provides insight into what is happening within Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. You were introduced as an Israeli who was studying the cost of its occupation to Israel. Tell us a little about your background.
I was actually born in West Jerusalem and lived there most of my life. My family is very conscious of its privileged status in Israel, ticking all the boxes for secular Ashkenazi Jews. My father teaches Hebrew literature and Jewish studies in Yale University, but as I grew up he taught at the Hebrew University and Tel-Aviv University. My mother (now retired) published information brochures for the government. Both my parents are politically active and taught me to think critically and ask questions. During the Oslo negotiations family dinners were like political seminars.
2 What was your position when it came to serving in the Israeli army?
Despite my critical opinions, it wasn’t easy for me to decide to evade military service. In my (very elitist) high school I was the only one of my age group who openly spoke about my doubts regarding the military. I decided to try to find a way to do military service without serving in the occupied territory, and without having a combat role. There was a loophole at the time, that by volunteering to do social work for two extra years, I could serve as a teacher-soldier. I had to first do one year of volunteer work (thereby postponing the conscription by a year), which I gladly did – and lived for a year in a commune in Sderot, right next to Gaza. In that year I had the opportunity to leave my upper-middle-class bubble for a bit and realized that there really was no reason for me to join the military in any kind of role. I took the easy way out: pretended to be crazy and was immediately exempt. Many friends that I made after that have taken the harder path, by refusing to serve and being imprisoned for extensive periods of time as conscientious objectors. Because of my respect for these friends, it’s important for me to stress that I took the easy way out.
3 So, when did you start to encounter Palestinians and hear their story?
It’s one thing to be politically active, a leftist and critical, and it’s another to really shape a world view and draw from it the direction that I have taken ever since. And for me this stage happened at university, as the Second Intifada started. I owe a great debt to a group of students and professors who set up “The Campus Will Not Stay Silent” for organizing a series of evenings with testimonies by Palestinians on campus. They arranged for Palestinians to come to the university to speak, even from Gaza (back then it was still possible to cross the checkpoint with a university invitation) and I attended those events. Through them I became convinced that Israeli peace groups are not relevant unless they are joint Palestinian-Israeli groups, and I’ve made sure to be part of the joint struggle ever since.
4 How much interaction have you had with Israeli peace activists? Have you been involved in any non-violent direct actions?
My first demonstration was when I was just over four years old. I was taken to a Peace Now march in Jerusalem against the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1983 and my dad whisked me away shortly before the right-wing Yona Abrushmi threw a grenade and murdered Emil Greenzweig, a 36-year-old intellectual and social activist who was taking part in the demonstration.
Since then, there have been too many actions to count, but I do think it is worth mentioning that during the Second Intifada I officially abandoned the “peace camp” (associated with the Zionist left) and joined the camp for equal rights based on joint action. Of course, none of the protests that I attended were violent from our side, the guns and the muscles are on the side of the police, the military, and the right-wing counterdemonstrations.
I studied economics at the university and wrote a review on the book From War Profits to Peace Dividends by Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, which was published in Haaretz. These two authors proposed bold new heterodox ideas about economic thinking and also a sharply critical perspective on the Israeli occupation and militarism. Shimshon Bichler reached out to me afterwards, and we have been friends ever since. He was a board member of the Alternative Information Center (AIC), a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization dedicated to justice in Israel/Palestine and asked me if I would like to establish a department for critical economic research within the AIC. I ended up working for the AIC for six years, publishing about thirty booklets on the economy of the occupation.
5 In 2010 your first book was published. What is the argument that you presented in The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation: Repression Beyond Exploitation and how was it received?
My book was written in an attempt to understand how the occupation persisted for so long, despite economic theory on the right and on the left with both arguing that it is irrational. Mainstream neoliberal economists argued that the occupation is too costly, while Marxist economists argued that it only makes sense within the context of exploitation. Palestinian resistance made the occupation expensive, but Israelis became only more committed to keeping the Palestinians under their control. The book argues that not all profits from the occupation take material form, some of the gains are in status and prestige, and that (especially within lower classes) Israeli Jews are willing to pay a price in material wealth in order to buy the privileges which come with colonial domination and apartheid.
The book was very well received, far beyond my expectations. I didn’t make money from it, but I did gain something which is more valuable – thanks to the book I was invited to join a community of Palestinian scholars of the economy of the occupation.
6 You then decided to leave Israel. How did that come about?
There was a shift in Israeli politics in 2006 in which repression of free speech intensified. In that year Member of Knesset Azmi Bishara had to escape the country with his family. I was offered a job with the secret police (which I rejected) but my friends were not so lucky – one by one I saw them being interrogated and/or arrested. I knew that staying in Israel would mean going to jail, sooner or later, probably for a short time but who knows. I wanted to write my PhD and sent applications to many universities. Alas, the 2008 economic crisis drove a lot of people to seek a safe shelter as graduate students for a few years but I couldn’t find a position.
My partner finished her PhD (in biology) at the Hebrew University and decided that she wanted to start a post-doc somewhere. I told her that I’d go with her wherever she found a position, and she chose Germany. My two brothers had already been living in Germany at the time, so that made the choice easier. They helped us with language, bureaucracy and general advice (such as how to survive the winter for those of us who grew up in the Middle East).
7 So, what has it been like for you living in Germany, the country which under Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust?
Of course, there is a certain creepy feeling, because in Germany the associations with the Holocaust are ever so present. The (very) few times that I have encountered people who were really neo-Nazis, it was much scarier just because its Germany, than if I had encountered such people in a different country. But I do belong to a generation of Israelis who no longer associate Germany solely with the Holocaust. I know that even the oldest people I meet were at most children during the Second World War.
One important thing that happened to me in Germany (and which happens to a lot of former Jewish Israelis) is that I was able to confront my prejudice against religious Jews, especially external manifestations of faith and Jewish identity. The Israeli left (especially the Zionist left) can be very racist against Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and in Germany I was able to partially overcome my prejudice and join an organization that defines itself as a Jewish organization – the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East.
Sometimes it seems that my political activism on Palestine in Germany is even more intense than it was in Jerusalem, and I have probably learned much more German from political discussions on Palestine among solidarity groups than I have from taking lessons.
8 Do you feel that BDS is affecting the Israeli economy? In your opinion, which are the most effective BDS campaigns?
I’ve studied the effects of BDS on the Israeli economy since its beginning and read many reports both by BDS activists and by the Israeli authorities. I think that it’s very important to stress that from the very beginning BDS has never intended to destroy or weaken the Israeli economy. It is meant to apply political pressure. It doesn’t matter if an Israeli company loses one percent or twenty percent of its sales due to BDS. What is important is if that company is forced to address the fact that its decisions whether to operate in an illegal colony, to ban non-Jews from working at the company, or to supply arms to the Israeli military will affect its image and sales. BDS has been tremendously successful in reaching the Israeli media, consciousness, and politics. The government even established a BDS ministry, though for now that ministry closed!
Although initially I expected the academic boycott to be the most effective, economic data points to the divestment campaigns as having the most monetary impact. But I think that the cultural boycott has been most effective in reaching the Israeli psyche. Performers in Israel are paid about double what they could get in other countries, because the government subsidizes them, and because ticket prices are high. Israelis now need constant reassurance that artists consider Israel to be a “normal” country, and thereby every performance in Israel becomes a political statement, whether the artist wanted that or not. When newspapers report a music concert as if it were a kind of victory over the Palestinians, they actually prove the point that Israel is not a normal country.
9 You now put Israel’s history into the context of settler-colonialism, at what point did you begin to call for a solution that is based on one democratic state within historic Palestine?
First of all, although it has become a consensus in progressive university departments to speak about settler-colonialism, I think that the dichotomy isn’t so clear-cut. The “classical” colonialism based on exploitation and not on settlement (such as in India and China) vs. the paradigmatic settler-colonial cases of Australia, Canada, and the U.S are not the only two options. The middle-ground in which the settler population never achieves a majority and never gives up exploitation entirely deserves its own category: Algeria, South Africa, and Palestine.
And so South Africa is a classic “one-state” solution, but Algeria is a “two-state” solution. There is no guarantee that Israel/Palestine will go one way or the other. Personally, I would rather live in South Africa over Algeria, I would rather have a binational democracy over ethnic-minded borders. I don’t think that the key to decolonizing is drawing an accurate picture of the future state or states. Rather, it’s about addressing the power inequality between colonizer and colonized. What we need to strive for is a political, rather than a military process. Once the Israeli military force is neutralized, the people can choose their preferred political structure.
When I give lectures, the question of one or two states is almost always raised, so the interest is there, but I think that young Palestinian activists have been very successful in shifting the debate from borders to rights – rights which can be respected in many kinds of political frameworks. I think, however, that once the rights are recognized – not only most Palestinians but also most Israelis would rather live in one country without internal borders.
10 What is one piece of information that you have gained from your research as an economist that you want internationals to understand?
As much as I admire Marx and his writing, I think that activists (international as well as Israelis) on the left don’t always realize how much their views are influenced by Marxist preconceptions. Specifically, the concept that everything economic is essentially material, and that the financial “superstructure” or the “hype” are only a secondary issue. In today’s global economy, material goods have become secondary to intellectual property, reputation, and financial leverage.
What this means regarding BDS, is that we shouldn’t be looking for a big number (how many billions were lost) but for quotes, such as when Lev Leviev, Israeli businessman and “King of Diamonds” said that Israel is “no place to do business [for political reasons]” or Nohi Dankner, once one of Israel's most powerful businessmen, warned that “Israel has become a pariah state.”
And more importantly, we should re-examine the “laboratory” model of the Israeli arms industry. Every act of defiance by Palestinians against the Israeli military embarrasses the Israeli arms companies and proves that political goals cannot be achieved by military means.