Those supporters who attended our September webinar entitled Israeli Dissident Voices: Breaking Away from Zionism will have had their first encounter with you. During this interview, I’d like to review some of what you said during it and explore additional aspects concerning critical Israelis and your struggle to live in a democratic society.
1 Can you start by telling us about the Zionist ideology of your family and what life was like for you growing up?
I grew up in a very Zionist home. My father (may he rest in peace) worked for the Jewish Agency as a coordinator for groups of Jewish youth from the United States and Canada visiting Israel. My father believed Jews should live in Israel, not in exile. The negation of exile was a focal point in our family. My father's Zionist stance derived from his parents' story. In 1932, my grandfather, who was involved in the Zionist movement, left his orthodox family, and migrated to Palestine. Then, he was able to get certificates and bring my grandmother, his parents, and her parents to join him here. In contrast, my great grandparents were orthodox Jews, so opposed Zionism, and only came to die in and be buried in the Holy Land. During the Holocaust, most of my grandparent's family members were murdered, so that is a legacy that has a very strong presence in my heritage and in my family's memories.
My mother's family came from Yemen at the beginning of the 1930s. They came by themselves. After walking part of the way, they took a coal-boat to Jaffa. When they reached Palestine, they settled down in Jerusalem. They had very close ties with Muslims both in Yemen and in Mandatory Palestine. My grandfather was a jeweller and had a jewellery workshop in the Old City of Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem, with a Palestinian partner. He also collected antiquities, particularly old coins. He used to travel to Hebron (Al Khalil) and to Jordan to buy or sell coins and other antiquities. Following 1948, all of these amicable and business relationships were terminated and dissolved.
In many ways, those two family-histories shaped the way I understood the political reality in which I grew up. On the one hand I held the belief that Israel is the only place for Jews and our sole refuge on earth, that we are in perpetual danger of extinction and that Gentiles, and especially Arabs, are always against us and they only want us dead. But, on the other hand, I inherited a sensitivity towards the injustice done to the Palestinians, and the missed opportunity to a communal life with Arabs.
2 Where did you grow up and how much interaction did you have with Palestinians during those years?
I was brought up in a neighbourhood that was built on the Green Line in what used to be a demilitarized zone after the '48 war. When the Green Line was drawn, the territory that the line occupied on the map translated into a piece of land that did not belong to either Israel or Jordan. Israel then occupied this territory during the '67 war. Palestinian villages, therefore, surrounded our neighbourhood, and the 'West Bank' was not just a political concept for us but a reality on the edge of our streets. I remember that, as a child, I was marked by the difference between our life quality and things that we had or were entitled to, compared with the life quality of Palestinian children in the villages around us.
Living in Jerusalem and in the proximity of Palestinian localities confronted me with contradicting experiences. On the one hand, in the media and at school, we were constantly reminded and warned that we should be aware of Arabs and that they are terrorists. These warnings seemed reasonable because it was a time when bombing attacks were frequent, especially in Jerusalem. But, on the other hand, we often went to Old City of Jerusalem or Bethlehem and Jericho and met Palestinians with whom we felt at ease. The Zionist indoctrination was nevertheless much more robust than these acquaintances. As an example, with my family and friends, we never talked about the Nakba and continued to believe that the IDF is the most moral army in the world and that our nation's hands are always outstretched for peace.
3 What caused you to dig deeper in understanding the Palestinian narrative?
As I said, these questions started at an early age and were always there. But it was not until I started my academic path that intuitive questions and stances I always had gained a political language. As I began reading and writing and then doing my own research on the subject, I became more involved. I gained a deeper understanding of the Palestinian narrative and the horrific consequences to both the Palestinian and the Israeli-Jewish society. For example, a few years ago, I stumbled upon a newspaper photograph of Israeli settler hilltop youth throwing stones and I started writing an academic paper about it. I wanted to see things with my own eyes, so I asked activists from Ta'ayush if I could join them. It was horrifying for me to witness how at the sight of three Palestinian shepherd boys on a hill, middle-aged Israeli settlers, and not some misguided youth, left the synagogue on a Saturday to chase, frighten, and disperse the flock. It reminded me of stories my Polish grandfather told us about the Kozaks. Settler harassment has only gotten worse since then. Today, we can see the Israeli army participating in these riots defending the settlers, and the public, even on the left, is numb and indifferent. I find that more than alarming.
4 So, your journey was gradual as you became more aware until you finally decided to reject the Zionist narrative?
I am not a Zionist, but I don't reject the Zionist narrative. Zionism had different forms at first, and sadly the form that became hegemonic is the less tolerant one. Less tolerant in many ways. It is the branch of Zionism that adopted the Antisemitic view on Jews; it is very Europocentric and andronocentric (that is placing a masculine point of view at the centre and marginalizing femininity) ; it is embedded in colonial thought and interests; it is orientalist and negates not only Muslims but also Arab-Jews. Despite all that, I do not reject the Zionist narrative because Zionism was a movement that responded to a severe problem of a people, and it did eventually save lives. However, I hold that life should not be saved on the expanse of others. One wrong cannot be undone or resolved with the creation of another injustice. My grandparents' lives were spared thanks to my grandfather's affiliation with the Zionist movement. But lives were saved in other ways as well: my grandmother's sister fled to France and joined the Partisans, where she met her husband. They both had a long life, and their children and grandchildren still live there. One other family member escaped the horrors of the holocaust because, thanks to the fact that she joined an Orthodox Rabbinic court in the United States, she was able to move there before the war, and her family still lives there. The Zionist narrative is part of history, but we, of all people, must recognize wrongs we are accountable for and find ways to find just solutions for them.
5 How easy was it for you to explain what you were learning to your family and friends? Have they accepted your position?
My father first thought that I would eventually be disillusioned and would abandon my ideas of equality for all, just as he himself was disillusioned with the idea of the kibbutz when he was young. But when he saw that I only became more explicit about my stances, it was hard for him to accept that. I did lose some friends, but I gained others. Some share the same views as mine, and some manage to see me as a person despite the demonization of left-wing Jews in Israeli society.
6 You received your MA in psychology and anthropology from Ben Gurion University and then decided to pursue your PhD. Tell us about the topic of your research.
My Ph.D. research explores the perception of political action and sovereignty of Israeli-Jews who, following their dissent over Israeli control over Palestine, have exiled themselves from Israel either by moving abroad or by moving to Palestinian localities in the West Bank. One of my research aims is to understand the way these Israelis narrate their withdrawal from the State of Israel in light of their political involvement before their departure.
Thus, the research focuses on activists who left the homeland because they could not change it nor continue to participate in it as citizens. However, what also came up in the research is that strong emotions such as fear, disillusionment, and despair, can eventually pave the way for new visions for change and hope.
7 Is it mainly young Israelis who have left Israel, disillusioned with the way that Israel controls the Palestinians, or do you find that it’s Israeli Jews of all ages? Do they leave because they are not accepted by their family and friends or is it more to do with their lack of faith that there will ever be a just solution to Israel/Palestine?
I had interlocutors from a large scale of ages – from young people in their 20-30's to veterans of the '73 war in their 70's. Most of my interlocutors left Israel following a war or a military operation which exposed not only state violence but also the public violence and the indifference in the Israeli society. Some of my interlocutors were not accepted by their families, but this was not the reason for their withdrawal from the state and from activism. I talked with dissidents who had their own families and left with their families for the future of their children.
What comes up from the research is that dissidents felt that the violence of the Israeli society was embedded in their own bodies. Naturally, this was intolerable for them. But they realized that their resistance had also embodied aspects. As one of my interlocutors said, they saw everything through the lens of their political stance and could no longer participate or enjoy quotidian interactions. The issue highlights the importance of building solidarity and support within left-wing activist circles.
8 For the Israelis who have left Israel, preferring to live in a more inclusive, democratic society, do they get involved in supporting the Palestinian struggle from the outside or do they turn their back on it?
None of the people I talked to had turned their backs on the Palestinian struggle. Most of them still care deeply and are involved in some way, although much less than before. I also interviewed people who left Israel because they considered the struggle from outside to be more effective than that from within, but this is a small group of people. My research does not point to the abandonment of the left-wing position by these dissidents. Instead, it shows that the withdrawal from the state and life abroad resulted in adopting a vaster view and a perception of the Palestinian problem as part of a larger problem. Interviewees talk about the problem of refugees in Europe or racism in America as stemming from the same origins as Palestinian oppression - where state power is embedded in colonialism, supremacist ideas, capitalist interests, and so on.
9 People from the West who support Palestinians often cannot understand the mentality of the Israeli people: Why do they fear the Palestinians? Why do they agree to go into the Israeli army and not see the humanity of the Palestinian population and then treat them so cruelly? Can you enlighten us?
Fear is known to be a very powerful instrument of control. It is used by almost all regimes and in all societies. Having a hateful, feared "other" is a means to create a sense of a unified "us," which gives tremendous power to those who protect "us" from "them" – that is, the army and other state apparatus. It also maintains a state of emergency that eradicates any further demands. For example, the state of emergency in the United States and the war on terror, especially after 11/9, eclipsed all demands to fight poverty, social injustice, or workers' exploitation. In Israel, the educational system, the militarist culture, and the nationalist indoctrination we Israelis absorb throughout all our lives, pinned on Palestinians the role of the "dangerous other." Palestinians are depicted as terrorists, and Islam as a dangerous religion. These imageries justify state violence, for example by emphasizing and intensifying any act of resistance, to the point that a child throwing stones is viewed as dangerous as a suicide bomber. This fear of Palestinians is embedded so deeply in our mind that it is very hard to eradicate it or even notice its existence and, therefore, be critical about it. For example, people in the south of Israel, where I teach, find themselves often under missile attack from Gaza, having their days and nights interrupted and livelihoods endangered. This situation has been going on for decades now. It is easier for them to hate the Palestinians rather than to hold Israel responsible.
10 So, if fear is internalized and so pervasive within Israeli society, is that why it is hard for even dissenting Israeli Jews to progress further in imagining the possibility of one state with the dismantling of the checkpoints, the Wall, and other forms of segregation and the return of the Palestinian refugees?
Absolutely! During my research, while doing fieldwork in the West Bank, I experienced such a moment of fear. Following this experience, I revisited my field notes and interview transcripts with left-wing Jewish women living in Palestinian localities in the West Bank. Like me, these women feared Palestinians despite their acquaintances with Palestinians and despite their political stances. Like me, these emotions aggravated them and made them question the origins of the fear. Eventually, the fear evoked resistance and new perceptions. A few of my interlocutors said that we Israeli Jews are afraid of Palestinians because we know we did them wrong – we are sitting in their place on the premise that they will never come back. These women now live with Palestinians and under their protection, but most Israeli's, even left-winged ones, do not. They still benefit from the Nakba and are afraid to lose what they have. Therefore, I think it is important to discern those fears so that it will be easier to address them with tangible solutions instead of political statements that seem unrealizable. These solutions can simultaneously address internal problems of injustice within the Jewish Israeli society, such as land distribution, equality in access to education and work opportunities, and more. In this way, the fear of the future can be turned into a great opportunity for everyone.
11 How can Israelis be pushed to see the wider context of what Israel has done to the Palestinians? Would it make any difference in reaching Israeli society if rhetoric changed from anti-Zionist to anti-colonial? I noticed that you have referred to colonization when you speak. Is it more useful?
I am not sure that anti-colonialism is a better or a less threatening concept than anti-Zionism. I believe, however, that we should move from the language of Anti to a language of responsibility and accountability and portray a very clear vision of a better, more just future for all. Calling for responsibility and accountability does entail exposing past crimes and wrongs done. But it should be accompanied by solutions and alternative socio-political structures to ensure this vision of the future.
12 How important is it for international peace activists to also meet with critical Israelis while visiting the Occupied Palestine Territory?
First and foremost, it is important that they meet with Palestinians because their voices and claims have been denigrated for so long. I think that despite the efforts to silence the Jewish radical-left, we still have some stages and venues where we can be heard, this interview is one of them, and I am grateful for that.
Livnat Konopny-Decleve is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Tel Aviv University, Israel and is part of the One Democratic State Campaign.