1 Haim, you grew up in Israel. Can you tell us about your family background?
I was actually born in a refugee camp in Italy. Both my parents are survivors of Auschwitz but came from Poland where they lived in a ghetto and were sent to Auschwitz quite late in 1944 so they spent less than a year there until both were liberated. My mother was forced onto the death march to Bergen Belsen, liberated by the British in April 1945. My father also was on another death march, amongst the last 6000 men surviving Auschwitz. He ended up in Gusen II, a sub-camp of Mauthausen called by the Nazis “hell of hells”. It was liberated by the Americans very late, on the 8th of May 1945. After the war, my parents searched through the different agencies to find each other. They met again in Torino after my penniless mother had travelled across Europe until she found him. They married in 1945 and I was born in 1946.
2 What are some the memories from your childhood?
We came to Israel in the middle of the 1948 war when I was nearly two years old. When we arrived, my father refused to join the Israeli army. He was a pacifist and wouldn’t carry arms and would not fight; he wouldn’t kill so he was sent to prison. When brought to court, the judge, a kind humanitarian, said that to avoid being returned to prison for many years he could arrange for my father to serve as a medic in the army where he would not have to carry arms. Under pressure, my father agreed. In that role my father saw some the worst battles and quite honestly, I don’t know how he survived it.
I didn’t know this story until my uncle told me secretly when I was 21. It was considered very bad to not serve in the army, so my parents never revealed that my father has initially refused army service.
We lived in the modern part of Jaffa, Jabaliya. It is where survivors of the concentration camps were placed, in Arab houses. Also living there were the few Palestinians who had not been expelled by the Irgun when Jaffa was ‘cleansed’ of Palestinians a month before the state of Israel was established. As children, we studied Arabic in school because of these Palestinians living there. I believe that it is my experience of being a refugee at birth combined with living with Palestinians in Jaffa until I was 14, that was an interesting preparation for what later became my political activity.
Our family were hardly Zionists then, but my parents became more so because of social pressure. They were living a miserable life where there was discrimination against those who spoke Yiddish, as they did, and the environment was hostile towards Holocaust survivors (as it later was against Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries). They formed the basis for financial claims Israel put against Germany; however, the survivors living there got little of that reward. There was the belief that they had gone “like lambs to the slaughter”, without resistance. They were referred to as “soaps” and their children were “little soaps”. In school, we children were taught to criticize our parents and demean them because they didn’t speak Hebrew. My parents felt strangely put upon – criticized and blamed. This was important in shaping my attitude towards the state.
3 What caused you to call into question Israel’s policies towards the Palestinian people?
As I grew up, I’d lived with Palestinian friends in Jaffa, and I didn’t wish to join the army. I didn’t know my father’s refusal story then but from the age of 14 children are undergoing military training. I’d become a pacifist however I didn’t have the commitment and courage of my convictions to refuse to join the army. When the time came, I was pushed to enter the army and trained as an officer. This was before 1967, so I spent three and a half years in the IDF. I saw so much that I disliked and disagreed with, even before the war.
The Six Day war in 1967 was a very important point for my parents because this is when they, like most Israelis, became Zionists. When I was free to see them about a month after the battles ended, I returned hating everything that I’d witnessed. My parents wished to take me and my sister to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, to celebrate the victory. I refused to go, and they went without me. This was a separation point between us because the brutality that I’d witnessed was difficult for me to discuss with them and they couldn’t understand my position. My parents had changed, and Israel had also changed from a small state to an occupying power. I was very tired and needed a break from the claustrophobia of Israel, so I decided to leave for study abroad.
4 Where did you go when you left Israel? Did you intend this to be permanent?
I left to study cinema in Britain. Once I was out of the narrow confines of Zionism, I learnt about many other things especially through exposure to the richer cultural scene at the time. I still returned in 1973 to fight in the war. I didn’t want to go. I did something that I didn’t agree with but returned to satisfy others. When I landed in Israel, I knew I was making a terrible mistake and the minute I could leave, after the war, I did.
I flew back to England and joined the London branch of Matzpen (the revolutionary socialist organisation) which met every Friday evening. This was my route to becoming an anti-Zionist and it took me a long time to understand that is what I have become.
I still have family in Israel but I no longer travel to see them; instead, they come to see me.
5 During your life you have made your mark as a filmmaker, photographer, and a film studies scholar. You worked at the University of East London where you were awarded your professorship. Following your retirement from there you taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Tell us more about our career and what you sought to instil in your students.
I am now twice retired and thankfully, after almost five decades of intensive teaching, I can concentrate on research. My career included heading four university film schools – three in the UK and one in Israel – all of which allowed me space to innovate and develop new ways of teaching film – its history, theory, and praxis. I returned to Israel at the end of the ’90s when my father was ill so I could be near to him. When in Israel, I was Dean of the Faculty of Media and Cultural Studies at the Sapir College, near Gaza, between 1996 and 2001. We offered the main centre of Jews and Palestinian Arabs studying these subjects together, and a hub of higher education for the Bedouin community, especially its young women, who before then had nowhere to study. We have educated the first generation of black filmmakers in Israel, men, and women, mainly from Ethiopia. I have had the chance to establish the Cinematheque in Sderot and the South Film Festival which still runs, screening films from the Global South in the Israel’s south.
My teaching was always directed towards educating and training radical, socialised filmmakers who react creatively and politically to the society around them. The colonisation of Palestine, and the life of the many communities affected by this destructive process, as well as the life of marginal communities in Israel/Palestine, were the main topics of students’ work while I was there. I had done similar work in the UK before 1996, and again later when I returned in 2001 to the UK.
6 Describe your journey in realising that the most just and sustainable future is for Palestinians and Israelis to live in one democratic state.
It started by me realizing that Israel had created an apartheid state. It took me a long time to come to this understanding which took place through a growing friendship and the many conversations that I had with a black South African ANC fighter who came to London to convalesce during the early 1970s. He gave me example after example of what living under apartheid means. He was so gentle with me and just critical only enough to move me gradually, so I gradually understood that while in Israel, I lived in an apartheid state.
I saw that any solution not recognising Zionism as settler-colonialist is not real and will not last. I acknowledged that we must decolonise Israeli society and rid it of the Zionist project and its iniquities, institutions, and racist privileges. The one democratic state is the only solution which offers this – end to Zionism, apartheid, and inequality. A single system for all – a real Democracy without racism.
The truth is that most Israelis reject it because they are against real equality – just like the whites in Apartheid South Africa.
7 What is your reaction to people who talk about a federation or confederation?
The talk about confederation and federation is a rouse to separate Gaza from the West Bank, and to disable the united Palestine struggle. These people openly proclaim there must be a Jewish majority so that Gaza cannot be included. It is based on normalization of Israel in the Arab world and the model used is the Abraham Accords designed to separate the Palestinians from the rest of the Arab world. They reject a political solution for the Palestinians and the end of the settler-colonial regime. Without decolonisation, there will never be a just solution in Palestine. Supporters of a federation avoid speaking of settler-colonialism and the need to decolonize. They avoid mentioning the settlements, or the right of return for the Palestinian refugees.
An example: the Israeli novelist, essayist, and playwright A B Yehoshua, whose work I love, actually holds these racist views. He talks about Arabs and not Palestinians. He talks about one state, but it excludes Gaza and without any proper representation of the Palestinians. His model denied the return of the refugees – “so that everything stays the same, everything must change”. People like Yehoshua are afraid of a democratic state. They are building their opposition through proposing a confederation or federation. Anything but a democracy and an end to Zionism.
8 During 2021, Israeli oppression of the Palestinians intensified. The government criminalised six leading Palestinian organisations accusing them of connections to terrorism. Settler aggression with army support has been unleashed upon Palestinian communities especially in Area C. Demolitions, displacement, and arrests intensified. So far, no government has taken any meaningful action in support of the Palestinians and in identifying consequences towards the Israeli government for its violations of international law and the war crimes being committed. Today we have learned that the European Commission has suspended its funding to Al-Haq, the leading Palestinian human rights organisation, one of the six criminalised by Israel. Within this Israeli brutality and western government complicity, where can we find optimism?
2021 was the crucial year that united Palestinians across the Green Line, stimulated by the events in May with Israel’s attempt to evict Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, its attacks in the Old City and the bombardment of Gaza. This Palestinian grassroots unity is a major development that marked a turning point.
9 What is your advice for those who support the Palestinian struggle? What are the pressure points to help hasten justice and equality for all?
Internationals also crossed an important juncture in 2021. The BDS movement is becoming mainstream. Now businesses in the US, even ones owned by Jews, are applying BDS. Actors in Hollywood, artists who refuse to appear in Sydney, popular musicians, and authors like Sally Rooney refuse to work with Israeli partners. I believe that this is building up to a crescendo in the near future. The IHRA campaign is now seen to be what it is – a way of silencing criticism of apartheid.
I fully support the important work by Palestine Action. Its direct action is the future tool to escalate the struggle. It has already won victories against Elbit and in court where the judges could not rule against the Palestine Action activists’ description of Israel’s apartheid policies.
Each of us lives in a complex web of links, connections, contacts, and friendships. Radiating out from this web, we must influence, propagate, and recruit the help of the society we live in. Israel’s brutality and injustice is making much of this happen, anyway, and we need to use this negative energy of Israel and turn into positive change.
I am also involved in a new, exciting initiative called Convivencia. You see, much of the history of Jews has been about coexistence – Jews, Christians, Muslims living together in relative harmony – they didn’t support hateful ideologies. These three religions had at their core a work for justice, social justice. An important historical example of people of these faiths living in mutual respect is Al Andalus, Spain, during the Moorish period. Even the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on this historic mutual respect. The Jewish Network for Palestine, which I’m part of, is the Jewish arm of Convivencia. We call for a re-evaluation of history using it as a model for Palestine/Israel and other regions of the world, including Britain, in the promotion of inclusive multicultural, anti-racist societies. Join us – check it out!
Haim Bresheeth is also a member of BRICUP (British Committee for the Universities of Palestine), the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC), and the Convivencia Alliance, including Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups.
His latest book is An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Force Made a Nation, published by Verso:
The book webpage is: https://www.anarmylikenoother.com.
The website for Jewish Network for Palestine is https://jewishnetworkforpalestine.uk