Mar 3 2011

Only one side of the story

The email in my inbox immediately piqued my interest.

It was a message from Paideia, The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, which was putting together a delegation of foreign journalists for a week-long tour of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. They were looking for an Israeli-based journalist to join the group.

Kids with a Palestinian flag

Kids with a Palestinian flag (source: Whewes)

I thought it would be interesting, and so I found myself about a month ago on a tour with 12 journalists: 9 from Sweden (4 of them Jewish and one Palestinian who’d emigrated from Syria), one from Russia, one from Turkey and one from Germany. The printed media, radio and television were all represented. The first three days were devoted to a seminar at “Yad Vashem”, the holocaust memorial museum. One day was spent in Hebron, another in Bethlehem, another in Tel Aviv and another in Sderot.

I quickly felt that the experience was a microcosm of everything that goes on between Israelis, Palestinians and agents of all nationalities in the international arena. I found the criticism, the accusations and the dynamics within the group to be marred with harsh intellectual violence. Naturally, I couldn’t respond and react to everything, but I put my thoughts and impressions down in writing. I am now publishing a diary of sorts for those days, which differs in essence from the format of a straightforward journalistic account, yet is of just as much value, in my opinion.

A few days before the tour started, a close friend of mine asked me “what’s the point”. Usually, he said, these guests are not here to listen. They feel they already know everything beforehand.

That’s not exactly true, though. Some of the journalists did come here to listen, or at least would have listened, had they been given an opportunity. But the schedule, the speakers and the organizer made it practically impossible. Almost all of the speakers were affiliated with the most radical factions of the Israeli left wing, the same people that blame Israel for anything they possibly can, and would explain in all seriousness and with deep self-conviction that this is not a democratic state. The speakers were people like Gideon Levy, Noa Ben Hagay, Hillel Cohen, Shirel Horvitz and Yehuda Shaul from “Breaking the Silence” – who told the visiting journalists everything they’d already heard plenty of times back in Europe.

The first evening, when each one of us was asked what his or her expectations were of the coming week, one of the Swedish journalists said that back home he only hears the Palestinian side, and that he came to Israel to get a better understanding of the Israeli side of the story, too.

This is a question worth asking – why is only the Palestinian side heard in Sweden? – but at least this man said he’d come to listen and to understand. There is no doubt in my mind that the tour, in its current form, did everything to prevent him from hearing or understanding the Israeli side of the story this time around as well.

1. The first evening, Prima Royal Hotel, Jerusalem

During the group’s first introductory meeting, we were asked to split into pairs and perform a short exercise, part journalistic and part psychological. Each of us had to tell his or her partner about their most formative experience regarding the topic of “Israel-Palestine”. My partner was also the group’s organizer.

Her story was somewhat confused, but the experience described was a trip she’d made to Hebron in the late 90s. She is a Jewish woman, whose mother escaped Communist Poland in 1968 and found refuge in Sweden. Only at the age of 10 did her mother tell her about her Jewish identity. I couldn’t really figure out how this revelation had shaped her as a child, but she said that when she was younger “it was cool” to be Jewish, kind of like being black, or part of any other persecuted minority. As a teenager in Sweden, she’d visited the Auschwitz death camp.

Many years later, in 2006, she visited Hebron again. This time she was amazed to see that in the aftermath of the agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the deterioration that followed, the market not far from the Cave of the Patriarchs is now empty of Arabs. She then said that when she saw the vacant market booths, she remembered the pictures she’d seen in the museum in Auschwitz.

The connection she made was a rather loose one. She didn’t say that Hebron is Auschwitz, but she did say: “It was as if I was standing before the destroyed Jewish world, the villages and the Jewish townships (shtetls) that were in Europe before WW2 and don’t exist anymore”. Meaning that somehow, they’re the same thing: the deserted market in Hebron and the European Jewish township. And if Hebron is one of the destroyed Jewish townships, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that in one case it was the Nazis who did it, and in the other case it was the State of Israel.

What’s amazing is that she is an ordinary Jewish woman. She is not a terrorist, and she isn’t waving signs that read “Toss the Jews in the sea”. She is not the biggest enemy of the State of Israel, and yet what she considers to be her most formative experience regarding Israel-Palestine comes down to this: in some way, Israel and the Nazis are alike. Yes, something there makes them similar to each other.

And this was the first evening.

2. The first day, Yad Vashem

Grand Mufti of Jerusalem with Adolf Hitler meeting in Berlin, December 1941 (source: The German Federal Archive)

The next morning we started a three-day-long seminar at Yad Vashem. During one of the first lectures, we were shown a letter sent by a Nazi officer to his wife and children in October 1942, while he was massacring Jews in Eastern Europe:

“Dear mommy and kids,
I would call it a weakness to have trouble seeing dead people before you. The best way to overcome this is to do it more often. Then it becomes a habit…”

When the speaker asked if someone had anything to say, one of the journalists – a Palestinian who’d immigrated to Sweden from Syria in the early 80s – raised her hand. She said this passage reminded her of things she’d read recently in documents released by Wikileaks, because in both cases she sees the personal side of the “Banality of Evil”. These are the small details that make the big horror.

I asked myself – what on earth is she talking about? I have also read Wikileaks. Do the documents include any letters by American officers, writing to their wives about shooting Iraqi or Afghan children in the head? What is she talking about?

I don’t know what she was trying to achieve. After all, Wikileaks has nothing to do with Israel. Maybe the purpose was cheapening the Holocaust, or claiming that the American army is the same as the Nazi army. In any case, it’s total nonsense – lacking historical truth or intellectual integrity.

Nobody uttered a word, nobody asked a question. Apparently, this was her “narrative”, and she could say any foolish thing that came to mind.

From the start we were told by the organizer that the purpose of the tour was to listen to both narratives – the Palestinian one, as well as the Israeli one. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean that everyone can just throw out every foolish thought he has, and then we’ll just calculate the average. The whole point of using the term “narratives” is that each side of the conflict “narrates” the story differently, and in order to reach a compromise these narratives should be checked and analyzed. Allowing a Palestinian journalist to present her “narrative” as historical truth, without posing any questions, is to miss the point entirely.

This phenomenon happened time and again. My feeling was that the group was afraid of confronting the Palestinian journalist, and tried to please her. She kept saying that the Palestinians were “ethnically cleansed” in the war of 1948. That’s also not a question of narrative but of historical facts, and it merits an examination. According to the history books that I’ve been reading (such as Benny Morris’ “1948”, for example),

“During the war of 1948, which was clearly perceived by the Jewish side as an existential war, the expulsion of the Palestinian people was never the accepted or declared Zionist policy, though there were expulsions… on the other hand, tendency to expel Jews, and wherever possible acts of expulsions, characterized the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement. When they had the chance, Palestinian militia men acted consistently to expel Jews and to destroy their communities” (my translation from pages 439-441 of the Hebrew version).

Maybe the visiting journalists didn’t know their history, but what happened during the tour was that the Palestinian journalist was in a position where she could say everything she wanted, whether it was true or false. I, on the other hand, was constantly criticized, sometimes in a harsh and violent manner.

At one point I mentioned that the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Hussaini, the leader of the Palestinian people in the 30’s, chose to move to Berlin during WW2. That’s a non-disputed historical fact. For some reason, a Yad Vashem representative named Yiftach Ashkenazi, supposedly responsible for historical accuracy, hushed me and told me in a not so well-mannered way that it is not true that the Palestinians caused the Holocaust.

That, of course, was not what I had said. I asked him, “Isn’t it true that of all the places in the world the Mufti chose to live in Berlin during the war?”

“Yes, it’s true”, he said, but kept covering up for him, as if it wasn’t an issue for a discussion. The organizer, sitting next to me, silenced me and said “let him speak”.

I insisted. I asked him what the Mufti did in Berlin. He said: “He was helping Hitler”. I asked what kind of help. He said that the Mufti helped Hitler to recruit Muslims to the SS in Bosnia. I asked – what for?

Under every possible definition, the Mufti’s actions would be considered collaborating with the Nazis. The German journalist in the group told me later that in today’s reality, the only person that wouldn’t be considered a collaborator in these circumstances was a Muslim. That’s crazy – a person decides, in the middle of WW2, to live in Berlin and help the Nazis in recruiting people to the SS, and you can’t call him a collaborator. Does it mean that he or the Palestinians are guilty for the holocaust? Of course it doesn’t (and I hadn’t said that either). But it’s still an important historical fact.

So when it came to something like this, a solid historical fact, the organizer hushed me. But when the Palestinian journalist said she read what she read on Wikileaks or that the war of 1948 was about ethnic cleansing – that was considered her narrative, and no one questioned it. The group was much more willing and inclined to hear her side. She could say any foolish thing that came to her mind and nobody would confront her, but when I said something, a thousand eyes and a thousand ears examined my every word. If I dared open my mouth, I had to be much more confident than her.

If only ten percent of the criticism and questions that were directed at me had been addressed to her as well, we would have put an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict a long time ago. The fact that the Israeli-Jewish narrative is heavily criticized while the Palestinian narrative remains criticism-free is making peace less achievable. As one of the journalists told me: “On the first day, everyone said they came to listen, but it’s not really true: the Palestinian can say whatever she wants, and you can’t”.

3. The first day, Yad Vashem (cont.)

The statue of Gad Manela in Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak (photo: Avishai Taicher)

Another issue worth mentioning is the position taken by the Jewish journalists from Sweden. I felt great reluctance on their behalf to be identified with or feel empathy towards the “uprising Jew”, the one who wants to fight back and gain control over his destiny and future. Frankly, this disgusted me: after all, this is why the Jews now have a state, so we wouldn’t have to rely on other people’s mercy or beg to them – please, do us a favor, open your country to us, bomb the railways to Auschwitz…

During one of the lectures at Yad Vashem, the speaker told us about a Holocaust survivor, an old Dutch lady, who’d told him how each night, before going to bed, she watches a video of the hanging of her warder from the Majdanek death camp. Her Polish warder was caught at the end of the war, tried as a war criminal and executed, and the survivor somehow got hold of the hanging’s documentation. That warder tortured, beat and murdered the lady’s relatives and friends in front of her own eyes, and so she told our speaker that only after watching her execution every night can she fall asleep.

This is of course a difficult and hair-raising story, but it’s a story of revenge. This is her personal revenge. After all the suffering and humiliation she’s been through, she has to see the woman who tortured her hanged. To her, this means there’s justice in this world, and only then can she fall asleep. Until justice is done, she cannot sleep.

One of the Jewish journalists from Sweden raised her hand and said angrily: “That’s terrible; that’s not a good thing. She should have received some sort of treatment”. For some reason she felt that the speaker had told the survivor’s story in a positive way. But it seemed to me that what bothered her was the urge to take revenge. In this case, it’s not even real revenge but a virtual one, maybe some kind of repair. So what would be a good thing – that a Jew gets smacked down, yet manages to sleep soundly? What’s so wrong with someone who suffered horrific violence and humiliation wanting to hit back, and even do it through someone else? That’s the whole point of punishment, isn’t it?

There is no doubt in my mind that this journalist doesn’t think that what happened to the old lady in the Holocaust is somehow “ok”. It was obvious: later on that day she walked the corridors of Yad Vashem, looking for an expert that would help her trace her grandfather who never returned from the war. Yet somehow, Jews have to “behave”. They shouldn’t complain. So what, you’ve been slapped in the face, what’s the big deal?

There were endless examples of this. One of the journalists, himself a Jew from Sweden, stood next to me while we toured the Yad Vashem campus. We were told that the regulations until a while ago forbade giving an address in German inside the Hall of Remembrance. I heard him mutter quietly, something along the lines of “what kind of regulation is that”.

I thought to myself: hasn’t he got even a grain of empathy for these people? After all, why was the German language forbidden? Because these were people who wanted to pray for their father, and brother, and grandmother and sister, and what did the German language represent to them if not the language of the people who caused their biggest catastrophe? So is it really that horrible that the victim asks not to hear the language of the perpetrator while he prays in remembrance for his dead father? Apparently, Jews after the war were supposed to think that the German language is the most natural thing in the world. It is almost impossible to believe the alienation and violence embodied in this thought. I think the non-Jews were much more accepting of it.

Later that day, when we left the hall dedicated to the 1.5 million Jewish kids murdered in the Holocaust, the speaker who guided us through it said that usually, when young Israeli step out of this hall, they feel proud for serving in the army or express their wish to serve in it in the future. The Swedish organizer of the group, who was with us all along, cried out all of a sudden – the army? What’s the connection?

So yes, these young Israelis who’d just seen how children like them or like their young brothers – 8, 10 or 12 year olds – were mercilessly killed, and they felt a desire to protect themselves, their brothers and their families. That’s the most natural thing in the world, but as far as she was concerned it was unnatural; it was wrong.

So what would have been ok – that the Jews keep on waiting? How much longer should they wait? I think the Swedish Jews in the group felt much more comfortable with a complicated and tortured (and tragic) Jewish story, than with a Jew who fights for himself, builds his life anew and even succeeds – that was difficult for them to handle.

There’s a statue in Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak commemorating Gad Manela, an Israeli army officer who was killed in battle in 1968. One of his hands is held out as if to embrace, and the other one signals “halt”, as if saying: I will be your friend if you really want to be my friend, but if you try to kill me, I will do everything in my power to kill you first. That’s an impressive ideal, even if it’s not always easy to differentiate between the two possibilities.

But our organizer’s ideal is different: no matter what you do to me, even if you try to kill me, even if you’ve killed me before – that’s fine by me. I forgive you.

4. The second evening, Prima Royal Hotel, Jerusalem

Former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser

Former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser

That evening we had a lecture by Dr. Yadin Rofe on the changing attitude of Israelis toward the Holocaust. He mentioned that survivors were nicknamed “soaps” in the 50’s and were mocked, and touched upon the survivors’ assimilation in Israeli society, as well as the different forms of remembrance that the young state tried to establish (coining terms such as “sheep to slaughter”, establishing “Holocaust and Heroism remembrance day”, etc).

At one point, the Palestinian journalist raised her hand and asked – and where are the Palestinians in this “narrative”? They are not in this “narrative”, I said to myself, since the issue is the relationship between Israelis and the Holocaust. On the one hand, you’re not allowed to say that the Mufti was in Berlin, but on the other hand, she wants to be part of this story.

I think I understood later on what lies at the heart of it – she was told, many times I guess, that the Holocaust gave birth to the State of Israel, which means that she should undermine the Holocaust. Or at least say that there were other Holocausts, and maybe her people were also victims of one. Well, maybe the Nakba is not exactly the Holocaust, she says to herself, but it’s practically the same.

What could the speaker have said? The topic discussed was the Israelis’ feelings regarding the Holocaust, yet there she was, asking him what about the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. He replied that he believed many people would take offense at her definition of “ethnic cleansing”. At that moment she started crying, and said, “I’m sorry, it’s about my family from Safed (Tzfat)”. She stood up and left the room in a storm. There followed, of course, a very unpleasant atmosphere, and the speaker sat there in silence. So what did this scene result in? It resulted in her being the poor victim. We were talking about the Holocaust, and about how the Israeli society dealt with it, and the one who found it too difficult to bear, bursting into tears, was a Palestinian Arab who now lives in Stockholm.

What does one thing have to do with the other? It’s not because of the Holocaust that her family lost her house, but because of their refusal to share this land with its Jewish inhabitants (and Tzfat was, in any case, within the territory of the Jewish state according to the partition plan of 1947). But the “narrative” that she tells herself is that there was ethnic cleansing, and that no Palestinian ever fought in the war of 1948, and that she is simply a victim, she never raised a hand or did a thing. The Palestinians were just sitting there, doing nothing, and the Jews came and kicked them all out.

The worst thing is that nobody puts this historical perception, this “narrative”, to the test. In Israel, over the past couple of decades “New Historians” have been testing the Israeli narrative. Most Israelis know and understand that they are not alone in this land, and that even 100 years ago the Jewish pioneers did not arrive to an empty land. And who’s been testing the Palestinian narrative all these years?

This is, for example, what Benny Morris writes about the battle in Tzfat, a city with 1,500 Jews and 10,000 Arabs, “known to violently harass the local Jewish community…

The British forces evacuated the city on April 16th 1948… that same night, the Arabs attacked the Jewish quarter. The local Arab militia, numbering 200 fighters, was reinforced with 200 more soldiers from the ‘Army of Salvation’ and Jordanian volunteers… the Jews of Tzfat, most of them Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox), were fearing a massacre, and the Syrian commander of the local militia validated this fear. He sent a telegram to his superior, saying: ‘morale is high, the youngsters are riled up, we will slaughter them'”. (page 179)

After the Palestinian journalist stormed out of the room, the speaker continued describing the changes in the Israeli attitude towards the Holocaust. He reached 1967, when he said Israel was gripped by an atmosphere of “imminent holocaust”, since people were convinced they faced extermination by Arab armies, who were going to “shut the state down”. As far as I know, that was the feeling among many people abroad too, but the speaker described this as just another phase in the Israeli relationship towards the Holocaust, unrelated to the actual environment in the Middle East. One could understand that the Israeli feeling on the eve of the Six Day War was their own inner feeling, an internal-psychological feeling of the Jews, fearing they were close to extermination once again.

That’s outrageous: the Jews in Israel weren’t troubled over nothing. In June 1967, and in the months before the war, the Jews in Israel faced real external threats. The threats voiced by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the biggest country in the Arab world, were real and concrete. The speaker didn’t attack the Israelis for their fears, on the contrary – he was sympathetic, but what’s the logical conclusion to be reached from what he said? That the Jews, those mentally damaged Holocaust survivors, those who had the Holocaust experience in the back of their minds, kept seeing themselves as being near extermination, even when there was no reason to feel that way, as if they were living in New Zealand or on an island in Antarctica, where nobody threatened them. So – these Jews are psychotic. They are paranoid.

No, they aren’t. If it really had happened in New Zealand, then maybe he’d have had a point. If Jews from Europe had really come to a place where nobody threatened them, then you’d have the laboratory conditions that would allow you to see if that really was the case. But that’s not what happened. The Jews gathered in Israel, a country that was surrounded by people outspoken in their desire to kill the Jews and to put an end to their state.

On May 28th 1967, for example, the UP news agency reported that the President of Iraq, Abdul Rahman Arif, said that “Iraq and the rest of the revolutionary Arab states have reached a decision to annihilate Israel”. On another occasion he said that “the existence of the State of Israel is a mistake that has to be corrected. This is our chance to wipe the disgrace that’s among us since 1948. Our aim is clear: to wipe Israel off the map. We will meet, with the help of God, in Tel Aviv and Haifa”.

On May 28th the Israeli newspapers reported that the Egyptian President Nasser said that he “is waiting for the opportunity to annihilate Israel”. When journalists asked the then-chairman of the PLO, Ahmed Shukeiri, what will happen to the Israelis after the Arabs win the war, he replied: “those who will survive will stay in Palestine. I assume not even one will survive”.

So this is what Israelis heard on the eve of the Six Day War, and not the baa of sheep in New Zealand. If it reminded them of Auschwitz, it was rightfully so, except of course that this time around they had their own army. What was so annoying and irritating about our speaker’s description was the complete focus on the Israeli side. It was as if, once again, none of the other actors exist on the world stage. The Arabs are not agents in history and they are powerless. Nasser is nothing – he had no power at all. If the Jews were afraid, it was because of themselves, because of their own psychological problems, something existing in their own minds.

I’m sure Edward Said would have a lot what to say about this: The Arabs don’t wage war, they don’t make peace. Everything is up to the Jews – only the Jews can decide between war and peace. The Arabs are nothing, merely shadows on the wall. This is truly a racist approach, which for over 50 years has been widely recognized as colonial in nature. Yet the people who hold these thoughts and conceptions are the ones who consider themselves to be the most enlightened and progressive people on earth.

5. The third evening, Prima Royal Hotel, Jerusalem

Members of Hamas forces arrest a Fatah party supporter

Members of Hamas forces arrest a Fatah party supporter in Gaza

Unfortunately, I could not attend a meeting the group had with the Jerusalem Post reporter, Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli-Arab who covers the Palestinian territories and the Palestinian Authority. Three different journalists approached me the day after and whispered – maybe because they didn’t want the others to hear – that they really enjoyed meeting him. I asked – what did he say?

It was suddenly clear that the visiting journalists did in fact want to hear other stories. According to their accounts, Abu Toameh told them that he’d even prefer being a second-grade citizen in the State of Israel than a full citizen in a future Palestinian state. He blamed Arafat and the Fatah movement for the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, claimed that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt, and said that in the Palestinian territories he could never enjoy the freedom of expression that he enjoys in Israel – basically, he told them what most Israelis know, but rarely makes the news in Sweden.

Abu Toameh said that in internal fights between Hamas and Fatah in the last couple of years, more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed – more than the number of Palestinian casualties in the war between Hamas and Israel in the beginning of 2009. He said that for some reason nobody mentions this. The journalists that told me this did not dare say it aloud, but it looked as if they were very much influenced by it.

The Palestinian journalist had once again allowed herself more than anyone else, and on a few occasions had called Abu Toameh an “asshole” – apparently because he did not fit so well into her “narrative” of awful Jews and miserable Palestinians. In any case, what I wanted to ask my European colleagues, and did not have the chance, is how come in Sweden and elsewhere in the world Gideon Levy is constantly heard, and here they have an Arab journalist, who speaks fluent Arabic and can describe and analyze his society from within, yet they’ve never heard of him. In the eyes of the media, he’s a great “story”, and there is no doubt that he should have been quoted often.

So why doesn’t this happen?

6. The third day, Yad Vashem

Barack Obama speaks to reporters at Louisiana, May 2010 (photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

One of the meetings we had at Yad Vashem was with the head of the library, Dr. Robert Rozett, about current forms of Anti-Semitism. We discussed a few issues, such as a news report according to which France is considering making it illegal for someone to call Israel an “Apartheid state”. Some of the journalists asked Rozett if he thought it was a good idea. They did not raise the question of why Israel is called an Apartheid state, but were bothered by the possibility that such an act would be considered illegal.

When one of them asked me what I thought, I told him that in principle, telling people “you can’t say this” is not the right way to solve problems in one’s society. But this usually happens as a last resort, when society refrains from taking any other action. The preferable way, of course, would be for the French education system, the French political elite and the French media to confront the radical leftists and the Muslims who usually make these accusations, and ask – how come that the Apartheid comparison is made only when Israel is discussed and in no other case? What was the Apartheid all about, who makes this comparison now and how is it that of all the policies in the world and of all the possible “separations” – between men and women, majorities and minorities, sectors, religions and sects – only one is called Apartheid, and all this to achieve a political goal? Nobody does any of this, and then you wind up asking if it’s ok to make it illegal.

One of the journalists said that there’s no point in making stupidity illegal. Ok, he said, so Israel is called Apartheid, after all you can’t make stupidity illegal. That’s quite true, but society still has to deal with it, especially if it happens again and again. You can’t outlaw stupidity, but you have to deal with it, because when there are many stupid people in a certain society, that society has a problem.

Immediately following the discussion with Rozett, one of the Swedish journalists came to me and asked me what I thought about the Israeli reaction to a false publication a while ago in the Swedish press, according to which the Israeli army is involved in harvesting organs from Palestinians for profit. He said that until the Israeli government got involved and asked for an apology, everything was fine, everyone in Sweden condemned the publication and the reporter who made it, but when the official Israel raised its voice, the story got a turnabout and everyone in Sweden started “defending freedom of speech from external interference”. For some reason, it seems that the most noble and esteemed manner in which people can express themselves nowadays is by saying that Israel is an Apartheid state and that its soldiers are harvesting organs. What an impressive intellectual masterpiece.

I told him that I remembered the story a bit differently. As far as I remember, the Swedish embassy in Israel condemned the publication, but then the Swedish Foreign Ministry in Stockholm ordered the embassy to take the condemnation off their website. This angered the Israeli government very much. I asked him if it’s the classic case of – “the Jews are guilty for Anti-Semitism”. Even from what he said, it was clear that he thought the newspaper and the reporter were in the wrong, so why let them off the hook and blame Israel again? Even if you are a Swede, and freedom of expression is very dear to you, you can still look inward at your society, and ask if it acted correctly.

Nobody in Israel expected the reporter would be taken to court for being stupid, or for not having adequate sources, or for not checking his story. Thank god, in Israel we have enough reporters who write very bad stories and none of them are in jail. The Government of Israel asked, as far as I can remember, that Sweden officials condemn the publication.

I reminded him what the American president, Barack Obama, did when he feared for his country’s reputation, after a priest declared he was about to publicly burn the Koran. The president, head of the executive branch, could not take any action, and nobody expected him to do a thing. Still, Obama stood before the cameras and condemned the act, because he understood how badly it affected the image of his country. What would have happened if the Swedish prime minister or the foreign minister would have stepped in front of the cameras and said that the publication was offensive and that it should not have occurred?

I felt he understood what I was saying. Later on, another Swedish journalist approached me, one who’s visited Turkey many times and is familiar with the situation there, and asked me for my thoughts on the deteriorating relationships between Israel and Turkey, about the Turkish film in which Israeli soldiers are depicted as rapists and murderers, and the incident in which the Israeli deputy Foreign Minister humiliated the Turkish ambassador by seating him on a low chair. Since he is familiar with the situation there, I asked him if he remembers other Turkish films that dealt with any other soldiers in the world.

Actually yes, he replied. Not so long ago, he said, after the Swedish Parliament decided to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish television made a film about “what the Swedes had done to the Sami”. Since I was not familiar with the issue, I asked him what exactly the Swedes had done to the Sami. He replied: “There were some mistakes made by the Swedish Government a long time ago”.

I asked what kind of mistakes. He answered: forced sterilization.

I asked him what he meant when he said “a long time ago” – the 10th century? The 18th century? He said “until the 50’s” (I later discovered that it continued until 1975).

What I found most interesting about all this was the way the journalist “framed” the issue. He’d called them “mistakes”, meaning this is not how Sweden usually acts. This is not the Swedish norm. This is the exception, since Sweden is normally a good and decent country. Therefore this is not part of its usual policies. From what I managed to find (and it is not easy to find material on this in English), the Swedish discrimination of the Sami is anything but a “mistake”: it’s obvious, systemic and has been going on for decades, if not centuries. Still, for this journalist it was a “mistake”, and that enables him to keep on believing that Sweden is a civilized and decent place – a country where ethnic minorities were forcefully sterilized until 35 years ago.

7. The fourth evening, Prima Royal Hotel, Jerusalem

Rejoicing in the streets of Tel Aviv at the UN announcement of the Partition Plan, November 1947 (source: Harvard University Library)

Dr. Hillel Cohen’s lecture was about the war of 1948, and as I learned quite a few times over the last period, history is still very much relevant. Most of the time, when Israelis talk about the “peace process”, they talk about technical issues – settlements and outposts, borders and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. This, I think, is the dominant discourse for many Israelis, and the same is true for many Europeans.

My impression is that for the Palestinians there’s something more important and more fundamental – the feeling of a horrible historical injustice, culminating in the events of 1948. Therefore, their official statements mention the technical issues such as the settlements, but also the demand to “correct” that historical injustice. And when they talk about doing justice, they’re not necessarily talking about dismantling settlements in the territories captured by Israel in 1967, but about the State of Israel itself. I can’t say this of all Palestinians, but it was obvious that for the Palestinian in our group, the most important issue and the most sensitive one was the war of 1948 (I couldn’t participate in the visit in Bethlehem, but was told that the journalists heard similar things there too).

Therefore, the question of what exactly happened in 1948 is crucial. Was it really, as the Palestinian in the group presented it, that the Jews slaughtered all the Arabs, that it was a terrible conspiracy and that the whole world was against them? Or maybe it was something else: a war, which the Arabs initiated and which the Arabs eventually lost.

One of the Swedish journalists asked whether Israel was established at the expense of others. The Palestinian journalist, for her part, presented time and again the view that the State of Israel is an unnecessary endeavor, born in sin. She said that what the Palestinians perceive to be their “right of return” is a “holy right”, and that her return to the house where her family had lived in Tzfat is non-negotiable.

This is maybe the place to reflect on the difference between “understanding the other side’s narrative” and “accepting the other side’s narrative”. The whole point of using the term “narrative” is to understand that the story I am telling myself is just a story, and it is not the only one possible. Meaning, that the other side has his own story, and a possible way for conflict resolution is to say, “I have my story, he has his story, maybe neither of us is right, but without annulling any of them, we should try to look for a practical way to solve the conflict”.

Here we have something else. Not only do we listen to the Palestinians or try to understand them, but we accept their narrative. In what sense was Israel established at the expense of others? This is true only if we fully and unquestionably accept the Palestinian narrative, according to which the Jews are foreigners in this land and don’t have any rights here. But there’s a parallel Jewish narrative – saying that the whole of this land belongs to us, and that there’s no room for a Palestinian state. In fact, there isn’t even a Palestinian people, and there never was one.

I think that certain Israelis (as well as non-Israelis) not only listen to the Palestinians, but also decide that they are right. And these are two very different things: If we want to reach a solution, the point is to examine each other’s narrative, but if we do this in order to prove that my narrative is wrong and the other narrative is right, the outcome would only be anger and bitterness.

From every possible aspect, the phrase “the State of Israel was born in sin” is groundless. The State of Israel was clearly established despite the Arab world’s rejection of it, that’s obvious. But defining it as a sin, as one can hear quite often on campuses and in certain circles in Europe and in the US, would be to utterly accept the Arab worldview, according to which – “everything is mine, and the situation before the establishment of Israel was perfect”.

The opposite is true: the establishment of the State of Israel was a natural and direct outcome of all the international treaties and accords that were signed in the first half of the 20th century. The mandate given to Great Britain in 1922 by the League of Nations – i.e. the representatives of the family of nations – was specifically given in order to establish a national home for the Jewish people, or in the original text,

“The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home.” (Article 2, view the full text here)

Since then, the Jewish people’s right over the land of Israel was mentioned in every possible British and international document, including of course the partition plan of 1947, but even beforehand, in the conclusions of the Peel commission, sent by the British authorities in 1937:

“An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. About 1,000,000 Arabs are in strife, open or latent, with some 400,000 Jews… Their national aspirations are the greatest bar to peace. Arabs and Jews might possibly learn to live and work together in Palestine if they would make a genuine effort to reconcile and combine their national ideals and so build up in time a joint or dual nationality. But this they cannot do…National assimilation between Arabs and Jews is thus ruled out. In the Arab picture the Jews could only occupy the place they occupied in Arab Egypt or Arab Spain. The Arabs would be as much outside the Jewish picture as the Canaanites in the old land of Israel… In these circumstances to maintain that Palestinian citizenship has any moral meaning is a mischievous pretence”. (Pages 370-371, note that the word “Palestine” refers to a geographical unit and not to any political entity)

And in another paragraph,

“Under the stress of the (First) World War the British Government made promises to Arabs and Jews in order to obtain their support. On the strength of those promises both parties formed certain expectations. The application of the mandate system… implied the belief that the obligations undertaken towards the Arabs and the Jews would prove to be mutually compatible… This belief has not been justified, and we see no hope of its being justified in the future”. (Page 370)

The Palestinian journalist said, on several occasions, that before Zionism, there was paradise here: Jews and Arabs lived together peacefully, and the whole problem started with the Zionists. Which means that the Jews don’t really need a state of their own, and this is the original sin – that Jews thought they deserve at all a state of their own. This too was received very quietly in the room – telling Israelis 63 years after the creation of their state that it shouldn’t have been established in the first place is somehow not considered to be violence.

One could also contemplate the paradise she described. What was it all about? A place where Jews lived as a minority in a Muslim society. This is her paradise. Ok, that’s perfectly logical: she was the majority, so she thinks of it as paradise. Did she ever ask the Jews who lived here for hundreds of years under Muslim rulers if it was paradise for them too? These Jews suffered systemic discrimination, had inferior status and paid special taxes, were scorned by society and from time to time suffered pogroms and physical attacks.

Even if we put European Jewry aside for a moment, there’s still the question of the million Jews who lived in the Middle East before 1948 – where were they supposed to fulfill their national aspirations? If we talk about justice and equality – isn’t it appropriate that in the vast area called the Middle East there would be 25 thousand square kilometers for the Jewish people where they could govern themselves?

Obviously, Zionism was a revolutionary movement that changed the status-quo. But why is it, from the Palestinian journalist’s point of view, that she deserves a state, as well as the Lebanese, and the Syrians, and all kinds of political entities which are no more than autocratic rulers who got concessions from foreign empires – but men and women who really felt themselves to be a separate people, in this case the Jews, don’t have the right for self-determination?

Another question would be: what is the meaning of all this today? The Palestinian journalist said time and again that it would pose no problem, living together in one state – Jews and Palestinians together. She would return to Tzfat, along with a few other millions of Palestinians, and all would be perfect. Let’s put aside for a moment her real motivations, and face reality: Sweden and Norway have yet to become one state, same with Australia and New Zealand, so of all the places in the world, precisely in the heart of the Middle East, amidst one of the most difficult conflicts that has lasted over 100 years, here of all places, it’s supposed to work? And it’s not as if it hasn’t been tried before. Why did the British recommended partition back in 1937? Because it was clear all those years ago that it couldn’t work.

The Palestinian journalist knows very well that if millions of Palestinians (4 million? 6? Maybe 8?) settled in Israel, as she’d like, the population would become overwhelmingly Muslim, and Jews would again become a minority. I’m sure that sounds like a fantastic idea, especially if you’re the new majority.

The thing is, I don’t want to rule her. If it were up to me, there would be two states. But apparently this is not what she wants, or certainly not the only thing. It is not freedom that she seeks, but my subjugation. She even said it explicitly. She said that as a first stage the Palestinians should have a state in the Territories, and then “we will see”.

I asked her what she meant.

She answered that she believes that with time there will be no borders in the Middle East, and therefore there won’t be borders between the Palestinian state and the State of Israel, which means there would be one state.

Something makes me think she won’t be able to talk Syria and Lebanon into erasing their borders, or any other borders for that matter. So the only place without borders would be the State of Israel. And if so, what’s my incentive? I’m making “pretend” peace with the Palestinians, while they keep thinking and hoping and educating their children that in just a little while, five years, or 10 or 20, their moment will come and they’ll be back in Israel, and all the while they’re holding on to their keys and inflating the number of refugees? What have I got to gain from all this? What will happen to me – where am I in this joyful “narrative”?

8. The fourth evening, Prima Royal Hotel, Jerusalem (cont.)

A Jewish fighter laid to rest in Kfar Etzion, December 1947

There was something very strange in the speaker’s behavior towards the Palestinian journalist. Hillel Cohen tried very much to be her “friend”, be it during the dinner before his lecture or in the lobby discussions afterwards. I couldn’t understand why it was so important for him to be her friend. In principle, I have no problem with befriending anyone, I just don’t see it happening right after she tells me how I won’t have a country of my own anymore.

I really don’t get the way people such as Hillel Cohen think. How is it possible that she tells him outright “let’s have one state, where I’d just happen to be the majority and you’d happen to be the minority”, and he becomes her friend. I really can’t get it. It poses an explicit threat to his life.

In his lecture, Cohen also made the claim that the heart of the problem is the Palestinian dogmatism and fixation, and that to this day the Palestinians view the establishment of the State of Israel as the most terrible injustice on earth. Yet during his lecture he reiterated a few myths that sustain that very feeling of horrible injustice.

He mentioned Dir Yassin, but did not talk about massacres of Jews in the war of 1948, for example in Gush Etzion:

“Towards noon, the commanders of the kibbutz ordered the fighters in their posts to surrender. Groups of people, who had defended the kibbutz, waiving white flags, came out of the bunkers… most of them, more than 100 men and women, gathered in an empty lot in the heart of Kfar Etzion. Arab soldiers ‘ordered them to sit and then to stand up… suddenly an armed vehicle appeared from the direction of the dining room, with machine gun muzzles on each side… the fire came from everywhere. People who weren’t hit from the first shots tried to clear a path between the Arabs and run in different directions’… at the end of the day only a handful of the defenders of the kibbutz survived: three were rescued by officers of the Jordanian army, and one escaped… 106 men and 27 women were killed in battle that day or murdered in the massacre that occurred afterwards”. (“1948”, pages 193-194)

Cohen also mentioned that there were more Jewish fighters than Palestinians. One could ask why – why is it that the Arabs of Ramallah and Nablus did not help their brothers in Jaffa and Haifa, and why were the Palestinian militias so divided? In any case, the picture changed dramatically on May 15th 1948, a day after the proclamation of Israeli independence, with the invasion of five Arab countries, with regular armies and heavy weapons. Then the number of Arab fighters was much greater than the number of Jewish fighters. Why did Cohen not mention this too? Maybe because it does not fit so well with the thesis of the horrible injustice done to the Arabs?

9. The fourth day, Hebron

The cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron

Yehuda Shaul from “Breaking the Silence” guided us on a tour that started in Jerusalem, continued in the South Hebron hills and ended in the Jewish part of Hebron. At the beginning of his tour, Shaul tried to convey information, but as the hours passed, it became an onslaught on the State of Israel. He talked again and again about massive war crimes committed by the Israeli army in the territories (I don’t remember him talking about himself), about deliberate Israeli policy to humiliate, attack and harm Palestinians, and about the Jews of Hebron, the masters of the city according to him. He lost me halfway through: when I am presented with such a one-sided picture, I stop listening.

Surprisingly, at the beginning of the tour in Hebron itself, Shaul said that “the violence of the Jewish settlers in Hebron is far less than the violence of the Palestinians in the city”. That’s an exact quote of his. He knew the name of every Jew killed in the city and the exact location of the fatal attack on Shalhevet Pas, a 7-month old Jewish baby killed by Palestinians. But still, for hours and hours, he talked about the way the settlers in Hebron – and only them – harass the Arab residents.

I asked myself – what are his moral standards then? How can he say that the Arabs in the city are much more violent towards the Jews, yet say nothing about that violence? Maybe he just doesn’t have any moral standards. If someone says that the Arabs are more violent but decides to talk only about what the Israelis are doing wrong – then he is not a human rights organization, he is a political organization whose aim it is to attack Israel.

We heard from him that Israel is not democratic, and that it breaks every possible law. That’s also interesting: according to his own testimony, one day after he and his friends presented a “Breaking the Silence” exhibition in the heart of Tel Aviv, he was invited to the Knesset. Another day passed – again, according to him – and the state’s attorney general, together with the army’s attorney general, opened an inquiry regarding his claims that soldiers abuse Palestinians (he again did not mention if he himself was interrogated).

So what is a democracy? We know now how Britain and the US conduct their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Seven or eight years after the war started, Wikileaks published documents according to which more than 100,000 civilians were killed in Iraq, some of them by western armies. And America is stunned. Where were they all this time? Couldn’t they count the bodies all those years? And here we have a guy, who after the first day of his exhibition in central Tel Aviv is invited to the parliament and to every possible TV channel. But this is not a democracy.

It really is unbelievable that people like him talk in the name of democracy. Democracy is a place where there’s an exchange of thoughts and ideas, where there’s rule of law and accountability, where there’s a certain degree of transparency. It’s a place where there’s freedom of expression, and where ordinary people can talk freely and publicly. But democracy is not a place where we have to do what one person says (for instance, Yehuda Shaul), especially if he is in the minority. That sounds much closer to dictatorship.

I oppose building settlements, and my political view is that the settlement project is not wise and not useful for the State of Israel. But he pretends to be a human rights organization, not a political party. Again, according to his own words, at least in half of the cases in which land was confiscated, Palestinians turned to the Israeli court, and in many cases the court ruled in their favor. It is well known that the court forced the state to move the route of the separation fence in some places. That’s exactly the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship: in the latter, someone decides everything and nobody can object to it; in a democracy there’s procedure, and the executive can decide this or that, but then the citizens may disagree and turn to the court if they wish. In this case, these are not even citizens; they are residents of a hostile entity.

We also met the spokesperson of the Jewish community in Hebron, David Wilder, who said that until the massacre of 1929 by the Arabs, Jews had lived in Hebron for hundreds of years. Shaul told us that under Muslim rule, Jews could not enter or pray inside the Cave of the Patriarchs, even though it is considered to be the second holiest place for Judaism. Today, under Israeli rule, entrance to the tomb is allowed to Jews, Muslims and everyone else.

I don’t know how much money and energy the State of Israel should put into maintaining control over the Cave of the Patriarch. But if we think in terms of justice and human rights – why shouldn’t Jews be able to pray in the Cave while Muslims can pray in the Al-Aqsa mosque? That, for some reason, seems even an outrageous question (though I understand it’s only the third holiest place for Muslims). The past teaches us that if Muslims have control of the tomb, Jews will not be able to pray there. That’s what happened in the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus (Shechem), and that’s what happened in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem when it was under Jordanian occupation from 1948 to 1967. I don’t have a good solution for the situation on the ground, but if someone is bothered with questions of human rights, he must address this issue too.

That same night we had a group discussion about the events of the day. One after the other, the journalists expressed their anger and revulsion with David Wilder. When it was my turn to speak, I asked them why it is that they find it odd when a Jew says that the whole land is his, but when a Palestinian says it, it seems natural. If the first is “wrong”, the second must be also “wrong”. In our group, we had a Palestinian woman that did not hesitate to say that the State of Israel is hers too. Why did she receive better “treatment” than Mr. Wilder? What’s more – while the spokesperson of the Jewish community in Hebron is far from representing the majority of Israelis, insisting on the “right of return” is a prominent characteristic of the Palestinian mainstream.

The territorial dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clear – if a Palestinian state is ever to become reality, it would have to materialize somewhere, on a certain piece of land. But what became obvious to me as well during this trip is that the territorial question is not the fundamental issue. The Israeli settlements in the West Bank are discussed day and night, everywhere. And then we discover that there’s just another small issue – something like 8 million Palestinian who are waiting to “return” to Israel. And not only to “return”, but return with the objective of creating one state, where everybody would live “in peace”.

The truth is that I was also surprised by this intellectual fixation, and by the fact that the Palestinians we met still refuse to recognize the Jewish sovereign state in the land of Israel. When I asked the Palestinian journalist directly, she didn’t even hesitate, and answered immediately, “Yes, I want my house in Safed. The right of return is a holy right”.

That same night, over an ice-cold beer in a Jerusalem pub, one of the Swedish journalists told me that he was “astonished” to hear her. How could she think this was even negotiable, he asked, how can she not understand that this is impossible? Maybe this is where people who want to bring peace to the Middle East need to focus their energies – explaining to the Palestinians how much the dream they nurture is impossible, and that it’s high time they recognize the fact that this land is also the land of the Jews.

The international community is putting immense pressure on Israel regarding the settlements, but there isn’t even a frail voice out there demanding that the Palestinians abandon their wish to fulfill their “right of return” – a wish which is destructive, violent and immoral, with which there will never be any peace accord.

10. The fifth day, Bethlehem

The entrance to Aida camp (photo: Reham Alhelsi)

I could not join the group on its tour in Bethlehem, since the organizers refused to guarantee my safety and sign the waiver liability that the IDF requires in order to let Israeli journalists into Palestinian-controlled territories. But the next day, a few journalists told me about the recurring demand that they heard from the people they met to fulfill their “right of return”. The German journalist, Ingo Way, passed his notes to me. He published his impressions from that day in German and in English, and here’s a short summary:

“Aida refugee camp has been in Bethlehem since 1950. Today just over 3,000 people live there. It doesn’t look like one would imagine a ‘camp.’ It consists of massive houses and is thus more like a neighborhood than a camp – not even a slum. The entrance to the refugee camp is decorated with a gigantic key, written in English and Arabic, which reads: ‘Not for Sale’.

I enter the Lajee Center, a kind of community center for residents of Aida, with lounges, a tea kitchen, an Internet cafe and an exhibition space. Upstairs I meet Khouloud Al Ajarma, the ‘Arts & Media Coordinator of Lajee Center.’ Khouloud was born 23 years ago in Aida; her grandmother came from a village in Israel that does not exist anymore. She studied in England, so she speaks with marked British accent.

After her graduation, Khouloud returned back to Aida. She is aiming to ‘return’ to Israel, although she has not been there before. ‘To remain a refugee is a political decision,’ she admits. Hence it is for her and for the other inhabitants of Aida out of the question to start a new life elsewhere, or to even become ordinary citizens of Bethlehem. ‘We want no normalization,’ says Khouloud. ‘We want to remain refugees to exercise our right of return one day.’

It is therefore not surprising that Khouloud doesn’t grant any importance to the negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. ‘Our people do not want a two-state solution. Our leadership is not acting in our name. And the Israelis know that as well.’

She speaks very clearly of what they wish for: a single state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, in which all Palestinians, the descendants of refugees from 1948, which are now scattered all over the world, can return to live.

For Khouloud it seems to matter little that this will never happen by peaceful means. ‘Why do we need a Jewish state?’ Khouloud asks rhetorically. ‘Surely we can all live together in a democratic state of Palestine.’ This would, she says, of course, have a ‘Palestinian majority.’ And what would happen to the Jewish minority in such a state? ‘Such small things,’ says Khouloud, ‘are not important. For them a solution will eventually be found.’

What I find so frightening about Khouloud Al Ajarma is (that) no representative of the UN, who built the schools and community centers in Aida, nor the EU, who gives the refugee camps financial support, nor the employees of all the Western aid agencies and NGOs that are active here – none of them would tell Khouloud straight out that her demands are not only inhuman – because of course they count on the expulsion and disenfranchisement of Jews in Israel, and this is still the most favorable interpretation – but also unrealistic. Not one says, ‘You will not get your demands. Work instead towards a peaceful compromise with the Israelis, advocate for a two-state solution and waive your threatening right to return. Finally take over responsibility for yourself and your own people, build an infrastructure and tear down the refugee camps. Stop getting nannied by the UN and the EU, get a grip on things yourselves.'”

11. The sixth day, Tel Aviv

Author Yosef Haim Brener

Shirel Horvitz led us through the neighborhood of Neve Tzedek in Tel Aviv. On the steps just outside The Authors’ House (Rokah Street and Neve Tzedek Street), she told us about the Jewish aspirations in the land of Israel through the revival of the Hebrew language. Then she showed us the sign on the wall, commemorating Yosef Haim Brener, Yosef Aharonovitch and Dvora Baron.

Brener is mentioned first, and he is a much more important author then the others, but for some reason she did not even mention him. She talked about Aharonovitch and Baron, who went mad and ordered that all her writing be burned. And I asked myself, why won’t she talk about Brener? After all, he is much more dominant in the history of the Hebrew language. Is it possible that she omitted him just because he was murdered by Arabs in 1921? And to my great amazement, she got up and simply moved on to the next location. I stopped her and asked, “And what about Brener? Isn’t he worth a mention?”

She looked at me bewildered, and with no other choice started telling the group about Brener’s life. And she knew quite a lot about it. So why hadn’t she said a single word about him beforehand?

This is an important matter: is it possible that we have to erase from the historical records all accounts of Arabs portrayed in a negative way? Brener was an author who was murdered by Arabs in Tel Aviv, many years before 1948, and many years before the territories were captured by Israel in 1967. If we want to talk about the two sides’ narratives, we must mention this too. It must be an important issue in the conflict. So why did she omit this exact point? If this is the case, it’s not that our goal is to listen to both sides. Our goal is to cleanse history of any incidence than might explain the Jewish-Israeli narrative. And this is a very grave matter.

On top of all things, now that she had broached the topic of the Arab riots in Jaffa in 1921, she described it as follows: “The Arabs started rioting against the Jews, but the Jews retaliated”. And the more I think about it, the more I am enraged. What did she mean by “but”? Is it abnormal to retaliate when you are under attack? And what would have been normal – if the Jews hadn’t retaliated at all? Maybe they should not have retaliated, maybe they should have waited patiently for the Arabs to kill every last one of them, on their own time – it might end at 4 o’clock, or 5, or even as late as the next day.

This means that the optimal situation can be found in what happened to the Jews during in the Holocaust. Retaliation was rare, and they were surely “in the right”, since they did not resist and were not at all violent. I guess they would get an “A” from Shirel. What a pity they are not here with us to enjoy that grade.

12. The seventh evening, documentary films screening, Tel Aviv

The poster of Noa Ben Hagay's film, "Blood Relation"

We were invited to watch a few documentary films at Assaf Saban’s place behind the Noga theatre in Jaffa. He showed us two films of his: one about a soldier who commits suicide while on vacation, and the second about “the march of the living” in Auschwitz.

I’m not going to criticize the films on an artistic level, but I couldn’t avoid the feeling that the director’s purpose – in fact, the whole evening’s purpose – was to show how corrupt and crumbling Israeli society is. The two subjects he chose are surely interesting and important issues: suicide in the military is a sensitive matter that’s worth dealing with, and the same is true for the educational activity which involved taking teenagers on tours of the Nazi death camps.

But regarding suicides – is this a particular characteristic of the Israeli society? In Sweden there are much more cases of suicide, as well as in all the Nordic countries. So what am I supposed to think – that Swedish society is corrupt, rotten and twisted? I don’t think that one shouldn’t deal with problems such as soldiers committing suicide, but the question is, what does it mean, and why it was a part of our trip? If you wanted to see “something” about Israeli society, you could have seen any number of other things – successful Israeli companies, tomatoes growing in the desert, researchers in universities, and so on. For some reason, all these were not represented in our trip.

The way Saban talked about Israeli society, about “the Israelis” and about Israel was very alienated. It is, of course, ridiculous to tell a film director which films to make, and this is definitely not my point, but the way he talked was emblematic of a whole week in which all we were shown was a violent and harsh face of Israeli society. It was a pre-meditated choice to bring to us only speakers who perceive this country as a horrible place, where nothing works and everything is screwed up, and whose perceptions are often expressed on a budget given to them by that very same state.

The same evening we watched Noa Ben Hagay’s film, “Blood Relations”, which tells the story of her family. Her grandmother’s sister, Pnina, married an Arab man during the British mandate and since then was torn from her family. First she moved to Jaffa, then to Nablus. The family lost touch with her, and hid the whole story from future generations. Noa discovered all this by chance, and tried to fix this by contacting her “family” in Nablus. She found them, but was unable to reunite the two families.

I’ve known Noa for many years, and my name appears in the credits at the end of the film (we had a few discussions about the film in its early stages). She was lucky to have discovered such a complicated personal story, combining history, politics and human beings. Every author, journalist or film-maker would love to be in her place. But for Noa it’s not only about the story, but about horrible guilt (“toxic”, said the German journalist), as if every catastrophe that has happened to her Palestinian relatives is her fault. In fact, everything is her fault.

The war of 1948, after which Pnina moved from Jaffa to Nablus – her fault. The war of 1967, after which Nablus fell under Israeli control – her fault. The dire economic situation of her Palestinian family – also her fault. Noa has even given thousands of dollars from her pocket and recruited her uncle to sign court bails for her Palestinian cousins (who’ve then skipped bail and made the uncle pay thousands of Shekels). It is even implied in the film that her “new” relatives are engaged somehow in terrorist activity – but Noa doesn’t care. That’s apparently her fault too.

Noa came to talk to us after the screening. She said her film was shown in many film festivals around the world and was received very well. But, she said, “This is not good, since it sends a message to the world that Israel is a democracy”. In a festival in Canada, some protesters stood outside the hall and called on people to boycott her film and Israel. “I wanted to join them”, she said.

And all this from a person who was raised and educated in Israel, and whose film studies were surely subsidized by the state to some extent. Her film is shown again and again on TV and in the Tel Aviv Cinematheque to thousands of viewers, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave her a hug and told her how important her film is – yet none of this is a democracy. If that is the case, she doesn’t know what democracy is all about. She must be thinking that Israel would be a democracy only when everybody did what Noa Ben Hagay told them to do. That would really be a democracy.

Democracy is something else: it is a place where film directors can make whatever film they wish to make, and if it has certain artistic qualities, it might even get the state’s funding, and nobody will arrest her or spit in her face. Noa said that the face of her cousin in Nablus has to be blurred when the film is screened on TV, because if her Palestinian neighbors knew that she has relatives in Israel, they would most probably boycott her, hit her or even rape her. In Israel, on the other hand, nobody has said a word to Noa for having an Arab cousin. That’s also a sign of democracy and of an open and tolerant society. But not for Noa – for her this is not a democracy.

At the end of the evening I told her that a day earlier, in Bethlehem, the group heard that the “right of return” is a “holy right” and that the Palestinians have no intention of giving it up. She smiled to me and said: “The right of return is something they used to talk about in the 1980s”.

By coincidence, the Palestinian journalist was standing there with her back to us. I told Noa, “Here’s a Palestinian, why don’t you ask her yourself”.

“No way”, she said, “That’s irrelevant. They don’t want the ‘right of return'”.

“Ask her yourself”, I insisted. I saw she was afraid, but I urged her to get an answer.

She had no choice in the end, so she tapped the Palestinian woman on her back, and said: “Adi wants me to ask you…’. I stopped her and said: “It’s not me who wants to know. You should also want to know the answer, right?”

She started over: “Do you want your ‘right of return’? Would you like to have your family’s house in Safed?”

The Palestinian didn’t even blink, and naturally said, “yes”.

A silence followed.

I saw that Noa was stunned. She tried again: “Do you want to tell me that without the right of return, there won’t be a peace agreement?”

The Palestinian again answered without even thinking: “No”. Now Noa really got pale.

What did I learn from all this? First, that Noa is out of touch with reality. She sits with her Jewish friends in cafés in Tel Aviv, and they explain to one another that Netanyahu and Lieberman are fascists, and that everything would be so simple and wonderful without them. She just never bothered to ask a Palestinian what it is exactly that he or she wants. She told me, speaking on their behalf, that it was “something they used to talk about in the 1980s “. But maybe instead of trying to guess what the Palestinians want, we should simply ask them.

This person goes around and calls herself a pro-peace activist. But what does that mean, “pro-peace”? Does it mean sitting at home, blaming yourself for every possible thing and having no idea what the other side wants or what their aspirations are?

One thing is for sure: she is certainly not pro-peace.

13. In between, on the bus and on the road

George Kara and Moshe Katzav

On the breaks between the lectures and while driving on the bus, I heard several whispers among the group about the fact that “Israel is a racist country”. Why? Because it is the Jewish state.

I think there’s a mistake here (thought there’s probably no mistake, it seems to be pure political motivation), because there’s no problem at all with the fact that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. The Jewish people are indeed a bit unique, in the sense that their nation developed out of a religion, but this fact is not so essential. Italy is the nation-state of the Italian people, and Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Is it that easy to join the Italian nation? I doubt it. When I look at minorities in European countries or anywhere else, I’m really not too sure.

And what kind of racism are we talking about? The Palestinian journalist said on one occasion that her relatives back in Syria cannot study at the university, because the Syrian authorities discriminate against Palestinians. On the other hand, Arabs in Israel can attend universities freely. So a sister Arab country treats the Palestinians much worse than Israel. And who’s the racist here? Refugees from Africa, Muslim and non-Muslim, try to find shelter in Israel. In Egypt they are shot at from time to time, but that’s apparently not a sign of racism. The conclusion then is that this country is the least racist in the region, even if it is the nation state of the Jewish people.

We could have this discussion seriously, if it was real and impartial, and if we had unified standards according to which we examined all the countries in the world. Then, I presume, we would find that all the countries in the region get a much, much lower grade. But what happens in reality is that the discussion is politically motivated in order to de-legitimize Israel. It’s not a discussion about minorities’ rights or racism. It’s about saying “Israel is bad”, and now we have another reason for saying that.

Hillel Cohen told us that Arabs don’t get equal rights in Israel and that they are discriminated against in terms of state budgets. He did not say though that the Supreme Court, Israel’s most respected institution, has an Arab judge (Salim Jubran). He also did not say that the President of Israel, Moshe Katzav, was given his verdict recently by an Arab judge, George Kara (a fact so trivial that no one even mentioned it). He also did not say that the head of the Political Studies Department at Tel Aviv University is an Arab (Amal Jamal). And he also did not say that Arab members of parliament such as Ahmad Tibi (not considered a radical) go around the world and tell whomever wishes to listen that Jews live in houses they stole from Arabs (in Israel itself, not the territories).

Not long ago, a group of rabbis published a call not to rent apartments to Arabs. This call was denounced by every possible politician, including the Prime Minister and including many right-leaning members of parliament. Important rabbis, some of them much more important than the ones who signed the letter, also denounced it, and some of the original rabbis retracted their signatures because of that. This story – obviously – attracted the curiosity of the visiting journalists.

But one should remember: there are Arab minorities in Jewish-dominated cities. There are Arabs in Acco, Haifa and Lod. But there are no Jewish minorities in Arab cities – not in Nazareth, not in Shfaram and nowhere else. And there have been Jews who’ve wanted to live there. A few years ago I met an elderly person in Acco who told me that due to economic reasons he’d left Acco and tried to move to the Arab village of Judeide-Maker, but on his first day there a few Arab thugs appeared at his doorstep and told him to beat it, otherwise they’d burn the house down with him in it. For some reason, nobody talks about this.

So maybe there isn’t total equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel. I don’t think there ever will be, and I don’t think that there’s any country in the world where if you’re a minority or a foreigner, you’ll have perfect equality. Being a minority is never pleasant – and Jews know it better than others. And I’m not even talking about Iran or Egypt, where Christians Copts are shot at in the street.

The question is are they discriminated against legally, and in this sense I don’t think that Israel is different than France, Germany, Slovakia or Great Britain, where if you are Pakistani, or Indian, or Algerian or a Jew, then you might be discriminated against, not because there’s a law, but because you are a minority.

Not to mention what the Samis have been through in Sweden.

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