News from Israel: Boycotting Israel ... from within
- Boycotting Israel ... from within
Israelis explain why they joined the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement.
Mya Guarnieri Last Modified: 26 Mar 2011 14:56
It was Egypt that got me thinking about the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement in a serious way. I was already conducting a quiet targeted boycott of settlement goods - silently reading labels at the grocery store to make sure I was not buying anything that came from over the Green Line.
I had been doing this for a long time. But, at some point, I realised that my private targeted boycott was a bit naïve. And I understood that it was not enough.
It is not just the settlements and the occupation, two sides of the same coin, which pose a serious obstacle to peace and infringe on the Palestinians' human rights. It is everything that supports them - the government and its institutions. It is the bubble that many Israelis live in, the illusion of normality. It is the Israeli feeling that the status quo is sustainable.
And the settlements are a bit of a red herring, a convenient target for anger. Israelis must also face one of the major injustices that have resulted from their state - the nakba, the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
While BDS addresses that, among other concerns - the three principles of the movement are respect for the Palestinians' right of return, as outlined in UN resolution 194, an end to the occupation and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel - I remained reluctant to get involved.
I have to admit that I was frightened by the movement. I did not think it would help. I was sure that BDS would only encourage Israel to dig its heels in deeper. It will only make things worse for everyone, I reasoned.
Egypt was the tipping point for me. I was exhilarated by the images of people taking to the streets to demand change. And while the Palestine Papers prove that the government seems intent on maintaining the status quo, I know plenty of Israelis who are fed up with it.
There are mothers who do not want to send their children to the army; soldiers who resent guarding settlers. I recently spoke with a 44-year-old man - a normal guy, a father of two - who told me he wants to burn something he is so frustrated with the government and so worried about the future.
And Egypt is on many Israeli lips right now. So, what can be done to help bring it to Israeli feet? What can be done to encourage Israelis to fight for change, to fight for peace, to liberate themselves from a conflict that undermines their self-determination, their freedom?
BDS has stacked up a number of successes, which is one reason the Israeli Knesset is trying to pass a bill, known as the Boycott Law, that would effectively criminalise Israelis who join the movement, subjecting them to huge fines.
And some of those involved with BDS are already feeling an immense amount of pressure from the state.
'Israel's mask of democracy'
Leehee Rothschild, 26, is one of the scores of Israelis who have answered the 2005 Palestinian call for BDS. Recently her Tel Aviv apartment was raided. While the police did this under the pretense of searching for drugs, she was taken to the station for a brief interrogation that focused entirely on politics.
"The person who came to release me [from interrogation] was an intelligence officer who said that he is in charge of monitoring political activity in the Tel Aviv area," Rothschild says. It was this officer who had requested the search warrant.
Since Operation Cast Lead, Israeli activists have reported increasing pressure from the police as well as General Security Services - known by their Hebrew acronym, Shabak.
The latter's mandate includes, among other things, the goal of maintaining Israel as a Jewish state, making those who advocate for democracy a target.
House raids, such as the one Rothschild was subjected to, are not uncommon, nor are phone calls from the Shabak.
"Obviously [the pressure] is nothing compared to what Palestinians are going through," Rothschild says. "But I think we're touching a nerve."
When asked about the proposed Boycott Law, Rothschild comments: "If the bill goes through, it will peel off, a little more, Israel's mask of democracy."
As for her involvement in BDS, Rothschild remarks that she was not aware of the movement until it became a serious topic of discussion within Israel's radical left, which she was already active in. And even after she heard about it, she did not jump onboard right away.
"I had reservations about [BDS]," Rothschild recalls. "I thought about it for a very long time and I debated it with myself and my friends.
"The main reservation I had was that the economic [aspects] would first harm the weak people in the society - the poor people - the people who have the least effect on what's going on. But I think that the occupation is harming these people much more than the divestments can."
Rothschild points out that state funds that are poured into "security and defence and oppressing the Palestinian people" could be better used in Israel to help those in the low socioeconomic strata.
"Another reservation I have had is that it might make the Israeli public more extremist, more fundamentalist," Rothschild adds. "But I have to say that the road it has to go to be more extreme is very short right now."
As an Israeli, Rothschild considers joining the BDS movement to be an act of caring. It is tough love for the country she was born and raised in.
"I hope that, for some people, it will be a slap in their face and they will wake up and see what's going on," Rothschild says, adding that the oppressor is oppressed, as well.
"The Israeli people are also oppressed by the occupation - they are living inside a society that is militant; that is violent; that is racist."
'Renouncing my privileges'
Ronnie Barkan, 34, explains that he took his first step towards the boycott 15 years ago, when he refused to complete his mandatory military service.
"There's a lot of social pressure [in Israel]," Barkan says. "We're raised to be soldiers from kindergarten. We're taught that it's our duty [to serve in the army] and you're a parasite or traitor if you don't want to serve."
"What is even worse is that people are raised to be deeply racist," he adds. "Everything is targeted at supporting [Jewish] privilege as the masters of the land. Supporting BDS means renouncing my privileges in this land and insisting on equality for all."
Barkan likens his joining of the boycott movement to the "whites who denounced their apartheid privileges and joined the black struggle in South Africa".
When I cringe at the "a-word," apartheid, Barkan counters: "Israel clearly falls under the legal definition of the 'crime of apartheid' as defined in the Rome Statute."
'Never again to anybody'
Some oppose BDS because it includes recognition of the Palestinian right of return. These critics say that the demographic shift would impinge on Jewish self-determination. But Barkan argues that "the underlying foundation [of the movement] is universally recognised human rights and international law".
He emphasises that BDS respects human rights for both Palestinians and Jews and includes proponents of a bi-national, democratic state as well as those who believe a two-state solution is the best answer to the conflict.
He also stresses that BDS is not anti-Semitic. Nor is it anti-Israeli.
"The boycott campaign is not targeting Israelis; it is targeting the criminal policies of Israel and the institutions that are complicit, not individuals," he says.
"So let's say an Israeli academic or musician goes abroad and he is turned away from a conference or a venue just because he's Israeli ... " I begin to ask.
"No, no, this doesn't fall under the [boycott guidelines]," Barkan says.
"Because that's not a boycott. It's racism," I say.
"Exactly," Barkan responds, adding that the Palestinian call for BDS is "a very responsible call" that "makes a differentiation between institutions and individuals and it is clearly a boycott of criminal institutions and their representatives".
"Whenever there is a grey area," he adds, "we take the gentler approach."
Still, Barkan has faced criticism for his role in the boycott movement.
"My grandmother who went to Auschwitz tells me, 'You can think whatever you want but don't speak up about your politics because it's not nice,' I tell her, 'You know who didn't speak up 70 years ago.'"
Barkan adds: "I think that the main lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is 'never again to anybody' not 'never again to the Jews.'"
Mya Guarnieri is a Tel Aviv-based journalist and writer.
Who is annexing Whom?
by Uri Avnery
(Saturday, March 26, 2011)
In a rare late-night session, the Knesset has finally adopted two obnoxious racist laws. Both are clearly directed against Israel’s Arab citizens, a fifth of the population.
The first makes it possible to annul the citizenship of persons found guilty of offences against the security of the state. Israel prides itself on having a great variety of such laws. Annulling citizenship on such grounds is contrary to international law and conventions.
The second is more sophisticated. It allows communities of less than 400 families to appoint “admission committees” which can prevent unsuitable persons from living there. Very shrewdly, it specifically forbids the rejection of candidates because of race, religion etc. – but that paragraph is tantamount to a wink. An Arab applicant will simply be rejected because of his many children or lack of military service.
A majority of members did not bother to show up for the vote. After all, it was late and they have families, too. Who knows, some may even have been ashamed to vote.
But far worse is a third law that is certain to pass its final stages within a few weeks: the law to outlaw the boycott of the settlements.
SINCE ITS early stages, the original crude text of this bill has been refined somewhat.
As it stands now, the law will punish any person or association publicly calling for a boycott of Israel – economic, academic or cultural. “Israel”, according to this law, means any Israeli enterprise or person, in Israel or in any territory controlled by Israel. Simply put: it is all about the settlements. And not only about the boycott of the products of the settlements, which was initiated by Gush Shalom some 13 years ago, but also about the recent refusal of actors to perform in the settlement of Ariel and the call by academics not to support the so-called University Center there. It also applies, of course, to any call for the boycott of an Israeli university or an Israeli commercial enterprise.
This is a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation: it is anti-democratic, discriminatory, annexationist, and altogether unconstitutional.
EVERYBODY HAS the right to buy or not to buy whatever he or she desires, from whomsoever he or she chooses. That is so obvious that it needs no confirmation. It is a part of the right to free expression guaranteed by any constitution worth its salt, and an essential element of a free market economy.
I may buy from the store on the corner, because I like the owner, and shun the supermarket opposite, which exploits its employees. Companies expend huge sums of money to convince me to buy their products rather than others.
What about ideologically motivated campaigns? Years ago, while on a visit to New York, I was persuaded not to buy grapes produced in California, because the owners oppressed the Mexican migrant workers. This boycott went on for a long time and was – if I remember right – successful. Nobody dared to suggest that such boycotts should be outlawed.
Here in Israel, rabbis of many communities regularly paste up posters calling upon their flock not to buy at certain shops, which they believe are not kosher, or not kosher enough. Such calls are commonplace.
Such publications are fully compatible with human rights. Citizens for whom pork is an abomination, have the right to be informed about which shops sell pork and which do not. As far as I know, no one in Israel has ever contested this right.
Sooner or later, some anti-religious groups will publish calls to boycott kosher shops, which pay the rabbis - some of them the most intolerant of their kind – heavy levies for their certificates. They support a vast religious establishment that openly advocates turning Israel into a “Halakha state” – the Jewish equivalent of a Muslim “Shari’a state”. Many thousands of Kashrut supervisors and myriads of other religious functionaries are paid for by the largely secular public.
So what about an anti-rabbinical boycott? It can hardly be forbidden, since religious and anti-religious are guaranteed equal rights.
SO IT appears that not all ideologically motivated boycotts are wrong. Nor do the initiators of this particular bill – racists of the Lieberman school, Likud rightists and Kadima “centrists” – claim this. For them, boycotts are only wrong if they are directed against the nationalist, annexationist policies of this government.
This is explicitly stated in the law itself. Boycotts are unlawful if they are directed against the State of Israel – not, for example, by the State of Israel against some other state. No Israeli in his right mind would retroactively condemn the boycott imposed by world Jewry on Germany immediately after the Nazis came to power – a boycott that served as a pretext for Josef Goebbels when he unleashed on April 1, 1933, the first Nazi anti-Semitic boycott (“Deutsche wehrt euch! Kauft nicht bei Juden!”)
Nor does any upright Zionist find fault with the boycott measures passed by Congress, under intense Jewish pressure, against the late Soviet Union, in order to break down the barriers to free Jewish emigration. These measures were hugely successful.
No less successful was the worldwide boycott against the Apartheid regime in South Africa – a boycott warmly welcomed by the South African liberation movement, though it also hurt the African workers employed by the boycotted white businesses (an argument now repeated by Israeli settlers, who exploit Palestinian laborers for starvation wages).
So political boycotts are not wrong, as long as they are directed against others. It’s the old “Hottentot morality“ of colonial lore – “if I steal your cow, that’s right. If you steal my cow, that’s wrong.”
Rightists can call for action against left-wing organizations. Leftists cannot call for action against right-wing organizations. It’s as simple as that.
BUT THE law is not only anti-democratic and discriminatory, it is also blatantly annexationist.
By a simple semantic trick, in less than a sentence, the lawmakers do what successive Israeli government did not dare to do: they annex the Palestinian occupied territories to Israel.
Or maybe it’s the other way round: are the settlers annexing Israel?
The word “settlements” does not appear in the text. God forbid. Much as the word “Arabs” does not appear in any of the other laws.
Instead, the text simply states that calls for the boycott of Israel, which are forbidden by the law, include the boycott of Israeli institutions and enterprises in all territories controlled by Israel. This includes, of course, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
This is the core of the matter. Everything else is camouflage.
The initiators want to silence our call for boycotting the settlements, which is gathering momentum throughout the world.
THE IRONY of the matter is that they may achieve the exact opposite.
When we started the boycott, our stated objective was to draw a clear line between Israel in its recognized borders – the Green Line – and the settlements. We do not advocate a boycott of the State of Israel which, we believe, sends the wrong message and pushes the Israeli center into the waiting arms of the extreme right (“The whole world is against us!”) A boycott of the settlements, we think, helps to re-institute the Green Line and make a clear distinction.
This law does the exact opposite. By wiping out the line between the State of Israel and the settlements, it plays into the hands of those who call for a boycott of Israel in the belief (mistaken, I think) that a unified Apartheid state would pave the way for a democratic future.
Recently, the folly of the law was demonstrated by a French judge in Grenoble. This incident concerned the quasi-monopolistic Israeli export company for agricultural products, Agrexco. The judge suspected the company of fraud, because products of the settlements were falsely declared as coming from Israel. This could well be fraud, too, because Israeli exports to Europe are entitled to preferential treatment which the products of the settlements are not.
Such incidents are occurring more and more often in various European countries. This law will cause them to multiply.
IN THE original version, boycotters would have committed a criminal offence and been fined. That would have caused us great joy, because our refusal to pay the fines and and subsequent imprisonment would have dramatized the matter.
This clause has now been omitted. But every single company in the settlements and, indeed, every single settler who feels hurt by the boycott can sue - for unlimited damages - any group calling for the boycott and any individual connected with the call. Since the settlers are tightly organized and enjoy unlimited funds from all kinds of casino owners and sleazy sex merchants, they can file thousands of suits and practically paralyze the boycott movement. That, of course, is the aim.
The fight is far from over. Upon the enactment of the law, we shall call upon the Supreme Court to annul it, as contrary to Israel’s fundamental constitutional principles and basic human rights.
As Menachem Begin used to say: “There are still judges in Jerusalem!”
Or are there?
The common thread that binds the Israel lobby with the Arab dictatorships
In theory they do not seem to have a common cause. In practice, however, the pro-Israel lobby shares several vital interests and characteristics with the dictatorships that have bedevilled the Middle East for decades. They share a common desire to perpetuate the culture of subservience and dependency in the region. Driven by similar instincts of survival, in a fast-changing environment they exploit equally the phoney spectre of "Islamic extremism". Thankfully, European governments are finally awakening to this farce. Thus, when Libyan leader Mu'ammar Gaddafi raised the alarm about "Al-Qaeda" and "Islamic extremism" being responsible for the challenge to his authoritarian rule, following his deposed buddies Ben Ali and Mubarak, no one took him seriously.
None of these claims have anything to do with improving the common good of the people affected by despotic rule; on the contrary they are used only to advance the selfish designs of the rulers to preserve the status quo. The pro-Israel outfit Just Journalism confirmed as such when it published an article on March 17th under the heading, "Paper-wrapped extremism".
The article was a frontal attack on the Guardian newspaper for publishing the findings of the ICM report on European public perceptions of the conflict in Palestine, which was commissioned by the Middle East Monitor (MEMO), Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and the European Muslim Research Centre. The Guardian is, of course, well capable of defending itself to preserve its independence from the Israel lobby's pernicious influence; but there are aspects of the article which warrant a response from MEMO.
Clearly unwilling to address the major findings of the survey, Just Journalism went instead for the familiar tactic of shooting the messenger, as its Israeli handlers have ordered lobbyists to do - "delegitimise the delegitimisers".
A blow to Israeli Arabs and to democracy
Extremists are counting on those Knesset members who ignore the inflammatory and racist context from which recent bills arise, and who don't discern their destructive consequences.
AIPAC's newest strategy
AIPAC is a useful tool when you want to predict the future of any peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
MJ Rosenberg Last Modified: 15 Mar 2011 17:10
Prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu is being heavily criticised in Israel for his blatant exploitation of the murder of five members of one family (including three children) at the Itamar settlement near Nablus. Particularly egregious has been Netanyahu's demand that president Mahmoud Abbas personally appear on Palestinian radio and television to condemn the killings, although Abbas had issued an unusually strong statement as soon as he heard of the tragedy.
Forget for a minute that no one knows who committed the crime and that certainly no one believes that the killer was associated with Abbas. Also, lay aside the fact that Netanyahu has never condemned or even expressed remorse over the killing of 300 plus Palestinian children by the IDF during the Gaza war. (In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any Israeli government that ever even criticised the killing of Palestinian children by the IDF, although many hundreds have been killed over the last decade).
None of that is anything new. What is new is Israel's decision to libel the Palestinian Authority (and not just Hamas) which until very recently has been praised by Israel as its partner. That change became evident during the last month when AIPAC (Israel's lobby in America) started attacking Abbas and the PA, returning to the style of the bad old days when the lobby viewed all Palestinians as one and the same: as enemies of Israel.
There are three reasons why monitoring AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is a valuable use of time for anyone following events in the Middle East.
The first is that AIPAC faithfully reflects the positions of the Netanyahu government (actually it often telegraphs them before Netanyahu does).
The second is that AIPAC's policies provide advance notice of the positions that will, not by coincidence, be taken by the United States Congress.
And third, AIPAC provides a reliable indicator of future policies of the Obama administration, which gets its "guidance" both from AIPAC itself and from Dennis Ross, former head of AIPAC's think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and now the president's top adviser on Middle East issues.
The next few months, as AIPAC prepares for its annual conference (May 22-24), will be especially fruitful for AIPAC watchers. The conference is a huge event, attended by most members of the House and Senate, the prime minister of Israel, and either by the president or vice president of the United States. It is also attended by thousands of delegates from around the country and by candidates for Congress who raise money for their campaigns at the event. This year, the leading Republican candidates for president will also be in attendance, all vying for support by promising undying loyalty to the AIPAC agenda.
The death of Israeli democracy
Many left-wing Israelis are concerned that anti-democratic legislation is pushing Israel towards fascism.
Mya Guarnieri Last Modified: 06 Feb 2011 15:17 GMT
As Egyptians demand their freedom, I ask a Muslim in Jaffa if we will see the same in Israel. "I don't think so," he answers. "Even with all the mess here, we have democracy."
But, do we? And for how much longer?
As we speak, the Knesset is debating one of a slew of anti-democratic bills. Some of the legislation targets Palestinian citizens of Israel - people like this man and his wife, who is quick to offer me coffee and her opinions.
If the Admissions Committee law passes, for example, this young couple and their three children could find themselves barred from living in certain communities and villages, even those built on public land. If the Nakba Bill is approved, organisations that commemorate the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians will be ineligible for public funds. This is a "watered down" version of the bill. The original version sought to imprison anyone who publicly marked the Nakba Day. Other legislation aims to silence individuals and groups that criticise the government.
The Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI) says that such bills pose "serious threats" to the country. Explaining that the death of democracy is "a gradual process," the IDI, a non-partisan think-tank based in Jerusalem, warns: "People who are concerned but are waiting for the 'moment of real danger' to abandon their routines and take steps to defend democracy are making a mistake. The moment of real danger is now."
It is worth noting that the IDI managed to publish this op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, a centre-right daily, while the centre-left newspaper Haaretz has recently published a number of pieces voicing similar concerns about Israel's democracy. This suggests that even the Israeli centre - however apathetic - is worried about the state of the state.
Israel braces for 'new Middle East'
Israelis are watching events in Egypt with uncertainty as they debate how they will impact regional politics.
Mya Guarnieri Last Modified: 31 Jan 2011 08:38 GMT
'Don't take our girls ...'
Jewish-Palestinian couples in Israel face increasing pressure as racism becomes more open.
Mya Guarnieri Last Modified: 29 Jan 2011 14:06 GMT
Israel: The ugly truth
As it slides further into open and violent racism, Israel offers the Western world a reflection of itself.
Mya Guarnieri Last Modified: 22 Jan 2011 12:16 GMT
There was that jarring week in December - a protest against Arab-Jewish couples, a south Tel Aviv march and demonstration against migrant workers and African asylum seekers, the arrest of Jewish teenagers accused of beating Palestinians and the expulsion of five Arab men from their home in south Tel Aviv. It left me with the question: What is next?
It is impossible to predict the future. But there are signs that violence, perpetrated by citizens, could be spreading.
In mid-January, dozens of young Jews attacked Muslims at a mosque in Yafo or Jaffa, the historically Arab city just south of Tel Aviv. An Israeli media outlet reports that the youth, who were armed with stones and Israeli flags, shouted "Mohammed is a pig" and "Death to Arabs" just as the Muslims were preparing to pray.
When the police arrived, they did not arrest any of the assailants.
And just a few days before that march in south Tel Aviv, seven Sudanese men were attacked in Ashdod, a coastal city in the south of Israel.
According to Israeli media reports, someone threw a flaming tyre into the apartment the men shared. Five suffered from smoke inhalation, two were hospitalised.
Another alarming act of violence took place in south Tel Aviv that same night. The Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli NGO, reports that three teenage girls - Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking daughters of African migrant workers - were beaten by a group of Jewish teenagers. The attackers, one of whom was armed with a knife, allegedly called them "dirty niggers". One of the girls needed medical treatment for her injuries.
"It's worth noting that the girls had already experienced such violence in the neighbourhood," Poriya Gal, the spokeswoman for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, says. "But they chose not to report it to the police out of the fear that they would be attacked again."
Another frightening indicator of the mood here: In south Tel Aviv, on the day of the protest, a number of afterschool programmes closed early so that children could get home safely before the demonstration began. Administrators were worried that the children might otherwise get caught up in the march and attacked by protestors.
Because asylum seekers are often reluctant to ask for help - and they are unlikely to turn to the police - it is hard to determine the precise number of racially motivated attacks.
But the African Refugee Development Committee (ARDC) reports that asylum seekers are increasingly being evicted from their homes, despite the fact that they have paid rent. And the committee has been alerted to another alarming trend. Dara Levy-Bernstein of the ARDC says: "There have been a lot of [asylum seekers] complaining about being stopped by police or soldiers - we're not entirely sure which - but they're people in uniform who have been taking their visas and tearing them up."
Some argue that asylum seekers and Palestinians represent distinct issues that are distinctly complicated. In some ways, they do. But the police or soldiers who tear asylum seekers' visas are the same people who fail to arrest Jewish citizens for throwing stones at Muslim worshippers. And it boils down to something very simple: How Israel, and some of its citizens, views those it considers 'others'.
Israel's 'disobedient women' questioned over illegal trips for Palestinians
Days out to Israel for West Bank women and children come under police scrutiny amid fears of rising intolerance
A week of racism in Israel
Israeli racism may not be new but it is becoming more open, which raises the question - which way will the public tip?
Mya Guarnieri Last Modified: 08 Jan 2011 13:40 GMT
Who is afraid of Julian Schnabel?
Jews who embrace narratives other than those sanctioned by the pro-Israel community often inflame others.
Jordan Elgrably Last Modified: 26 Mar 2011 13:59
Miral, currently in theatres, portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an entirely Palestinian perspective. It is nothing earth-shattering (a brief filmography at the end of this article offers other films that do this far more effectively) except that it was made by a Jewish filmmaker.
Several Jewish organisations and the Israeli government have seen fit to protest against the film. They say it does not tell both sides of the story. But that is precisely the point. When director Julian Schnabel - previously lauded for his lavish features Basquiat, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - decided to make this film, based on the book by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, his intention was to tell the story Rula tells in Miral.
Schnabel is an Academy-Award nominated director, and his film has brought "the conflict" into the mainstream. The fact that he happens to be Jewish while representing the Palestinian perspective inflames some in the Jewish community, who consider his film an act of betrayal.
I saw the film earlier this week in a special screening hosted by Javier Bardem, who starred in Before Night Falls and wanted to support Schnabel's "brave film". The director was there with his daughter Stella, who appears in the film, and with his new wife - Rula Jebreal. I could not help but wonder what the Jewish community thinks when a Jew marries a Palestinian.
More to the point, why are some Jews afraid of Jews who embrace narratives other than those officially sanctioned in the Jewish and Israeli community? Why do such narratives when told by Jews - including books by Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, and Israeli revisionist historians such as Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappé and Tom Segev - cause such ire?
I am one of these contrarian Jews. Why do I strive to see things not only from the Jewish perspective but the Arab one? Because my father's family lived for centuries in an Arab country, Morocco, and because long ago I recognised that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about nothing else if not conflicting narratives.
Jews see 1948 as the year of Israel's establishment and a glorious liberation from persecution with the benefit of an independent state for Jews who had no place to live in the Diaspora, or who wanted to join Zionists in their "return" to the Holy Land after nearly 2,000 years of Roman exile (see Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People for an alternative history that suggests the Romans never exiled Jews in 70 AD).
Palestinians experienced 1948 as the year of their defeat, a national catastrophe or Nakba. After centuries of dominance by the Ottoman Empire and then British occupation, Palestinians wanted their own freedom. In fact, the national Palestinian identity movement (as Rashid Khalidi explains in his book Palestinian Identity) was nearly the same age as the Zionist movement. Contrast that fact with the myths propagated for years by David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and other early Zionists, who made a point of telling us that "there is no Palestinian people" and that Israel was "a land without a people for a people without a land".
The Arab world began to wake from domination as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling in a renaissance movement known as al-Nahda. People in Palestine were active in their desire for independence from outside control and occupation. Little wonder that the 1947 UN Partition Agreement was almost universally rejected by the Arab world. Why would Palestinians want to lose half of Palestine after living for centuries under foreign rule - particularly when Jewish land ownership at the time was just a fraction of what the UN was awarding to the Jews (see The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939, by Kenneth W. Stein)? Why would Palestinian Arabs embrace Zionist Jews who were primarily European in origin and who trumpeted their culture as decidedly superior to Arab culture?
These are the questions you ask when you want to see things from the other side of the story. Jews have always been good devil's advocates - so why can't we also advocate from the Palestinian/Arab narrative? Every attorney, every judge and everyone who has ever sat in a courtroom realises that there are at least two sides to every story. As we like to say, if you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions.
Embracing the 'other'
My challenge to Jewish readers of this and my other columns is to see if you can embrace the other. Try Kant's "enlarged mentality" - the ability to exercise empathy, to "stand up in the mind of others". What is it like to be a Palestinian today, living under Israeli occupation? What is it like to be an Arab citizen of Israel? Do Arabs enjoy equal rights under the law? How can we have a Jewish state that is also a democracy - isn't that an oxymoron?
Why doesn't Israel have a constitution that equally protects the rights of all its citizens? Why do we insist on besieging Gaza, prohibiting Gazans from having a functioning airport, seaport and international highways, so that it can grow its economy (all of this was in place before Hamas won elections in 2006)? Why does Israel continue to build settlements in the West Bank, when it tells the world that it wants peace, and has invested so much publicity and time in negotiations, starting with Oslo?
I enjoyed Miral, but the film should not be particularly upsetting to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the history of the conflict. As reviewer Omar El-Khairy writes in his Electric Intifada review: "In Schnabel's film, the violence of the occupation is never dealt with explicitly and ends up being either aestheticized ... or completely occluded."
He adds: "Much has been made of the film's supposedly pro-Palestinian stance and what has been presented as Schnabel's bold position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. People will point to its depiction of everyday Israeli abuses and the interrogation scene in which Miral is whipped by Israeli security forces, but the calculated script lacks the political engagement and personal imagination necessary to rupture the dominant discourse on Israel and the Palestinians."
That is how Miral looks to at least one Arab observer. See it yourself and make up your own mind just how much it challenges what you know about the conflict.
Features and documentaries on Israel-Palestine from the Palestinian perspective include:
Chronicle of a Disappearance, director Elia Suleiman
Life in Occupied Palestine, director Anna Baltzer
Occupation 101 - Voices of the Silenced Majority, directors Abdallah and Sufyan Omeish
Paradise Now, director Hany Abu-Assad
The Time That Remains, director Elia Suleiman
Tragedy in the Holy Land: The Second Uprising, director Denis Mueller
Jordan Elgrably is the executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. His views are his own and do not reflect that centre's policies.