Archive for January, 2013

To Qalandiya for coffee

// January 27th, 2013 // No Comments » // Reviews

Roni, Vivi and Tamar are Checkpoint activists: more than activists they are devotees, enthusiasts, even obsessives.  For ten years or more they have been going regularly to Checkpoints, military courts and prisons, like terriers, monitoring what passes for a legal system, harrying soldiers, officers, judges, trying to make them act in conformity with the laws of war or the laws governing occupation. They face not so much a monstrous wall of silence as a vast, labyrinthine bureaucracy in which rules are invented and disinvented, arbitrary decisions are made and unmade. Remember the Caine Mutiny?


Roni is the granddaughter of a man who died with his own child in Auschwitz. Before he died he charged a fellow-prisoner to return to his town and tell the story and fight to prevent such things ever happening again. Roni feels she is carrying on this responsibility: for decades she has fought in defence of human rights. Vivi was born in Iraq and her story serves to recall the deep irony and tragedy of Oriental Jewish culture. The Jews were prominent in every walk of life, they were even central to the Communist parties of Iraq and of Egypt, but with the rise of nationalism and the build-up of Jewish settlement in Palestine, their position became untenable. A few years after Vivi’s parents came to Israel the ‘67 war opened up the West Bank to them and her mother would go to Arab neighbourhoods addressing the men as ‘Sir’ like in Baghdad. One day someone asked she why she spoke so respectfully to Arabs… Tamar is a seasoned warrior: throughout our visit she is taking pictures for the record, her Facebook page is pure politics, and she writes a column twice a week on the Occupation.


Machsomwatch  (Checkpoint Watch) is an organization of women. They operate a rota to be on hand regularly observing what goes on at crossings like Qalandiya, which is on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Why only women? Israeli men, they explain, are almost all connected to the military: they have done military service, and if they do not remain in the army, they are at the disposal of the army for a month every year until the age of 45 as reservists, and they cannot but help falling into a military way of talking and of course shouting even when they are campaigning for the defense of human rights. They get into pointless disputes with the soldiers at the crossings, sometimes concerning their units or petty rivalries. Women on the other hand keep their cool (more or less): they realize the soldiers are just cogs in the machine following a strict protocol, and also, they say, the soldiers are young and can associate these women with their mothers, even with their grandmothers.


Human rights work becomes a routine: it has to be a routine because one important feature of it is to document the repetitive, bureaucratic character of violations and in the Occupied Areas of the endless petty abuse which people undergo at these crossings. So they get to know the peddlars, streetsellers, taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, kiosk-owners and street children from the neighbouring refugee camp, who populate the precincts of the checkpoint, trying to sell the last desirable trinkets that capitalism can produce. Street children touch your sensitivity: as a regular visitor and activists if you give them money that produces a perverse relationship, so to deal with the pressure Tamar hit on the idea of taking pictures of them and then when she returns the next week she brings the pictures. They has been in this campaign long enough to see street children grow into adults. They help people with getting papers if they can – like getting them off blacklists, or the precious permits to work in Jerusalem, available only to men over-30 – and they visit people in prison. Blacklists exist to put people on, not to take them off, and if one inquires the authorities might discover that they don’t know why someone is on the list, or that the reason is trivial or out of date, so they take the name off.


The Checkpoint watchers have become part of the bedraggled Palestinian urban landscape which stretches from Jerusalem to Ramallah, via Kalandia. It is a 20-30 minute drive, during which one watches the roads getting narrower and the debris of urban life more intrusive. The housing is not poor quality, but the roads are poorly maintained and ill-kempt on account of neglectful environmental services. On the way they meet up at their usual café in the East Jerusalem district of Bet Hanina and are greeted warmly by the staff in fluent Hebrew.


As we approach the dividing line enormous walls appear on the side of the road, random cement blocks litter the roadside, watchtowers pop up, and a sense of chaos builds up. This is one highly fortified, checkpoint out of 524 barriers, roadblocks and terminals and 61 checkpoints spread across the tiny area of the Occupied Territories.


Amidst the bureaucracy there is nevertheless plenty of repartee, squabbling, and point-scoring. We hang around the parking lot and then approach a fence. Soldiers’ voices boom over a very high-volume loudspeaker. A private security guard approaches them from the other side. Exchanges follow and he says ‘It’s a pity we have to protect the houses of people like you’.  Then we queue to go back through the turnstile: when their turn comes Vivi and Tamar are held up and of course get into an argument with the soldier who seems to find it something of a joke. When they tell him I am a journalist the soldier asks ‘Why do you bring Israel into disrepute?’. As I go through they call a policeman who asks me for my camera: I ask why and he says I had taken a photo of the soldier; I say ‘no I didn’t’ and then he asks the soldier who also says ‘no he didn’t’.  Finally we have a cup of coffee at a kiosk-on-wheels in the car park.


This week nothing much happened: last week there was stone-throwing and return fire. Nothing has an explanation: today the queue was short, another day it can take hours and hours. Suddenly a stone is thrown…, something crops us, all hell breaks loose – or maybe just the purgatory of a long wait or a detour via another crossing.


So what is all this trivial stuff about? It’s about tying people up in knots, multiplying rules and inventing them on the spot.  Roni, Vivi and Tamar spend much of their time trying to make sense of detailed regulations and procedures, and trying to find out who is responsible for what.


Later at another checkpoint the conversation’s tone changes: a chatty, handsome soldier comes over and say he is a leftist too, but he has to do his job. A long conversation ensues. Suddenly he gets a call and returns to his station where he stops every passing yellow taxi. Maybe he has been told to look out for a taxi-driver. If so the driver will have been alerted by the build-up of a queue at the checkpoint. Maybe just an unpaid parking fine; maybe something serious. Probably something trivial, but that is their job: to keep a track of trivialities because so much abuse is in the trivialities. Tamar takes pictures of the taxis as their drivers are questioned.




Two days in the life of a lily-livered liberal

// January 27th, 2013 // No Comments » // Reviews

(! November 2012)

Last week another alert came round about the case of the Department of Government at Ben-Gurion University. After an alert from the extreme right wing (and well funded) organization Im Tirzu the government instituted an international committee to inquire into the department’s academic quality, but this was a mere pretext for a political witch hunt which recently culminated in a decision by a sub-committee the Council of Higher Education to close it. As it happens the full Council has since given the university a deadline to take measures which might forestall closure. In any case, the details do not matter and can be found elsewhere. The point is that the Minister, an ambitious Likud politician, wants to close it against an almost unanimous academic opinion within and outside Israel. At the same time he is promoting the case of the College at Ariel, a West Bank settlement town, to be upgraded to University status. Neither of these things may happen, but if they do, I said, I, a long-term fierce opponent of the academic boycott of Israel – will not accept any more invitations from Israeli institutions.


Then I meet a friend who tells me that he submitted a paper to a UK-based academic journal and that one of the reports he received was fairly openly political and hostile to Israel and Israeli academics, seeming to imply that someone who receives a salary from the Israeli state should not study Arabs or Palestinians. The quality of the work was not an issue and indeed was hardly discussed at all. The other report invoked the work of certain very militant Israeli historians as if they were the only truth. I was appalled. So I said that I would now request lifetime affiliation to an Israeli university as a gesture of solidarity.


These stories are illustrative of the psychology of a liberal trying to act authentically in the face of Israeli politics. All of a sudden, I realized that the two dramatic gestures I had made to myself were, to say the least, hard to reconcile. One is inclined to ask:  ‘what are the real issues?’ in the hope of a clear-cut solution, but first maybe one should ask: how could one go about finding out what the real issues are?


There are grand principles and there are personal motives: both are murky.


Let us start with personal motives.


I have some of my deepest friendships in Israel, developed during a period when I did a lot of research here. I cannot bear the thought that they would receive an offensive response of this kind when they are just honest scientists, They are not collaborators, they are not doing research in order to harm anyone. In supporting them I am supporting pure humans, not Israeli activists or for that matter anti-Israeli activists. I want them to be seen as ‘just people’ in the rather stupid common phrase.


Can a human be just a person? Or, stated in another way, are we justified in demanding that someone who we see as ‘just a friend’ should also take responsibility for crimes committed by his or her government? He just happens to have been born there, or maybe immigrated?  I know of people who have come to live to Israel for all sorts of non-political reasons (to find a husband or a wife for example), and I also know some who have come because they want to fight against the country’s extreme right-wingers in the name of peace and justice. Yes there are people like that and they are not mad. Why should these people be made to suffer on account of the misdeeds of their government?


There seems to be a special mindset concerning social scientists and academics in the humanities. These people are expected to take a stand: not just to keep their hands clean, but to get them dirty in name of peace and justice. When is a UK academic called upon to take a stand in a matter that affects his or her professional prospects: for example, whenever has the Vice-Chancellor of a university resigned in the face of government denigration of all that universities stand for as in Mrs Thatcher’s day, or of chauvinist immigration policies which directly undermine university finances and the life of an educational institution? How would we feel if colleagues told us they will not attend conferences in the UK because our government treats their countrymen so badly in the immigration process? Some people regarded the invasion of Iraq as a crime of monumental proportions, but did anyone refuse to collaborate with a UK academic as a result? Did any UK or US expert in International Relations have a paper turned down because of that invasion?



Yet Israel is different for many people. Some people say that since most Israelis have to serve in the military they are collectively responsible – yet it has always been recognized that professional soldiers do not bear responsibility for the political decisions of their masters, so long as they do not themselves commit war crimes. People who support Israel (left and right) are deeply upset by what they see as a double standard: this country is being held to standards which are not demanded of dozens of other states. But what do they want? Should Israelis not be glad that the time has not yet come when people take for granted the crimes and violations committed in their name, as they might in the Sudan or Zimbabwe – or Ethiopia for that matter.


More scary is the way in which when the subject comes up in the presence of an Israeli, or even when – or because – it does not come up, the personal becomes truly political. There is a shudder in the air, a sense of unease. Then suddenly someone says something really stupid, as if they cannot hold themselves back, and all hell breaks loose.


And here is the sting in the tail: on internal evidence we strongly suspect that the politicized anonymous review of that paper was by an Israeli…












Dilemmas of a left-wing patriot

// January 27th, 2013 // No Comments » // Reviews


14 November 2012


A group of four of us on a visit to the Lower Galilee visit an outlook at the Golan Heights and look over the Syrian town of Kuneitra. The land is fertile, the outlook peaceful. Thirty miles away Damascus is on fire. Tomorrow we will find out that around the time we were there some Syrian tanks crossed into no-man’s land: we did not see them. Our erudite and serious left-wing friend, guide and tutor tells us how the Syrian army poured across in October 1973 and would have reached the major urban centre of Tiberias – but inexplicably, they stopped, as if startled by their own success – or maybe to await further orders. That gave the ill-prepared Israeli army just enough time to bring up the reserves and drive them back.


Nimrod is his name: he is an explosive character, but lovable and unbelievably generous: generous with his time, with his car and with his home. He pours invective on the state, on its racism, on the refusal of its leaders to solve the P-problem, on its purposeful neglect of its Arab citizens. When he describes his country’s military history he is as patriotic as any might be: he has unlimited admiration for the courage of the soldiers who held out at massive risk and with great sacrifice on the Golan in that war, but despises the leaders who, overconfident, had left them unprepared and exposed.

Since as I write yet another pre-electoral war has started, it is worth dwelling on this matter.

I think it may be hard for non-Israelis to believe that an Israeli can be a ‘leftist’ (which here has nothing to do with social issues and everything to do with the P-word), and also a patriot and, if called upon, a loyal member of his country’s Defense Force. Remember the soldier at the checkpoint who happily told the women from Machsom Watch that he was a leftist? More dramatically, remember Alfred Dreyfus: however badly his country treated him he never renounced his love for and faith in the Republic, as the sociologist Eva Illouz recently reminded us in a somewhat provocative piece in Haaretz. However much the Dreyfusards hated the politicians and military who persecuted and perjured their man, not for a minute would they think of turning against their country.  It is a luxury of European and American societies that the majority of citizens can pronounce on the advisability and justice of a war without being forced to face the decision of whether to fight, because we have professional armies to do it for us. So we sit back and pontificate while the soldiers, so many of them from low-income families, go off to fight and sometimes to suffer lifelong injury or to die. In the US one ‘shortcut’ to citizenship for immigrants is to join the military. The first casualty of the Iraq War was Guatemalan.

In Israel such detachment, a refuge in the dispassionate autonomy of the abstract citizen, is not an option. Yet the case for unquestioning patriotism here is also not an easy one. One standard argument, that in Israel the army creates social solidarity, is not convincing: the more educated, who unfortunately are still drawn disproportionately from Ashkenazi backgrounds, tend, on average, to get the more intellectually and socially rewarding roles. I have never met anyone who made close friends in their units.

The animosity against haredim among secular Israelis may be partly based on their exemption from military service but it is also based on aversion to their way of life. The exemption, by the way, has recently ceased to be an exemption and is now straightforward evasion, because the ‘Tal Law’ on which it was based has expired and the ruling coalition has neither renewed those provisions nor admitted the implication – namely that haredim who ignore their call-up papers are liable for prison.  Yet curiously, the national religious, who borrow more and more from haredi customs, habits and instincts, would never pick that fight. And they are very enthusiastic about military service and the military profession, in which the national religious are becoming ever more prominent.

So you see: it is not in the common experience of military service that patriotism is forged. Citizenship is a bundle of rights and duties, but that is not enough for many, maybe most, people: that is why you don’t have to be an unreconstructed imperialist or little Englander to appreciate the strange rituals of Coronations and Royal Weddings and the BBC playing the National Anthem on Prince Charles’ birthday (yesterday as it happens) and the Cenotaph and poppies and the Last Night of the Proms and now… the Olympics! In Israel, as all the readers of this blog know, they have innumerable rituals of civil religion, mostly unfortunately related to death and war. Maybe they should improve their sports performance…


(In any case, the bravery of going to war often lies not only in facing the enemy but in suffering the stupidity of one’s own commanders – whichever side you are on!)

Patriotism must not be allowed to become a monopoly for the right wing, the irredentists or the chauvinists. And so it follows that it is unfair to expect Israelis to take an anti-patriotic stance, for example by evading their military service, in order to prove their love of peace or their sympathy or solidarity for the suffering of Palestinians. I don’t think many Palestinians would be impressed anyhow.