What ‘Peace’ Really Means to Israelis
This piece was first
published on the PeacePalestine site, which is an excellent site that
I recommend highly.
Two months ago I returned from a
family visit to Israel. Although I am an activist for Palestinian
rights, I decided that this visit would be entirely private. Living for
two weeks with my brother, his wife and their two little girls in their
tiny apartment in a North Tel-Aviv suburb, gave me an opportunity to
observe and see what daily life is like for Israelis at the moment.
I did not do anything
particularly noteworthy. I went
for long walks in the streets of Tel-Aviv and visited many of the
places that I knew from my past. I shopped at the local supermaket and
had coffee at the nearby shopping mall. I watched local TV and even
went to the gym. For two weeks I joined ordinary life in Tel-Aviv.
Rather than talk, I did a lot of listening. I speak fluent Hebrew, of
course, so it was easy to blend in and people spoke freely around me.
Australian media likes to emphasise how hard life is for Israelis, and
I wanted to see for myself.
The most obvious thing about
Israeli society is how
profoundly insecure Israelis feel. They are nervous and twitchy and
live with extremely high levels of anxiety. Not that any of this was
new to me but there did seem to be a new edge to it. When a bomb
exploded in the Ha’carmel Market in central Tel-Aviv, I was at the gym.
I looked around me and within moments everyone was on their mobile
phones reporting to, or checking on their loved ones. A young woman
right next to me in the weights area sighed to herself with anguish,
Since my adolescence, I was used
to having my bags
checked whenever I entered a public building like a cinema or a
supermarket anywhere in Israel. Despite my 13 years in Australia, the
reflex to open my bags was still there. What was different this time
was that now security guards also have an electronic detector to scan
your body. These days even small businesses like restaurants and coffee
shops have their own security guard up the front. There is a small
‘security levy’ of 2 NIS added onto your bill to help the business pay
for the security guard, but you aren't required to pay it.
Israelis have always talked about
peace, sung about
it, made art and poetry about it as if it is something almost
supernatural, some kind of a paradise that they yearn for but that has
nothing to do with their everyday reality, and that they have no idea
how to create. But what peace really means to these exhausted, anxious
Israelis is to be left alone. It was sad and disturbing to see how
desperately Israelis hold on to what they believe is ‘normality’. They
are desperate to be ‘like everyone else’ in any other Western country,
go to work, go shopping, go out to bars and coffee shops with friends.
They feel outrage and desperation when Palestinian militants
occasionally disrupt this routine of ‘normality’. To some degree I can
sympathise with that. After all one of the main reasons I left Israel
was that I found this way of life unbearable.
When life is so difficult I
suppose it is human to
wish your difficulties away. But here is where the problem really lies.
When an individual, a group or an entire society live with a dark
secret or are in denial about something important in their past, they
cannot experience peace. It is simply impossible to live a ‘normal’ or
peaceful life on a foundation of lies and secrecy. Denying the ethnic
cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948, trying to not think about the
consequences of long years of brutal occupation, and just wishing for
it all to go away is no more than a fantasy.
In family therapy there is an
accepted principle that
unless serious injustices are addressed, there cannot be real peace.
Families that protect dark secrets always pay a heavy price. I watched
Israeli intellectuals on TV engage in genuine discussion trying to
analyse and understand why things are so bad in Israel. They raised
every possible reason for the situation other than the most obvious one
– Israel’s history. It was excruciating to watch but also familiar. I
have never seen a society so steeped in denial as Israeli society.
The entire spectrum of Israeli
politics is in denial
about Israel’s history and this is why I do not have much faith in the
Israeli Left. The handful that are not in denial like Dr Ilan Pappe who
visited Australia last year, or Dr Uri Davis exist outside this
spectrum. Their research into the events of 1948 and the circumstances
surrounding the birth of the state of Israel is not discussed on public
television and is not in Israeli history books. The average Israeli
does not even know who they are. Although published by reputable
publishers like Cambridge University Press, Dr Pappe’s books have so
far been refused publication in Hebrew. The reason offered is that they
lack academic merit... The way most Israelis perceive their own history
is as if they have always been the weak victim. The question of whether
or not it was morally right or even wise to create a state at the
expense of another people is never raised. No one in the mainstream
questions the validity of democracy in a country where the right for
citizenship is based on race (you can only become an Israeli citizen if
you can prove that your mother is Jewish).
When Israelis engage in ‘peace
talks’ it is important
to understand their basic position. They have no real interest in a
solution that goes to the core of their problem. They are like an
individual who wants his or her symptoms to go away but refuses to do
anything about their real causes. A wish ‘to be left alone’ is not much
of a basis for a sustainable peace, at least not without another act of
ethnic cleansing. Six million Palestinians are there to remind Israel
of its past, and they are not going anywhere.
If a day comes, and I hope it
does, when Israelis
decide to stop living in denial, they will have to realise that real
peace will only come through justice. Justice in this context means one
thing, that the ideal of an exclusively Jewish state at the cost of an
entire people might have to be abandoned. Only a bi-national state and
a right of return for the Palestinian refugees will come close enough
to rectifying some of the injustices committed in 1948 and since.
Having been ethnically cleansed, this is also what the Palestinians are
entitled to under international law and common human decency.
This could be Israel’s atonement.
It will also be
Israel’s opportunity to free itself from carrying this burden of guilt
that I believe is making their lives and the lives of the Palestinians
a nightmare. Yes, it will be a challenge. But it will offer a
possibility of real and sustainable peace both for Israelis and for
Palestinians, possibly for the entire region. Continuing with the
mentality and policy of denial will lead nowhere, and will continue to
cost the lives and wellbeing of many more people and communities.