We have not had enough sleep in days and are suffering from that weariness that comes with bearing witness to injustices that seem overwhelming, over and over again, and standing in solidarity with people who have no other choice but to get up and do it again.
Ronnie Barkan, a friendly, energetic, probably early thirties Israeli joins us for lunch in Jaffa at a hangout known for its excellent salads and spicy political conversation. A member of Boycott from Within and Anarchists Against the Wall, he is like a bolt of rapid fire inspiration and provocative ideas. We all celebrate the historic decision by the Presbyterian Church in the United States to divest from three companies that support the mechanics of occupation: Hewlett Packard, Motorola, and Caterpillar, and then dive into the hummus and eggplant and an intense historical and political discussion. Ronnie explains that as a young teen he struggled with his impending mandatory army service. “You know we are prepared for the army since kindergarten”; he did not want to be “a parasite,” as Israelis refer to refusers, and then there was Avigdor Lieberman’s “no duties, no rights.” He got drafted and during the first two months, he decided he could no longer eat meat. A week later he decided to leave the military, “My only obligation was to humanity.” He waited one and a half years in the military, doing very little, occasional office work, doctor’s appointments, but his superior would not send him to jail. The endless limbo and waiting felt like a terrible punishment.
He is quite clear that there is no Israeli left, no peace camp, and that the core issue is the refusal of liberal Zionists who really are good people, support human rights and equality, etc., but are unable to face the facts of 1948 and the implications of the creation of a Jewish state. Many folks are ready to end the occupation, and may even acknowledge the Nakba, but discussing full equality for Palestinians and the right of return for millions of refugees created as a consequence of the 1948 war is unthinkable and deeply threatening. The big crisis facing folks who actually believe in democracy is that Jews are now no longer the majority in the land Israel controls, “from the river to the sea,” so Israelis are facing the uncomfortable idea that a shrinking minority of Jews will be ruling a growing majority of non-Jews. That is increasingly hard to justify and looks really bad in the international community, of which Israel wants to be a part. Ronnie finds folks in AIPAC (the rightwing American Israel Public Affairs Committee) refreshing because at least they are honest and sometimes even proud of their racism.
It is easier to argue with them! Yes the ethnic cleansing happened, it was absolutely necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, and the only big problem is that we haven’t finished the job. Okay, now we know where everyone stands.
Ronnie describes Israel matter-of-factly as an apartheid state, a system based on one racial-ethnic group oppressing another.
He sees the Israeli courts as the main vehicle of apartheid; he sees Zionism as fundamentally racist and supremacist, and the country profoundly undemocratic for all of these reasons. He finds the argument that we must work to protect Israeli democracy, “a discourse of lies,” because there never was a democracy. “It is impossible to be both moral and Zionist.” His clarity is refreshing; his absolutism and style reminds me of white male activists from my student movement days: very politically correct but unaware of their white male and, in this case, Ashkenazic privilege; women, Sephardim, nuance, and gradual political growth are not part of his discourse. On the other hand, I understand his utter frustration with Israeli politics.
Between pita and pickled beets, mint lemonade, and warm falafel, we listen intently, questioning, asking for clarification. He cites the expression: “shooting and crying,” I.e., the comment made by some famous Israeli (was it Golda Meir?) that, “We will forgive the Arabs for killing our children but we will never forgive the Arabs for making us kill their children.” How did we ever blame the victim for our crimes? He recommends a book by an early Matzpen member, The Un-Jewish State, and tells us the story of the first Jewish political assassination, which happened pre-1948 when an orthodox Jew who was anti-Zionist discussed the idea of living together as equals with the King of Jordan. This kind of thinking was profoundly threatening to the Zionist movement and the guy was killed.
Ronnie reviews the recent law that requires ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to serve in the army, “to share the burden”; they need to fill their quota of bodies ready to defend the state. This is seen by many ultra-Orthodox as an attack by the state on the religion of Judaism; in a sense criminalizing the study of Torah at the altar of Zionism. (Is he in sympathy with the ultra-Orthodox? Are they the definers of Judaism? What about their treatment of women or their racism towards Arabs?) This law has also served as a rallying cry to unite the many different sectors of ultra-Orthodoxy into a unified block, much of it anti-Zionist and not interested in being modernized and molded into a nationalistic Israeli macho man. I am starting to see those photos of tens of thousands of black-hatted men in Jerusalem rallying against the draft in a (very slightly) more sympathetic light.
Ronnie is an optimistic kind of guy; in 2005, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) was not in the public discourse and now even Kerry mumbled the words as he flummoxed around the broken “peace process” and for the first time in history suggested that the Israelis might be at fault. BDS is now affecting churches, businesses, and, perhaps most importantly, cultural and academic events. Ronnie works with groups of activists who write letters and petitions to churches and artists, pres- sures performers to avoid coming to Israel, researches companies profiting from the occupation, creates educational events. There is no neutral position in this battle. Music may be a universal language, but performing in a large hall in Tel Aviv is a political statement. This is not a normal situation. Despite the small numbers, BDS is finally part of the public and intellectual discourse; the national fight against the BDS movement is now organized by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, who also deal with the other big enemy of Israel: Iran!
While Ronnie sees political change happening, he feels the struggle really is not centered in Israel but rather the European Union and the United States, and he is leaving to work in Europe, hoping to piece his activism together with some IT, web building, teaching, some way to support himself while trying to change the world. He feels that once apartheid ends (insha’allah), then it will be time to work within a multicultural Israeli society, to build just and democratic institutions and to learn to live together as equals despite the differences that drive people apart. I love his youthful optimism. His absolutist political style makes me wonder if he ever goes beyond the choir or if that is even his goal.
Now, as we sip our final cup of thick coffee, two conscientious objectors sit in Israeli jails and another 20 high school students, shministim, have signed a letter stating their objections to serving in the military. NBC is producing a major extravaganza called DIG, partially financed by the Israeli Ministry of Trade. The series is focusing on archeology in Israel-Palestine, particularly in Silwan, where Palestinians are being dispossessed and a profoundly politicized sham of archeologists are setting out to prove the existence of the City of David. (The Jews were here first theory of archeology.) They were filming in Jaffa last week and Ronnie was there, disrupting the set, causing a fuss, calling attention to the propaganda disguised as education and entertainment. They did not arrest him, he explains, as that did not fit the script. Maybe next time.