The Other Israel, a Review

The Other Israel:
Voices of Refusal and Dissent

by Kathleen Christison
former CIA political analyst

A very close friend, non-Jewish, recently told me that, although she does not sympathize with much that Israel has done to the Palestinians in the last few months, she generally supports Israel in the conflict because so many of her friends are Jewish, and many of them are deeply worried about Israel’s existence in the face of Palestinian depredations. I refrained from asking her at the time, but the question still haunts me, just which Jews she is supporting. Are they her friends who apparently do represent the mainstream of American Jewry these days, who ignore Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and think of Palestinians only as terrorists, Israelis only as victims, and the Palestinian intifada as another pogrom, with no root causes other than Jew-hatred? Or are they perhaps those Jews who send hate mail to any who criticize the Israeli occupation and who threatened death to the family of Adam Shapiro, a young Jewish man from Brooklyn who daily risks his life to protect Palestinians under Israeli siege in the West Bank? Or, at the other end of the spectrum, are they those Jews–Israelis and Americans–who know clearly what the occupation is, what it means to Palestinians and what it does to Israel, and have been courageously speaking out against the murderous policies of the Israeli government?

Editors Roane Carey, copy chief at The Nation magazine, and Jonathan Shainin, a staffer at The New Press, have gathered a collection of articles by over two dozen of those clear-eyed, courageous Israelis in a new book, The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent. Carey also edited The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid, published a year ago, which still stands as perhaps the only accurate depiction of the Palestinian uprising, its root causes, and the failures of U.S. and Israeli policy that led to it. As with that earlier book, this one is particularly well edited and, unlike many edited collections, is uniformly well written and on point.

This is the story of Israel’s war against the Palestinian nation as told by Israelis who oppose it–who oppose their country’s oppressive policies and fear that they are destroying not only the Palestinians but Israel itself. These Israelis have shown themselves uniquely able to see past the national myths that blind most Israelis to their own misguided polices and sustain the blind faith of Israel’s American friends in another myth, that of Israel’s enduring “goodness.” Beginning with a foreword by journalist and historian Tom Segev and an introduction by former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis (the only non-Israeli in the collection), the book gathers articles by 28 contributors, including novelist David Grossman; commentator Meron Benvenisti; historians like Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe; academics like Jeff Halper, Baruch Kimmerling, Neve Gordon, and Ze’ev Sternhell; Haaretz journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, who both have a long record of reporting on the daily reality of the occupation for Palestinians; several military officers who have refused duty in the occupied territories; and activists such as Uri Avnery and Gila Svirsky. Avnery, Halper, Gordon, and several others of the authors are frequent contributors to CounterPunch.

Just about everything you ever wanted to know about the occupation, about Israel’s efforts to consolidate its control, about its treatment of the Palestinians, about its long-range goals, is here, frankly laid out without excuses or rationalization, without spin. Anthony Lewis begins with an introduction that baldly defines Israel’s policy as the permanent assertion of control over and colonization of the occupied territories–a policy that he says guarantees both Palestinian hatred and Israeli insecurity. The Israeli writers take the same direct approach: Michael Ben-Yair, a former Israeli attorney general, asserts that after 1967 Israel “enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society” and thus transformed itself from a moral society to one that oppresses another people.

Tanya Reinhart, an academic and commentator, follows with the conclusion that, 54 years after Israel’s creation and 35 years after its occupation of the territories, nothing has changed in the Israeli polity. Two approaches compete for predominance today, as they did in 1948, she contends. The choice is between apartheid, which is the left’s preference and was the basis of the Oslo peace process, and the mass expulsion of Palestinians, as occurred in 1948, which is the plan of Ariel Sharon and the right wing. But, Reinhart says, because nations today don’t openly start wars to grab land, it has been necessary for Israel to manufacture a case showing that the Palestinians are unwilling to live in peace and threaten Israel’s very existence. Ehud Barak built that case after the Camp David summit collapsed two years ago, and conditions are now ripe for executing Sharon’s plan–“the second half of 1948,” as Israel’s chief of staff now openly calls it.

Leading peace activist Jeff Halper, who founded and heads an organization opposing Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes, presents a detailed analysis, with maps, of how Israel worked to assure its continued control over the territories throughout the peace process. Israel never intended to relinquish control voluntarily, Halper says, and so it developed “a matrix of control.” During the years of the peace process, this system allowed Israel to hide the reality of the occupation by lowering its military profile and relinquishing control over the Palestinian population, while in actuality maintaining control over the land, dominating every aspect of Palestinian life, and portraying any Palestinian opposition as aggression against which all repressive measures were justified to assure Israeli security. He provides facts and figures on land confiscated, trees uprooted, homes demolished, industrial wastes dumped, numbers of settlers and settlements, miles of Israeli-only roads, and dollars of U.S. funding.

Moral philosopher Adi Ophir contributes a pointed essay on why most of the Israeli left, having anesthetized themselves to the occupation, have been able to turn against the Palestinians and ally themselves with the Israeli right since the intifada began. The part of the left “that quickly slid to the right,” he says, “had never internalized the fact that the occupation is the point of departure; that ending the occupation is a condition of reconciliation–not vice versa.” Few Israelis, Ophir writes, ever grasped “the intensity of the expectations” that the Oslo agreement had engendered among Palestinians, nor the intensity of their frustration when Oslo proved to be a vehicle not for ending but for perpetuating the occupation regime.

Several other contributors make the same point about Israel’s obliviousness to the Palestinians and the impact of the occupation on them. A former military officer and physician observes that, if there are no terrorist attacks, “we don’t even remember that the Palestinians exist.” In a second article, Halper laments that “Israel is a self-contained bubble with a self-contained and exclusively Jewish narrative.” As a result, he says, “I find it impossible to convey to my own people, my own neighbors (good people all), what occupation means, why they should feel responsible and resist with me.” He has despaired of “ever convincing my own people that a just peace is the way.”

These are strong indictments of Israeli self-absorption and myopia–and of the myopia of Americans and U.S. policymakers who follow Israel’s lead unquestioningly–but they are shared by virtually every writer in this collection. None is very optimistic about the future. Historian Ilan Pappe says he draws courage from past examples of Jewish solidarity with independence and civil rights movements, and he urges Israelis “to break the mirror that shows them a superior moral body,” but there’s little hint of optimism in his call.

In fact, the book is at once deeply discouraging and very heartening. On the one hand, it is clear from reading these tales of increasing Israeli violations of human and national rights that the situation is a long way from improving, the conflict a long way from resolution. The general tenor of discourse in both Israel and the U.S. indicates, moreover, that these voices still constitute only a tiny minority. On the other hand, the very fact of this book with its numerous contributors is a welcome sign of change perhaps coming. Here is a large enough collection of noted Israelis that they cannot simply be dismissed as self-hating Jews or left-wing kooks. It is encouraging that this wide array of concerned individuals from a wide field of interests have not only not succumbed to the disillusionment that has silenced most of the Israeli peace camp but have begun to attract others to their cause. The numbers of reservists refusing duty in the West Bank and Gaza grow daily; the number of Americans desirous of hearing the real story of the occupation grows slowly.

The book carries an undeniable authority that should make readers take notice. Those who try to deflect criticism of Israeli policy by crying anti-Semitism cannot credibly do that when there are so many thoughtful Israelis who feel as these writers do. Those who charge that criticism endangers Israel’s security, that anyone who criticizes Israel does not care whether it survives, cannot credibly do that when the critics are Israelis for whom Israel’s survival is a vital personal interest. These articles also put the lie to the soothing assurances of Israel’s American apologists–political commentators, Israeli supporters throughout the country, and even policymakers–who attempt to deflect criticism by insisting that Israel longs for peace, wants and has long tried to give the territories to the Palestinians, but that it is Palestinians who cannot be satisfied just with a part of Palestine and have launched a campaign of terror to destroy Israel.

Whether this dissent in Israel has an impact on policy there or in the U.S. remains to be seen. One would hope that this book itself will have an impact, although in his introduction, Segev notes that voices of dissent are often cynically exploited by Israeli leaders to demonstrate how good Israel is, how often it examines its conscience, how often it is pained by what it must do to guarantee Israel’s existence. Israelis call this “shoot and cry”; apparently, as long as you wring your hands, anything goes. As a result, says Segev, dissenters end up, paradoxically, facilitating the perpetuation of the occupation and expansion of settlements. Meron Benvenisti concludes that, no matter what influence his own and others’ dissent has and no matter when the conflict ends, no one will win. There are never any victors in intercommunal conflicts, he says–only losers, all nursing horrific memories, profound hatred, and “the bitter taste of missed opportunities.”

The importance of this book is that it tells an entirely different story from the one monopolizing discourse in the United States. Carey and Shainin write in an editors’ note that the book is an act of solidarity with those Israelis brave enough to risk their compatriots’ ostracism, as well as a recognition of their contribution. They deserve this tribute. There are no better spokesmen for all that is good in Jewish humanism and Jewish thinking–for, as the editors say, “the cause of decency.” If the conflict is ever resolved, it will be through the efforts of these activists and people like them.

Kathleen Christison worked for 16 years as a political analyst with the CIA, dealing first with Vietnam and then with the Middle East for her last seven years with the Agency before resigning in 1979. Since leaving the CIA, she has been a free-lance writer, dealing primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her book, “Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy,” was published by the University of California Press and reissued in paperback with an update in October 2001. A second book, “The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story,” was published in March 2002. Both Kathy and her husband Bill, also a former CIA analyst, are regular contributors to the CounterPunch website.

Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.