Talking With Jeff Halper About the Future of Palestine

The West Bank would empty of settlers overnight if they were asked to choose between American and Israeli citizenship, says activist Jeff Halper, a powerful exponent of the Israeli government’s moral bankruptcy

Mention the S.H.I.T list – the Masada 2000 Kahanists’ “self-hating Israel-threatening” Jews list – that mysteriously sprang up several years ago and Jeff Halper, founder and co-ordinator of the Jerusalem-based Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) beams with pride. He says the compilers have done a great job.

Like others on the Israeli Left, and indeed Jews everywhere critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, to be a S.H.I.T is an honour. Not that Halper would agree with the appellation, of course. He identifies himself as a “cultural Zionist”, but he thinks those included are upstanding citizens.

To Halper and others like him, the fanatical zealots behind the list use the anti-Semitic label to ward off any barbs aimed by gentiles at Israel. So it’s only natural that they would brand Jews like him – and to name but a few – veteran Haaretz journalists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass – as self-hating Jews.

Not that Halper is your standard lefty; he surprises me by being able to discern anti-Semitism behind the most fervent American Christian Zionists. He’s also got a good nose for sussing out a Jew-hating gentile fascist masquerading as a left-wing anti-Zionist ex-Jew. Or borderline anti-Semitism in a far-left, pro-Palestinian former British MP. No prizes for guessing who!

Self-fulfilling prophesy?

The discourse surrounding Israel and anti-Semitism is like an endless shaggy dog story. The Right says the world is against us, the Jews are the eternal victims of attempts by racist Europeans or fanaticised Arabs to hound us into the sea or gas chambers. Get out of Europe, say the European Nazis. Get out of Palestine, says Helen Thomas. So, you see, we’re not wanted anywhere!

The Left says Israel has perpetuated anti-Semitism – yes, indeed the world is against us, but that’s because Israel has flouted international resolutions, persisted in its illegal occupation and persuaded the more extreme elements of international Jewry to finance its agenda. But we only need Jewish nationalism because of anti-Semitism, says the Right, so we need our own state and screw the rest.

Back to the S.H.I.T list. Halper, 64, a diminutive but well built bearded bear of a man has obviously done some investigations. He is passionate about the damage done to Palestinians but seems unfazed at his own prominence on the list. His own thumb nail portrait is particularly colourful. “This American-born anti-Israel agitator concerns himself and ICAHD only incidentally with house demolition. Their primary concern is the demolition of Israel,” says the site, which charmingly refers to him as a “sick, self-hating kike”. This for a man who emigrated to Israel more than 30 years ago. Actually, in the flesh, Halper comes across as an engaging and delightful kind of Jewish Santa. Warm-hearted but not especially sensitive about himself, Halper, a child of the civil rights movement, is now the veteran of countless attempts to salvage Palestinian homes, sit-ins and arrests.

Halper, slightly tongue-in-cheek, is at pains to praise the research.

“We use that list. If I want a research list of 5000 critical people, it’s great,” he says, while quibbling with the inclusion of some, like former US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk. For Halper, it seems, to be a S.H.I.T (in this context) is a compliment.

So who bears the credit for this work of scholarship, some of which carries not only a potted history of the “worst” S.H.I.Ts but also some imaginative imagery? Some, for example, have close-ups of cavities, no doubt in an attempt to show that it’s not only the bearer’s gums that are diseased.

“I’m sure there was somebody in Boston because the Boston people have in-depth profiles about their families,” says Halper from his office in central Jerusalem. “There’s a right-wing group – called Camera – with Alan Dershowitz on its board, based in Boston. They carry a picture of me, sometimes it’s just a name, but the Boston people have extensive biographies attached to their names.”

Israel-haters, Jew-haters and Armageddon-lovers

In Israel – and indeed the world at large – the term “the Left” has now become synonymous with hostility to Israel and its actions. The far Left, in particular, is anti-colonialist, anti-American, anti-nationalist and anti the “Zionist entity”, viewing it as a client state of evil big brother capitalist America. But, as Halper points out, in the US the Republican Party is traditionally the most hostile to Israel.

“Jews don’t vote Republican. George HW Bush, together with (former secretary of state) James Baker, withheld 10 billion dollars of oil guarantees. George W Bush, on the other hand, was a born again Christian and 100 degrees different fom his father on Israel. The whole rise of the neo-cons and the Christian Right in the US – the likes of Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson – came after Bush the father. Bush Senior was the old Republican right-wing, like Nixon and Goldwater. You can be critical of Israel for different reasons. The Christian Zionists are anti-Semites; they don’t like Jews but they think that Israel has to be strong and get into a war for Armageddon to come. So they use Israel. They’re not pro-Israel, but pro the Messiah coming and they need Israel for that. That’s what motivates them, not love of Jews.”

No other country in the world has such a complex dynamic surrounding it as Israel as Halper’s (undeniably) accurate appraisal of Israel’s weird coalition of friends and foes attests to.

“You can be critical of Israel and not be anti-Semitic. You can be critical of Israel and anti-Semitic – like Pat Buchanan, you can be NOT critical of Israel and be anti-Semitic, you can be Jewish and anti-Semitic.” Halper cites a former friend of his – Paul Eisen. To which list I quickly suggest Gilad Atzmon and Israel Shamir. We also discuss another category becoming increasingly recognisable in Europe at least, the pro-Israel Christian philo-semites, right-wing white nationalists, formerly harsh critics of Israel who, fearful of the “Muslim threat” to Europe, have shifted to backing Israel.

Bantustan or bust

Halper returns to more traditional ground when discussing Gaza and the West Bank. He is a vitriolic critic of all Israeli governments, past and present.

“Gaza is the largest prison in the world,” says Halper. “Israel has developed what we call the matrix of control and you can clearly trace the development of these polices.”

For Halper the situation in the West Bank is part of a carefully planned design.

“When Ariel Sharon became head of a ministerial committee on the settlements, in 1977, (former prime minister) Menachem Begin charged him with making ‘Judea and Samaria’ (they never called it the West Bank) Jewish. He was told to do it in such a way that forecloses the possibility of a Palestinian state. I don’t call it a prison, the West Bank; I call it a bantustan. It’s the same problem as existed in South Africa – how do you create a white democracy with a black majority? How do you create a Jewish democracy with a Palestinian majority? You take out areas A and B and the settlement blocs and put in the line of the ‘security wall’ and you have left a Palestinian bantustan.”

Halper says that the recent leaks clearly show that Benyamin Netanyahu is looking for a collaborator in this – his “bantustan” version of the two-state solution. Alternatively, says Halper, the official Israeli policy is simply the status quo. “Israel believes it can do what South Africa couldn’t; it can keep this thing going indefinitely because nobody can touch Israel.”

Halper thinks, however, that a gulf is opening up between Europe and the US on Israel. Even Washington could soon be reviewing its options. Israel may have bi-partisan support in Congress but the price for supporting Israel, Halper concludes, is simply becoming too high.

“This isn’t a localised debate. This impacts on the international system. James Baker (former Secretary of State) once called it the epicentre of the alienation between the entire Muslim world and the West. General Petraeus even said in the Senate that we can’t get anywhere in Afghanistan because we’re so identified with the Israeli occupation. Either Obama says to Congress – ‘this policy is really killing us’ or – perhaps more likely – it would be very hard for the US to stay away if every country recognised a Palestininan state. Then Israel really would be an occupying power.”

Will it happen? Halper says that Abu Mazen should declare an independent Palestinian state.

“Either it will happen or the whole Palestinian Authority will collapse in the next few months. I don’t see another year of the Palestinian Authority the way it is. Perhaps Abu Mazen will resign. If that happens there’s no more pretence at a peace process; Israel would have to re-occupy the whole area, including Gaza, because you can’t allow Hamas to fill that vacuum. That would force the hand of the international community. The level of violence would inflame the entire Muslim world and then the international community would act, with or without the US.”

Halper believes that time could have run out for the two-state solution. Personally, he has no problem with a one-state bi-national solution. Just as many Afrikaners stayed in South Africa, so many Jews, he believes, would stay in Israel.

“I’m what you call a cultural Zionist and I like the idea of Hebrew language and literature. I have supported the two-state solution, but at some point your opinions or views have to be grounded in something. Proponents of a two-state solution have to address the question – is it still really possible? Is Israel capable of being pushed back to its ’67 borders?”

Halper does not believe the theory that hostility in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is mutual or that the conflict has any symmetry. He demurs when I talk of “distrust” between both sides standing in the way of a one-state solution.

“Israel is the occupying power. Palestinians have supported a two-state solution since 1988. They don’t have that animosity towards us. They’re ready to give us 78 per cent of their country. The animosity is in one direction.”

Halper cites a dark night in Gaza as proof that what Israelis are told bears little relation to the truth and that Palestinians and Israels could indeed live side by side in a secular, bi-national state.

“I was in Gaza two years ago, coming in on an aid boat (one of the first); Clare Short was on one. We actually got two boats in, because from the third sailing onwards the boats were blocked. I was in Gaza City on a night as black as coal (because of a power cut) sitting having coffee, surrounded by thousands of Palestinians. I was talking in Hebrew. You know what they were saying to me – ‘how do we get out of this mess’? The Palestinian attitude is all this is just so silly.”

Zionists or opportunists?

When I mention that international Jewish opinion would never countenance the end of the Jewish state, Halper is dismissive.

“But 75 per cent of Jews never came. Whenever Jews had a choice, they didn’t come here. The Jews after apartheid went to the US and Australia; Jews in Argentina went to Mexico. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of them went to the US and then to Germany. Zionism was never meant to be just a refuge; it was meant to be a more positive nationalism. It said this is the heart of our civilisation. We’re coming home. One of the key elements of Zionism was the negation of exile. The idea is that you are in exile. You might might think you (I’m currently a resident of Sofia, Bulgaria) are in a diaspora but you’re in exile. Your Jewish life is ephemeral. Your true identity is Israeli, so forget being Jewish and become Israeli, only then are you part of your people because the Jews, according to Zionist thinking, are a nation. But 90 to 95 per cent of Jews rejected that and chose instead to preserve their own nationality.”

Halper cites a funny conversation with a Jewish family in Beverly Hills. The people in question referred to Israel as “a refuge” if they “needed somewhere to go”. According to Halper, “the woman in Beverly Hills, who says I want a place to go IF I leave America is not a Zionist. If she were truly a Zionist, she would define herself nationally not as an American, but as an Israeli. She would be here in Israel”.

Zionism, says Halper, doesn’t necessarily equate to a state anyway, hence he does not believe that a one-state solution is collective Jewish suicide.

“It was only in 1942 that the idea of a Jewish state was formalised. Between 1897 (the first Zionist conference) and 1942, they weren’t talking about a state; they were talking about a homeland. That was the idea. Only later did the idea of a state come into being. The state was not the core of the Zionist idea. The core of the Zionist dream was to come back and revive our national history.”

A turning point in Israel’s history, according to Halper, has come.

“The Zionism of armies and might – of Ben-Gurion – has exhausted itself. That leads me, together with the facts on the ground, to favour a bi-national democratic state. I’m not into this demography thing.”

In any case, he does not believe that millions of Palestinian refugees would return to Israel if allowed to do so. He thinks that no more than 10 per cent of Palestinians would actually come back – mostly old people.

Halper doesn’t hold the one-state solution to be ideal or even a better answer to the two-state solution. “Bi-national states are not happy by and large, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the two-state solution is gone.”

Not in our name

Halper says Israel does not speak for many Jews in the US. It’s unpopular, particularly with liberal Jewry.

“Jews in general have a big problem with Israel. If I were a Jew abroad I’d be really pissed off with Israel because Israel is doing all this stuff in your name. A total of 25 000 Palestinian homes have been demolished in the name of the Jewish people…I have a friend who says 70 per cent of American Jews are not connected to the mainstream organised Jewish community. They’re into Seinfeld, not the synagogue. Eighty per cent of Jews voted for Obama. The other 20 per cent – professional Jewish activists who support AIPAC and the rest – are well organised and very influential, so they have a disproportionate voice.”

Halper relates figures showing that 30 to 40 per cent of funding for the Republican Party comes from Jews. The right-wing Jewish activists, it seems, are good at promoting their cause and advancing their chosen candidates. He cites Mike Huckabee, perhaps the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential candidate, who recently laid the foundation stone for a new settlement on the Mount of Olives.

Halper believes that the Pentagon is one of Israel’s strongest backers – “Noam Chomsky (perhaps the most prominent S.H.I.T) called Israel America’s largest aircraft carrier” – but again Halper thinks a sea change in US policy is inevitable.

“During the war on terror it made sense to support Israel but now, with Obama reaching out to the Muslim world, more Americans realise they must shift. So the pro-Israel stand contradicts even the interests of the military. But in the Pentagon, which is pro-Israel, you find the defence contractors. If you cut back on military aid, it costs jobs.”

Jews, believes Halper, are not the “victims” in this conflict and for Israel to present itself as such is disingenuous.

“You can’t present yourself as victims but be the fourth largest nuclear power in the world. There’s a book called the Iron Wall (by Vladimir Jabotinsky) about the whole history of Arab-Jewish relations. It relates how, after the 1967 Six-Day War, defence minister Ezra Weizman was sent to Washington to get new arms from President Lyndon Johnson. So he comes to then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. ‘What do I say? We’ve always presented ourselves as victims, yet we beat the whole Arab world in six days!’ And Eshkol said – ‘present us as poor little Samson’ – in other words how do you put together the fact that we’re super-strong but we’re victims and you should still support us? It’s that mixed message that’s problematic for Israel.”

Racism against Arabs, according to Halper, underpins Israel’s hardline stance, just as the Holocaust is used to exploit fear of the “other”. “Israeli Jews have always been told until today by ther leaders that the Arabs (because they never use the word ‘Palestinians’) are our permanent enemies – period – and peace is impossible, not because of us but because of them. That’s an article of faith, whether you are on the Right or Left. It certainly doesn’t lead to a two-state solution, because why would you give to your enemies the belly of your country?”

He quotes former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s unshakable dictum: “Arabs are Arabs, Jews are Jews and the sea is the sea”. In other words, there is an irrevokable chasm between the two sides.

That kind of immutable thinking is just what Halper opposes.

“We’re in favour of keeping this conflict political because if it’s political, there’s a solution. Once you start to say ‘they are the problem’, then you’re mystifying things. That’s racist and it leads to genocide, because then the only solution is the final solution. It’s a very dangerous thing.”

He thinks racism against Arabs, presenting the other side as the “problem’, or imputing to Arabs a tendency not to value human life (as historian Benny Morris has done) is part of “colonial, racist dicourse”, citing the same rhetoric that dehumanised blacks in South Africa.

Military men

Halper sounds so reasonable, and presents most Palestinians as willing partners to peace – ready to give up 78 per cent of historic Palestine to co-exist with Israel – so what, I ask, explains Israel’s intransigence and the dwindling influence of the Left? Halper believes the clue lies in C Wright Mills’ concept of a “crackpot realist”. Israel’s leaders are all military people; they see every solution through a militaristic mindset.

“So they have an authority when they speak which leaders in the UK lack. Who’s more of a realist than a military guy who’s been shot 10 times? The military is admittedly one important component – and I admit that security is legitimate – but if you view everything based on that, then you develop tunnel vision,” says Halper. “Basically, when a former general like Ehud Barak, says that Israel has no partner for peace, then people believe him and retreat into the timeworn ‘world is against us’ mindset.”

To hear Halper, cynicism and opportunism are the hallmarks of successive Israeli governments and most settlers in the West Bank.

“I’ve met every prime minister, barring Netanyahu, from Right and Left. We always had one question: where are you going with this, ruling over four million Palestinians, building settlements and demolishing houses? What’s your end game? We never got an answer.” He adds that his organisation has built 170 homes in the last 14 years as political acts of resistance.

He thinks that Israeli policy is simply to wear the Palestinians down – again citing Jabotinsky – to make them “despair” of ever having their own state, so that – in the present context at least – they reluctantly come to accept a bantustan.

“Most West Bank settlers are American. That’s the thing. Many Israelis know this is unsustainable and so they have their ‘escape’ passports. So most settlers have duel nationality. If the US government forced them to choose between their two passports, the West Bank would empty out and the settlers would go back to New York. Novelist Amos Oz (another S.H.I.T lister) once said – ‘Will the last one out of the airport, please turn off the light?”

Jeff Halper is most definitely NOT turning off the light. He believes that Jews do have a place in Israel but his is one of the most powerful voices for a change in direction. Until that happens he has no problem with being a S.H.I.T. He’s in good company, after all.

GABRIEL HERSHMAN is Senior Editor of Sofia Echo Media in Bulgaria. He can be reached at: