Never Give Up: Nonviolent Civilian Resistance, Healing and Active Hope in the Holyland

Introduction (by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb)

Sami Awad and Yoav Litvin are two men whose lives have been deeply impacted by the events of 1948 and 1967 when Palestinians were collectively driven from their homes and villages in order to make room for Jewish settlement. The Israeli Occupation of Palestine is ongoing; Israeli policies that resulted from the events of 1948 and 1967 continue to create daily suffering in the lives of Palestinians.

Sami Awad comes from a lineage of Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem. He was influenced to follow the path of nonviolence by his uncle, Mubarak Awad, a follower of Gandhi. Sami created an alternative institution, The Holy Land Trust, which is part of the wave of nonviolent movement building dedicated to resisting Occupation, which grew out of the first Intifada.

Yoav Litvin went through a personal journey from acceptance of the pre-determined role of Zionist soldier-guardian, to a person who dissents from the Israeli status quo regarding Palestinians. He uses his skills as a psychologist/neuroscientist and writer/artist to promote accountability, healing and reconciliation.

People who resist the systemic violence of Israeli Occupation in Palestine and Israel have a lot to teach us about building nonviolent movements for justice and social change under extremely challenging conditions. Millions of Palestinians suffer under a settler-colonial regime that is engaged in continuous appropriation of land, ghettoization and isolation, the imposition of hundreds of check points that curtail freedom of movement and economic growth, destruction of homes, villages and farm land, forced water deprivation, the blockade of Gaza, constant military invasion and assault, two separate and unequal systems of justice and so many other features of Israeli rule that deprive Palestinians of their capacity to live peacefully and without fear upon the land of their ancestors or fulfill their personal dreams. In addition to the Israeli Jewish and Palestinian conflict, social, political, cultural and economic divides among Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel is another complex component of the process of conflict transformation. The Zionist myth of a 2000-year absence and subsequent return of Jews to the land erases the long history of the Jews of the Middle East who are indigenous to the region.

In response to Israeli apartheid, Palestinians have chosen to resist forced removal from ancestral lands with a variety of mostly nonviolent tactics. Inspired by the successful South African struggle to end apartheid, Palestinians called upon the international community to take up boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) as a nonviolent solidarity tactic on July 9, 2005 after the International Court of Justice declared the Separation Wall illegal on July 9, 2004. In addition to BDS, Palestinians employ prisoner hunger strikes, Friday demonstrations against the Separation Barrier, the creation of ‘Tent Cities’, and Palestinian cultural arts to remain ‘sumud’, that is, ‘steadfast’ to their commitment to keep living on ancestral lands and preserving Palestinian culture. Palestinians refuse to be erased from history and place. Intifada, in its original meaning, means to shake off oppression through the art of resistance. This is a daily, and unavoidable practice for Palestinians, as it is a condition of existence under Israeli occupation for those who remain.

Israeli Jews who dissent from Occupation, although few in number, continue to create methods of solidarity in support of Palestinian human rights. Groups such as Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition (ICAHD), Combatants for Peace, Breaking the Silence, Who Profits?, Anarchists Against the Wall, Machsom Watch, Shministim, Public Committee Against Torture in Israel and +972 are platforms of resistance to Occupation. The Palestinian community living inside ‘1948’ also engages in resistance through alternative institution building and human rights advocacy that includes groups like Adalah-the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Adammer (prisoner rights) and many more. Palestinians living inside Israel face ongoing assaults on their capacity to remain on traditional lands and neighborhoods as well as achieve equal rights under Israeli law. The ongoing atmosphere of racism is the price Palestinians pay for continuing to live in Israel.

No one knows what kind of political solution the future might bring, if, indeed, a future grounded in peaceful co-existence emerges in the next 100 years. One necessary condition for conflict transformation to take place: a foundation of human rights.

The authors in these conversations explore the role of nonviolence and healing from trauma in their resistance work. Sami Awad speaks from his experience as a Palestinian living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Yoav Litvin speaks as an Israeli-American Jew who lives in the United States and seeks to hold himself and his community accountable for the brutalities of occupation.

May this article serve as a modest contribution to building the movement for Palestinian human rights as the cornerstone of peacemaking among Palestinians and Jews living in the Holy land.

An Interview with Sami Awad on nonviolent civilian resistance in occupied Palestine

Lynn: Ahlan wa sahlan* Sami. Nonviolent civilian resistance to foreign occupation has been a way of life in Palestinian society for almost a century. The words ‘sumud- steadfast’ and ‘intifada-shaking off’ describe the nature of Palestinian nonviolence. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of the history of Palestinian nonviolent civilian resistance and popular struggle?

Sami: Ahlan wu Sahlan, Lynn. Yes. We do have a long-standing engagement with nonviolence, which has existed long before our conflict with Israel. Nonviolence is part of our cultural structures and settings, part of our heritage.

Nonviolent popular resistance goes as far back as the British mandate. In 1936, Palestinian workers and local committees engaged in a nonviolent strike to demand that the British Mandate put limitations on the influx of Jews into the land because Palestinians were seeking statehood. Palestinian workers and local committees wanted to put a stop to the unregulated transfer of Palestinian owned lands to the Jewish community as well as establish a national government, which would be responsible to an elected representative council. At the time, our community felt there existed no structural mechanisms to regulate how Jews entered the country or the sale and transfer of lands. A popular commercial strike had the support of the people who fully participated in it. One outcome of nonviolence during that period, even at a global level, was the beginning of a communal movement expressing itself through nonviolent action.

In response to the war of 1948, and the onset of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, a tremendous nonviolent movement took shape. Nonviolent movements arose not only in response to the occupation of territory, but also to the occupation of mines and farms as well as to Israeli efforts to suppress our cultural expression. After 1967, “sumud”, steadfastness on the land, was applied to resisting Israeli policies that, in a sense, made Palestinian identity and even the word ‘Palestinian’ itself, illegal. This included criminalizing the use of the flag and its colors (red, white, green and black), the prohibition of all public gatherings, or giving public speeches, and any mention of political aspirations. Steadfastness, sumud, was applied to naming and keeping of Palestinian identity during those times. We refused to become ‘Arab territories’ which was the intent of Israel’s form of occupation. The word ‘Arab’ covers over our specific identity as Palestinians. Instead, we remained steadfast to our Palestinian identity, which is a form of nonviolent action.

Our steadfastness was expressed with many forms of movement building including protests and demonstrations and the resistance work of unions, farmers, doctors, merchants, laborers, women’s groups and educators. Students in schools and universities maintained the protest movement of that time, which eventually led to the First Intifada. The First Intifada was, for me, a global example of engaged-nonviolence. The Palestinian community felt fully empowered to stand up to the Occupation, to take responsibility for its own future by not waiting for the international community to take action, or the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO; located outside the territories at that time) to come in and liberate us. During the First Intifada the Palestinian community in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem said, “We are responsible for dealing with the cause of our suffering and we’re going to do something about it.”

An internal sense of empowerment sparked the Palestinian uprising. There were hundreds of nonviolent tactics employed: protests, demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, home-schooling, home-farming, and refusing to pay taxes (in your hometown, Lynn) in Beit Sahour where people engaged in “no taxation without representation” and refused to pay taxes to the Israeli military. Palestinians in Beit Sahour refused to pay taxes because they had no representation in any political decision-making process affecting their lives. We Palestinians throughout the OPT suffer tremendously from the lack of political representation in any decision making bodies that determine policies that affect our lives.

I believe empowerment is what nonviolence is all about. The continual empowerment that took place during the first intifada failed to produce a peace process that gained us our national goals, but it did not fail in the realization of nonviolence as a an effective resistance and empowerment strategy.

In the past ten years, we are witnessing new life in the evolution of nonviolence in the Palestinian community. This phase of nonviolence, which is being steadily developed, is in response to the failure of the two-state solution and the massive expansion of the Occupation.

Lynn: When I think about describing Palestinian nonviolence, which I learned in part from your uncle Mubarak, I think about the beautiful hospitality that is so much a part of Palestinian culture. The Palestinian community not only draws upon the tactics of strategic nonviolence, like strikes, boycotts, and refusing to pay taxes, but also, as you said, nonviolence is rooted in the art of hospitality, as well as other forms of Palestinian cultural and community expression. Can you elaborate on the way sumud, is a form of nonviolent resistance to the effort to erase Palestinian identity by remaining steadfast to one’s cultural identity.

Sami: A combination of realities impacted the development of Palestinian culture. When Palestinians use the word sumud, we are referring to our long historical commitment to survive on our land, which is an important element of our culture. If we look at the location of Palestine as the crossroads of many nations, and if we consider the historical experiences Palestinians have had that gave rise to the development of Palestinian nonviolence, we are not limited to speaking about the Israeli occupation. We need to consider the Jordanian presence, the British and even the Turkish presence as well. In fact, Palestinians have always been a land and a place where people have suffered foreign occupations. We have lived in these lands for many millenniums. Sumud refers to our way of survival at this level. I’ll give an example. A few years ago I took a group of journalists to a refugee camp near Bethlehem. As we were walking through the narrow streets, a woman was sitting outside her home baking bread in an outdoor oven. One of the journalists asked her, “What do you think of ‘the situation’? You’ve been occupied all these years.” Without blinking she looked at him and said, in Arabic, “You know, the Turks were here and they left, the British came and they left, the Jordanians came and they left, the Israelis are here and they will leave as well.” Then, she looked at him and said: “Why don’t you come in and have some bread?” That exchange represents a cultural point of view in which there is always hope and momentum for the future. This is part of understanding Palestinian nonviolence.

Martin Luther King reminds us that justice will ultimately triumph, that the arc of the universe bends toward the side of justice and will always resist injustice. I think steadfastness in our culture, that is, sumud, and our customs of hospitality reflect our collective belief that justice will come to the land of Palestine. This is a form of faith.

Lynn: I wish to ask you about the Holocaust and historic Jewish-Palestinian relations. At present, the State of Israel occupies historic Palestine. The Holocaust played a huge role in Jewish motivation to establish an exclusive Jewish state based on a demographic majority. Palestinians, however, did not cause or participate in the Holocaust, yet they have become secondary victims of it. The actual history of relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews living in the Holyland is another story, one with much to teach us about the potential of living peaceably together. The way Jews currently frame Holocaust remembrance perpetuates Jewish fear of Palestinians, a fear born out of a European and not a Middle Eastern experience. Sami, you are a person who builds bridges as well as creates the dynamics of noncooperation and resistance. How do you relate to Jewish fear? On the other hand, Palestinians fear Jewish Israelis because most of their direct contact is in the context of Occupation. The faces of Jewish Israelis most Palestinians encounter are engaged in military enforcement of checkpoints, home demolitions, confrontation at protests and the like. How do you work with this situation?

Sami: Another part of our culture, and I am speaking about the understanding of the vast majority of Palestinians, is the knowledge that Jewish culture and history are integral parts of the history and the culture of this land. If we look back throughout the years, back before 1948 during the time of the British mandate, and before that throughout the millennium, we clearly acknowledge that Jews lived in this land and were an essential part of the political and cultural life and discourses that existed here. The challenge for the Palestinian community begins, not as a result of the Jews who lived here, but as a result of the suffering of the Jews in Europe.

I decided to enter a process to deepen my understanding of Jewish motivation for their current behavior, and see if what Jewish people are doing to us is in response to what happened to them in Europe. What causes the Israelis to treat us as subjects of occupation in our own land? What causes the Jewish community to remain silent when terrible things happen to us, like the Gaza attacks a few years ago when over a thousand people and hundreds of children were killed by massive air strikes? Why did almost everyone turn a blind eye to the death and destruction that was happening there? What exists within this Israeli-Jewish mindset that causes these actions to happen?

I do not believe that people are born to harm each other. Something happens that generates this kind of behavior. To understand the Jewish community’s behavior toward Palestinians, I traveled to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. This journey was a very big turning point in my life. I came to understand that what’s being experienced in Israel is the result of a long history of fear, trauma and mistrust that was compounded by the experience of the Holocaust. The world not only neglects this fear, we have actually done the opposite. The world has done everything to entrench and enhance feelings of fear in the Jewish community instead of creating means of liberation and healing for the Jewish community. How? By putting billions of dollars into weapons systems, and by giving tremendous political power to Israel to carry out occupation with impunity, the world reinforces the idea that Jews should be afraid, must be afraid!

And who are the subjects of Jewish fear? Israeli Jews are afraid of their neighbors. Fear creates the pattern of belief that Israel’s non-Jewish neighbors will do to them what the Germans did to the Jews of Europe, thereby justifying all kinds of actions. Fear, and a desire to be secure from fear, has enabled occupation.

Israel’s security claims justify violence. It’s not a problem if you suppress your neighbors, not a problem if you kill them, not a problem if you deny them rights. And the world is complicit with policies of security and repression. The present day silence of the world over the injustice being done to Palestinians emanates from the guilt caused by the silence of the world to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust. When people are silent to terrible violations of justice for Palestinians, this silence reinforces the idea within the Jewish community that they can act with impunity; that the world will not intervene.

However, that is not what the world should do. Rather, what the world should say is: yes, we care about your security. But we also care about how you’re treating others. We do not accept that human rights violations are permissible for the sake of safeguarding your security, as you claim. This principle, no justification for the violation of human rights, is a universal truth for all people. People who claim security needs justify suppression and repression and the violation of human rights are in the wrong.

On the one hand, part of nonviolence, is the understanding that nonviolence is about liberation and achieving equal rights. This is something we’re engaged in and are still developing. At the same time, nonviolence is also about liberating those who use violence. Palestinian nonviolence includes liberating Jewish people from their occupation, their trauma and fear. We have to create mechanisms for building trust and respect between Palestinians and Israelis in order to move forward. If more trust is not created, there will never be peace in this land. If equality, that is, the recognition of the right of ‘the other’ to live here, not in the political sense but in the human sense, does not exist, then there will never be peace. That is why nonviolence needs to develop into a broader framework, a spiritual framework. We will continue to engage in nonviolent protest and demonstration as we move forward in the cultivation of nonviolent popular resistance. In addition, nonviolence must also address trauma and fear.

The First Intifada is a perfect example of engaging in nonviolence and moving forward and achieving results. Nonetheless, we have to ask, why wasn’t the ultimate goal of establishing peace reached during that time? I believe that a failure to look into core issues of trauma, fear and distrust that existed between the two communities by the political establishment contributed to the breakdown of making peace. Therefore, we have to speak about nonviolence from both the framework of political liberation from the structures of occupation as well as healing from trauma. Successfully applied nonviolence ultimately results in a positive transformation of communities.

Lynn: Part of nonviolence is non-cooperation with policies that uphold oppression and interruption of business as usual. You referred to many examples of noncooperation in Palestine, such as Beit Sahour’s refusal to pay taxes to Israel’s military administration. You also advocate establishing trust building measures that facilitate Jews and Palestinians struggling for justice together. What are the challenges for Palestinians from the OPT and Jews getting together?

Sami: The Israeli military government continues to impose harsh restrictions on Palestinians and Israelis who want to meet each other. Israelis are not allowed by their government to enter Palestinian areas and meet with Palestinians. Our Israeli friends, when they come to meet with us and engage with us, are forced to do that illegally. They put themselves at risk of being imprisoned or being fined up to $1500 for every time they are caught in a Palestinian area. This is a real disaster! I look at myself as an activist who seeks to engage with Israelis. I have three daughters. My oldest daughter is 10 years old and it shocks me every time I think about this: she has never met or played with an Israeli child! She has not even seen an Israeli child, or talked with one. The next generation of children growing up on both sides of the separation walls will have zero connections with each other.

In a sense, our children are being brainwashed by the delusion that we are eternal enemies. This, for me, is very dangerous. To combat this danger, we are trying to engage in and increase the communication between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. One of the most exciting efforts toward building trust is the effort to bring together Palestinian and Israeli activists to really look deeper into understanding the situation, to research trauma and healing methodologies, and to work together to promote equal civil rights. Together we are considering the core issues of occupation in order to assess ways we can counter it, and transform the conflict. We are looking at the methods, strategies and tactics we’ve used in the past and developing new approaches to help us move forward. But again, as I said before, these meetings are hard to arrange since Palestinians are not allowed to go into Israel to meet their counterparts, and Israeli Jews face fines if they travel to us.

We are looking to reframe the understanding of what the conflict is about because, even as nonviolent activists, we have been drawn into narratives, perspectives and frameworks established by the occupation. For instance, when religious establishments take the view that this is a religious conflict, those of us who are active in behalf of peace have to address religion in a new way, in a way that builds bridges and not walls.

Lynn: How do Palestinian women contribute to peacemaking?

Sami: Many families cannot find food for themselves. Large numbers of fathers and sons are imprisoned. Unemployment is high. The stress and the suffering we experience on the economic level create a strain on the community and especially upon women. Women are central to family and community, which is why we at Holyland Trust are excited about the work we have been doing with women. The Palestinian woman has a historic role in the liberation movement. However, when the so-called Oslo peace process began, Palestinian women were completely marginalized from the process. After the first intifada, during which women played a huge role, the Palestinian authority and post-Oslo political process marginalized women. Currently, many NGOs are dedicated to strengthening women’s access to resources within the Palestinian community and are working with women to develop leadership skills.
One of the programs we currently sponsor is a leadership development program for women. We go and meet with women in their communities and begin a conversation with them about the challenges they face in their communities. Women have a responsibility to honor the voice they have in creating the future of Palestine and in nonviolent social change movements. We understand that women are critical to the dream of freedom. We can’t move forward without them.

Lynn: We’ve talked a lot about transforming trauma into healing. As you think about nonviolence, how do you cope with the daily stress that derives from living under occupation?

Sami: I want to say it is a combination of spiritual and strategic approaches. It is definitely a slow process to live in a way that confronts the injustice while trying at the same time to create inner peace on a daily basis. I believe that humanity is at heart good, that human beings generally operate with good intentions, and that God’s creation is good. I look at the situation we’re living in as not a normative human situation, but as the result of experiences and realities that Palestinians and Israelis have faced and have not been able to cope with. Our situation reflects the very violent and very deadly interactions we have with each other. Being able to distinguish among our natural goodness and the distortions in our behavior that arise from violence is where spirituality plays a very important role. I rely upon the whole philosophy of nonviolence to mediate these distinctions. Nonviolence holds that we must never attack people; rather we attack the injustice and strive to dissolve and transform the structures of oppression. Faithfulness to nonviolence means never destroying human life, never undermining human dignity, never demonizing the other, and never dehumanizing even your greatest oppressor because nonviolence reveals that we are all in need of liberation. This point of view is important for my personal well-being.

At Holyland Trust, we emphasize in our leadership and nonviolence training programs the need and capacity to always look towards the future. What is the future you want to create? We learn from the past, we honor the past, we respect the past, and we grieve the past. And then we focus on how we can create a future that is fully independent from the experiences of the past, which have traumatized us, and really apply 100% of our effort to move toward a peaceful future. When you put 100% of your efforts to move toward that future, you can build a strategy to achieve that future that does not include anger, revenge or retaliation. A peaceful future emerges from an authentic search for peaceful coexistence, equality, justice and respectful relationships among all communities. It is not an easy process. When Palestinians and Israelis begin to move in that direction, toward the future we want to create rather than a future filled with retaliation, then I think we can really move forward toward a peaceful future for our children.

Yoav Litvin: Accountability and Healing in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Lynn: Yoav, Shalom. I want to ask you about your journey from a dedicated Zionist and Israeli soldier to a person who is highly critical of Israeli Occupation. How did that journey come about?

Yoav: I grew up in Jerusalem and New York City. My parents come from European heritage and my mother’s side of the family suffered from anti-Semitism before fleeing to Palestine during the Second World War.

I was raised in a middle class academic ‘Liberal Zionist’ household (aligned with the Israeli Labor Party and Meretz), which I learned later was an inherent contradiction. Liberal Zionism maintains a belief in universal human rights yet it supports a Zionist ideology that endorses and promotes Israel as a Jewish state – one that has been systematically carrying out a project of ethnic cleansing of the native Palestinian people.

The Zionist narrative was deeply entrenched within me and I was convinced Israel is the David eternally pitted against the Arabs, who were the Goliaths. In school I learned about the various Israeli wars, which were always framed as romantic, just and heroic yet defensive and unavoidable. Alternative narratives of settler-colonialism and occupation were completely absent and even the word “Palestinian” was considered radically political and controversial.

My hometown of Jerusalem was highly segregated. Other than Abed the soft-spoken gardener from Hebron (aka El Halil), Rada the lady who cleaned our home on occasion (and would delight me with a bottle of delicious home-made olive oil from her groves in Beit Jala) and the delivery boy from East Jerusalem who was my age and worked at the local grocery store, I never interacted with Palestinians.

At the age of 18, I enlisted into the standard three-year military service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as a medic in the paratroopers. I believed I held high moral ground and could serve as a positive influence within the military. But the Israeli state’s trinity of nationalism, religion and capitalism had managed to thoroughly indoctrinate me with propaganda (aka “Hasbara”) that dehumanized the Palestinian ‘other’ and was meant to alleviate any moral dilemmas I encountered while carrying out policies of oppression. During my service I was stationed in multiple “hot zones”, predominantly South Lebanon (which was occupied by Israel at the time) and Hebron (aka El Halil in Arabic) in the West Bank. I manned checkpoints and participated in raids, ambushes and other military operations. During this time, I was also exposed to the fundamentalism, violence and racism of the Israeli settlers against native Palestinians.

Following the army, the intensity and constant barrage of stressful and traumatic news that constituted the Israeli experience caused me to shut myself off from my environment. As a result, and similar to many my age, I willfully disengaged from any political involvement. The occupation was just too “complicated” and I opted to focus solely on my personal development.

I went on to study biological psychology in the United States specializing in the behavioral neuroscience of fear, anxiety, social behaviors, aggression and trauma. My studies have afforded me the opportunity to investigate the neurobehavioral pathways involved in conflict and its resolution from the aspects of both aggressor and victim.

In my experiments I trained rats and mice to become afraid of certain stimuli by pairing them to innate fears or pain (“fear conditioning”) and then overcome those conditioned fears by a process of re-exposure to those same stimuli in neutral settings (“extinction of fear”).

As these neural systems are conserved in all mammals, I extrapolate my findings to humans; politicians manipulate fear for their purposes by using propaganda and the key to healing is re-exposure, i.e. communication and bonding is essential for societies that are conditioned to fear each other, such as the Israeli and Palestinian.

At some point during my studies, I was challenged on my Zionist beliefs. I realized I was spewing propaganda that I could not back with facts, as I was accustomed to with my research. My ignorance and emotionality regarding Zionism, in addition to my newfound ability and curiosity to reengage with politics due to the geographical and mental distance from the once overwhelming Israeli propaganda machine, inspired me to invest in conducting my own research into the history of Israel, Zionism and the conflict with Palestinians. That is when my ongoing journey truly began.

Lynn: How did you begin to heal from a growing awareness of your position as a perpetrator of occupation even in your desire ‘to make a positive difference’ as a soldier? What kind of support did you need to let go of the soldier guardian persona? What did you replace that with?

Yoav: I am grateful for my good fortune at meeting people who, in their wisdom, empathically challenged me in my beliefs, encouraged me to be modest in my approach and to base my opinions on facts that I have personally researched rather than on dogma or hearsay, and question authority. I have adopted a humanistic and professionally rigorous scientific approach to my beliefs and political opinions that is aimed at equality and justice.

In order for Israeli aggressors to heal, en route to re-humanization and reconciliation with our Palestinian victims, we must break the cycle of violence and inequality. For this to happen, Israelis need to go through a painful internal process of deconstruction and reconstruction, which includes a humble yet relentless quest for historical truth, a sense of deep outrage at the lies, hatred and fear we were indoctrinated with, a reckoning with the profound shame and guilt at the crimes we were involved in both directly and indirectly and a productive formation and fortification of bridges of dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian societies.

Instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence, Israelis need to channel our outrage toward creating human bonds with Palestinians and others that are based on the universal values of equality, freedom and justice.

Israelis must break the bond that Zionist propaganda has created between the state and the self so that criticism of the state becomes possible and even encouraged as a means of building an inclusive society.

Lynn: In your studies as a neuroscientist, how do you understand the role that fear plays in Palestinian oppression? How do we overcome fear and cultivate empathy while living under a system of occupation?

Yoav: I have found that studying the brain mechanisms associated with trauma and its healing can benefit our effort to understand and find effective solutions to conflict (for more see here).

It is useful to analyze the Israeli/Palestinian conflict using an evolutionary approach. On the one hand, a simplistic Darwinian outlook is often cited by those who believe in a dualistic, ‘us versus them’ philosophy, i.e. in the ‘rough neighborhood of the Middle East only the strong survive’. We see that perspective represented by a long line of pro-aggression, exclusivist, expansionist and militaristic Israeli governments that instill and potentiate fear in order to control public opinion and facilitate their political and economic goals. In so doing, the Jewish victim narrative sustains the level of aggression and oppression that is a part of daily life in the reality of occupation.

However, evolution also emphasizes the adaptive utility of altruistic and cooperative behavior based on a joint humanity and our natural qualities as a social species. Though it is very difficult to overcome fear and cultivate empathy in an environment of separation, aggression and hatred (see Sami Awad’s insights), it is possible through a principled and sustained process of education, communication and collaboration, which can be achieved using universal human languages to connect and bridge gaps, such as art and music.

Lynn: What does it mean for a former Israeli soldier to create mechanisms of accountability and move into the realm of solidarity? What are your sources of strength and inspiration in this process?

In my work I aim to synthesize my experiences as a former Israeli soldier, the knowledge I acquired throughout my studies and research on the biological psychology of trauma, aggression, fear and social behavior and my recent efforts using art as a tool for education and healing. Though the occupation and oppression in Israel/Palestine seems intractable and hopeless I find inspiration in the work of many activists, such as you Lynn and Sami, who relentlessly focus on truth and accountability, healing and reconciliation. I find that through my writing and other activities, I heal from the injuries I have sustained as a result of the brainwashing I endured and the crimes I was an accomplice in. Further, my hope is that my experience, example and insight may inspire Israelis, Palestinians and others to confront their demons and ultimately form bridges that may serve as a backbone for an inclusive society in Israel/Palestine.

Lynn: As you look at the current political situation in Israel, what concerns you the most? How would you invite the American Jewish community, an identity you also share, to best serve Israel’s future?

Yoav: Though I have been living in the United States for over a decade now, every time I visit Israel/Palestine I feel that the mainstream moves further in the direction of a fundamentalist, nationalistic and Judeo-supremacist vision of the future. I am extremely concerned with this trend and the continued dehumanization of Palestinians as a potential prelude to further ethnic cleansing and even genocide.

Israeli policies are shaped by destructive forces that separate rather than unite. These include: corrupt arch-capitalists, messianic Jews who believe in the fantasy of a Judeo-supremacist Greater Israel and ultra-orthodox Jews who are highly segregated in their own communities. This trinity of forces has a joint interest in weakening democratic institutions and the continued subjugation of the Palestinian people.

Within this Israeli political environment, it is hard to believe that the Israeli Left can succeed on its own. Thus, it is absolutely crucial to apply pressure on Israel from the outside – especially from the United States, Israel’s greatest ally and backer of the occupation. For this purpose, American Jews must support Palestinian and international groups that promote non-violent actions such as boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) and Jewish, Palestinian and other groups that seek justice for Palestinians and an equitable society in Israel/Palestine, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, New Israel Fund, and many more.