New Israeli Vision: Where Palestinians Are Equal and Not Separate

It’s time for a new language and for bold initiatives, writes Israeli author Nir Baram: A political plan that integrates the immediate battle against racism with a vision for the future.

1. On a hot day at the beginning of July, I was standing in the mourners’ tent of the Abu Khdeir family in Shoafat, East Jerusalem. Their son Mohammed had been murdered by Jews. Public figures from various political parties flooded in from every direction, stood at the center beside Mohammed’s weary father, and made loud speeches in front of the television cameras. That’s when I noticed three youths sitting at the edge of the tent near a colorful curtain, looking bored. They saw I had an unlit cigarette in my hand, as smoking is forbidden during Ramadan; giggling, they pointed to the field behind the curtain where people secretly smoked.

I sat down beside them. One of them was Taha Abu Khdeir, a cousin of Mohammed, and the other two were his friends Mustafa and Suliman. They are 18 and work in an electronics lab. We spoke in a mixture of English, some Hebrew and a little Arabic. I told them that my grandparents (from Syria and Egypt) spoke fluent Arabic, but that I didn’t know the language and was only learning it now. Sometimes they’d write sentences in Arabic on their iPhone, translate them to Hebrew on Google and then show me the translation.

We talked about the Jewish murderers and they wrote that they “demand their homes be demolished, just like those of Palestinian murderers.” We talked about Mohammed, whom they said they were supposed to meet on the night he was abducted. He was “ambitious and had a good heart,” they said. They asked me where I work. “I write novels,” I replied. They demanded evidence, so the four of us huddled over the iPhone and I showed them some newspaper articles. I told them I had met, right here in Shoafat, mothers who said they were afraid their children would be harmed, and I asked them if they were scared. They replied like all teenagers are supposed to: “We’re not afraid of anything.”

Then I was introduced to Mohammed’s father and I expressed my remorse and deep shame. He asked me: “Have you seen the photos?” I looked into his pale eyes, which had become very red, and I knew with certainty that there was nothing that could be said, just words, and he was hearing so many of them. Confronting such a crushing loss, facing a father who is replaying in his mind, over and over again, the final moments of his son’s life as he was being burned alive – there’s just nothing to say.

I went back to the boys. We talked about the World Cup that had become so boring, and I took a photo of them. We posed together. With them I felt relieved.

When I left Shoafat, I saw the train station that was burned in the demonstrations after Mohammed’s death. A couple of meters away people were standing outside a sweet shop, and I pondered on how a violent conflict is such a strange thing – in one place it destroys everything, and a couple of meters away there was no trace of it.

2. In the days following the discovery of the bodies of the three kidnapped Jewish teenagers – Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrah and Gilad Shaar – at the hands of Hamas activists, there were voices in the Israeli public calling for us to unite. “At times like these,” they claimed, “there is no left and right.” While supposedly “there was no left or right,” a Knesset member from the Likud party called for action to be taken against Israel’s Muslim citizens – saying that they needed to understand that “things are going to change.”

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said it was time to shake up the houses in Gaza. Minister Naftali Bennett, as usual, was calling for blood; an incited Jewish mob was persecuting Arabs; a Palestinian boy was murdered and his cousin Tarik got beaten up by Israeli policemen; and settlers were calling for more and more settlements to be built in retribution for the murders. There is always right and left. There are those who scream and those who keep silent.

Most of the Israeli public has set up an intricate system of denial to buffer itself from reality and does not want to know the facts. They don’t want to know about the more than 1,600 Palestinians under 18 who have apparently been killed by the Israel Defense Forces since the second intifada, including several hundred in Operation Protective Edge, according to estimates. They don’t want to know about the abduction of Palestinian youths and all the everyday practices of the occupation – because the facts would jeopardize their denial system, a system upheld by many here and which the Israeli media knowingly support.

Under this denial system, for example, our children are viciously killed, but when a Palestinian child is killed – even a whole family, as we have seen in the recent military operation in Gaza – there is always a justification for it, prepared and recited robotically by presenters on the television news. And yet, all the children who have done nothing and have been killed by the bombs of the Israel Air Force, and all those innocent youths who have been shot by the army in dozens of other incidents – in the eyes of the Palestinians, and rightly so, these are children who were killed for no reason.

According to local media, “The IDF doesn’t kill children for no reason.” And Israelis nod in agreement. Hundreds of Palestinian children were killed in the last decade, over 400 young people under the age of 18 died in the Gaza operation, according to some estimates – yet the tired mantra is still being recited: The army doesn’t kill without good cause, we never kill children intentionally, we’re all right. This robotic proclamation and the moral superiority to which most of the Israeli public clings keep us sheltered from reality and create a false and dangerous sense of victimization and persecution.

The sense of moral superiority reached its peak in the days following the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, before the identity of the murderers became known. “This couldn’t have been done by Jews,” people said. “Jews aren’t capable of such brutal murder,” politicians claimed. Yet the simple truth is that Jews are no different from any other ethnic group, and horrifying murders are committed also among Jews. Instead of realizing that simple fact, Jews in Israel are caught up in a fanciful mind-set of “mythic morality.”

This mind-set was accurately expressed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a supposedly “moderate” figure, who wrote on Facebook after Mohammed’s death: “We have been robbed of the belief that such an act could not be committed by any of our own. We have been robbed of the ability to say that we are not such people, that such a heinous and sadistic murder of a young boy could be the doing of Jews.” Here you have the most distilled expression of false moral superiority. What leads the justice minister to believe that every other ethnic group is capable of such brutality, but not the Jews? Precisely upon which history is she basing her assumption? How can we change reality when we refuse, so stubbornly, to face it?

3. For years the Israeli left has been speaking of two states and a separation between Jews and Palestinians. All this time, I have always insisted on speaking and writing about racism toward “non-Jews” within Jewish society. To my mind this is the most burning issue – the occupation is the result of an inability to recognize the rights of non-Jews. The matter becomes even more complex when fear-mongering propaganda, centered on the Holocaust, instills dread among Jews that “we are always just one step away from Auschwitz.” Thus, most Jews live with a sense of victimhood. Shielded by a false sense of victimhood and moral superiority, such a person can never take an honest look in the mirror. Instead, he justifies actions and validates his self-awareness as the Israeli-Jew who is “pro-life” while the Palestinian other is “pro-death.”

After 47 years of occupation, after all the incarcerations, the killing, the confiscation of lands and daily oppression, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of the “gaping moral abyss” separating us from the Palestinians. And the masses believe him. In fact, the sense of moral supremacy has become a national pathology, blinding Israelis and delaying the end of the occupation. There is no need to promote a courageous political initiative when one has such a clear sense of being in the right, and being the victim.

Over the past few weeks – following the kidnapping and murder of the three Jewish boys and the war between Israel and Hamas – I have continually been encountering people who are shocked by the displays of racism emerging throughout the country and the attacks against anyone who opposed the war. In a way, during recent weeks the shroud of denial has begun to crack, and people want to take action. The question is what political action is required.

For many years, the Israeli left has been promoting the notion of a two-state solution and a separation between the two peoples. Not only has this vision failed to materialize, but in the meantime the left has neglected the battle within Israeli society. It has failed to fulfill its most important role: the daily battle against racism and for complete equality and cooperation between all the inhabitants of this land.

More than preaching for the two-state solution and supporting yet another hopeless round of negotiations unsuccessfully brokered by the Americans, the real role of the left in Israel at this time is to help the Jews living here to recognize the fact that they don’t have to live in a society that speaks a language of “Jews vs. non-Jews,” “Jews vs. Palestinians,” “Jews vs. Gentiles.” This corrupt way of thinking has dominated our consciousness over the past decades, and we must fight it. The call for two states and a separation between Jews and Palestinians will not undo racist sentiments. I believe Israeli-Jewish society is in need of a profound transformation of values.

The notion of separation has led Jews to withdraw into a state surrounded by walls, a state that is gradually becoming the world’s largest Jewish ghetto. Separation between Jews and Arabs is part of the ideology of the racist right-wing government; to oppose it, a completely different set of values is required. These values should not speak in a language of separation and walls, but promote coexistence with complete equality.

4. One day last week the sirens sounded again in Tel Aviv. There is no functional bomb shelter in our building, which overlooks Rabin Square, so we stood in the stairwell: two men holding their two babies, two elderly women and myself. “Where are the other neighbors? They don’t come to the stairwell anymore, very disappointing …,” said one of the men, and we all laughed. Several minutes later we heard a muffled sound outside, and we decided there had been “a hit.” We assumed we’d all be seeing each other again soon.

When I went back to my apartment I read an article written by Abir Ayub, a student living in Gaza: “This is the first attack my two young nieces are experiencing; we all live in the same building. They are both under 3-years-old and there is nothing I can do to calm them when they cry because of the explosions. The most I can do is hold them tight and tell them it’s just fireworks.”

Indeed, Israel embarked on another operation in Gaza. Hamas fired rockets on Israel’s southern cities, which have suffered countless attacks in recent years, as well as on centrally located ones like Tel Aviv. Israel bombed Gaza. And once again there were explosions and death and shootings and terrible human suffering, and all around one kept hearing that same tired military language of “targets” and “armed militants,” and “Let the IDF win.” There’s nothing new about it – it’s the same show we’ve seen over and over again in recent years; every operation starts out at the same point and ends at the same point. We are living in a constant cycle of military operations and routine life.

After coming back from the stairwell and reading Abir Ayub’s article, I talked to a writer from another country. He brought up Canto X from Dante’s “Inferno”: Dante and Virgil walk between the burning tombs of the dead. Young Dante wishes to see and converse with one of them. His wish is granted when one Farinata suddenly rises from his tomb and addresses him. Upon discovering the identity of Dante’s ancestors, Farinata proudly proclaims: “So bitterly were they opposed to me, and to mine ancestors, and to my party, that I on two occasions scattered them.” Dante, who had witnessed the events following Farinata’s demise, replies: “If they were driven out … from all directions they returned both times.” In these never-ending cycles of war and vengeance every victor is bound to be defeated someday, and those who lose today might someday win. In the meantime, the only thing that remains certain are that bodies are piling up.

From vengeance to vengeance, from one military operation to the next, alike in every aspect – we live in ever-growing desperation, with no vision of the future. In fact, no one in Israel dares to imagine the country 20 years from now – it’s just too scary. In moments of honesty, I admit that I too doubt the odds of things ever being different here.

There are ample reasons for despair: We are living in a society that is paralyzed by the propaganda of fear, force-fed to us by our government, and in such a society there is no room for courageous initiatives or far-reaching transformations. And this is exactly what we desperately need: bold political initiatives that can really change the routine “death cycles.”

And yet, the truth is that we have to believe that change is possible. The democratic powers in Israel don’t have time to whine, and there is no time to maintain the moderate left’s culture of “shooting and crying,” which Israel’s best writers, filmmakers and intellectuals have successfully been pitching to the world. The time of “shooting and crying” is over. We need to stop shooting. We also need a political plan that integrates the immediate battle against racism with a future vision of living together in equality, not in separation and seclusion.

I cannot recall a time when so many Israelis were as despondent as they are these days. It seems people here have all but lost faith in their ability to shape the future, although there are still some who are determined to take some sort of action. This is indeed a strange combination. However, we need to remember that people are living here, and as long as they are alive they make plans, they contemplate their future, make decisions. Indeed, human consciousness is forever busy making calculations, getting ready for the next course of action and its consequences. So everywhere I go, I hear words of despair mixed with the heartbeat of life, the recognition of defeat alongside a determination to fight this time. It is highly conceivable that a realization is crystallizing that the decisive moment has arrived, and if a substantial enough group in Israel still believes in change and is prepared to fight for it – then the time to act is now.

Nir Baram is an Israeli author. His third novel, “Good People,” was short-listed for the Sapir Prize and translated into 12 languages. His fourth, “World Shadow” (in Hebrew), was published last year by Am Oved. This article was translated into English by Daniella Blau.