Israel and US
This conversation with Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a widely respected expert on the politics of the Middle East, took place during her October 10-11 Buffalo visit. Bennis was in town to give a lecture at UB, “Palestine, Israel and the US after the Lebanon War,” and to meet for discussions with students and peace activists. Her visit was sponsored by the Western New York Peace Center’s Task Force for the Peaceful Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the UB Progressive Alliance and the Center for Comparative and Global Studies in Education.
An independent think tank
Bruce Jackson: What is the Institute for Policy Studies?
Phyllis Bennis: The Institute is an independent progressive think tank in Washington, created in 1963 by two escapees from the Kennedy Administration—one from the White House and one from the State Department—who were dissatisfied with Kennedy’s positions on nuclear weapons, on Vietnam, on Cuba, on civil rights, on a whole host of issues. Marcus Raskin and Dick Barnett left the Kennedy administration and set up what was then an unprecedented idea of an independent think tank, not part of a university and not funded by the government or a corporation or something like that, but independent.
It’s gone though many different incarnations and different emphases, but they key to it is, it’s always been a center for linking ideas with action. So the scholars of IPS, who do writing and research and speaking and that sort of thing, do all of that work in the context of growing social movements and helping social movements articulate goals and strategies.
In the ’60s that meant that IPS was a key component of the civil rights movement. Civil rights activists came to the institute at various points for periods to work on articles and books. Later it’s played important roles in the women’s movement, in the anti-apartheid movement in the ’80s, in the anti-intervention in Central America movements of the ’80s, the Vietnam movement certainly throughout the ’60s and ’70s. It’s been a sort of component of those movements, but always independent.
BJ: Who funds it?
PB: Funding is very difficult. By charter, we can’t take government money or corporate money. Not that we’re being offered any, so that’s not much of an issue. But abstractly we can’t. The money comes from individual donors and from private foundations. It’s a constant struggle, particularly these days, when there’s a great deal of fear in the funding community. After 9/11 especially, the pressure is on not to fund anything having to do with the Middle East, certainly not to fund anything having to do with Palestine.
My work and our funding is basically project by project. The best funders are those who understand the importance of supporting institutions and what it means to build an institution. Most funders don’t get that. Unfortunately most funders want a specific project that’s going to result in a specific goal being met, a specific product or whatever. That means it’s a huge struggle.
The second superpower
PB: My project is called the New Internationalism Project, which basically is all the work that I do on Middle East and UN issues. My last book dealt with this issue in a more direct way, the idea of a new internationalism. I’ve been grappling with it in my own mind and in some of my writing for the last several years. The idea was that to create massive social change—which is what I think is required these days, not little incremental reforms here and there, but massive restructuring of the world and societies. It isn’t enough to talk about building stronger people’s movements. That’s the core; that’s the central part. But it’s not enough.
What I started looking at was, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, the global mobilizations of February 15, 2003. In 660 cities around the world, in this huge outpouring, the world says no to war. The Guinness Book of World Records says it’s the biggest single day of demonstrations in the history of humanity—of course, they say the history of “mankind”—with somewhere between 12 and 14 million people on the streets on the same day. An extraordinary event. And the next day the New York Times writes about it on the front page and says “Once again there are two superpowers in the world: the United States and global public opinion.”
That was huge. We all grabbed that line as a rhetorical line in speeches or whatever: “the second superpower; we are the second superpower.” It was very powerful, but in examining it a little more closely, I realized that what was really at stake here, and the reason that it had that impact—I mean, the Times got it not just because there were a lot of people, that had happened before, it would happen again, maybe not at that scale, but that’s an incremental issue—but that what was different was this was in the context of a much broader mobilization that was not only the people’s movements, the social movements, at the center, but also involved governments, who for their own reasons, usually quite opportunist reasons, were also coming out against the war. Eventually there were enough governments that the United Nations itself was forced to come out against the war. And it was that collaboration, the three parts—of the people’s movements, the governments and the UN—together that made up this phenomenon that we now call the second superpower.
That’s a lot of what my work is. It’s trying to link social movements with governments, UN with social movements, social movements with the UN. All of those intersections.
Not an academic
BJ: Unlike most of the people who write about these things, your pieces almost always end with an action component. You say what could be done, what should be done, where does this take us, rather than just looking at it.
PB: It is true that my writing is designed to be used by activists and by people in motion, whether in government or outside of government. But I’m not an academic, I never have been.
In my first effort to get a grant, before IPS, I tried to get a writer’s grant from a very large foundation that had a large research and writing program. I made it to the short list, and when I didn’t make it, they sent me the readers’ evaluation. There were five of them, and four of the five had all said the same thing: They said she’s a really good writer, she knows her stuff—this was to write my book about US domination of the UN—they went on and on, this was good and that was good. But she doesn’t seem interested in influencing the academic debate. Damn straight!
I resubmitted my application and I used lots of big words, a bibliography of books I had no intention of using to make it look academic, right? I still didn’t get it.
But I found that very interesting that that’s what they wanted. It was interesting because only that year they had opened up the program to non-academics, to journalists, and I was working as a journalist at the time. But apparently they hadn’t notified their readers that perhaps they should use a somewhat different standard, so they were still applying academic standards.
PNAC gets its “new Pearl Harbor”
BJ: Can you talk about the relationship between Project for the New American Century and Israel?
PB: “Project for the New American Century” was a paper that had its roots in a group of Washington neocons in the 1990s, who were not in power at the time. It was during the Clinton years. The paper was essentially a call to arms for a new vision of what the US role in the world should be. It posited a very extremist vision of absolute US domination on a global scale. It included language about how the US policy should be clear enough that no country or group of countries should ever even imagine that they could match, let alone surpass, US military might, that US military reach would never be met or answered by any other country. It was very unilateralist, highly militaristic; it called for privileging the Pentagon over the State Department, more money for the military, less money for diplomacy. It was a direct refutation of the idea that in the post-Cold War era, there should be something different in how the US operates around the world.
They presented it, as I understand, to the leadership of the Republican Party, which took one look at it and said, “Well this is all very nice but we could never get away with this.” It was basically put on a shelf until some unknown future time when, as they wrote in the paper, there was a famous line that said, “Probably this can’t happen until some huge event convinces people of the necessity of it, an event like a new Pearl Harbor.” That was the famous line in that paper.
And many people believe that for the Bush administration, September 11th was that new Pearl Harbor. You see language very similar to the language of the PNAC paper in the 2002 National Security Strategy document of the Bush administration that Bush announced just a few months after September 11th.
Support for Israel and an empowered Israel was a key component of how US power, in this definition, would be built. Several years later, in 1996, when he had just been elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu invited a group of the authors of that earlier paper to come to Israel to draft for him a strategy paper for Israel about what should be Israel’s role in the region. That paper, which was titled “Making a Clean Break: Defending the Real,” called for a very similar idea of what role Israel should play in the region. It’s what they had posited for what role the US should play in the world. So it should “make a clean break”—that’s what gave rise to the title—with the Oslo process. It should tell the Palestinians that they’re going to get what they’re going to get and the Israelis would decide what they were going to get, and this nonsense about negotiations was really over. That from now on the Arab countries surrounding Israel would be told that diplomacy would be conducted on a military basis from Israel rather than on a basis of negotiations. It was a very militarized vision of what Israeli dominance of the region would require.
As a result there’s this very enmeshed quality to the two papers, the PNAC paper and the “Clean Break” paper—not surprising, because they were written by the same people. Not all the same people, but they overlap; the people who wrote the “Clean Break” paper were overwhelmingly, I think, signatories of PNAC.
You get this question: “The neocons in Washington, are they more accountable to Israel than they are to the US?” There’s this anti-Semitism that creeps into it, that says, “These guys are more accountable to Israel than they are to the US and therefore they have dual loyalties,” that old canard. “It’s because they’re Jewish,” whatever. None of that, in my view, is really very relevant. Some of them are Jewish, not all of them. Some of them may be great fans of Israel on their own terms, but strategically their vision is that the United States’ assertion of power depends on a militarized, expansionist, nuclearized Israel. It’s very much tied to how they think US power is going to be built and consolidated.
BJ: This is the reverse of the way the relationship with Israel is usually perceived. That is, they are usually described as using the US essentially to enhance Israel’s power.
PB: You mean the neocons do that. I guess that’s true. The Israelis do in fact try to use the US to enhance their own power, but I don’t see that from the neocons. Theirs is a vision of the US on a global level.
BJ: I heard you say that Israel looks upon itself in terms of Europe and the US rather than the Middle East, of which it is physically a part. Can you talk about the implications of that, both for the Middle East and for the US?
PB: In the US we grow up thinking Israelis are like us. Well, of course, half of them are from Brooklyn, so half of them are us. So there’s that. But aside from that, there’s a racist edge to that, because it implies that Israelis are white—because when Americans think of who are Americans, they think white, they don’t think of multicultural, multiracial, and so forth. They think white. They think it’s like Europe. They think it’s Jews like you or like me—that it’s white Ashkenazi Jews, European Jews. In fact, 65 percent of Israeli Jews are Arabs and another 15 or 18 percent are Slavs from Russia, and three or four percent are Ethiopian Jews. Then the rest are the white Jews, who the US tends to think, “That’s Israel”—because that was always the elite who they dealt with. The old Labor elite in Israel was Ashkenazi. The ambassadors have been, the powers that be, the arms dealers, all of them.
But it doesn’t reflect reality in Israel.
Part of the reason for the close alliance between the US and Israel that began during the Cold War, was this edge that, in this very volatile region filled with oil, it’s a meeting grounds for the three continents, all that stuff. We have good ties with the Saudis, they’re dependent on us for arms; we have good ties with the Jordanians, they’re dependent on us for everything; we have good ties with the Egyptians, they’re dependent on us for money; we have good ties with all those Arab rulers—but at the end of the day you can’t really trust them—they’re Arabs. There’s this racist edge that runs through it. The Israelis are like us. Them we can deal with.
So there’s a sense of camaraderie, and it gets described here as, “Well, that’s because they are a democracy and these other countries are not.” Yeah, well, we’ve had plenty of good relations with plenty of non-democracies. And Israel is only partly a democracy. For Israeli Jews it is a very lively and vibrant democracy, but if you’re not Jewish, not so much.
That perception about what is Israel plays a big role in the US, the identification of Israel with white and European.
The ersatz European
Outside Israel, it gets built up from three different vantage points.
One is, the elites are white Europeans. So somebody like Shimon Peres, the grand old man of Israeli politics, the only remaining one of his generation, he’s an old sort of European intellectual. That’s his own way of thinking, that’s his identification.
The younger elites, like Bebe Netanyahu, identify with the US. None of them identify with being Middle Easterners. They don’t identify with being Eastern; they identify with being Western.
Then there’s the question of the response to early on the Arab boycott, but later the series of wars and tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and all the Arab states, Israel and Iran, Israel and Turkey, which is now being mollified to some degree. This was sort of the answer to it: Well, we don’t need to have trade and normal relations with all these folks, we’ll just jump over them and have normal relations with Europe. So there’s all these efforts, like the fact that Israel has trade relations with the European Union on the basis of an association accord that is exactly the same considerations as a member of the EU. So they get all the trade benefits as if they were a member of the European Union.
BJ: Which none of the Arab countries does.
PB: Which nobody else does. Only Israel does. Of course, now there’s been a struggle for the past several years, because they’ve actually been violating the terms of it. The terms are very specific; it says goods produced in Israel will get this special tax exemption. What the Israelis have been doing is exporting goods produced on the settlements, in Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
It gets very sticky. The problem is—and this has been a longstanding campaign—the problem is that Germany and the Netherlands have refused, and they operate by consensus, they’ve refused to hold them accountable for the violations of the association accord. So even though it’s a specific violation of their own rules—it’s not even sanctions we’re talking about, it’s just making them abide by the rules—Germany and the Netherlands won’t do it. That’s been an ongoing struggle.
It means that they can have that identity in terms of trade, where their economic relations are all with the US and Europe. I mean, they export, arms in particular, to Latin America, to Asia, etc.
Then the third thing is Israeli culture. Israeli culture is framed by a Western identity. It’s cultural domination. It doesn’t mean that Iraqi Jews or the Yemeni Jews or the Moroccans don’t ever speak Arabic; they might at home. But for example, there really are two tiers of schools in Israel, there are the Arab schools and there are the Jewish schools. The Arab schools are for the Palestinians, not for citizens of Israel. The Arab Jews are not considered Arabs; they’re Mizrahai Jews; they don’t use the term “Arab.” So there’s a sense of denial of even their own culture.
Cultural dominance in Israel
Israeli culture was based on the idea of challenging the shtetl culture, the ghetto culture, challenging the image of the weak Jew who didn’t fight back, the victim, the diaspora Jew who was scorned. In the creation of Israel and the founding myths and all that, there’s a huge emphasis on overcoming all that legacy of the victim, the perpetual victim, the hunched-up, stooped-over intellectual. Instead it was this grounded in the earth, there was a socialist tinge to it, but it was very much about pioneering and farming and we’re going to reclaim the land and the tan sabra—
BJ: I remember those pictures of the beautiful girl in short shorts…
PB: And the sandals, right. And I remember the boys that were in short shorts and sandals. Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canin [in the 1960 film Exodus] did more to justify the expulsion of Palestinians…god love him for what he does now, but then, god knows, he probably had no idea.
So the cultural dominance in Israel has really focused on building what they consider an independent Israeli culture. But not with any recognition that they are in the Arab world, that a huge component of their population is Arab—the 20 percent who are Palestinian and the Arab Jews who make up the majority of the Israeli Jews.
It’s ironic really. Palestinian food has become the leitmotif of Israeli cuisine, such as it is. So falafel and tabbouleh—these are Israeli salads. For a while the advertising campaign for El Al had these beautiful Israeli flight attendants wearing traditional Palestinian thobes, the black dress with the beautiful embroidery on the chest. Where did that come from? It’s like, “That’s Israeli.” Excuse me: not quite. So there’s this identification with Europe that has also had this huge cultural impact.
BJ: We’ll wear it but we know who we are; we’re looking toward Europe, we’re not looking at Arabs, by whom they’re surrounded. What does that do as far as their relationships with their neighbors?
PB: In many ways it’s the result of their relations with their neighbors. I would be hesitant to say it’s the cause. From the beginning the Israeli elite has identified with Europe; that was where they got guns, was from France and Czechoslovakia. Later, after ’67, it was the US. So they’ve always had that identity.
Escaping to Israel
The Jews who come from the Arab countries—in some cases, not all—viewed themselves as escaping—escaping anti-Semitism, escaping whatever. In the case of the Soviet Union, of course, it wasn’t so much escaping anti-Semitism, it was escaping from a collapsing country where nobody knew what was going to happen, and the Jews were one of the few identifiable populations that had a direct way out. They were only allowed out if they went to Israel. There was a whole thing about that. A lot of them wanted to go to the US, but the US said, “No, no, we’re going to not let them, we’re going to make sure they go only to Israel.”
BJ: There were a lot of them who went to Israel and subsequently left.
PB: Right. If you look at the Ethiopian Jews, similarly, they weren’t coming to escape anti-Semitism, they were coming because the entire county was in the midst of a terrific famine, and they were the only ones who were getting visas. The Israelis will take Jews from anywhere. Their preference is white, educated, violin-playing surgeons, but they will take Ethiopian peasants if need be, if that’s all that’s available.
The resettlement agency that does the in-gathering of exiles on behalf of Zionism is a quasi state institution in Israel. They always have one country that is their target each year—the beleaguered Jewish community in Belarus or in Argentina or wherever are—and that’s the basis for their fundraising. One of the ironies is that back in ’90s—around ’98, ’99, something like that—they didn’t have a country that year. There was no country left where they could say, “This Jewish community is facing rising anti-Semitism, is in danger, we need millions of dollars to bring them all to Israel.” So what they did was to say, “This year’s focus is the ’Stans, the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.” There were Jews in those countries, not a whole lot but there are some. Problem with it was there weren’t any great anti-Semitic campaigns going on. They admitted that but said, “There could be in the future. We’re doing our fundraising now in anticipation.” I would have thought, you can do that a couple of times but at some point you can’t do that anymore. But somehow they’ve come up with others.
But that notion of targeted fundraising that requires constant victimization, that needs victims…
Diane Christian: If you want to come to Israel, how do you prove you’re Jewish?
PB: They don’t very much. There was a thing, you know, should the men have to prove they were circumcised? The problem is, Muslims circumcise too. So that doesn’t necessarily prove anything. And lots of Christians do. Some Jews don’t. Some Reform Jews in the US—it’s not healthy, or they’re hippies or whatever.
There was a sort of scandal that happened with the Soviet Jews in 1990. That was the big year, over a million came. The estimates are that as many as half of them may not be Jewish at all. Some of them were non-Jews who were children and inlaws and whatever, big extended families. And some were people who just had nothing, no connection to being Jewish, but figured if they could say it, they could get out. I don’t remember how it worked out, but I know there were debates in Israel about having them have to go through ritual conversion. The women would have to do a mikvah, the ritual bath, and there were questions about the men having to go through some sort of little additional circumcision—maybe a little slice: not to take off anything, just to feel a little pain.
BJ: A while back you used the word “democracy” in regard to Israel.
PB: Israel is a democracy in many ways like the US was a democracy in 1962. Which was that it had all the political infrastructure of democracy—elections, parliaments, voting, citizenship rights—but a whole sector of the population is excluded from that. ’62 was before the Voting Rights Act.
But it is a little more complicated than that, because in Israel voting is one of the rights that is universal. All citizens of Israel can vote; that includes the non-Jews, including the Palestinians. Not on the West Bank and Gaza, of course, not even in East Jerusalem, which despite the fact that Israel claims to have annexed it, the Palestinian population of Jerusalem are allowed to vote only in local elections for city council and mayor, not in national elections.
But Israeli democracy is quite vibrant at the level of politics and parliament and all that. Palestinians have political parties, they run for office, they have the right to vote.
The difference is that rights in Israel are not determined solely by citizenship. There’s another category of rights that are known as “nationality rights,” and eligibility for those rights is determined on the basis of being a Jew or not being a Jew.
That goes to the question of what schools you go to, how much money your school gets—Arab schools get less money from the state than Jewish schools. Serving in the military—granted, most Palestinians are not going to want to serve in the military, given the roles the military plays in Israel, but there are huge privileges that accrue to veterans of the military, which includes almost all Jews, except for the ultra-orthodox, who opt out so they can study the Torah full-time. But nobody else is excluded from service other than the Palestinians. That means that Palestinians don’t have access to state-funded university scholarships, government-supported low-income home mortgages, a whole host of things. Non-Jews can’t buy land in much of Israel. There’s a whole host of things that are not about citizenship.
So when Israelis get very indignant when you talk about discrimination and say, “No, no, no, all Palestinians are citizens, everybody can vote. Everybody’s equal.” That’s all true. The problem is the society is built in a way that doesn’t limit its rights and privileges only to citizenship.
That doesn’t even address the question of the fundamentals of Zionism, which is thoroughly undemocratic in the sense of who can be a citizen and who cannot. As a Jewish state, that’s the whole question of who gets citizenship. I have the right, you have the right, to go to the Israel and say, “I want to be a citizen.” As much as they might squirm, we’ll get citizenship. Most of the time, I think there might be a few exceptions.
BJ: Meyer Lansky [a New York gangster, instrumental in the 1930s founding of the US national crime syndicate]. They denied Meyer Lansky.
DC: Pressure from the US, though.
PB: The idea that I had that right years before I set foot in Israel, when no one in my family had ever been to Israel…My grandfather ran away from the pogroms in Minsk in 1910. There’s a fundamental undemocratic theme to the settlements. Even aside from the questions of land theft and expulsion of the Palestinians who lived there. Put that aside, that’s a given. But even as an existing policy now, the undemocratic character of it is far more than this question of what happens in elections.
Bruce Jackson: Could you talk about the whole issue of the settlements and how they’re rationalized by Israel, and the implications of that for Middle East stability?
Phyllis Bennis: The settlement project is fundamental to the crisis in the Middle East, and it’s because it’s about land. This is ultimately all about land. This is not about religion, this is not about anti-Arab sentiment, this is not about anti-Semitism, this is not about Islamo-fascism or any other ridiculous terms anyone wants to use. This is about land. That’s what this struggle is about, and the settlements are at the core of that project.
The first settlements were built just a few months after the ’67 war, when the Israeli troops for the first time controlled all of the West Bank, all of Gaza, all of East Jerusalem, as well as the Sinai and the Golan Heights. An American rabbi, Meier Kahane, went to Hebron and established the first settlement in a hospital building. The government at first said, “No, no, no, this is going to destabilize everything. We have enough problems without having an outraged Palestinian community.” That lasted about a week, the opposition. And then it was the first of what became Israeli strategy of what that they call “building facts on the ground.” That’s the Israeli strategy in general, but before it was the government strategy, it was the strategy of these nonstate actors, NGOs if you will, that created the settlements and forced the government to go along. So they created their own facts on the ground and they brought the government in line, and now the government does it on the international stage.
There are now about 432,000 settlers on occupied Palestinian land. That includes about 210,000 in Arab East Jerusalem, which now has more Israeli settlers than Palestinians living there. But those settlers are not even called settlers; their settlements are not identified as settlements. They’re called neighborhoods. Because the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem is denied, despite the fact that it was physically occupied in 1967—before it had not been—and despite that fact that the UN called for it to be what is called a corpus separatum, a separate body under international rule, not controlled by any government—Israel simply annexed it, said, “It’s ours, it’s always been ours and will always be ours. And it’s our capital.” That’s not recognized by any country in the world.
The US Congress, we should note, does recognize that, and the US government does not. Which leads every year to Congress passing a resolution which says the government shall move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but there’s always a little caveat: “unless the president determines to do so would endanger US foreign policy interests.” And every year the president signs off on the rule exemption so that they don’t have to do that.
So in the West Bank there are about 220,000 settlers that are scattered around in about 80 or 90 settlements, many of which are little outposts of about a half dozen families and are there for political posturing and have little relevance to anything—except for that fact that they are stealing land and they are guarded by Israeli soldiers, who then are at risk and sometimes get killed.
The main settlement populations are in three major settlement blocs. Envisioning it is a little bit difficult, because if you look at a map, the settlements are scattered all over the place. But if you look at them in groups, there are basically three major groups. And many of the settlements themselves have laid claim to land far beyond their existing built-up areas, planning for the future to bring in more people. This is a process they’ve given the name “thickening.” This is their defense when the US on rare occasions has said there should be no new settlement activity or no settlement expansion. They say, “We’re not expanding, there are no new settlements. We’re just thickening existing settlements.” There is language for all of this stuff.
Maale Adumim is the biggest settlement on the West bank. It now has a population of 35,000 people. It has 15,000 new units being built. It’s beautiful. It has a very open feeling; it’s on top of hills. It has lots of water; it sucks up water from the Palestinian water table, which has been declining and becoming more saline in recent years. It has beautiful lawns, flowers, palm trees, swimming pools, a library, a shopping center, an industrial zone—in fact, some of the most polluting Israeli industries are in the settlements, because the runoff then goes down the hills into the Palestinian areas and not into other Israeli areas.
The apartheid wall
It’s an extraordinary project, and that’s just the settlements themselves. That doesn’t take into account the new phenomenon, which is the wall, the apartheid wall.
Kelkelia is completely encircled by the wall. Kelkelia is a beautiful little northern West Bank town, about 40 or 50,000 people. It used to be a kind of market town. It’s not far from Tel Aviv, it was always a back-and-forth kind of place. It’s now completely surrounded by the wall.
There are two gates, which ostensibly are supposed to be opened every day, but it’s completely at the whim of the soldiers. They may decide not to…I was there one day when they were refusing to open. There was a dentist who had an emergency patient in Kelkelia. He had been out at his clinic in one of the villages and was trying to get into the town, and the soldiers said, “No, come back tomorrow.” He said, “I can’t come tomorrow, this guy’s got an infection.” Sorry. There was absolute disdain.
BJ: Was he a Jewish or a Palestinian dentist?
PB: Palestinian dentist. There’s a very useful term that Jeff Halper, who works for the Committee Against House Demolitions, created, the idea of a “matrix of control.” It’s a combination of things. It’s not just the settlements themselves, where people live. It’s the control of the land, the division of the land by all these roads and bridges and tunnels, Jewish-only apartheid roads. Some of these only go, physically, from one settlement to another. They are like highways in the sense that you can’t get on the road from anywhere else. They’re closed and you can only get on them at the beginning and the end, which are in the settlements. Or in the settlement and into Israel.
Palestinians have no access to those roads. There are other roads only for Palestinians that are designed to get them away from Jewish settlement areas. That’s this notion that Sharon invented, called “transportation contiguity.” The idea that if you can drive there, we’ll call it contiguous even if it’s not. Which means, of course, continued Israeli control, checkpoints at every bridge, every tunnel, every road, with Israeli soldiers controlling the lives of Palestinians within what is ostensibly their own state.
BJ: This sounds like you’re describing Europe in the late 1930s, as the Nazis are setting up checkpoints, taking over, isolating people.
PB: I’ll tell you, I’ve stopped using analogies to anything having to do with the holocaust or the Nazis. Because it’s just not worth it. So I’m not going to respond. That’s your analogy, fine. I will not use that analogy. I will use other analogies, but not that one.
BJ: What analogies do you use?
PB: Well, this analogy is very much like Bantustans. A number of South Africans, including Bishop Tutu, have described the situation in the occupied territories as far worse than apartheid. That’s often been dismissed by Israelis as just, “Oh, please, he’s just posturing.”
I came to understand that much better. I was recently in South Africa, talking a lot about Palestine, in fact, and a colleague of mine who I work with in the international movement for Palestinian rights, who is very much a victim of apartheid—his brother was one of the last anti-apartheid activists killed by the apartheid regime, just three months before the end of apartheid, so he has paid a very heavy price for apartheid—he said, “We see many parallels with apartheid and Israel, inside Israel. We see parallels in the inability of the Palestinians to buy land. We see parallels in the identity card system.”
Controlling the land
What we’re really looking at here is a method of control of the land. When we talk about a matrix of control of the land, it’s controlling the people, but in the interest of gaining the land. The Israeli goal has always been to maximize the amount of land that they control and that becomes part of their state with the minimum number of people on it.
That’s the contradiction, and that’s been the problem they faced from the very beginning. When the state of Israel was first created, it was grounded in this mythology that it was a land without a people for a people without a land. The holocaust survivors and the other Jews who were coming in right at that time, unlike those who had come earlier, were indeed people without a land. They had been stripped of their lives, their livelihoods, everything. They wanted to go to the United States and Britain. Anti-communism and anti-Semitism made that impossible—with a few exceptions. In general there were not large numbers of holocaust survivors allowed into the US. It was designed to funnel them into Palestine. The British isolated their own agreement with Arabs in the area; they had agreed to put a cap on the number of Zionist settlers that would be allowed in. They opened it up and said any Jew who wants to go can go. That of course led to more tension, because there were problems of land—some problems of land theft, although mostly it was just settlement in large numbers, and a sense that the local community was being overwhelmed.
The yuppie settlements
The settlement process began through these ideologically driven, extremist, messianic religious settlers, and then later there was kind of messianic nationalism that emerged that also created a lot of the settlement project. But as the settlements grew, they began in a sense running out of enough messianic extremists to populate them. So the government now took over this project of building settlements that would be attractive to the yuppies, to the rising middle class in Israel.
Increasingly Israel was no longer an agricultural country. There still is significant agriculture, but it’s not the main thing like it used to be, and the kibbutzim have not been a major part of the social fabric or the economic base of Israel for years. It’s now more of an illusion—not an illusion, but it’s the remnants of a mythological whatever.
What it means is that people now are attracted to the settlements not because they are ideological or they’re religious zealots, but because it’s cheap and it provides a great standard of living. The mountaintop isolated settlements tend to be zealots, either religious or nationalist or both, but the big settlement concentrations, you can really forget you’re in a settlement. When you drive into Maale Adumim from Jerusalem, there’s a checkpoint but they glance in and see that it’s an Israeli and pass. You don’t feel that you’re in a militarized zone. There’s a town center with a shopping center and a library. It’s called a peace library and the main sign of the town is a peace dove. I think the town overwhelmingly votes Labor.
These are not people who see themselves as settlers. They see themselves as living in a town not far from Tel Aviv. They commute into Israel, they’re liberal, they’re not extremists, they’re not racists in how they—
Diane Christian: They don’t think of themselves as settlers?
PB: Some of them do—I’m generalizing. Many people there don’t; many do. But they’re suburbanites, they’re commuters. It’s a bedroom community. You’ve got great standard of living, you get government subsidies for your mortgage, for the infrastructure of your town in terms of electricity and water—water is of course crucial, and it’s all subsidized, with no limits on the water.
Israelis use, I think it’s 30 cubic meters a year, versus 1 1/2 for Palestinians, something like that. It’s absolutely a huge disparity of water access. Because it’s green lawns, swimming pools—in a desert environment, where there’s not a lot of easily accessible water.
If you look at the settlement maps and superimpose it with a hydrological map, you’ll see almost identical locations between the settlements and the main aquifers. They’ve gone where the water is.
BJ: And displaced the Palestinians.
PB: The Palestinian villages traditionally were at the bottom of the hills, where the water sources are. The Israelis build on the top of the hills and they suck the water, they go down deeper.
So you have this contradiction of a huge settlement population now that is not all ideological nut cases; they’re ordinary Israelis who want live their life. They would be prepared to move back to Israel if they would be compensated for the loss of their houses and you replicate their life. That’s going to be pretty hard to do. You probably could if you had unlimited billions of dollars to make the Negev into not a desert but a green, growing whatever, but it would take literally hundreds of billions of dollars.
BJ: So that is in a way even more recalcitrant a problem than the religious fanatics.
PB: In some ways, yes. That’s what they’re saying now, if you just ask. If the government passed a law and said, “Sorry, folks, the settlements are no more ours, you’re all going to have to leave,” lots of them would leave. They would want compensation, they’d sue the pants off the government, but they wouldn’t put up the kind of physical fight that some of the settlers would, far more than they did in Gaza.
It was interesting to watch the evacuation of the Gaza settlers. Some of these settlers were now in the second generation, they were the kids who had grown up in those settlements and were raising their own kids there. There’s no question that at a human level it was a very painful thing to give up your home, even if that home was on someone’s else’s land and you had no right to be there; you had grown up there, that was your life. I don’t minimize that.
The Israeli military did precisely what they should do, what any military should do. They trained for months how to do the evacuation—understanding that people were going to resist—with as little force as possible, with as little trauma as possible. They arranged for neighborhoods to stay together in the interim halfway house arrangements. They arranged for people to be able to live wherever they wanted, with whatever groupings wanted to stay together. Whole neighborhoods were going to be built in Ashkelon, some in settlements on the West Bank unfortunately. They took into account the needs of people at the human level.
Compare that to how the Israeli military has gone after Palestinians in their own homes, sometimes for no reason, sometimes because a wanted fugitive was thought to have been in that house. Someone is convicted of a crime and his parents’ house is destroyed. Fifteen minutes notice is the standard: “Get your people together and get out of the house. We’ll give you 15 minutes to pull out whatever you can carry in 15 minutes, and then we’re going to blow up your house.”
That’s how it works on the Palestinian side. None of this concern about doing it in a way that is the least damaging to the children as possible.
Apartheid in Israel and South Africa
BJ: You were comparing what has happened in Israel to South Africa, and you said there was someone who said that in some ways this is worse.
PB: He was comparing Israel with South Africa, and he said we see parallels in how people lose their right to live somewhere; families are separated because you have, for example, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who marries a West Bank Palestinian, they have no legal rights in either place—they can’t live together as a family. There is no family reunification for Palestinians. So in those ways we see parallels with apartheid.
But then he paused and said, “But in the West Bank it’s very different. In all the years of apartheid, we never had F-16s bombing our townships. We never had tanks in our shantytowns. That’s what you see in Palestine, in the occupied territories.”
That was the basis for saying how much worse the Israeli occupation of Palestine is than South African apartheid, and that’s why the language about apartheid is becoming the common framework internationally: “Stop Israeli apartheid.”
The boy died
I went to the Hector Peterson Museum in Soweto. Hector Peterson was the young boy who was the first child killed in 1976 in the Soweto uprising. There’s a very famous photograph of him; he was 13 years old, and he was being carried by an older boy, a teenager about 19 years old. There’s a young girl, who’s Hector Peterson’s sister, screaming, running alongside. It’s a very iconic photograph. Only at the end of that museum—it’s a very powerful museum about apartheid and how it operated in Soweto and how it led to the Soweto rising—and only at the end, the last section, is there actually a small exhibit about the killing of Hector Peterson, even though the whole museum is named for him. I remember staring at that photograph and remembering not just photographs but actual incidents in the Palestinian territories, particularly in the First Intifada, where kids were shot.
The one that stuck in my mind was one that I saw directly. In 1988 I was working in the Occupied Territories doing a book, a photo book, on the First Intifada. My partner, Neil Cassidy, who I was working with, was shot in Nablus—the first foreign journalist to be shot in the Intifada. At the time it was a very big deal, now it’s sort of a dime a dozen when foreign journalists get shot.
While he was in the hospital in Nablus, he was in the operating room, and I was with a Palestinian colleague, another journalist, and we were sitting with Neil’s cameras just outside the operating room. The operating theater. There’s two operating rooms…there’s a little anteroom between them. Running up the stairs suddenly comes this man carrying a little boy, exactly the same as that famous picture of Hector Peterson. They rushed him into the other operating room, and we grabbed Neil’s cameras and rushed in after him, having no idea how to use these very fancy photographer’s cameras. We’re, like, take a picture, move something, take a picture, move something else. We used up all the film in both cameras, not having any clue whether any of them would come out, not knowing how to focus—and shaking. One of the operating room technicians came up behind me and pulled a gown over my head. The boy died later that afternoon.
For me, seeing that in Soweto and remembering all of that, it was a very powerful image. Obviously one I have a hard time with. Because for a long time I didn’t think it was particularly useful using the analogies around apartheid. Somewhat the same reasons I don’t use holocaust analogies—it inevitably gets you into the debate: Is that really the right analogy? And even if it is, is that the debate you want to have, rather than how bad things are? No. But on apartheid, over this last year I’ve decided that it does make sense, because it does resonate in a way that’s very different.
We assume, many of us of a certain age, many of us assume that the anti-apartheid movement in a sense had it easy, that everybody knew apartheid was terrible, so it was much easier. On one level it’s true; say, from the mid ’80s on, it was much easier, everyone by then did understand it. But apartheid had begun in 1948, and people didn’t understand it that way just by themselves. It took years of work by the ANC all around the world to get to that point.
We’ve been doing that kind of work around Palestine and we’ve made some gains. And it seems to me that, it’s for that reason that I’ve supported that in the US campaign against the Israeli occupation, for example, the big national coalition that now has 221 organizations. At our national conference just last month, that was one of the decisions, that this language and framework around apartheid should begin to shape how we do this work.
BJ: You just used the word “gains.”
PB: It’s small and incremental. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but I think there’s been changes that I can see since the time of the First Intifada. There were significant gains, then retreats. We see small gains.
The First Intifada was very much cast a David and Goliath thing, with Israel cast as Goliath—for the first time. And the imagery of the children of the stones, these children with their slingshots against these armed Israeli soldiers, was a very powerful set of images. Now it didn’t go very far but it transformed the notion of the Palestinians as nothing but terrorists to the idea that Palestinians were also victims. That’s only a small, incremental step, but it’s a step.
We lost some of that, with the anomie, if you will, during the Oslo period, and particularly the Second Intifada, where you now had armed Palestinian factions, not children and not really mobilized civil society, challenging the Israelis. The imaging was different. And you had horrific suicide bombings and Israelis being killed. It was a terrible situation.
There was that retreat. I think now what we are seeing is a more grounded change. I credit it in part of the work we’ve done in the US campaign in one way. The work of the campaign depends on what every organization within it does, so, yes, we have some big national organizations—the Methodist Church, the Presbyterians, the AFSC and others. And then we have lots of little community organizations of 10 people who do a protest once a month at the local post office because that’s the closest thing they have to a federal building. And everything in between.
US policy, obligation and responsibility
I think the one thing that we did collectively was manage the shift in focus from a focus on Israeli policy and how bad it is, on every latest atrocity, to a focus on US policy and what US obligation and US responsibility is. I think that has led to a different kind of political discourse, a different kind of protest, different kinds of letters to the editor, different kinds of op-eds being written. People are starting to talk about it in terms of US responsibility for the occupation. That’s what we can change. We might not be able to change Israel, but we can change what our government does. At least we can try. That, I think, has made significant difference.
It was a small thing but we had our first identifiable victory as the US campaign. There was a terrible immigration bill. It had a sort of sidebar, that no one noticed practically, that was a huge set of attacks on Palestinians. That included shutting down the Washington office of the PLO and a couple of other things. Anyone who was affiliated with the PLO would be barred from the US. It was a huge problem. It was one of those things that somebody had stuck it in while it was in committee and there wasn’t even like a big AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] campaign around it. It was just there; somebody had put it in, and it was going to be passed because the bill was going to be passed. And the bill was terrible. It was a hugely dangerous anti-immigrant bill.
We heard about it just by chance, about two days before the vote, and mobilized through the US campaign—we do a little bit of advocacy, not a lot of that, but some of that—and through that campaign we managed to take that language out. It was a huge victory.
It was obviously muted by the fact that this terrible bill did pass, but that had never happened before. It was an emboldening moment, if you will: realizing that things were possible, recognizing that the Congress is the center of the greatest pro-Israeli assumptions of any part of the US government, but it’s no longer impregnable.
BJ: There is almost an inviolability about Israel as far as the US Congress is concerned.
PB: That’s been a historical reality. It goes to the question of what is the power of the pro-Israeli lobbies. If we put aside the newer Christian Zionist organizations, the far right Christian fundamentalists, who are a relatively new phenomenon—the last six, eight years they’ve become more powerful, and they are far more influential in the White House than they are in Congress. Some among Republicans in Congress, but not as much. The traditional pro-Israeli lobbies are largely Jewish, primarily centered by organizations like AIPAC and the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Those two are probably the centerpiece of the lobbying coordinated efforts. They traditionally have operated around Congress.
They do a number of things. Perhaps the most dangerous thing is they have worked to stifle debate by demonizing the debate. Even discussing aid to Israel is something that can lead to someone being accused of anti-Semitism. Beyond that, by coordinating fundraising, they have managed to threaten members of Congress who come from districts where there are not large Jewish communities, where the issue of Israel is not an issue for the constituents, simply by threatening to do what they did to Cynthia McKinney and Eric Hilliard, two African-American members of Congress from the South, both with strong support from their own constituencies, but who faced re-election, who were known for taking positions that were slightly critical at times of Israel, and were faced with opponents who suddenly got massive out-of-state funding, largely, not entirely, but largely coordinated through the pro-Israeli lobbies. They beat them, on the basis of just huge amounts of money that had never been a factor in those races, one in Alabama and the other in Georgia.
That leads to people being very, very frightened. Even the accusation of anti-Semitism, it’s one of the worst epithets one can face in the United States, with good reason. So even being threatened, or being afraid that you might be called an anti-Semite, is a risk nobody wants to take.
That lobby provides money and votes in a way that opposing lobbies can’t. So the idea of, you know—a pro-Palestinian lobby doesn’t have that kind of money and those votes.
But more to the point, the lobby’s power is bound up with that fact that it is going in the same trajectory as US policy. This is the key thing. There has always been a pro-Israeli lobby in the US. That was true even before there was an Israel. The early Zionist movements had lobbyists to urge support for the creation of the state of Israel. But they never had the kind of power that they do now, until after 1967, when the “special relationship” began between the US and Israel. If you step back, you can see this idea that the lobby is so powerful has everything to do with the fact that what they’re pushing for is what the US wants to do anyway. They very rarely disagree; when they do it’s about a matter of degree, not the overall direction. When there’s a specific fight, the lobby doesn’t win. When there’s a specific fight, the policymakers win.
In 1981, for example, the Pentagon wants to send AWAC planes—those very advanced surveillance planes—to Saudi Arabia. It’s the Reagan years, they have good ties with the Arab regimes. They announce they’re going to sell these AWAC planes to Saudi Arabia and Israel goes crazy and the Israeli lobby goes crazy. “You can’t do this, it’s going to jeopardize Israeli interests, etc.” The fight rages—it’s a very intense public battle. At the end of the day, they sent the AWACs, they sent the planes. Because the strategic interests of the United States were fundamental.
The lobby is very powerful. One of the things that happened after the Cold War, is the strategic value of Israel begins to diminish. So in relative terms, the influence of the lobby becomes stronger. I was always one who said the lobby was weaker than the strategic interests. They both are important, they both work together. But the lobby was less important than the strategic interests. As the importance of Israel strategically diminishes—it’s no longer the cat’s paw of US imperial interests in the Cold War—it comes down. If the lobby’s power remains the same, it becomes equal or even greater. Over those years since 1967, the lobby didn’t only parrot what the US strategists wanted to do. They also were busy raising money and becoming an indispensable part of the structures of government in Washington. So you have the issues of money, you have the issues of voter turnout—that’s only in a few places, but they can be important: Florida, New York, couple of others. You have the creation of WINEP, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which was created by AIPAC to be a pro-Israeli think tank. They do some amazing work, and they bring Arabs and others from the region to speak. They are probably the most influential, more so than say the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. JINSA is not quite so influential, it’s a little more extremist. WINEP is very mainstream.
There is a revolving door between the State Department and AIPAC, the State Department and WINEP, so that becomes an important part of the lobby’s role with government.
Being a target
BJ: Have AIPAC or any of its subsidiaries ever come after you?
PB: No, I’m on the hit lists of some of the more extremist, disgusting groups. JDL [Jewish Defense League] came after me out in LA. They had come after me in ’82, after Sabra and Shatila. We had a big demonstration against Begin, who was coming to LA, and I was quoted as being an organizer of the demonstration. They shot into my house. But it was one of these things that was very hard to take seriously—they shot in with little .22 shots. It was just to scare people. I wasn’t home, it was the night before the demonstration and I was out at a meeting. I came back the next day and they had come back again and turned over all the plants on the porch and left a note. It was actually sort of funny, because when the police came the next day when I filed a police report, it was a rookie. I was living in what was then a fairly rough neighborhood, it was mostly Central American but they had brought in a bunch of Cuban refugees from the Mariel boatlift who had raised the crime rate quite a bit. So this cop said, “Didn’t any of your neighbors hear anything?” And I said, “In this neighborhood? You have to have an AK-47 before anyone pays attention.”
So I didn’t pay much attention, but some years later, I guess about five years ago, the same organization placed a bomb that luckily was caught before it exploded at a mosque in Los Angeles, a relatively new mosque that was right across the street from the nursing home where my father was in the months before he died. I took that very personally.
It’s chilling. I was talking to a colleague of mine recently who teaches at Hofstra. She’s in political science or history, I forget which. She said that they had been hiring that year, they were going to be hiring a new political scientist or historian or whatever it was, and they wanted a Middle East specialist. Every one of the people on their short list said their only condition for the job was that they would not teach Israel-Palestine until they had tenure, because they did not want to risk the inevitable heat.
Israel and the Iraq War
BJ: Could you speak about the relation between what’s going on in Israel and other US policies? Some say that the Israel problem, until that’s solved, the Middle East will not be solved.
PB: I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that the US invaded Iraq because of Israel, or because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I don’t think that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda attacked the US in 2001 because of Israel-Palestine. I think there is a huge amount of opportunism in those claims. Osama bin Laden had been very clear in his singular campaign, which was to change the government of Saudi Arabia. To do that he had to get the infidels out of Saudi Arabia, meaning the US backing for that regime. That was his goal. Only after 9/11, when there was such uproar in the world, they realized they were getting no support for that line. People in the Middle East, and other Arabs and other Muslims, were not all that worried about the regime in Saudi Arabia. It just didn’t have the cachet as a popular issue.
I think for that reason he put out a whole new level of propaganda that said this is about Iraqi children under sanctions and Palestinian children under Israeli occupation. All of a sudden he’s worried about Iraqi children. It had been in there, but as a sideline, it wasn’t central. I think he picked it for the same reason George Bush picked “Iraq has nuclear weapons,” because he thought that was going to be the most powerful way of getting support for going to war against Iraq. I don’t buy that either.
I do buy it on the level of why there were so many people around the world who thought that what Al Qaeda did on September 11 wasn’t such a bad idea. That I think is the key connection.
Making America safer
If we talk about what is going to make America safer, if we take that macro view—not talk about what will make the world safer, but just about what will make American safer—getting the US out of the business of supporting the occupation of Arab lands, by its own soldiers in Iraq and by Israel in Palestine, would be the single biggest thing that would begin the process of minimizing the antagonism toward the US, which is grounded in very real US policies. The US invasion of Iraq had its own trajectory, its own origins that had to do with oil, that had to do with the expansion of US power, that had to do with the strategy of PNAC, as we had spoken about in the beginning, that had never been possible before and suddenly was possible now. So the invasion and occupation of Iraq was involved with all of that.
There are specific links. You know, the US went to Israel after the attacks in Jenin in April 2002 and said, “You know how to occupy an Arab country, we want you to train our soldiers.” The US certainly doesn’t need Israel’s help in how to occupy another country. We’ve got a long history of that; we don’t need anybody’s help. But there are national particularities, cultural particularities, religious particularities, that they realized they could learn from the Israelis in specific areas. How do you do interrogations using the specific vulnerabilities of interrogating Muslims? What are the issues of sexual humiliation, using women to interrogate? You maneuver all those things. But there are also the strategic links between the strategy posed in the PNAC paper and the strategy in “Making a Clean Break.” They are both aimed at achieving domination, regionally or globally. There a huge amount of overlap between them.
At the end of the day, even if the US pulled out of Iraq and did not attack Iran, if it continued to support the Israeli occupation of Palestine, what’s true is, there will not be peace in the region and the US will continue to be vulnerable to those who hate those policies. That’s an awful lot of people. Ending support for the Israeli occupation and changing our policies so that they would support equal rights for all within the region would go an enormous distance toward ending the hatred that exists toward the United States.
BJ: Any chance of that happening?
PB: I have to think there’s some chance of it some time. I don’t see it in the immediate future. But I have to believe it’s going to happen some time, because no empire exists forever. Everything changes. All we can do is help it to change and hope we’re still around to see it.
Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel P. Capen Professor of American Culture at UB. His new book, The Story Is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories, will be published in March by Temple University Press.
Originally published by Artvoice. Copyright 2006