Jewish peace movement missing in action

Forlorn anti-war activists in Israel get little help from Toronto Jews, who quickly fall in line with the Barak government

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Television viewers in Canada would not know it, and the local Jewish community pretends it’s not so, but not everyone in Israel has lined up behind Ehud Barak’s national emergency.

From one end of Israel to the other, peace activists are desperately trying to counteract the hysteria unleashed by a new government coalition that now includes Ariel Sharon, who’s considered responsible for the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.

In one of Jerusalem’s main squares, there’s a sit-in every day protesting Israeli army killings of Palestinians.

Jews and Arabs in Jaffa, Meggido Junction and Barkai Junction have built peace tents. Near Beit Zarzir in northern Israel, Palestinian and Jewish families had a peace picnic.

There was a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv, and last Sunday’s Ha’aretz newspaper carried an ad from Palestinian and Jewish “prominent persons” pledging to work for peace and equal rights.

And all the while, the human rights watchdog B’Tselem has been busy documenting the excessive use of force by the Israeli security force.

But while this anti-war percolation is ignored by the press here and diligently undervalued by T.O.’s Jewish community, it has its own problems in Israel, where the normally outspoken media have become little more than the propaganda arm of the government, offering an endless array of rock-throwing Palestinians but nary a peep about Israeli peaceniks dead set against their nation’s occupation of disputed territories.

While this collection of progressive-minded groups and individuals has yet to mobilize massive sections of the Israeli populace, it is doing its best to defuse the escalating tensions.

“We have daily demonstrations against the war, including a very big demo here on Saturday — demonstrations that are totally ignored by Israeli media,” says Uri Avnery, a former member of the paramilitary Zionist Irgun and now a veteran activist in the peace group Gush Shalom.

“People don’t really know what the fighting is about, except that the nasty Arafat wants to kill all the Jews. This is what they read in the papers,” Avnery says from Tel Aviv. On the current truce, Avnery is pessimistic. “It is a very abstract call for a ceasefire without any basis that would satisfy the Palestinians and induce the young people to stop fighting.” Why, he asks, would Arafat stop the violence if “the whole Palestinian people are convinced that without it they will never achieve anything at all?”

While activists aren’t expecting the country’s right-wing Orthodox Jews to rally around ending the occupation, they are disappointed that there hasn’t been a greater reaction within the Israeli left.

As Jeff Halper of the Israeli Working Group Against an Emerging Apartheid in the Occupied Territory notes, “The problem with most of the peace movements and so-called “progressive’ movements within Israel is that they still don’t move out of the framework of Zionism and occupation.”

Perhaps the most critical issue, he remarks, is the right of return of refugees — that is, the demand that Palestinians should have the right to return to their houses and land lost in 1948.

“To me, that is always a litmus test of how supportive Israeli progressive movements are of the Palestinian cause. Unless you are willing to recognize Palestinian rights in their totality — which includes such things as the return of refugees — it only goes so far,” says Halper, who also coordinates the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

For her part, Neta Golan — part of a sit-in outside the office of Prime Minister Ehud Barak — sees waking up the Israeli left as one of the main tasks at hand.

“The left has no idea how much the Palestinian people are suffering,” she complains, “because they don’t have real contact with Palestinian people living inside the Occupied Territories, and these things aren’t in the Israeli media. The regular Israeli left, as embodied by organizations like Shalom Ahshav (Peace Now) and the Meretz party, has been misinformed in the past and are continuing to be misinformed.

“I’ve pretty much lost hope in them,” she confesses, “but we’re still going to give them a chance. I used to take groups of Israelis to the West Bank as a tour, showing them refugee camps, and give them information about their lack of control of the water resources, the house demolitions. I tried to wrap it nicely, but I would say very clearly while they were there that there is no peace process.”

Her pleas to her fellow activists on the left usually went nowhere, however. “People didn’t want to hear it, they didn’t want to believe it. They said, “Be patient.’

“They can be patient, because their lives are very cushy. They have time, until the Israeli public is “ripe’ for peace. Unfortunately, the Israeli public is not ripe for peace, and now what is happening on both sides is that everyone is going toward the right.”

Another group, called Yesh Gvul (which translates as “There is a border, there is a limit”), has been formed to support Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. One such recruit, Noam Kuzbar, is sitting in military prison for his non-participation.

His father, Ron Kuzbar, tells NOW he doesn’t believe the temporary truce will have any effect on his son, whom he visited last week.

“I don’t see that this (agreement reached Tuesday) changes the situation significantly,” notes Kuzbar, who teaches English language and literature at the University of Haifa. “If it quiets things a little bit, that’s fine, but this phase of the uprising has some raison d’etre behind it, and that is that the process was stuck and that there is no way to finalize it. It’s like giving aspirin to a sick person. It may cool off the fever, but that’s it.”

The Israeli government has still not yet fully grasped the extent of Palestinian dissatisfaction with the peace process, says Halper. “Israel’s assumption until now was that it could beat the Palestinians, that its presence on the West Bank was overwhelming, with its settlements,” he says. “Now that’s all thrown up in the air.”

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