Arts & Culture

An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel

In the fall of 1982, I found myself in a large, mainstream, Conservative shul in Philadelphia for the High Holidays. This was not in and of itself particularly strange. I grew up in Philadelphia and spent a lot of time … Read More

By / November 3, 2008

In the fall of 1982, I found myself in a large, mainstream, Conservative shul in Philadelphia for the High Holidays. This was not in and of itself particularly strange. I grew up in Philadelphia and spent a lot of time in shuls there. But what was notable about this particular holiday was its proximity to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the opportunity the board or the rabbi, or someone in power at that particular shul, took to share with the congregation their ideas of what that invasion meant. On every single chair in the sanctuary was a copy of a New Republic article, the gist of which was that the Lebanese themselves were grateful that the Israelis had invaded them and saved them from the nasty PLO. (This sounds pretty familiar these days too, yes?)

I was 21 years old. I had been suspicious of Jewish American positions on Israel for years, having spent a chunk of time in Israel already and formed my own opinions about what was going on over there. But the blatant jingoism and outright audacity of this article changed my life. While I honestly do not remember what it was like to believe that the Israeli position on Middle East politics was the only position worthy of attention, I do remember like it was this morning’s coffee when that belief changed: it was in shul on that Rosh Hashanah 5743. Happy New Year to me, indeed.

Jeff Halper is the founder and mainstay of ICAHD – The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions – and an anthropologist by training. He is a fairly well-known leftist in Israel, a Minnesotan who immigrated in the early 1970s. Halper identifies himself as an Israeli first and foremost, though he also recently requested and received Palestinian citizenship. All of this is to say that Halper positions himself as entirely secular (and Israeli), and not religious (and Jewish). This distinction will be increasingly important to his book – which he subtitles Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel – as it tries to be both an anthropological and historical exposé as well as a blueprint for a possible solution to the Israeli/Palestinian issue. His approach, at least initially, is that of an educator and one has to admire his optimism when he states “When I began my career as an educator almost 40 years ago, I shared the simple, commonsensical and optimistic assumption of my fellow educators that people, when given sufficient information, will learn.”

The presumption that by reading massive amounts of material we will come to see his position is one of the great weaknesses of Halper’s book. For instance, the entire middle section of An Israeli in Palestine is taken up with a review of the last decade’s worth of material on the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. By all means, should you need a refresher course, or should you not have read Ilan Pappe, Benny Morris, Michael Oren, Tom Segev, Achad Ha’Am, Tanya Reinhardt, or Gershom Gorenberg (among many many others), read the middle 200 pages of Halper’s book and you’ll know almost as much as those of us who have read them. The information is encyclopaedic and clearly explicated.

As an educator, it is difficult not to be deeply sympathetic to Halper’s position. And, in fact, people generally do learn when given the opportunity. Where Halper trips himself up is in his naïve hope that people will learn what he thinks they should be learning.

I do not wish to downplay the value of this observation. In and of itself, it is not a new observation, but it is definitely an important thing to note: Jewish statehood can be and often is a large part of the problem. But despite his encyclopaedic overview of the last 60 years of Israeli history, I am not convinced by Halper’s arguments that this is the root. Not least because it would also mean that there is no real solution to the conflict except a one-state solution.

For Halper, Israel is more like Bosnia than it is like France. An interesting political statement since it is also true that Israel is much more like its regional neighbours in this regard than it is like a European nation. And at this juncture, the truly serious difficulties with his book come to the fore. If, perhaps, he had taken his analysis of the situation from this point and related it to the Middle East, rather than Europe, he might have had more traction for his positions. Most of the nation-states in the Middle East are religio-ethnocracies. The main difference between Israel and its Arab neighbours are the ways in which religion is and is not written into their various constitutions.

Halper’s intention appears to be to force upon his readers the epiphany he writes about in his introduction, which he distills to a single question at the close of his first chapter: “Why in the hell did they demolish this family’s home?” It’s a refrain that returns again and again, and is the seed of much of the information in the book that is fresh to this reader: that it is next to impossible to get a building permit in the Occupied Territories, even to build on one’s own land, and how that frustration can lead to building a home without the required permit in order to have a roof over one’s head and therefore how unrelated to actual security it is to demolish the majority of the homes that are demolished. How politically motivated the various “outposts” and “settlements” in the Occupied Territories are, and how semantically subtle pronouncements from the various government officials on the various attempts at peace are (an outpost is legal; a settlement is not). And finally, how completely detached the Israeli populace has become from the issue at hand as a result. To return to his naïve earlier statement about “if you give people information, they’ll learn from it,” Halper seems to believe that if everyone had an epiphany such as his, they would all learn as he did that what the Israeli government is doing must change. “What pushed me beyond Zionism into a much more critical but contested and prickly political space was the demolition of Salim’s house. If, as the popular saying has it, a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, then a post-Zionist is a Zionist who has witnessed a housing demolition.”

I’m not sure that’s the case. There are a number of other things to learn from witnessing a housing demolition. This is simply what Halper learned. Rachel Corrie learned something else, and the soldier on the bulldozer, extensively quoted by Halper? He learned something entirely different from even that.

And so I return to my own epiphany of Rosh Hashanah 1982/5743 as I sat in the main sanctuary and read The New Republic article so generously left for me: I learned something that day that I expect most of the other 2000 or so people in the room did not – we had the same article in front of us, but what we learned was different. Halper’s book both wants to teach us that housing demolitions are part of the root of the problem in Israel – they may well be – and he wants to universalize his experience so that we’ll reach the same conclusions he has. But like my own experience, I suspect that won’t be the case for the majority of his readers unless they came into the book predisposed to accept a one-state solution. If an ethnocracy “cannot make peace”, as Halper so starkly claims and the majority cannot be “lead to the trough” of his teaching/learning, we are once again stuck at an impasse. Halper’s “solutions”, ICAHD’s various “reframings” notwithstanding, if we cannot get past the issue of Jewish statehood, he’s wrong: there is no solution through an anthropological model.

And I promise you all that my very generous and kind and thoughtful uncle, who got me that high holiday ticket all those years ago, believes to this day that Lebanon was grateful for that invasion.

People do learn, they just don’t always learn what we want them to.


[I am extremely grateful for the careful and considered reading of this article given to me by Joe Lockard.]