THE MARK: Since the second intifada, fewer Israeli citizens have had the opportunity to interact with Palestinians living in the occupied territories, and to witness first hand how they live, as you do. How can the Israeli public come to understand the realities of Palestinian life under Israeli rule?
AMIRA HASS: It is not so rare for Israelis to see how impossible it is to live under foreign rule, and a ruthless rule. There are many Israelis, in fact, who do see: activists for Checkpoint Watch and Breaking the Silence, women activists who monitor the military courts, and the people who go every week to demonstrate against the occupation vis-à-vis the army at the security wall in several villages in the West Bank. There are many other people who can understand, as well – those who have never been in Gaza to see the reality directly, but who have imagined how impossible it is to live under this blockade.
Sure, this group is a minority, made up only of hundreds – or maybe some thousands – of Israelis, but I’m not [alone]; there are many who witness and oppose.
It’s one thing that I live and that I see, but this is not the only way to come to know how Palestinians are living under Israeli occupation. What we need from most Israelis is one second of imagination in which they see themselves living like Palestinians – just one second where they realize that this is not a life that they would want to live.
THE MARK: What is it going to take to make Israelis take that leap of imagination, and to make the necessary, dramatic changes come about?
HASS: A change would mean the recognition that this path is not sustainable – the path of taking over the land, concentrating the Palestinians in small enclaves, restricting their freedom of movement, not recognizing their equal rights for water in the country, and so on.
Any Jewish individual anywhere else in the world can become an Israeli citizen within a day or two. Stanley Fischer was never a citizen of Israel, but when they wanted him to become the governor of the Bank of Israel, he acquired Israeli citizenship within two days. Jews around the world have this right, even if they were never born in Israel. Yet Palestinians do not have the right – even if they were born in Israel – to return there as citizens or residents.
Those of us who oppose the occupation have tried many strategies to undo these attitudes: We’ve tried using reason, morality, ethics, and historical examples, all with the aim of saying to the average Israeli, “We have to stop this.” But the Israeli society and government have done nothing to end it.
So far, we have failed to bring any change from within. Maybe a change could come if the Palestinians were to change their strategy and tactics – I don’t know.
THE MARK: What role do you see the diaspora communities, such as the Jewish community in Canada, playing in the future?
If Israel continues to act like this, it endangers its own existence – not just as an empire, but as a Jewish community. However, even if the Jewish communities outside of Israel began to understand this, I don’t think it would be enough.
Western governments have a vested interest in Israeli policy, because it fits the current U.S. policies and interests in the region. Otherwise, the U.S. would have stopped this long ago.
Jewish communities need to pressure their governments to cease support for this path that Israel is on. It has to be a huge change – one that we don’t see happening now. The longer the current path continues, the more precarious it becomes, and, consequently, the shorter the existence of the Jewish community in Israel will be.
THE MARK: You spoke at the Luminato panel in Toronto on “rewriting the narrative of the Middle East” about the Holocaust and the Occupation being two sides of the same coin. Can you explain what you meant by that?
HASS: This is a historical reality that I am analyzing. The historiography of Israel is complicated – much more so than other colonial experiences. Zionism grew up in the time of colonialism. Zionism, indeed, thought about bringing Europeans to what they saw as unsettled land. When they saw that it was settled, they immediately minimized the people who lived there, and did not regard them as “a people” with wishes, and with rights. The indigenous people disappeared from any calculation. So, from that point of view, Zionism was colonialist.
But, at the same time, it was a reaction to the persecution of Jews in Europe in the 19th and early 20th century. It was one of the answers to this persecution, but it was not the answer that attracted the majority of European Jews. We know that, before the Holocaust, the majority of Jews sought other solutions to the abhorrent anti-Semitism: Many emigrated, and many fought for equality within socialist, liberal, or communist movements. It was the Holocaust that made Zionism the movement of the majority.
Many of the Holocaust survivors arrived in Israel because they couldn’t reach other countries. The absurdity is that the U.S., Australia, Canada, and all these other countries were not open for those refugees – they closed their doors. It is this important history that I’m always communicating to the Palestinians. I tell them, “You cannot recognize Israel only within the context of colonialist movements, thinking, and theories. It must also be acknowledged that Israel is a product of this European history, the rise of Nazism that targeted the Jews.” That’s why Israel cannot be dismantled like other colonial states. This is not Algeria, Kenya, or India, which is something the Palestinians have to realize.
Zionism is an anachronism of the colonialist movement, but it is also a product of this particular European history of Nazism, which cannot be seen only in terms of empathy or sorrow for the Palestinians. The Holocaust is a substantial occurrence in history – in the philosophy of humankind – and the Jews were the principal victims of it.
People say, “So why do the Palestinians have to suffer?” Of course, they do not. But when we examine history, the difference between Zionism in Palestine and the white entity in Canada is that in Canada, everyone is a settler. Are we going to ask all the white settlers to leave? Will we not ask them only because the settling and elimination of many indigenous groups in the Americas occurred 200 or 300 years ago? It is because Zionism is anachronistic that the Palestinians were not wiped out like they were in the Americas and elsewhere. This is one positive, looking forward – that there are still the Palestinian people.
THE MARK: Where does that leave Israel now?
HASS: We have to look to the future. The Holocaust gave Israeli Jews a credit to establish a colony, and to have rights and legitimacy in this land. But this credit is being lost – wasted by Israeli policies that don’t strive for a future that is fair for Palestinians.
Twenty years ago, the Palestinians recognized Israel’s legitimacy during the Oslo Accords. They recognized that the Israeli society is a vivid society, and they agreed to live with us in a compromise that was very unfair to them. They accepted the terms for the sake of the future, in order to end this misery. And Israel rejected the Palestinian readiness, which is why we are losing our credit.
THE MARK: You are currently here in Toronto, which is home to a rich and vibrant Jewish culture and a community that identifies very strongly and proudly with Israel. As an Israeli citizen who has dedicated her life to reporting on, and fighting against, the occupation, what is your message to those that feel so deeply that Israel is under threat and must be defended?
HASS: In a way, I am sorry for them. It’s a shocking departure, or deviation, from a very recent history of Jewishness. To be so blind to oppression and repression looks to me to be very contradictory to what it means to be Jewish. I have been raised, as a Jew, to know that wrongdoing is something that we Jews should come out against. So, when I see this blindness, it really makes me sorry.