The movement that dare not speak its name in Israel
Vocal opposition to the Gaza war faces overwhelming public support and almost universal scorn for attempts to make peace
Gideon Levy doesn’t want to meet in a coffee bar in Tel Aviv. He is fed up with being hassled in public and spat at, with people not willing to share the table next to him in restaurants. And now he is fed up with the constant presence of his bodyguards, not least because they too have started giving him a hard time about his political views. So he doesn’t go out much any more and we sit in the calm of his living room, a few hundred yards from the Yitzhak Rabin Centre. Rabin’s assassination by a rightwing Orthodox Jew in 1995 is itself a sobering reminder of the personal cost of peacemaking in Israel.
In his column in Haaretz, Levy has long since banged the drum for greater Israeli empathy towards the suffering of the Palestinians. He is a well known commentator on the left, and one of the few prepared to stick his head above the parapet. Consequently, he is no stranger to opposition from the right. But this time it is different. Yariv Levin, coalition chairman of the Likud-Beytenu faction in the Knesset, recently called for him to be put on trial for treason – a crime which, during wartime, is punishable by death.
“It is time we stop regarding despicable phenomena like this with tolerance,” Levin said of Levy. Soon after that interview Eldad Yaniv, a former political adviser to ex-prime minister Ehud Barack, wrote on his Facebook page: “The late Gideon Levy. Get used to it.”
Levy’s unpardonable crime is vocal opposition to the war and to the bombing of Gaza. According to recent polls support for the military operation in Gaza among the Jewish Israeli public stands somewhere between 87% (Channel 10 News) and 95% (Israel Democracy Institute). Even those who are secretly against the war are cautious about voicing their opinion openly.
Thus public opinion went ballistic when Levy attacked those who were bombing Gaza by inverting the well known Hebrew phrase “Hatovim La tayyis” – which means: the best ones go to the air force – by writing “Haraim La tayyis“: the worst ones go to the air force. Even in a time of peace this would be seen as a provocative statement, a heresy against what Levy sees as Israel’s real religion: military security. But in its current mood, this is not the sort of thing that you can easily say out loud.
Even Peace Now, the backbone of the Israeli peace movement, has been remarkably guarded, carefully avoiding official participation in public demonstrations. Peace Now was founded in 1978 by former members of the military who came out strongly in favour of peace with Egypt. It helped mobilise 10% of the Israeli public – some 400,000 people – to turn out against the 1982 war in Lebanon. But this time it is a shadow of its former self.
“What is different this time is the anti-democratic spirit. Zero tolerance of any kind of criticism, opposition to any kind of sympathy with the Palestinians,” says Levy. “You shouldn’t be surprised that the 95% [are in favour of the war], you should be surprised at the 5%. This is almost a miracle. The media has an enormous role. Given the decades of demonisation of the Palestinians, the incitement and hatred, don’t be surprised the Israeli people are where they are.”
“So what’s the point of a peace movement if it refuses to condemn a war like this?” I ask Mossi Raz, former general secretary of Peace Now. Some people have demonstrated, he assures me; 6,000 came out on the streets the Saturday before last (and were taunted as “dirty Israelis” by the rightwing counter demonstration). And in the circumstances, 6,000 feels like quite an achievement. But he admits that the mainstream protest movements and parties of the left all fall pretty silent when the sirens start to wail.
“People tend to demonstrate only after the war is over,” Raz explains. And he expects the same to happen again this time. During the early part of the 1982 war, before the large turnouts, polls gave military action 86% support. But during a time of war, opposition is seen as disloyalty, as siding with the enemy. People will protest at the government but not the military. I raise an eyebrow about the idea of only protesting against a war when it is over. He nods with a certain exasperation and asks me, as a joke: “So, shall we go out now and protest the Falklands war?”
Amos Oz, Israel’s great literary conscience, explains to me that the peace movement was dealt a harsh blow eight years ago when Ariel Sharon pulled the army and the settlers out of Gaza only for the situation to get worse. “Since then there have been 10,000 rockets fired from the Gaza strip.” Middle-of-the-road Israelis have lost faith in the idea that you could swap land for peace. For him, the current military operation is “excessive but justified” and he is scornful of the high-minded European reaction. “That’s the problem with Europeans. They launch a petition and then go and sleep and feel good about themselves,” something he explains with reference to European history. I feel he is having a go at me. And I know he is laid up in bed with a bad knee. So I don’t rise to the bait.
He continues: “The history of warfare in the 20th century has made Europeans see things in black and white, like a Hollywood movie, with good guys and bad guys. But it’s more complicated than that.” Yes, he condemns the Netanyahu government and the catalogue of inaction and missed opportunities. Yes, the operation in Gaza has been disproportionate. “From one perspective it looks like a David and Goliath story, with Israel being the ruthless Goliath and the Palestinians being the poor little David. But if you see the conflict as between Israel and the whole of the rest of the Arab world, who then is David and who is Goliath?”
I attempt to shift Oz off this well-trodden ground by talking about Israeli poetry, trying to come at things sideways. I tell him I have always loved that Yehuda Amichai poem “From the place where we are right, flowers will not grow in the spring.” He agrees. It’s a wonderful poem. “All married couples should have that poem above their bed,” he says. And then he says something that feels to me like a real shift in his position. Previously he has described the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a Sophoclean tragedy over land in which both sides have a claim to right on their side; as a battle, as he put it of “right versus right”. But now, he says, this is a battle of “wrong versus wrong”. No one is in the right any more. It is a very statesmanlike form of opposition. But it is hardly emphatic.
“Amos Oz is not yet in a position to admit entire Israeli guilt,” Levy explains. “He is a real man of peace but he grew up in a different generation, the generation before me. He grew up in this weak state, struggling to survive, created out of nothing. This is his background.”
This sort of self-critical vigilance is rare but understandable given the sort of reporting that goes on in themainstream media in Israel. Most newspapers and TV channels are simply cheerleaders for the government line, offering a constant diet of fear and fallen heroes, with little evidence of any of the atrocities going on in Gaza. The problem is, ordinary Israelis have little idea what has been going on. I know so much more about what is happening in Gaza when I’m sitting in London than I do in Tel Aviv. Under this level of information manipulation, how can ordinary Israelis be expected to be critical?
Later I gather for a drink at a friend’s flat in Tel Aviv with a group of late 20s/early 30s, broadly leftwing activists, NGO types that I was expecting would share my exasperation. And I make a mistake, assuming too much common ground. I ask whether their fear of rockets is properly calibrated to reality, given that people are so much more likely to die in a car accident in Israel than at the hands of Hamas. And there is an awkward reaction. The question was insensitive. They have loved ones in uniform in Gaza. And I really do understand that. But suddenly I feel like an outsider. I haven’t appreciated that this threat is existential, they say. “People leave their liberalism at the green line [the 1967 border],” Levy had warned me earlier. “The young people are the worst. More ignorant. More brainwashed. They have never met a Palestinian in their lives”.
That is emphatically not true of this group. But even here, the mood for social justice does not seem to connect poverty in Israel with the vast financial cost of occupation, let alone allowing empathy with the Palestinian predicament. If I’m not with them I’m against them. I am made to feel a little like an apologist for Hamas. A thought dawns in my head: perhaps I too ought to shut up and keep the evening sweet. Of all the things seen on my trip, this was the most depressing conversation of them all.
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