This interview first appeared at iBrattleboro.com
A visit to the occupied territories of Palestine can change one’s perspectives forever. Such was the case of Anna Baltzer. Baltzer is a Jewish-American granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. In 2002, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach English in Ankara, Turkey and soon after volunteered with the International Women’s Peace Service in the West Bank. There she was exposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. She documented human rights abuses for the IWPS, returned to Palestine/Israel over the years, and published her experiences in a book called “A Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories.”
Baltzer is a leading human rights activist on the Mideast and travels across the country to raise awareness about the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Her appearance on “The Daily Show” with Palestinian human rights activist Mustafa Barghouti was instrumental in raising awareness about life under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I caught up with Baltzer and we discussed several topics including her “The Daily Show” appearance; occupation myths; Israeli apartheid and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign; and the Mideast peace talks in Washington, DC.
Tell me about your experience on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Getting on mainstream television shows and talking about Palestine is incredibly difficult. What made that episode a reality and did your appearance on The Daily Show indicate that the mainstream media is beginning to explore the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine?
Someone with a contact at the show found my DVD transformative and sent in a press release for Mustafa Barghouti and me to be on. Barghouti was accepted immediately, and eventually they invited me too because I am Jewish and they thought therefore I would be a moderating influence. I don’t believe it was their intention to have a Jewish Palestinian rights activist on and much of what I said of substance was cut out of the aired version, but they put the full version online and it went viral. I do believe that Stewart is sympathetic to the cause. I don’t think it indicates a substantial shift in mainstream media trends, but given that I don’t watch much mainstream media, I could be wrong! There seems to me a bit more openness than before to criticize Israel, thanks in part to Israeli atrocities that are growing too difficult to ignore.
How much of an impact did the atrocities of Operation Cast Lead and the Mavi Marmara flotilla have in opening people’s eyes to the Israeli occupation of Palestine?
The impact has been huge. The “Israel is innocent and virtuous” narrative is no longer sustainable given these types of crimes, so in its place has been a propaganda campaign to convey how “complex” the issue is. “Yes,” the narrative goes, “Israel sometimes does bad things, but it’s just a cycle of violence and it’s very complicated. We are working on it and you mustn’t pressure us.” This in some ways is more insidious than the previous narrative because it gives the illusion of balance where there is none and removes Israel’s responsibility as the occupier.
Calling it “complex” is a way of obscuring the reality and avoiding responsibility. Jewish emotions surrounding Zionism are complicated; the task of both sides healing in the future from years of conflict is complicated; but the injustice of Palestinians being oppressed and denied their fundamental human rights simply because of their ethnicity and religion is not complicated. The propaganda campaign is not working. Americans are increasingly open to the idea that Israel may not be the righteous, peace-seeking country they thought it was. When I tell people I’m a Palestinian human rights advocate, they express more interest and less alarm than they used to. The shift was already happening before 2008 but has accelerated exponentially since Operation Cast Lead and the Freedom Flotilla attacks. Israeli society is well aware of this shift, and there is a lot of internal discussion and hysteria about the way the Flotilla attacks reflected badly on Israel.
People think that Israelis don’t care about the way the world perceives them, but that’s not true. They care about the legitimacy of their country, their academia, their science, their economy, and their culture. This is why the Palestinian-led movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) on Israel is so powerful. It’s their weak spot–the kind of pressure that works, in contrast to the historic futility of vapid diplomatic efforts. By the way, there is little internal Israeli discussion within about the legitimacy of the attacks on the flotilla. The morality of the killings of nine Turks is not questioned. The discussion is tactical–how much can they get away with and shouldn’t they have known better? Apparently their calculus is off because they seem to make one atrocious PR blunder over another, always at the Palestinians’ (and occasionally their supporters’) expense.
You have been traveling to Israel-Palestine for years now. Based on your experience and observations, what are the biggest myths about the occupation? What are the myths and what have you learned?
There are too many myths to name, but many fall into a few categories:
Myth 1: “This is an age-old conflict based on religion and mutual hatred.” This is a conflict about land and human rights, not about religion. Prior to the Zionist movement, Jews were better treated in the Arab world than they were in much of the Christian West. There is nothing inherently incompatible about Jews, Muslims, and Christians, but with the introduction of the Zionist movement seeking to–and eventually succeeding to–annex Palestine for European Jews and one segment of the indigenous population while excluding and discriminating against the other segments of the population, you saw the emergence of violence. Israel was created and is maintained at the expense of Muslims and Christians in the area, who are denied their land and their human rights simply because they are not Jewish. This ongoing discriminatory system perpetuates the conflict today and until it is addressed we can expect no just or enduring peace.
Myth 2: “The occupation may be ugly, but it’s for security” (note the switch from the previous narrative that “there is no occupation”).
The majority of the institutions of Israel’s occupation simply cannot be justified by security. Israel pays its citizens to move from Israel to the West Bank to live amidst the so-called “enemy”–does that make them safer? Israel has never declared its own borders, rather it expands them onto more and more of someone else’s land–does that make Israel safer? Israel denies Palestinians sufficient water from their own water sources–Does that make Israelis safer? Although the narrative of “security” as motivation is accepted without question in mainstream media, it simply doesn’t make sense when you look at the situation on the ground. Cutting Palestinians off from their families, schools, hospitals, and livelihoods will never make Israelis safer. If Israel is serious about ending Palestinian violence, it must acknowledge the roots of that violence.
Myth 3: “Israel has no partner for peace.” On the contrary, Palestinians have no partner for peace. No Israeli offer has ever come close to fulfilling Palestinian human rights. Camp David II in 2000, often referred to as former prime minister Ehud Barak’s “Generous Offer,” would have annexed 10% of the West Bank into Israel, including some of most fertile and water rich areas, home to 80,000 Palestinians. The 10% was spread around the West Bank, separating the “future Palestinian state” into a nonviable archipelago of isolated cantons, separating Palestinians from their land and each other. Finally, the proposal maintained Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem (and some control by Palestinians under that sovereignty) and ignored the human rights of the Palestinian refugees, who represent the vast majority of the Palestinian population.
Offers by Palestinians and the Arab world including significant compromises have been consistently rebuffed by Israel:
In the 1970s, the PLO endorsed a comprehensive peace plan with Israel in exchange for its full withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Israel rejected the offer.
In 2002, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, along with 21 other members of the Arab League, proposed not only peace but normal relations and regional integration with Israel in exchange for an end to the occupation and a “just solution” to the issue of refugees. Israel rejected the offer. The Arab Peace Initiative was reiterated in 2007 and again refused.
Hamas has repeatedly offered a 30-year ceasefire with Israel in exchange for an end to the occupation. Israel has dismissed this possibility and refused to talk to the elected Palestinian government on grounds that it refuses to renounce violence, recognize previous agreements, and recognize the existence of another people’s state in historic Palestine. Interestingly, Israel is guilty of all three of the very things for which it faults Hamas.
Myth 4: “An end to the 1967 occupation would be an end to the injustice.” This one is more prevalent in the peace and justice community. While an end to the occupation is a condition for peace, it is only one part of restoring Palestinian human rights. The rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel also need to be addressed. What does it mean to be a citizen of a state that does not represent you, and systematically discriminates against you? (Mossawa is a good source for information about discrimination of Palestinians inside the Green Line.)
Moreover, the vast majority of Palestinians are families of refugees from 1948, who were forced to leave their homes in order to create a Jewish majority in a land where most people were Christian and Muslim. Still today, I, as a Jewish American, could go and live on land that was stolen from Palestinians and is now reserved exclusively for Jews. Meanwhile, a Palestinian born on that same land is forbidden simply because of his or her ethnic and religious background. An end to the occupation and a return to the 1967 borders solves the immediate problem of many (but not all) of the 4 million Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it does not address the primary grievance of the vast majority of Palestinians, namely that they have been exiled from Palestine and can’t go back because they are not Jews. Their right to come home and live at peace with their neighbors is reaffirmed year after year in the United Nations; it is not debatable, it’s a right that belongs to all refugees, no matter what color their skin is.
The Israeli boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement has been growing on college campuses across the country. How much traction is this movement gaining in terms of pressuring the Israeli government and its policies?
A lot. The successes are too numerous to name, but the Interfaith Peace Initiative compiled a comprehensive list of global actions to date, filling 88 pages. The number of actions has doubled since the Flotilla attacks. They include divestment by universities, churches, unions, and governmental institutions. Musicians and sports teams have refused to play in Israel. The 2005 Palestinian-led call has been endorsed by some Israeli and Jewish groups, among hundreds of others. In five years, the BDS movement against Apartheid Israel has achieved more successes than the BDS movement against Apartheid South Africa had in its first twenty years of existence. The success of these campaigns is evidenced in the mass hysteria presented in Israeli newspapers. This is seen as a great threat to the status quo, which is the goal. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Privilege is given up only when it comes at a cost.
Many people today are referring to Israel as an apartheid state. Do you agree with this characterization and what evidence have you seen that indicates that apartheid exists in Israel?
The 1973 UN International Convention on Apartheid defines the crime of apartheid as any systematic oppression, segregation, and discrimination to maintain domination by one racial group—‘demographic group,’ in Israeli parlance—over another, as through denial of basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, education, movement, and nationality; torture or inhuman treatment; arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment; and “any measures designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos,… the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group… or to members thereof.”
The definition clearly cites crimes perpetrated by Israel both in the 1967 Occupied Territories—where the situation goes so much further that the Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself maintains that the occupation is worse than apartheid—and within the state of Israel itself. 1948 Palestinians (the descendants of the small number of Palestinians who remained in 1948 in what became Israel), aka “Palestinian citizens of Israel” (or “Israeli Arabs,” which many see as an offensive title that ignores their Palestinian national and historic identity), are subject to countless discriminatory laws that deny them many of the same human rights and freedoms as their counterparts in the 1967 Occupied Territories. Although Israel calls itself a “democracy,” it does not hide its determination to maintain its demographic domination of Jews over non-Jews. 1948 Palestinians are referred to as the “demographic bomb” in reference to their increasing percentage of the population due to reproduction and the emigration of many Jewish Israelis. Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman openly advocates the forced transfer of 1948 Palestinians out of Israel.
Although 1948 Palestinians are citizens of Israel, they are not “nationals,” because Israel is not the state of its citizens but rather the state of the Jewish people. Palestinians were denied the right to work in dozens of jobs reserved for Israelis who have served in the Army (from which Palestinians are excluded). Additionally, 93% of the land in Israel is managed by the Israeli Lands Administration, an extension of the Jewish National Fund, rendering it either very difficult or outright impossible for non-Jews to move to. Most of this land was taken from Palestinians in 1948.
These are just a few examples of apartheid within Israel. The most comprehensive compilation I’ve seen documenting these cases and many more is Jonathan Cook’s article, “The Unwanted Who Stayed,” published by Americans for Middle East Understanding.
There is a phenomenal booklet compiled by Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions-USA summarizing a legal study by the Human Sciences Research Center of South Africa. It’s called “Is Israel an Apartheid State?” and in 7.5 pages systematically goes through seemingly every one of Israel’s laws that discriminate against Palestinians in the 1967 Occupied Territories as fits the crime of Apartheid (it acknowledges its limitations of not having pursued the same exploration within Israel—yet). I read examples I’d never even known about. It’s very shocking and it’s a great organizing tool to draw parallels compelling communities that took the step of divesting from Apartheid South Africa to do the same against Apartheid Israel today.
Peace talks are taking place as we speak in Washington DC. What aspects of these negotiations are people not seeing in the media? What kinds of context and/or issues are getting buried from stenography reporting that we’re used to seeing?
One over-arching issue of years of failed US-brokered Middle East “peace-talks” is that the security and ethno-nationalist Jewish character of Israel is considered the first priority, and Palestinian human rights come second. The trouble is, Israel cannot exist as a state only of the Jewish people (as opposed to Israel being the state of the Jewish people and the indigenous population) without the denial of Palestinian rights (because the minute you give Palestinians the same rights as Jews, Israel stands to lose its Jewish majority). So when Prime Minister Netanyahu says “Both sides need to make significant compromises,” he is talking about compromising Palestinian human rights. He’s saying, “Look, you can have some human rights, but you will have to give up others.” But human rights are non-negotiable. They are not up for debate—this is very clear in international law. The basis for peace-talks must be human rights, equality, self-determination, and security for everyone involved.
Because Hamas has refused to pre-conditions that de facto already sign away certain Palestinian rights, Palestinians have been denied representation by their democratically-elected leaders. And while Netanyahu expects Palestinians to compromise their most fundamental rights, he has shown no willingness to compromise on even the most basic issue of freezing settlement construction. Palestinians have again been forced into a situation of compromising with nothing in return. This imbalance is no surprise; a prisoner negotiating with his prison guard cannot expect a fair outcome. Until we see a solution based on justice rather than the normalization of injustice, we will not see a lasting peace in Israel/Palestine.
Despite the on-going Israeli-Palestine conflict, what have you seen or experienced that is positive and does not get mentioned?
The Palestinian-led liberation movement growing on the ground is usually ignored by US mainstream media. Hundreds of Palestinians march every week in protest of Israeli atrocities, often joined by Israeli and international solidarity activists. I am very inspired by the resilience of Palestinians on the ground in the face of tremendous oppression. The BDS movement is also underreported, to put it mildly, but together with Palestinian resistance on the ground will forge, I believe, the path to justice. I am also consistently surprised by the willingness of Palestinians who advocate a democratic one-state solution to live alongside their oppressors once the injustice ends. The one-state solution is always presented as a great compromise for Israel, but it is an extraordinary compromise for Palestinians. It provides a genuine model for peaceful coexistence in the future, which gives me hope.
Is this your first time in Brattleboro or southern Vermont? What have you heard about Brattleboro or southern Vermont and what do you hope to do or see while you are hear?
Vermont is one of nine states I haven’t spoken in, and I’m excited to finally be going. I passed through it on a New England tour years ago and love the beauty of the area. Plus, the sheer number of emails I’ve received this week tells me that this is a hot topic! It should be an interesting event and I look forward to it.
All photos submitted by Anna Baltzer.