Reviewed by Hatim Kanaaneh
(Beyond Tribal Loyalties –Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activities. Avigail Abarbanel, Editor; Cambridge Scholars Publishing; 2012.)
Of late, the atmosphere in The Middle East has been murky; indeed murkier than usual. Violent weather systems and desert sandstorms have replaced the once promising Arab Spring. Forecasters predict hurricanes brewing out of control with more death and destruction for all of us. All around, sanity is ebbing fast. So it was no small matter for me to find a refreshing reservoir of lucidity in the midst of the mass mania. I chose to retreat from the raucous media incitement to this humble attempt at collective enlightenment initiated and overseen by my psychotherapist friend Avigail Abarbanel. The war mentality reigning all around us lent a sense of unreality to the straightforward 25 individual accounts of awakening to the lure of peace, justice and equality in Palestine/Israel. These together with a Foreword by the philosopher Sara Roy and an Introduction and Afterward by the editor, constitute this unique contribution to modern peace literature in the Middle East.
In her introduction, Abarbanel admits to having a hidden agenda. In recruiting the significant list of Jewish peace activists as contributors to her project, she outlined for them the task at hand: Each was to cover his or her background, the evolution of their views, what caused them to move in the direction they have chosen, and what price they have paid for their exceptional choices. She wanted to “know what is different or special about these activists that they are prepared to do this [peace activism] when the vast majority of Jews do not.” In the afterword she follows up on her set agenda delving into the contributed material with an ambitious plan to discover the magic factor that unites all of her fellow Jewish peace activists. She attempts to determine a single explanation, a shared turning point or a pivotal event common to all. As appropriate for a psychologist, she discovers the answer within the realm of the psychological makeup of the activists:
“I realized that there is in fact something that all the activists in this book have in common: they all have the capacity to tolerate difficult emotions. I call this ‘emotional resilience.’”
Then Abarbanel proceeds to expound the subtleties of such a psychological trait.
As I went through the book, I first jumped around enchanted by the pieces of the half dozen contributors I knew in person before attempting to read the book in an orderly fashion. By then I had set a private scheme of my own. I wanted to construct a model Jewish peace activist, the average character that would emerge from adding up all 25 contributions and selecting for common attributes that a clear majority if not all of them do have. I decided to fall back on my limited but good founding in mathematics and came out with the following average character, the representative Jewish career peace activist:
The figure that emerged is akin to the proverbial horse designed by a committee: She is usually a woman who grew up in a liberal Jewish family. Her parents were mostly of the PEP (Progressive Except on Palestine) variety with solid WIZO and JNF credentials, accepting and propounding their dominant communal mythology and undisputed gospel, both that of the Old Testament and of the Zionist doctrines with all the required founding ‘truths.’ These included the Promised Land being “a land without a people for a people without a land,” the Palestinians’ placid departure in 1948 despite their ill will and violent nature, and the benign and peaceful nature of the state of Israel. The family’s constricted constellation has a multitude of missing segments, often larger than the remaining ones, due to the atrocities of the Holocaust, facts that justify faithful solidarity with Israel as the homeland for all Jews in the face of the ever-present threat of genocide against them by the hateful Goyim and with the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) as the protector of all Jews.
So far the figure is hardly distinctive. She also follows the standard routine of most Jewish youth born and raised abroad of visiting Israel for a vacation, for study, for a summer camp or for a volunteer service experience. Then our woman goes on to higher education and is exposed to the wider world. Somewhere along the way she is exposed to a different point of view about the Israel-Palestine conflict: She meets Palestinians and is surprised to find that they are human, she reads a book by the likes of Edward Said or Avi Shlaim or is otherwise exposed to an alternative source of information with ‘subversive content.’ That blows the cover off of her former solid Hasbara world. The cognitive dissonance within her cries for resolution and she commits to finding the truth for herself. From there the descent into pro-Palestinian activism is inevitable leading even to espousing the right of Palestinians to speak for themselves and to following their lead in such campaigns as BDS. Punishment for such a sin is not long in coming in the form of exclusion from the tribal fold and the loss of former friendships.
It is worth repeating that the above is a composite character that lacks an exact fit to any of the 25 contributors. In fact it differs distinctly in several details from the editor herself, evidence, if such is needed, of the uniqueness and individuality of free spirits and revolutionaries. Yet the contributors sharing in this celebration of humanitarian activism seem not to break out of the narrow mold of their pre-enlightenment Zionist condition: They seem to share an unconscious tethering to Israel as the focus of their activism with little attention to other worthy indigenous causes even when the similarities to the Palestinian condition scream for attention. Tossed on many shores by the tsunami of the actualization of the Zionist colonial project, the indigenous Palestinians are acutely aware of the commonality of their cause. Many strive to join forces in their struggle to other disinherited indigenous groups. Thus, despite the presumed focus of the volume on Israel and Palestine, and Hazel Kahan’s casual mention (p. 231) of Australia’s Aborigine policies, I find it strange that none of the American, Canadian or Australian contributors addresses the issues of Native Americans and the Aboriginals in conjunction with the dispossession of the Palestinians. Peter Slezak (p 82) reflects on the subject of the “unreflexive, self-celebratory group affiliation” of the Jewish people at large and brings up the debate about Hanna Arendt’s exceptional deviation from such standard narrow focus. And Lesley Levy wonders (p. 87) “why I am spending so much time and energy on this issue when there are so many other desperate causes in the world.” She seems to conclude that the answer is to be found in her “yearning to cry out: ‘Not in my Name!’” Still, the narrow focus of attention of the entire group on Israel-Palestine to the disregard of the many valid associations one can make to other disinherited natives leaves a gaping hole in their mantle of humanitarian concern and bars them all from true sainthood.
Zochrot, the Israeli leftist peace movement, is currently organizing a unique event in a nearby pine forest and recreational park known to most Israelis as South Africa Forest located halfway between Nazareth and Tiberius. The plan is for a group of Jewish former JNF activists to meet in person with a group of Palestinians. What is unique about the JNF former supporters is that they are South African and that they had formerly contributed to planting and maintaining the forest and park named proudly after their country. The Palestinians are internal refugees from the destroyed village of Lubya on whose remains the forest stands and whose existence and heritage the forest is meant to hide. The repentant former contributors to the crime of ‘communicide’ will offer an apology to the refugees of Lubya for desecrating their village with the JNF camouflage and ask for forgiveness. This is an example of the required Truth-and-Reconciliation style process required for laying the foundation for a single secular and democratic state in Israel-Palestine. “Beyond Tribal Loyalties” is a preliminary step towards such a process.
– Hatim Kanaaneh, MD, MPH is the author of ‘A Doctor in Galilee: the Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel’, Pluto Press, 2008. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit his blog.