Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists

Reviewed by Jim Miles

(Beyond Tribal Loyalties – Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists. Ed. Avigail Abarbanel. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, UK, 2012.)

In her closing remarks Avigail Abarbanel discusses what the central theme of the various stories presented could be, arriving at the idea that it is about “emotional resilience.” Having just finished the book, as would be logical for reading the “Afterword” last, this at first struck me as inappropriate. On second consideration she is correct, all the writers demonstrated an emotional resilience that allowed them to work through the process of self-discovery that determined their involvement with peace activism in Palestine/Israel. The other side of emotional resilience, however, is going beyond tribal loyalties, escaping the comfort zones that one grows up with, discovering and exploring new territories and ideas that may confront one’s self image with contradictory hard reality. In that sense, the work is perfectly titled, as “Beyond Tribal Loyalties” expresses the movement of ideas and actions away from the various writers comfort zones of Judaism.

It also expresses the main theme as I had interpreted it while reading the work. There are many common ideas, and all are inter-related in one manner or another, but one of the more common phrases, used by many of the writers, is one containing the root word tribe or tribal. The tribe in this case are those brought up and living in mainstream Jewish thought, arguments, and traditions, where Israel and the Jews are constant victims and recognize no others, maintaining at the same time their exceptionalism with their place in history. That is putting it simplistically, but in each short personal memoir different strands of the idea stand out.

Tribalism is mentioned throughout the work:

“I realised then that Judaism was more about tribalism than a universal religion….my antipathy to injustice is now much stronger than any tribal loyalty inherited from my ethnic background….Jewish moral tradition…which was enhanced by the European enlightenment, was substituted with a tribal code based on loyalty and revenge.”

“This [incident] sheds light on the mechanisms for enforcement of tribal loyalty….where ethnic and tribal sentiments are involved, even exemplary intellectuals may lapse….The feeling of seeing an alien tribal ritual has stayed with me – an anthropological perspective on the customs of a culture to which I don’t belong.”

“I no longer need an identity other than my own, and I experience myself as a member of the human race rather than of a particular tribal group.”

“Said [author of “Orientalism“] dragged me through my tribal narcissism….I developed a world view and ethics that were universal rather than tribal or relativistic.”

“I immediately had to re-think my childhood…the tribal paranoia and martyrdom.”

These comments return to the editor’s theme of changing of thought patterns, of breaking out of familiar dogmatic ways of acting and thinking into a more fully self-actualized person. The results of this are twofold – a rejection or loss of the previous tribal group, and an acceptance and opening up to new ideas, opportunities, and friendships. However, for those that are labelled deviant, “Deviant behaviour may reflect a pathology of the society rather than of the individual.” Further for those that make a change, “To be well differentiated it is necessary to develop a sense of self that is separate from the collective identity of our primary work group.”

One writer noted that he had lived within a “limited identity” and until he “acknowledged the profound influence of this primal error, may participation in the generational reenactment of hatred and retribution, of chronic hostility, and mistrust, was destined to continue.” He then had to consider “the possibility that they didn’t become our enemies because of who we were; they became our enemies because of what we did.”

Jewish Progressive Humanism

Accompanying the tribal idea was the recognition that the tradition of progressive humanist Judaism was being lost by the actions of the Zionists and Jewish residents of Israel and the U.S. and other countries (for this work notably Australia, U.K, and Canada). Some writers arrived at this awareness slowly, some realized it as a sudden event brought about by some significant contradictory evidence of behaviour (what we did) – all through exposure to the plight of the Palestinians who for several “had no opinion about the Palestinians because I had never heard of them.” Or from their experiences with the IDF where the Palestinians “were invisible.” Much of that of course is part of the Israeli/Jewish culture, where schools “talked about Israel, but never mentioned Palestine or Palestinians.”

For one author, “the rich progressive humanist Jewish traditions which were so strong among Jews before the Nazi Holocaust…Has been replaced by fear, aggression, and harsh ethnocentricity – a shocking and ironic posthumous victory for Hitler.”

One referred to tikkun olam, repairing the world, and felt closer to their Jewish progressive traditions because of their activism. This was extended more by another author, who argued that simply doing a good deed was insufficient, that to be a radical activist involved “going to the root of the situation and repairing it so the world can be a better, more whole place.” For all the activists, their background in Jewish progressive humanism supported and reinforced their change towards their activities, and only highlighted the hypocrisy of a tribal code that spoke of universal values while denying them to others, “the deeper moral issue was identical [to apartheid]. It was the issue of inalienable human rights.”

Lies and Myths

One of the more important revelatory moments came when the activists became aware that they had been lied to and misled. The new truth becomes, “that authorities lie, conventional doctrines are often false, official power is used to suppress the truth and punish ‘deviants’.” The historian Ilan Pappe noted that the Israeli military archives “exposed the Israeli historiography to which I belonged, as having been developed by a fraudulent group of experts…I had a sense of betrayal.” Others, learning their history within their community learned “a version of history that I have now come to understand as a wild and vivid myth.”

In much milder terms, Anna Baltzer, says “I was the one who had been misled,” as she listed numerous incidents that challenged her orthodox ideas. She witnessed medical deaths due to lack of access to proper medical treatment, harassment of children and farmers by settlers, lack of clean water, trees and houses ripped apart by Caterpillar tractors, the destruction of Gaza, the lack of educational opportunities, and on, also witnessing ultimately one of the Palestinians’ characteristics, “steadfast.”

For Rich Forer, he came to acknowledge his “history of delusion and denial,” recognizing that when it came to Israel, he “had brushed aside challenging questions in favour of an irrational but emotionally satisfying appraisal.”

More basically stated, Rich Siegel says “I had been lied to all my life.”

The Future?

Many of the activists express thoughts indicating that Israel could not survive in its present form and had to change, that its colonial settler mythology and practices could not support the country into the future.

“Israel can only bring about its own destruction if it clings to its current path of colonial domination of the Palestinians.”

“Israel, like all colonial regimes who managed in the end to redeem themselves from their oppressive pasts, must traverse a long and painful trail from de-colonisation through reconciliation, to a new form of political life that is just and inclusive of all the country’s inhabitants, before it can expect security and normalization.”

Ilan Pappe again, says “that unless Israel is de-Zionised there is no chance for peace.” He adds, “There is little chance for change from within Israeli society.” The issue “of boycott and sanctions, seemed urgent to me as I still believe that the operation in 1948 which I coined “the ethnic cleansing of Palestine” continues today, and it has to be stopped to avert another catastrophe.”

Referring back to the Jewish humanist tradition Starhawk writes “I was raised to love justice, not tyranny – no matter who the tyrants profess to be. Without justice for the Palestinians, there can be no security or peace for Israelis.”

Much more…

Beyond Tribal Loyalties is much more than the ideas reviewed above. It is a powerful expression of humanity in search of itself, of recognizing the atrocities that are perpetrated against the Palestinians and against the fundamental humanitarian values of Judaism. The stories are deeply personal, emotional, simply written and represent a very valuable record of how the world could possibly be changed. This is a wonderful work of human emotional effort and physical presence to overcome layers of prejudice, lies, and mythology. It should receive wide spread attention as its message is one ultimately of hope, of awakening to a new broader global humanity, of a secure world existing in peace.

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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