Tonight’s lecture by Amira Hass was remarkable in that it wasn’t remarkable. The title, “Fear of the Future”, suggested a talk analyzing the current situation in a way that highlights the fear of change that motivates the actions of many powerful actors. This would have been an obvious, and yet pertinent analysis – all the current actors, PA included, benefit from or are sustained by the existing state of affairs, so why would they not be afraid of change – even a change that could improve the situation? We might look to the SDLP’s role in the Northern Irish peace process and notice that while the SDLP played an important role in establishing peace in Northern Ireland, the SDLP itself lost out as a result – with much of their former support shifting to Sinn Fein – the party who’s entry into mainstream politics they had facilitated.
But alas, this is not the talk that Hass gave. Instead she seemed to speak mostly to the “non-converted”, i.e. those who support Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. To the already converted, she claimed her talk would serve as a series of “tips” on how to convert the non-converted. As a result, her talk consisted mostly of talking about Israel’s policy of “closure” – the restriction of movement Israel subjects Palestinians too as they move around the West Bank, from the West Bank to Gaza, and around Israel. Basically the story is this: when the occupied territories were occupied, initially there was a military decree establishing Palestinian freedom of movement within and in and out of the territories. This was motivated by a kind of “reverse-Marxism” – the idea that if you allowed Palestinians to profit from Israeli occupation, they would forget their nationalist aspirations. In 1991, the military decree was rescinded and replaced with an opposite one: now Palestinian freedom of movement was to be defacto restricted, and only enabled as an exemption (privileged parts of society, or with permits). Significantly, when the PLO returned from Tunisia after the Oslo accords, the high ranking officials were not subject to searches and travel restrictions – and Hass suggests that this may be way the PA has never opposed the policy of closure (I think this is almost certainly false, but I don’t have evidence on hand to refute her).
In Hass’ view, Israel is a “democracy for Jews” and “apartheid” for non-Jews. She argues that the “democracy for Jews” part is actually very important – as a Jew she enjoys not only the right to vote in Israel, but other democratic rights like freedom of speech. To show how extreme her right to free speech is, she spoke about meeting with top IDF commanders, and basically calling them war criminals to their face – but nothing happened to her, things just go on as normal. This is very different from the situation in South Africa – where if whites spoke out agains the regime they could be imprisoned for 20 years. The moral conclusion to draw is that the duty for Israeli jews to be active against the occupation is much stronger – because they will not be subject to repression, they have no excuse not to speak and act out against the occupation and mistreatment of Palestinians. If they don’t, they are complicit like the judges in the military courts.
There were many questioned I wanted to ask during the Question and Answer period, but I elected to keep my mouth shut. I very much disliked the way she spoke almost not at all about any Palestinian groups working or fighting for their rights, and the way she only chose to validate cross-community activist groups when this really is not an option for Palestinians who never meet an Israeli who is not a soldier carrying out a raid on their camp. And, I was borderline offended when she dismissed the entire second intifada with a penis joke. However, I felt that the room was not terribly interested in the Palestinian political situation (although there were many questions about the Israeli Knesset), and the last thing the evening needed was a man dressed in a slightly military-esq green shirt and fateh keffiyeh arguing with the speaker about armed struggle. And besides, none of my questions were really “questions” in the sense that I’m asking for elaboration – they are questions in the philosophical sense – “here’s why I think you’re wrong, defend your position against this criticism”.
In general, Hass was better in the question period than during the lecture itself. This perhaps could be chalked up to her feeling uneasy about her audience (what do they want to hear about? what is their level of knowledge?), an issue less relevant when responding to questions.
The talk has motivated me to write the talk she should have given (“Palestine Israel: Fear of the Future”). Look for a short form of it in an upcoming blog post.