Last June, I traveled around Israel. I am a Jew and initially I had not wanted to go. During the Intifada, I had felt pained by the difficulty of reconciling my peace activism with my Jewish heritage. I need to feel that these are complementary. So I went to Israel to seek like-minded people. I'm glad I went. And this is not an apology.
I cannot justify Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or its repressiveness throughout the Intifada. However, we hear too little about the positive actions of both Jews and Arabs. While a visit of four weeks does not make me an authority, I can share the hope that I recovered in Israel.
Right away, I met Jay Rothman, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Jay is an American peace activist who moved to Israel years ago and who understood my pain. But he handed me a book he had edited: a directory of organizations working to improve Arab-Jewish relations. It is long, describing the work of each group and suggesting how North Americans can help. (A Guide to Arab-Jewish Peacemaking Organizations in Israel can be obtained from the New Israel Fund in Toronto.)
At a kibbutz on the Mediterranean I met a doctor who had fought in five wars for Israel. "But now," he said, "Israel is a ruler and the country is at a turning point. In five years my son will be eighteen. I am not sure I want him to wear a uniform." Neither left nor right wing, this man just was eager to talk - like everybody else. While I stayed at his kibbutz, 100,000 Israelis demonstrated against the occupation in a march organized by "Peace Now." On the same day, June 3, the Chinese troops crushed the demonstration in Tiananmen Square, and the world did not hear about the march in Israel.
Later I met Yehoshua Zamir, who came to Israel from the United States before 1948 and now is an activist with "Peace Now." As a young socialist he had helped found a kibbutz. He is a zionist, "but only under certain conditions." Unwilling to qualify the love of peace, justice, compassion, and democracy that is central to his Judaism, Yehoshua is energetic and passionate. But he brings to his activism a sad experience. His youngest son, Yaron, was killed on the first night of the Lebanese invasion.
Six soldiers were killed that night, and all their families have become active in the Israeli peace movement, outspokenly blaming the Israeli government for murdering their sons. These six families have compiled their stories in a book, a moving personal treatise against war, which became an Israeli best-seller. Yehoshua has also published a book of poems his son had written. There are pictures of Yaron and, on the last page, three lines from one of his notebooks:
To remember the past
To live in the present
To trust the future.
Yaron was 21 when he died - my age now. I would have liked him.
I spent a weekend with a group of American students from the Progressive Zionist Caucus. They are idealists who continue working for the dream. Most of them were studying at the Hebrew University and conducting independent research - on the role of women in Israeli politics; the role of women in the Intifada; and the construction of an independent economic infrastructure in the occupied territories. They took me to the Palestinian Centre for the Study of Non-Violence in East Jerusalem, where one of them is a volunteer. Some of them will come to live in Israel. They are not happy with the direction of Israeli politics, but they want to play a part in building a progressive state.
One Sabbath evening in Jerusalem I spent with Sidra, a professor of literature at the Hebrew University. She is a founding member of "Women in Black," a peace group with chapters in cities across Israel. The women wear mourning dress and hold silent candlelight vigils against the occupation. They have been harassed and arrested, but the movement seems to be growing.
In Tel Aviv, I spent a day with a group of Arab and Jewish young people from two organizations. Their chapters in cities across Israel bring young Arabs and Jews together in Arab villages and kibbutzim, where they work on many of the same activities as youth groups in Canada. They face a formidable challenge. It is hard to get Jews and Arabs even to talk to one another.
Israel is moving to the right. The left in Israel is now a minority and feels pessimistic. Still, the peace movement is strong; together with the international community, their pressure for ending the occupation can succeed. In North America, such groups as the New Israel Fund, Friends of Peace Now, New Jewish Agenda, Jews for a Just Peace, and progressive Jewish synagogues and magazines call for peace. We can still hope that the peace-making tradition of Judaism will not forsake us in the land of Israel.
SAGE activist Seth Klein now studies at the University of Toronto and works with PEACE. For the English translations of the poems of Yaron Zamir, contact him through PEACE.