18/03/2014 This content is not up to date

Interview with Miko Peled

Interview with Miko Peled, well-known Israeli peace activist, during his Prague visit. The Institute of International Relations held a public lecture with a subsequent discussion with him on: "Beyond Zionism, Hope for Freedom & Democracy in Palestine/Israel". The interview was led by Kristyna Tamchynova.

When you come to your lectures you are introduced as a karate teacher, a peace activist, a writer and a member of a partly Zionist family. Is there anything else which defines you? What would you like to say about yourself when you enter the stage?

I don’t know, that’s pretty much it. That’s what defines what I bring to the table, I suppose.

You also talk about your journey. About discovering Palestine and the Palestinians. Do you think the journey is now finished?

No, I didn’t finish the journey. The journey is continuing. It’s becoming even more fascinating. I will give you two examples:

The first is about when I tried to go to Gaza. Now, as an Israeli I can’t go through Israel. It’s against the law. So I tried to go to Egypt several times and the Egyptians denied me entry. I don’t know why. So finally, last year, exactly last January, a friend of mine organized for me to go in through a tunnel, illegally, I suppose. The journey was a very interesting journey, because if I go from Jerusalem to Gaza, it’s normally an hour and twenty minutes’ drive. It’s very easy. But the journey through the tunnel took me 14 hours. I had to go from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, fly from Tel Aviv to the South, cross into Egypt, drive to the Sinai, go to Rafah and then go under the ground to end up exactly 1h and 20 minutes from where I left that morning. As I was sitting there, I was thinking, because I wanted to call my family, “I’m 1 hour and 20 minutes away from where I left this morning, and it has been 14 hours. Is this insane? I mean, can anybody explain this? Can anyone justify this?” And when you do something like this, it’s not that I didn’t know, but you realize the intensity of how absurd this is. Travelling in Sinai is not very nice. The roads, and especially in the North, it is kind of lawless. Also there are people walking around with guns. There’s no law in the northern part of Sinai, so it’s not very pleasant. Then going to Gaza, you are in Palestine, and Palestine is a very nice and peaceful place, although it’s very sad, because so many people lost their loved ones. Almost every family lost two, three, five, eight or even fourteen members in the Israeli attacks. There are problems with the lack of medicines. There is no water fit for drinking, although Gaza has an aquifer. Or it had an aquifer but it has all been drained. Everything is so destroyed and they cannot rebuild it because the Israelis won’t allow it. But people have this energy, this vitality. They work, they study, they have institutions for democracy and institutions for this and for that, and they translate books by Israelis. They are so productive. There are even five or maybe even more universities in Gaza. You get this sense of what a positive place it is and how they are being punished just because of who they are. That was one chapter in the journey that was very interesting.

Another one is more cultural. I was in Jerusalem in the summer, during the Palestinian holiday of Ramadan. It’s a month when you are fasting in the day, and in the night people eat and go out and party. It’s very nice. I was meeting somebody in the old city of Jerusalem, and they didn’t come. I was stuck there. There is the Damascus Gate. It’s a beautiful gate and there is a very large plaza nearby. It was 9 at night, and I could see they were preparing for some big event, with lights and microphones. There were millions of people, families and children all celebrating in the evening, and the decorations... it was beautiful. They started singing and dancing and there was band after band after band of drummers and dancers and singers. Everybody was dancing and eating. There was this sense of a festival. And I thought to myself: I grew up here and I never knew this happened. Such a beautiful occasion, so much festivity, so much happiness, like a family festival. Israelis don’t know anything about the Palestinians. When you see something like this you appreciate the society, and you appreciate their culture, appreciate how nice it is. Israelis don’t know about this. For them it’s still dangerous to go there because of so many Arabs being there. That was another step in this journey: first of all appreciating this country that I was born in, and these people who are our neighbors, but also appreciating how much Israelis don’t know and how much they need to learn if something is going to change.

You speak about a one state solution, about a single state for all, and about democratic rights for all, for both Israelis and Palestinians, and you speak about the fact that the Israelis don’t know Palestinian culture. Don’t you think that first there must be some enlightenment about the culture, some meeting of the two groups together, before this can take place?

That is a good idea, but that is not how it happens. It doesn’t happen that way. It happens the opposite way. People who have a privileged status don’t volunteer to learn about the other. Racism comes with arrogance, which is why racists always fall. They always lose in the end because they are so arrogant. They don’t look at the other, because the other has no culture. The other has nothing. This is the problem with the Israelis. It is the same thing if you read about the society in South Africa. They knew nothing about the Africans, even though they had African maids that worked for them and raised their children. They knew nothing about their customs, their language, their fears, their anything... or about their religion. This is the same thing. So you can’t wait for it to happen, because this is not the way it happens. It happens the other way round. Once these privileged societies fall, and they are forced to live in peace and with democracy and share the rights with everybody else, then they realize, then they start to learn.

In your book, you describe how you met your Palestinian friend in America and your two families were together and your children were playing together without knowing they should be enemies. Is this the way to make some projects for the children? I remember hearing about an American project. America wanted Egypt to make peace with Israel, so they made summer camps for both Egyptian and Israeli children in America. They brought them from their home environments to the summer camps to make them cooperate together. Do you think that projects like this can happen and help in this situation?

They do happen. There are projects like this, very small projects, where they bring kids from here and there to America or to Europe and they go to camps. It’s all very nice, but there is a little bit of a problem with that. I mean it’s a good idea, it’s very nice, and some of them are actually very good programs, but many of these programs end up being bad for the Palestinians. This is because it creates the impression that there is equality. It creates the impression that there is normality here. It is a fact that is called normalization, because afterwards, when they come back, the Palestinians go back to their occupations and to being the oppressed, and the Israeli go back to their privileged life and eventually go into the army. So when I hear about projects like this I always ask the organizers if they had been doing this for a long time, and I also ask them, ”How many Israelis do you know out of those who took part in your program that refused to serve in the army?” Because this is the real measure that lets you know if you succeeded. Because if you spent weeks or months or the summer with other people, how can you then become a soldier and go back and be their oppressor as a soldier? If an Israeli doesn’t refuse to serve after going to a camp like that, then something is wrong. Some of these programs are very good and they do bring the Israelis and Palestinians together, but some just create this feeling that everything is OK. Here we can go to programs together, we can go to Europe together, we can eat together, and we can be happy together. OK, but now we go home and now what? Where is the change? Where’s the next step? And the next step is often missing.

But you were in the army and you took the training. Don’t you think that there may be a change in the sense that they will become soldiers but their attitude will be different? That they will go for the training but they will not torture and humiliate people? That they will only do what normal soldiers are supposed to do - protect their country?

Well, normal soldiers don’t protect their country. Normal soldiers torture and humiliate people. The idea that normal soldiers protect their country is kind of idealistic. It doesn’t ever happen. They usually protect the regime at the expenses of people. When you are a soldier you are one little thing in an ocean. It is not enough to be the one soldier who doesn’t humiliate. You should be the one person that refuses to be there to begin with. It’s like the stories of soldiers - and I am not comparing them, but this is an example - in the concentration camps. In one camp some old lady was working and a soldier gave her a chair. So he was a very nice Nazi soldier, but he was still in the camp. It’s not enough to be a nice soldier. You have to refuse to participate. You have to oppose the regime, so I don’t think it’s good enough.

In you lectures, you keep talking about sides, taking the good or the bad side. Isn’t this a rhetorical perpetuation of the conflict? Maybe we should focus on the unification. Maybe we should change the rhetoric first when addressing the issue.

Well, let me ask you a question: I am against racism. What do you think?

Me too.

OK, see what I mean? There’s no room for understanding, for debate. You are either against racism or you are for racism, right? And you have to make it very clear, because this is the issue. On issues like racism you have to take sides, because there are sides. You can pretend that there are no sides all day long but there are sides. You either support a racist regime or you oppose a racist regime. You can’t say: “Well, you know, maybe they are nice; maybe they will change their mind.” That is not how it works. If you have a racist regime you have to oppose it or you accept it, but you cannot be in the middle. So, in a way, debates like this are very strange, because it’s like you are inviting someone who supports racism and pretending that that person is equal to someone who is fighting racism. Is that acceptable? Can you imagine inviting people from both sides to a debate in the past, especially in Europe? “OK, here is a Nazi and here is an anti-Nazi, now let’s talk.” I know this is a tough comparison. I am not saying that Israelis are Nazis, but I think it’s important to make it very vivid, very clear. You can’t be nice about this.

And you are very vivid about that during your lectures, so what reactions do you experience here in the Czech Republic from the people who are coming to your lectures, and who are open to this topic? Because especially lately there was an issue with the Palestinian embassy, and it was very strangely presented in the media. So I was wondering if any of it impacted on the reactions of the people towards your presentation.

The people I met and the people who came to the presentation were very nice and welcoming. But I hear this in almost every country I go to - in Canada, Europe, the US - where people tell me that the situation is very bad on this issue because the government is very pro-Israel and the president or prime minister wants to be super, super Jewish and super super loving towards Netanyahu. Then when I go to lectures, you know this is a very small room, but sometimes there are bigger rooms. They are full of people who come to listen, and then I go to university campuses and I see hundreds of students supporting the Palestinian cause. And I go to churches and I see hundreds of people who came to listen to my anti-Zionist perspective. So I think there is a disconnect both here in Europe and in America between politicians and the people. Because I hear this everywhere: “Oh politicians are so pro-Israel!” I was in Vienna, and it’s the same thing, and in the UK, it’s the same thing in many places. Yet people come to hear, talk about and support this. So I think there is a change but it’s a gradual change. So eventually it will come up and politicians will have to change as well, but of course they will be the last to change.