“I can’t imagine so many people coming to see me in Tel Aviv,” Gideon Levy quips with a wry smile. Jewish Book Week is hosting a controversial interview session (some had threatened to boycott it) with one of the most hated men in Israel, one of the relatively few ‘nice Jewish boys’ gone bad, representative of an “anti-Zionism [that] has become stupid and evil” according to Irit Linur, an Israeli author. Described as a modern-day prophet by Noam Chomsky, Levy has reported from inside the Occupied Territories for nearly three decades, with the aim of “rehumanising the Palestinians”. Despite all the opprobrium his reporting has generated, including having been labelled “one of the propagandists for Hamas” by Ben Dror Yemini, editor of Maariv, he still considers himself an Israeli patriot.
He sits down, unperturbed, next to interviewer Johann Hari, gazing out at the 200 or so expectant faces in the crowd. It doesn’t take long for him to get down to business: “What does friendship mean? What does friendship to Israel mean? What does caring about Israel mean?” I’m foolishly wondering whether this is yet another sermon from an Arab-bashing rabbi. But it’s not. The so-called ‘pals’ of Israel are actually leaving their buddy in the lurch, encouraging their nation on its arrow-straight journey to perdition. Can’t someone discard the fraudulent guise and be honest for once?
“If one of your family members, God forbid, is a drug addict,” Levy slips into his favourite analogy, “you’ve got two options”. You either finance that habit, well aware of the consequences it entails in the long-run, or you pack them off to rehab. Real friendship is about withstanding the tirade of disgruntlement that accompanies the latter choice; after all, it’s for their own good. Israel is Occupation-addicted – it’s down to us to wean it off the drug, the time bomb that threatens to self-destruct at any moment. But it seems as though the old adage rings truer than ever: the truth hurts.
The Israeli government is a slick operator, Levy claims, one whose “very, very efficient machinery of brainwashing tells only a Zionist narrative.” It sounds more like something from Orwell’s wildest totalitarian nightmares than the mechanism of a democratic state in the twenty-first century: “The whole society is recruited to this project”. His first eye-opener took place at an ordinary checkpoint for Palestinians; stacked with garbage and bereft of sanitation or electricity, there was “nothing that reminded me that human beings were crossing there”. The Israeli soldiers need this assurance to quell the natural moral doubts that arise – they aren’t confronting humans here, so what on earth is the problem? Degrading the Palestinians allows Israelis the sickening comfort of feeling good about themselves whilst inflicting terrible suffering.
“We in the West can’t imagine,” he goes on, his eyes flickering with an all-too-familiar pain, “they have nothing, only desperation”. Recalling the last of his vignettes from Palestinian life, as Hari terms them, “really makes me shiver”. Najawa Khalif, a young teacher at the Indira Gandhi kindergarten, was blown to smithereens by an Israeli shell; by the time Levy arrived on the scene, the children were sat in a classroom drawing. Having witnessed horrors beyond our imagination, they sketched the hunks of her prostrate body, a blood-smattered corpse. It raises the question, Levy asserts with a genuine fear, “what will become of these children? What hope do these children have?”
Levy claims that it is a problem that should trouble each and every Jew. The solution requires a marked shift in perception, and he probes for an answer. Once, he asked Ehud Barak (an Israeli politician), what would have happened if he had been born Palestinian: “I would have joined a terror organisation,” came the candid reply. The Jewish people, Levy continues, “are so concentrated on our beliefs, on our world” that we don’t stop to realise that others are human too. Tentatively, he posits a theory: “there’s something in us, if you scratch a little bit, that really believes we are the chosen people.” This conviction blinds us into seeing the degradation of a people as a necessary evil.
Perhaps this explains why Levy’s work has engendered such uproar in the ‘Holy Land’. “The Israelis would think it not so lucky,” he chuckles, discussing the occasion he survived being caught in the crosshairs of his fellow countrymen. Soldiers opened fire on his (fortunately) bulletproof vehicle as he entered the Occupied Territories; the event was remarkable only for the fact that it was so commonplace. “The problem was not that they shot but that they did it as though they were just lighting a cigarette”. And this from an army Israelis would classify as amongst the most moral the world has to offer.
The shooting escapade sums up Israel’s illogic: “Israel feels like they have the right to do whatever they want”. Tzipi Livni’s recent disparaging of the power of international law affirms the sense that “we know better than all the others”; the result is a fatal disconnect with reality. At the heart of it is a myopic certainty that the Occupation will last forever. It has worked until now but, he says ominously, “one day, it will explode in our faces”.
And the disregard for international disapproval doesn’t stop there. A malfunctioning self-defence mechanism deflects justified criticism into the path of hubris. “In Israel, the words ‘international law’ are equivalent to anti-Semitism,” and an uncomfortably knowing laugh responds to Levy’s mocking. “There’s this belief that anyone who criticises us is anti-Semitic – the world is against us so we don’t have any responsibilities.” This moral posture begs for reconsideration; it’s a stance that doesn’t normalise relations between Jews and the rest of the world, but only further isolates and antagonises. “Is it only the world’s fault?” we must ask alongside Levy, “maybe it’s something we did wrong.”
Levy maintains that the injustice should have ceased in 1948, when Israel erased 416 Palestinian villages from the map. “The minimum would have been to acknowledge it, to admit it”, but the state of Israel is not about an entire people rescuing itself from the clutches of the Holocaust anymore; it has performed that role. To be a progressive democracy, Israel now needs to stop acting like a pitiless jailor. “Above all, living in Gaza is like living in a prison”, as Egypt and Israel leave their enemy languishing in solitary confinement. In his own village of Sheikh Munis, Palestinians aren’t even allowed the basic right to commemorate their dead in the cemetery established in the aftermath of the War of Independence – it is a damning indictment of a polarised state.
In a continuation of his catechism, Levy challenges the segregation that is endemic to Israel. “Do we live in a society where there are two kinds of citizen? Do we live in a society where the punishment for the same crime depends on which group you belong to? Do we live in a society where there are separate roads and laws for those two groups? Who can deny it?” The ugly, Apartheid-esque vision imbues the very fibres of Israeli society; no wonder there is a forceful riposte. “If Gaza does not land Qassams [rockets], who cares about their struggle?”
Levy’s hopes for the only long-term solution – peace – to materialise have been dimmed by the continual delaying tactics on the Israeli side of the process. If someone steals your car, he expands, “the thief is the last person in a position to start giving conditions”. This distinction is vital to grasp: “there is the occupier and there is the one who is occupied”. It seems that Israel must drop its irrational commitment to beliefs that are, incidentally, against its interests in order for any progress to be made.
“Hamas is not my cup of tea,” Levy admits, “but why can we negotiate about Gilad Shalit [a kidnapped Israeli soldier] for years on end and not about the fate of an entire people?” He’s afraid that by the time people sit up and listen to him, it will be too late: “the two-state solution is becoming yesterday’s solution”. The more settlements the Israelis build, the more they stall the peace process, the less likely a peaceful resolution is to be forthcoming. The uprisings of the Arab world provide an opportunity for Israel “to be accepted by the people, and not just by the corrupt regimes of these countries,” but only if they can seize it. Time is of the essence: “we are in injury time for a two-state solution.”
What is most admirable about Gideon Levy is that he has managed to break out of the fog of obfuscation and denial that plagues so many of us. The Palestinians are a real people, with real strife; they are living, breathing, feeling human beings. As the session draws to a close, Levy reminds the audience of his shame: “I would like to be proud of being an Israeli, which I’m not”. His eyes betray his helplessness; he is alone, desperately trying to turn back a tide that has long been in motion. A drop in the ocean may not be a torrent, but it’s still a hope. As I leave the auditorium, I’m left with a nagging thought in the back of my mind: who’s the real patriot here?