Gideon Levy in NYC: Israel is ‘the only occupier in history that’s completely convinced of its own present ongoing victimhood’

I was fortunate enough to see Gideon Levy speak on Tuesday at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. The discussion was organized to promote his new book, The Punishment of Gaza, which covers Israel’s policy and actions there from 2005 to 2009. While Levy told a number of tortured anecdotes about encounters with Palestinians, the talk was mostly about Israelis which I appreciated. I think Levy understood that many of us in the audience were aware of the situation in Gaza and Palestine more generally.

It was easy to recognize Levy before he entered the room. Like many in attendance, I’ve seen his picture in Ha’aretz countless times. He was dressed entirely in black which made me think of Eastern European intellectuals (I’m not sure why).

Mahmood Mamdani introduced Levy with a generous tribute before the acclaimed journalist took the podium. He began by speaking with some apologetic humor about his early career and onetime role as aide to Shimon Peres decades ago. A native-born Israeli, he described the myths and Zionist inculcation of his youth which included the standard hasbara that many of us are familiar with (the Palestinians fled, etc…).

Things began to change for him when he first ventured into the West Bank some thirty years ago – that’s when he began to humanize the Palestinians in spite of his society’s insistence on the Zionist narrative.

Levy talked about Israel’s rightward lurch over the decades. He recounted an experience around one of his published stories to clarify what he meant. Early on in his career, Levy wrote about the death of a newborn Palestinian after the infant’s mother was forced to trek around three checkpoints on foot to reach a hospital. The Israeli left was outraged and the case resulted in a scandal for the army. At the time, the story demonstrated a moral dimension to Israeli political life. Similarly, he pointed out that many thousand Israelis protested in the streets after it emerged that their army was responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

By contrast, he said, if that happened today, no one in Israel would register the fact. Just the opposite: Levy recalled the horrifying experience of watching Israelis and their children cheer the phosphorous and sulfur deaths of Gazans in 2008/2009 on a hilltop overlooking the Strip. This story and others like it underscored his deep pessimism throughout the talk.

The author poignantly reminded the audience that Israel has existed for forty-two years as an occupier and existed for only nineteen years before that. His point was that Israel is the occupation and the occupation is Israel and the two are impossible to separate.

Levy made wry jokes about his own unpopularity and the shallow penetration of his work in Israel. He’s been publically harassed on some occasions. And no one would attend a lecture by him in Israel, he said, so it was nice to see that there was an international audience at least. Despite that, Levy insisted that there has never been any official censorship of his work by either the state or Ha’aretz, although the fact that he was barred from visiting Gaza restricted him professionally. He expressed concern that even Jewish democracy (Levy made a point of explaining that he was only free to work as he did because he was Jewish) was under threat.

As I understood it, Levy’s take on the Israelis is that they’re completely tone deaf and insular without much hope of awakening to the misery they’ve wrought. He characterized them as the only occupier in history that’s completely convinced of its own present ongoing victimhood. How does one awaken those people to the absurdity of their self-righteousness? Levy didn’t pretend to know. He talked about his ongoing journey in search of answers.

The questions segment was probably the most illuminating portion of the talk. Members of the audience asked penetrating questions and Levy answered all of them directly.

One young man asked what Levy made of the Eden Abergil scandal. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think Levy scoffed when he heard the name. He explained that Israelis are quick to insist on their unassailable moral standards. To do that, they capitalize on laughably symbolic instances and protest loudly and publically at the violations perpetrated by weak targets. Eden Abergil was one such instance.

Levy reminded us of the fanfare that surrounded the indictment of a soldier who stole a Palestinian credit card during Operation Cast Lead. Likewise, a senior officer was relieved of duty for allowing his son to ride an ATV, but not for bombing Palestinian homes in Jenin. All of this is part of the mythology surrounding the “Most Moral Army in the World.”

A woman to my left asked Levy whether he was a Zionist. He started to respond by saying that the meaning of Zionism is ambiguous. But then he said that if it meant occupation then he was not a Zionist and even an anti-Zionist. I don’t think he was interested in parsing words, instead preferring to categorically reject racism and apartheid whatever they might be called.

I also got to ask a question. I wanted to know what Levy’s view of the Jewish right of return was in light of his being a native-born Israeli. His response was that he supported the right of Jewish people to move to Israel while at the same time affirming the Palestinian right of return. It wasn’t my favorite answer in the world, but I understand his sentiment.

One thing that struck me as strange was the total lack of opposition voices in the audience. There were Israelis sitting to my right, but they seemed supportive. When I was an undergraduate at a similar campus, an event like the Levy talk would have seen walk-outs, signs, aggressive questions and perhaps even a jeer or two. I won’t draw any conclusions from a single discussion in New York, but I’m hoping the experience was a portentous one.

Mahmood Mamdani closed the talk with a short note. He said that as an African, Israel evoked both Zimbabwe and South Africa. Zimbabwe represents what happens when the colonial race chooses to make a difficult transition to democracy, while South Africa represents just the opposite. But either way, the transition will be made. I was impressed by the comparison.

I left Levy’s talk feeling a little depressed. Here was an Israeli telling me that Israelis are more numb, isolated, and self-righteous than I could have imagined. Furthermore, they are utterly incapable of seeing the Palestinians as fellow humans after forty plus years of suffocating themselves in victimhood and race-supremacy. Levy is a model humanist, and his society has ostracized him.

But then it occurred to me that Levy’s story was a hopeful one. He was a typical Israeli – a product of a Zionist society – and he managed to push through and beyond it. While Levy is undoubtedly an extraordinary man, his journey is replicable and accessible to anyone willing to make it. This is someone who once worked as an aide to Shimon Peres, and one day ventured into the West Bank without a gun. That’s what did it. That’s what made the difference.

About Ahmed Moor

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a PD Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism and co-founder and CEO of liwwa.com. Twitter: @ahmedmoor
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 30 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. lysias says:

    Levy was on RT television yesterday evening.

  2. Chu says:

    Levy’s take on the Israelis is that they’re completely tone deaf and insular without much hope of awakening to the misery they’ve wrought.

    I understand Israelis being brainwashed about Zionist history, as they dwell within the system, but why in the hell do people like Homphi accept this?
    I suppose they only care about the tribe, but it would be nice to find out if there is something else besides extreme nepotism and general disdain for other people that have as much right (and more rights) to live on this land.

  3. Edward Q says:

    “…the only occupier in history that’s completely convinced of its own present ongoing victimhood.”

    I am not sure about this; don’t right wing/fascist movements tend to be obsessed with their victimization? Remember our own right wing’s complaint about the “war on Christmas”?

    • eljay says:

      >> … the only occupier in history that’s completely convinced of its own present ongoing victimhood.

      Israel is not alone – it has the U.S. to keep it company. ["Does anybody remember 9/11?" (with apologies to Led Zeppelin)]

      “Aggressor-victim”-hood is the cornerstone (or one of the cornerstones) of that “special relationship”.

    • lysias says:

      Nazi Germany and the Nazis constantly complained of their being encircled (Einkreisung) and of being a have-not nation.

  4. Antidote says:

    “I wanted to know what Levy’s view of the Jewish right of return was in light of his being a native-born Israeli. His response was that he supported the right of Jewish people to move to Israel while at the same time affirming the Palestinian right of return. It wasn’t my favorite answer in the world, but I understand his sentiment.”

    While I understand the sentiment, how realistic is this? Political analogies notwithstanding: Israel/Palestine is not South Africa, not even Zimbabwe. Much less land, much less water. How many people CAN leave there, in peace and with equal rights? Either Jewish immigration to Israel has to stop or be reduced, or Palestinians have to emigrate elsewhere and stay in exile, rather than return. You can’t have it both ways.

    Levy is right about Israelis having no sense of wrong-doing, which is so baffling for outsiders. As is the ‘Israeli story’ spread by hasbara-victims in the US. A recent example:

    link to cavalierdaily.com

    • Antidote says:

      should read “How many people can live there” of course. Freudian slip, inspired by Helen Thomas ;)

    • Keith says:

      ANTIDOTE- Good point! In his book, OVERCOMING ZIONISM, Joel Kovel indicates that Israel has significant ecological problems as a result of rapid population growth. Let’s put something in perspective. Levy supports the “right” of Jewish people to move to Israel. The reality, however, is that Zionism has always encouraged and subsidized Jewish immigration as a means achieving political dominance over the native Palestinians and as a defense against the “demographic threat” posed by the high Palestinian birthrate. This isn’t a case of individual Jewish longing to immigrate to Israel, rather, it is a case of a political decision by Zionists to engineer a Jewish population explosion! In many ways, Israel is an artificial country. Remove all of the subsidies and it might revert back to a more normal country.

      • Shmuel says:

        Israel has significant ecological problems as a result of rapid population growth.

        Mostly as a result of disastrous environmental policy, stemming from (in no particular order) a growth-based economy – consumer society, politically-motivated “development” and construction, corruption, western hubris, militarism, victimism, etc.

    • Avi says:

      Antidote,

      The land between the Jordan river to the east and the sea to the west can contain double if not triple the population it currently contains.

      BUT

      The problem remains the lack of water resources as you have correctly pointed out, and the mismanagement of those resources at the present time. The water could suffice had the settlers and the Israeli government that accommodates their them curtailed their abuse of natural resources.

      That is to say that having swimming pools and green lawns in every settlement is a foolish practice and a policy that’s doomed to fail. It’s not sustainable in an arid region like this.

  5. MHughes976 says:

    If Levy (who is not even an anti-Zionist) could not, according to his statement, draw an audience anywhere in Israel then the struggle for reconciliation is an uphill one indeed.

  6. yourstruly says:

    Regardless oi the Israeli Jews’ refusal to accept Palestinians as fellow human beings, by itself this will not prevent the Palestinian people from regaining their homeland. The reason for this is that, just as in South Africa, international pressure, particularly BDS, will break the morale of the occupiers. And once that happens, once again as in S.A., goodby, so long and good riddance, apartheid!

    • jonah says:

      The Palestinians will not succeed in the way you believe because Israel is not the apartheid state you want it to be. After 2000 the Palestinians were also convinced to succeed through suicide bombings in Israeli cities (approved and decided by Arafat himself), but even then they failed and were exposed as terrorists.

      The only think the Palestinians should and can do in order to succeed is recognize Israel as Jewish state, in the same way they claim that Israel should recognize them as Arab-Palestinian state.

      It is very simple, but it seems to be in fact very difficult. So simple that even a leftist “open-minded” journalist like Levi doesn’t understand it.

      • potsherd says:

        The only think the Palestinians should and can do in order to succeed is recognize Israel as Jewish state,

        And this will accomplish what, exactly?

      • rosemerry says:

        Israel in which borders? Where will this “Arab-Palestinian State” be, and when will the “Jewish stat” recognise it? Will they continue to kill their neighbours?

        • potsherd says:

          Don’t forget, what does “Jewish” mean?

        • eljay says:

          >> recognize Israel as Jewish state

          Once it ceases its aggression, oppression, occupation, colonization and land theft, Israel should be recognized as the entity it proclaims itself to be: “The only democracy in the Middle East”, a supremacism-free nation for all Israelis, in which all Israelis are equal under the law.

      • Shingo says:

        “The Palestinians will not succeed in the way you believe because Israel is not the apartheid state you want it to be. ”

        No one wants Israel to be an apartheid state, it just happens to be one.

        “After 2000 the Palestinians were also convinced to succeed through suicide bombings in Israeli cities (approved and decided by Arafat himself), but even then they failed and were exposed as terrorists.”

        False on all counts. Arafat did not incite the 2nd Intifada, and contrary to your sick suggestion, no one takes up suicide bombing for sport.

        “The only think the Palestinians should and can do in order to succeed is recognize Israel as Jewish state, in the same way they claim that Israel should recognize them as Arab-Palestinian state.”

        First of all, Arafat and the PLO already recognized Israel as a Jewish state, and Israel thanked him my killing him.

        Secondly. recognition is a mutual condition. There can be no recognizing Israel as Jewish state unless Israel respects legal borders. There can be no recognizing Palestine by Israel until a Palestinian state is allowed to exist.

        You’re right, it is very simple, but what your suggesting is that the Palestinians give Israel everything it wants before discussion even begin.

        It’s hardly surprising. Like Netenyahu, you think peace talks mean giving Israel everything they want and asking nothing in return.

  7. MHughes976 says:

    I’m not so sure, yourstruly, that we can place so much confidence in the mutable, self-deceiving, fickle conscience of the West.

    • yourstruly says:

      Point well taken, MHughes976, but as with defeating the U.S. in Vietnam, it won’t be just the conscience of the West, there’ll also and most importantly be the will and the unity of an indigenous people.

  8. RE: “He characterized them as the only occupier in history that’s completely convinced of its own present ongoing victimhood.” – Ahmed Moor
    MY COMMENT: I greatly admire Gideon Levy, and I agree with the sentiment expressed by this the above-referenced characterization…..BUT, I feel compelled to parse words…compelled to parse words…compelled to parse words. Am I channeling my inner Phil(l)…or is it my inner Glenn Greenwald…or Chris Hedges…or John Pilger…0r perhaps Howard Zinn?
    Levy refers to “occupation” in the conventional sense of the word. Since I’ve never learned to type, I ‘m not going to go into a lengthy discourse on the concept of “occupation”. Suffice it to say, that I pretty much view it on (a) continuum(s). In fact, to various degrees, the “occupier” is sometimes “occupied” (by the subject(s) he/she/ it/they are occupying and/or others).
    The ‘Tea Party’ people seem to think “their country” is currently “occupied” and they need to “take it back”. They also seem to view themselves as “victims” of “big government”, or “the elite Eastern media”, or “Sharia law” or [Phil in the blank]. I don’t see things that way, but apparently they do. However, I might agree with them that our “Homeland” is occupied. To the extent I see “our country” as being occupied, I would see “us” as being the “victims” of different “occupiers” from the ones they seem to have identified* (and are obsessed with). Perhaps I will elaborate further upon this when I have more time.
    * or have been identified by others (the “occupiers” and/or their agents, more or less) and imposed/implanted upon them

  9. stevelaudig says:

    00 WAWA ZhongWen

    “An astonishing event occurred in the United Nations this month: the government of Serbia made a complete reversal of its policy toward Kosovo. Ever since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, the Serbian government has maintained that it will never recognize the right of its former province to secede, but will fight through diplomacy and through the United Nations to get it back. And it continued to maintain that position even after the International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled in July that there is nothing in international law that prohibits Kosovo from declaring independence. Now, to the surprise of everyone—including me—the Serbian government has agreed to hold compromise talks with Kosovo.”
    Source: link to nybooks.com
    Retrieved 6 October.

    Why? Money, the lack of it, made the Serbians reasonable. Apply the same logic to Israel. Money, the abundance of it, has made the Israelis intractable. Turn off the money and watch progress being made. Are Israelis any different from Serbians when it comes to money? [abuse alert]. Some will howl at comparing the Israelis with the genocidal Serbs. But I suggest there are a couple of powerful parallels. Both have engaged in ethnic cleansing of territories they claim a “historic” right to. Both have been frenzied in their own claim towards victimhood. Both have demonstrated a contempt for international law. Both have been sponsored by a large powerful foreign power. [let the abuse begin]

  10. stevelaudig says:

    the “WAWA zhongwen” should be deleted.

  11. Danaa says:

    Unfortunately, Ahmed has a good reason to be depressed. The awful and sad truth is that there are very few people like Levy in Israel. I know Ahmed thinks that all can change when and if the will is there – with a “little” urging from the US. Others too have said that if only the money spigot is turned off, Israelis will start seeing reason, just as the Serbians did.

    Alas, I believe that the ‘Collective Insanity” thesis of Abigail Abrabanel is closer to the reality a it came to be. If israel – as a collective – has indeed gone psychotic, then reason will not be enough to bring it back from the brink. In which case, we better start thinking meds, or shock therapy, or anything that can change the “chemistry” of the Israeli hive brain.

    A I said before, whereas Ahmed may believe (or hope) that Israelis are ‘merely” neurotic (for which time and reason can offer the hope of a cure), it’s my belief that zionism – the Israeli version – has already crossed the rubicon into full blown pychosis sometime ago. The day is not far off when the cult of zion (which is a false zion) will come to be viewed as a threat to the entire world (e.g., just think what stuxnet worm really means for an industrialized interconnected world, and how such “targeted’ cyber war tools are likely to evolve).

    • Chaos4700 says:

      Insane countries generally don’t survive. Sooner or later they self-destruct in some fashion. That’s what I really fear for the sane Jews — the Gideon Levy’s and the Amira Hass’s, the Shmuel’s and the Avi’s who are still there — they will be among the first to be sent to the guillotine when that happens in Israel.

      I suppose the Palestinians could help shield people like that from that shoah, too. Wouldn’t that be historically resonant?

  12. Linda J says:

    This link is to Levy’s talk at McGill. It is in one piece, unlike the Youtube posted earlier.

    link to pulsemedia.org

    “In which case, we better start thinking meds, or shock therapy, or anything that can change the “chemistry” of the Israeli hive brain.”

    I think Levy would agree. In the above linked talk, I believe he mentions that progress only seems to be made after there is bloodshed.

    P.S. I did this link in a comment a few days ago, also.