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.