On Monday night, nearly a hundred people crammed into a small room at All Souls Church in Manhattan to hear siblings Nurit Peled-Elhanan and Miko Peled discuss their recently published books in a talk moderated by novelist/activist Susan Abulhawa. Sitting on the floor with no back support for over two hours, I learned what “moderate physical pressure” (Ariel Sharon’s infamous euphemism for torture) truly feels like. The audience included Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire and Mariam Said, widow of the immortal Edward.
The Peleds are a high-profile Israeli family. Their father, Matti Peled, was a member of the founding generation of Israel, a contemporary of people like Rabin, Peres, Sharon, and Avnery. Peled fought in the 1947-49 war, and rose to the rank of general by the time of the 1967 War. Sometime after that war, the elder Peled’s views changed, and he eventually became an outspoken peace activist. Nurit and Miko inherited these views and have taken them much further; indeed, I don’t think I have seen any Israelis more critical of their country. Last night, they offered few details of the dynamics of their family’s transformation to the “left,” whether it was sudden or gradual, and whether the siblings followed a similar or different path. Miko surely includes such information in his autobiographical book, which includes the horrifying tragedy of Nurit losing her teenage daughter Smadar to a suicide bomber about 15 years ago.
Miko’s book, The General’s Son, recounts his journeys, both political and physical. While he grew up in a relatively enlightened family, he was exposed to and fully absorbed the official Israeli narrative of the Jews as eternal victims who triumphed over long odds against their bloodthirsty enemies. He remembers his mother telling him that in 1948, they were offered the Jerusalem house of an ethnically-cleansed Palestinian family, and turned down the offer of looted property; apparently this act of simple morality was quite unusual at the time. However, the story seemed to young Miko to be in conflict with the narrative of Palestinians starting the war and suffering the well-deserved consequences of their foolish path. It took him a long time to resolve the contradiction.
Miko credits his own eventual awakening to Palestinians he met in the US who graciously and sensitively informed him of the horrors his country had caused their people. Miko indicated that a more confrontational, in-your-face attitude probably would not have succeeded, as it takes Israelis time to comprehend that their entire view of the world was shaped by deliberately false mythology. Miko also discussed being arrested at West Bank demonstrations alongside Palestinians who were protesting in the same manner. While he, an Israeli citizen, knew that he would sleep in his own bed that night, the Palestinians were subject to a different legal code, and could spend days, weeks, months in jail without formal charges at the whim of the local commander.
Miko told a shocking story that appears in his book. He was socializing with Israeli ex-pats, and one casually told him that he had been a member of an elite Navy unit (think US Navy seals). On one occasion, they ordered some Gaza fishermen to jump into the sea and then destroyed their boat. Then they ordered the men to strip, adding humiliation to the destruction. But then, they ordered the fishermen to count to 100 repeatedly and watched while the men drowned, one by one. I must confess that as well acquainted as I am with instances of intentional killing of civilians throughout Israeli history, I was unprepared for the unimaginable cruelty of this story.
Nurit’s book, Palestine in Israeli Schoolbooks, turns the tables on those who whine about “incitement” in Palestinian schoolbooks. Nurit showed numerous examples of how Palestinians are subtly and unsubtly depicted as backward sub-humans in comparison to modern Israeli Jews, even in supposedly enlightened books. The books depict some of the more sensational massacres of Arab civilians – Deir Yassin, Qibya, Kfar Kassem – only in terms of their (beneficial) effects on Israeli society which clearly outweighed the unfortunate loss of life.
Question-and-answer period produced the one note of (friendly) disagreement between the panelists. A questioner raised the comparison of Israel behavior with that of the Nazis. Nurit said that she avoids such comparisons for various reasons, including that Israel can defend itself easily by saying they are not nearly as bad as the Nazis, they don’t kill people by the millions, so what is the problem? Susan then made a terrific point that it is often only in retrospect that some behavior is regarded as truly evil; people tend to be blind while it is still going on. Comparing Israel’s actions with a well-known evil from history can prove quite instructive. I completely agree, but disagree with her conclusion that comparison with the Nazis is helpful. To me, it is far too incendiary a comparison.
Of course, it is Israelis/Zionists who much more often make the comparison of Arabs and Muslims to Nazis, and Ahmadinejad, Saddam, Arafat to Hitler, and it is intolerable hypocrisy to proffer or even tolerate that comparison while whining about the Israel/Nazi comparison. Still, I prefer to avoid it in most circumstances.
But I do think that Susan’s analysis underscores the importance of the apartheid analogy. In my opinion, it’s much easier to make that case, and apartheid is universally regarded as evil that was long overdue to be overthrown. Noor Elashi was in the audience, and she reminded us all that her father Ghassan is serving a 65-year sentence for facilitating charitable contributions to Palestinians, convicted under a terrible law that is being enforced in a brazen, outrageously discriminatory fashion. He was convicted in the Holy Land Foundation case at a Kafkaesque trial which has been upheld on appeal to the Fifth Circuit and is now on application to the US Supreme Court. Another “victory” for the Obama Justice Department continuing the great work of his predecessor.
It was difficult to watch this brave young woman as she begged a very progressive audience not to forget her father.
The last “questioner” was a man who had served, I believe as a medic, in Vietnam, and he reminded us that the barbarity we see in Israeli behavior is not so unique. Slaughtering civilians in Vietnam was the rule, not the exception, and we Americans have blinded ourselves to such facts, and continue to do so, in much the same way as Israelis do. Even with the passage of decades, most Americans believe that Vietnam was a well-intentioned mistake rather than unspeakable aggression that cost millions of lives.