In October we ran a piece by Avigail Abarbanel titled, “Why I Left the Cult,” that got an overwhelming response. We learned then that the scholar Nadia Naser-Najjab had recently written an assessment of Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists, Abarbanel’s penetrating collection on the role of Jewish community ordination in the support for Israel. The holidays seemed a good time to convey Naser-Najjab’s piece, and remind readers about that book, available here.
In this hugely personal set of collected essays, Jewish and Israeli peace activists provide a vivid and intimate insight into the formative experiences that shaped their political commitment. For me, this is a particularly important contribution because it switches the emphasis from the ‘macro-level’ (treaties, territory, arcane diplomatic rituals) to instead provide an insight into the different dimensions of personal political experience. Consequently, the reader’s focus is no longer upon states and state entitlements/obligations but rather the life experiences of brave and deeply admirable individuals who came to oppose the stagnant conventions and orthodoxies of their own society. Upon engaging with their rich and unflinching accounts, the reader does not encounter a set of disconnected anecdotes but instead engages an intimate and vivid account of political engagement, a contribution that is of singular importance given the pervasive influence of a wider conflict that dehumanises and objectifies. Upon concluding, the reader is not left with a deeper understanding of the practicalities of peace activism (or the optimal tactics and strategies associated with it) but rather a very different way of thinking about peace and peace activism.
I therefore found that the book challenged me, and forced me to question stagnant assumptions that had become deeply internalised. Beyond Tribal Loyalties therefore challenges and subverts. This is perhaps most clearly shown by its open challenge to separation, which has become established as one of the clearest features of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is evidenced both within the conflict itself (and the associated emergence of mental and physical barriers) and the proposed solution (in the form of the two-state solution). Beyond Tribal Loyalties instead opposes itself to separation and instead seeks the basis for forms of political identity and action that are grounded within a universal humanist commitment. It draws upon the contributions of a range of Jewish and Israeli peace activists, and provides an invaluable insight into their personal and political journey. In the words of Sara Roy (who wrote the book’s foreword), it shines a light onto Jews who consciously decided to ‘see Palestinians as [human beings] seeking an ordinary life for their children in a home of their own’.
Whereas we might intuitively assume that it is entirely normal to view Palestinians in this sense, this is clearly not the case for the contributors, who had to overcome a social and educational inheritance which led them to view Palestinians as hateful, backward and violent. In these contributions there is no sense of the cognitive dissonance and disorientation that so frequently afflicts the Israeli Left: there are no concessions to a culture grounded within militarism and the colonial mindset. There is no trace of the Peace Now demonstrators who protested against the army while serving in it or of the Women in Black protester who asked me, during a protest during the First Intifada, not to chant anti-Zionist slogans.
Beyond Tribal Loyalties, in insisting upon an identification with the ‘other’, is instead premised upon a rejection of these equivocations and self-deceits. I have to confess that the extent of its commitment far surpassed my own. During the First Intifada I had repeatedly stood along Jewish and Israeli activists, who were subject to the same brutal treatment as Palestinians. However, I never sought to engage with them as people or to try to understand the train of events that had led them there. I had always been predisposed to view them as the ‘other’ who supported the Palestinian cause. I never came to see protesting Israelis and Jews as individuals – that is, as people with families and friends. In large part this was because I viewed the Israeli ‘other’ through the lens of their own privilege – this meant that I was predisposed to see their strengths and oversee weaknesses or vulnerabilities. My view was further clouded by the fact that I viewed my Israeli counterparts from an elevated moral and political vantage point – for me their commitment was not commendable, but was merely the bare minimum that could be expected of any reasonable human being.
Jeff Halper’s contribution brought this point home to me with renewed force and intensity. I have known about Jeff’s work for a considerable amount of time. However, it never occurred to me that he only became an activist in 1998; quite the contrary – it seemed natural to assume that he had always been a peace activist. Upon closer reflection, this disconcerted me. Why had I assumed this and why had I not felt the need to further investigate Jeff’s political commitment? My oversight in this regard was all the more inexcusable because of my own background within social psychology, which had provided me with an extensive insight into the interaction between groups and individuals.
In seeking to gain an insight into the experience of the Israeli and Jewish ‘other’, I found Beyond Tribal Loyalties to be an invaluable point of reference. It helped me to understand how my previous perception of Israeli peace activists was insufficiently grounded within the struggles and hardships that they had endured. Previously I had a political awareness of Israeli conscripts who had been jailed for refusing to serve in the occupied territories. However, Avigail’s contribution provides an important complement by underlining the human dimensions of the conflict. As such, it also forced me to reconsider the true extent of my own humanist commitment. A considerable part of this book’s value therefore derives from its strong commitment to universal values that are grounded within a shared humanity. Each contribution therefore engages, to differing degrees and extents, with intensely human emotions, such as anger, fear, guilt and resentment.
Beyond Tribal Loyalties is as much a story of the individual’s struggle in relation to their own society. In engaging with this interaction, social psychologists invariably speak in a turgid and aseptic vernacular of how ‘informational social influence’ comes to oppose the ‘normative social influence’ of wider society. The personal accounts, in contrast, provide a much more vivid and insightful insight: Maya Wind speaks, for example, of how her refusal to serve within the Israeli army shattered the hopes and expectations of her parents, who had viewed it as an important rite of passage. Vivienne Porzsolt was rejected by her friends and Peter Slezak became, in his own words, ‘a pariah in my own community’. Avigail, meanwhile, was rejected by her own mother and received death threats.
The insults that were hurled had a clear vehemence and spiteful intent: contributors were labelled as ‘self-hating Jews’, ‘Nazis’, ‘Israel-haters’ and even ‘anti-Semites’. This is the essential point that I had failed to fully internalise – Israeli peace activists did not merely accept a particular political point; rather, they rejected a whole way of life and consciousness. It slowly dawned upon Ilan Pappé, for example, that it was impossible to pursue peace or reconciliation ‘from within the Zionist mindset or political structures’. From their youth the contributors had been informed that Zionism was grounded within, and embodied, the most elevated of moral principles. This understanding became embedded to the extent that it eventually came to function as an unconscious reflex. The reality, when exposed to sunlight, resulted in a profound catharsis, and the subsequent exorcism of an accumulated political and social inheritance.
Aside from underlining the courage and tenacity of the contributors, the book also serves to underline the pervasiveness of Zionist ideology, and its seepage into almost every aspect of Jewish and Israeli consciousness. In rejecting this ideology, contributors often found that they had to essentially reject their own communities, their families and even themselves. The initial cause often varied – sometimes emerging within the gulf between the idealised representation and the actual reality (as Anna Baltzer observes, ‘the construct of Israel’s virtue, which I had always held dear, crumbled before my eyes’) and in others originating within a first encounter with activists or authors such as Benny Morris, Norman Finkelstein and Avi Shlaim.
As Avigail explains, the influence of Zionism is not confined to Israel. Rather, Jewish communities and synagogues have a clear expectation that Israel will be supported ‘no matter what’ (it is important to note that this expectation weighs equally strongly upon both secular and religious Jews). This means that, in many instances, the dividing line between Judaism and Zionism therefore becomes imperceptible. For contributors such as Anna Baltzer, who sought to ground their work within Judaic principles, this was profoundly disconcerting. In her account Anna described how she visited the flat of her grandmother, who had recently passed away. After finding an appeal from the Jewish National Fund, Anna reflected: ‘I wish my work could have been something she understood, since it is an extension of the belief system in which I was raised, not a departure from it. What I do is not in spite of what my grandmother went through, but in light of it.’ Ariel Vegosen similarly adapts the Torah to argue that it is incumbent upon Jews to stand up against oppression and pursue justice.
Other contributors instead stress the need for breakage or rupture. Jeff Halper, for instance, initially acknowledges that Israel is a ‘political fact’ before stressing that it is necessary to ‘traverse a long and painful trail from decolonialisation through reconciliation, to a new form of political life that is just and inclusive of all’. For Halper, in common with other contributors, this implies a political commitment that is closely aligned with the practices, strategies and goals of the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement.
It is instructive, and more than a little sobering, to reflect that the contributors’ grasp of political realities is far in advance of the Palestinian leadership, who instead appear predisposed to work within, as opposed to against, colonial frameworks and structures. In contrast to the Palestinian Authority, Beyond Tribal Loyalties does not attempt to ground a peace within intellectual dishonesty and political compromise; rather, it instead establishes the basis for a peaceful settlement that is rooted within a humanist political commitment. I am happy to recommend it upon the basis that if offers an alternative path, which traverses communal identity and which roots itself within an unflinching, uncompromising and abiding commitment to human values.