Combatants for Peace is an organization of Israelis and Palestinians who have taken part in the “cycle of violence” and have come out against violence. Ofer Neiman has translated this article by Lilach Ben David from the Hebrew in which Ben David criticized the annual Combatants For Peace Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony, which takes place on Israel’s national Memorial Day.
The Hebrew item also includes a response by a CFP activist, Avner, which was translated as well.
Lilach Ben David:
Normalization through memory – The Joint Israeli-Palestinian Combatants for Peace Ceremony
As long as there is an occupation, equality is impossible; the joint ceremony helps causing the Israeli public to forget the occupation, by conveying the message that the murderer and the murdered are equal
The combatants for Peace Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony. The time is exactly 20:30. Hall number 10 in the Exhibition Grounds (Ganei Hataarucha) in Tel Aviv begins to fill up with quite a few familiar faces, some of them friends and acquaintances from political activism, others being politicians, intellectuals, poets and writers – pillars of liberal Tel Aviv. A friend who has managed to get in says that the queue outside is still long, and he believes many will be left out. “Next year they will need a larger hall”. Yes, I reply. I attended this ceremony four or five years ago, when it was organized by the The Parents Circle Families Forum, a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. Back then, the joint ceremony took place in the Tmuna theatre hall, which could hardly admit a tenth of the attendants this year. Back then too, many were left out, and people said that a larger hall would be needed next year. That’s why the ceremonies were moved to the Exhibition Grounds.
The staggering multiplicative growth in number of attendants, which was nearly three thousand tonight, attests without a doubt to the success of the story told by this evening, and to the willingness among the Israeli Zionist left and the minority of Palestinians who share its political way, to hear and tell this story.
The message of the evening was phrased clearly by the Israeli host, former Israeli air force officer Assaf Yacobovitz: “We are all victims of the conflict as well as its agents. We are all tasked with the responsibility to break the cycle of violence and bereavement”. Rubik Rosenthal, who lost his brother in the 1973 war, conveyed the same message by referring to the Israeli and Palestinian leadership as “feeble and impatient leaderships on both sides”. Both sides. These key words pervaded the rhetoric of the evening. Both sides are equal, both sides are responsible, both sides together have to find a solution.
In other words, the message is one of equality. There are no occupiers and occupied here, expropriators and expropriated, plunderers and plundered, murderers and murdered. We all have an equal status. We are all the same actually. This rhetoric, which strives to disappear and ignore the (im)balance of power, pretending that the enslaver and the enslaved are equally responsible for the injustice, attempting to clear the predominant narrative of any real demand for justice, in the name of the requirement that all sides forgive, embrace one another and become friends – this rhetoric is called normalization, or Tatbi’ in Arabic.
Every time the speakers refer to an extremely unequal situation, such as having one of the strongest armies in the world occupying a defenseless civilian population whose ability to resist by force amounts mostly to the use of stones and knives, as if it were a war between two armies of two states – they are not just straying from the truth. They are also renouncing the responsibility and culpability of the strong and ruling side, by concealing its shame under the mendacious narrative of equality and joint responsibility.
Only rarely did the speeches delivered during the evening stray from the mantra devoutly adopted by the Israeli left sometime in the ’90s, the omnipotent peace mantra, which seems to have many believers, who still think that if we only utter this word sufficiently, everything will be OK, and an end will come to the antipodal opposite of peace, namely war. In contrast to the endless utterance of these words, peace and war, war and peace, was the glaring absence of two words that are just as relevant: the word Occupation and the word Justice, both of which were hardly mentioned throughout the night.
A passing stranger with no prior awareness of the political reality in Israel and Palestine could have nearly inferred that such a war was taking place, between two armies, between two states, had it not been for the recurring statements throughout the event, about the Palestinian partners in the movement being denied the permit to enter Israel and take part in the ceremony. It should be noted that barring exceptional cases, Israel automatically denies entry permits to West Bank Palestinians, if a relative of theirs was killed by the IDF or took part in activities against the occupation. That is, except for ex-gratia permits, the ceremony took place at a venue which precludes the presence of the Palestinian side in the first place.
The ceremony was designed for and aimed at Jewish ears, and that’s why every effort was made to remove any trace of the reality of occupation and dispossession, which is a policy of racial segregation and supremacism. Apartheid. And if we try for a moment to compare this with the apartheid era in south Africa, would it have seemed plausible for white activists to hold a joint memorial ceremony for blacks and whites in the midst of a separation regime, when blacks fighting for equality and against discrimination are being persecuted, jailed, or murdered, a ceremony in which both those massacred in Sharpeville and the victims of black guerrilla actions are co-remembered? Would it have been possible to take white activists seriously, had they referred to the reality of apartheid as “war” and called for “making peace”, while elegantly evading the need to confront the reality of inequality and oppression?
Joint memorial ceremonies have their place. In South Africa, the place was the Truth and Reconciliation committees. But these committees could only be established, and such was indeed the case, following the abolition of the apartheid regime. The attempt to hold a joint memorial ceremony, not only as occupation and injustice are taking place, but also while deliberately attempting to blur out any reminder of these, can only culminate in the formation of an immoral and mendacious equality between the oppressor and the oppressed, normalization.
I have a friend who says that the great allure which the right wing casts over the majority of Israelis stems from the fact that unlike the Israeli left, there is no bullshit on the right. When they are racist, they are openly racist, not covertly racist. When they oppress and dispossess, they say that it belongs to them. They don’t tell tales about the dispossessors and the dispossessed being both responsible for the wrongdoing.
At the exit, around twenty right wing demonstrators awaited us, with Israeli flags chanting “Am Israel chai”, and all their usual stuff. They shouted “traitors” and “shame on you” at those leaving the ceremony. They chanted “Death to the Arabs”, and they defiantly sang “Hevenu Nakba Aleichem” [We have brought Nakba upon you, to the tune of Hevenu Shalom Aleichem, We Brought Peace Upon You]. Except for a casual note by one of the Palestinian participants, that was the first mention tonight of the founding historical event in the life of the Palestinian people.
Avner Wishnitzer, active in Combatants for Peace, in response:
We at the Combatants for Peace Movement believe that a joint struggle against the occupation and violence is an effective tool. As part of that, the Memorial Day ceremony in which victims of the bilateral violence are mentioned is an important tool of public awareness on both sides.
We are active against the occupation throughout the year, and we are the last ones to deny the unequal power relations in this conflict. However, within the activities of Combatants for Peace, we also defy the conflict’s power relations by believing that Israelis and Palestinians, who indeed live under oppression, have several courses of action.
The joint struggle with Israelis, and primarily the recognition of the occupiers’ humanity, in spite of their being occupiers, the recognition that there are human beings under the uniform, is therefore not normalization, but perhaps, so we hope, a step on the path towards enlightening self-awareness, among the occupiers too.
Eventually the occupiers will have to be persuaded. This may be achieved by bombs, but we do not accept this way. There has to be a way to fight without killing, and that is the way which we seek.
Translator Ofer Neiman adds:
Some people have argued that Lilach’s article lacks compassion for the personal loss. It’s a luxury those of us who haven’t experienced “military bereavement” cannot afford. One can even argue that by failing to confront the political reality, these ceremonies lack compassion for future victims who are still alive.
Other critics keep saying that the CFP approach is the only way to recruit more Israeli activists. However, as the number of participants in this Tel Aviv ceremony has risen substantially, the scope of CFP action on the ground in the Occupied Territories has not. And none of their actions have created a sense of pressure among Israel’s apartheid decision makers. In other words, this approach has failed to bring about a strong opposition within Israel.
It seems that these ceremonies are primarily a comforting venue for desperate good Israelis, who are a truly opposed to the occupation. We need more than that.