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Interview with Rela Mazali: The Israeli left, BDS, and the ‘habit of hope’

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Rela Mazali is one of the founders of the Israeli feminist organization New Profile, Movement for the Demilitarization of Israeli Society.  Founded in 1988, the activist organization is committed to educating the Israeli public about the centrality of war culture within Israeli society, to advancing demilitarization, and to supporting Israeli youth who refuse their compulsory service in the Israeli army.  In Mazali’s words: “We’ve become an army with a state, instead of a state with an army. We need to reduce the hold of the military, and of militarized thinking, on the moves of our country and the courses of our lives.”  Rebecca L. Stein recently spoke to Mazali in Tel Aviv.

Rebecca L. Stein:  You were in Israel during last summer’s brutal Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.  On the occasion of its one-year anniversary, and in light of your long-term activism, can you reflect on what you witnessed from the vantage of Jewish Israeli society?

Rela Mazali: I’ve been an activist for over thirty years against the occupation, against racism, militarization and the oppression of Palestinians inside Israel — the whole spectrum of what it means to be a radical feminist activist on the left.  The attacks of last summer were so outrageously disproportionate – an attack against a largely helpless million-and-a half human beings.  I felt real ambivalence about demonstrating against this attack because I felt that I was again playing the scripted role that I have played for decades: standing at the same sites where we had always protested, with many of the same people.  It didn’t feel like an expression of opposition or resistance.  It felt like I was playing my prearranged role on the national stage. Something about that felt deeply wrong to me, and for a while I couldn’t do it.

But meanwhile a different structure of protest emerged and that changed my feelings somewhat.  It was a local protest, initiated by two neighboring towns: Tira, a whose residents are Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Kfar Saba, a neighboring Jewish town that happens to be near the my home.  Together, we protested against both Israel’s military violence against Palestinians under occupation and Jewish Israeli civilian violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

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You and other veteran Israeli activists have referred to last summer’s military assault as unprecedented – not only in terms of the wanton devastation within the Gaza Strip, but also the levels of extreme militarization within the Jewish mainstream public.  As the civilian toll mounted in Gaza, Jewish gangs in Israel hunted Palestinians in the streets, and Jewish Israeli users mobilized in large numbers on social media to call for violent revenge against Palestinians and Israeli leftists – a phenomenon that Adi Kuntsman and I have documented.  Given that Israeli society has a long history of popular militarism, what was different about the political tenor last summer?  What, precisely, had changed?

Within Israel, during the course of the attack, there was no lip service paid to any kind of democracy, equality, human or civil rights. The breakdown of that set of mechanisms became very clear and pronounced.  And it’s debatable whether that’s a bad thing because — in a sense– now it’s clearer what we’re really up against within Israeli society.  Prior to last summer, there was something of a façade or a patina of something else – the patina of democracy and respect for rights — but what was really going on was no less ruthless and no less murderous.  It wasn’t the first time there had been violence against left wing activists or against Palestinian citizens of Israel inside Israel.  But last summer, there were far fewer social checks and balances in place. There was no institutional machinery acting to identify this anti-democratic phenomenon for what it was. In fact, this political mood was openly encouraged by some politicians and glaringly unchallenged by others.  It verged on a hunting season – with a popular sense that Palestinians and, to a lesser degree, Jewish leftists were fair game.  Of course, the events last summer were linked to a long history of demonizing and criminalizing dissent in Israel – a process at work within the government and the courts, and among right-wing groups.

For me personally, last summer was also a turning point in another sense.  As any pretense to democracy eroded and as I registered the enormity of the destruction in Gaza, I felt that language become useless. That is, I sensed a total breakdown of the capacity of language to adequately address the shift in the scale of state violence – such that I felt I could hardly talk or write about it.  No text or talk seemed appropriate to the split between the reality in Israel — which was really not under threat — and the reality in Gaza. Israel was not seriously damaged although people were scared due to an intensive and intentional government-driven panic. In fact, there was only real danger to Israel and Israelis at the very periphery of the Gaza Strip. There was frequent shelling there, though nothing comparable to what went on inside the Strip. People had been living there for years with intermittent, low intensity, low damage shelling. And it definitely did hurt, kill and damage people.

What happens when Israeli anti-occupation language breaks down — particularly in the context of an Israeli left that has, historically, been so vocal about its political stance?

I think it was the first time that I haven’t had any hope. You know, it comes and goes. There is a habit of hope, I guess, for activists. You work, you do what you can, however meager it may seem.  And there’s this sense that a different future is possible, whenever it may come. But now, I don’t see it. And during the summer, I couldn’t find anything – any form of activism — that seemed generative of possible futures.  Maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s an important realization. Nothing felt politically relevant, and it still doesn’t. I’m still an activist but today I lack a vision of a fitting activist strategy. Or a solution. I’m not even talking about one state or two states — that’s all beside the point. I’m talking about an alternative to Israel’s practices of repetitive violence, racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism. Today, I don’t see it. Or perhaps more precisely, I don’t feel it.

Does your pessimistic vision of activism include BDS strategies – strategies you have openly supported?  And how is it possible to support the boycott movement as an Israeli in light of the numerous legal obstacles and punitive measures installed by the state?

Where activism is concerned, I’ve been describing a sense of ritual repetitiveness, bordering on a dead-end, inside Jewish Israeli society. But BDS is a global movement, directed to civil society worldwide, in support of the Palestinian call.  My own past statements of support for this call are on public record, as is the support of many individual citizens of Israel and activist organizations. The movement claims globalized responsibility for the limited price that most mainstream Israelis are paying for Israel’s rampant militarization and fingers international culpability for decades of oppression and occupation. BDS is about exposing and opposing the interests served by Israel’s policies, far beyond its own territorial limits.

A law was recently approved by the Israeli High Court of Justice making expressions of support for the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel liable to prohibitive fines. “Offenders” are punishable through civil suits. This significantly lightens the burden of proof usually borne by plaintiffs. So Israeli activists who openly support BDS are actually threatened with financial ruin for their families. This is a very watered down but analogous and potent version of the kind of financial violence practiced regularly against Palestinian families under occupation. It suppresses, or at least reduces, political debate about what some see as the only viable strategy of resistance today and turns some of the tools of occupation against its opposition inside Israel.

In the Western media, many have been speaking to the physical separation of the two peoples – Israelis and Palestinians – as a way to explain the current breakdown in political processes and possible political futures.  From my reading, it seems that this story of separation installs a kind of political nostalgia: as if these societies were living well together before the separation barrier and the current infrastructure of the military occupation. Can you talk about this?

Separation — I’d prefer to use the historically apt term, segregation — exists inside Israel as well, but in a different form. It’s softer and less tangible, and is policed by different means. But it’s very much present.  The vast majority of Jewish Israelis don’t know Palestinian citizens of Israel. They have no Palestinian friends, no experiences with Palestinian individuals or society, and they don’t speak their language. This is an important context to keep in mind because separation from the West Bank and Gaza is just the tip of a very deep structure undergirding Israeli society – structuring the ways that Jewish Israelis move around, think, act, identify, etc. This becomes very obvious for us when you, as an Israeli Jew, want to study Arabic. If you are not at university, and you are making an effort to study Arabic.  You have to go to weekly classes but you don’t have Arabic around you, because Arabic in Israel is confined within particular locales – namely, in Palestinian towns and communities within Israel.  The language itself is  spatially enclosed. As a result, in order to get experience of speaking Arabic on a day-to-day basis, you have to leave Jewish Hebrew-speaking areas inside this tiny country.

This reveals the degree to which prior forms of proximity between Israeli Jews and Palestinians living under occupation was to some extent illusionary.  Okay, Israeli and Palestinian activists were going back and forth – as were international tourists and Israeli consumers, who used the West Bank as a market for cheap goods. And I remember Palestinian friends from the West Bank saying that, as the wall was closing in, they were suffocating. In this sense, it worked. It’s succeeded in suffocating communications across the lines. It has crippled the small segment of Israeli society that has invested in making a joint society. It has gone a long ways towards shutting this down.  And its not only suffocating Palestinians, but also Jewish-Israelis. And at least some of us in Israel still recognize the need to build a place where collective rights can bring us together in an attempt at equality and freedom.

But how does one try to build something else?  Needless to say, the coexistence paradigm of the 1980s and 1990s is no longer relevant.

For many years, I have opted less for joint work and more for work within the society with which I’m identified – that is, Jewish Israeli society. I accept that identity to the extent that I accept any identity. I have felt that there was a piece of work in this society that wasn’t being done. In the last decade-and-a-half, I started working on demilitarizing Israel society and demilitarizing people’s view of reality, trying to question what it was, who was feeding and sustaining it, and why. I can’t claim that we accomplished major changes, but there has been a movement in place for almost seventeen years now and there’s now a consciousness of these issues where before it was absent. Today, there’s at least a discourse in Israel critiquing militarization. This still hasn’t caused meaningful change in Israeli reality though.

Today, militarization and repressive state violence against Palestinians are so ubiquitous and frequent as to have become almost invisible to most Israelis — a process by which, as Adi Kuntsman and I have argued, the repressive violence of military occupation functions as a kind of public secret within Israeli society, at once widely supported and relegated to secrecy.  In your estimation, how does this invisibility work? And what are the challenges of struggling against militarization in such a climate?

What is most unseen by Israelis is the mechanism for the production of conflict and enmity. Sixty-seven years of warfare against a series of interchanging enemies are, necessarily, an Israeli policy choice – one serving specific groups of people.  Keeping them in power, enriching them both materially and symbolically, maintaining their authority. Sixty-seven years of warfare are the doing of many successive governments and many successive military commands. Obviously, this requires the consent and the active participation of the Israeli citizenry. Maintaining this state of affairs, the continuous consent to war, to conscription, to prioritizing military spending and national security, to de-prioritizing social security, all of this is what we call militarization. It’s a social-political process that is constantly fed, reproduced, and kept in place. As part of this process, enmity and conflict are perceived by most citizens as simply ‘out there,’ threatening them independently of Israel’s policies and deeds. When these limited capacity rockets came down on Israel last summer, people said, “they’re threatening us, they’re trying to destroy Israel.” It was almost laughable. We are living in a box that people can’t see out of — for fear. That’s the challenge and the key to this work: trying to give people a glimpse of what lies beyond their unquestioned belief that there’s no other choice, that the alternative is annihilation. Trying to convey the understanding that militarization serves something and someone which has little or even nothing to do with “our” security and existence.

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Thanks to Rebecca & Rela for this explicative, albeit depressing, piece.

I need to mull it over.

Excellent, thought-provoking Q&A. I greatly admire the courage of Jewish activists who oppose the status quo in Israel. I’m an American citizen; I deeply loathe my US taxes bankrolling the Israeli regime’s military horrors unleashed against their captive Palestinians. For me, personally, the Gaza massacre of last summer was the… Read more »

The author protests the “scripting” of her appeals yet scripts herself into a telling contradiction. The “open season” on Palestinians and leftists (“murderous,” “ruthless”), she writes, coincided with “a local protest, initiated by two neighboring towns [one Palestinian-Israeli and one Jewish-Israeli]. Together, we protested against both Israel’s military violence against… Read more »

Everything she says about the militarization of Israeli society and economy is also applicable to USA, except there’s no conscription. 9/11, of course, provided “the new Pearl Harbor” aka “the new Reichstag fire.” As the former POTUS gate keeper and IDF support service man Rahm Immanuel told us, “Never lose… Read more »

Can someone explain to me how steadily firing nonstop rockets at Israel and building tunnels from which to threaten and terrorize Israel is not considered militarization from the Palestinian side? I get that Israel used a sledgehammer to squash an ant so to speak approach, but to excuse the use… Read more »