Why Miko Peled’s story resonates for Palestinians

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Little Ghada has the largest and most alert black eyes of any four-year old in my hometown in Galilee. One morning last week as I sat in their front yard sipping Arabic coffee with her grandfather she stopped on the way to pre-school for her morning kiss. Out of the clear blue she turned to me and asked if I thought Israeli soldiers were human beings. Why the question, I asked and she explained that they shoot children. Before I could say anything she started skipping hopscotch style with her schoolbag bouncing on her back as she mumbled rhythmically: ”Two here … two here …  and those … shot those … bang, bang, bang … and those two … went to sleep.” Then the mother grabbed the kid’s hand and hurried her to the car.

I had forgotten the passing incident till I read the pages in Miko Peled’s The General’s Son describing the ‘Palestinian Bar Mitzva,’ the initiation rite for Palestinian children into the inescapable violent encounters with the Israeli occupying forces. Miko’s autobiographical account of his lifelong voyage, so far, from a Zionist youth and the scion of Zionist leaders to an avowed anti-Zionist peace activist makes for a fascinating read. Especially for a Palestinian, it is quite memorable with trigger points that bring back memories of violence, discrimination and oppression at every turn of his account. At least for me Miko’s authentic narrative evoked many a personal memory, that of little Ghada being the freshest.

Cover art: The General's Son - 2nd Edition - Just World Books
Cover art: The General’s Son – 2nd Edition – Just World Books

At the start and for near half of his book, Miko narrates his memories from the familiar perspective of the liberal Israeli Zionist straddling the ethical divide of freedom fighter and, at the same time, oppressive settler colonialist. Most of the narrative here is dedicated to setting up the indisputable Zionist credentials of Miko’s lineage: His mother the descendant of recognized leaders in the early settlement movement and his father, Matti Peled a towering Israeli General of both 1948 and 1967 wars. As a pacifist, I have a gut-level aversion to the military and to generals; the brighter their medals shine, the greater my repugnance. Miko Peled spends a good deal of the first chapters of his account glorifying the military image of his father as a fighter, perhaps in an attempt to preempt accusations of treason by fellow Israelis. Only towards the end and especially in the epilogue to the second edition Miko renounces Zionism completely and assumes the full ethical stand on the side of its Palestinian victims. This development is historically gradual and must have evolved with a greater personal struggle than the author lets on in the book. He speculates that had he survived, the retired general “would call for a single democracy with equal rights.” I read that as altered Zionism. I doubt that General Matti would have abandoned Zionism altogether. Zika, his wife, never does openly. Still, she comes across as a most sympathetic figure that gets short-scripted in favor of The General. Her refusal to move into the home of an exiled Palestinian family, a down-to-earth gesture of basic humanity, shines through as a glaring exception to all the usual self-congratulatory accounts of Zionist victories.

Like most solo General Practitioners of medicine, for many years I dabbled in the art of psychotherapy. I am tempted to fall back on my amateurish skill in dealing with my fellow writer, Miko Peled. Initially I struggled to read his text before growing to like it and then to admire him as he courageously faces up to his moral dilemma as scion of elite Zionist settler colonialists, founders of the state of Israel on the remains of destroyed Palestine. Miko seems to be afflicted from early childhood with hero worship. One glance at the photo on the book cover gives away the diagnosis: the demigod General Matti Peled with his adoring son, Miko, imitating his father’s pose and eye focus on the distant horizon. Miko’s mere escape from the inspired military career is a true hopeful sign: He sidesteps the default military option through the lesser choice of becoming a medic instructor. He marries one of his soldier trainees, and the two venture around the world before settling in Southern California to raise three children.

Like several other outspoken liberal Zionist leaders of the time (Uri Avnery and Dov Yaremeya are two acquaintances that come to mind) Matti Peled opts to draw a line under the 1948 war crimes and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and focuses his liberal views on the need to end the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The sincerity and success of his attempts to build bridges with Palestinian leaders and other Arab figures is quite striking, witness links he makes with Issam Sartawi, Arafat and Naguib Mahfouz. In the meanwhile Miko finds alternative heroes to worship in the intense relationship he has with his Karate masters. As I grasp this peaceful solution to the young man’s psychic dilemma I breathe easy. Till then I had held my breath as I read Miko’s admiring remarks about the military career of Ariel Sharon. I feared he would become Sharon’s protégé and fall under the Machiavellian spell of the Sabra and Shatilla criminal mastermind.

The tension in my mind is allayed by Miko’s career choice of teaching Karate in the USA. His business succeeds. Then the tragic loss of his teenage niece, Smadar, another random victim of the violence that Israel’s occupation fuels, shakes Miko to his core. It forces him closer to the cause of peace with Palestinians and we see him lose his innocence and Israeli inborn misconceptions and prejudices layer after layer. “Her death pushed me into a bold examination of my Zionist beliefs, my country’s history, and the political situation that fueled the suicide bombers who killed her.” Peace is the only solution, he concludes. But how does one act on such convictions? Initially he dabbles in delaying tactics of attending and hosting Arab-Jewish peace and reconciliation groups. He sidesteps the real issues by engaging in charitable relief work, supplying wheelchairs to Palestinian and Israeli paraplegics. His partner in this form of pattern-holding in terms of political activism is the Palestinian Nader Elbanna, another California rotarian who introduces him to a wide circle of fellow Palestinians back home. Thus the urge to confront challenges directly returns our Miko to the real arena of current events, the powder keg of the Palestinian Occupied Territories. He plies his marketable skill as a Karate master to youth in refugee camps, attends the weekly anti-Apartheid Wall marches in Bili’in and similar aggrieved villages, crosses into Gaza through a tunnel and meets with the steadfast leaders of the Palestinian peaceful resistance movement across the seething arena.

Here, a towering leader, Abu-Ali Shaheen, provides another pinnacle of heroism as the Palestinian warrior and, for over two decades, the leader of the Palestinian political prisoners who is credited with setting the rules for their conduct and political education while incarcerated. Such is the character of this Palestinian legendary sumoud – perseverance — leader that Miko seems to build up the image of his own father through the man’s testimony to his character. Abu-Ali recounts to Miko in his prison-learned Hebrew the details of the massacre the Israeli forces committed in his home village of Beshshit before adding:

“Everyone in Rafah talked about the fact that Matti Peled, one of the greatest officers of the Israeli army, a general that was highly respected, straight like an arrow, the man who was military governor of Gaza, came in person, he even drove himself, and visited the homes of the victims. Your father visited my family’s home, he spoke to the adults and he consoled the children. People commented how disturbed he was when they took him to the spot where the massacre took place. Your father also wrote a report to Yitzhak Rabin and Haim Bar-Lev, but they did nothing.”

The glare of the father’s heroic stand on the issue of principle is such that the reader is blinded to the base act of the massacre’s Israeli perpetrators. Here, finally, Miko reaches the climactic closing of the circle that justifies his entire narrative of peace and reconciliation, looping back to his foremost heroic idol, Matti Peled. Abu-Ali continues:

“It became known that this changed [Matti] from a militant man to a man dedicated to peace. I felt your father was with us and that washed away the anger in my heart completely. Completely!”

What more intense encounter can the reader expect after this but the ultimate breaking down of racial boundaries illustrated by Miko’s falling in love and partnering with Fadwa Natour, a Palestinian that we meet only in the epilogue to the new edition of the book. The question of whether it was the egg or the chicken bursts out of the pages begging to be answered. Speculation aside, Mikos conversion is complete:

What I do now, is speak, write and actively participate in the resistance to the Zionist regime in Palestine. Peace for Israelis and Palestinians is possible if we look outside the Paradigm of the Zionist state, a state wrongly called the “Jewish State.” Though Israelis outside the West Bank do not like to see themselves as settlers, we Israelis are like the whites in South Africa—colonizers and settlers—and, whether or not we choose to call it by that name, the country in which we live is Palestine.

Avigail Abarbanel, a psychologist, collected and edited 25 essays in a book entitled Beyond Tribal Loyalties –Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists. (Cambridge Scholars Publishing; 2012.) Her hidden agenda was to discover a common factor among all the participants in the project. Here is her conclusion:

I realized that there is in fact something that all the activists in this book have in common: they all have the capacity to tolerate difficult emotions. I call this “emotional resilience.”

Reading his account, one can’t but credit Miko Peled with an ample share of “emotional resilience.” But reading Abarbanel’s book I had my own agenda: to discover the critical point at which such peace activists switch sides from Zionists to true peace activists. I dwelled on the subject in a review on my blog. Out of the sample of 25 such ‘switchers’ I constructed an average persona who, as it turns out, was a female:

The figure that emerged is akin to the proverbial horse designed by a committee: She is usually a woman who grew up in a liberal Jewish family. Her parents were mostly of the PEP (Progressive Except on Palestine) variety with solid WIZO and JNF credentials, accepting and propounding their dominant communal mythology and undisputed gospel, both that of the Old Testament and of the Zionist doctrines with all its required founding ‘truths.’ … Then our woman … is exposed to the wider world. Somewhere along the way she is exposed to a different point of view about the Israel-Palestine conflict: She meets Palestinians and is surprised to find that they are human. She reads a book by the likes of Edward Said or Avi Shlaim or is otherwise exposed to an alternative source of information with ‘subversive content.’ That blows the cover of her former solid Hasbara world. The cognitive dissonance within her cries for resolution and she commits to finding the truth for her self. From there the descent into pro-Palestinian activism is inevitable … Punishment for such a sin is not long in coming in the form of exclusion from the tribal fold and the loss of former friendships.

Except for the gender of the composite character I drew, I could have predicted Miko’s life cycle to a T. And Miko himself attests openly to the implied contradiction and mutual exclusivity of the two sides: Zionist Hasbara and pro-Palestinian peace activism. The only escape, Miko posits and all sane concerned people agree, is:

… that  both Palestinians and Israelis must be allowed to live free and in peace in a state that represents them both, governed by the same laws … only after a democratic state is established and a government that represents all the people is in place, will we be able to resolve the crisis in Gaza, welcome the refugees’ return, calculate reparations, solve issues of water and citizenship, dismantle the wall and checkpoints, and live and function as people should.


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Amen, Hatim.

Thank you, Miko Peled, and “little Ghada”.

Well written Hatim and thank you for acknowledging Beyond Tribal Loyalties.

Would it be possible for MW to offer both names of Israeli/Palestinian towns and regions where they differ? E.g., Jerusalem/Al Quds. Perhaps not in the original articles, in deference to the authors’ own preferences, unless in parentheses, and unless the authors are agreeable. To MW’s casual readers this could be a subtle way to remind all that the native population has its own viable markers, whether historical, geographical and/or cultural, and a sign of equal… Read more »

A very sensible suggestion.

If one truly ascribes to the principle of always siding with the oppressed, never with the oppressor, ultimately PEP becomes untenable.