Divided Against Myself in Israel-Palestine
Our Zoom call this week, for paid subscribers, will be at our regular time: Friday at Noon EDT.
Our guest will be Haggai Matar, executive director of 972mag. For months, Haggai has chronicled the protests against the Israeli government’s attempted judicial overhaul and speculated about the possibility that they could evolve into a genuine democracy movement—which challenges not only this government’s attack on Israel’s legal system, but challenges occupation and apartheid. With the fight over judicial overhaul reaching another crescendo, we’ll ask Haggai how he interprets the protest movement now.
As usual, paid subscribers will get the link this Wednesday and the video the following week. They’ll also gain access to our library of past Zoom interviews with guests like Thomas Friedman, Ilhan Omar, Omar Barghouti, Maggie Haberman, Noam Chomsky, and Bret Stephens.
Sources Cited in this Video
David Runciman in the London Review of Books Podcast on Henry David Thoreau.
Things to Read
Basel Adra and Yuval Abraham in The Nation on the Destruction of Masafer Yatta. I had the privilege of meeting Basel in Masafer Yatta last Friday. The day after we met, the Israeli military blindfolded and handcuffed him for several hours because his phone contained footage of settler violence.
For MSNBC.com, I wrote about what Elliott Abrams appointment signals about the Biden administration’s approach to human rights.
A searing Eli Valley cartoon on the judicial protests and the attack on Jenin.
See you on Friday,
Hi. Our call this Friday will be at noon ET, our regular time. And our guests will be Haggai Matar. Haggai is the executive director of 972mag. If you don’t know it, you really should. It’s a really, really important publication doing reporting in Israel-Palestine. And, Haggai has been a particularly close follower of the Israeli protest movement and has particularly emphasized the possibilities, as he sees it, that it could morph into some a movement that wasn’t just trying to protect democracy for Israeli Jews, but that it actually could offer a vision of perhaps collective liberation for Palestinians as well. And with that movement, and the judicial overhaul kind of reaching another crescendo, I thought it would be great to have Haggai join us and talk about the protest movement, and what he thinks it means, and what it could mean. So, that’ll be Friday at noon for paid subscribers at our normal time.
I’ve been in Israel-Palestine the last week or so, and I’m not gonna pretend that I, you know, have come to some great conclusions. I think that would be fraudulent. I’ve talked to a lot of people, people who I love and respect, people who I disagree with as well, and seen a bunch of things. But you can’t understand what’s going on in a place by being there for a week. I would say that every time I come here, and I hadn’t been here since COVID, for me is this experience of extreme ambivalence. This sense of almost like kind of being divided against myself when I’m here. And my emotions just kind of whiplash in ways that just don’t really happen back when I’m in New York. The first thing I think I experience when I arrive in Israel is love. You know, I’m just kind of like slightly embarrassed to say that, but I just feel a sense of like utter delight at being in a Jewish society, and I don’t necessarily think I can explain it rationally. I mean, I think there are plenty of other Jews who do feel that way. Not all. It’s certainly the way my father felt, and it’s the way my grandfather felt when they were here.
And I can only resort to like these very almost childlike explanations for something that I don’t think is in entirely rational, but it’s a little bit like being a duck, and living in a society where you’re surrounded mostly by horses. And you’re a duck. And the horses are great, and like many of your best friends are horses. And you can thrive as a duck in that society. But it’s still primarily a society of horses with kind of norms and unstated assumptions that are horse-centric, right. So, that’s kind of like I feel like what it’s like to be a diaspora Jew even if you live on the Upper West Side of New York, like I do. And then you come here, and it’s like, you’re surrounded by ducks of all different shapes and sizes, different permutations. Some you find highly appealing. Some you don’t find appealing at all. But they’re all ducks, and the society is organized for ducks, right?
Like, just like some small example. Like the protests, at least in Jerusalem, every night are held after Shabbat because, you know, the assumption is you’d finish Shabbat, and then you go do the protest. That would never happen in the United States. Not because people are antisemitic, of course not. It’s just that it’s not a Jewish society. And for me, this is where I feel this kind of cultural Zionism, just this sense that there is something deeply special and extraordinary about looking at the street signs and seeing basically the story of Jewish history told through these street signs—I mean, yes, obviously through a Zionist lens, but still Jewish history. And just kind of marveling at the interaction of Jews from every kind of corner of the world who ended up in such close proximity to one another. And so, I feel this just sense of awe and love and attachment to it.
And then I feel like a tremendous sense of guilt for feeling that way because I think about my Palestinian friends who have every bit as deep an attachment, and in some ways a deeper and stronger attachment to this place than I do because for mine, it’s more, in some ways, it’s imagined, right. It’s really deeply felt, but it’s imagined in a certain way, right. It’s based on religious belief. Whereas there are so many people who I know, and I profoundly admire for whom it’s less theoretical, right? I mean, their families were here, right, in a particular place in a particular home. They were expelled and for them, traveling here is impossible or extremely difficult. And by difficult, I mean potentially deeply humiliating and oppressive. And so, my joy and delight in some ways is premised on the the creation of this society that was created at their expense. And so, I feel this very strange sense of being whiplashed between the two things.
And then, you know, when I go into the West Bank, and or even into East Jerusalem, which I did several times on this trip, and come back to this Jewish Israel that I love so much, I feel this sense of kind of, you know, how can it be that all these people who I feel so attached to can be kind of living their lives without being concerned, or maybe being actively supportive, of just these horrors that are taking place not far away. Now again, to be fair, that’s not unique to Israel- Palestine. In some ways, you could say the same thing about the United States or any place, right. There are people living their lives, good people, happy people, totally oblivious to the horrors that are happening in other places.
But I do think it is particularly extreme here, given that most of the Palestinians under Israeli control, those in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, are not even citizens of the state, don’t even live under the same legal system as Israeli Jews, and can’t vote for the government that controls their lives. So, that’s another kind of form of deep ambivalence that I feel. I mean, on Friday, I went from the South Hebron Hills, where I mean I just so desperately wish that I could force or just bribe every prominent American politician and commentator who ever writes or talks about Israel to go and spend a day there. Maybe I have too much faith in their humanity, but I genuinely believe that many of them would literally apologize for what they have said. They would basically be a wreck if they saw these things that are happening, and they would be profoundly changed by the experience.
I mean, to meet people whose homes have been under demolition order their entire lives. To see schools that have been burned and destroyed by settler violence. To see kids who literally have to walk kilometers or miles to get to school and are at daily risk of settler attack. And people who who can’t get electricity in their homes, can’t get water because the state won’t provide it to them because the state doesn’t want them there, because the state doesn’t care about them at all. To live under the control of a state that really couldn’t care less whether you live or die and doesn’t want you to live in the place that you are because you are a nuisance, because the state only cares about the Jewish settlers under its control, because they’re citizens and they have the right to vote. And so, the state is accountable to them, and it’s not accountable to you. Which means that the settlers can do whatever the fuck they want to you, basically with almost no repercussions. And the army can do whatever it wants to you. You’re utterly defenseless. And the effort is to push you out of the villages in which you live—I’m talking about the Palestinian villages in Area C—even though you’ve lived there your entire life, and your parents may have lived there, or your parents may have been expelled from somewhere else and had to go there. I mean, it’s horrifying. And then I spent the day doing that, and then I went back to Jerusalem for Shabbat. You know, and I was with family over Shabbat. And it was it was magical. And I just thought like, what is this? Like, which human being am I supposed to be, right? And I don’t know. I have met people who live their lives with a moral consistency in a sense that they are Israeli Jews who are essentially outsiders in their own society because they do everything possible not to be complicit in any way with the apartheid that exists here.
I met someone on my trip to the West Bank who was like that. Someone who told me that they go into the West Bank several times a week just to try to protect people, to put their body on the line because they have the privilege of being an Israeli Jew, to try to protect people as best they can from the relentless violence the Palestinians in the South Hebron Hills feel. And this person told me that basically they only interact with other Israelis in a meaningful way—other Israeli Jews—who are committed to fighting against this inhumanity.
I interviewed Jonathan Pollak a while back. Jonathan Pollak has been repeatedly arrested and is demanding that he go into the military court system, which is reserved for Palestinians because he wants to demand that he not get the privileges of an Israeli Jew. Those are people I think who are by nature kind of prophetic in the way they live their lives. You know, prophets are people who had this just burning hatred of oppression, which consumes them, and they have no capacity to turn that off. They can’t just put it aside. And I look at those people in just absolute awe because I’m not one of those people. I think I’m not like that. Maybe I’m just too comfortable with the privileges that come from all the things that life has handed me that I don’t deserve. Or I’m too tribal, or whatever it is. But I don’t live like that, and I can’t imagine what it takes to live like that. But I think that those people, seem to me, are not ambivalent. They’re not being whipsawed like I am between this kind of love of this society and the hatred of the injustice that permeates it.
And it’s funny, as I came back from the South Hebron Hills on Friday—before Shabbat, I was listening to this podcast, this amazing podcast that I’ve mentioned before actually that’s done by the London Review of Books. I really love it. And as it happened, the podcaster David Ruciman was talking about the essays of Henry David Thoreau. And he was talking about how Thoreau argued for this militant single-minded resistance against oppression. In his case, it was the oppression of slavery and of the Mexican-American War. And Ruciman talked about the personality type that Thoreau was and that Thoreau urged others to be. And it was prophetic, and it was striking. It’s a kind of prophetic personality type. The prophets were deeply, deeply annoying people because they never shut up. They never basically turned off their anger at oppression. And he talks about, Ruciman, talks about this personality type. And he writes, about Thoreau, he writes, ‘the political thing is to wash your hands of your fellow citizens in public, which is unbelievably irritating and offensive. No one’s going to like it. How could they like it? It’s priggish. It’s insufferable. It’s intolerable to have people publicly declare that they’re better than you, that they’ve seen something that you haven’t seen. It will drive people mad. And Thoreau was insufferable.’
And when I read that, I thought, yes, I’ve met people who are like that. The person I was with who drove me back from the South Hebron Hills is a Thoreau-like character. Jonathan Pollak is a Thoreau-like character. Those people are awe-inspiring. And maybe if they were exponentially multiplied a hundred-, a thousand-fold, then apartheid here would fall. And part of what I feel when I’m here is just the recognition, the guilty recognition, that I’m not one of those people. All I can do is kind of perhaps try in a way to help them, or kind of magnify them, their voices. But I’m someone who goes back and forth between trying to speak out against the things that I think are so terrible, and also being enveloped in that very society. And not just being enveloped in it, but loving its embrace. And it’s a very strange set of feelings.
And I guess what I think may be perhaps one of the reasons that I love the idea of one equal state so much, even though I know many people think it’s utterly impractical or utopian, is that it offers for me a chance of reconciliation between those two sides of myself. That I could go to the kotel, as I did on Friday night. I could, you know, put on tefillin, overlooking, you know, the Old City of Jerusalem. Or, you know, I could be walking down the street, and I could be walking down Machane Yehuda. I could delight in Jewish society, and in what’s been created here, and I wouldn’t have that other voice in my head that it’s all built on the degradation and humiliation and brutal oppression of other people, because it wouldn’t be. Because there would be a Jewish society integrated with a Palestinian society, having its own separate features but under conditions of equality and with some measure of historical justice. And then there wouldn’t be these two voices in my head. There would just be one. And that’s for me, the dream of the of the Israel-Palestine that I would like to visit. I don’t know if I ever will visit it, but I suspect that my kids would have the same dream. And maybe, you know, maybe they would be able to see such a place. Again, our call this Friday will be with Haggai Matar at noon ET. I hope many of you will join us.