We may come to recall 1992 as the year of the peace activist in the burgeoning literary and cinematographic record of the Palestinian intifada. By rupturing the structure of the occupation, Palestinian popular collective action and the decisions of the nineteenth Palestine National Council expanded the possibilities for political initiatives by Palestinian and Israeli supporters of a “two-state solution,” including new forms of Palestinian-Israeli collaboration. As this perspective gained credibility as a realizable historical project, its proponents received increasing attention.
The Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians (First Run/Icarus), a documentary film produced by Elizabeth W. Fernea, is a major breakthrough in presenting a humane and reasoned perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to a US television audience. It premiered on PBS on March 1, 1992, and then on April 15 PBS aired a video conference including the film, a panel discussion and live questions from the viewing audience. The panelists comprised the most credible array of commentators on the conflict ever to appear together on US television. Politically engaged Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals — Judy Blanc, Naomi Chazan, Rashid Khalidi and Salim Tamari — spoke with realism, authority and moral commitment, rare qualities in this format.
The film features interviews with a large number of Palestinians and Israelis, including many who have previously received little international exposure. Jad Isaac, a biologist at Bethlehem University and amateur gardener from Bayt Sahour, describes how Israeli forces combed the West Bank searching for his “terrorist cows” after his agricultural self-sufficiency project was banned. His deadpan delivery quietly reveals the practice of occupation. The film is worth seeing for this scene alone. Not all of the interviews overcome the limitations of the “talking heads” format as successfully as Isaac’s intense, understated presentation. It is hard, though, to imagine employing a more innovative artistic technique during the suppression of a popular uprising without putting the subjects of the film and its producers at risk.
The credibility of the film should be enhanced by the absurd attack on it in the July issue of Commentary. In an article replete with factual errors and embedded in a set of assumptions locating its author somewhere in the paleolithic era, Andrea Levin, president of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, took PBS to task for what she considers its consistently anti-Israel stand. This article is the second installment of a new Commentary feature, “Israel Watch” — an innovation in the ongoing efforts of Podhoretz and Co. to delegitimize all opinions except those expressing uncritical support for the most retrograde elements of Israeli society.
“The Struggle for Peace” is a good teaching resource. This purpose is facilitated by publication of a companion book edited by Fernea and Mary E. Hocking, The Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians (Texas, 1992), containing biographical profiles of those who appear in the film, historical background, and essays on conflict resolution and the current state of the conflict.
Penny Rosenwasser, an organizer of progressive political struggles in the Bay Area for over two decades, has been coordinator of special programs for the Middle East Children’s Alliance in the intifada era. Voices from a “Promised Land”: Palestinian and Israeli Peace Activists Speak their Hearts (Curbstone, 1992) collects her conversations with peace activists on two trips to Israel and Palestine in 1989 and 1990, excerpts from telephone interviews for KPFA (Pacifica) radio with five women in East and West Jerusalem during the Gulf war, and post-war interviews with visitors to the US. Rosenwasser’s sensitive questioning enables her interlocutors to share their personal experiences and political visions, rendering their commitments and personalities accessible to an American audience. The Israelis in the book belong to the non-Zionist left, and most of the women, Israelis and Palestinians, identify themselves as feminists. Consequently, this group is more distant from the mainstream of both societies than those presented in “The Struggle for Peace,” but the projects are complementary.
Israeli voices generally have easier access to the international media, so the decision of Deena Hurwitz, editor of Walking the Red Line: Israelis in Search of Justice for Palestine (New Society Publishers, 1992), to offer only the views of Israeli peace activists may be a problematic strategy. But because Israel is the dominant party in the conflict and these individuals oppose, in varying degrees, the policies of their government and the prevailing sentiments in their society, their positions are often less understood than Palestinians who support a peace based on the official position of the PLO.
The excerpt from Michel (Mikado) Warschawski’s speech at a solidarity meeting in his honor (as director of the Alternative Information Center he was jailed for providing printing services to an illegal Palestinian group) articulates the existential dilemma facing Israeli peace activists. Warschawski has adopted a conscious decision to stand on the border between the two societies in order to bridge the gap between them and simultaneously expand the realm of freedom in his own. In contrast, Daphna Golan, research director for the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, despite her dedicated and effective political work, admits that she does not wish to take the personal risks involved in situating themselves on the border. She explains that if she had spent time in jail for illegally demonstrating against the demolition of a Palestinian house she and her friends “would be marginalized and lose all support we had…. We and the Israeli peace movement were not ready for that, and most important…I am not ready to pay this price.”
Though the temptation is great, assigning moral grades to these two statements misses an essential point. Both Warschawski and Golan are personally devoted to the cause of peace. The limitations of their positions describe the structural conditions of Israeli society, including the peace movement: A rigorously consistent position is marginal by definition; a position that is not marginal is inconsistent. In a postmodern world in which the victory of the proletariat does not resolve all contradictions, achieving a just peace will depend on how this contradiction is negotiated, not on its elimination.
This emphasis on process is common to the producers of all of the above works, and it is a manifestation of their feminist sensibility. Some who have long been engaged in the struggle for Palestinian national rights may feel this approach lacks ideological rigor. It is, after all, vital to understand that there is no symmetry between the two peoples, that Zionism was (at least in part) a settler-colonial movement allied with imperialism and, most importantly, that peace cannot simply emerge from building good will but depends on achieving a tolerably just solution to the question of Palestine.
These issues are highlighted in Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi’s Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (Pluto, 1992). Similar in structure and purpose to the anti-Zionist essays of Maxime Rodinson and Nathan Weinstock, its distinctive contribution is the insightful analysis of Israeli identity, which suggests that in the course of creating a Palestinian problem Zionism has not resolved the Jewish problem. Beit-Hallahmi’s exposition corroborates the experiential evidence offered in Fernea’s film and the books edited by Fernea and Hocking, Rosenwasser and Hurwitz. Each in its own way demonstrates the continuing validity of the nineteenth-century maxim that a people which oppresses another cannot itself be free.