Solidarity and Realpolitik: My Response to Jeff Halper
By Susan Abulhawa
Some years ago, I was on a panel with three men, Jeff Halper among them, at a Sabeel conference in Pennsylvania. Each panelist was asked to give their vision for a solution to the 'Palestine/Israel conflict'. Because I was sitting at the end of the table, I was the last to speak. I listened to each one of my fellow participants lay out different versions of a two-state solution, each more depressing than the other, each with irrelevant nuances (all previously articulated by Israel, by the way) on how to make the refugee problem just go away. They spoke the tired talk of land swaps, compromise, several surreal highways that bypass humanity for miles on end, and more creative solutions designed to circumvent the application of human rights where Palestinians are concerned.
When my turn came, I spoke of Palestinians being accorded the same basic rights that apply to the rest of humanity, including the right to return to one’s home after fleeing a conflict. I spoke of equality under the law regardless of religion. I spoke of a construct that would prevent one group from systematically oppressing another. I spoke of human dignity and the universal right to it. I spoke of equal access to resources, including water, regardless of religion.
I will never forget Jeff Halper’s response, which he was eager to voice even before I had finished speaking. He began with a smile, the way an adult might smile at the naive remarks of a small child. He needed to give me a lesson in reality, and proceed to tell me, in the patronizing way of someone who knows best, that my vision lacked “how shall I say it…Realpolitik”.
I did not waiver then, nor have I since, on my position that Palestinians are not a lesser species who should be required to aspire to compromised human dignity in order to accommodate someone else’s racist notions of divine entitlement.
That said, I do not consider Jeff Halper racist and I acknowledge the mostly positive impact he has had in bringing attention to one of Israel’s enduring cruelties, namely the systematic demolition of Palestinian homes as a tool to effectuate ethnic cleansing of the native non-Jewish population. But in my view, that does not entitle him to speak of what Palestinians should or shouldn’t do. I also don’t think it qualifies him as an anti-zionist when he clearly accepts the privilege accorded to Jews only. After all, Jeff Halper is an American from Minnesota who made aliyah (Israel’s entitlement program that allows Jews from all over the world to take up residence in my homeland, ultimately in place of the expelled natives). Perhaps is it my lack of Realpolitik, but I cannot reconcile embracing the very foundation of zionism on one hand, and calling oneself an anti-zionist on the other.
In a recent interview on Al Jazeera’s website with Frank Barat, he did just that. He also laid out a dismal scenario for the future of Palestinians, based on what Israel is very likely plotting, namely the annexation of Area C and the pacifying of the Palestinian Authority (also likely) with economic incentives and mini Bantustans they can call a state. But he missed the mark, repeatedly, when it came to Palestinians themselves, as if he sized us all up with a glance and decided he was not impressed. Despite the burgeoning nonviolent resistance taking place all over Palestine, in various forms ranging from demonstrations, significant solidarity campaigns, hunger strikes, and more, he says that “[Palestinian] resistance is impossible” now. At best, he trivializes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is the first coordinated nonviolent movement of Palestinians inside and outside of Palestine that has also managed to inspire and capture imaginations of individuals and organizations all over the world to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom. Again, my lack of Realpolitik here, but to me, creating a situation where it is possible to force the implementation of human rights and restore dignity to Palestinian society is in itself an end. Jeff Halper seems unable to consider anything other than a negotiated agreement to be an end.
He enumerates all that is wrong with internal Palestinian issues. Of course there are problems. We know our leadership is doing little more than pick up the trash and keep people in line while Israel steals more and more of our land. We are not happy about it either. But he seems to suggest that he, along with other Israelis I presume, have been carrying the burden of resolving this conflict.
In one instance he says:
“We’ve (I assume Israeli leftists?) brought this to governments, we've raised public awareness, we've had campaigns, we've done this for decades, we've made this collectively, one of two or three really global issues. But without Palestinians we can only take it so far.”
Then he adds:
“I am trying to challenge a little bit my Palestinian counterparts. Where are you guys?”
If I read this correctly (and I will grant the benefit of the doubt that it was not meant as it reads), then he clearly sees himself at the forefront of the Palestinian struggle where his Palestinians counterparts are disorganized, haphazard, or not present. He even suggests that at this crucial time, “Palestinians have to take over,” further supporting the suggestion that Palestinians are not at the helm of the resistance.
He also asserts that importing Jews from all over the world to live in colonies built on land confiscated from private Palestinian owners is “not settler colonialism”. What is it then?
But back to his strange assertion that Palestinians “should take over” (from whom?), he describes an instance where he refused to participate in the global march to Jerusalem because the Palestinian organizers (who took over?) did not want to include the world “Israel,” the name of the country that denies our very existence and seeks in every way to eradicate us. Is it that Jeff Halper wants “Palestinians to take over” as long as Palestinians do so in a way that does not offend the sensitivities of the very people deriving privilege at their expense? That is not how solidarity works.
I don’t presume to tell Israelis what they should or should not do but I would like to see Israelis concentrate on their own failures rather than ours. I would sure like to hear those who have made aliyah acknowledge that it was not their right to do so; that making aliyah is a crime against the native people who have been and continue to be forcibly expelled to make way for those making aliyah. I would like to hear an apology. The trauma that Palestinians feel is very much part of the Realpolitik and it is not unlike the trauma in the Jewish psyche. It comes from the same humiliation and anguish of not being considered fully human. Of being treated like vermin by those with the guns.
If Halper truly understood that, perhaps dropping the word “Israel” – a word that hovers over the rubble of our destroyed homes and suffuses the pain at our collective core – would have been a no brainer expression of solidarity.
Note: This article appeared on May 4 in
Susan Abulhawa is the author of Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010) and the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine (www.playgroundsforpalestine.org).