Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam


A Three Part Interview Roundtable
Part 2 – Michal Zak (read part 1 here)

Michal Zak is a forty-nine year old Jewish resident of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a village with a population mandated at exactly 50% Palestinian Arab/Israeli Jew. She’s been living at Neve Shalom for twenty-two years. For twenty-one of those years she’s held a facilitator position at the School For Peace.

JN: Do you see the conflict in Israel/Palestine as a clash of religions or nationalist identities? Or both?

MZ: I see religion as yet another means to an end in the conflict, not as the source of it. I think the source is deeper. It’s cultural. One group, the Israeli Jews, with the military and economic power have also the power to persuade everyone that we Jews are better, more moral, better human beings, superior, humane, developed, and so on. That gives us the justification to occupy and control and not give equal rights.

JN: Why did you join NSWAS?

MZ: I thought it was a good idea to build a model based on equality. Also I liked the idea of doing something deeper than going to demonstrations, I liked to work in education and I was offered a job at the School For Peace.

JN: So what exactly does the School for Peace do?

a building in Gaza destroyed during the war with Lebanon

a building in Gaza destroyed during the war with Lebanon

MZ: The SFP is a center for political education with the goal of creating a more humane, equal, and just society. Raising awareness of the nature of majority – minority group power relations remains an important goal for us.  But we’ve begun to regard this awareness as an elementary first stage towards higher aims that must be laid out more explicitly. After all, we cannot end our workshops satisfied only by knowing that the Jewish participants have become more aware of the existence of discrimination and that the Palestinian participants have been made aware of just how extreme the mainstream Jewish positions in Israel are. The workshop must lead participants to an understanding of what it is that constructs the racist positions that we confront.

Dont miss The Rumpus interview with Malcolm Gladwell

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For years we regarded the political discussion as the principle subject. We insisted on putting the most difficult issues on the table. We still insist on this. However it is the dialogue on fundamental feelings of superiority and inferiority behind the political positions that we now identify as the difficult issue to be addressed. In working towards liberation from oppression each group confronts a different task. It is up to us to create a space in which Jewish participants can identify and struggle against the racism in their society and in themselves while the Palestinian participants work towards making their voices heard. Racism is a difficult subject to confront, especially when we define racism by tying it to power. There is plenty of racism of stronger groups towards weaker groups within Palestinian society, however in the Jewish – Palestinian context our work must be on racism in Jewish society. Post-colonialist literature teaches us that the work of the minority group is to make its presence known – or in other words to resist. Even within the relatively protected environment of the workshop when Palestinians say what is on their mind they risk being accused of sabotaging the dialogue or of being labeled by Jewish participants as extreme or even violent. How often does one want to deal with such attacks? The choice to remain silent or “nice” is often the easier path. The very effort required of the Palestinians to make their voices heard exposes a painful level of internalized oppression against which they must struggle. As each group overcomes its own side of the struggle they build the grounds for true dialogue and cooperation towards a more equal society.

JN: How many students have gone through the School For Peace?

MZ: About 40,000.

JN:  Relate for me, if you will, a favorite anecdote illustrating the power of the encounter method, in which you bring together Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians for intense, confrontational workshop sessions.

MZ: I’ll share with you one particularly interesting meeting that took place in the last Tel-Aviv University group. One male participant from the Jewish group and one male participant from the Arab group were very dominating in the dialogue and they pulled the discussion towards a historical and political debate. Usually we would see such a discussion as a deviation from the “here and now,” and we would try and bring the group to talk about the inter-group relations as they are manifested in the workshop setting. This time we decided to give these two participants the space to lead the discussion away from the kind of subject matter that we usually focus on. They conducted an intellectual dual over historical accounts and political analyses which were at times exhausting, but their insistence on examining every detail and concept led to some new channels of dialogue. Naturally, this was not the first time that participants argued with each other over history, but this time we allowed the group to deepen their historical debate and the results were fascinating.
At one point, a Jewish student turned to an Arab student from Kufer Qassem asking her how they deal with the infamous massacre at her town. The Arab student briefly told the story of the men and women from Kfar Kassem who were on their way home from work in 1956, unaware of a curfew that had been imposed by the Israeli Army, when 49 of them were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers. We asked her to expand on the story because some of the Jewish students might not be aware of the details. The Jewish group immediately responded, offended by the suggestion that they did not know the story of Kufer Kassem. They said that the story is taught both in high school and in the army. We suggested that the Arab student continue since the Jews had never heard it in the Arab’s voice. She continued the story. Occasionally one of the Jewish students supplemented the story with a detail or two and when she finished the Jewish group confirmed that that was exactly how they learned the story. Jewish students went on to explain that the story is taught in the army as an example of an illegal order. It was a case in which it was illegal to follow the commander’s order to open fire.
Having easily reached agreement on the facts of the Kufer Kassem event, the students then turned to the question of how they interpret it. The Jews refer to the massacre as a horrible exception to the norms of the Israeli army. The soldiers were tried and punished and the lesson is taught to future generations of Israeli soldiers thereby upholding their higher moral standards. The Arabs regard Kufer Kassem as one link in a chain of atrocities, from Dir Yasin and Tantur to Sabra and Shatila. In addition, the soldiers were tried and received 17 years in jail, and were released after three years. Even if it is not Israel’s declared policy, the students said, as far as they are concerned the results on the ground demonstrate a systematic attack on the Palestinian people.
Everyone was surprised by the other’s interpretation of a story that they had all learned. It deepened their understanding that this conflict is supported by a web of images and assumptions that give meaning to the facts of history, even when these facts are not contested.

JN: How hard is it for people to adjust their way of looking at the conflict to include another group’s narrative?

MZ: Hard, if you were brought up and manipulated by your own group to be centered in your own group. Otherwise I think it’s easy, but to fight the truths you were taught all your life, and that are the invisible base of your society, this is very hard and threatening.

JN: In an earlier conversation you told me that, “Palestinian resistance is also a factor to the change.” Does that include suicide bombs?

MZ: Resistance is always more morally justified than attack by a conqueror. So it cannot be judged in the same way. The strength of the Israeli army, and the fact that we are a state, which signed international treaties and accords makes a difference as well. Now specifically about the Palestinian resistance and violence: I don’t think one should talk about suicide bombers separately from other things. I don’t think it is any different than for example leaving a bomb somewhere in Israel and driving away before it explodes. That for me is the same, it’s in the category of violence against civilians—as opposed to violence against soldiers which is the most legitimate, and violence against settlers, which is second on my list. But I don’t think that if they decided to attack in the cities in Israel that it matters how, it just makes me see how desperate they are to use this kind of human bomb, and that is depressing and scary. I know it seems like the ultimate evil and inhumane thing, I know it makes one think suicide bombers represent all Arabs or Moslems and that therefore all Arabs and Moslems have no value to life, even their own. But I don’t see it this way. I can imagine one becoming so desperate that blowing yourself up for the cause could be an option. It is very hard to keep hope alive in some situations.
On the other hand, the Israeli army does war crimes against the Palestinian civilians, but it is more sophisticated, in airplanes, and tanks, so it seems more legitimate. It’s within the game of warfare. I used to think that killing with a knife, with your bare hands was more barbaric than using a gun or other weapon and I think we are taught to think that, but I don’t think that’s true any more.

a street closed in Jerusalem after a bomb scare

a street closed in Jerusalem after a bomb scare

JN: So to you, what the IDF does to the Palestinians is essentially just a more sophisticated form of terrorism than that which the Palestinians conduct?

MZ: First, I don’t use the term IDF anymore, I call it the Israeli army. Second, it is not terrorism because the official definition of terrorism is when the violence is not authorized by the State, so everything the Palestinians do is terrorism because they don’t have an army—but that doesn’t make it unjustifiable. On the other hand, the Israeli army is doing things that are so far from defense these days. It is doing things that are definitely war crimes, no doubt about it, it’s just that we are on the side of the “good guys” in the world, so we are not being persecuted or even reprimanded for what the army is doing. I can tell you that I know first hand of things that are blatantly war crimes, like bombing into resident areas, and pressuring sick people to become collaborators, in exchange for medical treatment, and dropping cluster bombs into Lebanon. Don’t get me started.

See Also: Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam Part 1

Jesse Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, the American Poetry Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Nation. He was born in Berkeley, grew up in Kansas, and lives now in San Francisco. More from this author →