Trumpeting a blast of despair
By Akiva Eldar
Ha'aretz Friday, September 15, 2002
The new president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, writer Sami Michael, believes that the conflict with the Palestinians is poisoning Israeli democracy, that Israel's intellectuals are cowards, and that those who demolish Arabs' houses today will do the same tomorrow to Jewish human rights fighters. [Akiva Eldar]
Sami Michael, the new president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), does not read newspapers. The 6 A.M. radio news broadcast and the Channel One television news magazine, "From Today to Tomorrow," are enough, he says, "to get a picture of the dead end." True, this picture spoils his day and the view of the Haifa Bay through the large window of the living room of his home. When they are writing, many authors take time out from reality and seek "peace of mind." Michael writes about reality and truly touches people who are its victims. As we said good-bye, his fax machine spat out a document sent by B'Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Michael related that the good people from that organization are providing him with information about a Palestinian who will be a character in his next book.
The new public title has given him a new trumpet. Michael blows it in great pain at the edge of the wadi. He says that Zionism dreamed of raising a new generation of Jews and failed. "The people who come here are only oppressed Jews, not the ones who have succeeded in adjusting to the developing reality in the world. If there is Jewish thought, it is not created in Israel, but outside it. From so much security, the Jewish state is the most dangerous place for Jews to live. The conflict is polluting us, destroying democratic and liberal values and eradicating the message of a Jewish state that will offer an enlightened existence to the world.
"We are also losing in our competition with our neighbors. I am living in the Middle East and thinking about the members of my generation in Iraq - Jews and Arabs - who were saved from death and fled to Europe. From there they can gaze from on high at what is happening here and perhaps they enjoy peace of mind."
`Mask of the occupier'
Michael says that ever since he came to this country at the age of 22, he has not known what peace of mind is, neither as a Jew nor as an Israeli, nor as a person who believes in democracy and a just society.
"The absence of peace of mind percolates through my work. It seeps into every cell of my body. Ever since I've known myself, I have been involved with civil rights, even in hellish conditions. This began in Iraq, which has never known what democracy is, in a movement for a democratic Iraq. I was educated on Western, liberal, democratic literature and from that place, I saw the reality there, and that's how I see the reality here. Therefore, I agreed to take upon myself the role in ACRI," he says.
A time of war is a difficult time for civil rights. At such times concern for rights seems namby-pamby.
"We are so far behind that it drives me to despair. Not just far behind, but degenerating. Both peoples are poisoned by the psychological warfare, and the horrible thing is that both sides are willing to give up their most basic rights in order to defeat each other. The regime exploits this to trample on and crush human rights even more. The second problem that disturbs me is that we - as an establishment, as a state and as a people - have resigned ourselves to the awful conclusion that it is apparently possible to live without a solution. We have given up the search for a way out and we are not giving up on anything less than the total defeat of the foe. In the nature of things, when it's a matter of a struggle for life and death, any action of crushing the rights of the individual and internal opposition becomes legitimate. Any blow to the other side, even to its children, is also accepted as a legitimate act, as long as it advances the aim of the total defeat of the foe.
"The argument that we are in a state of war is a big lie. An elephant cannot be in a state of war with a fly. We are a military power, facing an occupied people. It is true that this people rains painful blows on us, but we are not fighting for Tel Aviv. Rather, we are fighting for the peace of the Jewish settlements in the territories. There is not a standing army that is threatening us. The chief of staff and his ilk are saying that the Palestinians are a cancer that threatens our existence, because otherwise their existence is not justified. Now, really: An army that has crushed three armies will be defeated by the Al-Aqsa Brigades."
In effect, are you going back to the angry prophecies of Yehoshua Leibowitz about the occupation that is corrupting Israeli society and its values?
Michael: "Yes. Democratic countries, such as France and England, took pride in their democracies at home - and internally they really did maintain a certain degree of democracy - but in their colonies, their people were racists, criminals, aggressive and without any shred of democracy. We are following this dirty path. I remember that even back as a boy in Iraq, there was the Englishman I read about in English literature and the aggressive, murderous Englishman. It was as if these were two completely different people who belonged to cultures that were very far from each other. This gap between the Englishman-outside and the Englishman-at-home is happening now with us.
"The difference is that an empire can allow itself this, as the British soldier who returned from India covered an enormous distance on the way to London. For us, it's a matter of half an hour, and sometimes not 10 minutes go by from the moment the soldier leaves a place where there is almost no law to his home and his family. He has to be made of steel to internalize the difference between the lawless area and home, and ultimately he brings the mask of the occupier home."
Michael also attacks the policy of deporting relatives of suicide attackers that was approved at least in part by the High Court of Justice: "There is no people that has known expulsions the way the Jewish people has. Expulsion accompanies us on the dark side of history and we are doing a great injustice to ourselves in that we are taking the action of expelling a person from his home into exile.
"The abduction of Marwan Barghouti from his home and bringing him to an Israeli prison is also an impermissible act. By doing this we also allow the other side to do the same. One day they will abduct an Israeli government minister and bring him to trial in Ramallah. For the sake of our people and for the sake of the hope for peace, we have to be careful not to bring into an Israeli court a person of the standing of Barghouti, who does not recognize Israeli law and to whom Israeli law does not apply. What would we say if someone were to abduct an Israeli citizen and put him on trial in Chile?"
Michael says that anyone who makes a comparison between Adolf Eichmann and the Palestinian people is blotting the memory of the Holocaust.
Rubinstein as `mouthpiece'
In an interview he gave a few months ago to the journal Orech Din ("Lawyer"), Michael did not mince words when asked to react to the Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein's attack on ACRI because of the criticism the organization had expressed about violations of human rights during Operation Defensive Shield. Among other things, Michael called upon Rubinstein to resign, on the grounds that he had been sullied together with the establishment of the regime. Michael repeated that Rubinstein "forgot his capacity as the attorney general, who is obliged to consider the values of the law. The attorney general thinks that he is another minister in the government and another mouthpiece for it."
During the course of this interview, the radio broadcast the statement by Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit in favor of demolishing the houses of Arab citizens who have helped terrorists. Sami Michael explodes: "There you have it. You see how the occupation seeps into all systems and reaches the pinnacle of the government. We are witnessing the import of the criteria of occupation into the Israeli reality. Even the justice ministers in right-wing governments have until now maintained a certain degree of caution in their statements, and now this Sheetrit is saying that it is possible to demolish the houses of Arabs within the Green Line [the pre-June, 1967 border]. He is like that soldier who, within five minutes, moves from a place where there is no law, no justice and no order to the territory of justice and order."
Michael is convinced that the damage caused by the plague of the occupation will not stop at the Arabs of Israel.
"Those who embark on the dangerous path of deportations and demolishing houses will end up finding themselves also using these means against Jews. I have already heard ministers who have said that a Jewish terrorist also has to be deported. Today they will demolish the home of an Israeli Arab, and tomorrow they will demolish the home of a Jew who dares to say that they are not right. The moment the umbrella is torn, we will also have the rain coming down on our heads. The same weapons that are now being aimed at the foe beyond the Green Line will be aimed at you tomorrow, at me, and at every person who believes in freedom, democracy and civil rights.
"This has happened to states, which I don't want to name, that have taken the path of aggression. We are not immune and if the leadership continues on this path, it will lead the State of Israel to destruction. Things like this develop gradually, bit by bit, and we get used to them and adopt them. Twenty years, ago they put Abie Nathan in prison for having dared to talk to Yasser Arafat, with whom afterward nearly all the prime ministers spoke. And now they're summoning Shulamit Aloni for interrogation about the same thing. This process of making blood free game already exists.
"They murdered a prime minister for having dared to try to lead the people on the path of peace. He did not give up a single centimeter. Even before he was assassinated, the right carried his coffin on its shoulders. The person who won was not the man who was murdered, but the murderer, as in the elections the right came into power on the slogan of `Oslo criminals.' Because the situation is getting worse we have grown, accustomed to everything."
On the phenomenon of liquidations, or the euphemism "pinpoint deterrence," Michael says: "The biggest problem is, and this was also the case in Lebanon, that you can't expect people who are in the mud to dance ballet. Therefore, I do not blame the pilot and the battalion commander who are in an unbearable situation. When there is a plague, you can't blame the anonymous person who infected you. The bacteria of the occupation are everywhere. It is polluting Judaism as a religion and the state that was supposed to have been democratic and liberal. It is infecting people whom we raised to peace, to flowers, to a normal life."
Michael rejects the description "pacifist." He prefers to say that he does not see himself shooting at "live flesh" or holding a weapon. If he were to serve in a combat unit, he would ask to be a medic. He says that the criminals are not the people who are refusing to do military service in the territories, but rather the people who are compelling our beautiful young people to shoot to kill. He especially despises the term "purity of arms." Michael believes that there is no weapon that is not polluted, as it is intended to kill others.
"From ancient times until now, from Alexander of Macedonia to George W. Bush, there's the danger that if you hoard arms, you won't withstand the temptation to use them. It pays more than throwing them in the garbage. The wisdom of the Soviet Union was that it threw out its military power. The Unites States is going a dangerous militaristic route of replacing the use of deterrence with the use of force."
Here, too, the opposition to the use of force has grown weaker, together with a strengthening of the argument that there is no partner.
"We have long crossed the line of deterrence and are throwing the last bullet and plane into the fray. The use of the Apache against civilians is like sending in an elephant to kill five ants in an anthill. Instead of using materiel as deterrence, we are wasting it and thus helping the foe to overcome the barrier of fear. The legend that will remain in the end is the Palestinian child facing the Israeli tank.
"The most annoying thing is that we are putting off the peace process, on the grounds that there is no democracy on the other side. In this way, we are losing more and more of our democracy day by day, waiting for their democracy. There was something similar during the era of McCarthyism in the United States, until several courageous people arose to stop this dangerous phenomenon. They warned that in the course of the war against the absence of democracy in Soviet Russia, the United States was losing its own democracy. The slogan that a people that enslaves another people ends up losing its own freedom has never been as applicable as it is today. I want to see the courageous people among Israeli intellectuals, thinking people, people to whom democracy is important - take on that same courage those Americans took upon themselves who told McCarthy to go home."
Michael blames the Israeli left for not having known how to read the map and dancing too early in the streets after Oslo, then with the first failure losing the impetus and remaining impotent in the face of the situation.
"The left's main problem," says Michael, "is that it has no roots among the people. This is an intellectual left that is connected to all kinds of international organizations, more than to its own people. These are coddled people who cannot look the difficult reality straight in the eye and propose difficult answers. The Labor Party's participation in the unity government also expresses the bankruptcy of the left. It is staying in the government because if it were to leave today, its power would dwindle. This is plain opportunism. I would expect them to commit suicide with dignity and not give [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon more backing to the [process of the] distancing from peace. The leadership crisis, among us and among the Palestinians, has resulted in the mob controlling the situation and dragging us into a struggle until the total defeat of the rival tribe."
Here he blasts his trumpet straight at his colleagues, the writers and the intellectuals: "The sweep to the right in Israeli society and the brainwashing are also working on the intellectuals and on the writers, who used to think in a more balanced way. The ship of humane values is losing its captain. Jewish intellectuals have never before descended to such a nationalist position."
"Yes, cowardice, maybe out of fear of losing their jobs. I listen to radio programs, and I've noticed that broadcasters who had been imbued with democratic values have disappeared and in their place people with flat brains are sprouting up. For every sane listener who calls into the talk shows, they bring nine crazies onto the air. The expression `Oslo criminals' rolls around there every day. Those criminals, of course, are those same Jews who tried to realize the dream of peace.
"To my regret, it appears that before the two peoples realize that there is no other way but peace, they need a big slaughter. I hope that economic slaughter will be enough, as happened in the Soviet Union and to the white regime in South Africa. They too were equipped with nuclear power and were defeated in the economic field. One of the most painful scenes I have seen was of a line of Arabs standing at the Erez checkpoint and shouting that they were hungry. The day is not far off when we will also see this picture in Israel. I have heard that many schoolchildren began the school year without any breakfast. This is also a kind of violation of human rights - the right to eat and to learn and the right to live with dignity."
Michael would like the schools to devote more attention to humane values and human rights. He believes that this is the appropriate way to deal with violence in the schools - not maintaining "distance" between student and teacher, as Education Minister Limor Livnat would have it.
"Totalitarian regimes failed when they tried to deal with disciplinary problems by giving almost military status to the teacher, to the policeman, to the educator," says Michael. "They did not succeed in this in the communist regimes either. I think that if a student calls a teacher by her first name, the moral influence of this teacher is 10 times greater than if he addresses her as `Teacher.'"
In his novel "Trumpets in the Wadi," which he wrote more than 15 years ago, Michael told of the love of a young immigrant from Russia for an Israeli Arab woman. Before we said good-bye, I asked him whether today he would write a story like that.
Michael: "I would not take a character like [Housing and Construction Minister] Natan Sharansky. I am suspicious of his Zionism and also of his loyalty to his friends who fought alongside him for human rights. Instead of bringing us something from the rich Russian culture, he and [National Union-Yisrael Beitenu MK Avigdor] Lieberman have brought the Russian brutality. I took the character of the young Russian in my book from a fellow who came to Israel before the big wave of immigrants, who were fed the poison that Israel needed them to neutralize the East and fight the Arabs."