JERUSALEM—On May 23, a windy Sunday afternoon, I visited Jeff Halper, co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, at his office (14 King George). He only apologizes for his nagging cough caught from a passing bout with pneumonia. Born in 1946 and an oleh from the early 1970s, he is a prominent activist who now has an Israeli family into its third generation (a granddaughter lives here).
The talk, mostly his and also including many of my interjections, ranged from the sort of abstract to the more practical. In short, he is a dangerous man. The fact that he has escaped arrest from the current aggressively reactionary leadership is almost miraculous.
Presenting part one, below.
JH: A lot of young people here. The whole Sheikh Jarrah protests come out of this office… B’Tselem is more of a human rights organization, we’re more of a political organization. B’Tselem doesn’t go on demonstrations; they monitor and document human rights abuses.
AC: The overlap is the human rights focus, obviously.
JH: Yeah… but we’re dedicated to ending the occupation. I mean that’s our goal.
A few people milled around to say hey to Jeff, including a British woman around his age who complained that her MP is an “arch-Zionist.” It was apparent that Jeff makes visits to their parliament. Awards and citations hung around the walls; one was an embossed plaque from the Palestinian National Assembly that certified his commitment to the welfare of the people. He does not much care for their leadership. Behind him hung a framed cartoon by Carlos Latuff, a rabidly anti-Israel artist, which depicted a strangely contorted Israeli soldier with “BLOCKADE” written across his ass watching in mute horror as ships delivering medicine arrived at the shores of Gaza.
Jeff handed me a slew of material, including a pamplet titled “Counter-rhetoric: challenging the conventional wisdom & reframing the conflict.” One of its authors was Emily Schaeffer, who was recently featured in Haaretz magazine. Like Jeff, Emily was originally American and has become a thorn in the side of the establishment. In another way, like Emily, Jeff and his cohorts have become an establishment of their own, spearheading the efforts of Israel’s civil rights community.
JH: She [Emily] says her first home was ICAHD.
AC: Your hometown is Hibbing, Minnesota, same hometown as Bob Dylan [b. Robert Zimmerman]. Any personal relation?
JH: I knew him. There weren’t that many Jewish kids in our little town. But he’s five years older than I am… his brother’s my age. I knew his mother.
AC: He clearly avoided a lot of political activism… and then in the 80s he released a famous song, “Neighborhood Bully,” which never mentions Israel but it’s obvious what it’s about.
(Neighborhood bully, he’s just one man/his enemies say, He’s on their land/they got him outnumbered, about a million to one/he’s got no place to escape to, no place to run)
At that point we began talking about the ongoing “cultural boycott” of Israel, with Elvis Costello and others being a case in point.
JH: Leonard Cohen was half-successful… he said he’d come and then he offered to perform in Ramallah as well; and the Palestinians said, No, if you want to perform in Ramallah you’re welcome but not as a tail-end to Israel.
AC: What about performing in Ramallah and performing in Israel as a tail-end, would that have been okay?
JH: Well, it was a tack-on kind of thing… But what he did is he donated the proceeds from the concert to Israeli peace organizations.
AC: This one?
JH: No, unfortunately we weren’t one of them. Do you know how much money he made?
AC: No idea.
JH: Six million dollars. So he gave $6 million to Israeli peace groups, more mainstream… although Breaking the Silence [anti-occupation organization started by Israeli reservists] got a part of it.
AC: But even the mainstream human rights groups are under serious attack... are you guys weathering the storm?
[Over the past several months, a climate of McCarthyite repression has been sweeping over the country, condemning dissidents as traitorous agents of foreign governments who want to destroy the state. This campaign has appeared to have peaked with a Knesset proposal to deny NGOs the ability to do their work because they are thought to be subversive.]
JH: It’s not going to succeed... they can’t do because right-wing organizations get much more money from abroad than we do.
Israel is “losing it,” he added. I asked if meant in the sense of going crazy. He means losing everything.
JH: You can be militarily strong, but when you lose the war of legitimacy—it’s over. South Africa could beat the ANC [African National Congress] any day of the week, the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons, the Shah of Iran had a big army. Once your lose your legitimacy, it’s just a countdown until it collapses… Israel has lost its legitimacy. All the arguments and all the bullshit about, you know, ‘terrorism’ and ‘Israel is under attack’ and this and that, and ‘there is no occupation’…
AC: ‘There is no Palestine.’
JH: Right, all that stuff is just worn out. It’s gone. Especially after Gaza. Israel is now trying to fight all these rearguard actions, but I think it’s in desperation.
AC: So you’re living in an illegitimate country.
JH: I don’t think Israel is illegitimate, the occupation is illegitimate.
AC: You suggest that that reflects on the country as a whole.
JH: Israel cannot be a Jewish country. It’s not sustainable—to have in the 21st century a country based on privileging one particular group… that’s racism, that’s colonialism. It just doesn’t work anymore; it was an idea, sixty seventy 100 years ago, you’re living in a different era. You just can’t do it, especially because half the population of this country is Palestinian, if you include the occupied territories… In other words, the country that Israel is claiming, the Land of Israel, for itself—it’s incorporated the occupied territories, they’re not gonna be let go—it means that Israel has incorporated another four million Palestinians.
“Which means that you have a binational reality that’s partly what’s here and partly created by Israel, because if it had agreed to the two-state solution it wouldn’t have happened,” he added, while I was finishing off the last of the orange-flavored Belgian chocolates he had lying on the table.
JH: Israel is a country whose ideology—its time has passed.… What it’s going to become is an interesting question: a democratic country of all its citizens next to a Palestinian state… a one-state, democratic state like South Africa… a ‘binational’ state, which is more plausible; maybe a Middle East confederation, like the EU was thirty years ago. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Halper consistently made clear that he and his group do not back any particular “solution” to the conflict; end the occupation—as one of the posters styled like an eye chart reads—and the rest will follow.
AC: What do you think is the most possible?
JH: The most possible is some kind of binational state. Well actually none of them is possible in Israeli terms. Israel won’t agree to any of them. The only option Israel has, from its own point of view, is apartheid.
AC: [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak suggested as much in January.
JH: That’s right, [former PM Ehud] Olmert also said that. That’s what Israel is looking for. They’re looking for a Palestinian Authority weak enough that will sign off on a Bantustan… in which Israel expands from 78 percent of the country to 85 percent, completely encircles the so-called Palestinian state. That’s the kind of two-state solution that’s really apartheid.
He flipped through one of his books, showing several maps depicting what he has called “the matrix of control”: the apparatus of settlements, for him a euphemism for colonies, the settler-only highways and roads, checkpoints, and the separation barrier. The maps in his possession show a Palestinian archipelago, basically three cantons visibly cut off from each other. A word he insisted on using was “confined,” evoking the image of an animal pen.
AC: The main focus of your work is the problem of house demolitions.
JH: We’re what I call a big picture organization. Our vehicle is through the issue of house demolitions because that helps you get a handle—the way Israel frames things, the Israeli way of framing things is, Everything we do is for security.… It’s not true with house demolitions. Israel has demolished more than 24,000 Palestinian homes in the occupied territories since ’67. That doesn’t include thousands of more inside Israel.… Israel doesn’t grant building permits to Palestinians.
He mentioned the usage of the “victim” card. “We’re the victims,” he says, and they’re bad, so it all happens within that logic.
AC: You mentioned Gaza. Just the other day Hamas, which is a terrorist organization, demolished—
JH: —well I don’t accept that—
AC: You don’t?
JH: ‘Terrorist’ is a loaded word… Israel has killed many more Palestinians than Hamas has, why isn’t Israel a terrorist organization? Because we’re a state… We use human rights language. It is prohibited to kill or harm innocent civilians; I don’t care who you are.
He added that ICAHD wrote a piece condemning Hamas’s demolition of Gazan homes.
JH: A rights-based approach covers the entire board.… It allows you to condemn whoever is violating international law.
AC: It’s universal.
JH: If you use a ‘terrorist’ language, it’s selective. It’s whoever you decide is a terrorist.
AC: There’s no ‘intentionality’ in the law?
JH: No, no—
AC: What matters is what happens?
JH: This whole thing of intention is shaky, because what does that mean? What was Israel’s intention in Gaza?
AC: It had a stated aim… to stop the rocketing.
JH: …You can talk about attacks on Israel, we can talk about resistance. The Palestinian is living in a cage, besieged. There are Israeli military people counting the number of calories going into Gaza. Johns Hopkins University did a study, 30 percent of Palestinian kids are malnourished in Gaza; they have no homes, 7-8,000 homes have never been rebuilt, the last almost year-and-a-half now. If you begin to call all resistance ‘terrorism,’ you take all the poor people of the world, the millions the billions of poor people that are trying to resist the capitalist states coming in and taking their resources and exploiting them… they become the ‘bad guys,’ because that’s the language. Our intent isn’t to kill them, it’s to develop them, help them—
AC: Give them a better life.
JH: They’re just attacking because they’re terrorists. That whole language completely distorts, it’s very self-serving.
AC: You’re saying that the entire situation is very ill-served by how we even talk about it.
JH: The language that we use leads us to certain conclusions.
Jerusalem itself is a sticking point for the world and took up its respective space between us.
JH: In 1950, actually in 1948, Israel and Jordan went into the war together. Palestinians didn’t attack Israel—
AC: No, the Jordanian Army.
JH: Israel and Jordan went into the war as allies. The division of the country that came out of ’48, which is pretty much the division today, was agreed upon before the war began. There were only two places where they didn’t agree: Jerusalem and Latrun. Those were the only two places were there was fighting between the armies and in both cases Israel lost.
AC: In Jerusalem?
JH: In Jerusalem they lost. They were thrown out of the Old City.
AC: …Well in ’67 Israel was able to recapture—
JH: It was never ‘ours’ to begin with. The Old City wasn’t Israeli.… There was a population transfer in ’48, where less than 2,000 Jews from the Old City, the Jewish Quarter, mainly… Ultra-Orthodox were transferred into Israel by Jordan. And 30,000 Palestinians, who had homes in West Jerusalem, were transferred to Jordan. They lost everything. Forty percent of West Jerusalem was owned by Palestinians in 1948. It wasn’t like, We were here plus the Jewish Quarter… on the western side almost half was Palestinian.
AC: I never knew that.
JH: …We took all the neighborhoods. So the problem with Sheikh Jarrah is that the Jews are now coming back to reclaim all the areas that they had in East Jerusalem, but Palestinians aren’t allowed to go the other way. What about all their properties? Half of Ben Yehuda St and a good part of Jaffa [St] was owned mainly by Palestinians.
AC: So when Elie Wiesel wrote in a public letter that Palestinians are free to buy property in West Jerusalem it’s not true?
JH: Of course. They could never do that. My neighborhood? They wouldn’t be allowed to set foot [in it].
AC: He just doesn’t know?
JH: Shimon Peres… said on Jerusalem Day, ‘All Palestinians have the right of freedom of worship.’ It’s simply not true! A Christian of Bethlehem can’t go pray in the Holy Sephulcre and a Muslim in Ramallah can’t go pray in Al-Aqsa… [Whether] he doesn’t know or he’s just bullshitting, it’s just a spin. I don’t know about Elie Wiesel… it’s a simple lie. The fact that you don’t have Arabs living in West Jerusalem, it’s not just by chance.
On June 4, part two will be published.