Extra Left

This article is based on an interview with Dr. Nurit Peled Elhanan, Israeli peace activist, lecturer at Hebrew University, and mother of 13-year-old daughter Smadari Elhanan who was killed 11 years ago by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

The interview and article, by Yuval Hyman, were prompted by a letter written by Dr. Peled Elhanan to the European Parliament on the occasion of the the 20th anniversary of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which she shared with fellow peace activist and Palestinian writer Izzat Ghazzawi in 2001.

The article was originally published in the Israeli newspaper Maariv, on January 2, 2009. The English translation by George Malent was supplied to AWR by Dr. Peled Elhanan. See also"We Are All Victims of the Occupation," a 2007 article written by Dr. Peled Elhanan,

Dr. Nurit Peled Elhanan is a post-Zionist. Did I say “post”? She is more Palestinian than Arafat. A lecturer at Hebrew University who was bereft of her daughter, she takes the side of the Palestinians, is sure that terrible slaughter is taking place in Gaza, and believes that we are all racists and that everyone here bears guilt for the situation. A particularly stormy interview.

It appears that for the first time in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global public opinion is notably leaning in Israel’s favour. The President of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen, and the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmad Abu al-Gheith, were not the only ones who supported – if indirectly – the air force’s attack.

They were joined by actors which up to today had been considered definitely pro-Palestinian. Even the BBC, a broadcasting organization that for years was seen as the mouthpiece of the leaders of Gaza and the West Bank, gave the stage to both sides. Even politicians of the left were silent. The only ones within Israel who expressed opposition to the military process were the Minister of Culture, Science and Sport, Ghaleb Majadle, and MK Ahmad Tibi.

But not only they; also Dr. Nurit Peled Elhanan, the professor at the School of Education at Hebrew University, who also teaches at the David Yellin College of Education and Tel Aviv University, won the European Union’s Sakharov Prize for Human rights and Freedom of Thought in 2001.

Last week she sent a letter to the prize committee, congratulating Hu Jia of China on the occasion of his winning the Sakharov prize and dedicated her words to the heroes of Gaza, as she put it. “The pogrom being carried out by the thugs of the Occupation army against the residents of the Gaza Strip is known to everyone and yet the world is impotent as always”, she went on to write.

That letter came to the attention of the journalist Ben-Dror Yemini and he discussed it in his column last weekend in the Sabbath supplement of Maariv.

“In fact,” wrote Yemini, “there is no need to wait for any action of on the part of Israel. The lie industry is already running full steam.” Yemini proceeded to quote from the words of Peled Elhanan in her discussion of cities of slaughter. “She writes about cities of slaughter,” continues Yemini, “but she knows that Israel has never carried out a slaughter, and nothing that approaches a slaughter, during more than 40 years of occupation … but since when to anti-Semites deal with the facts?”

Dr. Peled Elhanan is a fervent and active representative of a minority that belongs to the margins of the margins of the radical left. Since the beginning of the action in Gaza her positions have been perceived as particularly utopian.  She acknowledges her membership in the minority, which she herself has defined as marginal and utopian.

“That person is pathological”, she said in response to Yemini’s column. “Pathological. Everyone in the world today who wants peace, brotherhood, good neighbourliness and for children to live and not die is seen as an anti-Semite. Do you understand? They took that concept that had meaning and drained it. Why? I hate Jews because I want there to be peace? That is the logic? Something is distorted. So today everyone who criticizes the Occupation and the Israeli terror regime that is so contrary to everything that is Jewish, is an anti-Semite?”

Zionist certificate

I meet Dr. Peled Elhanan (59) at a restaurant near her home, and she is agitated. She is the daughter of the late Reserve General Matti Peled, who was a Canaanite for a short time, a PhD lecturer in Arabic literature, a Member of the Knesset for the Progressive List for Peace and – how symbolic! – the military governor of Gaza in 1956. She grew up in a home with a staunchly leftist outlook in the Rehavia neighbourhood. “I grew up in a Zionist-Leftist home”, she relates. “My mother is from the Katznelson family. My grandfather was in Brit Shalom”.

And how come you abandoned Zionism?

My father always said that Zionism had completed its function the moment the State of Israel was created. He said we should move on, this is not something one should get stuck on. I do not think that the Occupation is Zionism. My father, by the way, had a certificate in his pocket. Somebody said of him that he was anti-Zionist and he sued him for slander and the High Court gave him a certificate that he was a Zionist and he carried it in his pocket. My father was the Zionist, that is Zionism. The Occupation is not Zionism. He was very proud to be a Zionist. It was the left. My grandfather was in Brit Shalom during the thirties and their platform was a binational state.”

Why the need for a binational state?

“Why not? You come here, there are people here who need to live together in equality.”

A point that very much angers Peled Elhanan is the treatment of Israel’s Arabs. “The expression “Israel’s Arabs” itself is racist”, she says, “and it explains why they do not have national or cultural rights. Arabic is an official language in the State of Israel, but there is no Arabic-language institution of higher education. Most of the signage is not in Arabic. The entire linguistic landscape of Israel is one big manifestation of racism. Look at the sub-titles on television. They have no rights, not as a national group, not as a cultural group. Our school textbooks do not speak about them. As if they do not exist. Neither they, nor their lives, nor their culture, nor their history, nothing. They are discriminated against and live in a very very racist state. Ministers can say about citizens of the state that they are a “demographic threat” and no one puts them in prison for that. The expression “Israel’s Arabs” means the Arabs of the Israelis. It is shocking.”

About a year ago the writer A. B. Yehoshua claimed in an interview that Jews and Arabs have no chance of living together because of the cultural differences. “How nice for Yehoshua that he found the answer,” she replies with overt cynicism, “that he can sit in Haifa and feel really good. Nice to be A. B. Yehoshua. I think it is nonsense of the highest order. I will tell you what my son said about that when he was in Paris. He said, “When I think about home, what is it I am longing for? For Palestine. The landscape, the smells, the hummus, that is what I long for, not the Polishness”. We have appropriated all the beautiful things about that culture. Why is it impossible to live together? If there are two cultures it is impossible to live together? If there is equality of civil rights, there will be no conflict”.

Let us assume that a Palestinian state is created, there is full equality for everyone in Israel and Hamas begins to shell Israel, what position should they take?
“That is not my business. Why should I care what position they take? I am not responsible for the position they take, let them take whatever position they want.”

Does the support that the residents of East Jerusalem have expressed for Gaza even while they want to stay in Israel and not to go to Palestine seem logical to you?

“Why not? They have to be in favour of what is going on in Gaza because they want to live in Israel?”

Why not? They are guests in a state that is defending itself.

“Enough, stop. You will not draw me into that. The State is not defending itself. The State is slaughtering. Slaughtering.

Why slaughtering? It is defending the residents of the south.

“Enough. Oh, really. That is defence? It is slaughter. It is preparing the ground for the next terrorist attacks, the next terror, the next bloodbath. It is anything but defence”.

Then what is Israel supposed to do in this situation?


With whom?

“With whomever possible, with whomever is willing.”

Including with a government that wants to destroy Israel?

“Meanwhile we are destroying them. Two and a half years without food, without medicine. They live like subhumans. 83 percent of the children in Gaza are suffering from anaemia. Children are dying in incubators, students cannot go to school, people are not getting medical treatment. It is a crime against humanity. That is defence of the residents of Sderot? I cannot listen to these questions. It upsets me”.

Olmert and Haniyeh enjoy watching children die

At this stage of the interview Peled Elhanan’s tone rises. She is getting agitated, angry, her eyes blaze angrily at the questions. The tension reaches its height and she threatens to stop the interview. Her husband, Rami, who had joined us after a few minutes, asked me to stop that line of questioning. Otherwise the conversation would come to an end. After a few soothing words, Peled Elhanan was placated. “I am not a political person,” she said after she had calmed down. “Politics does not interest me. Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, Ismail Haniyeh, Nasrallah, to me they are all the same. They enjoy seeing dead children. To me they are all in the same boat.”

All of them?

“All of them. There is not one who is not like that. I am not a politician, I can’t stand politicians, I don’t know what they want and I don’t want to think what they want. I know that children are dying here in this country and no one is lifting a finger”.

On either side?

“On either side. Clearly the Israelis are killing a million times more over there, but OK, on either side. No one is doing a thing to save the children and to give the people a good life, so they can live as neighbours, in happiness. So there can be life with mutual respect and mutual learning and mutual acceptance and good education, and there’s no people like the Palestinians for investing in the education of their children. There’s no people like them. You know, that in Gaza the literacy rate is among the highest in the world, 92 percent, with all that we are doing to them? They are wonderful people, charming people. It’s all racism, it is all in a context of racism.”

The racism is mutual.

“No, not mutual. The weak are not racist against the strong. I have not seen Palestinians express racism against us. Not once. They greet us on every Jewish holiday, they respect everything. No way, no racism.”

What can you do, there is also racism on the Palestinian side.

“No way, I have not heard of that. I have not encountered it. Their textbooks are not as racist as ours.”

And what about Jews who warmly welcome Palestinians?

“What are you talking? Jews don’t want to register their children at a kindergarten in Neve Yaakov because there is an Arab child there. Besides, let’s not make comparisons.”

To you everything is terribly one-sided.

“Now wait a moment. The strong side is the side that must take measures, not the weak side. OK? There are very strict laws in the world against racism. We were in England for a year and a baroness who fights for minorities said that if she were a Palestinian she too would commit suicide and right away they removed her from the Parliament. And there was a woman who was head of a committee on health services who said that health services were collapsing because of the immigrants and the next day she was no longer a member of Parliament. You don’t say such things. That’s it. You don’t not say ‘them’, you don’t say ‘you can tell by looking at them’, you don’t say ‘because of them’ but here ministers say about citizens of the State that they are a demographic threat and in school textbooks they write ‘demographic nightmare’ and everything’s OK.

“It is a racist act that is happening here now. Destroying a race, destroying a people, destroying a culture by erasing villages, by having no linguistic landscape in Arabic, by not respecting the language and by universities being unwilling to give a single day off on an Arab holiday. Once I gave a day off and they nearly booted me out. You understand? When verbal attacks are tolerated physical attacks become acceptable. On television there is no report about those who are harmed, what happens to them. And no one asks. What happens with those children who are dying there by the dozens, but "the [Israeli] cattleman was lightly wounded." The cattleman was lightly wounded and because of that it is necessary to kill the whole world. On al-Jazeera I saw a mother sitting with the three small bodies of her children beside her and she doesn’t know what to do. No one knows about it, there is no hospital, no medicines and no one takes an interest because it is them. It’s shocking. That’s what I am crying about. It’s not a political matter, it’s a human matter.”

Your identification with them is total. What is happening to the residents of the south does not seem to interest you. It’s just them, them and them.

“Right, because I am ideologically and overtly on the side of the weak, and now it is them.”

And what about the residents of the south?

“As well”.

But I don’t hear the same fervour from you.

“Because there the cattleman was lightly wounded and in Gaza children are getting killed by the hundreds.”

When is the last time you visited the communities of the south?

“I have not visited recently.”

Rami: “This is demagoguery, it’s like asking someone what he did in the army.”

Nurit: “There is no symmetry. A child suffers in Sderot, there will be a family in Tel Aviv that will take him in or a hospital that will take care of him. Over there, there is not. We have closed them, we have choked them, they have nowhere to go. I suffer from asthma and I heard that a boy died from asthma because there were no inhalers, and they tried to revive him with a blower. Does that happen in Sderot? No way. It is true that the government of Israel is making fine use of Sderot and deprives them so as to heighten their suffering, that is true. I know about that deprivation because I worked in Yeruham and Netivot. What is happening in Sderot and Gaza is the fault of the government of Israel and it is tied together. What is going on in Gaza is an outrage against humanity. It is not that they are not unfortunate in Sderot, certainly they are. They are the scapegoat of the government of Israel. It’s the flag that they wave, like Gilad Shalit. What bothers me is that the people take no interest in knowing what is going on there with the children, with the women, the families. A boy was going to a mathematics exam and they blew him up when he was halfway there. Why?”

They don’t report because there are problems entering there.

“Because Israel does not allow it.”

Peled Elhanan is ignoring the period during which Gazan gangs kidnapped journalists in order to get ransoms. Following a wave of kidnappings that ended with the release of the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, Israel barred journalists from entering the Strip, a prohibition that was lifted for a short period about two weeks ago.

“There’s no problem,” she replies. “We have entered and left as we wished.”

And if you entered at the wrong time and someone decided to make money off you, you would not leave there.

“I do not accept that allegation, because it never happened to me. I go to every place and I get an excellent reception. The walls they are building will not prevent me from saying that ‘I live here and here is Palestine’. I want to live here in the Middle East, I am not European. Israel is located within Filastin, Palestine.”

There will be those who will disagree with you historically.

“Right, but it’s like what is written in one of the Israeli geography books, that Jerusalem has always been the capital of the Jews, and in parentheses, apart from the two thousand years when we weren’t here. That is the narrative”.

In spite of the bereavement

In September 1997 the late Smadar Elhanan Peled was killed in a suicide bombing on a pedestrian mall, 13 days before her 14th birthday. Since then the couple has been active in the Parents’ Circle-Families Forum for bereaved parents. Incidentally, the discussion of their daughter’s death was minimal, because Nurit had requested before the interview not to talk about the event. The couple say that instead of taking the pain to a place of revenge, they preferred to sit with another approximately 500 families of Jews and Arabs who have fallen in the conflict, with the aim of talking and trying to come to a situation of peace and good neighbourliness instead of an unending cycle of revenge.

In addition to that, the two are active in various organizations such as Combatants for Peace, of which their son Elik is one of the founders. The organization conducts various educational activities mainly in Israeli and Palestinian schools.

“There’s here a situation in which we are tied to each other”, begins Rami Elhanan. “We want security, they want freedom. They will not have freedom as long as we have no security, and we will not have security as long as they have no freedom. Because of the despair, because of the frustration, because of the anger, because they have gone crazy they vote for Hamas. We, because of the anger, because of the despair, because of the frustration, because of the fear, we vote for Likud. People do not vote with their heads, they vote from their guts. Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because of religious extremism, they voted because they were angry at Fatah. They were fed up with the corruption, with the fact that Oslo did not bring anything, because Camp David collapsed. Peres promised them an independent state and everything dissolved and therefore it exploded.”

The conversation drifted to the change that has occurred in the media. Peled Elhanan claimed that they are all America’s dogs and I told her about the BBC’s past bias.

“Even if I’m the only one in the world who thinks that, I think it,” she refused to accept my view. “What’s going on there is a crime against humanity. If we educate children that empathy and compassion, mercy and consideration are dependent on race and religion, it is the biggest crime that we are committing against ourselves. We are raising generations here that see everything through the eyes of race. That is the most terrible outrage. What are we raising here? Children who could be flowers, we are turning them into monsters. We are corrupting our children, corrupting ourselves, corrupting the world , killing and destroying. There is no education to find out how to solve problems non-violently, they decide in a flash to throw hundred-ton bombs on a civilian population, but in order to get a word our of their mouth, it takes years before they make a decision. Do you understand this? They should talk and talk for a million years. Because every child they kill there, they kill me and my children.”

And the other way round?

“Enough with ‘the other way round’. It is the strong who decide. Israel always says ‘our pilots returned safely’. Truly amazing that Hamas’ F-16 didn’t get them. Come on, really, enough. Children with scarves and homemade bombs. There is a limit.”

You seem like people who do not at all know where you live. It seems to me that you are living on another planet and do not recognize that the world is much less ideal than your meetings with the Forum.

Nurit: “We make this planet with our Palestinian friends.”

Rami: “What are you alleging?”

That you do not understand what world you are living in.

At this point Rami’s temper rose. He pointed a threatening finger at me. “Now open your ears well,” he said in a half-violent tone.

I haven’t finished talking.

“No, no. Be quiet a moment and listen.”

You see, now you are turning violent.

“Because you have finally irritated me.”

I’m very glad.

“We have paid the price for this foolishness and for the last 11 years we don’t sleep at night. Unlike most of the nation, we are swimming against the current in the hardest way possible. We are trying to effect change and not stand aside. It is not a decree of fate that we must continue to die and to kill here. Unlike the masses all around we are making an effort to change reality, which is hard, unpleasant and very problematical. They call us anti-Semites, they tell us that sorrow made us lose our minds, and they say that we have gone crazy, that we are traitors and supporters of Hamas, they say everything about us. Because we have paid the price, because we, who know the meaning of this pain, can no longer stand aside, we act.”

I understand your anger, but you are using a weapon that I have no ability to contend with.

“I hope you never have such weapons.”

To them it is permitted

Last Yom Kippur youths from Beit Safafa or Shu’fat set out to a square on the road that leads to Gilo, where they had a barbeque and yelled slogans with a megaphone. Jews who were returning from the synagogue and passed the junction were attacked by the youths with sticks. The incident has not been reported to this day.

Nurit: “I don’t believe it”.

Rami: “What, deliberately like that on the square or on the grounds of the grocery store?”

On the square.

“What, in order to provoke?”

They were demonstrating. They beat people with sticks.

“What do you want to say by that?”

I hope to understand what is your view?

Nurit: “In view of the cruel Occupation, in view of the crushing underfoot, in view of the fact that there are no public services at all in Beit Safafa, it creates hatred, and hatred creates things like that. It is bad, but it did not come from nowhere”.

Rami: “Do you really not understand how problematic that is?”

No. Just as I will not throw a pig at my neighbour’s house during Ramadan or on any other day, I expect that he will not hit me on Yom Kippur.

Nurit: “Those who are hurt are never the ones who deserve it. Was George Bush killed on 9/11? No. He should have been killed. You understand, that is precisely the point: those who suffer are surely not the ones who deserve to suffer”.

I was expecting to hear you say that that is deviant behaviour.

“Of course it’s deviant behaviour.”

But I don’t hear it from you.

Rami: “Because you don’t want to hear.”

I want to, but all that I hear is Occupation and so on and so forth.

Nurit: “But that is correct. We have to understand how we have caused the deprived to behave in such a way. It is our responsibility as the strong and the rulers. I think that violence, any violence whatsoever, is a terrible thing. But when the deprived begin to behave violently, I must I have to think how I drove them to it.”

At the end of the discussion they asked me if I was convinced. I told them no, but I had no problem with the fact that they hold their views. Nurit asked if she could see the piece before it was published and I refused. After that she asked me if I would distort her words. I told her that I had no intention of doing that. On my way back home I thought about her question and I wondered to myself how is it that she has so much faith in the ability to live with the Palestinians in coexistence and without borders, when she does not have a drop of faith in me, a journalist who is one of her people, and especially, a neighbour.