Uri Horesh- professor of Arabic? pro-Palestinian israeli? gay rights activist extraordinaire?
I'm not a fan of titles. If you want my professional epithet, I'm Director of the Arabic Language Program at Franklin & Marshall College. Other than that, I don't know. There's a Hebrew slang term we used to use when I was younger: "ichpatnik". It translates roughly as "one who gives a damn."
Were there rallies in Israel against the bombardment of Gaza?
Yes, there were several rallies. I actually participated in two rallies. The first was organized a day before the actual invasion. Some 200 people gathered in downtown Tel Aviv to call upon the Israeli government to show restraint and refrain from initiating an attack on Gaza, which we knew would inevitably lead to unnecessary damage, including the loss of lives, and to further animosity among Palestinians toward Israel. This was on Friday, December 26. Little did we know that the next morning the Israeli Air Force would drop over 100 tons of explosives on Gaza, killing over 200 and injuring more than 500 people.
On Saturday night we reconvened in Tel Aviv, this time with a crowd tenfold that of the previous day's. We marched from the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, a popular venue for left-wing protests, to the sidewalk across the street from the Ministry of Defense, another site for anti-war protests.
In addition, there were rallies in Nazareth and Haifa on the day of the first attacks. And today at noon there was a vigil at the main gate of Tel Aviv University, which I was not able to attend.
Were they both Israelis and Palestinians there?
Most of the protesters were Israeli citizens. Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza are by-and-large denied entry to Israel. But the crowds included Israelis of various ethnic backgrounds. The crowd at the rally at the Ministry of defense comprised Jews from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (the latter were bussed there), as well as Palestinians from Jaffa, and a plethora of people from neighboring communities. I just got word of a casualty in yet another protest, of Palestinians, in the West Bank village of Ni'lin. Arafat Khawaja was reportedly murdered by Israeli soldiers there yesterday and was buried today in his village.
What were the demands of the protest?
The demands were simple: that the Israeli government put an immediate end to the bloodshed, call a true cease fire and engage in bona fide negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, including the democratically elected government led by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Is the new refusenik movement in solidarity with the protests? (what are they called? not refuseniks anymore?)
I am not sure whether the refusenik movement still exists as a cohesive force, but a number of its former leaders, people who have been in Israeli military prison for refusing to serve in an army whose primary enterprise is to maintain the occupation, showing disregard to human life, are very active in the current anti-war movement. I recognized two such faces in both of the protests I attended: Haggai Matar and Matan Kaminer.
What is the state of the pro-Palestinian left in Israel today?
I hate to say that in my view, the state of the left in Israel is grim. The leftmost Zionist party represented in the Knesset (Israel's Parliament), Meretz, was quoted as calling for a strong Israeli reaction to the sporadic launching of missiles from the Gaza strip to the south of Israel, which had preceded the Israeli invasion on Saturday. It was only after the invasion was well under way, that Meretz chairperson, Haim Oron said, "At this stage, after the IDF has operated in the Strip, Israel has an interest in reaching a renewed ceasefire as soon as possible." (ynet.co.il).
Most of the resistance to the war, from day one, and -- as evident from the pre-invasion vigil -- beforehand as well, came from Hadash/Al-Jabha, the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, which is a formal faction in the Israeli Knesset led primarily by members of the Israeli Communist Party; and Gush Shalom, the Peace Bloc, a non-partisan group led by veteran peace activist Uri Avnery.
The left in Israel is but a thin sliver of the Israeli political scene and by no means part of the mainstream. In fact, there seems to be a very broad consensus among the Jewish majority in Israel (some 80% of its population) that Israel must deal with as much force as possible with Palestinian militants -- and by extension, the Palestinian people at large -- to "protect Israel and its citizens."
Do you feel this movement will grow?
You know, these demonstrations, marches and vigils often give one the sense of camaraderie. I usually feel like I'm at some kind of makeshift class reunion, except it's only the "good guys" who show up. It's very comforting and encouraging. But at the same time I fear that it is misleading. There's this notion of "the Tel Aviv 'bubble'". There is even a film named The Bubble named after this phenomenon. It pertains to people like myself, who live in (or in my case, frequently visit) the greater Tel Aviv area, hang out in our trendy cafés, read the opinion pages of Ha'aretz, the more progressive of Israel's daily newspapers, and think that everyone around us is like-minded. I dread this complacency, and I hesitate to say that the movement is growing.
I do, however, see one positive sign. As of late, there have been more and more new, young people at many of the left-wing activities in which I had the chance to participate. There is also more of an overlap among different lefty causes. You see many of the same new people active on the Palestinian front and the queer front and the affordable housing front, and so on. So perhaps the horizon isn't as gloomy as I generally think it is.
What are the issues being taken up?
Like I said, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the core of left-wing activism in Israel. There is a lot of small-scale yet vocal work done to protest the building of the apartheid wall in the West Bank. This kind of activism has brought together Anarchists and Communists and many unaffiliated people to take action together. This past summer I participated in three gay pride parades, two of which were highly political and sent broad messages of equality and solidarity. It was refreshing to see heterosexual lefties in the Haifa and Jerusalem parades and then see a queer presence in a march to commemorate the 41st anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights. Affordable housing has been a prominent issue, including among the more mainstream, Zionist left. And there has been quite some visibility and action on the matter of immigrant rights, in particular non-Jewish immigrant workers, who have been targeted by the authorities here as "illegal", very similarly to the way they are treated in the United States.
How is the media in Israel portraying the bombardment? Here in the US it is portrayed as a self defense act by Israel, is the Israeli press saying the same thing?
The media is nothing but sympathetic to the Israeli government, its military and the people living in the south of Israel, within a 30-mile radius of the border with Gaza, who have been calling for retaliation for quite some time. Now it is important to understand that the Israeli media is fairly independent. Even the government-funded TV and radio stations often scrutinize the government for many wrongdoings. In fact, it would not have been without the media that public figures, such as outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, would be indicted for corruption felonies. But when the army is engaged in combat, all is forgotten. I'll give you two anecdotal examples from the last couple of days. On a daily televised news talk show, a Palestinian journalist working in Gaza was interviewed. He was given the opportunity to report some facts, about homes being bombed and ruined, about mosques having suffered damage, funerals and mourning families on every street. Immediately following his report, one of the hosts of the program began interrogating him on the role of the Palestinians in bringing this fate upon themselves. And on a popular call-in radio show today, the host of the show, who often rants about every possible issue, went off saying something like, "the Palestinians must know that if Israel eventually declares a truce, and they fire one missile or rocket onto one of our southern towns, we will respond in the most cruel way possible!" So you see, there is no more shame, no restraint. Being cruel is being cool.
When you talk to your family or people in the street would you say the majority is for the bombardment?
My immediate family thinks just like myself. Most of my real friends are also like-minded politically. But I have encountered my share of people who support the invasion, or at least say it was justified, albeit perhaps disproportionate. And in the wider circles of Israelis, the ones one hears on the radio and television, at the bus stop and the mall and the dentist's office, there are really just two concerns: that the desperate retaliatory fire coming from within Gaza into Israel won't put more Israeli lives in jeopardy, and that if and when Israeli ground forces enter Gaza (so far there were only air strikes), no Israeli soldiers would be killed, injured or held captive.
What do you think it will take in Israel to grow a movement to stop these atrocities?
I wish I knew. This really is the toughest question, and one that I've been pondering almost daily for at least the past eight years. Probably much longer. There is a good chance that the answer is tough too. That is, that something of immense magnitude must happen on both sides of the border for us to realize we have been playing a very dangerous game. But perhaps what we need is a leader with charisma and the guts to get us out of this quicksand. Sadly, none of the three contenders for the role of prime minister in the upcoming February elections in Israel seems promising in this regard.