By Katie Halper · 15 Feb 2011
I first heard of Jeff Halper at Israel-Palestine-related events, where people would ask me if I was related to him. It took me 30 seconds of Googling to realize that I’d love to be related to this Minnesotan anthropologist, activist, writer, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and founder and coordinator of Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD).
Though kindred spirits, we don’t seem to come from the same Halper stock. But we are Facebook friends, and it was through a Facebook message that Jeff informed me he’d be coming to the U.S. to raise awareness and money for ICAHD and conduct research on his next book on the Israeli arms industry. During our Halper-on-Halper interview, the non-Zionist explained why he had to move to Israel, how the most hawkish Israeli politicians are the biggest anti-Zionists, and how the recent events in Egypt are fulfilling his prediction that 2011 will be the end of Israel as we know it.
KATIE HALPER: What does ICAHD do?
JEFF HALPER: I’ve lived in Israel now for 40-something years by now and I’ve been involved in the peace movement from the very beginning. We started the ICAHD in the middle of the 1990s, in the context of Netanyahu’s first election. Most of us knew there was no peace process anyway, but now it was really clear. Netanyahu’s election was the wake-up call. So a number of us from different organizations got together to think about how to re-engage resistance to the occupation. And we went and talked to Palestinians and asked them what their priorities were. We asked them what they would like us to work on, what they’d like to work with us on. And the issue of house demolitions always came up.
So we took up that issue. It’s a powerful approach for a number of reasons. It’s very visual. The occupation can become very abstract. But here’s a family, here’s a bulldozer, this is their story. It’s something people can relate to. It’s also a very important source of solidarity with the Palestinians. And it’s a vehicle to show how the occupation works and to re-frame the conflict, which is really important. Israel has succeeded in capturing the public discussion, the discourse. The Israeli case can be put out in three seconds: it is a small Western democracy (read white), besieged by Arab Muslim terrorists.
That’s it, you got every buzzword in there. it’s clear--even Glenn Beck can get it--and it's compelling. It fits into the clash of the civilizations theory, the idea of the us versus them, the good guys against the bad guys, the white people against everyone else. It reduces the entire conflict to terrorism, which itself is such a loaded term. So it effectively cuts off every type of discussion because if we get into a discussion on the basis of Israeli framing, you lose. The minute somebody says, “We're defending ourselves against terrorism,” what are you going to say to that?
It’s a trap and, of course, it deflects all attempts to get at what the conflict is really about and holding Israel accountable.
What’s left out of Israel’s framing is the word “occupation.” Israel denies it has an occupation. So you've got to re-frame the conflict. Out of the 25,000 homes that have been demolished, almost none of them have been demolished over security. Here in these photos, are men in front of demolished houses. If these were terrorists they wouldn't be there. They’d be in jail or they'd be dead. They wouldn't be just hanging around. The knee-jerk reaction if you’re coming from Israeli framing is these are houses of terrorists.
But the demolitions are for other reasons for the most part. One is because since 1967, Israel has refused to grant building permits to Palestinians. So, you’re a Palestinian--you have children, you have grandchildren, you have to live somewhere. And so you build, which is illegal to do without a permit, and then you get your house demolished.
So then the question is...if this isn't for security, then why did Israel demolish this house? Now you've got a real question here that the so-called pro-Israel people can't answer because they're framing is 100-percent based on security and terrorism. They start hemming and hawing because they don't want to talk about occupation; they don’t want to hold Israel accountable. And then we go on and say, you know, you can’t use security to explain most of what Israel does: you can’t use security to explain the settlements (Israel never claims a security justification for settlements); you can't use it to justify the expropriation of land; or the economic closure; or the impoverishment of the Palestinian population. It’s not security, it’s all part of a proactive policy of taking over an entire country.
KATIE HALPER: You wrote an article in December 2010, saying that 2011 was going to be the breakout year for the conflict in the Middle East. Has anything over the past few weeks since then changed or reinforced that view?
JEFF HALPER: Yeah, the Palestine Papers have come out that show how weak the Palestinian leaders are. I don't know if they're going to be able to survive it. I think the Palestinian Authority is going to collapse. Of course, in any other country, this situation would have ended already. But Israel has this special status of being immune not just because America protects it but Europe does too. Israel can do whatever it wants to do with impunity and it never faces any sanctions. I think that's going to change because the Palestinians are at the end of their tether; the PA is at the end of its tether; the geopolitics is changing.
KATIE HALPER: How does the situation in Egypt now fit into your prediction?
JEFF HALPER: The Egyptian revolution changes the dynamic in that part of the world. First of all, it isolates Israel in the Middle East. And if Egypt goes, which it will, then Jordan's going to go, and Israel will be completely isolated. One of the reasons the Egyptians are up in arms -- and Americans don't really understand this -- is because Zionism has really become associated with neocolonialism. And the U.S. is seen as part of that. And Egypt is seen is part of it, too.
Obama, in his State of the Union address, kept talking about the United States being a world leader of democracy, but look at its response to Egypt. Egypt is our big ally, and all of a sudden we see Egypt is not a democracy, so what are we supporting there? Not democracy, not the people--our only contribution is military. The situation in Egypt really exposed this.
The United States really has egg on its face over Egypt. I think the United States is beginning to realize how isolated it is in the Middle East. The American people don't see that because we don't give a shit, but the government is beginning to really see it. The only to break out of that isolation is to end the occupation. Because for the Muslim world, it all boils down to occupation in a way.
KATIE HALPER: So what will become of Israel?
JEFF HALPER: If the occupation goes, I think Israel goes as a discrete country. The only hope for Israel being a state would have been if Palestine were a state alongside it. But Israel eliminated that possibility. In a way, Ariel Sharon's probably the biggest anti-Zionist in Israeli history because he eliminated the possibility of maintaining a Jewish state by creating so many settlements and incorporating so many Palestinians and creating an irreversible reality. That's the irony. I’ve been in Israel since ‘67. I've been involved in the peace movement for 30-some-odd years. We've met with every prime minister, in one way or another, and we’ve asked them the same question: “Where are you going with this?” And they don't know. I think the idea for them is it's an open-ended process, it will never end. So the only way out, as far as the Israeli government sees it, is permanent warfare.
This is how I explain how unsustainable Israel is. And this is perfect when I get a hostile audience and I know I'm not getting through to them. I say, OK, let’s try to figure this out together. Israel wants to be a Jewish country, and Israel wants to be a democracy, and Israel wants the whole country. All right, you tell me how they can do this. The problem is you can have two out of the three. You can be Jewish and a democracy but then you can't have all of the land. Then you can be Jewish and have the whole land of Israel but you're not a democracy. You can be a democracy and have the whole land of Israel but not be Jewish. So, this is the essence of the problem.
KATIE HELPER: So Israel is self-destructive? And the United States is the enabling parent.
JEFF HALPER: That's right and that's how it's protected because the United States gives it an umbrella.
KATIE HALPER: Has U.S. treatment of Israel already become incompatible with U.S. interests?
JEFF HALPER: Yes. Israel’s become a domestic issue in the United States. So you've got this situation where members of Congress feel they won't get elected if they don't support Israel. There’s a joke: why doesn't Israel want to be the 51st state? Because then it would only have two senators.
Seventy percent of the Jews in the United States are not part of the organized Jewish community, they don't go to synagogue. But the 30 percent that are organized are very vocal and very organized. Jews contribute more money to members of political parties than corporations do in the United States. And 80 percent are Democratic. If you want to get elected you're not going to piss off the Jewish community. The Republican party does the same thing with the fundamentalists. And then you get that unholy alliance with the Christian Zionists.
Sarah Palin, when she was governor of Alaska, had an Israeli flag. She’s the governor of Alaska. There have to be around six Jews living there. A New York governor, I could understand, but Alaska? You have fanatical pro-Israel people in places with no Jews, like Utah.
KATIE HALPER: And these Christian Zionists want us to go back to Israel, to bring back the messiah and bring on the rapture? And we’ll have the choice of accepting Jesus or burning in hell?
JEFF HALPER: Well, apparently, during the rapture only 144,000 Jews survive. But not more. So you and I probably are not part of that.
KATIE HALPER: Darn! What other players are there in addition to AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and the Christian Zionists?
JEFF HALPER: There are the defense contractors. I think they’re a stronger influence than AIPAC. The United States, over the next 10 years, will be sending $125 billion in arms to the Middle East; $30 billion to Israel and the rest to the other countries. So obviously the defense contractors are going to be pretty pro-conflict. They certainly don’t want an end to the conflict.
KATIE HALPER: Getting back to Israel and Palestine, is there any chance for a peaceful solution?
JEFF HALPER: ICHAD doesn’t advocate a particular solution. Not a two-state, not a one-state solution, not bi-national, because first of all we say it's the Palestinians’ prerogative to tell us, it's their national struggle.
KATIE HALPER: Knowing what you do, why did you move to Israel?
JEFF HALPER: First of all, I didn't completely understand all of this. I’ve learned a lot over the last 40 years. To me there was a push and a pull. The push was I don’t like the States--there's nothing transcendent. So where am I going to go? I'm an anthropologist, so I wanted to work in a developing country, which I’d done. But I couldn't go to Kenya, I'm not a Kenyan, I can't go criticize the president. If I wanted to be politically active in a way, there was one other place I could go and that was Israel.
KATIE HALPER: So, ironically, the place you could be an activist without being an imperialist was Israel?
JEFF HALPER: Yeah, that's right. And back then, we thought the revolution was going to happen. We'd put flowers in the barrels of their guns. So I wasn't running away from the problems by going to Israel, I was never a Zionist. But I was going to a place that I thought where I could be maybe more meaningful. I knew there was an occupation, so instead of fighting racism here as part of the Civil Rights movement, I'd go to another front and I’d fight the occupation. In other words, I never gave up the commitment to change. It was just another place I could do it in, another place where I had a certain legitimacy.
KATIE HALPER: It's easier for me to be critical of the United States where I feel like the empire's fall is further away. I probably won't live to see it, but you are living somewhere that could cease to exist while you’re living there.
JEFF HALPER: You could live to see it in the U.S. It happens suddenly. These things collapse more quickly than you think.
KATIE HALPER: I guess I should pack my suitcase. But what's going to happen in Israel?
JEFF HALPER: Well, that's the problem. Look, I'm not a Zionist, but there is an Israel. It doesn't have to be a state. I make the analogy to when apartheid collapsed and ended. the Afrikaaners didn't disappear...they didn’t leave...they weren’t even asked to leave. They became a part of another kind of South Africa. So we could become part of one state.
There will still be Israeli people, Israeli culture. There could be an Israeli university. There will still be an Israel in a cultural social sense. It will simply be part of a wider, more pluralistic society.
KATIE HALPER: Which in a way, is much more Jewish.
JEFF HALPER: Yes, ironically. And ironically, more Zionist. Zionism was Jews going back to the root of their civilization; it was coming home. You don't come home by building walls and kicking people out. You come home by becoming a part of the place, by living with a people, by becoming a part of a landscape.
KATIE HALPER: It's hard to talk about Israel without sounding like a raging anti-Semite. Israel does things that, when you describe them, make you sound like you’re talking about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And I want to say to Israel, can you please stop doing that so I don't have to sound like an anti-Semite (or a self-loathing Jew)?
JEFF HALPER: That's the scary thing. Israel does all of this in the name of the Jewish people. They're demolishing Palestinian homes in the name of Jews. And some American Jews say, wait a minute...you're a foreign country. I'm not Israeli. Israel does things in the name of Holocaust survivors. I mean, they co-opt people, including dead people who can't speak for themselves and I think that's really outrageous.
And it endangers Jews. Jews used to be associated with human rights. Rafael Lemkin coined the term genocide and he passed it through the UN. The Jews were so active in human rights, civil rights, in the States, in South Africa. You know when Mandela set up his first government he named five white ministers--all Jewish. So Jews used to be associated with human rights. And then Israel denigrates human rights. They say it doesn't apply. You got a Jewish state that's against human rights and that actively works to undermine the Geneva Convention, and international law!
The only answer to anti-Semitism is getting rid of all racism, and upholding human rights. The only hope for Jews is a world based on human rights.