by Ofra Yeshua-Lyth
Published on Mondoweiss on February 15, 2016
Don’t Say We Didn’t Know
By Amos Gvirtz
Medan Publishers, 156 pages (Hebrew)
(Hebrew version of this review was published in Haaretz book section, but never before published in English)
I have no idea how many people – certainly in the hundreds, not in the thousands – subscribe to Amos Gvirtz’s mailing list. The heading for the mails he has been sending his list members at irregular intervals for some years now reads as the title of this lean book. The contents, in Hebrew and English, are always brief and factual, without opinion or protest. As of the time of writing these lines, the last mail, numbered 451, is a typically laconic report: “On Sunday, May 17, 2015, Palestinian villagers in Al Shuyukh, north-east of Hebron, discovered that (Jewish) settlers uprooted 750 young olive trees that the Palestinians had planted on their land. This is the third time this year that settlers invade the village lands and uproot young olive trees.” Also: “On Thursday, May 21, 2015, government agents escorted by police came to the Bedouin village of Al Zarnoug, east of moshav Nevatim in the Negev and demolished the village square. In Wadi Gharuan, near road no. 31, government agents demolished a home. In Umm Mitnan, near Ar’ara Junction, they demolished a sheep pen. On the same day they proceeded to re-demolish the village of Al Arakib.”
“Don’t Say We Didn’t Know”, asks Amos Gvirtz, and how naïve this request sounds at the time of the book’s publication, as the obedient flocks of Israel’s media workers and their politician-masters cry out on every newspaper sheet, internet and news release, like the robbed ruffian: “What have we done? Why is the whole world suddenly against us?” Here is a thin, light-to-read book that would explain to every Ynet interviewer and Israel TV Channel 2 commentator why football and bagels and soda stream have suddenly turned topsy-turvy on us. [The international football association nearly removed the Israeli team following Palestinians’ complaints of racist practices; products of Bagel & Bagel as well as SodaStream were boycotted due to their facilities’ locations in the Occupied Territories]. Gvirtz does not go into the “biggies” such as Operations Protective Edge, Cast Lead and Pillar of Defense [all Israeli assaults against the Gaza Strip in recent years]. He does not conduct a body count of hundreds and thousands of casualties, tens of thousands wounded, homeless, hungry and blockaded. He sends reminders of the little horrors, the nearly incidental deaths, demolished homes, arbitrary arrests, imprisoned children, trampled tents, destroyed crops, farmlands of Bedouins and falaheen that become Jewish real estate, stones hurled by Palestinians (for any stone thrown by a Palestinian at a Jew will make headlines in any case), mosques set aflame, little pogroms for which no one will be punished – reminders that there is no law, no justice that will protect you if you do not belong to the Chosen People. In most cases, if a complaint is lodged, it will end up with a counter-charge and possible punishment – of the victim.
Gvirtz is not naïve. He does not really believe that if he brings all the facts to the attention of the privileged Jewish-Israeli community, we might no longer think we only have a “hasbara” (propaganda) difficulty. A problem that a few hundred million dollars – some say a whole round billion that will line the pockets of our coherent spokespersons – and the enthused support of American billionaires will earn Israel back its standing as the public’s favorite. (The very same public that those very same spokespersons tag as “born anti-Semites and therefore incorrigible). Gvirtz knows very well that everyone knows: from their military service, even from the media which – in spite of its good will – cannot always censor everything that takes place right under our very noses. He is also very aware of the fact that our collective blind eye is no unique, local phenomenon. In the introduction to his book he already discloses that when encountering refusal to admit genocide in Cambodia and in Turkey – and naturally the denial of crimes against humanity in Europe and in Africa – he understood that “this is a universal phenomenon, whereby members of identity groups refuse to know and acknowledge the crimes committed by their own group”. But he refuses to accept this phenomenon, and this is the power of his decision to turn “Don’t Say We Didn’t Know” into his life project.
It is a project that does not really recognize the ‘green line’, the ‘purple line’, or the Separation Wall. The State of Israel’s violent, institutional brutality designates real and imaginary enemies possessing either a blue or orange ID according to their religious and ethnic affiliation. “As soon as Israel decided that regarding certain issues its army would not follow international war norms, it jeopardized it by turning it from a military force into a crime syndicate”, Gvirtz explains, and proceeds: a criminal organization is after all an organization that “violates the rules of morality on its way to achieve its goals”. When lands are routinely declared “firing zones”, “nature reserves”, or “archaeological sites”; when acre after acre are simply transferred from Palestinian hands to Jewish real estate mongers with the right connections; when the legal system and the parliament lend a hand to a “series of land laws that in fact mean land-grab”, as has been customary in Israel since the 1950s to our very day, clearly “laws serving racist-nationalist purposes…impact people whose only sin is being Palestinians under rule of the Jewish State”, as the writer simply puts it. The implementation of such legislation makes “the Israeli army commit war crimes as it enforces them in the Occupied Territories and Israeli police – likewise – when it enforces them inside the state.” Did anyone NOT know this?
The book abounds in samples of the daily “goings-on” which Gvirtz has been reporting, but most of the text is an essay, divided into sections, focusing on a sincere and interesting attempt to understand: what causes “our” collective expressly to act for so many years while totally ignoring the rights of those who do not belong to it. Gvirtz wonders about the sheer hatred which in Israel is expressed towards human rights activists and “lefties”, God forbid. But he is also fascinated with the broader context in which ideologies become murderous: “The Nazi case and the communist case are two quite opposite ideologies. One sanctifies nature as it understands it, the other aspires to create an ideal society that would ensure the egalitarian existence of all humans”. His philosophical and humanist conclusion is that any struggle for peace is a part of “the universal struggle for the continued existence of the human race,” which time and again shows such a tendency towards righteous murderousness.
It is somewhat disappointing that the entire rational and emotional analysis of the conflict based upon “one society invading the habitat of another and expelling it from the land in a historical process” still does not bring Amos Gvirtz to the conclusion that the mere creation of a political entity based on religious and ethnic identity necessarily results in a discriminatory, contemptuous and offensive treatment of anyone whose identity is different. He even scolds all who have lost faith in the good old two-state solution. This is a common practice for left-wing Zionists who wish to convince Israelis that “the occupation must end”: they tell them that if the Palestinians will not have their “own state” we (Jews) might – god forbid – be forced to live with them in one state; once they (Arabs!) have equal rights in this state, we (Jews) will certainly lose our demographic majority. Therefore, the discussion of one democratic state is effective rhetoric to scare pro-occupationists.
The one-state solution “sounds ideal”, Gvirtz says, and comments ironically: “What could be nobler than for two peoples in conflict over the land to overcome past enmities and transition into a shared life of peace and reconciliation.” According to him, taking up such an idea would result in “simply transforming the conflict from a state of war between occupier and occupied to a conflict within the same state.” Strange, after all he cannot be suspected of not knowing that the whole “conflict” is already taking place under a single sovereignty, whose subjects are tagged as occupiers and occupied. The main problem here is not “past enmities” but rather an unbearable present which for some reason seems quite convenient for the occupying group.
All of which does not change the fact that this is an important, moving and definitely easily read booklet. Gvirtz, member of Kibbutz Shefayim, has published it independently in a “personal books” framework, since no commercial publishing house that wishes to survive in this country would touch such a “perilous” item. Now that the minister troika controlling culture, education and justice are out hunting down anyone who exposes what really lies behind the favorite ideology of most Israeli voters, one can certainly find encouragement in the fact that the book’s first edition is already sold out. Publisher Anat Meidan and editor Udi Ben Seadya are currently working on the second edition – a highly recommended item for the next vacation’s reading list. So that you will not say “we didn’t know.”
An English version of a Hebrew article published July 24, 2015 in Haaretz books section. Last paragraph was not included in the published version.