What “Peace” Really Means to Israelis

Avigail Abarbanel (Photo: John Schilling)

Two months ago I returned from a two-week family visit to Israel. Although I am an activist for Palestinian rights, I decided that this visit would be entirely private. Living for two weeks with my brother, his wife and their two little girls in their tiny apartment in a North Tel-Aviv suburb, gave me an opportunity to observe and see what daily life is like for Israelis at the moment.

I did not do anything particularly noteworthy. I went for long walks in the streets of Tel-Aviv and visited many of the places that I knew from my past. I shopped at the local supermaket and had coffee at the nearby shopping mall. I watched local TV and even went to the gym. For two weeks I joined ordinary life in Tel-Aviv. Rather than talk, I did a lot of listening. I speak fluent Hebrew, of course, so it was easy to blend in and people spoke freely around me. Australian media likes to emphasise how hard life is for Israelis, and I wanted to see for myself.

The most obvious thing about Israeli society is how profoundly insecure Israelis feel. They are nervous and twitchy and live with extremely high levels of anxiety. Not that any of this was new to me but there did seem to be a new edge to it. When a bomb exploded in the Ha’carmel Market in central Tel-Aviv, I was at the gym. I looked around me and within moments everyone was on their mobile phones reporting to, or checking on their loved ones. A young woman right next to me in the weights area sighed to herself with anguish, “not again”.

Since my adolescence, I was used to having my bags checked whenever I entered a public building like a cinema or a supermarket anywhere in Israel. Despite my 13 years in Australia, the reflex to open my bags was still there. What was different this time was that now security guards also have an electronic detector to scan your body. These days even small businesses like restaurants and coffee shops have their own security guard up the front. There is a small ‘security levy’ of 2 NIS added onto your bill to help the business pay for the security guard, but you aren’t required to pay it.

Israelis have always talked about peace, sung about it, made art and poetry about it as if it is something almost supernatural, some kind of a paradise that they yearn for but that has nothing to do with their everyday reality, and that they have no idea how to create. But what peace really means to these exhausted, anxious Israelis is to be left alone. It was sad and disturbing to see how desperately Israelis hold on to what they believe is ‘normality’. They are desperate to be ‘like everyone else’ in any other Western country, go to work, go shopping, go out to bars and coffee shops with friends. They feel outrage and desperation when Palestinian militants occasionally disrupt this routine of ‘normality’. To some degree I can sympathise with that. After all one of the main reasons I left Israel was that I found this way of life unbearable.

When life is so difficult I suppose it is human to wish your difficulties away. But here is where the problem really lies. When an individual, a group or an entire society live with a dark secret or are in denial about something important in their past, they cannot experience peace. It is simply impossible to live a ‘normal’ or peaceful life on a foundation of lies and secrecy. Denying the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948, trying to not think about the consequences of long years of brutal occupation, and just wishing for it all to go away is no more than a fantasy.

In family therapy there is an accepted principle that unless serious injustices are addressed, there cannot be real peace. Families that protect dark secrets always pay a heavy price. I watched Israeli intellectuals on TV engage in genuine discussion trying to analyse and understand why things are so bad in Israel. They raised every possible reason for the situation other than the most obvious one - Israel’s history. It was excruciating to watch but also familiar. I have never seen a society so steeped in denial as Israeli society.

The entire spectrum of Israeli politics is in denial about Israel’s history and this is why I do not have much faith in the Israeli Left. The handful that are not in denial like Dr Ilan Pappe who visited Australia last year, or Dr Uri Davis, exist outside this spectrum. Their research into the events of 1948 and the circumstances surrounding the birth of the state of Israel is not discussed on public television and is not in Israeli history books. The average Israeli does not even know who they are. Although published by reputable publishers like Cambridge University Press, Dr Pappe’s books have so far been refused publication in Hebrew. The reason offered is that they lack academic merit.

The way most Israelis perceive their own history is as if they have always been the weak victim. The question of whether or not it was morally right or even wise to create a state at the expense of another people is never raised. No one in the mainstream questions the validity of democracy in a country where the right for citizenship is based on race (you can only become an Israeli citizen if you can prove that your mother is Jewish).

When Israelis engage in ‘peace talks’ it is important to understand their basic position. They have no real interest in a solution that goes to the core of their problem. They are like an individual who wants his or her symptoms to go away but refuses to do anything about their real causes. A wish ‘to be left alone’ is not much of a basis for a sustainable peace, at least not without another act of ethnic cleansing. Five million Palestinians are there to remind Israel of its past, and they are not going anywhere.

If a day comes, and I hope it does, when Israelis decide to stop living in denial, they will have to realise that real peace will only come through justice. Justice in this context means one thing, that the ideal of an exclusively Jewish state at the cost of an entire people might have to be abandoned. Only a bi-national state and a right of return for the Palestinian refugees will come close enough to rectifying some of the injustices committed in 1948 and since. Having been ethnically cleansed, this is also what the Palestinians are entitled to under international law and common human decency.

This could be Israel’s atonement. It will also be Israel’s opportunity to free itself from carrying this burden of guilt that I believe is making their lives and the lives of the Palestinians a nightmare. Yes, it will be a challenge. But it will offer a possibility of real and sustainable peace both for Israelis and for Palestinians, possibly for the entire region. Continuing with the mentality and policy of denial will lead nowhere, and will continue to cost the lives and well being of many more people and communities.

Related Links

  • Speaking out about Israel to save the Jewish soul, Cecilie Surasky (2 February 2005)
  • Look for a future Palestine in the past, George E. Bisharat (3 February 2005)

    Avigail Abarbanel is a former Israeli and a former Staff Sergeant in the Israeli military. She is a psychotherapist/counsellor in private practice in Canberra Australia and an activist for Palestinian rights. This article was first published on the Peacepalestine blog.