INTERVIEW: Israeli peace activist DAPHNA GOLAN-AGNON discusses her memoir Next Year in Jerusalem.
DURING the darkest days of the nazi terror, there were those who risked their safety and their lives to save Jews. After the war, many were proclaimed righteous gentiles by the state of Israel.
When the full story is told of the struggle for Palestinian rights, it is hard not to hope that men and women like Daphna Golan-Agnon - mother, feminist, professor of human rights, peace activist - will be known to the Palestinians as righteous Jews.
Golan-Agnon's memoir Next Year In Jerusalem: Everyday Life in a Divided Land is a thoughtful, heart-rending and tentatively hopeful account of the struggles, soul-searching, conflicts, anger and inspiration that comes with living at the sharp, bloody end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is an inspiration, not only to those who seek to understand this bitter Middle East conflict but to anyone who has ever fought for a better world. Ultimately, in its snapshots of inspirational campaigners across a broad spectrum of Israeli society, the book offers a rebuttal to the notion that Ariel Sharon and the Gaza settlers speak for all of Israel.
It covers the Women in Black, feminist campaigners Bat Shalom, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights B'Tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, those who, including Golan-Agnon, led the fight to outlaw torture, the organisers of the Sharing Jerusalem arts festival and the Israeli women activists' Palestinian sisters struggling to overcome seeing them as representatives of the occupying force.
Along the way, we see fascinating and unsettling glimpses of the workings of the Israeli Ministry of Education, reminiscences of the author's right-wing family, a gun-toting settler calmly stealing bananas from a Palestinian's fruit stall and Susan Sontag's refusal to acknowledge requests by Golan-Agnon and others for her to reconsider accepting the Jerusalem Prize for literature during the second intifada.
It is clear that Golan-Agnon's background in studying apartheid South Africa lends force to both her despair and her optimism. Indeed, much of the later narrative of Next Year In Jerusalem refers to a search for a positive conclusion to a book that mirrors her assessment of the day-today struggle.
If the author never underestimates the brutal injustices of the present, it's clear that she has a sense that, even in the darkest days, progress, sometimes imperceptibly, is occurring.
Asked if she believes that the Israelis' mental roadblocks to a just settlement are shrinking, she says; "I really think so. Just this morning, I finished reading a new Israeli bestseller called Doves in Trafalgar Square by a mainstream Israeli writer. In fact, it became a hit bestseller in two days. It's the story of a Palestinian family that fled their house in Haifa in 1948 and left their baby.
The baby grows up to be an Israeli, is adopted by Jewish parents and becomes a soldier and then, one day, meets this Palestinian family.
"It's a very political book and it's an amazing story. It's not only about now but about 1948,an issue that until now was not very much discussed. In the last year, this is the second best seller about 1948. Something is changing. I am always an optimist. I think it has to say something."
Golan-Agnon teaches human rights in the law school of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and runs, as she explains, "an internship programme. I give the theoretical course, but they also have to do 10 hours a week in one of the human rights organisations. I can only accept 15 students annually and I have 300 applicants every year.
"I have just finished a study of student activism in Israel and it's amazing how many students want to be active. It's an interesting new phenomenon. I think that there is a despair of big politics, so students want to do something, to know that, every week, they have done their little bit."
This year, she says, students have worked with Amnesty International, the Israel Commission Against Torture, teaching other students and poor youth about empowerment, with the Association for the Rights of the Child and the Association for Civil Rights.
Asked for her views on the recent vote, which has since been overturned, by the UK Association of University Teachers to boycott Israeli universities Bar-Ilan and Haifa, she replies: "As somebody who was active in the anti-apartheid movement, I see the strength of boycotts. But I have a problem with this one in a few ways. In taking on only Bar-Ilan and Haifa - well, I think you do a boycott or you don't do one. You cannot be half-pregnant.
"I also wouldn't start with an academic boycott. I would start with an economic boycott, like South Africa. Because this academic boycott actually targets a very small community, although I'm not saying that they are OK - we're not OK. Maybe something can come out of it. I think that the threat was good. Israeli academics are not doing one-tenth of what we should do."
Asked if the AUT boycott shocked Israeli academics who are used to thinking of themselves as "the good people," she agrees, adding: "That's good, because we are not the good people. Nobody seriously thinks that it's only anti-semitism motivating this action. Nobody can be so stupid. I went with my husband to the wedding of someone in his department and the chair of his department, who never, ever did anything political, found me and asked: 'Is there anything that I can do - this boycott, I feel a bit uneasy about it, maybe we should do something.'
And none of us do enough."
Commenting on the perception by some Jews in Britain and north America that supporting Palestinian rights is a betrayal, she insists: "It's the opposite. I think that Jews are making a big mistake by not criticising Israel. You cannot be liberal about everything else but, when it comes, to Israel, suddenly have different ideas. Of course we need support - we cannot do anything ourselves if we do not have the support of the Jewish community abroad. That's why I wrote the book. I wanted to tell them - look, we're trying, but we need your help. It's bad for us but also it's bad for them, because it allows anti-semitic remarks to be heard and believed. Jews should not support such things. We should know better than that.
"I think that Jews should not only criticise Israel but also support the peace forces. For them to hear Israelis like me say that what's happening is wrong should help."
As Next Year In Jerusalem recounts, Israeli activists have had to endure years of hostility.
Women In Black, who serve as public witnesses for peace via weekly silent demonstrations, have been spat on. Still, says Golan-Agnon, "I think that, in the big picture, what the right wing is saying today is what we began by saying.
"When Women in Black, 17 years ago, first said: 'End the occupation,' people said: 'What occupation are you talking about?' Now that Ariel Sharon himself is saying end the occupation, the situation has shifted dramatically. For years, it was unheard of to talk to Palestinians and now all those right-wing generals are talking to Palestinians.
"At the same time," she acknowledges, "Israeli society is very violent, very full of hate, very torn apart. Everywhere you go, you see so many guns and pistols. You cannot enter a cafe, a store, a supermarket, without being searched by someone with a gun. In that kind of society, even spitting on people is OK. It is difficult for me to say it but, the (Israeli military)refuseniks, because they are men and soldiers, it is much more difficult to spit at them. You can't How to repair a divided country? 2 of 4 just say that they are crazy. The pilot I wrote about in this book, who didn't want to bomb Palestinian homes - in Israel, you cannot be more important than a pilot and for one to say the things that he said, you can't really ignore it."
As for the Gaza settlers, she says simply: "We all just want them out of there. Of course, some people support them, but many people are sick of them. Sharon plays this whole thing very well. He wants tension and hate. He's talking all the time about civil war. I am sure that the conflict is something that they are inciting. They want us to remember that it's only 8,000 people (in Gaza) and, in the West Bank, we have more than 200,000 settlers. They will say: 'It's so much more difficult, we cannot withdraw from the West Bank'."
As for the Israeli army's killing of Western activists such as Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie, she admits that coverage in Israeli media has been "not enough.
"This is a new phenomenon - they always used to shoot at Palestinians but they never shot foreigners or Israelis. And now they shoot both. It's quite traumatic. It changed the whole idea of how we (activists) work in this situation because we always knew that, if Jews or international people were in a Palestinian demonstration, then they would be more careful. Now they have lost any inhibitions.
"The military cannot handle it any more. There was a fascinating documentary on the settlers shown recently, made by a man we call Mr Television, 70 years old, the person who read the news for the last 30 years - no expression, very solemn. He interviews soldiers and, because he is considered Mr Television, the soldiers talk to him and they all say: 'We are tired, depressed, angry. We are war criminals, we feel terrible about what we do. We just want to get out of here, leave this country.'
"We see it in our society, too. Violence against women, school violence and killings in pubs - you have an argument and you just shoot. I think that there is a real sense of disappointment. Is this our Jewish state? Is this what we meant? Everybody is saying that this society is corrupt. The gap between the rich and poor is so big, so much violence. Of course, we all have this patriotic feeling that this is the best place, the best food, the best weather but - and it doesn't matter what your politics are - everybody feels that something is very wrong, very sad in Israel."
Asked whether her teenage children will see peace, Daphna Golan-Agnon pauses. "It all depends. I went to South Africa in 2003 and talked to anti-apartheid activists. They all told me that, in the late 1980s, they often believed that apartheid would never end. They said that, when de Klerk was unbanning the ANC, nobody would believe it.
"Maybe something will change in Israel too, although I am sceptical that Ariel Sharon is the one to save us. And I don't see anybody else. I think that it's always down to pressure, boycotts - maybe the Americans saying: 'We're not going to give you more aid until you start dismantling the settlements'.
"Maybe I'm naive. But I think that this war on Islam that the US is leading now - it's a terrible war. I'm hoping that they'll understand that it is better to have some gift to the Islamic world, peace in Jerusalem.
"Not only for the crazy Christians but also for the crazy Muslims and for the crazy Jews. If something blows up, it is not only us that will suffer. Everybody is going to have repercussions. If the Temple Mount goes - if something happens there - the war between the West and Islam that we see now will be only the beginning.
"The sad point," she adds, "is that many Israelis think that the wall is a help. It's not only evil but it's also stupid. In the year 2005, you think that you can build a wall and it's going to save you? How stupid can you be?"