Interview with Nurit Peled-Elhanan
Kol ha-Zman supplement of Maariv, 2 January 2009
Translated from Hebrew by George Malent
Dr. Nurit Peled Elhanan is a post-Zionist. Did I say “post”? She is
more Palestinian than Arafat. A lecturer at Hebrew University who was
bereft of her daughter, she takes the side of the Palestinians, is sure
that terrible slaughter is taking place in Gaza, and believes that we are
all racists and that everyone here bears guilt for the situation. A
particularly stormy interview.
By Yuval Hyman
It appears that for the first time in the history of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global public opinion is notably leaning in
Israel’s favour. The President of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Mazen,
and the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmad Abu al-Gheith, were not the only
ones who supported – if indirectly – the air force’s attack. They
were joined by actors which up to today had been considered definitely
pro-Palestinian. Even the BBC, a broadcasting organization that for years
was seen as the mouthpiece of the leaders of Gaza and the West Bank, gave
the stage to both sides. Even politicians of the left were silent. The only
ones within Israel who expressed opposition to the military process were
the Minister of Culture, Science and Sport, Ghaleb Majadle, and MK Ahmad
Tibi. But not only they; also Dr. Nurit Peled Elhanan. The professor at the
School of Education at Hebrew University, who also teaches at the David
Yellin College of Education and Tel Aviv University, won the European
Union’s Sakharov Prize for Human rights and Freedom of Thought in 2001.
Last week she sent a letter to the prize committee, congratulating Hu Jia
of China on the occasion of his winning the Sakharov prize and dedicated
her words to the heroes of Gaza, as she put it. “The pogrom being carried
out by the thugs of the Occupation army against the residents of the Gaza
Strip is known to everyone and yet the world is impotent as always”, she
went on to write. That letter came to the attention of the journalist
Ben-Dror Yemini and he discussed it in his column last weekend in the
Sabbath supplement of Maariv. “In fact,” wrote Yemini, “there is no
need to wait for any action of on the part of Israel. The lie industry is
already running full steam.” Yemini proceeded to quote from the words of
Peled Elhanan in her discussion of cities of slaughter. “She writes about
cities of slaughter,” continues Yemini, “but she knows that Israel has
never carried out a slaughter, and nothing that approaches a slaughter,
during more than 40 years of occupation … but since when to anti-Semites
deal with the facts?” Dr. Peled Elhanan is a fervent and active
representative of a minority that belongs to the margins of the margins of
the radical left. Since the beginning of the action in Gaza her positions
have been perceived as particularly utopian. She acknowledges her
membership in the minority, which she herself has defined as marginal and
utopian. “That person is pathological”, she said in response to
Yemini’s column. “Pathological. Everyone in the world today who wants
peace, brotherhood, good neighbourliness and for children to live and not
die is seen as an anti-Semite. Do you understand? They took that concept
that had meaning and drained it. Why? I hate Jews because I want there to
be peace? That is the logic? Something is distorted. So today everyone who
criticizes the Occupation and the Israeli terror regime that is so contrary
to everything that is Jewish, is an anti-Semite?”
I meet Dr. Peled Elhanan (59) at a restaurant near her home, and she is
agitated. She is the daughter of the late Reserve General Matti Peled, who
was a Canaanite for a short time, a PhD lecturer in Arabic literature, a
Member of the Knesset for the Progressive List for Peace and – how
symbolic! – the military governor of Gaza in 1956. She grew up in a home
with a staunchly leftist outlook in the Rehavia neighbourhood. “I grew up
in a Zionist-Leftist home”, she relates. “My mother is from the
Katznelson family. My grandfather was in Brit Shalom”.
And how come you abandoned Zionism?
My father always said that Zionism had completed its
the State of Israel was created. He said we should move on, this is not
something one should get stuck on. I do not think that the Occupation is
Zionism. My father, by the way, had a certificate in his pocket. Somebody
said of him that he was anti-Zionist and he sued him for slander and the
High Court gave him a certificate that he was a Zionist and he carried it
in his pocket. My father was the Zionist, that is Zionism. The Occupation
is not Zionism. He was very proud to be a Zionist. It was the left. My
grandfather was in Brit Shalom during the thirties and their platform was a
binational state.” t'ion the moment
Why the need for a binational state?
“Why not? You come here, there are people here who need to live together
A point that very much angers Peled Elhanan is the treatment of Israel’s
Arabs. “The expression “Israel’s Arabs” itself is racist”, she
says, “and it explains why they do not have national or cultural rights.
Arabic is an official language in the State of Israel, but there is no
Arabic-language institution of higher education. Most of the signage is not
in Arabic. The entire linguistic landscape of Israel is one big
manifestation of racism. Look at the sub-titles on television. They have no
rights, not as a national group, not as a cultural group. Our school
textbooks do not speak about them. As if they do not exist. Neither they,
nor their lives, nor their culture, nor their history, nothing. They are
discriminated against and live in a very very racist state. Ministers can
say about citizens of the state that they are a “demographic threat”
and no one puts them in prison for that. The expression “Israel’s
Arabs” means the Arabs of the Israelis. It is shocking.”
About a year ago the writer A. B. Yehoshua claimed in an interview that
Jews and Arabs have no chance of living together because of the cultural
differences. “How nice for Yehoshua that he found the answer,” she
replies with overt cynicism, “that he can sit in Haifa and feel really
good. Nice to be A. B. Yehoshua. I think it is nonsense of the highest
order. I will tell you what my son said about that when he was in Paris. He
said, “When I think about home, what is it I am longing for? For
Palestine. The landscape, the smells, the hummus, that is what I long for,
not the Polishness”. We have appropriated all the beautiful things about
that culture. Why is it impossible to live together? If there are two
cultures it is impossible to live together? If there is equality of civil
rights, there will be no conflict”.
Let us assume that a Palestinian state is created, there is full equality
for everyone in Israel and Hamas begins to shell Israel, what position
should they take?
“That is not my business. Why should I care what position they take? I
am not responsible for the position they take, let them take whatever
position they want.”
Does the support that the residents of East Jerusalem have expressed for
Gaza even while they want to stay in Israel and not to go to Palestine seem
logical to you?
“Why not? They have to be in favour of what is going on in Gaza because
they want to live in Israel?”
Why not? They are guests in a state that is defending itself.
“Enough, stop. You will not draw me into that. The State is not
defending itself. The State is slaughtering. Slaughtering.
Why slaughtering? It is defending the residents of the south.
“Enough. Oh, really. That is defence? It is slaughter. It is preparing
the ground for the next terrorist attacks, the next terror, the next
bloodbath. It is anything but defence”.
Then what is Israel supposed to do in this situation?
“With whomever possible, with whomever is willing.”
Including with a government that wants to destroy Israel?
“Meanwhile we are destroying them. Two and a half years without food,
without medicine. They live like subhumans. 83 percent of the children in
Gaza are suffering from anaemia. Children are dying in incubators, students
cannot go to school, people are not getting medical treatment. It is a
crime against humanity. That is defence of the residents of Sderot? I
cannot listen to these questions. It upsets me”.
Olmert and Haniyeh enjoy watching children die
At this stage of the interview Peled Elhanan’s tone rises. She is
getting agitated, angry, her eyes blaze angrily at the questions. The
tension reaches its height and she threatens to stop the interview. Her
husband, Rami, who had joined us after a few minutes, asked me to stop that
line of questioning. Otherwise the conversation would come to an end. After
a few soothing words, Peled Elhanan was placated. “I am not a political
person,” she said after she had calmed down. “Politics does not
interest me. Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, Ismail Haniyeh, Nasrallah, to me they
are all the same. They enjoy seeing dead children. To me they are all in
the same boat.”
All of them?
“All of them. There is not one who is not like that. I am not a
politician, I can’t stand politicians, I don’t know what they want and
I don’t want to think what they want. I know that children are dying here
in this country and no one is lifting a finger”.
On either side?
“On either side. Clearly the Israelis are killing a million times more
over there, but OK, on either side. No one is doing a thing to save the
children and to give the people a good life, so they can live as
neighbours, in happiness. So there can be life with mutual respect and
mutual learning and mutual acceptance and good education, and there’s no
people like the Palestinians for investing in the education of their
children. There’s no people like them. You know, that in Gaza the
literacy rate is among the highest in the world, 92 percent, with all that
we are doing to them? They are wonderful people, charming people. It’s
all racism, it is all in a context of racism.”
The racism is mutual.
“No, not mutual. The weak are not racist against the strong. I have not
seen Palestinians express racism against us. Not once. They greet us on
every Jewish holiday, they respect everything. No way, no racism.”
What can you do, there is also racism on the Palestinian side.
“No way, I have not heard of that. I have not encountered it. Their
textbooks are not as racist as ours.”
And what about Jews who warmly welcome Palestinians?
“What are you talking? Jews don’t want to register their children at a
kindergarten in Neve Yaakov because there is an Arab child there. Besides,
let’s not make comparisons.”
To you everything is terribly one-sided.
“Now wait a moment. The strong side is the side that must take measures,
not the weak side. OK? There are very strict laws in the world against
racism. We were in England for a year and a baroness who fights for
minorities said that if she were a Palestinian she too would commit suicide
and right away they removed her from the Parliament. And there was a woman
who was head of a committee on health services who said that health
services were collapsing because of the immigrants and the next day she was
no longer a member of Parliament. You don’t say such things. That’s it.
You don’t not say ‘them’, you don’t say ‘you can tell by looking
at them’, you don’t say ‘because of them’ but here ministers say
about citizens of the State that they are a demographic threat and in
school textbooks they write ‘demographic nightmare’ and everything’s
“It is a racist act that is happening here now. Destroying a race,
destroying a people, destroying a culture by erasing villages, by having no
linguistic landscape in Arabic, by not respecting the language and by
universities being unwilling to give a single day off on an Arab holiday.
Once I gave a day off and they nearly booted me out. You understand? When
verbal attacks are tolerated physical attacks become acceptable. On
television there is no report about those who are harmed, what happens to
them. And no one asks. What happens with those children who are dying there
by the dozens, but 'the [Israeli] cattleman was lightly wounded.' The
cattleman was lightly wounded and because of that it is necessary to kill
the whole world. On al-Jazeera I saw a mother sitting with the three small
bodies of her children beside her and she doesn’t know what to do. No one
knows about it, there is no hospital, no medicines and no one takes an
interest because it is them. It’s shocking. That’s what I am crying
about. It’s not a political matter, it’s a human matter.”
Your identification with them is total. What is happening to the residents
of the south does not seem to interest you. It’s just them, them and
“Right, because I am ideologically and overtly on the side of the weak,
and now it is them.”
And what about the residents of the south?
But I don’t hear the same fervour from you.
“Because there the cattleman was lightly wounded and in Gaza children
are getting killed by the hundreds.”
When is the last time you visited the communities of the south?
“I have not visited recently.”
Rami: “This is demagoguery, it’s like asking someone what he did in
Nurit: “There is no symmetry. A child suffers in Sderot, there will be a
family in Tel Aviv that will take him in or a hospital that will take care
of him. Over there, there is not. We have closed them, we have choked them,
they have nowhere to go. I suffer from asthma and I heard that a boy died
from asthma because there were no inhalers, and they tried to revive him
with a blower. Does that happen in Sderot? No way. It is true that the
government of Israel is making fine use of Sderot and deprives them so as
to heighten their suffering, that is true. I know about that deprivation
because I worked in Yeruham and Netivot. What is happening in Sderot and
Gaza is the fault of the government of Israel and it is tied together. What
is going on in Gaza is an outrage against humanity. It is not that they are
not unfortunate in Sderot, certainly they are. They are the scapegoat of
the government of Israel. It’s the flag that they wave, like Gilad
Shalit. What bothers me is that the people take no interest in knowing what
is going on there with the children, with the women, the families. A boy
was going to a mathematics exam and they blew him up when he was halfway
They don’t report because there are problems entering there.
“Because Israel does not allow it.”
Peled Elhanan is ignoring the period during which Gazan gangs kidnapped
journalists in order to get ransoms. Following a wave of kidnappings that
ended with the release of the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, Israel
barred journalists from entering the Strip, a prohibition that was lifted
for a short period about two weeks ago.
“There’s no problem,” she replies. “We have entered and left as we
And if you entered at the wrong time and someone decided to make money off
you, you would not leave there.
“I do not accept that allegation, because it never happened to me. I go
to every place and I get an excellent reception. The walls they are
building will not prevent me from saying that ‘I live here and here is
Palestine’. I want to live here in the Middle East, I am not European.
Israel is located within Filastin, Palestine.”
There will be those who will disagree with you historically.
“Right, but it’s like what is written in one of the Israeli geography
books, that Jerusalem has always been the capital of the Jews, and in
parentheses, apart from the two thousand years when we weren’t here. That
is the narrative”.
In spite of the bereavement
In September 1997 the late Smadar Elhanan Peled was killed in a suicide
bombing on a pedestrian mall, 13 days before her 14th birthday. Since then
the couple has been active in the Parents’ Circle-Families Forum for
bereaved parents. Incidentally, the discussion of their daughter’s death
was minimal, because Nurit had requested before the interview not to talk
about the event. The couple say that instead of taking the pain to a place
of revenge, they preferred to sit with another approximately 500 families
of Jews and Arabs who have fallen in the conflict, with the aim of talking
and trying to come to a situation of peace and good neighbourliness instead
of an unending cycle of revenge. In addition to that, the two are active in
various organizations such as Combatants for Peace, of which their son Elik
is one of the founders. The organization conducts various educational
activities mainly in Israeli and Palestinian schools. “There’s here a
situation in which we are tied to each other”, begins Rami Elhanan. “We
want security, they want freedom. They will not have freedom as long as we
have no security, and we will not have security as long as they have no
freedom. Because of the despair, because of the frustration, because of the
anger, because they have gone crazy they vote for Hamas. We, because of the
anger, because of the despair, because of the frustration, because of the
fear, we vote for Likud. People do not vote with their heads, they vote
from their guts. Palestinians did not vote for Hamas because of religious
extremism, they voted because they were angry at Fatah. They were fed up
with the corruption, with the fact that Oslo did not bring anything,
because Camp David collapsed. Peres promised them an independent state and
everything dissolved and therefore it exploded.”
The conversation drifted to the change that has occurred in the media.
Peled Elhanan claimed that they are all America’s dogs and I told her
about the BBC’s past bias. “Even if I’m the only one in the world who
thinks that, I think it,” she refused to accept my view. “What’s
going on there is a crime against humanity. If we educate children that
empathy and compassion, mercy and consideration are dependent on race and
religion, it is the biggest crime that we are committing against ourselves.
We are raising generations here that see everything through the eyes of
race. That is the most terrible outrage. What are we raising here? Children
who could be flowers, we are turning them into monsters. We are corrupting
our children, corrupting ourselves, corrupting the world , killing and
destroying. There is no education to find out how to solve problems
non-violently, they decide in a flash to throw hundred-ton bombs on a
civilian population, but in order to get a word our of their mouth, it
takes years before they make a decision. Do you understand this? They
should talk and talk for a million years. Because every child they kill
there, they kill me and my children.”
And the other way round?
“Enough with ‘the other way round’. It is the strong who decide.
Israel always says ‘our pilots returned safely’. Truly amazing that
Hamas’ F-16 didn’t get them. Come on, really, enough. Children with
scarves and homemade bombs. There is a limit.”
You seem like people who do not at all know where you live. It seems to me
that you are living on another planet and do not recognize that the world
is much less ideal than your meetings with the Forum.
Nurit: “We make this planet with our Palestinian friends.”
Rami: “What are you alleging?”
That you do not understand what world you are living in.
At this point Rami’s temper rose. He pointed a threatening finger at me.
“Now open your ears well,” he said in a half-violent tone.
I haven’t finished talking.
“No, no. Be quiet a moment and listen.”
You see, now you are turning violent.
“Because you have finally irritated me.”
I’m very glad.
“We have paid the price for this foolishness and for the last 11 years
we don’t sleep at night. Unlike most of the nation, we are swimming
against the current in the hardest way possible. We are trying to effect
change and not stand aside. It is not a decree of fate that we must
continue to die and to kill here. Unlike the masses all around we are
making an effort to change reality, which is hard, unpleasant and very
problematical. They call us anti-Semites, they tell us that sorrow made us
lose our minds, and they say that we have gone crazy, that we are traitors
and supporters of Hamas, they say everything about us. Because we have paid
the price, because we, who know the meaning of this pain, can no longer
stand aside, we act.”
I understand your anger, but you are using a weapon that I have no ability
to contend with.
“I hope you never have such weapons.”
To them it is permitted
Last Yom Kippur youths from Beit Safafa or Shu’fat set out to a square
on the road that leads to Gilo, where they had a barbeque and yelled
slogans with a megaphone. Jews who were returning from the synagogue and
passed the junction were attacked by the youths with sticks. The incident
has not been reported to this day.
Nurit: “I don’t believe it”.
Rami: “What, deliberately like that on the square or on the grounds of
the grocery store?”
On the square.
“What, in order to provoke?”
They were demonstrating. They beat people with sticks.
“What do you want to say by that?”
I hope to understand what is your view?
Nurit: “In view of the cruel Occupation, in view of the crushing
underfoot, in view of the fact that there are no public services at all in
Beit Safafa, it creates hatred, and hatred creates things like that. It is
bad, but it did not come from nowhere”.
Rami: “Do you really not understand how problematic that is?”
No. Just as I will not throw a pig at my neighbour’s house during
Ramadan or on any other day, I expect that he will not hit me on Yom
Nurit: “Those who are hurt are never the ones who deserve it. Was George
Bush killed on 9/11? No. He should have been killed. You understand, that
is precisely the point: those who suffer are surely not the ones who
deserve to suffer”.
I was expecting to hear you say that that is deviant behaviour.
“Of course it’s deviant behaviour.”
But I don’t hear it from you.
Rami: “Because you don’t want to hear.”
I want to, but all that I hear is Occupation and so on and so forth.
Nurit: “But that is correct. We have to understand how we have caused
the deprived to behave in such a way. It is our responsibility as the
strong and the rulers. I think that violence, any violence whatsoever, is a
terrible thing. But when the deprived begin to behave violently, I must I
have to think how I drove them to it.”
At the end of the discussion they asked me if I was convinced. I told them
no, but I had no problem with the fact that they hold their views. Nurit
asked if she could see the piece before it was published and I refused.
After that she asked me if I would distort her words. I told her that I had
no intention of doing that. On my way back home I thought about her
question and I wondered to myself how is it that she has so much faith in
the ability to live with the Palestinians in coexistence and without
borders, when she does not have a drop of faith in me, a journalist who is
one of her people, and especially, a neighbour.