We Did Not (Want to) Know

Interview with Shulamit Aloni, 5/24/2004

Shulamit Aloni founded and was Chairperson of Civil Rights Party/Ratz 1973-95, and was a Member of the Israeli Knesset from 1974-96. In 1973-74 she was Minister without Portfolio for Human Rights, in 1992-93 Minister of Education and Culture, in 1992-96 Member of The National Security Council, in 1993-96 Minister of Communication, Science and Art (and in 1995-96 Second in the Cabinet). She was born in 1929.

This interview was given to Attila Somfelvi of Ynet — the Web site associated with Yediot Aharonot Israel's largest circulating daily newspaper. The Interview was translated by Sol Salbe from the original (see bottom for additional attributions).

Former Meretz Leader Shulamit Aloni has established a reputation for her critique of modern Israeli society. Recently, in front of hundreds of supporters of Yossi Beilin, who had just been elected head of Yahad, Shulamit Aloni — "Oum Meretz" [The Meretz Mother (in Arabic)] — settled accounts with everyone: stylishly, sharply and in her own inimitable style.

No one escaped her acerbic tongue. They all 'caught it': the government, apathetic Israeli society, the army and even her left-wing colleagues who have fallen asleep at the wheel.

"Stop being politically correct!" she lashed out. "It's time to tell the truth to the people, straight to their faces!"

Now, following the election of Beilin, whom she supported, Aloni has given an exclusive interview to Ynet, explaining why she endorsed him ("he's been consistent on the issue of peace") but why she does not believe that the Left could recover anytime soon ("populists").

She warns against the disintegration of Israeli society ("gross insensitivity"), rules out any comeback in politics ("I don't miss it"), and states: "I am beginning to understand why a whole nation (the Germans) was able to say: 'We did not know.""

Q: What do you mean when you say that you understand the Germans?

Shulamit Aloni (SA): These days you meet people around the country who say: "I don't want to know, I have given up reading the papers." Do you know how many people are unwilling to read Gideon Levy and Amira Hass [Haaretz reporters in the Occupied Territories] because they simply don't want to know what is happening there? They do not deny the accuracy of these two journalists' articles, but they simply don't want to know.

We have always angrily and justly rejected the Germans' claim that they "did not know". They simply didn't want to know. They worshipped the Fuehrer and their army. We also have people who do not know and do not want to know. What they know is that they must display their patriotism. And what is more patriotic than a war?

So now we have the national flag and coat of arms in every classroom, and we teach the students the anthem. There is even a fool [religious Likud MK Leah Ness] who proposed to write "In God We Trust " on our currency. Had she known that the Nazi army's belt carried the message: "God with us", she wouldn't have associated the Jews' God with money. But a patriotic hysteria is pervading here, and people just keep quiet.

Q: You do raise quite a complex concept with that comparison

SA: Our society is being undermined by gross insensitivity and by adulation of force. I am disturbed by our moral disintegration. I am disturbed by the arrogant and light-hearted way in which we kill and murder Palestinians. I am disturbed that when 400 olive trees were uprooted in the Territories, no one was held to account. I cannot find any peace of mind anymore, when I see this Wall that we are building. We are pillaging the land and destroying the way of life of people who have lived in the same place for centuries. When Ariel Sharon's mates had their land expropriated, they received huge compensation. Yet we are busy destroying greenhouses, plantations and the vital infrastructures of three million people, and then pretend that we are the victims.

I cannot live with the fact that our sharpshooters are killing people. I cannot live with the way we continually wail that we are the victim, and do not examine our own morality. It's important to realize that appalling as suicide bombings are, aerial bombardment kills more. While we feel the pain of our 900 dead, we tend to forget that we have murdered 3000 Palestinian civilians. We are the violent ones; we are the cheats. Our very foundations have been undermined by our adulation of force, and all this is called a democracy. There cannot be democracy when we rule over three million people who have no voice. We simply have to get out of there. We do not even try to understand that what the Palestinians want is sovereignty and human rights.

Q: This gross insensitivity that you keep talking about, where does it come from?

SA: There's an absolute moral thoughtlessness that stems from the powers that be. When General [Amos] Yadlin, the head of military colleges, writes an article stating that it is moral to kill women and children while carrying out a targeted liquidation, and a moral luminary like Professor Asa Kasher endorses his view, then you have a problem. Israeli Arabs get detained at the international airport, and their luggage is taken apart. There are instructions for more and more Left activists to be held up on their way abroad to force them to remain silent. Why? What is happening to us? But people remain silent so as not to get into trouble.

Things happen here that drive you mad. Why was there no inquiry following the death of the American protester Rachel Corrie, who was run over? Why didn't the government condemn it? Why was there no inquiry when journalists were shot, which made it OK to murder left, right and center? The army uses sharpshooters who practice by shooting Arabs. The moral disintegration of our society is the direct consequence of what is happening in the Territories. We are responsible for the shedding of Jewish blood.

Q: What does that mean? Is somebody making sure that Jewish blood gets shed as well?

SA: In Yediot Aharonot, Nahum Barnea wrote the other day that Sharon had told him (and it wasn't only Sharon) that Jewish blood is the most efficient cement for maintaining a national consensus. When terrorism is on the wane, then people feel free to ask questions, critics can be heard and the spirit of defiance grows. There's no mileage in non-existent terrorism.

I ask you, wasn't it obvious that there would be a response to our savage operations in the Gaza Strip? Everyone knew that there would be a response. Who, then, is responsible for the Jewish blood that is shed? We are. We, with all our might, continue to hit more and more. They use terrorism and we do the same, only harder. Our strategy is the strategy of force and not of reconciliation.

Had we chosen the path of reconciliation, we would not have stuffed up [former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Abu Mazen during his period in office. These days, everyone agrees that the government and army were wrong in tripping him up. But in our country, we treat the army as sacred, as if it were a value in and by itself that unites us, and is our raison d'etre. There are many who think that it is not the state which has its army, but the army which has its state.

Q: How is this expressed?

SA: We have just bought extremely sophisticated planes that cost umpteen billion dollars. Who needed them? We could have spent this money on health and relieving poverty. We are in peace with Egypt and Jordan. Syria is seeking peace and is no longer a factor. Iraq is not a threat, and Iran is the problem of the whole world. But [Iranian-born Defense Minster] Shaul Mofaz has already jumped up and threatened the Iranians, in Persian, that he would bomb their nuclear reactor. What's he getting excited about?

For the past 37 years, our Jewish paranoia has been stoked by brainwashing. We get told that they want to exterminate us. Who are "they"? We are at peace with Egypt and Jordan, and these two countries do not threaten us anymore. So who is going to throw us into the sea ... the Palestinians? But this is the kind of paranoia that is being fostered here. The present war is not a war of survival, but a colonial war.

Q: When you say that everyone remains silent, do you include the Israeli Left?

SA: Yes. It was wrong for members of the Left to lash out against the refuseniks. In a morally degenerated state that forces women to give birth by the roadside, we ought to be praising our refuseniks, instead of attacking them. But everyone wants to be careful because everyone wants to show how patriotic they are.

I regard myself as very patriotic, but a true patriot is one who voices disapproval of our moral degeneration. I am told that we need to be populists; we have to be popular, grovel to the masses in order to attract them. It's easy to sway the mob.

There`s a tendency around the world to frown upon nationalism, but in our country we nail it to our mastheads. It's a sin committed by all the political parties. The Left is so besotted with returning to power that it is willing to adapt the Right's agenda to get there.

Q: Will the election of Yossi Beilin as head of Yahad, in reality the Left, change anything?

SA: I can't see any changes for the moment. I am out of politics, and one shouldn't offer advice without accepting responsibility. I supported Yossi because he has been consistent in his struggle for peace. I do not believe that we can renew and rebuild Israeli society on the basis of liberty, justice and peace without first making peace. It's our worst, most festering wound.

Q: Do you think the Left can find a new track?

SA: I am not a believer. I do not believe anymore. I only hope that the dynamics [of the situation] will push it forward. But those dynamics will only arise when [Beilin's opponent in the ballot] Ran Cohen), Beilin and [Knesset member] Chaim Oron and the whole gang wake up.

In recent times the only Meretz voices heard were those of [left- wingers] Zahava Gal-on and Roman Bronfman. But their voices were those of individuals, not of a party. I want everyone to wake up, to relate to the groups that are fighting for peace, to speak out, to attend meetings, to criticize the government.

It's time we set up political stalls in the streets. One has to be daring, and not be constrained by political correctness. We have to tell the truth; to state that our struggle with the Palestinians is a colonial struggle. We have to declare that what we are doing in the Territories is terrible. We have to admit that we too bombed the British people when they occupied us. We must show that we are taking money for the poor and investing it in the Territories. The minute there's an outcry on this subject, when there's criticism of resources being wasted, that's when the country will begin to change.

If it were up to me, I would take the residents of [poor development towns] Dimona and Yeroham to the Territories and show them the settlers' nice houses surrounded by greenery with matching green roofs. Let them see the destruction [of the Palestinian infrastructure], the settlers-only roads, and that monstrous fence. Let them see, so that they would never be able to say that they didn't know. When they see it, and remember that they haven't been paid their wages for months, they may stop voting for the Likud.

Q: Do you see yourself making a comeback in politics?

SA: I do not see myself coming back. I raise my voice, I lecture and I write articles. But I am not coming back. I don't miss politics. The fact that Sharon and Peres are still at it at their age does not obligate me to do likewise. Spain has got a 44-year-old Prime Minster. Tony Blair wasn't quite fifty when he came into power. It' s about time we let the new generation develop. Let's not cut them down. Remember what they did to Mitzna.

Q: Who is an appropriate leader: Barak, Netanyahu?

SA: Ehud Barak was a real disaster, and I hope they never let him set foot in politics ever again. He failed, because he was always up to tricks. Barak totally misunderstood people's attitudes. When the throngs shouted "anyone but Shas", he did not comprehend what they were seeking. As a result, we have the growth of the [secularist but redneck] Shinui. He brought disaster upon disaster down on us. He never implemented the agreements [with the Palestinians] that the Israeli government had signed. He even poked fun at Netanyahu, who had given [back] Hebron, and boasted that in his time in office he had given nothing to the Palestinians. As for Netanyahu, I do not subscribe to his economic policy, but at least Netanyahu is a man of action. Barak had nothing but words.

[Translated by Sol Salbe from the original Hebrew. Salbe used a structure provided by Edith Rubinstein of Women in Black (Belgium), who had in turn used a French translation by Pascal Fenaux.]