Hanna Barag’s speech at the Leibowitz prize 2017

Last month Hanna Barag was awarded the Yesha’ayahu Leibovitz Award. A teacher and guide to many, Barag brought people to encounter the distress and reality of Palestinians living under ongoing occupation. Barag writes: “A person living an abnormal reality in an abnormal state will most likely become abnormal…” Barag invites us, in the words of the the poet Zelda to, “Take a boat/And cross the fiery sea..”

hanna barag

Here is her talk in its entirety:

I am greatly honored to stand here on this stage today, for the Professor Yesha’ayahu Leibovitz Award. I feel that this prestigious prize is being awarded not only to me but to all of us, my comrades in the struggle against the occupation and its injustices.

Professor Leibovitz’ voice was original and unique in Israeli culture, and his words resound to this very day. His ideas in the realms of science and Judaism, the people and society, have inspired many, and his courageous statements have stirred the public both on the religious and the political levels. His basic assumption was that holy is only that which transcends reality. This idea is relevant in any era. It was true in Biblical times and is true in ours as well. Therefore, any political Messianism, any sanctification of land, stones or stories, is in fact a regression from the belief in a single god who is beyond reality. Leibovitz took upon himself the role of prophet, exhorting at the gate, a tireless warrior – to explain and persuade others with his positions. This world view compelled him to put reality to a constant and meticulous test. Thus he managed to foresee difficulties in our political path. Immediately following the Six Day War he sounded the alarm, warning that our domination of another people will corrupt us and bear disaster. His political, social, and religious thought is the pillar of fire moving ahead of the peace camp with all its shades.

When I joined Machsomwatch and Yesh Din many years ago I did not envision how the struggle against the occupation and persistent quest of the rights of human beings anywhere to a life of dignity and freedom would become the hub of my own life. Gradually this struggle has become my identity – I was drawn in. Retiring, I planned to get up late regularly, have coffee and lounge in an easy chair reading all the books I had always planned to read and never had time for. Then I met Judith Oppenheimer and my world changed. She told me about a monitoring shift at Qalandiya Checkpoint. Until that very moment I had never heard of the place. I knew very little about the occupation, and certainly nothing about the checkpoints. Suddenly my blindfold fell off and my daily routine was completely transformed. As poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, I suddenly became one: “Of three or four in a room – one always stands by the window – compelled to see injustice among the briars – and the fires in the hills. And how men who went forth whole – are returned like loose change home at night.”

When I leaf through the Machsomwatch photo album of recent years I meet:

• The couple who married at Beit Furiq Checkpoint with us as the only guests at the wedding…
• The hardware shopkeeper at Hawwara, who unfortunately sold knives as well, and when we finally gave up our arguing with the soldiers at the checkpoint, we had bought the whole lot…
• Mohammad of Burin, a 17-year old who worked in construction in the Israeli town of Dimona without a work permit, fell off the scaffolding, was hospitalized in Jerusalem, and when he later needed medical supervision we undertook an obstacle course in order to bring him to Jerusalem…
• Ibrahim, wearing the kind of jacket the soldiers call “Border Police jacket”, which he bought two days earlier, and when trying to cross an agricultural checkpoint found out he needed a permit of entry into Israel for the … jacket. At the end of the episode, the jacket became the property of a checkpoint soldier.
• A two-week old baby girl whose life was in danger urgently had to get through to hospital in Jerusalem, but because her young parents are both Shabak blacklisted, we had to get the whole world on its hind feet in order to make it clear to the authorities that only the mother could nurse the baby, not her grandmother and certainly not I. They arrived at hospital after five horrific hours, the baby practically dying.
• Iskandar, director of a home for extremely mentally-disabled children in Bethlehem, who should be cited in the this world’s Pantheon of the Just. He organizes two yearly trips for his wards: one to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo or to the Ramat Gan Safari, and the other, in the summer, to Tabeha in the Galilee (on the shores of Lake Gnazareth). Every year anew, making these trips real, he faces bureaucratic hurdles posed by a deaf and blind ruling system.
• Fourteen-year old Abdallah, who was shot at Shu’afat refugee camp, was hospitalized in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus after surgery and other treatment, both his hands and feet shackled to the bed. A mere few hours after his operation, at 3 a.m., he still under anesthesia, Israeli GSS (General Security Services) agents came in to interrogate him alone in his room, without any adults around.
• These are not necessarily the “juiciest” episodes. They contain no outright violence. They are the trifles that erode to dust the lives of millions of people.
As this gallery of characters entered my life, my own vocabulary expanded and strange terms became routine: words like tasrih (permit, both work and entry), Shabak-blacklisted, police-blacklisted, DCO (District Coordinating Officer), illegal alien, ‘bridge-blacklisted’ (Palestinians whom the Israeli authorities deny passage through the bridge to Jordan on their to fly out of the country, thus denying them the possibility to travel abroad), “straw widow” procedure, back-to-back as well as such pearls of wisdom such as “This is my checkpoint!”, “Get lost, have someone else take care of you!” or “What have you got there, a baby or a Kalachnikov?” These have all become an almost automatic part of my daily vocabulary, the language of occupation and injustice. Who would have believed this!? These expressions are not only a special slang, born among a group of people living and active together, they reflect a train of thought that contains and reflects the creed of those who use them.

A question that has troubled me nearly daily is what moves us to devote so much of our time to such frustrating work, successes in which are complex and far from obvious. Where do we draw the stamina to face the consensus, everything that is habitual and conventional and accepted by the majority of our public? What is the source of this sense of mission, expressed by the prophet Jeremiah in his words, … the burning fire, shut up in my bones” (Jeremiah 20, 9). Why do we, of all people, not find refuge in the warm lap of the tribe, nationalism and hatred of the other? The good news is that this problem is not unique to Israel. The bad news is that the good news is no good news at all. It actually foresees a miserable future for the State of Israel. A person living an abnormal reality in an abnormal state will most likely become abnormal, namely a fascist nationalist. It is a wonder that in the abnormal reality that is Israel a small group of us have remained liberal humanists. What is our mission? We want whoever lives here, in the place that belongs to all of us, sharing the same sun and stars, to be able to live rightfully, a life of dignity and freedom of thought, freedom of action and realization of one’s wishes. Our mission is to say these things clearly and brightly to whoever can barely hear them, whoever finds them hard to accept. And here is how poet T. Karmi puts it:

“Two sea shells have a hard time really conversing
Each listens to its own sea.
Only the pearl-diver or antique trader
Can fearlessly say: it’s the same sea”

We are Karmi’s pearl-divers, wanting to open everyone’s ears and shout from every stage, any time, that all of us – Jews, Palestinian-Christians, Palestinian-Muslims share the same sea.

The decision to get out of my easy chair, close the book and go out in the field, touch the actual distress of people for whom injustice is their daily bread, is a moment of no return. The field, the encounter with distress and suffering are the source of our ability to face the ostracism, hatred and humiliating tagging that Israeli society ‘grants’ human rights organizations. We are increasingly regarded as traitors, along with all the other preachers who break the silence, film the injustices, write and document them, defending us from ourselves. We have not yet been hurled into the pit like the Prophet Jeremiah, but traitors – as one well knows – are likely prey.

I grew up in a family that believed that any person, any human, is entitled to dignity, and that dignity depends on the conditions that enable any person to tell their own life story. But these life stories, this history, can only be told if there is recognition of one’s basic rights founded on equality and freedom. For the past fifty years we have not enabled Palestinians to tell their own story. This is the essence of injustice. This is one of the crimes of which Professor Leibovitz spoke. He liked to quote English historian Edward Gibbon who said that history is an account of man’s crimes, madness and disasters. However, he also used to add that this is the truth, but not the whole truth. History is also an account of man’s struggles against the crimes, against madness, against disasters. In one of the letters in the book I Wanted to Ask You, Professor Leibovitz, he wrote that this struggle is eternal, and that it is the great significance of history.

Israeli society often confuses its onlookers, for it contains contradictory forces. It is colonialist, it usurps resources in order to control the Palestinians, it is militaristic, its military plays an important role economically, culturally, and politically. On the other hand, it is still democratic. We now have to face choosing between the two-state solution, or one-state. And if one-state, would it be a state of all its citizens, or an apartheid state. Israelis will have to refresh and apply the principles of universal democracy upon which Israel’s Charter of Independence is built. Perhaps we might even still save ourselves from sliding down the perilous slope of anti-democratic forces that act in our midst. All of us – left and right alike – bear the responsibility of re-defining the importance of democracy, whereby the respect for human rights and values such as equality, freedom of expression, separation of powers and supremacy of the law are an integral part of the definition of democracy, where every citizens has an equal voice.

Over the years we, the preservers of human rights, have had quite a few chances to bring our message to extensive audiences locally and abroad. We have spoken to soldiers, to youth in pre-military courses, many have taken part in our West Bank tours and heard about our activity and world view. On such occasions we are always asked whether we have had any achievements over the long years of our activity in the Occupied Territories, whether we have attained our goal. Such questions have forced me to look inside and “sort out” all my activities in recent years. No, we have not reached our primary goal – ending the occupation. But we cannot ignore the fact that we have given an answer to numerous Palestinians, people who need all those things that we take for granted in our own lives. We have solved hundreds, thousands of local problems. We are a tiny boat in a stormy sea. But when we look at ourselves in the mirror at the end of the day, we tell ourselves that we have done our best. Perhaps it could be done better, perhaps differently – but this is what we know and can do every day, time and again. Our battle is also over the right to live here in peace and security without losing our humanity. We also wage our battle to hold a very uncomplimentary mirror up to the authorities responsible for this reality. This individual handling, combined with a solid political stance, lends moral strength and justification to our actions. Moreover, we show the Palestinians as well that there are other Israeli faces. There is a partner, some of us have not lost their humanity.

From this stage I wish to call upon everyone who still believes – to join our boat and cross the fiery sea, on our quest for our ultimate goal – peace. As the poet Zelda writes in her poem, Every Rose.

“Every rose is an island
Of the promised peace,
Eternal peace.

In every rose
Lives a sapphire bird
Called ‘swords into plowshares’

And it seems
So close
The light of the rose,
So close
Its fragrance,
So close
The silence of its petals,
So close
That island –
Take a boat
And cross the fiery sea.”

I wish to thank the Leibovitz family and Yesh Gvul for the prominent and respectable space they make for human rights organizations.

Thank you all. Your presence here is an expression of partnership, recognition, encouragement and support of all those who carry out the work.

Thanks to my family which has stood by me all along.

And special thanks to all my friends of Machsomwatch and Yesh Din, whose shared activity is the force that motivates me, and us.

From this stage I also wish to extend my warmest regards and support to conscious objectors Tamar Alon, Tamar Zeevi and Ataliya Ben Aba for their courage and determination to fight for their principles.

Hanna BaragLeibowitz prizeMachsomWatchYesh Gvul