What is to be done? Overcoming the salvation fantasy in advancing peace and human rights in Israel, 2017 / Charles W. Greenbaum

Israel has been occupying the West Bank and controlling Gaza for fifty years. Among many people concerned for Israel’s future there is a feeling that Israeli society does not show support for any peace process, nor for promoting human rights of Jews and Palestinians. Peace and civil rights organizations are under constant attack. At the present time, there is concern that the present stagnant situation will lead to war. In Israel and elsewhere, some people are asking themselves and each other: “What is to be done?”

charlie picture smaller


The establishment and activists for peace and human rights

It shouldn’t surprise us that the question of what to do comes up. The negative attitude of the Israeli establishment and much of the population to individuals and organizations working for peace and human rights is felt very clearly.Many people in Israel regard human rights groups and political parties such as Meretz led by Zahava Galon and the Arab Joint List party as “leftist”, a derogatory term in Israel. It has taken on the meaning of “traitorous” in recent statements of politicians on the Right and even the Center. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused the organizations “Breaking the Silence” and “B’Tselem”,of “besmirching” the good name of Israeli soldiers, simply because they expose behaviors in which soldiers engage. He did this in explaining his refusal to meet with the German Foreign Minister Sigmund Gabriel who had had contact with these organizations. Other right-wing politicians went even further:Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely called them the aforementioned organizations “enemies of the State”. At an Independence Day ceremony Knesset Chair Yuli Edelstein spoke of the “Fascist Right and the traitorous Left”, meaning that only people on the Left are traitors. Likud MKs have called “leftist” any army officer who makes statements about the need for the IDF to defend its moral standards. MK Yariv Levin (Likud) hascalled Supreme Court justices “leftist”.

All these statements are not lost on those of us who remember similar declarations made in other countries in other times. We remember a similar poisoned atmosphere that preceded the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It shouldn’t be surprising that Israeli human rights activists who protect Palestinian shepherds and farmers near the Palestinian village of Baladin in the West Bank were recently attacked by masked men with clubs coming from nearby Jewish settlements.

A low point was reached during the recent Israel Memorial Day for Israeli fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. The government denied access on security grounds to 220 Palestinians who planned to attend a joint- Israel-Palestinian meeting in Tel Aviv for bereaved families on both sides. The meeting was held in parallel in Tel Aviv and Beit Jala via closed circuit television. A noisy crowd of Israelis attacked the Israeli bereaved families who attended the meeting in Tel Aviv with threats, insults, and water bottles, some of which contained urine. There are elements in Israeli society that demonize Palestinians and those who have contact with them.

The political outlook

The political outlook for change is not encouraging. Depending on how you count and how you frame the question, the population has been divided somewhere around 50%-50% on the need for Israel to make greater efforts in the peace process. The Arabpeace initiative of 2002 has never been discussed in the government. Most people favor a “two-state solution” but many, including Netanyahu see any future Palestinian state as a vassal state dominated by Israel. About 400,000 settlers currently live in the occupied West Bank. Israeli leaders are loathe to take responsibility for removing them, kicking and screaming.

Politically, taking no initiative and not answering initiatives from the other side suits Netanyahu and many,if not most Israelis. Most Israelis are oblivious to the lives of Palestinians on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.where there are arrests and home invasions every night, terrifying adults and children, almost no permits for Palestinian building, expanding Israeli settlements on “public” land that should be used for Palestinians,checkpoints and their attendant humiliations, Israeli government bodies grabbing water resources  Very few complaints by Palestinians about the behavior of Israeli Police or army result in any action. Palestinians, including minors, are judged by military law, while their Jewish settler neighbors are judged by the more lenient civil law. The above problems make up only a partial list of the problems of living in the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

We hear and see no evil. It’s just easier and more comfortable to muddle along, Netanyahu-style. Peace seems further away than ever, and people who work for peace and human rights do not see much chance for changing the present situation and ending the occupation. People on the Left have become despairing. There are no political or social initiatives in sight for making progress on peace or human rights.

The political situation in Israel today is similar to that found in a number of European countries and the USA, where national sentiments and threats to human rights activists and xenophobic hatred are expressing themselves. But here in Israel, the worst scenario is also possible, that is, war. We have been in situations in Israel in which most people thought we were invincible;then came a war with many casualties. The Yom Kippur War in 973is the most striking example. No one knows to what war can lead, and what support Israel will have in it.

In all of history the task of gaining human rights has been difficult; there are times marked by progress and at times there is regression. In times of Regression we search for ways to bring about progress again.

Recognizing our fantasies

In situations of despair many people frequently turn to fantasy; perhaps we all do this sometimes. The prisoner in his/her cell, to the hunted person who sees no way out, to the child who feels abandoned may all fantasize about better days that are coming soon. It is at times like this that people may turn to thoughts of the Messiah. The fantasy is often coupled with the demand that salvation come now.

In our impatience, we look for someone, anyone to come up with a new “idea”, a “plan” to do something that has not been done before and will change the situation.In following this fantasy some people believe that if there were such an idea and a person or group to carry it out, all would change. This is the fantasy of salvation.

In the current situation many people have become less active in working for peace and human rights. Some have gone over to the political parties of the center. Others are inactive altogether and believe that there is nothing to be done. Some of them fantasize that the occupation of the West Bank and control of Gaza would end with a new person and a new idea. In the meantime, according to this view, action is useless.Some people continue to act, but without expectation that their acts will lead to any result.

People with the salvation fantasy, which may include all of us,have high demands. We have specific demands, among them: originality: “Don’t tell me what has been said already”; and immediacy: don’t tell me that we peace and human activists must have a strong leader, bring the leader! And don’t tell me to be patient! The situation is already intolerable; I want it to end now!”

As Vladimir Tismaneaunu has pointed out in his book on European thought published in 2009 (“Fantasies of salvation: Democracy, nationalism and myth in post-Communist Europe, Princeton University Press) fantasies, including the wish for immediate democracy, exist elsewhere as well. They plague Eastern Europe, particularly following the disappointments after the collapse of Communism.

Fantasies are good: they are the essence of our dreams. But we run into the risk of deep disappointment and despair when we expect our fantasies to be fulfilled immediately. “Peace Now” is a great name for an important Israeli movement. But it has been around for 40 years. By now we know that we may have peace, but not now.  

Overcoming our fantasies

The first step in overcoming the salvation fantasy on the way out of the salvation fantasy is to look at reality. The Occupation may or may end soon, but it may not. If it does not end, there may be dire consequences. These consequences may include violent struggle after which Israel annexes the West Bank. This is the goals of the Jewish Home party, led by Naftali Bennett. This would mean permanent Apartheid rule in Israel, and constant warfare both in the country and on its borders, with support from no one in the world except perhaps Palau in the South Pacific Ocean. In trying to break this impasse, we cannot continue to demand the impossible of ourselves. “Thinking out of the box” is great for pencil-and-paper problems, and for scientific breakthroughs. It does not work when the solutions are already there, as they are for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not about a new solution or a new tactic. It’s a matter of creating a political change so that one of the existing solutions will be applied.

I suggest that the quest for a big new idea is part of the salvation fantasy. The situation is akin to that existing in the USA in 1830. Then there were people who demanded an end to slavery, but many knew that they would have to struggle for a long time. Over 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the USA is still struggling with its aftermath. Similarly, suffragettes were vilified for 100 years before winning the right to vote for women. In both cases the ideas of the advocates for reform did not change. They persisted until a majority of people were convinced that the reforms were correct. Sometimes change appears to happen quickly, but sometimes it does not. In Israel we thought we were close to Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement in the 1990’s. Now we know that it is a long haul.

The implications for action are clear. No matter what happens, the tasks for peace and human rights organizations remain the same, keeping up the struggle for peace and human rights.

Achieving change: The strategy of persistence

The strategy of persistence has worked before. Menachem Begin led the Herut party in opposition in Israel for 30 years before he won an election. In South Africa Nelson Mandela worked to change the regime even though he was in jail for 27 years. The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain went down in 1989. In all of these cases and others, activists did not change their tactics, and there were no new ideas. The activists persisted in their efforts, year after year, generation after generation, until change came due to pressure both from inside the country as well as the outside..

The above examples are instructive.  Social change occurs when individuals and organizations who believe in their ideas and goals to be persistent in continuing to promote them, even at the cost of being vilified.

The need for peace and human rights can be presented in the most acceptable way possible. There is no need for insults and personal attacks. There is need for understanding people the “other” side and trying to address their economic and security needs through political activity. As Daniel Bar-Tal pointed out in a recent article in Ha’Aretz, Israelis are concerned with their personal security. The establishment caters to this need when it lashes out at foreign threats and also when it isolates peace and human rights activists, who are pictured as threatening security because they criticize the military. Advocates of human rights have strong arguments on their side: Security is enhanced,not diminished by peace agreements.

The fact that ideas are in the political atmosphere for many years can lead to their acceptance when the time is right. That time usually comes when the political and economic costs of authoritarian rule over a people become too much to bear for the group in power.

Persistence: some suggestions

What does this mean for individuals in Israel and abroad interested in peace and the advancement of human rights? In Israel, It means continuing the activities of promoting peace and human rights; these activities are as important as ever. They include creating dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, working in every legal was for human rights for Israelis, Arabs and Jews, advocating for rights of all children, and pressuring the government to stop its illegal actions on the West Bank through political activity and demonstrations. All of these activities are as valid now as ever. The danger is that salvation fantasies cause people to weaken their resolve in doing what is important. The fact that these activities have not changed the situation does make them outdated. Any non-violent action for change is as needed now as ever.

For people abroad, contributing to the New Israel Fund, and continuing the work of J-Street is crucial. Should BDS (boycott, disinvestment and sanctions) on Israel be supported? I would say no, since this could weaken the very institutions, including political and academic organizations that are working for peace and civil rights in Israel. BDS on the settlements on the West Bank is justified since the settlements are taking advantage of an occupied population All efforts by any foreign government to label goods coming from the settlements in the Palestinian West Bank in a way that is different from Israeli products should be supported. The settlements are not geographically in the State of Israel, and it is simply deceitful to present the products of the settlements as if them as if they come from Israel.


The work of bringing about peace and human rights for all is not over. It has run into serious obstacles. These obstacles are challenges to be overcome. There are many organizations in Israel that are working for Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, for peace and human rights for all. These efforts should be supported and not be abandoned because the times are difficult.

If we ask what is to be done, it is to persist. We may or may not see the fruit of our labors. Future generations will see them.Past history has shown that this strategy is not based on fantasy.

50 years to the 67 warCharles Greenbaumleftpeace