How a Jewish Agency fellow becomes a one-state activist

When Gila Hashkes arrived at UC Berkeley as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, she felt like she was jumping into the heart of pro-Palestinian activism. Her job was to organize Jewish students on campus, strengthen their connection to Israel and give them tools to justify its policies. But after a year-long journey of digging deeper into the conflict, being pushed by both her Jewish and Palestinian peers and glimpsing the ‘mentality of fear’ that grips the American Jewish community, she had an awakening of sorts, moved back to Jerusalem and now works for equal rights for all. Tom Pessah sits down with her and explores the transformation.

By Tom Pessah

How a Jewish Agency fellow becomes a one-state activist
UC Berkeley students demonstrate after the student student senate did not overturn a veto on a bill that would divest from American companies profiting off the occupation. (photo: Ramsey El-qare)

Can you talk a little bit about your background?

I’m 28-years-old. My extended family includes a whole range of skullcaps and scarfs, especially knitted skullcaps from Bnei Akiva (a national-religious youth movement). Some are Bennett-style settlers. My close family is national religious. Sabbath was Sabbath; today they’re a bit less observant. I grew up in a religious high school. My matriculation exams were in Gemara (a part of the Talmud consisting primarily of commentary on the Mishna), and I was part of Bnei Akiva. My rebellion was going to the army instead of doing national service, in order to be a strong feminist.

How did you get to be the Israel fellow in Berkeley?

After the army I got my bachelor’s degree in business management and communication. I worked in an advertising agency – I hated the advertising world. I felt I was advertising things that were devoid of any content, selling my soul to the devil. And then a friend suggested that I become an emissary (Israeli government emissary abroad), to market something I believe in, with a purpose. The purpose is strengthening the State of Israel. My brother joined the army, and in my mind he went to fight on the battlefront, whereas my strengths are in marketing – so I’m going to fight in the battlefield of Hasbara.

My first year was in Mobile, Alabama, and there it was mainly preaching to the choir – Christian evangelists who ask “why doesn’t Israel take down the Dome of the Rock and build the Third Temple?” I got a bit scared feeling these were our main donors. Alabama is a shopping center of religions, the Bible Belt – so many are converts who just recently joined Judaism. For me, the purpose is to convince them to join programs like MASA and Birthright. This is how emissaries are judged – to send as many students as possible to those programs. I look at them and say: the Israeli Chief Rabbinate doesn’t recognize them as Jews, but the State of Israel is going to tell them “Make Aliyah, you can live here, for sure.” It looked strange to me, this idea of Jewish nationhood – my brother is in the army, and this wealthy American will come here from Alabama and we’ll pay for his absorption “basket” (grant). But that didn’t particularly shake my convictions.

Even so, I didn’t feel fulfilled. I wanted to go to UC Berkeley. It was right after the 2010 divestment campaign to pull University of California funds from companies profiting from the occupation. I met the fellow there at a conference and she told me what was going on in Berkeley. I went red. How are Jews and Israelis speaking like this [criticizing Israel]? I felt I had the capabilities to change this. I did some research online and I learned about all the different groups. I got trained by the Jewish Agency, how to take things that people say and make a “salad” out of them, like a mix, in order to appear more just. The consulate and the Jewish Agency brought us experts like Neil Lazarus, Ben-Dror Yemini. If someone starts to ask you “why do you put the children of Gaza in the world’s biggest prison camp?” you tell them “Thank you for your question, sir, but that is not the issue: what about the children in Sderot?” They assumed that anyone who’s in this room with them doesn’t need the basis of the “why” but only the “how” to know how to spin the subject around.

What were your expectations when you arrived at Berkeley?

After the training, I arrived in Berkeley, and I felt I was going to face Al-Qaeda, at the very least. I came partly undercover to the first annual meeting of Students for Justice in Palestine. I had a pen with a Star of David on it, which I received from the Jewish Agency. After someone asked for a pen and I gave it to him unnoticeably, I got really scared that they would discover I’m Jewish. I felt I was going to a dangerous place, which was how they made me feel. In retrospect that makes me laugh, since so many members in that movement are Jews.

You went through all sorts of changes in the year you were a fellow, no?

I started having questions. I wanted content, but I got fluff. I kept asking them to give me content. There was an event on campus about the Mavi Marmara. Fellows from other universities sent me YouTube clips, but they didn’t send me content. I felt like I needed to produce content myself, and I didn’t have content that was properly based. Because there isn’t one hard line, you keep people in some kind of a haze.

For instance, we found short films by the Ministry of Hasbara from when they built the [separation] wall. The film was made eight years earlier, and one of its points was that when terrorism ended, it would be taken down. Students asked: “the terrorist attacks finished, so why aren’t they taking down the wall?” We contacted the consulate, we sent emails, I asked for answers that are plausible. The answers I received were fluff: the life of one Israeli is worth one more hour of a Palestinian waiting at a checkpoint. It didn’t satisfy me. They said East Jerusalem Palestinians can ask for citizenship if they want. But when I looked into it more deeply, I saw how many questions they ask anyone who tried to get citizenship, and how low the percentage is of those who actually receive it. I inquired, and I didn’t get answers.

In Hasbara, if you own money, you own people’s opinions. When you do things that are too much to the left the donors put you in your place. Every Hillel has its donors, or its StandWithUs, to “balance” it if it strays too much to the left. With J Street there was a big problem, because the donors didn’t want them. They reached out to me directly, or through the Hillel directors, or through my supervisors in the Jewish Agency in Israel. I’d get a phone call about an event that was sponsored by J Street: “There’s a donor who’s upset, talk to him, meet with him.” On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we read names and had a rally on campus, to commemorate those who had died. The following day we had a different event: we had set up a group that would be centrist in Israeli terms, politically, and we wanted them to have a fun day in San Francisco. We brought them to the building of the Jewish Federation, we made plans for next year, and then we went to a museum. The next day I get a call from the Office of the Spokesperson of the Jewish Agency telling me that there is going to be report in Yedioth Aharonoth [Israel’s second-largest newspaper] about how the Israel fellow in Berkeley turned Holocaust Remembrance Day into a day of fun. But it wasn’t all on Holocaust Remembrance Day, it was the day after and it was an event for Israel! At the time I was extremely right wing.

Today I criticize the date Israel chose, and how they make use of Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies for nationalist purposes. At that point I didn’t hold such views, but I did experience first-hand how this disgusting nit-picking works to decide who is the most Zionist. The Jewish community feels it needs to constantly show support because they’re constantly being checked. If they don’t, they get lynched. I talked to the Jewish Agency spokesperson, to explain to him that this was baseless, and they managed, through the power of the Agency, to prevent the publication of the report. They played a political game so that it wouldn’t get published.  I actually wanted them to publish it, so that people would see how disgusting it is in the US: the competition over who is the most Zionist. Holier than thou. For me, it was a peek at the mentality of fear.

Did you feel lonely going through this?

That’s also true for certain people I worked with, part of the Hillel staff. Towards the end of the year, when I started having questions, I was very surprised when many actually agreed with me, but not vocally. Afterward you go and look for a job, but who would take you, apart from Jewish Voice for Peace?

So how did you change in spite of everything?

It began from a very rational place. I remembered that I had seen a picture of N., a Palestinian student, on Facebook. This was while I was recruiting students for Birthright. One of my roles was to interrogate the students to see if they were really Jewish. I was uncomfortable with that. They’re asked how many times a month do they go to synagogue, whether they had a Bar Mitzvah. Then I see a picture of N. standing next to a Jewish-American student on Facebook. On the Jewish student’s sign it said that Israel would pay for her to go to Jerusalem. On N.’s sign it said that she was born in Jerusalem, and Israel won’t let her go back. At that point I asked myself: why doesn’t N. deserve to go back? It didn’t seem fair. I didn’t understand the issue with East Jerusalem, and I wanted to learn from her, since she was born in Jerusalem. I asked to meet her one-on-one, but not as a representative of the Jewish Agency, since that wouldn’t be fair. I came with an attitude of “I’m not going to fight with you.” When I met with her I came to listen for the first time to a Palestinian and her politics. A lot of the things she said were hard for me to hear, but I didn’t respond. She showed me pictures from iron checkpoints she was at, and pictures of family members in Gaza – from her personal experience. From here I decided to examine whether the one-state solution was something I could live with. I’m not interested in a religious state. I’ve always been interested in a separation of church and state. But I never made the next step toward a state of all its citizens – a state that unites religions, races, nations that live within it. That step never crossed my mind.

So [now] I asked myself – “why do you insist so much on a national Jewish state?” My answer had always been “security,” but here were people who were offering me a solution that was more in line with what I want: a secular state combined with long-term security. But I didn’t know if it was only the “Western” Palestinians, the Berkeley crazies, while at home there may be an absolute majority of Palestinians who want to kill the Jews. What about the mood in the Palestinian street, which is not represented in the Western and Israeli media? I didn’t know if N. was representative of an entire people. So I took it upon myself to find out.

How was it for you to go back to Israel after your year in Berkeley?

At the beginning I didn’t want to go back to Israel, with the crazy fanatics from both sides. In the end I decided that I would go back, for myself, and also for my family and friends. I decided to learn Arabic and understand what’s happening to non-Jews in Israel, including immigrant workers; to see if there is a possibility of living together.

I learned Arabic in a Palestinian institute in the Old City in Jerusalem, where they took us to the Museum of the Political Prisoners. I associated the prisoners with those of the [Zionist] undergrounds during the British Mandate, and it’s really very similar, except that this is happening in the present. I saw a picture there of Amna Mona, the one who enticed a boy [Ofir Rahum, in 2001] through a chatroom to go to Ramallah, where he was murdered. I asked the guide “can you tell us a bit about this picture?” I wanted to hear how they could justify her being a cultural icon. He talked about how her brother was in an Israeli jail, and he wrote to her that he couldn’t survive with all the torture, and that he was going to commit suicide. As his big sister she had to do something, and his friends convinced her to kidnap an Israeli as a bargaining chip, which she did. When the kid got to Ramallah in the taxi it got messy, he understood something was wrong. According to the guide soldiers came, and during the shoot-out the kid died. So for me, what is important is that they’re not saying “well done, she took a 15-year-old kid and killed him.” That shows that it’s not that their culture is saying it’s okay. For us, the case of the lynching [of the soldier] in Ramallah [in 2000], or the murder [of the Fogel family] in Itamar [in 2011], comes from their DNA. But they don’t glorify that. So many people don’t know about the murder in Itamar.

I wanted to understand what they really want, what’s the mood, beyond what the media says: do they really want to throw us into the sea? Since then I met people of all kinds, not just the educated class or those in peace groups. From a reality of living there in Ramallah, in Jordan Valley villages, I met people on the bus, the vegetable seller, the girl who helped me with the shopping. I made friends from being there. I formed a realistic perspective that Israelis and westerners don’t usually get. And what I heard was only nostalgic stories about their Jewish friends before the Wall, or from before ’48. Only once I encountered an older woman who had experienced the Nakba first-hand [in Lydda], who said the Jews shouldn’t be here. And even her, after we sat for half an hour she said “you can stay.” “And my mom?” “Your mom too,” she answered. “And my sister?” “Her too.”

What are you working on now?              

The reality I want to reach is real cooperation. Not the kind where Palestinians come to Tel Aviv as a construction workers, but the kind where everyone has the right to make a living within this shared space. I tested N.’s theory to see if it was valid – and it is. Unfortunately it isn’t valid for Israeli society. I get responses like “are you crazy?” or “We gave them Gaza and look what happened?”

When Israelis hears “peace” they immediately thinks of partition. From the people I have met, Palestinians see partition as a kind of forbidden Solomon’s Trial. Peace for them is something between an “engineered peace” that will enable them to have a normal existence, and a demand for shared life with equal rights in this space. I’m talking about the street, not about politicians. We come from such a militant place, but if we do what I call “bringing hearts together,” people will realize that a reality of shared life in this space is both necessary and possible. I’m not talking about communist equality, not “for each according to his needs,” but rather a human rights approach: a shared citizenship, a shared legal system, a shared right to vote, a shared interest for all of this space. For instance, not building Jerusalem’s dump on top of [the Palestinian neighborhood of] Issawiya, because “why should I care what happens in Issawiya?”

Besides demonstrating against the Prawer Plan, the separation wall, land confiscations etc., this is my aim, as a resident of Jerusalem: there are 200,000 people here who can vote for the Jerusalem municipality, but who don’t use this right because they assume, ideologically and logically, that Jerusalem will one day be divided. Now more and more people realize that the division of Jerusalem isn’t going to happen. So the goal has become to put up a Palestinian candidate for mayor of Jerusalem, al-Quds, the capital of the new state, whatever they’ll call it. It definitely won’t happen yet in the next elections, because the problem is that there is opposition both from this side and from the other side. The Palestinians aren’t there yet. But in Beit Safafa [Palestinian neighborhood in southern Jerusalem], after the city approved a plan to build a highway through the center of the neighborhood, people are suddenly understanding the importance of getting into politics – they’re very involved. For me, I want life in a joint political space that doesn’t belong to any religion. Using the right that people already have to vote to turn it from the municipality of the Jewish State of Israel to a city that takes care of all its residents, and supports religious equality and the right to worship. Even though it is the hardest and most intense here, it is also the most possible. If it works in Jerusalem, the rest will be a piece of cake.

Jewish Agency plans most exorbitant ‘pro-Israel’ campaign ever