How one of Israel’s veteran activists came to support (some) sanctions

Galia Golan has been in the peacemaking business for nearly five decades. In a wide-ranging interview, the Peace Now co-founder discusses why she left the group, her support for a Israeli-Palestinian confederation, and why full-blown BDS won't work.

Galia Golan supports levying sanctions and international pressure against Israel to hasten the end of the occupation. That does not, however, mean that she supports BDS.

Golan, who was one of the founders of Peace Now, served as the chair of Hebrew University’s political science department, and advised several Israeli prime ministers, has come a long way since leaving her job at the CIA to move to Israel 52 years ago.

Much of that happened relatively early on, when she learned — before most Israelis, she notes — about Israel’s expulsion of the Palestinian population in 1948 and its refusal to allow the refugees to return. A few years later, she was politicized by the establishment of the first Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Four years ago, she left Peace Now, a process that culminated when Israel’s only real peace group refused to come out against the Gaza war — for reasons she says she understands but could not get behind. In the meantime, she has also moved on from supporting the two-state solution, joining many others who grasp just how entrenched the occupation has become.

Golan’s support for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation, like other aspects of her political views these days, goes back to 1948. “We can’t go back and undo what happened,” she explains in an interview at her home in Ra’anana. “In a confederation the refugees can come back.”

Veteran Israeli peace activist Galia Golan. (Oren Ziv/
Veteran Israeli peace activist Galia Golan at her home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana. (Oren Ziv)

It is there, by recognizing the grave injustices that are an inseparable part of the birth of the Jewish state, where Golan departs from most of the Israeli left. That makes her part of a small minority in Israel. More unique, is her belief that fixing those historical injustices can still be reconciled with a Jewish state.

Golan grew up in a non-political, non-religious home that moved from one middle-class Jewish neighborhood to another across the East Coast of the United States. Once a self-identified “Jewish nationalist,” Golan says she believed that her people, who faced centuries of murderous persecution, needed a home to call their own.

Today, with history laid bare, and with no end to the bloodletting in sight, she finds it much harder to claim that label.

“I knew nothing about this country [when I came],” she says. “I viewed it as heroic, coming out of the ashes of Europe. As I learned more about the creation of the state and the circumstances and decisions, I began to raise the question to myself: ‘had I known before, would I have immigrated?’.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Most people didn’t know what happened in 1948 until the 80s, when Israeli historians began publishing their research on the war.

I had to teach this stuff, so I began learning it. It was a whole long process. I can’t pinpoint when. But at some point I began asking myself that question. When I began to think not that it was a mistake, but asked myself “what am I doing here? How did I spend my entire adult life here?” that was in recent years.

I continued to learn about the past, and when I wrote my recent book — it was three years of research and I went into the archives — I learned a lot of things that Israelis don’t know. Or maybe they do know. It just gets worse.

I just wrote an academic piece about deception, in which the government lied out and out to the people. I started with ’67 even though it goes back to the 50s. I started with ’67 because it’s convenient for me — I don’t like to go back to 1948.


Because it’s very unpleasant. It’s hard to justify. It’s very painful. There is no question that we just put them on buses at the point of the gun in some cases and in other cases that they just fled. I want to justify the creation of the state. I am deeply convinced that we have a right to a state but I find it very hard to justify it having been built by denying the rights of another people that was already here. It took me a long time to realize how that happened. It’s a very, very difficult thing to reckon with. Even before the current government, just the realization of how we got our state. I can justify and explain certain things to myself.

When was the first time you really felt shame?

On my first trip to Hebron with Peace Now, sometime in the early 80s. We went to Tel Rumeida, a very pretty little section of Hebron and there was a barrier to enter this residential street. Our local Palestinian guide was told he couldn’t come in and as Jews we went past the barrier. There was one building at the end of the street — a small apartment building with three floors. It was the only building in which Palestinians remained — those who hadn’t been pushed out. That was the first time I ever felt shame, and it hasn’t stopped since.

When did the shift begin?

My first political act was to sign a petition against the [first] settlement in Hebron [in 1968]. When I came back to Jerusalem from Kibbutz Nahal Oz after the war, the general sense of everybody I knew was “oh, now we’re going to give back these territories in exchange for peace. The Arab states will want the land back and they’ll give us peace in exchange.” So we ran around to see Bethlehem and Jericho before it was given back.

Israeli settlers hold a procession from the Tomb of the Patriarchs to commemorate Torah scrolls that were destroyed by Palestinians, 1976. (Ya'acov Sa'ar/GPO)
Israeli settlers hold a procession from the Tomb of the Patriarchs to commemorate Torah scrolls that were destroyed by Palestinians, 1976. (Ya’acov Sa’ar/GPO)

When I heard about setting up the settlement in Hebron, I thought, “wait, how are we going to make peace if we start settling there?” It was a very naïve, simple reaction and it led to my first political act, which put me on a path. There was a peace group at Hebrew University and I was on the fringes of it. I started going to Mapam [precursor to the present-day Meretz party, E.K.] demonstrations against the settlements. By the time I was married in 1972, my husband and I went to demonstrations and when Peace Now was founded in 1978 we immediately joined. I also became a feminist in those years. But it took time to find my direction and began to understand where I stood regarding the conflict.

Do you still take a similar position today? Has your thinking shifted or have the conditions changed?

I don’t think I have changed very much. I am angrier and more ashamed and frustrated than I was but the basic feelings haven’t changed. I believe we have a right to a state, and I believe that the occupation is abhorrent. And I know now much more, but I don’t know that the basics have changed. When I signed that petition, that’s pretty much where I have remained.

It’s difficult for many of us to talk about 1948. How do you reconcile the idea of having a state of our own, and on the other hand saying that had you known about how it was established, you may not have chosen to come here?

I can talk about ’48. I don’t try to justify it. All I can say is that today, the answer, maybe the only answer is a confederation of two states. We can’t go back and undo what happened. In a confederation the refugees can come back. The borders themselves will be less critical and each people has its right to determination, and I continue to believe the Jews are a people. My Palestinian friends say it’s a religion — not a people — and that the only reason they accepted the two-state solution is because they know there isn’t any other solution.

Many Palestinians would argue they have the right to the whole thing.

They do. We both have rights; we both have history. Maybe the day will come when we no longer have a need for a state, but until that day comes we as Jews have a right to self-determination. We particularly have that right because we have been discriminated against and will continue to be. We don’t have a right to displace another people, so all I can do is to try and find an answer.

What about Palestinian refugees?

Of course they have the right of return. International law says that refugees have a right to go back to their homeland. What we need to do is to resolve this without changing the character of the State of Israel. That’s why a confederation is the best option.

Israeli settlers hold a procession from the Tomb of the Patriarchs to commemorate Torah scrolls that were destroyed by Palestinians, 1976. (Ya'acov Sa'ar/GPO)
Palestinian children seen in a Gaza refugee camp, 1956. (Moshe Pridan/GPO)

I have Palestinian friends in the Galilee whose relatives are refugees in Lebanon. What do I say to them? That I can come from the United States and live here and buy property but they can’t?

And what do you say to them?

That they’re right. We need to find a solution because I cannot undo that. That’s a bit of a cop-out, but what else can I say? I’m not going anywhere.

Are we too far gone? The racism, the siege mentality, the entrenchment of the occupation — doesn’t all of that make it feel like we, as Israelis, have missed our window?

Not at all, and I’ll give you two reasons. Look at the polls before we made peace with Egypt and polls after peace. Look at the polls before Oslo and after. The rise in support was dramatic. Studies done continuously over the years have demonstrated that if you come to Israelis and Palestinians with a peace agreement, they will accept it.

During the tremendous violence of Second Intifada polls actually showed that a higher percentage of Israelis were in favor of entering peace negotiations than in times of relative quiet. As long as Israelis aren’t forced to make a choice about the future of the conflict, they’ll go with the status quo. 

See that’s part of the problem when my camp talks about issues like hope. They don’t like when I say it, but I believe the answer won’t come from here.

Where is it going to come from?

I am in favor of outside pressure. Not BDS, because I think it will produce the opposite reaction of rallying around the flagpole. And certain elements of the BDS movement in Europe use delegitimizing rhetoric, which is why I think it won’t work.

But I do support selective sanctions, and I do think that pressure that the Americans once put on us, and that Europe could implement — not blanket sanctions — could be effective.

Some might argue that you’re supporting the ‘S’ in BDS.

You’re wrong. BDS is very, very clear. It calls for full boycott, full divestment, and full sanctions. I don’t believe the parts are equal to the whole, and there’s a very good reason I make the distinction: because blanket sanctions will boomerang. It’s a very practical point. I think there is a chance for selective sanctions to work. The Americans stopped talking about an arms agreement to get Rabin to accept the 1975 interim agreement with Egypt.

I’m in favor of selective sanctions on settlements, but that’s not going to bring peace. I tend to think that if the business community in Israel feels pressure, maybe that will help. But we need the outside. I was among a group that worked hard to get Resolution 2334 in the United Nations Security Council. Those things, in my view, put pressure on Israel. None of it is going to make a difference with this government, but the hope is that somewhere down the line — if companies stop investing, if contracts get lost, that could have an effect.

Do you see a point at which we’ll need blanket boycotts, like in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s?

I don’t think it will work. The irony is that the only part of BDS that’s working is the academic boycott, which is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I keep telling people that we’re the very people you don’t want boycotted. Look at what Bibi and Bennett are doing to the universities. They’ll be delighted by the prospect of boycotts. It’s absurd.

Don’t forget that the settlement movement in the 1970s was [established] to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state by making it impossible to pull it apart. And we may have reached that point. But we can’t go on this way because this is apartheid. There is no way you can call it anything else. We have two sets of laws, two sets of norms, two sets of values, two sets of roads.

Why not leave Israel? 

I would leave tomorrow if my family weren’t here, if I weren’t so deeply involved in the society or with my friends. I can’t admit that I’m giving up. But if all my kids had jobs in America, then I don’t know. I feel there is a certain responsibility to stay and to fight.

You ended up leaving Peace Now. Why? 

After the Second Lebanon War I started to slowly drift away from the organization because they wouldn’t come out strongly enough against the war. I found myself demonstrating with Hadash in Tel Aviv. I started going to Bil’in with Combatants for Peace. I wasn’t alone, there were a number of people in Meretz, like Mossi Raz, who were also with me.

"PEACE NOW" PROTESTORS DEMONSTRATING AGAINST THE SETTING UP OF THE GUSH EMUNIM SETTLEMENT "UPPER NABLUS" ON MOUNT BRACHA ABOVE THE TOWN OF NABLUS. Members of Peace Now demonstrate against the building of a new West Bank settlement near the city of Nablus, April 18, 1983. (Gil Goldshtein/GPO)
Members of Peace Now demonstrate against the building of a new West Bank settlement near the city of Nablus, April 18, 1983. (Gil Goldshtein/GPO)

The final blow came in 2014 during the war on Gaza. A friend of mine from Meretz called and said that a small group of people were going to demonstrate against the war. There were a few people from Meretz, Combatants for Peace, and Hadash. We decided to hold a demonstration and we raised the money for it.

Why didn’t Peace Now take stronger positions?

There was a massive internal debate inside the organization over how to remain a mass movement if you go against public opinion. We always felt that we shouldn’t be too far ahead of the public. We were the only major peace movement in Israeli history. We were a mass movement. But the argument was that our value disappears if 95 percent of the public supports the war. We were divided over that question.

The decision was to not take a stand. The journalists understood that perfectly: not taking a stand means not coming out against the war. This debate raged ever since the First Lebanon War. We debated for 10 days whether to oppose the war while Israeli troops were out fighting. We ended up opposing it, and it brought out hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest.

There was also a desire in Peace Now to have a less pro-Palestinian image to remain a mass movement. I couldn’t go along with it. I had to come out against the war. That’s why I left. This is the first time I’m saying that publicly. When donors asked me why I left, I said I felt it was more important to work in an Israeli-Palestinian movement.

It’s not that Peace Now wasn’t left-wing enough for me, it was just moving to the center — and that was a legitimate argument to have. This is what a lot of groups are doing today. They don’t want to use the word occupation.

Perhaps it’s easier to use more strident language when you’ve reached the conclusion that change isn’t going to come from the Israeli public. You’re far less inclined to pander to the center.

Right. If these groups can get masses out there without saying the word, then let them do it. But morally, I can’t do it. I feel the occupation is absolutely destroying us.

I can trace exactly how the occupation is affecting us. Does anyone expect things to be different here? How can a government support and maintain an occupation and permit all this criticism? Of course they have to censor us and shut us up. It’s impossible to maintain a completely immoral situation while permitting freedom of speech and assembly that goes along with democracy. You can’t. This was inevitable.

That’s the big difference. That was not the Israel I thought I was coming to. I didn’t think this place was perfect but I thought, mistakenly, that it was a fairly healthy democracy.