The guide for leftists who want to stop preaching to the choir

For years the Israeli Left has excluded the vast majority of the country from its ranks. Here are eight steps on how to broaden the tent. 

By Noam Shuster-Eliassi

Thousands of left-wing activists call for the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in response to the increase in violent Palestinian attacks, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, October 25, 2015. (photo: Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Thousands of left-wing activists call for the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in response to the increase in violent Palestinian attacks, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, October 25, 2015. (photo: Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Over the past several years, various writers and NGOs have finally come to the conclusion that the Israeli peace camp is on its death bed, and that along the way it has forgotten, well, everyone.

Today many concede that over the years there formed an “alliance of the elites” between Israeli activists from Tel Aviv who leisurely met with activists from Ramallah. The members of this alliance headed delegations and took part in dialogues — without religious leaders, without Mizrahim, without members of the national-religious movement, without Ethiopian activists, without Russian speakers, without Palestinian citizens of Israel, among other groups. And this is only on our side.

Of course I am generalizing, and we can all think of the exceptions, even those who perhaps were signatories to the Geneva Initiative. But the question is a different one: were they full partners — in both representative and numbers — to formulating accords such as the Geneva Initiative? No. And therein lies the problem.

The voices of those who “do not count” — according to the representatives of the peace camp, the vast majority of whom hail from Tel Aviv — are simply not taken into consideration. Who gets to decide what a “peace activist” looks like? Who gets to wave the banner of dialogue? Who says that the solutions concocted between Ramallah and Tel Aviv all these years are the best ones for Israelis and Palestinians? The time has come to unpack these issues, and we have a lot of work to do.

Alongside the Right’s persecution of the Israeli Left, it has become trendy to say that we need to “broaden the tent.” Countless words have been written about the Left’s blindness as it continued preaching to the choir. Not only is it not enough to highlight the Left’s failures — we need to propose alternatives and ways of implementing them.

I grew up in Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, an Arab-Jewish village established to promote peace and coexistence, but my experience was different from many of the residents there, since for most of my life I never felt part of the peace camp. Sometimes it was because I spoke fluent Arabic; most left-wing activists may want to learn Arabic, but never actually do anything about it. Sometimes it was because I felt I didn’t belong because I am Mizrahi. I grew closer to Palestinians and could not find much in common with peace activists. When I interviewed for various positions in human rights organizations, I encountered hard-headedness, racism, and ignorance to such a degree that they simply destroyed the trust I had in the camp I grew up in.

An Israeli man makes a lewd gesture toward a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace march in the West Bank, November 27, 2015. (Mustafa Bader/
An Israeli man makes a lewd gesture toward a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace march in the West Bank, November 27, 2015. (Mustafa Bader/

But I didn’t give up. I saw and knew that many more felt as I did. Instead of criticizing the white, secular, condescending Left, it is time to get up and do something. So what do we do? Here is my guide, based on years of experience and female intuition:

1. Make room for others. Yes, just like that. Learn to make space for people of different backgrounds. This means, for example, refusing to participate in a panel or conference held in Europe attended by mostly white men. Just refuse. Burn a few bridges, say things your partners might not want to hear, and insist that haredi and Mizrahi women (among others) be invited as well.

Yes, this will be hard. It is natural that people want credit and the ability to express their opinions. But believe me, doing so betrays qualities of real leadership, far more than trying to convince yourselves and others like you of things you already believe in. Try it. Don’t cooperate with a camp that excludes the majority of the population.

2. Create mechanisms, whether in your projects, writing, and activities that will oversee and ensure a wider representation of marginalized groups among the participants. Work hard to make this happen. Travel across the country. Don’t say “there are no suitable people.” There are, many of them, of all kinds and colors, whose work is far more difficult than yours. Someone who comes from a traditional, right-wing community will have a much harder time raising the flag of peace. Go find this person. These are your people — put time and energy into them.

3. Learn to sit with honesty, bravery and determination with Jews who think differently. Why do you so easily sit with Palestinians with whom you do not agree, yet you cannot sit with right wingers or religious Jews? Ask yourself these difficult questions. Dialogue is not only to be held with those beyond the wall. Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, which is of utmost importance, has been taking place for years. Now we must also sit with one another and talk about our vision for this place, without ignoring one another. If you ignore internal processes that affect us while refusing to sit down, understand, and talk with those who do not agree with you, we won’t make any progress.

4. For heaven’s sake, please do not hold your meetings just before the Sabbath. You’re doing your best, you complain that there are no religious people in the peace camp, and yet you still set your meeting for Friday afternoon or Saturday. Enough. Oh, and make sure there is kosher food for the meeting. Really, it’s not that hard.

5. Compromise on your positions: yes, move a bit. Be flexible. Listen. Even Palestinians would be happy to hear a few alternatives and new ideas considering that the two-state solution has been stuck for 20 years. Ask questions out of a real desire to understand, not out of a desire to expose the ignorance of those sitting before you, simply because they have not dealt with these issues the same way you have. Do not condescend to people whose point of departure is far from yours. Be leaders, not closed-minded elitists.

Consider that something in the route you have chosen isn’t working. Everyone feels it, and it is time to recalculate. This means you will need to take apart all the frameworks you have been working with until now. Do not be afraid. Try being revolutionary. The public believes only the Right can provide a direction for the country, while the Left is stuck with irrelevant ideas. Show us that another way is possible.

6. The term “peace” was not invented by Yitzhak Rabin and does not belong to the residents of north Tel Aviv. Break this term down and allow activists and people from places you haven’t heard about define what peace is. Then listen. You will be surprised by the diversity of voices and will probably feel a pain in your stomach, perhaps because you have realized that the “peace camp” you grew up in was not as peaceful as you thought. There are excellent journalists and writers in religious newspapers who are voices of peace. Set meetings. Go listen to them.

7. Religious leaders are not an obstacle to peace. On the contrary: they are the key. Religious edicts that support brave political processes of reconciliation exist in spades. Go out and learn, sit with those who are more learned than you. There are countless examples, from ultra-Orthodox rabbis to those who belong to the religious Zionist community. Not a single bloody conflict has ever ended without religious leaders. Even before your time, Jewish leaders were part of the Arab world and the Middle East. The religious world has the knowledge and experience on how Jews can live in peace and brotherhood with their Muslim neighbors. I am not saying we must copy everything from the past, but there is much in the past that can inspire us. Even the use of halakhic language will turn your knowledge and work into something far more relevant. Believe me.

8. Do not speak in the name of other groups. There is nothing more embarrassing. You haven’t sat with the entire Palestinian people, yet you tend to speak in its name. Just because you read a few articles does not mean you know about the current hardships of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Just because you read a poem by Roy Hasan does not mean you know what’s happening in the Mizrahi struggle. Now return to point 1.

Go out into the field. Sit for hours, days, and weeks with everyone. The most dangerous thing we can do today is to, once again, forget about the people the peace camp left behind. Do not forget anyone.

Noam Shuster-Eliassi is the coordinator for Interpeace’s Base for Discussion program, in partnership with the UN in Israel. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.