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Laying the Groundwork for Change

A Review of Michael Riordon, Our Way to Fight: Peace-Work Under Siege in Israel-Palestine.

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ichael Riordon's new book (published in Toronto by Pluto Press/Between the Lines, 2011, 242 pages) explores what a just peace between Israel and Palestine might look like and how it might be built. It does so by describing the work of a wide range of NGOs and movements, both Palestinian and Israeli, involved in a non-violent struggle for peace and/or justice. The diversity of these organizations reflects the complexity of the problem and the many fronts on which it needs to be addressed.

Riordon tells the story of organizations that directly confront the military, bureaucratic and legal apparatus of the Occupation: the Israel Committee Against House Demolitions, Machsom ("Roadblock") Watch, Settlement Policy Judicial Advocacy Project of Yesh Din ("There is a Law"), Emek Hashaveh (an organization of archeologists), New Profile, ( helping young Israelis to refuse military service), and BDS (boycott, disinvestment and sanctions). He also tells the stories of organizations, such as the Freedom Theatre and Project Hope, which fight the pernicious psychological and emotional effects of the Occupation on young Palestinians by using cultural activities and education to help them "free their minds."

Not all of the organizations described by Riordon work in the Occupied Territories. Dirasat (The Arab Center for Law and Policy) and the Mossawa Center promote civil rights, social justice, and equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Zochrot works to keep alive the memory of Arab villages in Israel that were destroyed in the wake of Israeli independence and the Palestinian Nakba (disaster) in 1948. The Workers Advice Center (WAC) organizes and supports working class Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, to create fair employment opportunities and to ensure them of their rights. Canaan Fair Trade supports small olive oil producers in Palestine, and Physicians for Human Rights provide free health care in the Occupied Territories. Finally, Riordon describes the struggle of a physician in Gaza to provide health care to a population under siege as well as the popular, non-violent resistance to the Occupation in places such as the West Bank village of Bil'in and Silwan in East Jerusalem.

The real power of this book, however, is that it gives voice to Palestinians and Israelis individuals who are devoting their lives to this struggle, often at an enormous personal cost and in the face of insuperable obstacles. Riordon is a skillful writer who takes the reader on a journey through the back roads of Palestine and Israel to meet these people and experience the reality of their lives from close up. Their voices and stories are woven into a narrative that combines historical, political and organizational context with a deeply sensitive account of the human face of the conflict.

It takes us into the homes of Palestinians and shows us exactly how the Occupation destroys lives, breaks up families, and makes life almost unbearable. At the same time the book illustrates time and again the determination of Palestinians to resist and survive while at the same time refusing to succumb to hatred and violence. It presents a vivid picture that is shocking, moving, disturbing, painful, hopeful, depressing, and inspirational all at the same time.

Riordon's book can bring the Occupation home to American and European readers who are only vaguely familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, providing a perspective that is significantly different from what people see in the Western media. The author's critical stance towards Israel and the Occupation is unequivocal, and he makes no attempt at so-called “even-handedness” by presenting the Jewish Israeli narrative or by telling the stories of Jewish suffering.

Indeed, one of the central arguments of the author, and especially many of the Palestinian quoted, is that the Western media are heavily influenced by the official Israeli version and deeply biased against the Palestinians. This revelation would surprise most Jewish Israelis, who believe that just the opposite is true. We Israelis are deeply convinced that "the whole world is against us" and that the media naturally sympathize with the Palestinians, and consistently distort reality, in order to make us look bad. It is unfortunate that this book has not yet been translated into Hebrew, because it eloquently reveals those unpleasant realities in which we all take part, but from which we are sheltered by the stories that our press and government tell us.

The book tells a truth – a truth that Israelis and the world should hear. But it is not the whole truth. The book is weakest when Riordon applies overly simplistic versions of history, such as comparing the relationship between the Jews and the Palestinians to the experience of indigenous people in North American and blacks at the hands of the whites. There are certainly valid parallels, but there are also significant differences.

Riordon does not set forth a plan or an explicit vision of how peace will come about or exactly what it will look like. Nevertheless, a vision of a better future seems to be implicit in the many positive, even loving, interpersonal relationships he describes between Palestinians and Israelis. One of the strengths of this book is that the author generally allows people to speak for themselves. The big, thorny questions, such as the return of Palestinian refugees or the nature of Israel as a “Jewish” and “democratic” state, are addressed through the positions expressed by the people in the book and the organizations they represent.

For me, one of the book's most interesting aspects was a similar kind of “conversion” story that repeated itself in the personal narratives of almost every Jewish Israeli protagonist. Most of them held idealistic, or idealized, views of Zionism and Israel, until a series of events, or a single powerful experience, opened their eyes to the brutal reality of the Occupation and other disturbing features of Israeli history and society. Although all of these individuals found themselves somewhere outside the “consensus” of Israeli opinion, they seem to have ended up in a wide range of positions. Some appear to have parted with Zionism for good while, for others, peace work has become the ultimate expression of their Zionism.

At one point Riordon asked each of his protagonists what keeps them going, or gives them hope, in the face of such impossible circumstances. This question was particularly salient, because as I was reading this book, Juliano Mer, the charismatic leader of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, was gunned down, allegedly by Islamic extremists, outside his theatre. The people in Riordon's book answer this question in different ways: small victories, their children, the seemingly unfathomable fall of the Berlin Wall, and simply “no other choice.”

Perhaps the strongest ray of hope is the popular uprising that has swept across the Arab world in the past months – after Riordon's book was already off to press. Although no one can tell exactly where these events will lead, they show that there are limits to oppression, and that the unexpected can happen. No matter where or when change comes, the organizations and individuals whom we meet in Riordon's book will have laid the groundwork. "end"

  • Prof. Victor J. Friedman, Max Stern Academic College of Yezreel Valley
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