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Peace activists were in the wilderness – then something cracked

From French yeshivas to Israeli prison: Michel Warschawski recalls 50 years of peace activism

Since moving here some 50 years ago, Michel Warschawski, the French-born son of a rabbi, has been politically involved in far-left activities and has even gone to jail for it. On the occasion of the Hebrew publication of his memoir.

By Maya Sela, Ha’aretz
October 11, 2013

Michel Warschawski is not bitter and does not see things in a bleak way. His battles have not robbed him of his sense of humor nor of perspective. He says that he always bets on optimism: “What good would it do me to bet on the negative? In this I am a conspicuous disciple of Walter Benjamin’s. History is not what we thought in the superficial Marxist past. History is constantly intersections and open options. Your job is to push leftward and not rightward, without being certain you’ll succeed, but there is no point sitting around saying it is hopeless. Push.”

For decades, Warschawski, known widely by his nickname “Mikado,” has trod on borders. He knows that walking a fine line comes with a price, and does not complain about the price he has had to pay. The climax perhaps was the eight months he served in Maasiyahu Prison after being arrested in 1987 on charges of abetting terror organizations. The trial lasted three years and ended with his being sentenced to 30 months in prison for “providing services to illegal organizations.” The concept of “border” was discussed during the trial and likewise the concept of “no-man’s land” between the Israelis and Palestinians, and between what is lawful and unlawful. The Supreme Court reduced his sentence to 20 months in prison, eight to be served in practice.

Israeli society tried to set a clear boundary for someone who had been for decades a peace activist in radical movements. Warschawski started out in Matzpen, a now-defunct, anti-Zionist organization that had broken off from the Israel Communist Party. He was among the founders of the Committee for Solidarity with Bir Zeit University and was active in the movements Dai Lakibush ‏(End The Occupation‏), Yesh Gvul, and the Alternative Information Center. While he has written for various publications, he’s basically a full-time activist.

It is not certain he would define incarceration in Maasiyahu as the highest price he’s paid for his activities. When asked about personal costs, he speaks about his children. His second wife is attorney Lea Tsemel, and he has three children.

In his book “On the Border” − which was published in 2002 in France, has been translated into several languages ‏(including two Arabic translations, and a 2004 English edition from South End Press‏) and is now coming out in Hebrew ‏(translated from French by Ada Paldor, Carmel Publishing‏) − Warschawski describes the borderlines he has walked, the battles of a single individual who he describes in the introduction as “a committed citizen, a militant of the border.”

The book adds up to a description of the peace camp, the radical left and the changes Israeli society has undergone over the years. But for the most part, it is the personal story of Warschawski, who was born in 1949 in Strasbourg, France, into an Orthodox family. His father, Max Warschawski, was the city’s chief rabbi, and at the age of 16, the son arrived in Israel to study at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, in Jerusalem. Many of his classmates went on to become leaders of the national-religious camp, among them Hanan Porat, Menachem Felix and Chaim Druckman.

This is hardly the usual background for your average peace activist, but when we meet at his home in the Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, he explains that his shift leftward was actually a natural move: “There is less disconnect than it seems. In the state’s 40th year, the daily newspaper of Strasbourg decided to run a profile of me and my father. This was at the time of [my] trial and they asked my father whether it wasn’t hard for him that his son was being accused of ties to terrorism. He said he was proud of his son’s activity and the values that motivate him, and that he has only one regret − that I do all of this without a skullcap on my head.

“There was no disconnect between the values by which I acted and the values I had received at home. When I was little, it was clear at home that we were in favor of independence for Algeria. As the rabbi of Strasbourg, my father received a salary from the state and was bound by the duties of a civil servant. When he spoke up for independence for Algeria, he was summoned to a meeting with the interior minister in Paris to receive a reprimand − of which he was very proud.”

Why did you decide as a teenager to come to Jerusalem?

I had not made any decision to live here. I came because I was a troublemaker in the Jewish community. I wanted to get away, because I was the son of the rabbi in a very bourgeois, conservative city, in a very strong, consolidated and wealthy Jewish community. To have to hear every evening, ‘Rabbi, I do not wish to tell tales, but I saw your son at night with a girl’ … I was getting away from the heaviness and from the critical conservative gaze of the community.

What was your attitude toward Israel?

Lea Tsemel, anti-zionist lawyer with a filthy mouth

Before 1967, Israel had not been part of our identity, we did not have a special connection to it. I tend to say that I am here thanks to a double infatuation: I fell in love with Jerusalem, even though it is ugly, dirty, religious and mystical − all its flaws are what make it the city I love − and I fell in love with Lea. ‏(Lea Tsemel is a well-known lawyer, an anti-Zionist who often represents Palestinians in humans-rights cases against the state.‏)

Many of the people who were with you in Matzpen left the country. Why did you stay?

Our political involvement was very international; we felt part of a global front. I have been asked many times why I remain here, why I don’t go to France or South America, where there are real revolutions. I had a feeling that is also related to my religious upbringing, by which history has placed me in a situation of some sort. It isn’t the best situation, it is not the easiest, but it’s my situation. I had a good friend from my political activities who left Israel for Paris. I treated her as a deserter. It’s easy to make a revolution in Paris. Here is your place. I don’t see myself living outside of Nahlaot unless I am ousted with bayonets. I’m happy here.

Hebron market

Two events brought the former Orthodox Alsatian boy to Matzpen. After the Six-Day War, when he was 18, he ran into an obsequious merchant in the Hebron market. Warschawski wanted to bargain over a price, and the much older salesman spoke to him in a submissive tone. “I experienced that moment like a punch in the stomach,” he says.

A few months later, he wound up in the midst of a fracas at the Hebrew University, still outfitted with a skullcap and tzitzit ‏(ritual fringes‏) sticking out, but curious. “There was a group of hippies [involved], and girls with mini-skirts. Among them a gorgeous one with a filthy mouth who said things I didn’t believe a drill sergeant could think up. Later on I realized it was Lea. I fell in love at first sight. How could a woman talk that way?”

The group was drawing fire because it was handing out a text by the journalist and writer Amos Kenan about the expulsion after the 1967 war of residents of the three Arab villages in the area of Latrun. Warschawski had spent the war on the Haredi kibbutz Sha’alvim and had seen the expelled villagers with his own eyes. In the midst of the melee at the university, with people calling the demonstrators liars, Israel-haters and traitors, he shouted that he had personally witnessed the expulsion. “I wasn’t on the left at all, but I guess I was an honest man, and then I was beaten up, and the beating plus Lea’s mini-skirt … ”

In those early years they were outcasts, and the price, he recalls, was paid mainly by his son Nissan. His daughter, Telila, grew up in the period when being a left-wing activist was not a mark of Cain: “Through my kids you can see the breaking point of 1982, there it stands out. [My son] Nini grew up in an era of total exclusion. He paid a heavy social price. To be the son of Lea Tsemel, the lawyer for the terrorists, and of a completely addled father who goes to demonstrations all the time, gets up early in the morning and distributes flyers, and mainly to feel fear − he wouldn’t walk on the same sidewalk with Lea, so as not to be identified with her. By contrast, Telila was half a year old during the first Lebanon War [1982], and grew up in an atmosphere of ‘are there still people on the right?’ Everyone was on the left and suddenly we were ‘in.’”

Were you aware at the time of the price Nini was paying?

“Yes, but that was our global generation: We were the winning generation of May 1968, we thought that any moment now, we would be done with a world of oppression and create a heaven on earth. We were sure we were winning. I don’t have a pension because we thought it wasn’t necessary, because obviously the state we were dreaming of would take care of us. So if you suffer, it is a price you can pay because any second now redemption will arrive.”

Hating the enemy

Warschawski’s son from his first marriage, Dror, 43, lives in France, where he moved as a child together with his mother. He is a biophysics researcher. “He is very active [politically], and his mother says to me: ‘How about calming him down a bit, he is too extreme,’” he says, laughing. “He has a sentiment that is completely alien to me. I have no problem with radicalism and vicious criticism … but I have no hatred. He has hatred for Israel. When someone is mobilized by hate, that isn’t good.”

Don’t you hate the settlers, the military?

“No, it isn’t on the level of hate. When there is a war, do you hate the enemy? No. I reserve hatred only for one person: for Ehud Barak. His pomposity − this is a man who is motivated entirely by himself, who is prepared to sacrifice half a country for himself. The settlers have an ideal, a sh—y ideal but an ideal, but he is for himself, a serial traitor. I am disgusted by Barak.”

You didn’t hate Ariel Sharon?

Ariel Sharon as prime minister, July 2003. He has been in a coma since 2006. Photo by PA.

“Sharon was a great politician. There have been two statesmen here, people with a long-term vision, with a mindset, with an Israeli ‘project’: [David] Ben-Gurion and Sharon. All the rest are little politicians, whereas they were people with a project, and actually their projects are very similar. It was not by chance that Ben-Gurion called Sharon ‘my beloved son.’ Hatred is a very unproductive feeling. You become bitter, and bitterness is not good − not for you, not for those around you. I am a man who loves life.”

Do you not think that you failed with your project?

“No. There was the wilderness period of total isolation of the left. We emerged from that. Suddenly there is no longer isolation. Society cracked, something moved, and then in 2000 the crack healed again. But today I think that if movement occurred once, it might happen a second time. The hardest period is behind us. We will never go back to the lack of a crack in the consensus. Israeli society was like a tribe with a religion you couldn’t stick a pin into. But that is behind us.”

Even today many would call you a traitor.

“Today it is worse, today it’s patronizing. Today it’s friends who demonstrated with you 20 years ago, who now say: ‘You’re naive, wake up.’ It is much more vexing than hatred. I am not blind regarding the grimness of the situation. There is racism everywhere and cynicism. On the other hand, I think there was only a small turn rightward in public opinion. The vast majority, the Israeli half that was sane or open or moderate, did not become right-wing. That is why I am not in despair. That majority simply has no reason to budge, so it went home. It doesn’t have a sense that anything is urgent. They are asleep, they’re living with a sense that nothing is urgent. From a security standpoint, we have never had it so good. Economically, up until a few months ago, Europe would have dreamed of being in our situation.”

So only a third intifada will get them to budge?

“Something will happen, it’s enough to look at the region. Not necessarily violence; maybe such international isolation that people will ask if it’s worth it. Public opinion shifts when things begin to be bad.”

Do you expect anything to come out of the negotiations Tzipi Livni is conducting with the Palestinians?

“No. This is the most right-wing government ever. I don’t believe that [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry believes in it. I believe that two very important things are happening in the region, but you have to take the long view. One is the Arab Spring, which is a revolution. I got a call two months ago from a radio station, and they asked if I could work out the balance of the Arab revolution. I burst out laughing. I told them to call back in 20 years, if I’m alive, I’ll answer them. There will be ups and downs and periods of democratic openness and very tough periods and civil wars, but the Arab world is no longer what it used to be.

“The second thing is the decline of American power and the loss of American hegemony that’s already evident on the horizon. This will be a big problem for Israel. The appearance of other players we have no control over and with whom we do not have the close alliance, such as Russia − which is making a comeback − or China, which is starting to fulfill a role, or India, not to mention Turkey and Iran.

“If I were the prime minister of Israel or head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, or chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, I would start thinking seriously about how we prepare for such a situation, and not [simply] conduct tiny and immediate politics just until the next elections. After 50 years during which we dictated what went on in the region, suddenly there is a play we are not writing. That doesn’t mean we have no role, but we are not calling the shots.

“This is at least worth serious discussion. For 10 years the Arab peace initiative has been around, and until recently it wasn’t even discussed. I simply do not understand − it’s hubris, it’s the madness of power. In all the articles marking the 40th anniversary of the October War, the word ‘hubris’ appears. We were blind with power. To make the same mistake twice, and not see that things are moving, that there’s a tsunami here? It’s a pity.”

Despite your views, you did reserve duty until you were 52.

“I come from a political school of thought that holds that you need to be where the people are. I understood after the Lebanon War how right we had been.”

But to your mind, the army you served in is an occupation army.

“Right, I went to prison quite a few times because of that. You set the boundaries. I have a feeling I made history. I was among the founders of Yesh Gvul. If I hadn’t been a reservist I could not have [refused to serve] or be part of a phenomenon that really had an impact. As far as I’m concerned, in June 1982, [when soldiers started refusing], I was reborn. I could carry my Israeli identity fully, be an Israeli and a dissident. Before that I was a dissident but I was outside of society, I was an outcast, and suddenly in Lebanon I went from outcast to the avant-garde of a mass phenomenon that has influence.”

Peres’ responsibility

Two years ago people took to the streets to fight over the rent they were paying, not the occupation. What is your attitude to that?

“I felt joy, as opposed to many of my friends, who complained because the protesters weren’t talking about the Palestinian issue. I saw in the protest movement an expression of a new Israeli generation. When [protest leader] Daphni Leef spoke, she said, ‘We the people,’ and addressed the center and the periphery, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs. She addressed a civic collective rather than an ethnic one, and that had not happened before. It is definitely a break with an ethnic concept of what a collective is. We will feel in another 10 years the civilianization of Israeli society. We are becoming a more or less normal society. It’s about time.”

Warschawski even sees the Oslo Accords, which many other radical leftists scorn, in a relatively moderate way: “The Oslo Accords were not fair, but they opened up possibilities. It showed that it is possible, that we need to put an end to the colonial dynamic and reach a compromise. There was Palestinian willingness for a compromise. We wasted it away and we are going to pay for that, because I don’t know if there will be another chance or if there will be someone with the authority and legitimacy Arafat had to reach a painful compromise. The Oslo era marked an Israeli ability or willingness to compromise that lasted exactly half a year, and that ended with Rabin’s assassination.”

Why did it end with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin? Was it all predicated on one person?

“No, although I do not belittle the man’s impact on history. I may be a Marxist, but I think that sometimes a person can bring about change. Without de Gaulle, would there have been a resolution in Algeria? I don’t think so. There was a clear choice after [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s assassination to go on and take advantage of the resulting shock, or to do what Shimon Peres did − to say that what is needed at present is national reconciliation. You cannot reconcile with the Palestinians and achieve national reconciliation as well. You either reconcile with [Yasser] Arafat or with the Bennetts [Naftali Bennett, current leader of the national-religious camp].

“This is why I view Peres as primarily responsible, even in a filthy manner, because he came out at the time with a statement in which he blamed Rabin for his own assassination and said that he had gone too far, that he should have taken his rivals into greater consideration. So that coward and serial traitor just went for national reconciliation and placed the ability to reach an agreement with the Palestinians in a securely locked drawer − and it remains locked to this day.”

The walking of fine lines is clearly reflected in Warschawski’s stories about his trial 25 years ago. He was accused of supporting and assisting terror groups as part of his journalistic and activist work.

In his case, it appeared as if the Israeli establishment wished, on the one hand, to warn him and his ilk, while on the other, it winked − it did not really think he was a traitor or accessory to terrorist organizations. He says now that unclear boundaries are a trap for the left, “because you can be in the same battalion with the director of the Bank of Israel or with [former Shin Bet head] Carmi Gillon, and the boundaries easily get blurred.”

It seems like they didn’t really think you were dangerous.

“Right. The prosecutor said at the trial that the boundary has to be clear and that it was blurry. On the one hand, you’re on the parents’ committee [at school], and you’re one of us, and on the other hand, there’s your activity. The Shin Bet likes things black or white, and with us it was gray. What was so Israeli is that, on the original charge sheet, I was accused of serious things, and yet all that time I still did reserve duty. On the one hand, I’m sitting in court as a traitor, and on the other hand, I’m commander of an outpost in the [Jordan] Valley.

“In the middle of the trial, they even tried to persuade me to go do an officers’ training course. They summoned me to the brigade commander who wanted to talk me into it. I asked him if he didn’t read the newspapers, I asked whether he knew I stood accused of supporting a terror organization. He said: ‘That’s the police, we’re army. There is no connection.’”

A year ago Warschawski received, on behalf of the Alternative Information Center ‏(an Israeli-Palestinian organization that is working to end the occupation‏), a human rights prize from the French prime minister. The Palestinian ambassador to Paris organized a gala luncheon. He said that he wanted to thank Warschawski, in the name of the Palestinian people, for what he had done for them. Warschawski raised a hand and signaled him to stop − once more setting a boundary.

“I told him that I had not done anything for the Palestinian people, first of all, because the Palestinians are old enough to manage on their own and they don’t need me. Furthermore, I said that he did not in the least understand my motive, which is entirely egotistical. I said that I do what I do for Idan and Daria, my grandchildren. I do not want them to be refugees someday − for this region to expel them from here. It’s their landscape, their smells, it’s their language. On the day I die, I will be able to say that I did the maximum, I didn’t give up, didn’t quit, I tried for them.”

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