An Interview with Cecilie Surasky By Christiana Voniati
Gazing at letters that her grandmother wrote from the Warsaw Ghetto before she was killed , Deputy Director of the global organization “Jewish Voice for Peace”, Cecilie Surasky, discusses Israel's “anti-Jewish” crimes and the inescapable comparison between the sufferings of Gazans and the gradual crushing of Jewish life in the Nazi ghettos in the period that led to the Final Solution . More significantly, the Jewish activist for peace reveals and explores the relationship between Jewish collective trauma and Israel 's aggression
“Jewish Voice for Peace” is based in the United States of America . Was this choice of location intentional?
We are based in the US and we have one hundred thousand people on our supporter list, mostly in the United States but certainly across Israel , Canada and all over the world. We think it is important to be in the United States because most of the terrible things you see happening in Israel (the expansion of settlements and taking of land, the attack on Gaza , the construction of the wall, attacks on human rights activists) couldn't happen without US support.
We pay for it with billions in aid, we offer Israel diplomatic protection in the UN, and we have many Jewish and Christian Zionist institutional leaders in this country who are very vocal about defending Israel unconditionally. They want the US government to continue to give Israel permission to do whatever it likes including violating international law. And unfortunately, the majority of members of Congress are only too happy to oblige. The U.S. Congress, which is largely made up of Christians by the way, is shamefully committed to giving the Israeli government whatever they want. With relatively few exceptions, they have very little regard for Palestinian life or for Israeli life for that matter since this unconditional support is so destructive to Israel and to Jews everywhere.
That's why we think one of the most important places after Israel , to have a strong and powerful Jewish voice for peace, justice and equality, is in the United States . Once we stop sending billions of dollars in military aid with no strings attached, once we stop diplomatically protecting Israel in international bodies when they violate the law, Israel will have to change. This movement is primarily about accountability and ending the attitude of exceptionalism which allows Israel to consistently violate the human rights of Palestinians, and increasingly its own citizens, with impunity.
At Jewish Voice for Peace, our values are pretty simple: Full equality for Israelis and Palestinians. There is absolutely no difference between the value of life of my 7 year old son and the value of life of my Palestinian friend's child. They are equally precious and have the same rights to health, education, to safety and well-being. Palestinians have a right to land which is justly theirs without having it stolen from beneath their feet. But the Israeli government has absolutely no respect for their rights. New settlements are built every day on Palestinian land. Even president Obama has said this theft of land must stop, but the Israeli government refuses.
Nonetheless, the western media represents Arab life as being less “grievable” than that of a western or Jewish life…
One of the most important things about doing this work is the connections that we make, as Jews, as Muslims, as Arabs or Westerners. And what you discover when you connect on a human basis is that we are remarkably similar. We value the same things. All people really want is to be connected to their family, to have work that means something to them, to have education and joy in their lives. It's very simple when you break it down. I know there is a long history of western racism, colonialism and Orientalism and we see ourselves as being superior to people all over the world. The only way to break down that false thinking to help people connect to each other, and it's a revelation when you do.
One of the things to remember is that the very idea of international law and human rights is a product of WWII. It was institutionalized because of WWII, because of Hitler, because of what happened with the Nazis and to the Jews. And Jews like Rene Cassin were among the pioneers of this idea, that all people are equal and equally deserving of certain basic rights. Today, we know this, whether they are gay, disabled, whether they are black or white or Muslim or Jew: this is the foundational framework for human rights advocacy,
So it is particularly appalling and outrageous to see 60 years later many Jewish organizations actually working to undermine this idea of international human rights. This goes against an incredibly important Jewish tradition and it's a violation of everything we stand for and it's anti-Jewish in the end. There was a time when much of the Jewish institutional world realized that freedom for one person required freedom for all. That if you let bigotry and hatred against one group to stand, eventually it would come and take you. All of our fates are intertwined, let us not forget this. Jewish Voice for Peace is holding onto and celebrating this tradition. We are actively opposed to groups that are trying to undermine international law as a way to keep Israel from being accountable.
Exactly because of your fate as Jews, as a historically hunted people, one would expect that you would be the first to recognize the human rights of Palestinians.
Yes, historically, Jews are a hunted people. Some people survived and some others didn't and that's true for most of us. Yes there is a huge tradition of taking from that lesson and realizing that “Never Again” means never again for everyone. Period. Fullstop. “Never Again” is a phrase we say for the Holocaust. “Never Again” genocide, “Never Again” slavery. And the truth is that in the United States , Jews are one of the most liberal voting blocks. Somewhere around 80% of Jews voted for Obama. We contribute in this country to many of the most important human and civil rights causes. So that tradition is alive and well. But in the case of Palestine and Israel , many in our community simply have blinders. We call it PEP, Progressive Except Palestine.
You don't have to compare what happened to Palestinians in Gaza to the Holocaust to make it seem more important than it already is. It already is so important and so unique in its own way.
The Holocaust was a systematic, well planned extermination of millions of people… And it was six million Jews but it was 11 million people altogether. The other 5 million were homosexuals, socialists, artists, intellectuals, people with disabilities. Obviously in the case of Gaza and the Occupied Territories we don't have anything like that. But I do think that people do draw lessons from the rise of the Nazis.
In Nazi Germany, the reign of Hitler was 12 years and before the Final Solution, the agenda to exterminate an entire people, you had a gradual legalized crushing and tightening of people's lives. And there are Jews who we have worked with and Jews who lived through that time and they say “look, you can't compare the systematic extermination in terms of the deaths of people. But I lived through that experience of dehumanization, of the crushing of people's freedom and spirit. And there are things that are similar.” The culture of collaborators that Israel creates to monitor and divide people. The black market that has emerged in Gaza similar to those in the ghettos. The sickness. The way those with money find a way to survive and perhaps even profit, and those without have little recourse. The slow death by bureaucracy and laws—in the West Bank farmers need multiple permits just to farm their own land- no guns are needed to destroy a family.
The crackdown on human rights activists in Israel right now- the midnight raids and media gag orders on arrests of Israeli citizens, banning people like Noam Chomsky from the country simply because of their ideas, attempts to shut down human rights organizations…. These are not the elements of a healthy democracy. These are signs of an incipient fascism. And I use that word because our many friends on the ground in Israel use that word now.
I have letters of my great grandmother –I am looking at them right now sitting at my desk- from the Warsaw ghetto. That's where she was tortured to death and she wrote these letters to my grandparents asking for help. And I have letters from friends in Gaza . The tone of the letters feels similar to me. They're prisoners. They're trapped. They don't have enough food or supplies. They want help getting young relatives out. And they don't know what may happen the next day- a bomb, a lethal attack. And mostly, a sense that the world doesn't care. I am deeply haunted by that common message I heard from my great grandmother in the Ghetto and from people I've known in Gaza .
Of course we see the echoes of that and of course Jews in Israel are a traumatized people. But the problem is, it doesn't help to compare Gaza to the Holocaust. Eleven million people are not being systematically slaughtered in Gaza . But what you do have is, as I said, a kind of a slow destruction of a culture, a slow destruction of life. It's a slow ethnic cleansing that is not only killing people but destroying families, destroying spirits, destroying an entire culture with a cruel and callous deliberate intention that causes massive unnecessary suffering on almost every level. They are literally prisoners. And that doesn't need to be compared to the Holocaust to know how horrible and immoral and outrageous it is and how it must be stopped.
Operation Cast Lead killed some 1,400 people and injured countless others. The attack didn't just kill civilians including children, it terrorized an entire population of 1.5 million. It sent them a message that they can never be safe, they cannot protect their families. The level of dehumanization required to justify this kind of treatment of an imprisoned population of 1.5 million people is terrifying. Of course when I hear Israeli government officials use almost identical language that Nazis used to describe Jews, calling Palestinians a virus or bug that must be eradicated, it gives me terrible chills. That process of dehumanization is universal….it has happened in every corner of the earth, and the lesson is that Jews are just as capable as everyone else. We are not better or worse. We are the same.
As Jews, we have an obligation to strengthen and nurture the tradition within our community that struggles for peace and justice, and win out over this other culture that has taken over in the Jewish tradition that is traumatized and fear-based and supports Israel no matter what and really cultivates fear and hatred. It is a struggle within our very own community. I promise you, there's not one Jewish family that is not divided on this issue. There is a huge Jewish closet and people are finally starting to come out.
You say that the Jewish opposition to Israel 's criminal policies is quite strong, and yet those voices don't come out through the media. The only voices that do come out of Israel and the United States are quite reactionary and belligerent. Why is this?
In Israel the Left is much smaller than it used to be, and there are historical reasons for this, most of which are relevant to the colossal failure of the Oslo Accords. But things are changing, especially outside Israel . The numbers of people who are joining our struggle for peace in the Jewish community are rising dramatically. There's a lot of struggle happening in the Jewish world right now, more than we have ever seen since the founding of Israel . Jews are finally taking off their blinders and at least starting to ask questions.
But most people don't know this, and I will tell you why. Because we have all these dinosaurs running all the powerful Jewish organizations in this country who have been there forever. They are funded by an older generation that supports them and has a lot of money. And I am talking about people like Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League or David Harris of the American Jewish Committee. We don't have a spokesperson. Every Jewish community, every Jewish person has a different opinion. But the closest thing we have from visible Jewish representation are people like Abraham Foxman and he is from a completely different generation. Nobody under 45 identifies with him. But there is a generational change that is happening which isn't visible yet. Because the older people are dominating the airways. But that generation is going to have to leave the stage sooner or later.
How do you deal with people coming and criticizing you for anti-Semitism?
Since we started, we have been getting hate mail and death threats. Some said: “you should have burned in the ovens”. Interestingly enough, we get much less of it now, while our movement is growing. I won't lie to you; it has been very difficult to do what we have been doing, because we are also all struggling in our own families. As I have said before, there is not one Jewish family in the world that is not divided on this. But things are changing. What is extremely important is that younger Jews are educating and opening the eyes of the older generation. They go to school, they learn the facts and then they go back home and try to educate their parents. But we need to remember, it's not malicious. It's just that many elderly are closer to the memory of the Holocaust. (We also have many members over 60 who are absolutely clear about supporting Palestinian equal rights.) They lived the horror. It's easier for them to see enemies everywhere. But, like in your case with Turkish-Cypriots, so do we, with our Arab neighbors, share the same physical closeness and genetic closeness. Young people are beginning to realize this more and more and they try to deconstruct their parents false and phobic convictions and it's then that you realize how identity is constructed and even false. We need to collectively write a new national narrative.
We're told that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about terrorism or anti-Jewish hatred or the need for security. And we believe it because Jews have been so persecuted for so many generations.
But it's a false narrative. It's not really about any of those things, not at its most basic core. It's about land, and Israel 's constant thirst for more and more land that people already happen to live on. Israel wants the land but not the people, hence the strategy of making life miserable so that those Palestinians who can leave will do so. The rest? Israel is basically offering them open-air prisons. This is the real narrative.
Israeli Jew[s], because of the Holocaust, because they are historically a hunted and persecuted people, wrote a national narrative that has literally integrated into the DNA of Israel which is: “The world hates us!” That is the narrative and so they feel that the world hates them, they act like the world hates them. And when things like this happen, when international public opinion is outraged about the attack on Gaza or the attack on the flotilla, they just say “See, we told you they hate us”. And it becomes almost self-fulfilling in the end.
Of course, part of the problem is that anti-Semitism is very real. There are many people who do hate Jews, and those who would like to see us disappear. The Palestinian freedom movement is so clearly first and foremost motivated by a desire to see justice for Palestinians. And my experience with Palestinian leadership is that they have been extremely sensitive about making sure that genuine anti-Semites do not gain a foothold in the movement. There will always be people who hate Jews, or gays, or Muslims etc…, but I think any of us seriously committed to universal human rights must guard against anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish hatred in all of its forms. The answer to bigotry is not more bigotry. It's acceptance, and the creation of new communities based not on skin color but on values of universal equality. We should interrupt anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim rhetoric wherever we see it.
There can be no Jewish liberation without Palestinian liberation. It is so clear. We are enslaved by this dynamic, just as they are. We have become psychologically enslaved to our fear and our bigotry and Jewish Voice for Peace and the Jewish Liberation Movement is struggling to free our community from the grip of fear and trauma and to celebrate the wonderful diversity and richness of Jewish tradition that puts social justice for ALL people back at its center where it belongs.