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From NYC to Tel Aviv: Becoming Israeli, Staying Progressive
A Q&A WITH HILLEL SCHENKER
by Ron Skolnik
BORN IN BROOKLYN, New York, in 1942, journalist Hillel Schenker arrived by boat in Israel in November 1963. Since the 1970s, he has been a major participant in the Israeli peace movement, including as a co-founder of Peace Now, and today serves as Israeli co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, the only independent, joint Israeli-Palestinian publication to be produced in the region. We asked Hillel to discuss life, culture, and politics in Israel, his ties to his birthland, and the changes Israel has experienced over the past five and a half decades.
Jewish Currents: What motivated you to move to Israel / make Aliya?
Hillel Schenker: I came to Israel, to Kibbutz Barkai, in 1963 out of a sense of idealism, as part of a group from the socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. I had come of age feeling the new spirit of the Kennedy years -- which followed the stifling McCarthy period and the Eisenhower doldrums. I had seen the first steps into space, had thrown confetti onto John Glenn’s motorcade as he traveled down Broadway after being the first astronaut to circle the globe. I felt the energy of the civil rights movement and the Peace Corps, identified with Martin Luther King and the March on Washington, dreaming of a better world. The times they definitely were a changin’.
I looked at the kibbutz as a communal building block for a progressive, humanistic, egalitarian Israeli society, and also as a role model for humanity, a democratic-socialist alternative to both greedy capitalism and corrupted communism.
JC: What’s your view of the term “Zionism” today?
HS: Today the term Zionism is either a dirty word or a touchstone for pro-Israeli patriotism. The Israeli hyper-nationalistic and religious right and their supporters have tried to tie the term to their chauvinistic vision of a Greater Israel. And many pro-Palestinian and anti-occupation activists say that if you want to end the occupation, you must be against Zionism, since Zionism is inherently racist, against Palestinian rights, etc.
I don’t think that we in the Israeli peace camp should surrender our right to consider ourselves Zionists in the spirit of Herzl’s vision and of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which is essentially a humanistic, liberal, and peace-oriented document. Historically, Zionism was a secular rebellion against religious fatalism, against waiting for the coming of the Messiah to solve the problems of the Jews. Zionism was a taking of the fate of the people into one’s own hands. We should not let the rightists get away with usurping and distorting the term. Supporters of settlers and annexation of the occupied territories are either post- or anti-Zionists, since they are undermining the viability of the State of Israel.
I consider Zionism to refer to the Jewish right to national self-determination, which I support, just as I support the Palestinian right to national self-determination. There is no contradiction between the two, and they can actually complement each other.
I identify with the original vision of Hashomer Hatzair, philosopher Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, and others who supported the creation of a binational state in 1947 to replace the British Mandate. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of both Jews and Arabs at the time rejected that ideal. After seventy years of rounds of violent conflict, we, both Israelis and Palestinians, are too traumatized by our experiences to jump to a one-state binational reality. We have to move forward via the two-state solution, with each side gaining and maintaining its national self-determination. And I believe the two-state solution is still viable, based upon the analysis by Dr. Shaul Arieli, Israel’s foremost expert on the topic, who says that “the settlement enterprise has failed to establish the facts on the ground needed to prevent a two-state solution.” Eventually we can move forward towards a confederation, which may include Jordan as well. To take it a step further, Prof. Johan Galtung advocates a Middle Eastern Community that would include Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, along the lines of the European Union, a vision I identify with.
JC: How did you become involved in working at the Palestine-Israel Journal?
HS: The turning point in my life was the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Until then I was a kibbutz member, studying literature at Tel Aviv University, considering a possible academic career, and immersed in my passion for music as a singer-songwriter, both in Hebrew and in English. Eight months on the front lines on the Golan Heights in the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps changed that. War really is hell, and I now felt that if the challenge for the first generation was to build a state, and for the second generation was to defend the state, the challenge of my generation was to achieve peace with all our neighbors, to guarantee the future of the state for our children.
I looked for a channel to do this, and it appeared parallel to Egyptian President Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, when I became one of the editors of New Outlook, the Israeli peace monthly in the spirit of Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue, “I & Thou.”
At the time, the vision of the founding editor, Simcha Flapan, which became my vision as well, was to work together with Palestinian partners. But that was not yet possible. New Outlook folded at the end of 1991, and after the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed, with the mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestine-Israel Journal (PIJ) (www.pij.org) was founded by veteran Palestinian journalist Ziad AbuZayyad and veteran Israeli journalist Victor Cygielman. Its goal was to “shed light on, and analyze freely and critically the complex issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians,” to “promote rapprochement between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples,” and to achieve peace based upon a two-state solution.
I became the managing editor in 2002 and the third Israeli co-editor in 2005, following Cygielman and Tel Aviv University political psychologist Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, the initiator of SISO (Save Israel/Stop the Occupation), which protested the 50th anniversary of the occupation in 2017. Since 2002, I’ve been living a “tale of two cities,” dividing my time between Tel Aviv, where I live, and East Jerusalem, where our office is based. I continue to believe that it is vitally essential that Israelis and Palestinians work together to end the occupation and achieve a resolution of the conflict.
JC: What socio-economic trends have you seen in Israel in terms of standard of living, wealth polarization, crime, gentrification, for example? And how have you been affected personally?
HS: When I first came to the kibbutz, there was an “equality of poverty.” We lived in a one-room wooden shack, with an external bathroom and shower, no telephone, no record player, no refrigerator, and no private salary. Basic needs were taken care of by the kibbutz. Also no TV, since television didn’t come to Israel until 1968. We once took our 4-year-old daughter Rama to Hadera, the nearby city hub for all the neighboring kibbutzim, and when we passed a fruit stand she took some grapes -- not realizing that you had to pay for them! Money played no role on the kibbutz. Of course, today the kibbutzim have changed. Most have been “privatized,” meaning individual salaries. Industry and individual entrepreneurship have replaced agriculture as the primary sources of income, though there is still a communal solidarity.
I moved to Ra’anana in 1975 and was shocked the first week when the electric company came to disconnect the electricity because my new girlfriend hadn’t paid the bills. Nothing like that happened on the kibbutz. At the time, Ra’anana was a small suburb of Tel Aviv. One quarter of the land was reserved for agriculture, and it was forbidden to build more than four stories. Today the agriculture is gone, and you have eight- and twelve-story buildings as well. In 1985 I moved to Tel Aviv, which I sometimes refer to as “mini-Manhattan on the Mediterranean.”
If I came to a social-democratic Israel, where the labor movement and collectives dominated the economy, I now see major disparities between rich and poor. While I have managed financially, primarily with the aid of my journalistic, organizational, educational, and linguistic skills (I’m not sure what three years as a shepherd, one year as a music teacher, and as director of the kibbutz high school dining room has to do with it), the younger generation feels that they have it much harder than their parents. The high cost of living, particularly the challenge of affordable housing, was the motivation for the inspiring mass social protest movement of 2011 led by activists in their twenties, which has changed the nature of public discourse in the country, [under the rallying cry] “the people demand social justice.”
JC: What turns you on most about Israel from a cultural standpoint? Music? Literature? Cinema? And do you sense that Israeli culture is affected by being part of the Middle East?
HS: I’m very “patriotic” about Tel Aviv. I really enjoy its dynamism, “the city that never sleeps” (though I get seven hours a night). It’s a manageable combination of a cosmopolitan metropolis made up of many neighborhoods, each with its own character, and it’s the center of Israeli economic and cultural life. It’s also a live-and-let-live liberal and secular city -- to Israel like New York is to the U.S., and Berlin is to Germany. If the national government had the same left-oriented composition as the Tel Aviv City Council, we could have resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict long ago.
I particularly enjoy the café culture, with seven cafes in my neighborhood alone. Starbucks opened and closed in Israel: It failed in bringing (expensive) quality coffee to the natives who already had a highly developed coffee culture. On Fridays I join the crowds at the weekly food fair, with its huge variety of stands, to stock up for the week. I’ve also got the outdoor Carmel Market and the weekly Nachlat Benyamin promenade arts-and-crafts fair in the neighborhood, as well as the beach. When there are elections, Meretz, the left-Zionist party that I support, gets the highest number of votes in the local polling booth of my neighborhood.
Having been a singer-songwriter, I have a strong connection to Israeli music, alongside rock, ‘60s/’70s protest music and doo wop. There was a time when I also saw every new Israeli film, but there are so many good ones, feature and documentary, today that I can’t keep up.
[caption id=“attachment_69086” align=“alignright” width=“276”] Bialik House in Tel Aviv[/caption]
Having studied literature at Tel Aviv University, I regularly go to the Thursday night literary evenings at the nearby Bialik House (home of Israeli national poet Chaim Nahman Bialik). Recently, for example, there was a stimulating evening devoted to Canaanite poet Aharon Amir, and writer A.B. Yehoshua was one of the speakers.The next week was Amos Oz. Earlier that day, I dropped by an opening at the Tova Osman Art gallery. She calls it an Israeli-Palestinian art gallery, and if the name Osman is familiar to some, it’s because her ex-father-in-law was Arthur Osman, the founding president of the militant progressive District 65 Union in New York.
I also go to the nearby independent Bookworm store, which hosts book launches.The most recent was a discussion between publisher Dr. Yehuda Meltzer, who brought Harry Potter to Israel, and my PIJ colleague, veteran journalist Danny Rubinstein, about his new book, It’s Us or Them, telling the Palestinian narrative of the April day in 1948 that determined the course of the war -- the killing of Palestinian leader Abdel Kadar El-Husseini, the massacre at Dir Yassin, and the defense of Kibbutz Merchavia. Of course there’s also the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Tzavta Club for Progressive Culture, Talkhouse at the Tel Aviv Port, theaters, modern dance at the Suzanne Dellal Center, and many political and cultural events at pubs.
Israelis like to think of themselves as “Western,” but in many ways they are more Middle Eastern in culture, customs, music and food than they think. Hebrew also has assimilated many Arabic phrases, just as Palestinians in Israel (20 percent of the population) and in East Jerusalem (40 percent of Jerusalem’s population) use many Hebrew phrases in their Arabic.
JC: With the #MeToo movement gaining prominence in the conversation in America, do you have any thoughts about the status or roles of women in Israel?
HS: We had a Me Too phenomenon here before it hit the States. The fact is that President Moshe Katzav went to jail because of sexual harassment, politician Chaim Ramon had his promising political career ended because of an uninvited public kiss of a young female soldier, and prominent journalist Ari Shavit (author of My Promised Land) had to resign from his journalistic positions. Today there are more female members of Knesset than ever before, 29 (out of 120); the past and current president of the Supreme Court are women, as is the Governor of the Bank of Israel. The most dynamic peace movement today is Women Wage Peace, and many anti-occupation and human rights movements are led by women, but there is still a gap in salaries and status, and the ultra-Orthodox are trying to undercut those and other achievements.
JC: Did you ever (and do you still) feel like an immigrant in Israel?
HS: When I arrived on the kibbutz, the goal was “to become an Israeli.” Even though the backbone of the kibbutz was made up of former North Americans and South Africans, who had come in the early ‘50s to reinforce the scarred Holocaust-survivor founders from Romania and Poland, there was a rule, “speak only Hebrew in public places,” which everyone observed. The idea was to create and live the “new Israeli identity.” Having been fluent in Hebrew when I arrived, I did not feel like an immigrant, but as someone coming to participate in and become part of the Israeli experience. The fact that President Kennedy was assassinated two weeks after my arrival broke my umbilical cord with the U.S., since I realized that the America I had left behind was gone and was transforming into something else.
The fact that my current partner was born in a DP [Displaced Persons] camp in Germany to Holocaust-survivor parents -- her father was in Auschwitz and her mother in Bergen-Belsen -- and has lived in Israel since she was 9 months old, also contributes to my living the Israeli reality. I will add that today I am more interested in Israeli soccer than in American baseball. Undoubtedly the great betrayal of the hijacking of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles contributed to that. But I still support the Knicks and the Rangers. And my American background is still very much a part of me. Though I’m a dual citizen, I never voted in an American election until 2004. After four years of George W. Bush and the Iraq War, I voted for John Kerry. Becoming chair of Democrats Abroad Israel in 2012 was a reconnecting with my American roots.
JC: What does it mean to be “pro-Israel” today?
HS: Today, to be “pro-Israel” means to be pro-peace, since the only way to guarantee Israel’s future is to end the conflict with the Palestinians. The Arab Peace Initiative, which was declared at the 2002 Arab League Summit Conference in Beirut, is an historic opportunity to achieve this goal, yet no Israeli government has responded to it. The Initiative offers Israel peace and normal relations between the entire Arab world and the State of Israel in exchange for an end to the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, together with “an agreed upon (with the Israeli government) solution to the refugee problem,” and has been reaffirmed many times since and also backed by all fifty-seven member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, including Iran!
Being “pro-Israel” also means being appreciative of the genuine achievements of Israeli society in establishing a refuge for Jews in need after centuries of persecution that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust, and its achievements in economics, hi-tech, and social innovation, all of which are endangered by a continuation of the conflict.
JC: What’s your greatest fear for the State of Israel?
HS: My greatest fear is that, if the occupation continues and expands, it will become more and more difficult to resolve the conflict. A continuation of the occupation is the only existential danger facing Israel. While we still have a democracy in the State of Israel -- though it is being eroded by anti-democratic laws being passed by the most rightwing government we have ever had -- across the Green Line we have an apartheid-like situation. As the title of one of the Palestine-Israel Journal issues says, we have a “Dual Legal System” in the West Bank, a privileged one for Israeli settlers, and a second one for Palestinians which deprives them of basic civil rights. If this continues, Israel will not remain either Jewish or democratic. There will soon be a Palestinian majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and if the current apartheid-like situation continues, it will be the end of the State of Israel as we know it. And the best and brightest of the Israeli younger generation will opt out to what they may perceive as a more secure place to live and build their lives.
Ron Skolnik is associate editor of Jewish Currents.