. Michel Warshawski: walls and democracy | London Progressive Journal
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Michel Warshawski: walls and democracy

Mon 12th Mar 2012

Michel Warschawski is an Israeli Jewish activist, a veteran, ‘involved in the struggle for justice in this area for almost forty-five years’ he says introducing himself.

Among other things, he was the cofounder of Alternative Information Centre - the only joint Israeli-Palestinian institution, having one office in Jerusalem, where I met him, and the other near Bethlehem.

When we meet, he is quite surprised when I take my LEGO bricks out of the bag and put them in front of him. I asked for an interview but didn’t tell him how the interview was going to be conducted. He is puzzled at the beginning and I allow him time to become familiar with the bricks and the method.

I then get straight into the first question: I want to see Palestine through his eyes.

“A model of Palestine?” He repeats my question staring at the bricks.

”Yes, a model of Palestine.

I avoid giving him any clue, any additional word from me would bias the question.

He starts talking, ignoring the Lego, but I stop him: ”Build it, don’t answer. We’ll talk later…”

He looks puzzled but starts building.

”Tell me something about Palestine?” I ask him as soon as he’s done.

“Everything is clearly oriented to East,” he says showing me the direction of the model.

“It’s one entity, there’s nothing dividing the land: it’s one entity toward east, toward the Arab dimension, the Arab world, the Arab environment...It’s not oriented toward the West, the way Israel, but not only Israel, would like to see it.”

“And those bridges?” I ask him.

”Bridges are important… they are instead of wall…” he keeps changing the model, focusing on bridges: “This is the existing Israel and Palestine. Or a Palestine, which is better...there’s a wall,” he says whilst building and changing his model.

I want to know more about the direction, the East.

”It’s the natural environment of this area,” he says “they [Palestinians] are part of the Arab nations, of the Arab world and Arab space. We are not part of Europe and this is a new challenge: are we trying to connect ourselves to the so called Judaeo-Christian civilisation? We are physically part of that Arab civilisation. Therefore we need bridges and not walls.”

”So if this is the wall, what is this red brick behind the wall?”

“ Entities.”

”Entities?” I repeat.

“The wall pretends to separate good and bad, civilised and barbarians: on the Western side of the wall we have Israel, Europe, North America… All the civilised nations - or the so called civilised nations. On the Eastern part of the Wall we have Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan… All the barbarians.”

”Who says they are barbarian?”

“The whole dominant neoconservative ideology which is very strong in Israel, and still quite strong in the US; although neoconservatives have lost power, we are still under the influence of this identification of a wall between good and bad, between good and evil.

“The wall separates things. Like the Berlin wall, which was separating the so called ‘free-world’ and the ‘communist dictatorship’. Now we have another kind of wall but after all it’s the same, it also divides the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’.

”I don’t want to make two entities,” he continues ”precisely because I don’t think we have two entities on those parts of the wall. We have plural identities on each side - this is why it’s coloured.”

”How can those different entities merge?” I ask him pointing at the black base.

“The way we are taught by the media and the leading ideology is that we have two dominant colours: we deny it, we have multiplicity of colours.

“I am denying homogeneity of two parallel and conflictual homogeneities and we have all those in between. This is exactly what we are deconstructing here: in a place they want multi-coloured entities and we are full of bridges” he says, whilst playing with the bricks.

”But the structure is unbalanced, it’s oblique...you can connect things in many ways, why have you connected them like this?” I ask him.

“Because the physical reality is not...like some countries in Africa we have very straight lines,” he says while showing me a map of Africa and the borders separating the nations on the wall in front of us, “which were artificially created by the colonial powers...but in reality, between nations, borders are not straight lines, like those you see in Europe.”

”And where are Palestinians and Palestine?”

“All these are human figures...green ones, grey ones, red ones… they are Palestinian, Jews...All these are human figures.”

“This way this seems a perfect society. Do you see Palestine as perfect?”

”This is a vision, not a description of reality.”

”So what is reality?”

“The reality is the wall - the huge wall trying to separate and homogenise people on either side. I see Palestine as a space, in which a variety of individuals and groups, cultural, ethnic, national, professional groups are existing and coexisting in a wall relationship…”

”But where’s the wall in your model?”

He takes a pen from the table and puts it on the top of his model. We both laugh and this actually seems to make sense.

“It’s something very artificial, not at all connected with the landscape, neither the human or physical landscape or geographical landscape...”

”And where does this wall come from?”

“It was imposed on people by force, by colonial powers, by domination, providing the illusion of security, of normality. And on the other side, I don’t think there’s normality behind the wall. I think normality is a way to live in a neighbourhood.

”Now, rich people have invaded our neighbourhood and they are building villas with walls, huge walls.

“It’s a symbol of our world, we create an illusion of normality and security behind the walls. They are building dozens of prisons, where the those on the other side of the wall are always deemed to be a threat. And the Israeli-Palestinian situation is emblematic of our world, because the world, the way we are taught to see the world, to see the other side as a threat.

“The ideology of ethnic purity, the attempt to create a pure Serbian state, a pure Greek state… instead of building culture and civilisation, they present homogeneity as normality. For me, there’s nothing less normal than homogeneity. Normality is mixed, is mixture, civilisation of mankind was a product of dominant impulse.”

”Since this wall does not belong to the system,” I ask looking at the model and the pen, ”how can you take it out? It’s an external element, we don’t want it, it’s not balanced in the model...Who can take it out?”

“Colonialism and every kind of domination relationship has always imposed prisons and walls of prisons to protect themselves and to protect their power, defined as civilisation against the threat of the barbarians… and this is very far… from the walls of the Roman empire, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin war… There are walls between Mexico and the US… There are walls which are not concrete ones but are existing between cities and popular neighbourhoods in Europe. Do you know, what is the irony of the beginning of the 21st century? The symbol of the new century was supposed to be the collapse of the Berlin wall. And I remember hundreds and hundreds of editorials, articles and speeches by leaders and leading intellectuals foretelling that we are opening a new era without walls. The truth is quite the opposite. Never before have there been so many attempts to build walls and to protect the good from the bad, the civilised from the barbarians.”

”So how could we take this out of the model and make your model an actual one other than an ideal one?”

”By crossing the wall.” he says firmly.

“You see?” I start playing with the bricks: “LEGO bricks stick together and build a solid figure, this is not solid…” I say taking the pen.

“The first stage in crossing the wall, and not accepting its existence is to find bridges in the wall and to make it wider...”

”And how do you that in real life?”

“For example by defying a law which supposedly forbids us to go to Bethlehem or Ramallah and to go and to say to the others ‘come with us!’. Organise a conference in Hebron for activists and tell them ‘Don’t be paralysed, don’t let the wall define the end of your space, of your horizon. There’s something very interesting on the other side’.

“You know, separation has existed since the first days of Israel. The philosophy of separation was in fashion at the end of the 19th century: each nation’s aimed to be as homogeneous as possible, and our reality is the product of such a mentality.

“I’d say that the message of AIC is exactly the opposite: this is not normality, it’s not for security, it’s not the way to build a civilisation and culture. It’s the contrary. It’s closing and closing and making everything closed...we want open windows… it doesn’t mean that we deny reality or cultural differences, but we allow a perennial exchange and the creation of new entities in the cultural, political and social landscape.”

”What do you mean by entities?”

“Entities can be states, or nations, close nations...”

“But we have just been talking about openness…”

“Yeah, entities means spaces, first of all, which are too well defined. We should drive towards no man’s lands. The difference between no man’s land and the world is something great...

“I’ll tell you something about me: when I was arrested and interrogated, the chief interrogator, during the long interrogation that I had, said: ‘We have a problem: who are you? Are you an Israeli organisation or a Palestinian one? If you are an Israeli organisation, you’ll be protected by democracy and you will be free tomorrow. If you are a Palestinian organisation, we will treat you as Palestinians: no freedom of expression, no freedom of information, no freedom whatsoever’...‘What if we are both?’ I said.

"He replied: ’No, we don’t like it. We are simple people. Grey areas are something we cannot cope with’. I said ‘we are the grey area, we decided to put black and white together and create something which is neither Israel nor Palestine. We are on the border, we are sitting on the border, one foot here and one foot there, creating a no man’s land. And I say that, in a philosophical way, I would feel much more at ease in a no man’s land than behind the wall."

“I challenge once more. Build me Israel. You have built me Palestine, now it’s the turn of Israel.”

”I’ve build Palestine as a geographical entity including Israel, what is today the state of Israel for me.”

I repeat the question.

“What is Israel?!” Warshawski says angrily and messes up all the bricks on the table.

“Here it is…! It’s something incoherent and structured only by its military mind, it’s a nation which is a very weak entity, which is not very big, where the glue is very weak, without borders… why Israel doesn’t have borders?

“Israel always refused to define borders, it’s something which is chaos, it’s chaos as a way of existence. Always in an offensive way, conquering more lands, conquering populations, they try to get rid of them… it’s a chaos. Though not chaos without a plan.”

“There’s a plan?” I ask.

“Of course! Judea and all this area, they are making it as big as possible provided that it is purely, or almost purely, Jewish. This is the plan, the official objective of Israel.”

He doesn’t make a model of Israel so I go a step further.

“If Israel is such a mess, who is an Israeli?”

“Who is an Israeli?” He stops and stares around for a while.

“It’s almost an irrelevant question. Because of Israel defining itself as a Jewish state, what is relevant is what is a Jew, not who is an Israeli. We have a minority of non-Jewish Israelis, but they are an accident: they are perceived as an accident, they are perceived as not belonging… they have civil rights but they are not co-owners of this entity – Israel – they are co-citizens.

“People use the concept of second rate citizens, I don’t like it. Simply they are not part of the sovereign culture. So what is relevant when speaking about Israel is who’s a Jew, not who is an Israeli...”

”And how can you merge these two different realities?”

He builds something with the LEGO.

“Identity needs to be de-ethnicized- this means to build a real state of citizens and to transform Israel and its society from an ethnic democracy, from an ethnocracy, into real democracy where each individual, man or women, Jewish or Arab, Israeli or Palestinian, are equal in the way institutions perceive their belonging."

“I challenge you once more… Democracy is such an overused word! Can you build me a model of democracy? What is it? I don’t know what democracy is…”

“‘I don’t know either!”

I don’t let him avoid the bricks: “But you have been talking about it, so you should have some ideas...”

“The only concept which is relevant for me – and he starts building – is the concept of equality, where none has a privilege, where no group has more or less rights than others. This is the core element of democracy.”

”Democracy equals equality?” I ask.

“Yes. This is the precondition, the supreme value of democracy if you have equality, which begins with civil equality and then we can push it to economic equality, same access to wealth, this is the process of democracy. Democracy is a process of building.”

”Has this process already been achieved somewhere?” I ask.

“It’s a process and a process is never achieved. There are countries where it’s more achieved than others...”


He is silent for a few moments.

“Countries where everyone has the right to say whatever they think are more democratic than countries where you cannot say what you think. You have more democracy in Belgium and in Britain than in Saudi Arabia! It’s composed of similarities, it’s composed of respect for the human rights of individuals and it’s composed also of the fulfilment of collective rights, protecting minorities – national minorities, religious minorities, where you have tools and a system to protect you as an both as individual and as part of a collective.

“I think the scale of democracy is the way those who are not the majority are protected in their specificity. It’s equality first of all, but also it’s protection. The combination of both, it’s the index of democracy. Where you don’t have equality, you don’t have democracy. Where you have more equality, you have more democracy.

“As I’ve said it’s a process and there’s no place where you have full equality between human beings. In most countries in the world you have democracy at the level of civil rights. When it comes to economic rights, some have the right to earn a lot of money while others have the right to die from hunger. It’s not equality on that level...”

We talked a while about democracy and principles and then I could not resist asking him about the democratic process in Palestine.

“And how can you enhance such a process in Palestine?

“It’s always a negative process, you have to get rid of the military domination and military occupation. This is even before you have the right and possibility to choose what you want to eat. The possibility not to have domination – political domination, religious domination, military domination… This is precisely an illusion of the present course...how can Palestinians take over their own leadership whilst there is still devastation? This is an illusion. Take the Arab revolution for example...

“What started the Arab revolution was the Tunisian merchant setting himself on fire: when you don’t have the capacity to care for your human dignity, you are not a human anymore… The driving force of revolutions is the feeling of lack of dignity. You cannot understand the Intifada otherwise.”

And he continues: “Take for example the apparent normality – we don’t have the intifada today… you have a kind of adaptation – it is possible because individual dignity is not so much hurt. The separation, what the intelligent Israeli establishment were preaching for years, like, not being in contact with population, maintaining distance, controlling the space, controlling the water, controlling the land but trying not to control the people and not confronting the people directly. This has been partially implemented.

“You can live in Nablus, Jenin or Ramallah without meeting them, as long as you are in your space you are not confronted with humiliation that attacks your dignity.

“But things cannot go on like this for ever, it’s not a stable model.

“It’s not stable,” Warshawski goes on, “because there’s a difference between the individual and the nation. And in addition to this level of individual dignity, there’s a national dignity, sometimes with ups and downs.

“I’d say that today, the Palestinian individuals are less hurt in the individual dignity, because they are not confronted as much as they were in the past by the constant humiliation of Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers. As a nation they should be offended even more, because they are not counted anymore, as a nation.”

“But in this way you are denying the problem, you are not facing it...”

“It’s a short term vision of Israeli and Palestinian … very short term...”

”Who is preventing the stabilisation of the situation?”

“The Israeli public, not only the Israeli leadership. As long as the present reality doesn’t have a cost, as long as you have security, economical prosperity, no international isolation, why should you evolve? Why should you challenge the state of the present situation?”

We are interrupted and have had to end the interview with these words, though there are many other questions I want to ask, recalling what I have seen and heard during my recent travels in Israel.
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