North Africa, West Asia

"Two peoples, one future"

An interview with Glyn Secker of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, on the history of JfJfP, his views on the ravaging conflict in Gaza and the international community's response, and the distinction between Zionism and Judaism. 

Glyn Secker Haneul Na'avi
1 August 2014

Haneul:  Can you tell me about your excursion by boat to Tel Aviv and other places in Israel in 2010?

Glyn: We are implacably opposed to the siege of Gaza and the blockade, so we decided that it would be good if a Jewish organisation sent a boat to challenge it. I have to say, we didn’t expect to defeat the Israeli Navy, but we wanted to make a point. So, we bought ourselves a little boat and put on-board a number of significant passengers: a holocaust survivor—82 year old—two Refuseniks, people who had left the Israeli Army on grounds of conscience and now campaigned against the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians…and some photographers, reporters, and so on.

We included someone from an organisation called The Brave Family Circle, which consists of Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian people who have lost close relatives in the conflict. This person had lost his daughter to a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. He and his wife had decided to find an organisation that would not take them down the route of conflict, but of reconciliation. I think they were its early members or founders, where they developed their slogan, “Nothing will change until we talk”. So, they talked and supported one another, and they argued for a peaceful and just resolution to the conflict...

We boarded at Famagusta in Cyprus and sailed from there towards Gaza. We stood in international waters and as we were approaching Gaza, the Israeli navy came out to greet us—the same warship that had greeted the Mavi Marmara—and they dispatched two little gunboats, two landing crafts, and four high-powered RHIBs, all with a semi-commando crew on board. They radioed to us and asked us where were going, and I said, “We’re a British flag boat and we’re in international waters. We are going to Gaza’s port. We have no intention of entering Israeli waters and we require safe passage.” They responded by saying that we were very welcome to go into any Israeli port, but there was a blockade around Gaza, and they wouldn’t allow us to go there.

I replied that this was illegal under international law, and that we were going to proceed to Gaza, and shortly afterwards, they surrounded us with their little fleet, boarded us, threw me off the helm, grabbed hold of our Refusniks, removed his lifejacket from over his heart, placed a Taser gun on [it], and pulled the trigger. He suffered a huge electric shock that was clearly designed to kill him. Well, luckily his heart was strong enough and it didn’t. He had a full-body epileptic shock, and they then dragged him and his brother out of our boat and into theirs and processed them through the police stations and court procedures. I might add that they were never charged with anything because there was nothing illegal to charge them with…

They towed us at very dangerous speeds into Ashdod. We were all under arrest: they conducted body searches many times, and then put us in a sort of immigration prison…they really couldn’t get rid of us quickly enough because we were on Israeli television before we left Famagusta. We had held a press conference, with Reuters, Associated Press and CNN, and all of the other major agencies in attendance. We were on Israeli news for four days, continuously, and on world news services and across the internet for a couple of days, except, I might say, the BBC which just blanked us out, which doesn’t surprise us.

So, they got rid of us as quickly as they could and put us onto free flights back to our home countries, and they were very careful to treat us very well because they had got a lot of bad publicity from the deaths that had occurred on the Mavi Marmara, and they didn’t want any more bad publicity, particularly with a British boat staffed by Jews. We managed to make an international statement: that many Jews around the world—a Jewish organisation in the UK—absolutely disagreed with Israel’s policies and treatment of the Palestinians.

Haneul: …I read recently that British Foreign Minister Phillip Hammond said that people are losing sympathy for the Israeli government, and there’s also condemnation coming from both Israelis abroad and within Tel Aviv and Haifa, as well as with Palestinians living in Israel. They’ve all been protesting against the siege over the past week. What are your opinions on that particular issue?

Glyn: Well, I think that it’s very important that these demonstrations take place and continue. Last Saturday, the one that was in London was enormous. It was so big that people were unable to count it properly. It was between 50-100,000 people. It marched from Downing Street outside Parliament, down to the Israeli embassy, which is essentially a four-mile walk. It was very, very impressive, and with those sorts of numbers, you realise there were people there who are not the normal, politically aware or active group. I heard that tourists watching the demonstration just hopped off the pavement and joined it.

There is widespread support, but, of course, large demonstrations on their own are not sufficient to change government opinion, and in the UK, we know that only too well because when Tony Blair announced the invasion of Iraq, the demonstration in London was estimated by the media to be more than a million, if not two million…There were huge demonstrations in other main cities, and internationally. There’s a fantastic film that has just been produced called “We are Many”, showing just how truly international the movement was and how it ultimately led to the reticence of the UK and American governments over intervening in Syria recently. Even so, at the time, those huge demonstrations didn’t stop Tony Blair and George Bush from attacking Iraq, with disastrous consequences.

So, the other side of the movement, if you like, which goes hand-in-hand with the demonstrations, is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Now, with our Jewish organisation, our policy is that it’s important to target the boycott so that it focuses on any organisation or institution, whether it’s commercial, military, or academic, which is responsible for maintaining the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

It might be responsible for the serious discrimination or oppression of Palestinians inside Israel, which is, if you like, pre-1967 Israel, or for the oppression of the Bedouin in the Negev, who are Israeli citizens subject to ethnic clearances and getting pushed out of their villages under the Prawer plan - it’s now had its name updated - it’s still the same strategy: pushing them into townships, which have no basic services—sewage, water, education, health—a strategy which really uncomfortably reminds one of the bantustans under the White regimes of South Africa.

Haneul: A few of the organisations that are a part of the BDS movementwere on the London march: Counterfire, which is working towards putting sanctions on the government and economic sectors of Israel, and the Black Students Campaign, a coalition of students in London from different universities working to boycott the following groups: Veolia, Hewett-Packard, Ahava, Golan Heits Winery, Victoria’s Secret…Sodastream is another big one.

A lot of these companies were mentioned in a Salon article which identified their involvement in occupation, where the factories were producing goods and services in illegal settlement areas, or with companies that were directly tied to the IDF and Israeli government. There was also one organisation that mentioned Marks & Spencer in a six-point bulletin which mentioned what they had been doing to actually engage in funding the government and economic sectors of Israel, including the IDF, and also talked about how they supported the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Glyn: We’re very much in favour of this carefully targeted boycott movement. We’ve been very active…we’ve provided the legal advice for the boycott, “Actions against Veolia”. Veolia was a big French-Israeli international cooperation for waste disposal, and they were bidding for contracts for disposal of the whole of north London’s waste—it was an enormous contract—4.9 billion pound sterling. The advice was that it was quite within the legal rights of those local authority governments to exclude Veolia from the bidding process because they were involved in the violation of human rights in Palestine. They were excluded and didn’t get the contract.

We’ve also been involved in the Action against G4S, which is a security company that completely messed up the London Olympics’…  They also control the security of the prisons in Israel, and are therefore involved in the maltreatment of Palestinian prisoners who are held without trial or administrative detention, where Palestinian children as young as twelve are held, having been arrested in the middle of the night, sometimes held in solitary confinement for a couple of weeks at a time, physically maltreated, amounting to torture, being forced to sign confessions in Hebrew, which they don’t understand.

All of this was catalogued by a team of British lawyers, funded, organised and published by the British Foreign Office, which found Israel guilty of committing violations of international law, including the rights of a child, and that G4S is implicated in this. So, now, the campaign has been so effective that G4S has announced that they’re not going to renew any of their contracts for work in Israel, which is very good.

The boycott movement is spreading across the States, so big Presbyterian and Methodist churches are boycotting the occupation. Dutch banks and pension funds are doing likewise, and it’s beginning to have a real impact financially on Israel. It was the strength of the boycott movement, which, coupled with the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, brought an end to the regimes there. We hope that this tremendously peaceful and powerful movement will have the same effect in liberating the Palestinians.

Haneul: Let's turn to the future. There have always been talks and plans ever since 1947 of a two-state solution, and how it would help to join forces between the Israeli and Palestinian people. That agreement broke down in 1948, and then in 1967 – 2000 when they had the [first and second] Intifadas. What do you think about the two-party state solution, or the one-party state alternative?

Glyn: It’s a complicated situation. My personal ideal is that there should be one country in which everyone lives in freedom and security. Free to practice their own religions, to associate safely, and to have access to employment, education, and health services, all on an equal basis. Reality, on the ground, is very far from that. So, it’s necessary to start from the real political situation now, because it’s necessary to identify where we can apply pressure, to get progress.

For a long time, a large number of people, including us, were focused on the two-state solution, and that is still the focus of many major government organisations, and it’s still put forward as a practical solution. On the other hand, there are a large number of people who range from very well informed academics to activists on the ground, confronting the reality…day-to-day…legal groups, and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and so on, who say…the situation now is too dire… The land has been so fragmented and divided up by Israeli settlements that have expanded in just the last 10-12 years from 300,000 people to over half a million. The settlements have been placed in a way calculated to divide up East Jerusalem from the West Bank. Gaza is divided off. The area is fragmented into areas A, B, and C. The wall itself doesn’t follow the 1967 borders, but follows deep incursions into the occupied Palestinian territories, and therefore, people are arguing that the two-state solution is no longer viable on practical, concrete terms.

On the one hand, if we say a two-state solution could be achieved, that could only come about if major powers that influence politics in the Middle East were to put their weight behind it—basically America, Britain, and Europe, and that would require a considerable change in policy on America’s behalf to force a change in Israeli politics. This kind of change would have come about if Israel had pulled out of Gaza and dismantled settlements…It’s possible, but it’s increasingly difficult.

All of the diplomats and governments that we’ve talked to and have regular meetings with, however,…all of them are focused on a two-state solution, and we say that, “Well, if you wanted to do that, you’ve got to put some muscle behind your fine words,” because Israel does not respond to fine words; they can ignore them—until someone can put some economic and financial muscle behind that claim for a just solution.

On the other hand, you have to recognise that politics moves on, that the two-state solution is crumbling as a real possibility because Israel, led by the settlers, is, as fast as it can, creating facts on the ground in order to prevent it happening…and because the major powers won’t take action to instigate it.

What are the other possibilities? In terms of a one-state solution, you’re presented with two unsavoury scenarios. One is the scenario of Bennett, the extreme, right-wing settlers’ voice in Israel who says, “Bring on a one-state solution! We’ll pin the Palestinians into little townships. We will keep very firm military control of them. We will have them as migrant workers—they’ll be good for the Israeli economy—and we will be in control.”

The other opposite argument for a one-state solution comes from the Palestinian side, that says, “We’ll go down the South African route.” That was a one-state in which there were the Bantustans, and it was demonstrated that an apartheid economy cannot function efficiently in the modern world, and it can’t function politically, and the apartheid structure in South Africa collapsed. The argument goes that a one-state apartheid structure that occurs in Israel and Palestine would collapse, too. So, we have to be mindful of that as another scenario.

What we do is argue all the time for a reconnection in practical terms. We argue that Israel’s right to access European trade agreements should be restricted because Israel violates the moral principles that all European states are required to meet in order to access them. Those are some of the arguments that we make. If there is some movement in that field, then it will gain momentum, I believe. We are rather pragmatic, but it is not easy. You can be active physically by helping to rebuild Palestinian homes, which is what the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions does. The other physical thing you can do is replanting olive trees and so on… all very good stuff.

As for getting involved militarily - Israel is not worried about that. In fact, there was a ratcheting up of conflict and violence behind the collapse of the truce that existed between Hamas and Israel, with very few rockets fired into Israel for very many months, and Hamas controlling the more extreme groups firing those rockets. Israel have always said, “We can’t make peace with the Palestinians because there’s no unified government to make peace with.” As soon as a unified government pops up between Fatah and Hamas, what are they going to do? Do something to destroy that unity. That’s what I believe this whole attack on Gaza is about.

That was what the Israeli strategy intended to achieve. They’ve got tremendous military forces; they’re the fourth most powerful military in the world, whereas the Palestinian military doesn’t even register on the scale, and they then have an excuse to say, “We’re defending ourselves” and start attacking Gaza.  Once again Israel attacks the infrastructure as they did in Operation Cast Lead and Pillars of Defense, destroying their power systems, communications, sewage and water systems as they’re doing now in this current massacre. Gaza was already 70 percent dependent on United Nations food.

Haneul: Theer is a lot of debate about how you have to be clear about the distinct use of terminologies over Judaism and Zionism. What do you think is important in this debate?

Glyn: Okay, I’ll try to do a thumbnail sketch of Jewish culture. In the nineteenth century in eastern Europe, there was a very powerful Jewish movement called the “Bund”. It was a trade union, a social, and a political movement, and it had tens of thousands of members, Jewish workers. It was part of that whole revolutionary movement and period which led to the overthrow of the Tsars in Russia and its whole argument and aim was to end the racism of which anti-Semitism was a part. They did not seek a nationalist and separatist solution. That movement was very active, very powerful. But when the Russian revolution collapsed and you had the dreadful rise of Stalinism, then many of those people fled and that left teh path clear for another Jewish movement, which was also developing at the time—the Zionist movement.

There was a range of Zionists: there were also the humanist Zionists, but it was actually the very hard-line Nationalist Zionists that took control. Their programme, right from the beginning, was to carve out territory for a Jewish state, and they propped on Palestine because the Bible provided a wonderful ideological tool, which they could use. The Bible was interpreted literally.

The hard-line Zionists initially found themselves in opposition with the Orthodox Jewish communities from around the world, who were not in favour of founding a Jewish state. One of the reasons was that they found it heretical—sacrilegious—to attempt that before the Coming of the Lord…There’s a small group of people that believe that powerfully who are often to be encountered in the Palestinian demonstrations in London—Neturei Karta—so, the original Zionist programme was organised in spite of instead of with the Orthodox Jewish communities around the world.

They were quite ruthless in their objectives, and one of  their informing theorists, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, developed a theory called the Iron Wall, which was composed of three components: Jewish labour, Jewish projects, and Jewish land. These were to be obtained legally, financially, socially, and if necessary, by force, and that’s what has happened. The land was acquired by force. It included in 1948 the disaster of a town called Diad Haziz in where the community was murdered by two organisations—the Irgun Gang and the Stern Gang, led by the early founders of Israel.

They were commanders in those organisations with the early army—the Palmach—They set about terrorising a number of the Palestinian villages in the Fertile Crescent which was to become Israel, and caused Palestinians in 500-530 villages who were peaceful, unarmed, with no military organisation, to flee in panic, and each time that they committed an atrocity, which they did in about twelve of the villages, they would leave some of the people to run free to some of the other villages to cause a similar panic there, and that’s how the Nakba occurred. You can read about that in the work of the new Jewish historians—people like Avi Shlaim at Oxford University here and Norman Finklestein, who have based their works on the documents released by Israel after the 30-year war.

So, the hard Zionists, and I would describe the settlers at the moment as fundamentalist Zionists, they’re so extreme—are maintaining the policy of Jabotinsky, the policy of Eretz Israel, which is Greater Israel, taking control of the whole of the land from the end of the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, and wanting to ethnically clear Palestinians as much as they can from this land.

So, you have to draw a very clear distinction between Jews and fundamentalist Zionists. There was a very brave demonstration by Democracy Now! in Israel, where many Jews were beaten up by the settlers and other extremists. They were demonstrating against Protective Edge. There are Jews in this country and in Europe and in America, who hold the same position, Jewish Voice for Peace, for example, which numbers 100,000 on its email list, is a small, but significant group. We think that we speak for many more Jews than the members of our organisation. We know that there are lots more Jews that sympathise with us. …I think the ground support that wants what the Israeli government is doing, is beginning to slip away.

We’re very anxious to say, as a Jewish people, that what Israel is doing is validly not in our name. We’re absolutely appalled at the gross mistreatment of the Palestinians and of human rights. At the moment, one child an hour is dying. That’s unbelievable!...Not only is it doing awful things to the Palestinians, but it’s doing awful things to the Jewish soul, because… if you have to maintain oppression, first of all, you have to categorise a group of people that you oppress as less than human, because you have to find a way of encompassing and rationalising that oppression, and you have to adopt the practical mechanisms of it.

So you become a practical and psychological oppressor and become enchained by your own oppression, and that’s a terrible thing. It’s also the case that, because of that experience, large numbers of people, particularly large numbers of middle class people have been leaving Israel over quite a few years now.

Haneul: Seeing a demographic of people from all over the MENA region…and people from parts of Europe, all coming together with a common consensus, that is a true representation of democracy... That’s one reason why I wanted to invite you on the show, because we needed to show people the distortion that is happening within western and mainstream media…we have to show the real feelings of the people dealing with issues in Israel and Palestine, and so that’s why I appreciate you coming on.

Glyn: I’d just like to reemphasise the core of our organisation, which is: we are peaceful, we don’t advocate violence, we condemn killings of all sorts, we strongly believe in human rights…that’s the core of our beliefs that unite all of our signatories and our members who come from a wide spectrum of beliefs, some of whom are very religious Orthodox, some of whom are Atheists, some whom are Conservatives with a capital ‘C’, some are apolitical, some are socialists, some are none of these things, and the uniting factor is just the belief in human rights and pursuing a powerful and peaceful resolution, supporting the Palestinian call for boycott.

I would like to end on one thing: what inspires us is the humanity of the Palestinians and their personal strength and determination to keep going… One famous playwright said that, “Whatever happens, stay human”, and it’s that steadfastness and staying human of the Palestinians which is so important, because it inspires all this. I don’t know personally how I would feel if the Palestinians were defeated and collapsed. Where does that leave me as a Jew? I would be deeply, deeply disturbed by that, because the by-line of our organisation is, “Two peoples, one future”… and for me, that is a deeply philosophical statement.


You can listen to the original interview in full (released 25 July 2014) here.

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