In 1956, announcing her opposition to Oxford’s decision to award Harry Truman an honorary degree, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe noted that “protests by people who have not power are a waste of time.” Anscombe, who thought President Truman was unworthy of any such honor on account of his decision to target civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, meant to distinguish what she was doing from a “gesture of protest” at atomic weapons more generally. Such a gesture would be useless, she believed, given she could no more halt the development of future bombs than she could undo their past use. She was objecting, rather, to something that Oxford, a collective of which she was an intricate part, was about to do: namely, offer Truman a public honor. It was important to object to this latter, local act because, she wrote, “one can share in the guilt of a bad action by praise and flattery, as also by defending it.”
Since the founding of The Point, we have often used this space—the letter from the editors—to comment, sometimes polemically, about some aspect of the public conversation. Not infrequently, we have argued about the responsibility of intellectuals and writers in times of social or political turmoil. But in the run-up to this issue—as the initial shock of Hamas’s terrorist attacks in Israel began to subside, and as the devastation brought about by the Israeli assault on Gaza multiplied—we found ourselves at a loss as to what kind of “editorial response” would be appropriate, let alone productive.
Interrogating our own hesitations about jumping into the discursive fray, we found a mix of motives. To begin with, at a time when people on all sides of the debate proclaimed things had never been clearer to them, many of us did not share the moral and even empirical confidence evinced by some of our fellow critics. More fundamentally, in many cases we failed to grasp what exactly was at stake in the rush for academics, journalists and critics attached to Western institutions to publicly state their “position” on the conflict as intellectuals. The brutality and scale of the devastation call for action, but we must ask, as Anscombe did, what our gestures of protest are aiming toward. What is to be gained from the accelerating arms race of open letters, statements and counterstatements? Who is the audience for these declarations? What moral or intellectual authority are they actually drawing on?
Asking oneself such questions does not imply quietism or impotence. It does not mean one must make peace with things as they are, or renounce one’s desire to change them. Rather, it reflects a belief that those who genuinely wish to effect change must begin their work with an honest assessment of what the change they wish to see would require and how their actions, let alone their public statements, are meant to bring it about. To be truly honest, this assessment must countenance the possibility, as dispiriting as it might be, that there are times when one’s position as an intellectual, academic or editor of a small magazine confers no special status at all. Such a reckoning suggests at least one virtue that public intellectuals can model in these moments: the humility to acknowledge when greater authority and wisdom might lie elsewhere.
This is why, in this issue, in lieu of our own commentary, we have decided to publish a conversation that took place on October 24th between Israeli and Palestinian activists. In the nearly two months since, the conflict has continued and deepened, notwithstanding the week-long “pause” for the exchange of hostages and political prisoners at the end of November. As we finish this issue, Israel’s aerial bombardment of Gaza and ground war are ongoing, resulting in a humanitarian crisis and the deaths of a reported sixteen thousand Palestinians, while Hamas and affiliated groups still hold 136 hostages abducted from Israel. Yet these developments have done little to alter the backdrop under which this dialogue was convened—a “very dark passage,” in the words of moderator Charles Lenchner—while only making even more urgent its central themes. We recommend it for many reasons: because the speakers’ understanding of the situation is extensive, nuanced and personal; because they are not addressing captive, convinced audiences but each other; because they are attempting, as they speak, to come to terms with both the possibilities and the limitations of their power; because the stakes for them are in no way symbolic or abstract; because they speak, credibly, as if their lives depend on what they say and do.
AFTER OCTOBER 7TH
A conversation with Israeli and Palestinian activists
The following conversation is excerpted from a panel that was recorded live on YouTube on October 24th, organized by Charles Lenchner for ACT.TV. The speakers are Sally Abed, a Palestinian peace activist and leader of Standing Together, the largest Jewish-Arab grassroots movement in Israel, based in Haifa; Uri Weltmann, a founding member of and national field organizer for Standing Together, based in Tel Aviv; Kefah Abukhdeir, a Palestinian American educator and activist, based in East Jerusalem and Atlanta; and Yael Berda, a sociologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former human-rights lawyer involved with A Land for All, an initiative aimed at brokering a peaceful solution to the conflict through a confederation of Israel and Palestine. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length and is available in full here.
CHARLES LENCHNER (moderator): Thank you, everyone, for coming. I want to make a few things clear about how this event came together. Some of us—members of various organizations—saw the tragedy unfolding on October 7th, with the attack from Gaza, and we immediately realized what this would mean for the people of Gaza, for the people of Israel, for everyone who cares about them around the world, and we wanted to find a way to lift up voices that we thought symbolized hope and progress, the ability to get out of this very dark passage.
Sally, you are obviously a Palestinian Israeli, or an Israeli Palestinian. And at a time when the conflict between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinian people, wherever they may be, is at a peak and there’s so much destruction and death happening right now, can you say something about how you see yourself being active in this moment?
SALLY ABED: It’s very hard for me these days to be called Israeli anything. In general, it’s very hard for me. I usually identify as a Palestinian citizen of Israel. Unfortunately, the political ethos of Israel definitely doesn’t see me as part of it, in general, and especially now. I do identify as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and I see a very, very great responsibility in this position, as part of the 17 percent of the citizens of Israel who are Palestinian; and you have those in East Jerusalem, who are not citizens but are residents.
I don’t have the privilege of being righteous all the time. As a Palestinian, as a social justice activist as well, I see my work as centered on the question: How can I build? How can I look at the people who are currently not convinced, the people who currently don’t have the political will to even acknowledge the fact that I’m Palestinian and acknowledge my history and narrative, and actually bring them to our side? It’s a very different kind of work than that of any kind of Palestinian abroad or even in the occupied territories, in Gaza. I feel a special responsibility, because I have a privilege of experiencing a semi-democracy of some sort. And I have some tools that I can use to increase our political capital within Israel, among the Israeli public, and shift that paradigm from what we have right now to what we need.
Right now, in these very, very polarized moments, that means staying put, here in the middle, even while my people are being slaughtered very, very brutally. We are being silenced here in Israel. We’re being persecuted and we’re being arrested and fired from our jobs and expelled from universities—not even for talking about the occupation, or the apartheid, or the brutal attacks on Gaza. The mere expression of solidarity with people and with children is being criminalized at this moment. So we are having to navigate that, on top of the fact that we are living in mixed cities. I live here in Haifa, and at this very moment there are organized civil groups that are being heavily armed by our national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is an openly Kahanist Jewish supremacist. It’s extremely hard to navigate the persecutions we are enduring right now in Israeli society while also not being able to express our collective trauma as Palestinians. I have some very close friends—Jewish friends and neighbors and colleagues—who have been deeply impacted by the October 7th attack. So it’s probably one of the most complex experiences to have, but in many ways, it’s critical to maintain this space and stay put, because we are the only ones—the Jews and Palestinians within Israel—who are trying to hold this experience in its reality.
CHARLES LENCHNER: Can you give us any insight into the kinds of conversations or heated debates happening inside the Palestinian Israeli community?
SALLY ABED: I think one of the hardest realizations I have had to accept during these times is that personally, and even collectively as a movement right now, we don’t have control. There’s no immediate impact that is efficient enough to change policies, international policies, and, you know, America’s unconditional support of the Israeli state and the Israeli government right now. Having had that realization, what I do have control over is just de-escalating my environment—my city and our schools, our shared workplaces. That’s what, at the moment, has to be completely depoliticized. Also because you literally cannot speak about politics right now. As I said before, legally, you can’t—we are being persecuted, but also among the people here in Israel, unfortunately, there is a very, very broad consensus about what is happening and the very, very extreme retaliation on Gaza. And honestly, for the very first time, I’m also feeling very uncomfortable even identifying as Palestinian among people who I thought could contain that. So I think there’s a shift, there’s an alignment to the very, very extreme right even for most of what is considered the liberal camp—you know, the hundreds of thousands of people that have been fighting for democracy.
CHARLES LENCHNER: Uri, I’m interested in the work that Standing Together has been doing since the war began. Can you summarize for us what’s going on on the ground?
uri weltmann: Since the escalation began, this recent round of bloodletting on October 7th, Standing Together has been setting up local groups throughout the country called the Jewish Arab Solidarity Network. We’ve been reaching out as a way to prepare in advance for the fact that the political leadership, the Israeli government, is pushing toward a clash between Jewish and Palestinian citizens inside Israel. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the most extremist, hawkish, nationalist minister ever to preside in Israeli government, is openly talking about preparing for a scenario similar to May 2021. He has handed out guns and motivated people to form local militias in so-called shared cities or mixed cities like Jaffa and Haifa and Lod, and this is a very dangerous development.
So rather than sitting on the sidelines and looking at the right wing taking the initiative and pushing things in this dangerous direction, we have been working on the ground, especially in the mixed cities but also in Jewish towns inside the sovereign state of Israel—not the occupied Palestinian territories like the West Bank or East Jerusalem or Gaza Strip, but the sovereign state of Israel—to set up solidarity networks, to bring together Jewish and Arab neighbors living in different neighborhoods of the same city or living in adjacent towns to do solidarity work, to do mutual-aid work to promote equality and anti-racism in the public sphere.
I’ll give you an example. One of our local groups near the town of Hadera went out and changed racist graffiti—graffiti that previously said “death to Arabs” was changed into a bilingual message of solidarity in Hebrew and Arabic. We did the same in Haifa, and elsewhere. We do postering, we go out in the street and bring our bilingual message of solidarity, equality—no to racism, no to violence—so that rather than the public sphere being dominated by right-wing extremists, our message will also resonate in the public sphere. That message—only peace will bring security, in Hebrew and Arabic—is entirely different than the message we are hearing from our leadership.
CHARLES LENCHNER: Obviously, a country at war is going to have a lot of issues, especially for an opposition voice. Uri, can you say something about the kind of trouble that the right wing is trying to stir up inside of Israel, the same social forces that animate the settler movement? What are they doing in the mixed towns?
uri weltmann: October 7th has been a shock for us in the peace movement inside Israel, a shock on two accounts. First of all, the horrific images and stories that we’ve heard from the southern Israeli towns adjacent to the Gaza Strip, where more than 1,300 innocent Israelis were killed or hurt or kidnapped to Gaza. This has hurt Israeli society in a very profound way. Israel is a small country, almost everyone I know has someone in their close vicinity—a family member, a coworker, a friend—who was affected by this terror attack on October 7th. So it has come as a shock in Israeli society. And for us in the peace movement, this shock is further compounded by what we are hearing our government is doing in the Gaza Strip, the indiscriminate bombardment of the Palestinian civil population, the collective punishment enforced by cutting off electricity and water, the forced displacement of more than one million Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip. Rather than seeing these steps as things that contribute to our safety and security, we in the Israeli peace movement, in Standing Together, think these steps are actually painfully undermining the safety and the security of not only Palestinians but also Jewish Israelis. So from this complex situation we, as a movement, are trying to organize within Israeli society, both in deep criticism of the policies of our government but also with deep sympathy for the hurt and the suffering—of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and the occupied territories in general, and in our own society, the Israeli society that has suffered a shock, suffered a grave loss and suffered a terrible hurt at human lives and people being affected.
CHALES LENCHNER: Kefah, you are living in Jerusalem. Your family is from Shuafat. And I imagine that there are some differences between the experiences that you or your community is having, where you are, that are different than those Sally might be having where she is in Haifa. Can you say anything to illustrate what those differences are?
KEFAH ABUKHDEIR: Here in Jerusalem, we’re not as protected due to the fact that we are residents, we are not citizens. Right now under the current situation, a little closer to home, my family has been targeted and members of our family have been targeted due to our history. Regrettably I have to bring up the fact that we have a cousin who was killed by Jewish extremists back in 2014. And it was a blood libel—our cousin was kidnapped and severely mutilated. His name was Mohammed Abu Khdeir. And the reason they don’t like us, more or less, is because we stood up to the spin. They decided to start a smear campaign against Mohammed and against our family, because they did not want the Jewish extremists to be brought up or to be blamed. It was because we had contacted different outlets from the media and we brought to light what happened to him.
Also, they have been going through houses and going through what I will call internal demolitions. And they are tearing apart everything inside of the houses and harassing the people, and as my fellow activists mentioned, people are getting phone calls, people are having people show up at their work, to harass them and to go after them. So we have the added punishment that we can be exiled from Jerusalem if we defy or stand up to the government. There’s also the added violence, as Sally mentioned. There are now settlers who go around to different Palestinian areas and harass people—it’s illegal. But this is not new. This is systematic. Whenever there’s tension, especially with Ben-Gvir and [finance minister Bezalel] Smotrich being in power, it’s been turned up a lot, not just a few notches.
So it’s always been happening. And to think of them as isolated events I also think is wrong. What’s happening in Gaza now, it’s not the first time. So this is part of something systematic, it’s just that it’s getting more pressure and more coverage, and the reason it’s getting more coverage isn’t because the world views us as valuable—they do not. The world does not view us as valuable, and neither does the state. The world is willing to sit aside to give Israel impunity, and Israel does not see us as an asset. So anything that happens to us is excused.
CHARLES LENCHNER: The constant violence against Palestinians is not new. But the success of Hamas against the Israeli communities is a new factor that was introduced on October 7th, and I’m wondering if there’s a way you could describe how that shifts or doesn’t shift perceptions and feelings right now. We have an interesting new circumstance where the scale of the attack on the communities around Gaza was unprecedented. And this has helped fuel a lot of sympathy for Israel or for Israelis, even in places where you might have expected the political positions to be more on the side of Palestinians, and I’m sure that there’s a reaction to that inside the Palestinian community, to this new reality. Can you shed light on how this is being addressed?
KEFAH ABUKHDEIR: Well, the shift is remarkable. As I mentioned, the visceral reaction that came from Israelis, and that came from, let’s say, internationals, is “how dare you.” The thing is that, we’re okay as long as we’re cute, cuddly victims—everybody’s okay with the Palestinian situation. But now that the violent part of the resistance has come to light, or the outcome of the almost twenty-year blockade, it has shifted everything. The other thing that I think nobody ever imagined is—well, this is probably the second time Hamas has transferred the conflict inside of Israel. Of course, everybody remembers the early 2000s with the Second Intifada. So, it’s not necessarily new, it’s just the fact that they made it through the blockade. And they made it over, and how dare they. This is basically the feeling that I’m getting on the street here in Jerusalem—the horror and the underestimation. Because that’s part of the dehumanization, you know: they could never get through what we do, or what we have against them.
YAEL BERDA: I just want to say something that I think is really important to understand. For Israelis, there’s what happened until October 7th, and then the world after October 7th. I think it’s really, really important to understand how Israeli society is experiencing this moment. This is a moment where, because of the massacre in the south, the hostages, the families that were killed in their homes, the way that it happened—so many of the hyperbolic Hasbara existential threats that were put out for years, as Israel attacked Gaza, are now a reality for many Israelis. And that’s a very important issue to contend with. I think what Kefah said is true, in the sense that there was a deep arrogance and the thought that this could basically never happen, that the walls were impenetrable. But one has to understand that this is not just another round, for anyone—we also see it with the horrific killing of civilians in Gaza right now. I think that we’re at a major, dramatic moment.
So now, in the context of the occupation of the West Bank, in the months leading up to this, this government basically annexed the territories by organizational means—not just de facto like it had been doing all the years before, but actually, legally, there was a transfer of authority from the military to civilian hands, to the government. So, even in the legal sense, there was an annexation of the territories. And all the forces were moved into the West Bank, I believe, for that purpose. Not that I know what goes on [behind closed doors] exactly, but one can just understand, from what’s going on. There was the annexation, there were also threats of a second Nakba on a weekly basis. And so within that environment came this attack.
Now, just so you understand, in Israel just saying what I said right now is considered to be something that absolves Hamas or somehow justifies the massacre. So when you want to try and give a context—not the context of 1948, not the context of ’67, not even the context of the misleading Oslo Accords, none of that. Just giving the context of the last eight or nine months is considered to be an attempt to excuse the massacre of civilians. So we’re in this place where also for Israelis, the chief of police has told activists that if they protest for a ceasefire or for any mention of civilians in Gaza, they will be put on buses and sent to Gaza themselves. That’s where we are.
CHARLES LENCHNER: It’s very difficult to operate right now. And obviously the Jewish Israeli public is full of a combination of shock and horror and war patriotism. Where do you see the cracks? Where is the way that activists like yourself can actually make a change, not only in the future when things are more quiet, but right now?
YAEL BERDA: First of all, I think that the solidarity work between Palestinians and Israel is very important. Also discrediting those campaigns of revenge and the campaigns of the right wing—basically, they’re advocating for the reoccupation of Gaza, resettling Gaza with settlements and a second Nakba—these are actually what the right wing, the religious Zionists and Jewish power are campaigning for. So standing in front of that and calling for a ceasefire and calling for a hostage deal—what we see is a lot of activists are actually trying to think about the civilians and, in this way, kind of calm the flames. But there is repression against that too. Another aspect of it is also preventing the extreme provocation of violence that the settlers are doing, in the West Bank and also within the ’48 borders. And I think what now is necessary is understanding that there is no military solution. We have to right now, right now, already start talking about political solutions that provide security first—security and equality and justice. I know that for many that does not seem like enough, it does not seem okay. But that’s what we can do right now.
CHARLES LENCHNER: What is it you want to tell our audience who are from around the world, but I think primarily people who want to see peace and justice in Palestine, they’re in the U.S., what do they need to know?
SALLY ABED: The first thing that I want to say is just: hold the people of Gaza in your prayers. It’s just heart-wrenching to see that and to feel so hopeless and so helpless to actually do something about it, especially here from Israel as a Palestinian. There are Palestinians in Israel who are going through this experience and the humanitarian loss and the catastrophe that the Israeli public has gone through. Our cause for Palestinian liberation is a very just cause. However, we cannot justify the extreme measures that Hamas has taken to advance this cause. And I think one of the most important things that we need to hold right now as a Palestinian liberation movement and as Palestinians is the right of all of us, as civilians, for life, and for us to live securely. I really want to hold that very, very tight.
And with that, I want to finish and say: listen to us, listen to the people on the ground here in Israel. We are often overlooked. We are seeing amazing cases of radical empathy: of victims, Israeli victims, who have lost dear ones, who have people in captivity right now and who are still calling for a ceasefire, who are still calling for ending the occupation, who are still calling for peace, and we need to join these people and we need to really hold our humanity together as people and isolate our leaderships at the moment. We can talk about the big context of, you know, why the leadership in Gaza and Hamas is the way it is, and we can try and justify it, but the fact is that we need to hold onto our humanity at the moment, while also not letting the hegemony and the monopoly over violence and the monopoly over morality that the world is holding for the Israeli government to compromise our call for liberation.
uri weltmann: Since 2005, there have been sixteen major military operations carried out by the Israeli government against the population of the Gaza Strip. None of these military actions have brought safety and security to Israelis. All of these military actions only wreaked havoc on the civilian population in Gaza, causing the loss of many innocent lives, including children, and each one of them merely planted the seed for the next major military operation. I fear we are now going in the same direction. I fear our government is pushing us into yet another round of violent bloodletting, yet another round of taking a terrible toll of human life in Gaza, and yet another round of undermining the safety and security of us, the people who live in Israel. We need to go in an entirely different direction, we need to press for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, based on UN resolutions. We need to go in the direction of ending the siege and ending the occupation and securing the independence, freedom and justice of both peoples. This is what Standing Together is doing. And we’re doing this not on the west coast or the east coast of [the U.S. or] Europe, we’re doing this inside Israeli society, organizing Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel, which we think is the only way for us as an Israeli peace movement to go about.
KEFAH ABUKHDEIR: People need to know how intimately we’re bound together as Israelis and Palestinians. Israel needs to know that as Palestinians, we see them every day. We look into their eyes and we know them the best. We’ve seen them in uniform. We’ve seen them occupy us. Every day, in the fleeting moments where we’re passing each other, when Israelis send their children to my neighborhood. I see them at the checkpoints. I see them in university. What do we need right now? We need for Palestinians to be protected, to be given agency, equality and equity, and to be able to speak to Israelis and come up and hammer out some solutions.
What I’m asking for is to not let blood be blood. Those of us in both societies are trying not to go crazy with all that we’ve seen. These two failed national projects are now basically Siamese twins, and I’d like for us to come out of this with sanity and with something that all of us can be proud of. And I want everybody to abandon their pride, abandon the pomp and circumstance, and to try to move forward. Because any time that children are being killed and we are speaking of massacres as if it’s some kind of sport, enough is enough. And I think this is where it needs to end.
YAEL BERDA: I think that we need to be able to see on the ground how we are intertwined. We are intertwined in this territory, from the river to the sea. There are Israelis and Palestinians, and nobody’s going anywhere. And their diasporas aren’t going anywhere. And we have to recognize that, unless we want to live in perpetual war that also creates war elsewhere. And we’re feeding the worst kinds of violence, feeding racism, feeding anti-Semitism, feeding Islamophobia through this. What we need is to be able to see that we share this place, and I know how difficult it is to hear. Yes, this is a settler colony of refugees. No one is going anywhere. Please, advocate, there is no military solution. We need to talk about political solutions. But first of all, we need to stop the killing. We need to stop the killing and bring back the hostages—kids and adults—that we can.
To read the full dialogue, including the panelists’ Q&A, click here.
Art credit: Paul Nash.