Heresy of a ‘Hebrew Palestinian

Uri Davis is the first Jew elected to the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

Robert Hirschfield

<i>Haaretz</i> columnist Gideon Levy.

Uri Davis is a serial thorn in the side of the Israeli state,” according to British journalist Jonathan Cook. Justin White of the blog Taming Korach describes him as Islam’s New Tool.” He has been called worse. Davis is an Israeli Jew (he prefers the descriptor Hebrew Palestinian’) who once headed the PLO London Bureau, and who currently holds a seat on the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

He was born in 1943 in Jerusalem. His mother was a Jew from Czechoslavakia, his father a Jew from the U.K. His father was a supporter of the Martin Buber group, Brit Shalom, which called for absolute political equality” between Jews and Palestinians.

As an induction-age teenager, Davis was guilty of his first heresy: he refused military service on pacifist grounds. Never having been exposed to the stimulant of patriotism that is part of the Israeli soldier’s formation probably made it easier for him to embark in the mid-’80s on his definitive heresy, joining Fatah. (A third heresy occurred only recently. In 2008, in order to marry Palestinian Miyassar Abu Ali, he converted to Islam.)

A longtime academic, Davis was for many years a lecturer in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in England, and is currently a professor of sociology at Al Quds University on the West Bank. His many books include Israel: An Apartheid State and Towards A Socialist Republic of Palestine (co-edited with Fouzi el-Asmar and Naim Khader).

In a statement of national self-definition, Davis declared, I hold Israeli and British passports, but I consider myself Palestinian above all else.”

Your election, as an Israeli, to the Revolutionary Council of Fatah last August, came as a surprise to many. What was your own reaction?

I was pleased because the election highlighted a historic but neglected streak within Fatah. My election to position number 31 in an election for 81 open seats [seats contested by more than 600 Fatah members] may signify a change in direction that has been neglected.

What is it exactly that has been neglected?

Thousands of international volunteers are aiding Fatah and the PLO. Renewing contacts with them, recognizing and honoring their contribution, recording their narrative and history as part of Palestinian history, would be an important first step.

What would be a second step?

Fatah projects itself as the main plank of the PLO, which is fine, and the PLO projects itself as the representative of the Arab-Palestinian people. The ANC in South Africa did not just project itself as the representative of the oppressed non-white people of South Africa, but as the democratic alternative of all the people, nonwhite and white. The official statements of Fatah and the PLO say nothing that projects themselves as the democratic alternative to Zionism that would offer a decent future for all. That chapter is missing. One of the reasons I ran for a seat on the Revolutionary Council was to work to get that missing chapter included.

Was there resistance within Fatah to an Israeli holding a seat on the Revolutionary Council?

People shared with me their reservations on a tactical level having nothing to do with principles. Some people thought my election would complicate Fatah’s dealings with Hamas in Gaza. But that was very much the minority point of view. Palestinians in general applauded my victory.

What was the reaction in Israel to your victory?

There were the usual angry calls to radio talk shows, but nothing extreme. For a long time, anti-Zionists like myself and I were regarded as pariahs or as the devil incarnate. Decades later, strangely enough, we are regarded by some as celebrities, and even respected, the way one might respect daring bank robbers.

Decades later, young Israelis are crossing over into the West Bank to demonstrate alongside Palestinians in places like Bilin and Nilin.

It’s gratifying to see the pioneering work of a handful of us, begun in the early 60s, come to fruition four decades later. It is a direct result of the false Zionist narrative and repressive actions following the post-‘67 colonization. More and more young people are being motivated to put their bodies where their minds are. 

Tell me about your political origins. Many Israeli activists were radicalized by their experiences as soldiers in the occupied territories.

My experience was different. I was a member of the Israeli branch of War Resisters International. I refused to do military service. I was opposed to all of Israel’s wars, including the Six Day War in 1967, on pacifist grounds. In 1965, I stood trial in a military court in Nazareth for leading protests against Israel’s confiscation of 5,500 dunams [approximately 1,360 acres] of Palestinian land from three villages in the Galilee. I was sentenced to eight months in jail. I broke with pacifism in the mid-’70s, when I was a student at the New School in New York, studying for my Ph.D. in anthropology.

What caused the break?

I realized that basic patterns of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were analogous to the settler-colonial conflicts of North Africa, South Africa and Indonesia. I realized that armed resistance directed against soldiers and settlers, as in the case of South Africa and Algeria, were legitimate under international law. I moved from ideological pacifism to a position of anti-militarism, and I resigned from War Resisters International.

How did you become a member of Fatah?

From 1976 to 1984, I divided my time between teaching at the University of Bradford in the U.K. and returning to Palestine and Israel, where I was deeply involved in Palestine solidarity and human rights activity. I was a well-known activist by then. In 1984, I was invited to Tunis by Abu Jihad [a Fatah founder and military leader] to meet with him and Yasser Arafat. I was recommended for membership in Fatah. I was invited by Arafat to attend a conference of the Palestine National Council in Amman, and I was made a member of the Palestine Council. Abu Jihad at that time developed a front known as the Western Front [“western” meaning west of the River Jordan]. It consisted of military and political activities inside Israel. I had nothing to do with the military activities, but I took part in the political activities.

So, would your career as a resister have been entirely different were it not for Abu Jihad?

I would probably have remained within the anti-Zionist and Palestinian solidarity movement inside Israel and Europe.

Was it Fatah’s policy to recruit anti-Zionist Jewish Israelis?

I don’t know if it was Fatah’s policy or not, but I should point out that I was not the first or the only Jewish member of Fatah. Ilan Halevi preceded me.

When you joined Fatah and the PLO, as an Israeli, you were a member of organizations that were banned by Israel. What was your life like? 

My good friend and lawyer, Leah Tsemel, urged me to go into exile, which I did. She was afraid I would be subjected to a show trial and given a stiff prison sentence. From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, I was the head of the PLO’s London Bureau.

Didn’t that expose you to great danger?

There was never any physical violence against me. 

I notice how hopeful you sound when you speak of the ANC’s ultimate success at winning over white Afrikaaners, and the possibility of Fatah somehow having similar success with Israeli Jews. Isn’t it risky to draw such a parallel?

No. I don’t see, relatively speaking, where the Jews of Israel are more resistant than the Afrikaners were. Mandela was released in 1990, and four years later he beat DeKlerk also in the white constituencies. The transition from the mainstream being pro-apartheid to the mainstream departing from apartheid did not take all that long. 

But in the context of this conflict, there is no dramatic figure like Mandela whose release from prison can stir radical self-questioning and change among Jewish Israelis.

That is true.

In his talk at the Fatah Congress in Bethlehem, President Abbas seemed to try very hard to be balanced, espousing nonviolent resistance and diplomacy with regards to a situation on the ground that is very imbalanced, with the Israelis calling the shots, and the Palestinians always on the defensive. What was your reaction? 

I thought Abbas’ reference to all legitimate forms of resistance, including armed resistance, was made in full awareness of the imbalance of the conflict. It was reminding the audience, and all concerned parties in the Middle East and abroad, that international law, with regards to occupation, allows people who are occupied the right to resist politically and diplomatically, and also through armed struggle. It is up to the leaders of Fatah to decide which combination is to be used at any given time. The Israelis misinterpreted this to mean that Fatah was opting for armed struggle as the next stage. That is not what our congress opted for. But it is our right. 

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer who covers Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. He has written for The Progressive, The National Catholic Reporter and Sojourners.
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