Heresy of a ‘Hebrew Palestinian

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

Robert Hirschfield

In August, Uri Davis, an Israeli Jew, was elected to a seat on the Fatah Revolutionary Council.(Photo by:Musa Al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)

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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