“Many people have told me that my book has given them hope. They believe in the notion that the Jewish state can be removed out of the equation, then we can have democracy for equal rights for everybody,” says Miko Peled, peace activist and author of the new book, “The General's Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine.” “Just like they removed Jim Crow in this country and they removed Apartheid in South Africa, if you remove the notion of a Jewish state from Palestine, then you can have a democracy. It’s been done in many places.”
Peled, who was in town to speak at the Pyle Center Oct. 25 on the UW-Madison campus, sat down with The Madison Times to discuss his new book, an idealistic and passionate memoir that reflects in part those Jews everywhere who have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the harsh Israeli occupation and continuing colonization of the West Bank, captured from Jordan during the 1967 war.
“I always open my talks with a disclaimer and that is that my talks are not a balanced talk. Nobody can come and complain that it’s not balanced,” Peled smiles. “If you have particular strong feelings towards Israel, my talk is going to be hard to hear.”
Peled is a peace activist who has a long history of saying in public what many still choose to deny.
“People think that this problem will never be solved because it’s been going on for so long,” he says. “People have been killing each other for so many generations and therefore there’s really nothing anybody can do. It’s hopeless. But I argue that it’s not true. It’s a problem that is caused by man and man can fix it. It’s not a tsunami and it’s not an earthquake.”
Peled has credibility on this subject. He was born in Jerusalem in 1961 into a well-known Zionist family. His grandfather, Dr. Avraham Katsnelson, was a Zionist leader and signer on the Israeli Declaration of Independence. His father, Matti Peled, was a young officer in the war of 1948 and a general in the war of 1967 when Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and the Sinai.
Peled has studied Israeli history exhaustively and feels like there are many longstanding misunderstandings that need to be corrected. He refers people back to the day — Nov. 29, 1947 — when the United Nations accepted a resolution to partition Palestine into two countries and create two states. “You have the Jewish Zionist community which numbered less than a half a million people and you have the Palestinian community that numbered close to a million and a half people,” he says. “The United Nations, in their infinite wisdom, gave the smaller portion of the country to the larger Palestinian community. It’s interesting because even today people say it’s all the Palestinians’ fault because they didn’t accept the partitioner’s ruling. But why would anybody accept this? Why would anybody accept that the United Nations would cut off the larger portion of their own country and give it to a small community of immigrants — half a million immigrants. Why did anybody expect this to work? It’s an absurd proposition.”
Peled says that there is the myth that there was an Arab attack and miraculously a small group of brave Jews were able to overcome that.
“The Zionist community had one thing that the Palestinians did not — a fighting force; a militia,” Peled says. “And the militia numbered close to 40,000 well-trained, well-armed men. My father was an officer in the militia. There was nothing like that on the Palestinian side.”
As soon as the resolution was accepted, there was a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing to drive out the Palestinian Arabs from as much of the land as possible so they could have a state with a Jewish majority.
“In 12 months, they managed to conquer 80 percent of the country [and] drive out almost a million people, and destroy 500 towns and villages,” Peled says, “and some of these Palestinian villages were a thousand years old and had really rich histories.”
Peled jumps forward to 1967 where we once again hear that the Arabs attacked and the small Jewish state prevailed. “The image of King David and the Maccabees are always brought back as we romanticize,” he says. “My dad was a general by then.”
In his new book and in conversation, Peled speaks often of his father, Matti Peled, a highly respected Israeli general and father who became a fearless advocate for an end to the occupation and establishing a viable and independent Palestinian nation. In his book, Peled explains why his father — and his mother, whose own father was Abraham Katznelson, a legendary figure in Zionist history — dramatically changed their views and opposed their country’s policies toward Palestinians.
When he was working on his book, Peled went back to look at all of the archives of the time to learn more about his father. “The minutes of the generals [talking] leading up to the 1967 war are available and they are of great interest,” Peled says. “As I was reading them I noticed something new — something my father had said at one of these generals meetings. As they were talking about attacking Egypt, they were saying, ‘Well, the Egyptian army is not prepared for war; so this is a great opportunity to destroy them once again.’ But wait a minute…. Where is the existential threat? We’re saying the Egyptian army needs at least two years to prepare for war; we have an opportunity to destroy them. Where is the threat? People honestly believed that there was an existential threat.”
At different times, Palestinians were often portrayed as an existential threat through absurd comparisons like that of Yasser Arafat to Hitler, the Palestinians to Nazis, and the Palestinian resistance to Al Qaeda. But it wasn’t the Arab army that attacked, it was the Israeli army attacking. And the attack of Egypt went very smoothly. Within a couple of days, the Egyptian army was destroyed and the Sinai Penisula and Gaza was taken. “The generals on their own decided to take the West Bank because the war was already in progress,” Peled says. “In six days, they conquered massive amounts of lands and destroyed three Arab armies and they killed more than 15,000 Arab soldiers.”
Peled’s mother was born and raised in Jerusalem and she remembered the homes of Palestinians families in neighborhoods in West Jerusalem. She told Peled that when she was a child, on Saturday afternoons she would go for walks through these neighborhoods, admiring the beauty of the homes, watching families sit together in their beautiful gardens.
“In 1948, when the Palestinian families were forced out of West Jerusalem, my mother was offered one of those beautiful homes that were given to Israeli families,” Peled remembers. “My mother was offered one of those homes completely free…. and she was 22 years old and had two young children and was living in a small apartment with her mother at the time. She had little means. Her husband was a young army officer fighting. But her reaction was: ‘How can I take the home of another family? How can I take the home of another mother?’”
Peled’s mother could not bear the thought of living in the home of a family that was forced out and now had to live in a refugee camp.
“There was something about the story that never sat well with me and as I was working on my book I realized what was bothering me was that she was actually contradicting the national narrative — she was contradicting the story we all grew up with. If the Arabs attacked, as we were told, then we won because we were better and more heroic as we were told. And then the Arabs left — which is also what we were told — then what is wrong with taking their houses?
“But if there is a moral problem with taking homes that means that somewhere the story is wrong,” Peled continues. “There was this dissonance in my mind growing up that I couldn’t reconcile until I started working on the book and I realized why that story was bothering me because it was saying that the story that I learned — that everybody learned growing up — is really not true.”
Peled’s dad had come to recognize this during his lifetime and after he retired from the military he dedicated the rest of his life for being a voice for Palestinian rights.
Turning the story on its head
In 1997, two years after his father died, Peled’s thirteen-year-old niece, Smadar, was murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber on a Jerusalem street. The resulting shock led some family members, especially the girl’s father and Miko’s brother-in-law and close friend, to condemn Palestinian terror. But not Peled’s sister who lost her child.
“It was a big deal. Lots of reporters were there and the TV news [was there] because the granddaughter of General Peled was killed by Palestinians,” Peled remembers. “My sister was asked, ‘What do you feel about retaliation?’ and she said, ‘No real mother would like to see this happen to any other mother. Don’t talk to me about killing other people.’”
With that, a bereaving mother helped turn the story on its head.
“These two young men were brought to such despair and hopelessness that they were willing to take their own lives and kill innocent civilians and take my daughter,’ his sister said. “What brought them to this level of hopelessness was the brutal oppression and occupation that we placed upon them. I point the finger at the Israeli government for the death of my daughter.”
Peled laments the overwhelming support Israel gets from the United States.
“The Israeli lobby is very powerful. If you want to be a career politician, part of the price you have to pay is to vote ‘yes’ on anything that has to do with Israel and to declare day and night and every hour on the hour that you support and love Israel,” he says. “That’s true for the president and everybody on down. There are very few politicians that care enough about this issue who will say, ‘Wait, this is wrong.’
“If you want to hear about what is really going on [in the Middle East] you have to go to the foreign media because the American media doesn’t touch the real story,” he adds. “But I think the American people have to know where their money is going and they have to decide if they want to give that much money to a country that is not a democracy, a country that holds thousands of political prisoners in violation of international law, a country that systematically kills innocent people, systematically destroys their homes, and is engaged to this very day in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Famous American author Alice Walker wrote a very powerful foreword for his book, “The General’s Son.” It was Walker who recently refused to allow an Israeli book publisher to issue a Hebrew language translation of her Pulitzer Prize novel, “The Color Purple.” In doing so, she compared Israeli treatment of Palestinians under occupation with South African apartheid. In her statement withholding permission to publish her novel, she said, “I grew up under American apartheid and this [treatment of Palestinians] was far worse.”
For Peled, the solution might seem obvious but the problem remains, how to change the existing paradigm — from fear and loathing to co-existence. At the heart of Peled’s solution lies the realization that Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in peace as equals in their shared homeland. Peled insists that it is inevitable that the wall must come down and the two people must be allowed to live as equal citizens in their shared homeland.
“It’s inevitable. And it’s the preferred solution,” Peled says. “If we treat Israel like we treated South Africa like we did back in the time, then equal rights, human rights, and civil rights become an issue ... then we certainly have a way forward. I’m not suggesting it’s easy. But it’s a doable.”
Refusing to do anything will mean condemning future generations of Israelis and Palestinians to ongoing mayhem and violence.
“The only other option is to continue as it is now,” Peled says. “The U.N. just came out with a report that in 2020 there will be 2.3 million people in Gaza, so what’s the plan? Are they going to keep them locked up and under siege forever and they have to rely on tunnels to feed themselves and survive? How much longer can this go on? Israel has no plan for this nor the desire to solve this.
“There’s hope if we change the paradigm,” he adds. “It can be done.”