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Interview Archives

Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Hillel Schenker

Hillel Schenker is the co-editor of the English language journal, the Palestine-Israel Journal. Each of the journal's four yearly editions explores a central theme in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through articles by Palestinian and Israeli writers. Hillel was a co-founder of the Peace Now Movement, and previously served as an editor of New Outlook Magazine.

  • Please tell us about your personal background and what led you to get involved in this work.

    I was born on an urban kibbutz in Brooklyn, where everyone spoke Hebrew, and dreamed of establishing or joining a kibbutz in Palestine. I had a typical New York Jewish childhood of the ‘50s, going to school, playing on the streets and taking piano and guitar lessons. I joined a Zionist youth movement at the age of ten, and I longed to realize the kibbutz dream for myself. I came here to live on a kibbutz in 1963 because I believed that was a model for humanity, not only for Israel, a collective, egalitarian, democratic way to organize how human beings live together. I also considered myself a Zionist, and believed in the Jewish right to national self-determination like any other nation. [On kibbutz] I was a shepherd and a part-time music teacher. There was no television in Israel (it only arrived in 1968) and the outer world, the conflict, seemed rather dormant. I always believed in peace. Even back in the States I was supporting the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. Then along came the Six Day War, the 1967 war. Kibbutz Barkai, where I lived, was three and a half kilometers from the West Bank border. My friends and I, who had come together to the kibbutz, were assigned the responsibility of defending the kibbutz in case it was attacked. We were very young, and we had one day of training. On the eve of the war, I felt very vulnerable and threatened. Radio Ramallah was a very popular radio station at the time because it was the best source of rock and roll. On the eve of the war, Radio Ramallah and Radio Cairo broadcast programs where people were saying, "We are coming to get you." I totally identified with the sense of vulnerability, of being threatened, and having to defend ourselves. Then the war broke out and after six days it was over. Everyone felt a tremendous sense of relief. Within six days everything had been transformed. I didn't realize at that point to what degree everything was transformed. There was a sense of euphoria, and very few people were concerned with the implications of what had happened. There were a handful of people, like the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who said we had to immediately give back all of the territories. Some said we should use the territory as a negotiating card - territories in exchange for peace. Most people—and I was also part of this—just felt relief that we could go about our lives without feeling threatened. We were also very curious to visit these new territories. We went in groups, we had this big truck at the kibbutz and we got into the truck and toured the West Bank. We had a five-day tour of the Sinai going down to the Suez Canal and we had a tour of the Golan Heights. It was a discovery, a curiosity about the neighbors. I remember the astonishment I felt that Bethlehem was just ten minutes away from Jerusalem. I thought it was another world...yet it's so close. It was basically curiosity. There was one person on our kibbutz who refused in principle to even cross the [Green] Line. The rest of us weren't saying this land is ours, but we were curious. I do remember a little child in the West Bank, taking a stick and pointing it at us. That image stuck with me. In 1973, the Yom Kippur War, the October War, I was in the IDF. I was called up with most of the younger generation, and it was total chaos, nobody knew what was happening. I spent the next eight months in combat duty on the Syrian front. I always felt what I was doing in the army was defensive and not offensive. I served in the IDF reserves for twenty years, always carrying a rifle. I never fired it, because I never had a reason to, but I always carried it. I came off eight months of being on the front lines with a very different perspective. Suddenly I had a very deep, profound, experience with the conflict. My conclusion was that that status quo was totally untenable; we could not occupy the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and Sinai indefinitely. We had to work towards a solution, and here was an opportunity to do so. It was unfortunate that it took a war to put things in motion, but we now know in retrospect that this was Sadat's strategy, a partial military action to put things in motion. I had completed two years of studies in literature at Tel Aviv University, and I began going to demonstrations, and did somehow manage to complete my studies. I eventually left the kibbutz and moved to the city. I had just accepted a job setting up the Modern Literature program at the newly established Open University, when in November 1977 I attended the 20th anniversary celebration of New Outlook Magazine, which was founded in 1957 as a joint Jewish-Arab initiative in Israel, an English language monthly based in Tel Aviv, which included analysis of the conflict and the reality in Israel and the region. It was also intended as a catalyst for dialogue and initiatives for peace. I was given an opportunity to become involved, to be plugged in to the making and changing of history, and for the next thirteen years I worked in all sorts of capacities at New Outlook.

  • Please tell me about the Palestine-Israel Journal.

    The Palestine-Israel Journal was founded in 1994 around the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords, as a forum in which Israelis and Palestinians could communicate about the major issues on the joint agenda. It was a forum in which academics, journalists, intellectuals and activists could express their opinions, learn about each other and dialogue. From the very beginning, it was defined as a totally joint venture; everything is done on an egalitarian basis. All positions are filled equally by Israelis and Palestinians, and that's why we have co-editors and co-managing editors. The staff and editorial board are all equally Israelis and Palestinians. We began in a period of optimism, 1994, with the signing the Declaration of Principles, Arafat, Rabin and Peres winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the establishment of the PA. Everybody felt things were looking up and that we were looking at the inevitable positive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We thought we had to really deal with the details of how we were going to get there.We put out four copies a year, each of which is 128 pages, almost like a little book. Half of each issue is devoted to a central theme, which is seriously explored by Israelis and Palestinians. Obviously, things did not turn out the way everyone hoped in the mid ‘90s. We all know the meeting at Camp David during the summer of 2000 collapsed without an agreement and then soon we had a series of events with Sharon going up to the Temple Mount, the second intifada beginning, the Labor party-led government being defeated and a mutual escalation of violence. There was a tremendous sense of loss of confidence between the two sides. Despite all the difficulties, we continued to function. Even through the darkest days of the mutual violence we continued to publish joint issues, even when it was difficult to meet physically. It was very hard to convene editorial board meetings because many of the Palestinians were unable to come to East Jerusalem. Ziad Abu-Zayyad, the founder and co-editor who had a VIP status certificate, had it taken away from him. For at least four years he was unable to come to the office. We had to go to Azariya in the West Bank to meet with him. At first it was very simple, it was 15 minutes from Damascus Gate to Azariya, no problem. Then they started building a little wall, which we went to and climbed over, and then the wall got bigger, and we couldn't go directly, we had to go around.

  • Who founded the Journal?

    It was primarily Israeli and Palestinian academics and journalists. Ziad Abu-Zayyad, the co-founding editor was a veteran Palestinian journalist, and also a lawyer. For many years he had known a veteran Israeli Journalist, Victor Cygielman, who had been the Israeli correspondent for Nouvel Observateur and many other European papers and had also been writing in the Israeli press. Since both had been committed to dialogue and understanding and initiatives for peace, it was natural to come together to found the journal with a group of Israelis and Palestinians who were involved. Many of the Israelis had been members or associated with New Outlook Magazine, whose goal was in many ways similar to the goals of the Palestine-Israel Journal. When Cygielman was no longer able to continue for health reasons, he was replaced by noted Tel Aviv University political psychologist Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal as Israeli co-editor. I have served as the co-managing editor since 2002, and as the Israeli co-editor since 2005. Ziad Abu-Zayyad said in the wake of what happened in 1967 he decided he had to learn the language of the enemy, neighbor and future potential partner. So he went to learn Hebrew in West Jerusalem. He was one of the first Palestinians to become fluent in Hebrew, with the goal of entering dialogue with Israelis. There was a period when he published Gesher, meaning bridge, which was a Palestinian publication, which attempted to communicate directly with the Israelis in Hebrew. He clearly comes from an orientation where it was key from the Palestinian standpoint to communicate with Israelis to be able to move the process forward, to be able to resolve the conflict in a non-violent way. I want to add one other thing that is symbolic and meaningful about the name of our publication. At the beginning, the Palestinians said, since you, the Israelis, already have a state and we don't yet, and we all agree we want two states, we would like it to be called the Palestine-Israel Journal, with Palestine coming first rather than Israel coming first. That was a symbolic gesture. The Israelis all agreed, and that's how it got to be called the Palestine-Israel Journal.

  • What does your work accomplish in the context of the conflict?

    I'll start with the symbolism, the tremendous resonance when people hear that even in the darkest times we are still meeting and dealing with these issues, and there are Israelis and Palestinians ready to work together. It projects the fact that there is still hope and possibility. The average person is busy going about his daily life. Not everybody is in a position to devote time and energy to what I consider to be the primary challenge of our generation: achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians. So I consider it cutting edge, at the vanguard of what has to be done. The content of what we produce is a great contribution. Let's take the latest issue, People to People: What Went Wrong and How to Fix It. People-to-people was an official part of the Oslo Accords at the governmental level, but the phrase also refers to all the activity going on between Israeli and Palestinian NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and movements. While we can't consider people-to-people a great success given the current reality, we're all convinced this is a very important component. The question is, what can we learn from what we did? We are looking at the weaknesses, the problems, asking what should the future of people-to-people activity look like? What should be emphasized? We believe this can be a tremendous resource for policymakers, donors, and activists. I think one of our greatest successes was a special issue we produced with the support of the World Health Organization on the state of treatment, infrastructure and the general psychological health of the two societies. We called that issue Two Traumatized Societies. At first we worried it was a little esoteric and might sound too professional for the average reader. That issue had a tremendous impact on the professionals in the field, but it was also an extremely enlightening issue for the average person. That issue was a trial balloon and the WHO decided it was constructive enough that they founded a joint Israeli-Palestinian publication called Bridges, which deals exclusively with health issues. It was because of the success of the issue we had put together. Another dimension is that in preparation for every issue we have a live round table discussion that we record. These discussions produce a very dynamic back and forth about the issues. Frequently the Israelis and Palestinians who come to these events or work on these issues don't previously know each other, but a result of the dynamic set in motion by our bringing them together, is a working relationship that continues beyond the issue itself. I think that's another major contribution.

  • Where do the writers come from?

    The Palestinians bring the Palestinians and the Israelis bring the Israelis. This is a mutual right to self determination. We make recommendations, but each side is responsible, so it would have to be the non-Hamas Palestinians who would bring Hamas representatives. I'm not the person who can do that, that comes from the Palestinians. We Israelis try to bring every Israeli even from the Right who is willing to participate under the auspices of a joint Israeli-Palestinian publication, though the Palestinians have not wanted us to include settlers. We as Israelis were ready to have them as part of the dialogue because we have total confidence that we can argue with them convincingly. Palestinians on principle didn't want settlers to appear in the articles and we respected that. So there are no settlers.

  • Where is the journal distributed?

    We have about an equal number of Israeli, Palestinian and international subscribers; there are politicians and media people who get complementary copies because we feel it's important they receive it. This is a financial burden, but it's important to get it out to these people, and we say this to funders. When we have a particular theme, like the Two Traumatized Societies issue, the WHO took hundreds upon hundreds of issues to distribute to professionals here and abroad; B'Tselem distributed a thousand copies of our special issue on human rights; in addition, there are bookstores, university libraries, and the web. Our website includes the cover and table of contents, 4-5 live links, but not the entire issue. If a visitor wants to read the rest, he has to subscribe. Two years ago we carried out a huge project, scanning all of our back issues from 1994 till we had electronic backup of issue on our computers, and created a comprehensive archive of over 1,000 articles that have appeared in the Journal. This created a tremendous, free resource for anyone concerned with studying the conflict and the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace. We realize the need to create an electronic digital version of new issues of the Journal, which is becoming the preferred option of much of the younger generation, and also university libraries, which are running out of space to absorb physical issues of print journals.

  • You gave the example of wanting to include settlers or Hamas members - does the Israeli-Palestinian team have any red lines or rules to be able to work together?

    Yes, there is a basic, common understanding of mutual respect. I think in principle we all support the right to self-determination, and a two state solution basically determined by the Green Line or 1967 borders. Nobody ever wrote this, but it's a common understanding that the Israelis and Palestinians involved all support variations of this. We all believe in dialogue and mutual understanding, that we need cooperation and a non-violent resolution. Neither side believes this conflict can, should or will be resolved by violence, by one side defeating the other. On almost every issue we find common ground. There are certain questions; I can fully understand how the Palestinians view the settlers, given the settlements have increased rather than stopped. Even if a Palestinian wants dialogue with settlers, he knows he will be highly criticized by the rest of his society. So the Palestinian staff members didn't want the participation of settlers, and the Israelis respected this and felt it wasn't a reason to stop the partnership.The issue of Holocaust denial also once came up. There was a Palestinian who said it wasn't an important issue in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship so it wasn't important to have an article about it. The Israelis said, no, this is a very important issue for Israeli society, and Holocaust denial is part of denial of the Jewish and Israeli experience. The Israelis said this was important, and the Palestinians in the end understood and agreed and it was published.

  • How do you meet, how often, where, when?

    We have a unique situation; we are one of the few organizations where Israelis and Palestinians come into the same office every day. Our offices are on 4 Al Hariri Street in East Jerusalem in the Wadi Joz neighborhood. This is a place where Israelis and Palestinians come together to work together on a very clear goal. We are a role model for cooperation, a little laboratory of coexistence and cooperation. It's one of the few places where Israelis and Palestinians come together on a regular basis and share in joys and sorrows and holidays. We really have a strong human relationship and we also have a working relationship. The difficulties obviously include the fact that frequently Palestinians who live in the West Bank have trouble coming to East Jerusalem. There was a moment during the heart of the second intifada, the Palestinian Minister of NGOs, Hassan Asfur, said he was so disappointed with the Israeli peace movement and gave a directive to stop joint activity between Israeli and Palestinian NGOs. Ziyad Abu-Zayyad's response was, we are not Israeli and Palestinian NGOs working together, but a joint organism, and we will continue to do our work despite that directive. We continued functioning throughout that period, fortunately we have technology - email, cell phones.

  • You mentioned some challenges you face, such as funding, can you tell us a little more about the challenges you face in your work?

    First of all, there's the basic physical challenge of having to commute from Tel Aviv to East Jerusalem. That is not simple. I don't have a car and travel by public transportation, and during the height of the intifada and suicide bombings many Israelis wouldn't take intercity buses from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and would definitely not take an inner Jerusalem bus. That's the physical aspect, the personal effort of having to go back and forth. Then there are all the obstacles involved in trying to produce the journal. Often we have to postpone meetings, or deadlines have to be changed. We could have a round table but then because a holiday is coming up the Israeli army will close off a whole area and nobody can get a permit to get in, and it's such a hassle to get through the checkpoints that we have to take into account the unexpected. The unexpected is always there and we have to be flexible, yet determined. Another challenge is that the major distribution for English language magazines in Israel is the Steimatzky bookstore chain, and they have not been ready to carry the Palestine-Israel Journal. The excuse they give is that it's not commercial enough, they won't make money. But because they have a virtual monopoly, they are almost obligated to carry everybody, and we know it isn't commercial, it's political. They don't like what we're doing. We struggle constantly to get the word out about our existence, and to raise funds. It's a constant struggle to raise the funds and get the support, while trying to increase the paid circulation base. As a not-for-profit organization, we are always dependent upon external funding. Those are our challenges.

  • How come you decided to publish these journals, New Outlook and the Palestine-Israel Journal, in English?

    First of all, there are budgetary limitations. We'd love to publish in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Given budgetary limitations, it is more realistic to publish in the neutral common language which is also understood by most of our target audience - policymakers, opinion-makers, activists, NGO activists, academics, students, community leaders. In today's world, particularly in small countries, people have to know the international language, and Esperanto hasn't made it. There's also another factor. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict gets played out on the international stage. There is no one in today's world who is totally independent and sovereign. The international community has a major role to play in helping to facilitate and solve the conflict and in helping to sustain the societies that are here. It is crucial that people in the international community gain an in-depth understanding of our reality, our problems, viewpoints, and proposals for solutions. We were fortunate to gain a Partnership for Peace grant from the EU [European Union] which enabled us to publish a Hebrew and Arabic language digest of the main articles that appeared in 8 issues of the Palestine-Israel Journal as a Hebrew-language supplement in Haaretz, and an Arabic-language supplement in Al-Quds. We hope that funders will be found in the future who will enable us to continue with this aspect of our work.

  • I want to talk to you about your vision. Can you tell me what this conflict is about in your opinion?

    Until now it's primarily been about two peoples or nations - the Palestinian people or nation and the Israeli-Jewish people or nation who both feel a right and attachment to the homeland of Israel/Palestine. My view is that the way to resolve this conflict between the two peoples who have this attachment for the land at this stage is to understand the principle of partition as the necessary key, a viable fair two-state solution. What I call Israel proper, meaning the State of Israel on the 1967 borders, the Green Line, a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as its capital, with joint relations. I believe the idea of total separation is total fantasy. It isn't workable in this world; neither Israel nor an independent Palestinian state can be self-sufficient. We will have to be working together, and I believe given the two traumatized societies and lack of trust in each other, we have to go through a stage of independent separate state building. But in the long run I do believe we will reach a more confederated relationship, maybe even a triple relationship with Jordan. What I'm afraid of, when you ask what it's all about, is that it will be transformed into a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims. That would be much harder to resolve, and would contain many more elements of irrationality. I feel a higher urgency to resolve the conflict while it is still a national conflict, before it is transformed into a religious conflict.

  • If you could imagine an ideal solution, what would it look like and what would it take to achieve it?

    Ideally, of course I would wish that the Israeli and Palestinian official negotiators backed by powerful Israeli and Palestinian grassroots civil society support would work out an agreement based on two states living alongside each other, understood that there is a Palestinian minority living inside Israel, which deserves equal rights, and I would hope there would be a right to a Jewish minority in the State of Palestine, except they would accept who is the sovereign. I feel that tolerance is what the two societies need. For example, I think Israel should have three official languages, Hebrew as the national language, Arabic as the regional language, and English, the international language. I think that would be ideal in Israel. I wouldn't expect a parallel situation in Palestine, although ideally I would like both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to be capable of that. Today, following the Gaza War, the results of the Israeli elections with its right-wing tilt, and the ongoing divided situation among the Palestinians between Hamas and Fateh, it's hard to see how the Israelis and Palestinians can generate positive movement towards a resolution of the conflict in 2009. Given this situation, it's an absolute necessity for the international community to play a major facilitating role. Both societies are so mutually traumatized, and the level of suspicion of the other is so great, that they can't do it on their own. Yet I am particularly proud of the fact that, in the middle of the recent fighting in Gaza, we convened a meeting of our editorial board, and about 20 Israelis and Palestinians came to the meeting, eager to meet and express their views, and to look beyond the fighting. We were perhaps the only place where this happened, and a summary of the minutes of the meeting were circulated far and wide, in Israel, Palestine and throughout global cyberspace, generating a tremendous amount of response.

  • What should the role of third party intervention be?

    Given the mutual sense of distrust and trauma, and the starting positions of the Israeli and Palestinian governments at this moment, the international community is an absolutely essential component. We can't ignore the fact that the most influential part of the international community is the US and the American government. It's extremely unfortunate that the Bush Administration was more concerned with preemptive warfare and regime change than with facilitating agreements.You cannot resolve something between two peoples unilaterally; it has to be agreed upon. That's why I welcome the election of President Barack Obama, and his decision to emphasize diplomatic rather than military solutions. The question is whether the new American administration will have the political will and courage to prod the Israelis and Palestinians forward. At the same time, it's extremely important that the EU, the individual European countries, and other factors, continue and even increase their support for Israeli and Palestinian civil society efforts, such as the Palestine-Israel Journal, to help lay the groundwork for peace.

  • Would you like to add anything?

    We are never at a loss for important topics to deal with. Despite all the setbacks, the challenge to seriously deal with all of the issues on the common Israeli-Palestinian agenda, "to shed light on, and analyze freely and critically the complex issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians...without prejudice and without taboos..." as it says on our masthead, continues. End.