Just Vision Skip to main content

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.

Browse Interviews

Leah Shakdiel

Leah Shakdiel was raised in a religious Zionist home in Israel. After a brief interest in what was later the settler movement Gush Emunim, Leah moved to the southern town of Yerucham with a group of young religious idealists and continues to live there with her family. She is active in many different contexts referring to the conflict: Oz V'Shalom/Netivot Shalom – the religious peace movement, MachsomWatch, Darom4Peace (South for Peace) and Mirkam Ezory (literally, regional texture) - a local organization in Yerucham working to promote the rights of the unrecognized Bedouin village of Rahme.

  • Please tell me about your background and how you got involved in doing this kind of work.

    I was born in 1951 in Israel; I'm a sabra [Israeli born]. My parents were religious, Zionist religious, pioneers who came from Poland in 1934 before World War II. My father changed his name from Mandelbaum to Shakdiel, a Hebrew name. It was a very ideologically Zionist family and they were very proud to be the first generation to work towards getting the Jewish people a state of their own. That was the big story of their life: leaving the exile, coming back, learning Hebrew, and building the land. That was the idea: building the state for the Jews. At a certain point when I grew up, I think my internalized super-ego demanded that I too had to do something with my life. So when I looked around after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 when the Labor Party was collapsing and the government was imploding, it was people from my generation and my religious Zionist upbringing that set up Gush Emunim, the Bloc of the Faithful, and the whole movement to settle the Territories. After a short while I felt that this was not the right direction for two reasons. One, it was as if they had totally put aside all the Zionist ideals, taking in the exiles, working on education and social gaps and the like. They said at the time that the Land of Israel was a burning issue and that the people of Israel and their problems were going to have to wait.

  • Were you part of that movement originally?

    I don't think I was really part of the movement, but I did participate in the first [settler] march to Sebastia. It was sort of a popular march and I was very impressed with the idealism. It was certainly better than the middle class idea that you have to get married and have a nice home. I was very impressed, but it bothered me that they were sort of putting aside all the other ideals, and it also bothered me that they were talking about God and the Land as if there were no other people there, as if the Arab issue, the Palestinian issue, did not exist. Those people did not exist; rather, they existed but they didn't matter. The landscape was biblical, the land was ours, and everything was very romantic. That bothered me. In Jerusalem in the mid-70s I started going to meetings of religious intellectuals who were talking about peace. Later I realized that it was the very beginning of the coagulation of that group, which was called Oz V'Shalom, the Religious Peace Movement. The whole idea was to teach the Jewish people that there is more than one way of interpreting the Holy text and that it is wrong to say that we are commanded to just inherit the land, and that's it. I went to the meetings. It was very stimulating, literature was disseminated, important people were speaking, and there were petitions and demonstrations and things like that but I also wanted to do something with my life, not just talk. You see, when you're brought up in a Zionist community, there is a term called hagshama [fulfillment]: the realization of your ideals, the application of your ideals, you have to do something on the ground. So I thought that the thing to do was to develop a different line in Zionist practice, praxis, which was going to development towns, because of the social gaps. I didn't want to go alone; through the religious peace movement I found a very small group of people who were interested in settling in the Negev, inside the Green Line. We ended up going to a development town of Yerucham. The decision to go and live there was the most important statement I ever made with my life. Everything else developed from there. My involvement in politics, in social action, in social justice issues, in peace, human rights, in feminism, everything developed from that.

  • When did you first get involved in joint work?

    It's interesting. In the 1970s, the peace movement was just beginning. Peace Now was established in '78 — that's three years after the religious peace movement. I think that all of us were very involved in the Jewish-Israeli drama. In other words, we were arguing our heads off with fellow Jewish citizens of the State of Israel. Not that there were not Arabs in the peace movement, but they were sort of on the margins - other than the Communist Party, but that was not considered mainstream Zionism. So I think that the Arabs who came first into my life in Yerucham were Bedouins. In '83 or '84, I got involved with the Bedouin issue, when I was elected to be on the town council. I was the first councilwoman in Yerucham's history and my fellow members of the council came across a problem with the town's sewage system. It was systematically damaged by rocks that were thrown into it by neighboring Bedouins because they wanted to cause certain areas to flood so grass would grow and graze their flocks. It was obviously an issue of water because no water was allocated to them. Somebody on the council said, "Okay let's call the Green Patrol", men with combat experience - a sort of semi-fascist, half-secret group working for the Ministry of Agriculture. When I heard that the solution to the problem was to bring in the Green Patrol to take care of the Bedouins, I threw a fit and I said, "If they have a water problem, it's our business." I convinced the mayor that it was our business to try to help them get water. We found out that they were not able to get water was because the State declared them as squatters because it wanted their land and wanted them to move into townships. They conducted endless legal fights, lawyers got rich, nothing happened, and the bottom line is that they are stuck. The state uses that as an excuse because the state says, "If you want to consume water, you need to pay for it. Since you are not residents of any specific settlement, you can't really be recognized as owners of a water meter, which measures how much water you have to pay for, etc." Our mayor thought it was very stupid. We took a Bedouin man who was working for the municipality at the time, and we told him, "Hassan, it's going to be in your name, and that's it." We arranged for there to be an opening in the water pipe between Yerucham and Dimona for them and Hassan paid for it. And as far as we know either he was selling it to the others or collecting the money or whatever. We ended up doing the same thing on the other side of Yerucham. Of course all hell broke loose. So that's how I contacted the Association for Civil Rights in Israel concerning the rights of the Bedouins and how I got into the issue of the other Palestinian citizens of Israel, also Arabs from northern Israel. My contact with Palestinians living on the other side of the Green Line started in '86. That spring I was invited to a conference involving third-party dialogues. At the time it was illegal for Israelis to meet with PLO representatives. So that was the first time I participated in such a dialogue abroad, under the cover of an academic institution. Everything that preceded Oslo was secretive, illegal, track-two meetings. I was sort of in the backseat of that process. There were other groups too, women's groups especially, and so this is how the contacts with Palestinians started. From there it sort of gained momentum over the years.

  • What made you want to participate in those meetings?

    I think it was the same thing that made me go to Yerucham. Of course you need theories and you need the big politics, but it also has to be hands on, on the ground things need to happen between people, educators, whoever . I just need to be there, on the ground. It's got to be done. I come from a family where part of the story is the oral history of persecution of the Jews, the oral history of the great Torah life of my family that was completely destroyed on both sides in the Holocaust. But my parents were part of a trailblazing generation. They broke new ground, they said, "Okay, we have this historia lacrimosa, but that's not all there is in life for us." It's not as if we forget anything, we don't. But while keeping account of our past, we also want to do the optimistic work of building a living, palpable future in the land. You see, Zionism was a big bet! It's not as if anything was secured in advance, it was a very important bet to make that there's going to be a future - if we cast all our weight in one direction, it's going to happen. Taking a step back and taking off our weight from that, for me it's complete and total lunacy. What I find horrendous is that [the settlers] sit there in Gush Katif and repeat those same lines as if it was 1937 now, or even 1957. Come on, people - wake up! You're a generation late, or even two generations late. You can't repeat the same rhetoric. The situation the Jewish people was in then is not where the people are now. That was a different story, and the moral imbalance has changed.

  • What's different about the situation?

    We have a state. For me that's a major thing. It is undeniable, we have a state; it's a successful state. We all complain about it, it has many problems, it has a lot of unresolved issues, fine. But this is it, we have it. It's a fact. I don't know if this follows immediately from your question, but I don't seek any symmetry here. It is very obvious to me that the Palestinians are a very new political and national entity in the world that doesn't begin to compare to where I come from as a Jew.

  • What do you mean you don't seek symmetry?

    On the one hand, there is my people, the Jews, who are very ancient, have a very distinct identity, very different from every other people in the world, with its religion, with its language, with its ancient culture, with its rich literature, with its traditions, with its history. We can take pride in a lot of moral and ethical achievements, and this is our land. On the other hand, you have an entity that has been created on the same land recently as a result of recent events in the history of this region - the European powers meddling with it and dividing it up. How that happened is a fascinating story. It's a very recent story.

  • Please describe to me the different activities that you are involved in now that are devoted to resolving the conflict.

    MachsomWatch for one. The group of us who do this work in the south of the country are different. I guess it's a combination of two things. One is that off the bat, many of the women in the south are more Zionist in their orientation - I guess maybe that's why they live here in the first place - as compared to those MachsomWatch women in the center of the country. And there is conflict in that vein. The other issue is that the reality of the checkpoints in the south of the country is not as horrible as it is at, let's say Kalandia or Hawara near Nablus. Now, I guess this has to do with the fact that ever since the outbreak of the second intifada we can't do any checkpoint work in the Gaza Strip the army doesn't allow us. I guess if we were there, it would be horrible to see how the people are not allowed to come out and get to jobs. What we see in the southern Hebron area is also not as terrible, it is terrible enough though. Because we are Zionists here in the south, we do support the argument that Israel has a security problem. Many of the [MachsomWatch] women in other parts of the country really think that there should be no checkpoints, and their attitude toward the soldiers is such: no matter how humanely they try to do their job, the very fact that they're there is a crime in and of itself. We don't have that attitude. We keep giving the soldiers positive reinforcement about the dangerous position they are in, that they really need to screen what is going on here in terms of security threats. By and large, I must tell you that many times we end up complimenting the soldiers. They are very young, and many of them really try to minimize the friction.

  • What's your goal in being present at the checkpoints?

    To make sure that there is a watching eye. I think that it is very important that the military in any democracy be supervised by civil society. It's the role of politicians up above, but the daily occurrences, the praxis, cannot be done by politicians, it's a matter for civilians, for regular people just volunteering their time. We don't do it enough. Often we meet Palestinians who tell us, "An hour ago, this and that happened", "Where were you yesterday?" We try to tell them that we are volunteers and we simply cannot cover twenty-four hours a day at every single checkpoint. We do what we can do. Many of us are women who have already retired from their jobs, but many of us, like myself, work— I take time off whenever I can. I think it is also tremendously important for the soldiers to see that there is a civil society that they're doing this for and that civil society knows and cares. It's important for people to come and see what it's like. It's also very important for Palestinians to see that there are Israeli Jews who care.

  • I am wondering how you feel about the security issue and the checkpoints?

    Look, it's not airtight anyway. It is obvious. Terrorists are not stupid. Since the whole system is so loose, it is possible for terrorists to go through anyway. I am always surprised that those checkpoints manage every once in a while to catch somebody, because why would anybody go through a checkpoint when it's possible to go around? I guess it is effective to a certain degree. I have a son in the army, and I think that once we have a Palestinian state the Palestinians will also have an army. The suspicion will be there, security issues will be there, and I don't delude myself. I don't think we're going to get rid of the security issue so fast, and I don't think that the army is going to be dispensable so fast. I really don't think so.

  • Please tell me about the Arik Institute.

    Yitzhak Frankenthal, Arik's father, is a real bulldozer. I met him years ago, immediately after his son was killed by Hamas. He decided to dedicate money and time to the peace effort and he became the secretary of the religious peace movement. That's how I met him the first time. We went together to a couple of conferences - one in Aqaba, Jordan and one in Denmark - with Palestinian educators and educators from other Arab countries. I was always really impressed with his work. I think that he is a brave man and is willing to put into effect very unusual ideas and take risks in terms of pushing things forward. He had a seminar for people on both sides and he asked me to develop a concept for peace education for that seminar, which I did. Wherever I go, I find that the most important thing is that we do this as religious Jews. The impact is very important, because it's so different from the image Palestinians have of religious Jews. Religious Judaism doesn't have such a great record these days in terms of the relationships between the two communities, so it's very important that we meddle with that. The same goes for the project that I started working for, Ma'agalei Da'at (Knowledge Circles) at Ben Gurion University. There happens to be money, which means that they can pay me, so it means that for the next two years I can commit myself to something steady, maybe one day a week, because I'm getting paid. I happen to believe that the work we're going to do is unique, working with teachers in religious Zionist high schools and yeshivas, both for boys and for girls. It's a sector of Israeli society which is very difficult to introduce anything into that has to do with peace. The idea is that they should realize that they don't know enough about Palestinians and who they are and dispense information and get them to understand what goes on. We're not going to attack them directly by telling them to change their politics. It's going to be a difficult experience for me because I know from experience what the starting point is when you work with people who are right-wing.

  • What are you doing in that project?

    Depending on money, for the first year there will a meeting every week or every other week with teachers. The meetings will be study sessions and workshops that concentrate on two issues: learning about Arabs, Palestinians and Islam, and getting familiar with the spectrum that exists within Judaism about how to treat the other, so that they do not remain locked in their fanaticism, in their extremist world view that the other is the enemy, point blank, but that there are other possibilities. Just to give an example, yesterday in the synagogue, one of the like-minded members of our synagogue showed me a passage in a book he is reading. It is an academic work about the writings of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the son of the famous Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the first chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine who was the major spiritual leader of Gush Emunim. So the old, mainstream halachic line in Judaism is that Islam is not idolatry. That's the mainstream. There are minority views, but the mainstream is that Islam, unlike Christianity, is not idolatry. That has very interesting ramifications. Once you realize that the Muslims are not idolaters, it means that if they happen to own land in the Holy Land of Israel, well, and they happen to own land, you don't have any religious grounds to uproot them, because they are not idolaters. They are what halacha calls ger toshav, people who live on the land whom you are supposed to take care of and protect. Very interestingly, on that particular issue, the old Rav Kook was pretty much mainstream. He argued that Muslims are not idolaters. What does the son do? In order to argue that you should actually uproot them, he says that the Arabs have recently changed and they are now idolatrous. Now that is so ridiculous. The point is that there are too many people nowadays who are considered respectable rabbis by their flock, and this is what they preach, this is what they teach, this is where they go, this is what they believe! You tell them there are a million and a quarter, or a million and a third Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the most crowded place in the world, people there live in the most inhuman conditions, and the only answer is, "What are they doing there in the first place?" When you dig a little bit in there you say, "Where did your revered Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook get it? How did he exactly rework what his own father taught? And how come you didn't notice that what his father said was the exact opposite and would have different implications from where you are at now?" So in order to untie that knot, first of all, you have to know the religion. You have to be an expert in the Jewish sources, you have to bring in the experts and you have to map out a didactic strategy for how to open the minds of those people to be receptive to the idea that maybe they didn't know it so far. But actually the old Rabbi Kook, who is considered holier than his son, actually agreed with earlier sources that the Muslims are not idolaters! How about that, black and white?! Can you just open up and know that fact? That, in and of itself, is dramatic.

  • I know you are just trying to use this as an example, but is the basis for expanding settlements and claiming land only justified using this idea that it should not belong to idolaters?

    Let's put it this way, it's a classical example of cognitive dissonance. When the Jews did not have any state whatsoever, the idea was "this is our land", like the film Exodus. A couple of generations down the line, that's not the issue any more. So we have a hold on a certain part of our historical homeland but the problem is that every single inch of that land is physically important. It's not enough to have a part of it and say "this is where we have our sovereignty." If you know that there is this extra piece of it, which is much smaller than the part that you have (one fact that most Israelis don't know is that pre-1967 territories are 22% of Mandatory Palestine, while Israel has 78%) then you need to have it because every single inch needs to be in our hands. Now you have an argument, an extra-religious argument that says that this is a problem. Before, the argument was that we didn't have sovereignty. Now we have sovereignty so the argument is that this extra inch is a problem. The big slogan [following the disengagement from Gaza is "A Jew Does Not Expel Another Jew." Now, no matter how often you repeat that, you cannot call this expelling. When the State of Israel says that the border isn't going to be there, it's going to be here, and therefore you have to come home, that's not expelling. They think that that is called expelling, and they say to the Left, "You're the ones who are so opposed to the idea of transfer! If we try to transfer one single Palestinian family, you scream your heads off, how about the transfer of settlers?" which is of course classical right wing fascist demagoguery. You take an argument and you turn it on its head. Of course they know that we have a sovereign state, but in order to say that "Taking me from here to here means transfer," they need to make the religious argument, because they can no longer use the argument of sovereignty.

  • As part of the religious community in Israel, have you faced opposition to what you're doing?

    Of course. There are two things here that jar. If you are religious you are supposed to be right-wing. If you are left-wing, you're supposed to be secular. Now, it's not just the fault of the religious that have moved so dramatically to the right, I think it's also the fault of the secular Israelis who have gotten it into their heads that they can do away with their Jewish identity, with their Jewish culture. This is ridiculous. I annoy my secular Israeli friends by telling them from every podium that if they do not see themselves as Jews that means that they are imperialists, colonialists, who have no business being here. They should leave the land to its native people. The indigenous people are Palestinians. The reason you are here is because you are a Jew! Your parents came, or your grandparents came, or you yourself came when you were younger. Don't you remember it? You came because you were a Jew, not for any other reason. So it drives me nuts, this difficulty to see that to be a Jew has religious baggage that goes with it, a history, an ethnicity and a religion. You can be a secular Jew, you can be whatever you want, it doesn't matter, but you cannot do away with the fact that you are a Jew.

  • You say that people from outside have no business here—are colonialists, imperialists—unless they are Jews. How does being Jewish justify a presence that you would otherwise deem colonial and imperial?

    There are Palestinians and they share with you what you claim that you are fighting for, which is equality before the law, equal rights, human rights, civil rights, as citizens of the State of Israel. They are doing it as Palestinians who are on this side of the Green Line, and you are doing it as what exactly? It drives me nuts. So the fact that the religious cling so much to right wing politics also has to do with the fact that the Leftists don't do very much about being Jewish, so we have a dichotomy where people feel pushed against the wall. Who are you? Are you a peacenik or a Jew? So this dichotomy, as if being a peace seeker and being a good Jew are mutually exclusive, is a horrible thing. I think that both sides sort of participate in the maintenance of that stupidity, which goes nowhere, because unless we can recruit self-identified Jews in this country to the peace camp, we'll get nowhere. The secularists are a real minority, and in order for the peace camp to grow, it must make inroads into what I call the self-identified Jews. The fact that they are religious or traditionalist is because there are not enough self-identified Jews who are not religious. I feel that this is what I do.

  • How do you navigate the dichotomy yourself?

    I go crazy. I reject it completely. I say that this is not possible. I say that it is possible to find religious sources and religious role models and historic precedents for religion to be an extremely important tool for making inroads for peace, for coexistence, for human rights, for social justice. People must feel empowered, that it's not a zero sum game. We need to provide the energy that feeds that so that people feel that it's empowering, that it's a well, or a fountain that opens up inside themselves, or inside their communities. I find the sources in my own tradition and in my own culture and I feel like I am growing while I am doing it. I don't feel I am becoming smaller; it's the other way around. I feel more courageous, I feel happier. I feel more optimistic. I feel I have more now. There's more to life, and it's important to do that, and you have to nurture it culturally, and I think that's what I try to do.

  • How do you do that?

    I teach. In my teaching I like to weave together history, text, reinterpretation, visual imagery. I like to make it rich. I like to look for parallels in Arabic culture or in Palestinian history which open up new ways for me to think about my own parents, and to tell about my own people—to share my own story. I want to share it in such a way that it resonates with people's life experiences. I clip newspapers, I tape films from video, I use songs, texts, children's books. I think that it's important to keep finding new links. It's like an infinite hypertext that you sort of swim through, and you have to make those connections. That's what I think it is.

  • What's the most important thing for you to achieve in the context of your work?

    I'm 53 years old. I want to see the two-state solution before I die. My parents established the Jewish state. In 1947 Palestinians didn't understand that after the Holocaust they didn't stand a chance. There was going to be a Jewish state one way or another, because Europe and America didn't want to have any more Jews in such large quantities and everybody understood that those Jews needed to be dumped in Palestine. So it was going to happen anyway, and the Palestinians didn't understand it at the time, and it took more blood. If I get to see a Palestinian state in my lifetime, it's going to be a big thing, because it means an internal reorientation of the State of Israel, a complete reorientation, which was bound to happen. You take in the exiles, you do all those interesting experiments in populating the desert, you build an army, and then you have to reorient the whole thing by arranging it so that there is another state on the same piece of land. It's a tremendous thing.

  • In July 2009 Leah sent Just Vision an update on her current work. Here is what she wrote:

    I'm still with MachsomWatch and it is more and more apparent that the problem is the settlers, who continue to dictate policy to both the government and the security forces, and consequently behave violently towards Palestinians as well as peace activists like us. During Operation Cast Lead, I was arrested along with five others demonstrating with Darom4Peace (South for Peace, a Jewish-Arab Negev group for coexistence) against the killing on both sides, an activity that according to the law doesn't require a permit from the police. The police also demonstrated their patriotism by arresting us illegally. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel represented us against the Attorney General and asked them to drop all the charges. Meanwhile, the prosecution gave up the charges against us and closed the cases due to lack of interest to the public but continued with the charges against one of the students (who was arrested twice during Cast Lead, both illegally arrests) because in his case apparently there is public interest. I have since been active on issues of freedom of speech concerning monitoring and critiquing military and security activities and policies.