Israeli Australian

I protest for my people, not against them

i Nov 19th 2014

This interview with Sivan Barak appeared in Federation Story, Federation’s Square’s public archive of Australian stories: 
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Sivan Barak is an Australian-Israeli Jew turned pro-Palestinian human rights activist.

“You won’t find two Jews that agree on absolutely everything.”

“Although we are a close-knit community, there is such a diversity of opinions. It’s like a big family,” says Sivan Barak, seated in a café in what she refers to as “the ghetto”, the inner Melbourne suburb of Caulfield East.

Everything about her is loud and full of contrasts. Her hair: bright red. Her glasses: bright red. Her lipstick: bright red and her cardigan: hot pink.

“I suppose people refer to me as an annoying mosquito or an agitator within the community.”

She doesn’t seem fazed. In fact, the ability to speak her mind is one of her prized qualities. She is also not alone belonging to a small- but equally loud- Jewish community group.

The Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS), of which Sivan sits as Executive Board member, has the banner of ‘A progressive voice among Jews and a Jewish voice among progressives.’

Since the 1980s they have advocated for social justice, indigenous and refugees rights and- most notably- Palestinian human rights.

“We are for any political solution that protects the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

In the 1980s, this was a rather radical position, but as Philip Mendes, co-author of Why Boycotting Israel is Wrong: The Progressive Path towards Peace, says attitudes within the community are changing.

“Today, more than 50 percent of the Melbourne’s Jewish community supports a two-state solution,” Dr Mendes says.

Still- within the mainstream Jewish community- Sivan’s group is viewed with suspicion to say the least.

Last year, the group set up a campaign calling on Australia’s Jewish community to boycott “settlement” products- products made within what the United Nations has deemed the illegal Jewish settlements in Occupied Palestinian territories.

The peak Victorian representative body, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) subsequently received requests to exclude AJDS from its membership.

JCCV President Nina Bassat says that although the group has, at times, caused outrage, they are still one of their own.

Rejecting calls to exclude AJDS from the peak body she said: “I may not agree with you but I will defend your right to speak.”

Sivan said one of the objectivities of the ‘don’t buy settlement products’ campaign was to pry open debate and tease out the nuances around Israel’s occupation.

“When it comes to Israel there are blind spots and the fall-back position is ultraconservative.”

Having grown up in a socialist kibbutz (commune) in Israel, Sivan loves Israel.

“You can support Israel but not the occupation,” Sivan says.

When Sivan was 18 she left Australia, the home of her adolescence, to take up voluntary military service in the Israeli army.

“At the time, I believed in the narrative that it was all in self-defence against hostile and hateful neighbouring countries.”

Whilst Sivan was willing to defend, she refused to contribute to building the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories.

Sivan says it was during a day of target practice when she was asked to shoot at a target that things began to become “unstuck” and the “self-defence” narrative started to unravel.

“It was so easy not to think, not to engage in the issues, especially when you are encouraged and rewarded not to do so.”

“There are times when reality becomes stronger than ideology and what we view as the necessities or conveniences of life gradually erode our principles.”

This could have been the case for Sivan and her newly-wed husband when they were looking to purchase their first home.

The options: an old dingy apartment on the fourth floor in a cheap neighbourhood. No aircon, no lift.

The second: a funky old apartment with Arabic fittings, high ceilings and wooden floorboards in the old Palestinian city of Jaffa.

The third: not an apartment, but a house, with guaranteed low-interest rates, a backyard and carport. The catch- the house is located in Jewish settlements of the occupied territories.

“I had an inkling that something was not right about occupying an old ‘Arab’ apartment. And buying in the settlements was definitely a no-go.”

Sivan and her husband bought the dingy apartment in what she refers to as “the bubble”, the colourful and cultural hub of Tel Aviv.

Comparing Tel Aviv to the land of Oz, Sivan says after the compulsory military service- 3 years for males, 2 years for females- young Israelis migrate to the fun, fast-paced, beach city.

“The bubble is made up of people that don’t want to know anything about anything. All they want to do is float in a nirvana state.”

It was a love for her own people that first turned Sivan towards activism against the occupation.

“Mental illness and drug abuse are rife in Israel. Aside from the harm we are doing to Palestinians, we are destroying our children’s souls by placing them in the role of being occupiers,” Sivan says.

A few weeks ago Sivan’s parents attended an Israeli solidarity march at Melbourne’s State Library. Sivan attended as well- but she was part of the counter rally against Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.

Afterwards, brother and sister from the two opposing rallies embrace: “Coffee?”

“I guess that’s just community for you,” Sivan says,  “yeah we disagree and bicker but we still belong to the same tribe.”

Standing on the streets of Melbourne, dressed in black, with red doc martins, Sivan holds a sign: “This Israeli says, NOT IN MY NAME.”

“Loving Israel, for me, means seeing the beauty of the culture, land and people as well as feeling confident in pointing to the ugliness as well,” Sivan says.