Following is an edited transcript of an ad-libbed talk with Sivan Barak at Limmud Oz and the ensuing Q&A, June 26, 2016. The session was originally meant to include Bassam Dally, who was disinvited. Go to ajds.org.au/2016/06/limmudoz/ to read the AJDS statement about Dally’s disinvitation.
My name is Sivan Barak, I’m from Melbourne. I know some of you, not all of you. This session was going to be a conversation with a Palestinian person who lives in Australia, in Adelaide, his name is Bassam Dally. We’re not very good friends, but have come across each other a few times over the past few years. We emailed each other and thought about having a conversation, and I explained what Limmud Oz is. He’d not heard about it but thought it was a really interesting idea. He’s all about ideas.
So we submitted, and thought about what we’d discuss as two people who have a lot of agreement but also a lot of disagreement. We wanted to just sit and have the conversation with the people around us, because we don’t get a lot of opportunities to do that, certainly not here. A lot of it is one person in front of a screen, debating and wordsmithing the debates, and looking up facts and backing them up. To have a relaxed conversation with each other and be comfortable with our own views to be able to have this kind of conversation. He agreed to do this.
Our proposal was accepted. We sent in our bios, they were uploaded to the event website, then a few days later we received an email saying that unfortunately Bassam was disinvited because of his public political stance. And that it was against the submission policies of Limmud Oz. When you submit to present at Limmud Oz there is a hyperlink with terms and conditions – and I’m sure you all always click on those hyperlinks and read them thoroughly, as I do. Well We didn’t, just assuming that we are law abiding citizens and we don’t have to do that. Some of his public stances are unacceptable in this privately run organization and therefore he was disinvited. I was allowed to continue with my session, while he wasn’t, though in that same email he was offered to attend the conference at a concession rate. And he did plan to fly here from Adelaide and attend, having already arranged his academic schedule, but decided not to in the last minute.
He did say to me that I should go ahead, and gave me names of ‘appropriate’ Palestinians that could pass the terms and conditions and that I should contact them and ask them to participate. I didn’t feel very comfortable doing that, as an Israeli person, to pick my opponent, I didn’t think that was the right role for me.
Bassam and I will have this conversation when he next comes down to Melbourne, and we’ll forward it. So if anyone is interested, it will be available.
By the way, this is Bassam’s chair [empty chair].
What we planned was actually not to plan it, but to prepare difficult questions for each other, questions that are usually asked of one’s opposition. But we wanted to have this amongst people who are not so opposing of each other but still have huge disagreements about certain serious issues. And so we had planned to prepare the questions and do the hard talk. But because he’s not here I can’t really ask those questions.
He did prepare something that I could read out, but I feel that that wouldn’t be a conversation, nor a dialogue, nor would I learn from it.
From the day I formed myself as a thinking being, having conversations was about having my own opinions and relying on my common sense, my sense of right and wrong, my capacity to listen, learn, and find myself sometimes wrong, and find myself sometimes arguing to change someone’s opinions. It’s confronting and difficult but it’s a lost art. I think we don’t do that very much anymore. We are always so terrified of conflict, and not knowing enough, and not being in our zone of specialised information.
I’m not an academic, so I can’t cite endless treaties and histories. But I do know that since I came from Israel back to Australia (I came back 15 years ago, after having lived in Israel for 15 years and growing up in Israel) it was only here, for the first time, that I actually met Palestinians, and it was only here that I started actually hearing a narrative different to my own. It was only here that I started rethinking my own narrative and getting into robust discussions. And they have been really robust, with my Palestinian friends, who within their own groups have huge debate. We think we’re special, but we’re not. Every community has this going on, and in every community there are people struggling to sound their voice and to be heard and not to be frightened away by conflict, experts, and really strong language of victimhood.
The kinds of conversations we need to have both in Israel and here amongst our communities, are the ones that shift the fear of the other, and shift the completely separate nature of the two narratives that are living side by side.
This is not unique to Israel or Palestine. It’s everywhere. We’re just not having conversations. And regarding the idea of being tolerant to each other as an Israeli in Australia, I feel sometimes that everyone’s talking so quietly and it’s not heated, and anyone who’s lived in Israel understands that there’s a lot more hand gesturing and lot less personal space in which to engage. This, here, is so civil and lovely and polite, but we need to engage with less fear and more openness.
After Bassam was disinvited people started commenting on social media, and within the so-called Left, saying that they don’t support disinviting Bassam, because we think it’s okay to host this kind of discussion, we can withstand it. But, we don’t agree with a lot of what you’re saying, though we support your right to say it. None of these people have ever had a conversation with me, nor have any of them ever had a conversation with Bassam, so how would anyone know if they agree with us or not, unless we have these kinds of conversations?
People said they’ll come to support the session, because they believe in creating opportunities for speech. A lot of them are not here. maybe that’s because its 9:30 on Sunday morning. but I wonder how many people have genuinely come here to have a discussion, haven’t made up their minds, or are sure that they know 100% how they feel about the Israeli Palestinian coexistence question? Is it possible? It’s a question that I think about a lot. Does anyone here have anything to learn about this, do we know everything? I find that I learn something every single day. Not because I’m not strong willed or opinionated, just ask my mother. I don’t lack capacity to argue, I’m not uninformed, but I learn all the time.
Every Friday night I leave work and drive from Carnegie up to Broadmeadows to the MITA Detention Centre. I sit for four hours with detainees and asylum seekers. There’s a group of us and we welcome the Sabbath there. Interestingly enough, there are two Sudanese asylum seekers there that spent a substantial amount of time trying to seek asylum in Israel and so a lot of them know a few words in Hebrew. One of those Friday nights was the first night of Passover, so they said, bring some matzah with you. So there I was, at the top end of Sydney Road, with lots of food, dipping matzah into some hummus, the guys speaking to each other in Fusha… I thought that that was astonishing and surreal. These are the conversations that actually challenge me, and teach me a lot. That happens to me all the time when I talk to Palestinians.
Sometimes it’s really disappointing, sometimes it pisses me off no end, because often I don’t agree with them, but it informs me about how I feel, and if I’m not present in those discussions I am not informed enough to make a decision about things. So that’s my introduction… But what I would like to hear from people, is, do you have questions you want to ask of each other, or of me?
Can you tell me what it is that Bassam said that was cause to be disinvited?
Well I’m not friends with Bassam personally, and I don’t hang out with him. I guess the terms and conditions relate to public statements he’s made. It would be really good if Bassam was here to explain it himself. I feel it would be like an Australian white person answering for an Indigenous person who was disinvited from a discussion about our joined history. It’s completely inappropriate for me to speak as an Israeli about Bassam and his opinions.
This session was meant to cover a lot of topics, not one particular thing. I’m not really sure what his views are on a whole range of things that are important to me, such as refugees, same sex marriage, religion, Israel, the solution. The idea for the session started when we realised we’re both born in 1964, have a lot of the same childhood memories, both grew up in Israel, both speak Hebrew and have a lot in common, as you would, with music, and different kinds of life experience. So that was where we’d start, with our commonalities, and find out more. I would like to know a lot more about his views.
Given the radical opinions that were disallowed, I can always Google him and find out what he says. Other than Google, what can I do?
Unfortunately, a Google search is very shallow and superficial. when we do have our conversation, I’ll invite you, if you’re interested, and we’ll put it online so it’s available for people to hear. But that’s the problem with searching for people and finding out what people think and feel through Google and online archives. They don’t necessarily represent the whole scope of what a person thinks. I can’t imagine that if anyone googled me they’d know anything about how I feel about particular things.
…I grew up on a kibbutz called Nahal Oz, and it’s right on the border of Gaza, and in the years when I grew up, the border was open, and on hot days my parents and I would go to the beach, which was down the road in Gaza, safely. I kind of grew up around Palestinians coming to visit us, and we went to visit them. Beyond that I didn’t know very much… I finished high-school here and then returned to Israel. I did the army and lived in lots of different places, first on kibbutz and later in Tel Aviv.
It was only during the last part of my army service that I actually met a Palestinian person, who was my age. We met in a joint theatre group in the neighbourhood. It wasn’t in the context of demonstrations. His name was Mustafa. He was pretty much the only Palestinian I knew, and at that time we’d just have tea at his house, or a coffee at our house. It didn’t shift a huge amount for me, except that I had met a Palestinian.
It was really only here that I got to know Palestinians. And I didn’t meet them for the purpose of doing so. I was invited to be part of a group discussion. The first thing that came to my mind, and this is something that maybe people who grew up in Israel would understand, was a concern about body smell. Because the only Palestinians I had seen in Tel Aviv were labourers, working on building sites, where they would stay and live, so had no access to showers. I could walk past and smell them. And so when I first met Palestinians I was worried about getting too close because I thought about that. I also wondered whether they’d be violent, or whether they would hate me.
First time I met another Palestinian, who was a friend of a friend, and we were waiting for the common friend, but we’d never met and were sitting in a church, talking about religion or something, waiting for guests. He introduced himself and I introduced myself, and he said, oh you’re Israeli… You’re a Zionist. And I said – Are you a terrorist? And he looked at me, and said, why would you say that? And I said, why would you start like that? You don’t even know me. I was getting a grasp on how I frame myself, how I feel about talking to Palestinians.
I started understanding that there is huge array and difference within the Palestinian community. Not just in their views on Palestine but also in the way that they live. Some of them are bad drivers and what have you. I guess the shift created in me was seeing the differences and the humanity in the other person. And that it’s okay for me to not like all Palestinians, and to disagree with some of them.
It made me question how I come with so much prejudice to almost every type of encounter. Even coming here, I was thinking about who hates me, who’s come here to prove me wrong, who’d disapprove of everything this woman is saying.
What is the nature of the meetings you started going to, were they political meetings?
There was an art exhibition I went to, a poetry reading, a whole range of things. Not necessarily political.
If Israeli children truly never engage with Palestinian children, how plausible is it that there will ever be coexistence?
That’s really challenging. It’s not just every Jewish Israeli that doesn’t meet a Palestinian, but also every Palestinian child will never meet an Israeli, except under very narrow circumstances. I first met Palestinians when I was in the army. It was in the West Bank in an army post. How could I possibly know anything about the other and how could they possibly know anything about me? That’s the thing. We need to have these kinds of conversations, we need to meet, and I imagine, and I’m not saying this in a disparaging way, that most of you didn’t come to hear me speak, but to hear Bassam, and that’s great. Because I think if Bassam was coming, or if we had a session outside of Limmud, we would get triple the number of people, because people want to hear and it’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with listening to each other, nothing will happen to us, it won’t make us weaker. My resolve and opinions wont completely change. I might learn something, but that’s about it.
I met Bassam at Womadalaide, when he was on a stand for a Palestinian organisation in Adelaide that he’s active in. Bassam is Israeli born and I think the problem is that when we think of Israel we think of Jews but 20% of Israelis are not Jewish and I’m very sad that we are denied the opportunity to hear an Israeli voice, a different Israeli voice. I feel it’s really important that we hear all Israeli voices and I think we’re all diminished by what’s happened here today.
Is he Israeli or Palestinian?
He’s Israeli Palestinian.
Isn’t it the same thing?
Not necessarily. He was born just north of Haifa, and grew up in Haifa, went to Haifa university for his first degree. In Hebrew we’d call him an Israeli Arab, but he’s an Israeli Palestinian.
Seems like there’s been a boycott of your efforts, which is a systemic thing… What would be the one question that you would want to ask the person that would have been sitting in that chair? What was the first question that sprung to mind?
What I was going to ask him? I was thinking about whether I should reveal that…
For our benefit. What would have been the first question. Secondly, with the work that you do, you’re working within systems, but the system restricts your ability to pursue what you’re passionate about. What is it that the system needs to review, apart from its own power base, in order for things to move forward for better, healthier interaction between communities?
I would have begun by seeking his opinion on a project that I worked on here in Melbourne that started in 2008 with a group of volunteers.
First, some background: during the War of Independence, the Iraqi army was situated in Haifa and the local Arab citizens that fled hid behind it. 500 of the citizens of Haifa retreated with the Iraqi army. These were mostly older people women and children. They retreated to Baghdad, and of course never came back.
That community grew to 30,000 and then the Iraq war broke out, the Gulf War, and Palestinian Iraqis fled as well, since the bombs were not discerning. But they couldn’t go anywhere, not to Jordan, Turkey, Iran or Syria, so they got stuck in camps on the border between Syria and Iraq. Just the Palestinians.
In 2008 a group of us applied for resettlement to Australia on behalf of Palestinians living in those tents along the border. Bypassing the system, we downloaded a form, translated it into Arabic, sent it to them, applied on their behalf and we were successful in resettling at first 150 people and later 200 more. Resettling Palestinians to Australia, which means they were getting citizenship.
There were Israelis and Palestinians involved in this group of volunteers. Throughout the project I know that there were quite a few Palestinians living in the diaspora who were very critical of us doing that, of offering resettlement and citizenship for Palestinians, that this would do a disservice to their cause.
We are still in contact with many of the people who resettled in Melbourne, and I asked them how they felt about it. These are Palestinian Iraqis who have been basically displaced since before 1948, who have had no citizenship for over 60 years. I said, how do you feel about that? They said, you know what? What about we swap? We’ve done 60 years, how about they go there and we’ll just sit here and rest in the suburbs. That’s something that I feel that I can actually ask today. I’ve earned my right to ask that of a Palestinian. That’s not an easy question. Because they have huge debate within their community about this. But that would be something I would consider asking, especially because Bassam is part of a group of Palestinians who immigrated here; they didn’t flee, but migrated here for academic reasons.
I lived in Israel for 4 years and had very much the same kind of experience as you. I’ve had a Palestinian student in the same dormitory who’s had to leave because other Israelis didn’t want them there. But I’ll skip over that experience. What strikes me is the similarity to South Africa and the United States, where I’ve lived and worked. A continuing divide between African Americans and American Whites, and for all of the liberalism there’s still an incredible psychological gap and fear. And it was only when I began to work with African Americans that I really began to transform, and they transformed as well. So we need to talk. There are things you agree or disagree on, there are people who are jerks, and it’s clear there are people who are not jerks. It seems what’s happened a few times now here in Melbourne, is that there’s such a need for control and management based on stereotyping. And I hate to say it, but the only acceptable Negros are tame Negros, or niggers, and I’m really using that term advisedly, but that’s the kind of attitude that I feel is completely out of date.
On that note, this Friday, I was driving from Carnegie to Broadmeadows, I took with me a Sudanese man who has been released into community detention and is living in Keysborough. He’s a Sudanese Muslim, who’s spent some time seeking asylum in Israel, was sent back to Sudan, and made his way here. He was in MITA for 34 months and was released two weeks ago into community detention. So we’re driving. It’s an hour and a half of intense conversation in traffic. This time, we’re joined by my 17-year-old nephew, visiting from San Francisco over his summer break. He goes not to a Jewish school but to a state school there, and has a lot of friends who are asylum seekers from Arab countries. So the two boys, as boys do, were bonding, as I was driving, and my Sudanese friend said to him, that as they’re closing down detention centres around Australia, he came down from Darwin with a whole bunch of others. One of them, Ahmad, who’s just turned 20, comes from a region called Ahwaz, which I’d never heard of until I went to Broadmeadows. It is a small region in the south of Iran (Palestinians say that Ahwazis are even more oppressed than they are). So he says that the Sudanese boys, who’ve taken him under their wing, call him Ahmad the Nigger. And my nephew says, yeah, we say that about each other all the time.
So there’s a conversation between this young Jewish American boy and a Sudanese refugee, about niggers, in my car headed to Broadmeadows or Sydney Road, which my parents call the Gaza Strip, and I’m just thinking, this is amazing. It’s a really great learning experience. When I hear the N word I cringe, but only because I know it’s not politically correct, it’s inappropriate, it’s got a history. But that’s all theoretical to me. I was driving the car and could have told them, you can’t use that word in my car. But they’ve reappropriated the word, and they’re using it, and who am I to tell them not to.
Is there something similar to Limmud Oz but for Palestinians, with debate and exploring and learning about Israel? Or Israelis? … If I compare sizes, Israel and the Jewish people are small, and there’s a lot of Arab and Muslim countries. I don’t know if they have the same conversations, if they think about, let’s stop the violence, let’s stop educating the children to hate, and not to be a shahid?
I understand what you’re saying, and I’m no expert on what Palestinian people do within their communities. I have been to conversations, it’s a very small community in Australia. I think there are a lot more supporters who are non-Palestinian than there are Palestinians in Australia. Maybe 4000 5000, of whom 350 are people we brought through, and a lot of the people who have resettled here are completely disinterested in engaging in any level of politics. They are so scarred from living it that they just want to live quietly and never engage. But it’s important that we have these kinds of conversations because in my experience most of the times I’ve had conversations and participated in community events in which there are Palestinian people, people come up to me afterwards and say, are you Israeli? Yes. Were you in the army? Yes. I’ve never met anyone who’s done that. Then we started having a conversation, and obviously I don’t necessarily want to have conversations with all of them, but these opportunities happen when you engage.
We call ourselves tolerant, and aspire to that, but what we are doing is disengaging. Being tolerant today is allowing someone to sit next to us, as on Q&A, people with very opposing views, but we let each other talk in a very civil way, all within the Australian civil engagement. But we don’t actually engage. We are being intolerant, waiting for an opportunity to say our thing, to negate what they’re saying, and it’s not actively listening and hearing the other person, knowing that you don’t actually hold absolute truth and you can learn from interaction with anyone. In many ways we’re intolerant, indifferent. Not engaging in the terms of what tolerance was originally, which is learning from each other and engaging in conflicting opinions, sometimes in a scary way, sometime with people who have been preaching hate to their children. Those are the people you should have a conversation with.
When your neighbour calls for the obliteration of all Jews, who’s to talk to? And it’s all good to have a cup a coffee and see their point, but does it work the other way too? When 360 million people all around you don’t want you there, who’s to talk to?
That was my question too. Who comes to this dialogue? Where do you find them? Do you really want to make a first step, a little one, a drop in this ocean of enemies surrounding us?
That’s why I decided to do this. When Bassam was disinvited I was offered a chance to have a session and I thought, what am I going to do? It was just after Lag Ba’omer, and I thought maybe I’ll talk about cats in Israel. Maybe that won’t be a problem here, for the dialogue. That’s not going to challenge anyone. Then I thought of bringing the Greens representative of Melbourne Ports to come and speak here, who agreed, but we’d missed the deadline.
The way to have these kinds of dialogues is to initiate them and come to them. Even if what’s being said is really challenging. Because you are voicing genuine fear and a reality. It is hard.
Are there any Palestinians here? There should be.
No, they were disinvited!
…I think there is a shift here, as in Israel. There’s a shift everywhere. Every time I’ve participated in forums with Palestinians and Israelis and Jews spoke together, there’s been this almost roadkill fascination with the Palestinian there, because we don’t actually engage, and it’s important to do it. To bring a token Palestinian or to bring my Palestinian buddies to sit here and mingle with the Jews is… well it’s important to do, but this is not the place to do it. I don’t think so. Not for many reasons. Perhaps because of Ramadan, or because it’s early on Sunday morning, or a sense of not being welcome.
But it’s important. Early on Sunday morning or not…
For a Palestinian person to come here, when they’re one of the people disinvited because of their personal opinions. It’s not dialogue here. This is a festival of Jewish ideas. This is not a place for dialogue. Limmud is not set up for as a framework for dialogue. Only one that is very superficial. It needs to be had in a safe place and there’s definitely a desire for it but it’s got to be organised.
This interview with Sivan Barak appeared in Federation Story, Federation’s Square’s public archive of Australian stories:
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.