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"Things Only Got Worse"

Interview with Israeli Journalist Amira Hass

Monday 3 November 2008, by Anna-Esther Younis

Amira Hass is an Israeli author and journalist. The following interview with Amira Hass was conducted in May, 2008 during the first "Israeli-Palestinian Film Festival” in Berlin. Amira is an author and journalist and has written extensively on the Israeli occupation and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Ms. Hass, you came to Berlin in order give some speeches but primarily to attend the first “Israeli-Palestinian Film Festival in Berlin,” during which parts of a theatre play was performed. The play revolves around your very intimate correspondence with the Palestinian prisoner Mahmud al-Safadi. Ariel Cypel and Gael Chaillat processed your diary into a theatre play and called it “MurMure” (a word game in French, meaning “Wall Whispers”). However, I read that your feelings and reactions to the play were slightly mixed, is that correct?

Well, first of all it’s not my play. For me, there wasn’t enough of the occupation in the play and too much symbolism that I didn’t like. My part was too much of a caricature. And the only person who represented Israeli oppression was a woman, which also annoyed me. But still I find that the dragon (note: the dragon embodies Amira Hass) is too didactic, way less cynical, and less nuanced. However, it is still on the verge of being a caricature. For me a tragic-comedy play would have been fine.

An Israeli military court imprisoned Mahmoud al-Safadi for 17 years. Could you tell us a bit about what happened?

Mahmoud joined the PFLP (Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine) as a 16-year old. With the outbreak of the first Intifada, he threw Molotov cocktails at Israeli vehicles in Jerusalem. His intention was to sabotage, not to kill—to show that Jerusalem is under occupation. (Note: In March 1990, aged 23, Mahmoud was arrested, on the same day he planned to go underground. They sentenced him to 27 years in prison.) He was finally released in September 2006, after 17 years. He is now 41 years old. He just recently got married, and lives in East Jerusalem with his family. However, I am not in touch with him anymore already for several months. He lives his life, I live my life.

Traveling within Europe, is Germany for you a special destination, since your parents are Holocaust survivors, or is it a country like all the others to you?

It is always in the background—and foreground—of any stay of mine. Plus, whenever I give speeches or interviews, I do not refer to the “Holocaust”, since the term itself puts the emphasis solely on the recipient. I refer to what happened as the “German murder industry,” putting the emphasis on the perpetrator. In fact, for me it is more important to talk about my parent’s history within Israel and not so much in Germany. The reason for that is that the Judeocide was almost entirely expropriated and monopolized by the Israeli right-wing. In Germany, it is not that relevant for me to talk about it than in Israel.

The Judeocide also played an important role in your correspondence with the Palestinian prisoner Mahmoud. How does Palestinian society perceive the whole issue, in your understanding?

Mahmoud was asking about the diary of my mom from Bergen-Belsen. He realized through some texts of mine that one could not analyze Israel only as a colonial phenomenon and disconnect it from the Judeocide. He learned two things from my article whilst being in prison: 1) German collaboration with the Nazis consisted of many layers in society in the whole German murder industry. 2) There were people, as individuals, coming to Palestine as refugees, like my parents. But what many of them experienced after they came out of those concentration camps was that they went back to their respective countries in Europe and were not welcome. For Mahmoud it was a big shock, one could say. Furthermore, in prison he was freer to think differently. Palestinian society does not accept this way of thinking yet. As for him, he was interested in the Judeocide and his interest became thus subversive vis-à-vis his own society. Ironically this was possible in prison, though not so much outside where the pressure of society and of socialization is much stronger.

Why do you think it is so difficult to talk about the Holocaust separately from the occupation in Israel and Palestine, respectively?

Firstly, because the Holocaust is manipulated in Israel. But also because the Holocaust gives another dimension to the phenomenon of Israel, which one cannot dismiss as just colonialist. As for Palestinians, they have a triple reaction to this part of history: It did not happen—if it happened, the Jews deserved it, and besides they do the same. It’s a caricature, I know, but it is a close summary of the truth. And this is why it is so difficult for me to discuss the issue of Israeli repression. One can never really relate to reality with one’s own words and terms—there is always additional noise to it.

Ms. Hass, in 2000 you were awarded the “World Press Hero Award" and commented on it to a Palestinian friend by saying: “It is so dangerous living with you that they awarded me a hero-award." Obviously, you were being cynical, right?

The reason for me being cynical is the fact that I am not appreciated for what I write and expose, but instead for the presumed danger of living with Palestinians. It is absurd that also now, with the main danger being the Intifada, the main threats I have encountered were attacks by settlers, Israeli missiles and tanks. And still Israelis ask me, “Are you not afraid of living with Palestinians?” I then reply: “What I am afraid of are the Israeli airplanes,” but they do not understand.

Does it happen to you that you become the "role-model-Jew" for Arab media outlets or other critical voices against Israeli policies and the occupation?

No. In fact, I am much more a symbol or a token Jew for an international audience. Meaning, for them I am taken as a proof of how much Israel is a democracy, apparently. But those people should always keep in mind that our criticism has not changed anything. It’s rather the opposite: Things only got worse!

Here you are hinting at a very important fact about critical and investigative journalism. Apart from your helplessness as an individual, can you nevertheless draw from your work and regain some sense of satisfaction or contentment? Do you feel like you have achieved something—that your work is “going somewhere”?

Well, It’s not that I am going somewhere; it’s more like I am leaving somewhere. It feels like I am being pushed constantly. However, it is never satisfying. There are only a few moments in my work where I could feel some satisfaction though: good coverage, or a permit for Palestinians, but those achievements do not last. As I said, one has the satisfaction of some personal achievement, a good article, a scoop, and an especially important article. But then, when I look back at those 15 years of my work as an Israeli journalist, I realized that things only got worse. Therefore, satisfaction cannot be part of the vocabulary. In fact, I now feel like being in an existential crisis. About the worthiness of what I’ve been doing all those years as a correspondent in the Occupied Territories. I think that people in general underestimate the freedom of movement. So, right now, it does not feel as though my work is going anywhere. The situation is just getting worse.

And now a final question, Ms. Hass: Most journalists working in your field become at some point chain-smokers. So how come you are not smoking?

(She laughs) Actually, I was arrested when I was 15, for some left-wing activity. The authorities put us in jail. However, I was with some other activists of course, and all of them were smoking like chimneys. So, my reasoning was that when I am already old enough to be arrested, I am also old enough to smoke. It ended up in me smoking almost non-stop for 28 hours with them. It was so disgusting eventually, that I never touched a cigarette again.

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