Since Oslo, both its supporters and detractors have developed the peace industry: small kiosks, large salons with fancy brochures, true life work. A grand documentation industry. This process was led by Peace Now, which transformed itself into a complete production agency with its enlistment of public poll decoders, publicists and an emphasis on professional staff, which slowly but surely eradicated the voices of volunteers and activists, until they almost completely disappeared.
There is no end to projects of dialogue, education for peace, seeds of peace, making films for peace, film festivals for peace, photographers for peace, chefs for peace, various forums for peace. They speak and fly first class and write articles while the occupation deepens, the despair becomes worse and the separation becomes sharper. And now this must come to an end, for the peace industry of the professional Left prevented and prevents a real change in consciousness and cooperation in the circles of action.
Some will contend that the problem is one of messages and the lack of alternatives. I will not go into this discussion, as here I wish to speak about the means of action that cut off the Left, via the professional Left, from the public.
However, we can find positive elements in the organizing of groups on the Left, in Israel and Palestine, who retrieve for themselves their imprisoned and embittered voice from the grips of the ratings, through the politics of love.
I write this criticism from a perspective of partnership and respect for many of the actions in the minefield of the occupation and social change. Those working hard to build Israeli-Palestinian partnerships. Political action, especially grassroots, is always unappreciated and exposed to daily and never-ending criticism. I wish to separate between these political activists and the professionals who cut coupons, even if they are doing important work while putting money in their pockets or into their projects. My contention is that the use of experts and professionals who determine and lead the political discussion, dispossesses the Left from its ability to turn to a wider audience and bring about substantial change.
Social Publicists—YNET Instead of Life
In Jerusalem’s 1998 municipal elections, Ornan Yekutieli resigned from Meretz and established Jerusalem Now. At the time, I was 22 years old and worked in Meretz. I had a disagreement with Lir Horev, who was the chief campaigner of Yekutieli. The disagreement was not about tensions between Meretz and Jerusalem Now, nor about what I discerned in Jerusalem Now as a rightwing economic world view and racism against ultra-orthodox Jews. The disagreement was about the relationship toward activists.
Horev contended that the one who must determine the slogans are those who understand, and that only Ornan Yekutieli and his professional staff can lead the secular Jewish population of Jerusalem to victory, because of (amongst other things) their superiority in media. I thought that the activists are the ones who should decide, as they are the ones standing with the signs and handing out the stickers. In the meantime Lior Horev won, at least politically, along with his primary client Ariel Sharon. The Left lost both its ideology and the means of action.
The utilization of advertisers and media advisors was promoted by the political parties and afterwards by the social organizations. The analysis of reality became a matter of expertise. And not just any expertise, but that which analyzes the media. In short, Ynet instead of life. The activists had no space left for making decisions about content, no space for discussion with people on the ground, with families, neighbors and work colleagues. With so many polls, there was no space for activists, although they are still asked to do the dirty, anonymous and exhausting work. This is not appropriate to the Middle East, to leftwing women, or to Israelis or Palestinians. The activists abandoned ship, and those who remained very quickly began demanding a salary.
With the development of non-governmental organizations, around the world and by us locally, the phenomenon of social media advisors also developed. The particularly witty and committed leftwing activists went to work for public relations firms, which developed departments for social advertising or business for the community. These activists became creative writers, and went from thinking about how to change political awareness and create a wider community of supporters and activists on the Left, to those who devote their time solely to creating a message, meeting with focus groups, promoting the political brand and creating media ships.
An airlift of American consultants has descended to assist organizations, most of them from the fields of media and social marketing and not from the fields of community organizing and local mobilization, areas in which part of the American Left excels. Public relations offices were created for which the majority of their work is the branding and movement of peace and social change organizations. With blinding speed the importance of content, national distribution and local leadership was broken. The important things are now the website and the logo.
The visibility of the Left in the press was attained through well directed, designed and budgeted campaigns. The one who determines our “alternative” to the conflict, i.e., the Geneva Initiative, is Dror Sternshus, who managed the campaign. One wishing to join calls the S. Karmon public relations firm. Throughout the world people believe that the Geneva Initiative is accepted by people, but public relations firms don’t know that we must speak with people about education and housing and employment and the environment. Perhaps they know, but that would be too complex and hurt the message and the product. “Look where we have gotten with your leftwing ideologies. The important thing is to beat Sharon.” So say the firms. They are also convinced that they are acting in the best interests of the Left, and perhaps that they are even doing us a favor by remaining in politics and are not earning money directly from companies, a syndrome faced also by staff members of the World Bank.
In public relations firms such as McCaan Erickson, there are departments for social marketing which specialize in planning the message and creating a creative community. They provide spokesperson services to organizations—the spokesperson tells the press, over the sound of the air conditioner, what is happening in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as he knows the press and they love him. The sole problem is, there exists no connection between the process that occurs with the activists, who face the oppressive systems that the state employs with full force against every anti-racist or solidarity activity, and what is reported. And the larger this gap, the larger the disbelief—between the activists and the press, the public and the activists, and even amongst activists themselves.
It seems that no one starts a social struggle without a public relations office, but if you notice, the best struggles lack professional media consultants. The struggle of the Metrodan bus drivers, of activists of the Coalition Against the Wall in Budrus, the struggles of the Democratic Rainbow and several local struggles of Mahapach. What works is what has real people, living, breathing and committed, who must also think about messages and means of action. What works long term is personal commitment to the community, partnership that crosses class and generations, learning from working and failing. From an educational and logistical perspective, a fine and delicate dance of building and breaking belief, and, more than anything, the modesty that comes when you look out at the power of women and men working within their community, who choose each day to create systems of solidarity, to break traditions and believe in the possibility of inter-class and inter-cultural partnership. The same love that slowly develops when activists, despite everything, choose to pay attention to the small details of their lives and attempt to change them. The same love for women who must be awarded the Israel Prize or Palestine Prize for raising children. What builds power on the Left is when a woman comes with her heart, head, the little time she has and her dreams, and decides to be a partner in taking decisions. This is the mystical dimension of politics.
This does not mean there is no room for experiments, even experiments in the press. This does not mean it is unimportant or unnecessary to use the contacts of activists with the press. However, this should be done in a conscious manner, in a way that does not create control over the organization, not by the one having contacts with the press or the one with relationships to donors.
Everything that dispossesses people from being direct partners in taking decisions over their lives and their paths will fail in the long-term, as it copies the model of a for show society. The same occurs when the social publicist dispossesses the activists from creating their own voice and by doubting their ability to learn and tell their life stories on their own. The publicist thus stops the alternative and a building of the Left.
The Language of Donors
The peace industry is a white one, whether it wants to be or not. It is ruled by the need to complete grant applications to the European Union and Scandinavian countries and, for those who are sufficiently moderate, to the Americans. The Palestinians and Israelis leading these actions are those who learned the EU language and how to be precise in grant applications. The meaning of this, with its accompanying cultural demand, is the creation of a huge gap between those leading the actions in the organization or campaign and grassroots activists and residents. The Israeli-Palestinian case is not a private case of the grant-providing governments and the white supporters in a struggle focusing on blacks, but as the conflict is sexy and ongoing, the adjustments of the persons involved radically transform this system of relations into a cynical one.
The peace industry represents the desires and possibilities for actions available to those advancing peace in a manner that completely neutralizes the voices of the occupied and oppressed. The sole ones making their voices heard are those who trained for this. A Jewish Jerusalemite peace activist whose son was injured in an attack has become the Israeli representative of an international women’s organization. She recently spoke at a conference in India before 3,000 women. To my sorrow, there is no connection between her and leftwing activities or leftwing political discourse in Israel. She is acting in the empty but profitable space created by the peace industry. I was told recently of a Muslim peace activist who has flown no less than 20 times to conferences throughout the world in order to make “the Palestinian voice” heard. Even if this was also a “community voice” (Palestinian citizen of Israel? 1948 Arab? 1967 Arab? Just Arab?) it was completely worn out from the number of times she had to enter the role of “the Palestinian.” Her Palestinian-ness is already EU-ness and is also intended, perhaps primarily, so that she will be invited to the next international conference. This is dangerous cooptation, for it transforms voices that have real potential into signs, and dispossesses and disconnects these voices from their ability to create physical change in their public space and in their communities.
A large number of the international conferences are important and their speakers are men and women connected to the grassroots and who are inspirational in their daily work. I do not intend an overall criticism of this necessary activity. However, the danger is that at the end of the day, the voices of activists are not heard and a true difficulty in creating international solidarity is created. International solidarity is actually not lacking: it is simply channeled to places that don’t always serve the public, to that dangerous space that contends it is not political, that is just wants peace.
First Class for Peace
The sexiness of the conflict does not end with the power relations between occupier and occupied. It continues to shine in the manner in which it is presented by the professional peace forces, which are augmented by a documentary division and champagne. The bridge between East and West, a combination of Palestinian machisimo and Western intellectualism, military officials who morph into representatives of partnerships and the poster children of peace, the United Nations and conferences and the clink of glasses over dinner. Ah, and more than anything, the flights.
The cultural difference between activists involved in social and economic issues and those who focus on human rights (“preferably” Zionists) who have friends throughout the world who are willing to listen to them and invite them to San Francisco. For the activist working on issues of housing and employment, there exists a possibility to travel to Sderot to mobilize activists or (at best) to attend a weekend seminar. Even though in an ideological struggle, the conditions are not meant to make a difference, at the end of the day they substantially impact the composition of activists, their willingness to volunteer and to take on the establishment and the ability to create a vibrant and developing political community.
First class flights do nothing to build a Left political space. Neither do the well funded seminars. Those building the alternatives are the activists in schools, neighborhoods, worker committees, the media and the arts. Those building the possibility of creating another language in which there is space to begin talking with equal voices about how we want to live here are those who transformed politics into their daily life, not into a profession. It is one who builds a joint life of searching, opposing and making new choices. They are generally uncomfortable in first class. It is too alienating.
The Mysticism of Politics or the Politics of Love
The past few months have been flooded with the murky waters of political theology. Suddenly people understood that it is impossible to speak only in terms of political institutions and legislation, suddenly it is impossible to make do with political failures, suddenly they are paying attention to the sticker “repentance—the weapon of the people.” Suddenly, as if they were pulled out of their graves for a quick investigation, the concepts of human belief, culture and feelings were brought back to life as dancers in the political arena. However, this is a mutation intended to serve the conservative Right (which was also the Left) and allow it to find moral justification for the horrors occurring here—the occupation and neoliberalism.
This is an artificial change of the mystics of politics, a comprehensive name for the community-political space in which people act primarily in order to feel they belong, to feel secure and to find a place for them and the people they love. Where the culture, memory and your knowledge of the small stories of the neighborhood, city and state have a high political value as it permits us all to build a common story, language and life we understand. The opposite of political theology is the mysticism of politics, or perhaps the politics of love. This is what the women and male activists of the new Left, in its entire spectrum, do. They are searching to give voice and meaning, to work in a manner that empowers and includes. Groups searching to build an inclusive and egalitarian lifestyle, to search for daily actions that bridge between classes and cultures and primarily to build solidarity between activists and to facilitate full partnership in decision making.
The politics of love proclaims the decline of the professional Left. It is worth the concession, as the politics of love are something we can truly desire. The peace industry is not really good employment. We need the real thing.
Yael Berda is an Israeli attorney specializing in human rights, one of the founders of Mahapach, a Jerusalemite and poet. This article originally appeared in Mitsad Sheni (edition 14-15), a Hebrew language quarterly of the Alternative Information Center. Translated to English by the AIC.