On the Ground in Israel—an Interview with Michael Argaman*

JP: Two weeks ago you went to Israel to vote and now that you are back in the United States could you share with us some of your encounters in Israel that you find meaningful and would give our readers information that they would not necessarily get from the media.

Michael Argaman: I participated in an event that I think exemplifies what Israelis do on the ground, in various civic activities on a regular basis and not just in the heat of election time. I am talking here about Israeli and Palestinian civilians who don’t give up on the idea of a peace agreement. There are obviously a number of organizations like Combatants for Peace and Women Wage Peace, which are involved in making an Israeli Palestinian agreement part of the public discourse. The group that I would like to mention is one that would seem the least likely, bereaved family members; this group has been tirelessly active for a number of years.

JP: It seems that bereaved family members on both sides would find it hard to meet the other side, let alone continue their peace advocacy when peace has become less attainable.

Michael Argaman: That is what I find remarkable. A group of bereaved families known as The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF), which is a joint Palestinian Israeli organization of some 600 families, meets every Sunday. These are people who have lost a close family member to the conflict and they meet weekly in front of the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv, a central public space. On a Sunday last December I went to the group’s weekly meeting and saw about 50 people including some Palestinians from the West Bank sitting in a circle. What I found very interesting was that people passing-by would start arguing with the participants and the members of The Parents Circle actually invited them to join the circle and gave them the microphone. That was the first time that I saw a group in Israel that invited the opposition to join them in the circle, give them the microphone and allow them to speak and forge a dialogue between people who disagree politically.

JP: What do you think is politically important about this specific encounter?

Michael Argaman: The dialogue is very important and very rare. When I was back in Israel for the election I wanted to go to this group’s gathering since they met a mere two days before the election. The group met at a corner of Sderot Rothschild, one of the most famous Tel Aviv boulevards and interestingly across from the place where David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence. They built a memorial for victims of future wars in the boulevard and the families wanted to meet there. The weather however did not cooperate, it was too cold and windy and the families relocated to the offices of The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Foundation) a German political educational institute that opened an office in Tel Aviv in 2009.

At the meeting the microphone went around in the circle as people introduced themselves. At the same time it was disappointing that the Hebrew speakers didn’t make an effort to make sure that there would be a translator into Arabic since three of the Palestinians spoke only Arabic. The two Palestinians who spoke both languages translated from Arabic to Hebrew for the Jewish participants. I introduced myself first in Arabic then in Hebrew and I wished that some of the other Jewish participants had made more of effort to be inclusive to say something in Arabic.

JP: You mentioned earlier that there was an important speaker at the meeting, Uri Avnery a veteran Israeli politician, a journalist and former Member of Knesset.

Michael Argaman: Uri Avnery came to the meeting at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. He was, as you know, in his teen years a member of the Irgun and later on founded Gush Shalom and a member of the Knesset in the years 1965-75 and 1979-81. He has remained an influential political activist and thinker. At the meeting he spoke in Hebrew and talked about peace and a two state resolution to the conflict. He noted how good it was that Israel chose its leaders through elections. He offered his thoughts on the right wing and religious parties and spoke forthrightly about their leaders. He told the audience that he was not there to advise people on how to vote, yet spoke about his decision to vote for Meretz, which is a progressive political party that focuses on peace, opposition to the occupation, human rights, civil rights, and religious freedom.

JP: What do you think motivated Avnery to disclose his voting choice?

Michael Argaman: I think that Uri Avnery wanted to talk about how a progressive person should vote. He considered three possibilities: Meretz, the Zionist Camp, and the Joint List. He was disappointed that Meretz, the Zionist Camp (the Labor Party and new affiliates) and Yesh Atid (centrist, populist middle-class) did not form a voting block. He was also disappointed that Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Camp, would not commit to refuse to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu.

He regretted that Meretz and The Joint List (an alliance of four primarily Palestinian Israeli Arab political parties including nationalists, religious Muslims and communists) could not agree on an excess vote agreement. He was also concerned that the Joint List, with such different positions, could stay together.

JP: What specifically worried him about the Joint List’s unity?

Michael Argaman: Since the various components of The Joint List have very different political visions, this alliance would need constant attention. Avnery knew from experience that often votes came up quickly in the Knesset, and people would have to make quick decisions without having time for consultation and persuasion.

JP: What was Avnery’s political reason to vote Meretz?

Michael Argaman: It was in some way personal for him. He talked about his role in forming Meretz. He approached Shulamit Aloni at the time and suggested that their two parties form a new party. He therefore has felt responsible. He said he would vote for Meretz yet thought that it needed to be much more inclusive and innovative. He mentioned that the Knesset list had the same Ashkenazi elite that did not reach out to Mizrahi Jews, to immigrants and to Israeli Arabs.

In the end I was so impressed with this 91 year old Avnery who spoke with great ease for two and a half hours.

J.P: What motivates you to go to Israel for every election? This is quite a political and a financial commitment.

Michael Argaman: I left Israel 1989 and at first did not think of going back to vote. On November 4, 1995 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right wing pro settlement zealot. At the time it was very clear that Netanyahu was part of the incitement against Rabin and yet Netanyahu was elected to be prime minister at the next election in 1996. I have gone back since then for every election. I voted for Meretz every time. This time around Meretz got 5 seats in the Knesset and I felt that every vote mattered. I also convinced some other people to vote for Meretz.

* Michael Argaman is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. He was a member of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom and a graduate of Tel Aviv University in Economics.