ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Voice for Justice

One Israeli’s mission to advocate justice and secure peace

A barren hillside on the edge of the Palestinian village of Anata on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem symbolizes much of what Jeff Halper and his Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) are about. It is not just the house of Salim Shawamreh, Mr. Halper’s friend, that has been destroyed by the Israeli authorities and rebuilt by ICAHD four times since 1998 – or the bulldozed remains of at least five other houses that lie crumpled in the spring grass higher up the hill – or the looming new Israeli border police headquarters across the valley – or the proposed expansion of the main Israeli settlement outside Jerusalem, Ma’ale Adumim, into West Bank land abutting Anata’s hillside – or that not far from Mr. Shawamreh’s house is the planned route of Israel’s separation barrier.

Each of these facts is discouraging for Palestinians and Mr. Halper’s organization, which is committed to Palestinian self-determination. Taken together, they speak to the futility – the tit-for-tat violence – of the past several years in the Holy Land. “The blanks are being filled in,” said Mr. Halper of the steady expansion of settlements on the West Bank and the construction of the separation wall. Soon, if not already, he said, Israel’s control over the West Bank will have become irreversible and any notion of a truly independent and viable Palestinian state next to a secure Israel will have become impossible.

Mr. Halper is stout with a white beard and an easy smile. He clearly enjoys the shouts of recognition from the Palestinians of Anata. American by birth and Israeli by choice, Mr. Halper settled in the country in the early 1970’s and immediately became involved in the Israeli peace movement.

In 1997, he joined other peace activists and founded the ICAHD, which advocates nonviolent direct action to resist the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes. ICAHD activists, including Mr. Halper, physically block bulldozers and rebuild homes after they have been demolished. The organization also coordinates with like-minded human rights groups in campaigns opposing the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The ICAHD has called for sanctions against Israel, and divestment from companies such as Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are used to tear down Palestinian homes.

Bassam Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group said the ICAHD’s activities are appreciated by the Palestinians, the international community and maybe even by some Israelis. “They create awareness in Israel of house demolitions, one of the most severe human rights violations.”

Anata is one of the places where Mr. Halper and his committee have been most active. Mr. Shawamreh’s house, called Beit Arabiya (“the house of Arabiya,” his wife’s name) is once again being threatened with demolition, though the Shawamreh family has since moved to another home. Currently, the house serves as a “peace center,” where the ICAHD conducts summer camps that bring together Palestinians, Israelis and international guests.

The Israeli authorities claim the house was built without a permit. Mr. Halper and other Israeli human rights activists point out that such permits are rarely given to Arab residents. The Jerusalem municipality countered that zoning plans exist for Arab housing, but not in the locations where many of the people of Anata want to build. Mr. Halper said it is all part of a determined push to dispossess the Palestinians and claim all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. In Anata, his vision seems persuasive.

Mr. Halper was born in Boston but grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, the birthplace of Gus Hall, the late leader of the American Communist Party, and Bob Dylan. Though not brought up as a religious Jew, he was interested in Judaism. As a third-generation American coming of age in the 1960’s, he wanted to return to his ethnic roots. “Because I wasn’t religious I didn’t find a place for myself in the American Jewish community.”

The cultural isolation he felt in Hibbing contributed to his desire to leave the country, Mr. Halper said. “Had I been brought up in New York or Boston, I probably wouldn’t have come here,” he said. “There probably would have been enough Jewish life there to sustain me.”

Mr. Halper, an anthropologist who has taught at Haifa and Ben Gurion universities, calls himself a cultural Zionist, not a “political Zionist,” a distinction that separates him from Israel’s founding fathers.

But why would someone move to a new country, only to start immediately criticizing it? “The reason was, I think, that Israel has a legitimacy, but not an exclusivity,” Mr. Halper said. “There is no reason in the world why we cannot share this country with Palestinians who also have a right to self-determination.”

It is a message he now carries across the world, lecturing about the dispossession of the Palestinians and his fear that Israel will never give up the West Bank. Mr. Halper blames both the lack of political will inside Israel and internationally on the current state of affairs. Like many Palestinians, he has a pessimistic view of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s proposed withdrawal from Gaza. Mr. Halper sees it as a part of a strategy to shore up Israeli control of the West Bank. “Israel has been working openly since 1967 to foreclose a viable Palestinian state. I think it has been done,” Mr. Halper said.

Mr. Halper is married and has a daughter and two sons, none of whom have served in the Israeli Defense Forces. Most Israeli citizens serve, but Mr. Halper’s sons refused. One spent three months in jail for his refusal. Mr. Halper said he is proud of his sons’ decision, but he would have respected their wish to don the uniform.

After four years of violent Israeli-Palestinian confrontation during the recent intifada and “experiencing the occupation from close up,” Mr. Halper said he feels his organization is one of the few that has retained its credibility with the Palestinians who “don’t want normalization, they want you to stand by their side for liberation and a just peace.”

The violence has made him angry with Israelis, “whom I think have taken a very irresponsible position. I really hate the racism, the parochialism, the xenophobia.”

Predictably, such sentiments draw criticism from the Israeli right. “[Halper] is a one-man NGO, traveling the world, demonizing Israel and spreading hatred,” said Simon Plosker of the Israeli web site Mr. Plosker said that by branding Israel an “apartheid state” and placing blame on the conflict solely on the Israelis, Mr. Halper is not “contributing to peace and reconciliation.”

When told of Mr. Halper’s work, Gideon Meir, deputy general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offered, “I only wish such organization existed on the Palestinian side, protesting Palestinian policies, because then I would be much more optimistic about peace.”

For all his differences with Israeli policy, Mr. Halper remains dedicated to Israel. “I don’t deny that Jews have a legitimate claim to the country,” he said. “Our committee is [called] the ’Israeli’ Committee Against House Demolitions – we’re not hiding that.”

Mr. Halper said he was not going to move back to the United States, and despite his role as an Israeli gadfly, there are many things he likes about Israel. He is interested in Hebrew culture and he appreciates Israel’s ability to foster different voices and opinions, even those as outspoken as his own.

“I live in Nachlaot, which is very right wing,” he said. “I can’t walk to the grocery without getting into an argument. But I have also been elected to the neighborhood committee for the last 25 years. At some point you get to the end of your political argument and then you slap each other on the back and talk about other things.”

Jerusalem-based Ferry Biedermann writes for and the Financial Times.

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