Exclusive: Interview with Maya Wind, an Israeli peace activist
Maya Wind is no ordinary human rights activist. Her beliefs and her activism have led directly to Maya being socially ostracised by family and childhood friends. They have led to incarceration in an Israeli military prison and resulted in threats to her life from Zionist extremists.
Drawing inspiration from Gandhi and Martin Luther-King, Maya offers an alternative Israeli viewpoint on the occupation of Palestine, the role of the media in encouraging the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and argues that the roots of the conflict lie directly in the unchallenged ideology of Zionism.
Currently studying in the United States, Maya is an Israeli voice of reason and compassion seldom heard amongst the mainstream media.
Mark Hirst examines the journey she has taken from a Jewish child growing up in Jerusalem to internationally respected peace activist and advocate of Palestinian rights.
THE ANSWER IS BLOWING IN THE WIND
Her journey began in the divided city of Jerusalem during the Second Intifada which claimed over 4000 lives over a five year period beginning in 2000.
Having met with Irish children who grew up in the north of Ireland during the height of the Anglo-Irish war, known as “The Troubles”, Maya believes she has some shared experiences with them.
“The situation growing up in Jerusalem at the time that I did, during the second Intifada, was not that different from the experiences of many children in Belfast,” Maya explains.
“In 2000 when the bombings began on Israeli civilians, many of them, in fact 40% of all attacks were in Jerusalem itself.
It was a scary time for Maya and all those who lived in the city at the time, but even then, as a child, the divisions were obvious.
“Growing up in that climate I was aware of what I now know was racism towards Palestinians and I thought they all hated us because we were Jewish.”
Maya thinks the uncompromising narrative Israelis believe today; that they are the perpetual victims of history begins with an indoctrination process starting at school and that no link is made between Israeli policy and the conflict it is involved in.
“In the Israeli educational system I was given a very clear trajective and narrative from my education that basically said Jews were always hated from time immemorial, from the biblical times, through Nazism and today with the Palestinians.
“So the Palestinians were put on that same trajectory of people who hate us because we are Jewish. And that is what I also believed at the time. I had made no connection, and no one made a connection for me between our actions and between the violence we were receiving from the Palestinian side.”
Most Israelis do not understand that their military is occupying and controlling Palestinian life
It wasn’t until Maya began regularly visiting Palestinian villages and cities and got to meet ordinary Palestinians that she began to make that connection herself.
“Jerusalem where I grew up is a segregated city.
“The east side is Palestinian and in fact 36% of the city is Palestinian but there is sometimes a visible, sometimes an invisible wall that separates us.
“Growing up in Jerusalem as a Jew I never went through to the east side to meet them.
“Only when I actually met Palestinians and saw with my own eyes what it was like actually living under occupation, understanding that there was in fact an occupation because that hadn’t been made clear to me, did I begin to realise what was actually happening.
“I always thought we were the victim and suddenly I’m going into this area and seeing that the Army that is made up of people that I love and know is actually ruling these people.”
Maya explains that the scale of Israeli control over ordinary Palestinians is complete. The Israeli Army decides when Palestinians go to school, when and where they can and cannot travel to, how they get to work, whether they can farm their land, whether they can access water and they even decide whether Palestinians can get to hospital if they are sick or wounded.
“Every daily action that we take for granted, for Palestinians they are all controlled by our Army,” Maya says.
“That was shocking to me and I didn’t understand that until I actually went there. Once I understood that we were in fact occupying these people only then did things really start to change in my understanding of what was going on.”
40% of all Palestinian males have been through the Israeli prison system
Maya’s first experience of meeting a Palestinian was when she was aged just 15 and by coincidence met a Palestinian girl who was from a village in the West Bank.
The Palestinian girl retold a story to Maya that first set the seeds that would lead her to doubt the propaganda she and every Israeli are fed by their Government.
“When this Palestinian girl was 12 the military came into her house in the middle of the night and took her father away and she never saw him again. They were later informed that he had died in an Israeli prison,” Maya recounts.
“At that moment I realised we had a very systemised infrastructure of mass incarceration.”
Maya says 40% of all Palestinian men have been through the Israeli prison system for things the Israeli military claims to threaten the state or their security and that anything remotely political is considered terrorism by Israel.
“So if a Palestinian demonstrates against the occupation that is deemed a threat to our security. So they are all put in jail without trial,” Maya claims.
Maya says the experience of this 12 year old Palestinian girl led her on a path to question everything Israel was doing to Palestinians. She remembers the shock of her process of realisation that her country was behaving in this way.
“It clearly sounded like something that was very, very wrong and undemocratic and frightening and like a dictatorship.
That was something that, until that point, I was unaware we were doing, but today I know it’s all too common.
“It changed my perception about who was the good guy and who was the bad guy and it made that dichotomy I had in my head much more complex.”
Israeli peace activists are shunned by their own society
One unintended consequence of Maya’s critique of Israeli policy and her activism in organising demonstrations in the West Bank and elsewhere has been the reaction of extended family and once close friends.
Taking the stance she has is a deeply unpopular decision to make because, she claims, so much is invested by the Israeli state in the occupation.
In Israel young people feel the need to justify their military service both emotionally and psychologically and as a result criticism of the Israeli Defence Force, the IDF, is taken very personally.
“It is not a theoretical debate it is very much ‘You are criticising the Army, you’re criticising us, the people who serve it,’” Maya added.
“My own parents had a very difficult time accepting it and in fact did not accept it at first.
“With time they have become more accepting of me and they have come a long way politically.
“As for my friends and extended family; to this day, most of my childhood friends don’t speak to me anymore. They think I am going crazy, they think I am a traitor to the country. So every single piece of work I have done for Palestinian rights for equality is really seen as treason at home.”
But the reaction of others within Israeli society has sometimes been even more extreme.
Maya has received specific death threats and intimidation from Zionist extremists who find her views and her work deeply offensive to them.
Israeli settlers have been the most threatening because they see her objective as threatening their exclusive right to live in occupied Palestinian land.
Illegal Israeli settlers have published Maya’s personal information on their websites and she has routinely received death threats by email, letter and in the middle of the night by telephone.
Their aim was to terrorise Maya into stopping her work for equality and Palestinian rights.
But their actions seem only to have hardened her resolve.
She claims the Police refused to take the threats seriously, but eventually the campaign against her subsided.
Mainstream Israeli media amounts to little more than crude propaganda for the IDF and Government
In recent days the Jerusalem Post named Maya as being amongst a crowd of several hundred other “Hamas supporters” protesting in New York at Israeli attacks on Gaza.
Maya believes the role of the media is a major factor in shaping and maintaining Israeli public opinion maintaining the perpetual cycle of violence.
“It is really important to understand there is no free media in Israel. Israel wants to portray itself as the only democracy in the Middle East but in fact there is no free media.
“First of all there is what is called the Israeli Military Censor. The Censor has to approve every single article that goes out on the mainstream news, so blogs don’t apply, but all the mainstream media, radio, television, printed and internet news that comes from the big companies they all have to pass through the censorship.
“The Army does censor a lot of things. They decide what needs to be known and what doesn’t need to be known.”
Maya claims that Israeli army spokespeople routinely intimidate media organisations that even remotely try and report news that is perceived to damage Israeli “national interests”.
Maya doesn’t believe there is proper scrutiny of Israeli action and no real investigative journalism undertaken by the Israeli press as a result of the military censorship in place.
“It is really a big problem,” Maya explains.
“I can’t tell you how frustrating it is as an activist when countless times I would be on a demonstration on the West Bank and it would be totally non-violent, then you would go home and see how the media is portraying it and it’s like a different world.”
Maya says the Israeli media regularly report that violence occurred at demonstrations when none did and that when the IDF shoots Palestinians it is often reported that the victims have been shot by fellow Palestinians as a result of a fabricated internal dispute.
“You see all this blatant, blatant lying and it is very frustrating for us to see that, the lies of the media. “
“There is this warmongering going on. You see it in the recent attacks in Gaza the way in which they portray us bombing Gaza and the way they portray the rockets on Tel Aviv it is really war propaganda.”
Still room for hope
Despite this Maya remains optimistic that a sustainable peace and resolution to the conflict can happen, but that the real roots of the conflict have to first be addressed by the Israeli public.
“Unfortunately I don’t have very much faith in the Israeli public right now. Having lived and worked there for the last five years it’s really sad to see.
“I’ve come to realise that the main problem is not really the occupation, it what is beneath that. That it is Zionism. The idea that most Israelis, even those who don’t support the occupation, are very much Zionists.
“Zionism is one of the least contested ideologies and virtually everyone in Israel who is Jewish is a Zionist. I that it is the core of the problem.”
Maya argues that the idea of Jewish exclusivity in a land where almost 50% of the people are not Jewish is outdated and that the Zionist model which is being pursued by the state is not working and as it is “inherently discriminatory to anyone who is not Jewish,”
“I hope more Israeli’s will begin to understand that they have to give up on this idea and they have to live with Palestinians as equal citizens. There has to be a separation of church and state and I think that is the only hope for the future.”
The horror of the Holocaust dominates Israeli political debate
The difficult path she has pursued in working for a more equal and just Israel and Palestine is a worthwhile one to follow and she has a message to other young Israelis who plan to follow her lead.
“I would ask them to critically engage with the exceptionalism that we have been taught.
“The holocaust is very present in Israeli discourse, in the Israeli school system. I would hope that more young Israelis would engage critically in the holocaust to understand that whilst the holocaust was a terrible genocide, is not so unique.
“There have been many other genocides like it and to understand that the message from the Holocaust can’t be more exclusivity and more racism and more segregation.
“On the contrary they need to really engage with it and understand that we are not the only ones who have been through it. So we don’t need to be segregated further in our own country through Zionism.”
It is a powerful, yet painful message for many Israelis to accept and Maya knows it will take a long time to re-educate Israelis to see that long term peace can only happen when Israelis and Palestinians can learn to live alongside each other as equals.
Despite her youth, Maya’s articulate and thought-provoking contribution and peace activism in her native land offer a glimmer of hope and alternate vision of what that war ravished part of the world could aspire to.
“I feel that as an Israeli that my Government is doing these crimes in my name and I feel like it is my absolute obligation to anyone who is willing to listen to spread the message so that more people understand and help us end the occupation and what is happening over there.”