Skip to content Skip to footer

Interview With Adam Keller: Israeli Journalist, Dissident and Refusenik

A discussion with Adam Keller on the Israeli peace movement.

Adam Keller is best known as spokesperson of Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc, a grassroots movement which has from its start opposed the occupation in all its manifestations – advocating the creation of a truly independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as capital of two states and the Green Line as border of peace – enabling the strengthening of economic, social and cultural exchange.

He is also editor of The Other Israel (“newsletter of the peace movement”) since its founding in 1983. He contributes regularly to New Politics (New York) and in 1987 collected his observations and analysis in the book Terrible Days – social divisions and political paradoxes in Israel (Cypris: Amstelveen).

Born in Tel-Aviv (1955), Keller started out at a very young age to cover, overnight, almost the whole of Tel-Aviv with peace graffiti. While studying history at Tel-Aviv University, he got deeply involved in the politics of the student movements. From 1980-1983, Keller acted as spokesperson of the Shelly Peace Party and later of the Jewish-Arab Progressive List for Peace (1984-1988). Following the enactment, in October 1986, of a law forbidding Israelis from meeting with PLO representatives, Keller participated in the Israeli-Palestinian Romania Meeting, held in defiance of that law.

In 1984, Keller was jailed for refusing to do military reserve service in Lebanon; in 1988 for writing slogans on 117 army tanks, calling upon soldiers to refuse service in the Occupied Territories; and in 1990, for altogether refusing further military service in protest against the shameless violation of Palestinian human rights. During the second Intifada, he also learned what civilian prisons are like, being arrested on different occasions for participating in acts of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. More recently, he became involved in the Refusnik Parents Forum – being the father of Uri Yacobi, who refused to serve in the army altogether, and was declared “unfit for military service” after seven months in prison.

Keller is interviewed by Paul Buhle, a historian long interested in Jewish history and culture, coeditor with Harvey Pekar of the comic art volume Yiddishkeit, editor of the three-volume Jews and American Popular Culture, and founder of the Oral History of the American Left (NYU) with many interviews of the senior generation of the Jewish-American Left. He was among the founding members of New Jewish Agenda, a 1980s movement arising in response to the Israeli assault upon Lebanon.

Paul Buhle for Truthout: Your father was a Hebrew novelist? You were a young socialist of some Israeli variety?

Adam Keller: My parents met each other when they were both combat soldiers in 1948 and immediately afterwards have been founders of a Kibbutz in the early 1950s, and at the time believed very much in the vision of Socialist Zionism, but they became disillusioned before I was born and left the Kibbutz – mainly because the Kibbutz, founded by a group of young idealists, developed a power structure at record speed and the two of them were on the receiving end.

The Kibbutz fishing boat where my father worked, and liked the work, was scuttled by decision of the Kibbutz general assembly without the fishers themselves having a voice in the decision; kibbutz women [were] pushed to traditional women’s roles – my mother herself having to wash by hand piles of soiled diapers, day after day after day (it was a young kibbutz; there were many babies, no disposable diapers and no washing machine – and though men and women were officially equal, no male Kibbutznik was ever asked to wash diapers). So I was born in Tel Aviv to parents of generally Socialist Zionist background, but very disillusioned and in a rebellious mood – this cost my father a job as a technician in the Israeli Electricity Company because he detested the Ben Gurion Labor Party bureaucracy and rather quixotically tried an all-out confrontation with the company bosses AND the Union … So, you could say I was the child of rebellious and disillusioned Socialist Zionists who still cherished some shards of the original dream.

The settlers would rather destroy their own homes with their own hands rather than give Palestinians the vote.

It is not correct to say that my father was a Hebrew novelist – he was a kind of jack of all trades, fisherman, technician (sometimes doing engineer’s work for the salary of an unskilled worker), inventor of labor-saving machines (which employers did not want because there was a lot of Palestinian cheap labor), teacher at vocational schools, sometimes working for a boss and mostly having stormy relations – sometimes with his own struggling workshop. In between, he was writing a bit of poetry and short stories and constructing kinetic statues (which he called “my crazy machines”). Hardly any of it was published, but of course, he shared it with the family.

Only now in retirement, he wrote the novel he dreamed of, Towers to Nowhere, taking place in Russia of the early 1900s. It is a bit realistic and a bit grotesque and a bit surrealistic and a bit of science fiction thrown in – with the general message that Zionism oppressed not only the Palestinians, but also the East European Jews, destroying their Yiddish culture. It will never become a bestseller (which it deserves), but I am trying to get the book a bit more attention than it got until now, and I hope my father would still see that (my parents are now both 85, neither in the best of health but both still muddling on).

How did your disillusionment with the Exodus/Uris version of reality develop?

It was a gradual process in the three years between 1967 and 1970. In June 1967, I was an 11-year old kid full of nationalist euphoria at the great victory which followed very deep apprehensions. Just before the war started, I was walking with my parents on the Tel Aviv shore and my mother kept looking at the city: she later told me she had been saying goodbye to Tel Aviv because she was sure it was going to be destroyed – and then just less than a week later, an overwhelming victory and conquest of “new territories.”

Two months later, my father rented a car and we – my parents, me and my kid sister – went to East Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Hebron and Jericho and Nablus, feeling like the new owners come to inspect our new property. If somebody would have told me then I was going to devote forty years of my life to trying to get Israel OUT of these territories, I would have thought he was crazy – I felt it was ALL OURS FOREVER. But it gradually changed: in 1969, I joined the youth movement of the Haolam Hazeh political party headed by Uri Avnery, who was then a young, fiercely taboo-breaking Member of the Knesset. I was originally attracted mainly by his call to separate religion and state, [to] have in Israel civil marriage and public transportation on the Sabbath (we still don’t have either!) and in general his being an opponent of the rotten old establishment parties.

I joined the party’s youth section, not because of its advocating peace with the Palestinians, but despite it. While being already in the party, I gradually came to accept its positions about the Palestinians, too: that took about two years. The final push was in 1971 when I together with some 20 other youngsters, heard the testimony of a soldier who came back from Gaza about the horrible things the army was doing there. First, we could not believe it, we started crying out, “This can’t be true, our army does not do such things!” and the soldier answered “Yes, the army is doing these things. I did it myself, and now I can’t sleep at night because I remember what I did.”

You share blog space with Uri Avnery, who seems to me the Voice of Ancient Wisdom. When did YOU begin working with him or reading him, and how is it that you are sort of a generational successor, now in YOUR middle age.

At first, it was a very unequal relationship, between a brilliant parliamentarian and public speaker at the peak of his public career (though at the time he hoped to get much higher) and a rather star-struck teenager who joined the youth group affiliated to this parliamentarian’s political party. Later on, it became more of an equal partnership, going on and off in the changing political landscape. After the end of the 1970s, Uri realized that he could not get re-elected again, because there were many competitors who tried to emulate him and use his “formula” while offering a watered-down version of what he said and did – and sadly, they proved more successful in the ballots.

There were years when he was out of active politics and was moving to the position of an “Elder Statesman” who is very respected, invited from time to time to write an op-ed piece or speak in a TV talk show, but no longer to build up an active political following. In these years, I was more distant from him and was involved with other groupings and other “VIPs” such as Matti Peled, the former general tuned radical dove. But Uri disliked being put on the shelf and being shut out of direct involvement, and in the 1990s – when he was already 70+ years old – he effectively reinvented himself as a radical extra-parliamentary activist leading protests on the streets of Tel Aviv and at West Bank villages – always leading from the front when there was a confrontation with army or police, batons, tear gas etc.

That was when he and me started working very closely together in Gush Shalom. Uri really thrived on the activist life; he went on with it until past his 85th birthday, and it was with reluctance that he accepted the firm advice of his doctors and his personal and political friends to slow down and preserve his strength. Nowadays he is not very much on the streets, but very, very active still on his computer keyboard, as you can see.

Pinpoint this problem: Peace Now (and its US arm, APN), as I read their blogs, ultimately seek a Two State Solution, but nevertheless, supported the bombing of Gaza and, in some of the online commentaries, even congratulated Bibi on his explanation of it. This seems illogical to me. I think of them, perhaps unfairly, as “happy to be unhappy,” another way of saying “Beat and Cry.” That is, and if I am not vulgarizing: Nothing will likely change except when it gets worse, but Israel’s right to act as it wants, irrespective of world opinion or the fate of Palestinians, will be defended, war after war. If I am not mistaken, or misjudge from the views of APN, the Settlement Blocs are considered as permanent, with “land swaps” as a magic formula that will allow the retention of the Settlement Blocs – clearly an unworkable non-solution.

Well, there is a current in what passes for the Israeli Left which makes a distinction between the Good Palestinians (i.e. Abu Mazen) and the Bad Palestinians (i.e. Hamas), and thinks we have to make peace with the Good Palestinians and fight and destroy the Bad Palestinians. People like that seem never to realize that such an Israeli policy is the best way to discredit the Good Palestinians and make them seen to be collaborators while the Bad Palestinians become heroes in the eyes of their own people.

Something like that is very much the outspoken position of Tzipi Livny, former Foreign Minister and Justice Minister who is now the Labor Party’s partner in the ongoing elections campaign, and who – if we are (relatively) lucky – would succeed in getting rid of Netanyhau once and for all. For Livni, using the Israeli military might to crush Hamas does not contradict the Two State Solution – on the contrary, crushing Hamas is the precondition for achieving the Two State Solution. This idea might create big troubles if and when she becomes PM – on the other hand, she has a long record of changing her political and ideological positions very radically; I hope she will change this one too.

The above does not refer to Peace Now; I think they do realize that a peace agreement with the Palestinians must include Hamas, otherwise, it would be too shaky. Israel had a chance in [the] 1990s to make a deal with Arafat, who had massive support among Palestinians; Arafat would then have become President of Palestine and Hamas would have been an internal Palestinian issue, not directly the concern of Israel.

But Israel blew that opportunity; now Hamas must be “inside the tent” or there will be no tent. As I said, the Peace Now people definitely realize this. I don’t think Peace Now has ever EAGERLY supported the bombing of Gaza (of their US supporters I can’t say). In times of bombings of Gaza (2009, 2012, 2014), Peace Now has wavered between opposing the bombings and RELUTANTLY supporting them (“We don’t like this, but what can Israel do when they are shooting missiles at us?”/ “There is no choice but to bomb, but please make an extreme effort not to hurt civilians” / “There is no choice but to bomb, but there should be absolutely no ground invasion” / “A week ago there was no choice but to bomb, but enough is enough, now is the time for a cease fire!”).

The last – calling for an immediate ceasefire – is when we find a common ground with Peace Now and hold an anti-war demo jointly, it usually comes about after three or four weeks. So, can we find the way to work with them as needed? Sure we can. A very simple way – if we can agree, we demonstrate together with them (that is about 80%-90% of the time). If we can’t agree, we demonstrate without them (10%-20% of the time, usually in times of crisis when nationalist passions run high, wars in Gaza in particular).

I have to note – when there is a war in Gaza and you speak out against the war, you must answer two essential questions: 1) “Why are they doing it? Why are they shooting these missiles at us?” and 2) “So what do you expect Israel to do? Just be hit by missiles and not shoot back?” There are, of course, answers which you can make; you can talk of the siege of Gaza and the general misery of the Palestinians and so on and so on – but whatever you say, you are INEVITABLY going to sound like an apologist for Hamas.

Only very radical Israelis are ready to do that. So when such a situation develops, we find ourselves in a splendid isolation – but we know (at least those of us who have been through it ten times before) that Peace Now and other “fair-weather doves” will come around in month or two, so there is no point in feeling any great rancor about it. It is all part of the game.

By the way, you should make a very clear distinction between bombing Gaza and settlement expansion. Peace Now and other doves might waver on bombing Gaza – they will NEVER support settlement expansion. Never. Settlement expansion is the one thing which is sure to get Peace Now militantly opposing, come hell or high water. In everything to do with settlements, we can rely on them to the hilt.

In a second round, you added a question about the “settlement blocks” and “territorial swaps.” Well, first off, no one can point out exactly where the “settlement blocks” are. The US asked Israel several times to point them out, and Israel always refused. The reason: if the government points out that the settlement blocks are here, here and here, that is tantamount to announcing that everything which is outside these blocks is going to be evacuated.

Therefore, any attempt to define where the “settlement blocks” are would immediately start a very wild free-for-all among the settlers, each one demanding that the specific place where he or she lives be included in a “block,” and if the government tries to draw a line on the map and say, “The block ends here,” then the settlers who live five kilometers further out will cry bloody murder and use every bit of influence to let the block be extended to include them – and if they succeed, the settlers who live five kilometers further east will do the same. So, “settlement blocks” can be interpreted as “Just annex everything or nearly everything.”

On the other hand, there is the minimalist approach, which says that “settlement blocks” are just a few big settlements with tens of thousands of inhabitants each. The assumption is that these people are concentrated on very small pieces of land, so if you annex them, you take up only a small part of the West Bank, but you very greatly reduce the number of settlers you need to remove.

That is presumably what George W. Bush had in mind when he gave Sharon the famous letter which stated that Israel could keep “major population centers” on the West Bank. Bush never used the term “settlement blocks,” but whenever that letter is quoted in Hebrew, the term “major population centers” is translated to Hebrew as “settlement blocks” (far from a precise translation).

The way out of this quagmire is to define exactly what you mean by “territorial swaps.” The Palestinian leadership’s position – with which we in Gush Shalom agree, as do Peace Now and other peace groups – is to insist on having the 1967 borders as the baseline and that for every square inch Israel annexes east of this line, it must give the Palestinians a square inch of comparable quality west of that line. If you insist that “territorial swaps” are carried out in this way, on a 1:1 ratio, you will find that the Israeli appetite for biting off parts of the West Bank has substantially diminished.

The Palestinian leadership is ready in principle for “territorial swaps” on this basis, and they assume that about 2% of the West Bank will be affected – or perhaps 3%. On the other hand, if you don’t insist on the 1:1 ratio, then “territorial swaps” could be a slippery slope leading to very substantial Israeli annexations in return for very marginal compensation to the Palestinians.

For example, in the Camp David fiasco of 2000, PM Barak offered the Palestinians “territorial swaps” on a 1:9 ratio – i.e., for every nine square kilometers which he proposed to annex on the West Bank, he was willing to give the Palestinians one (1) square kilometer in the Negev; plus, he wanted to annex the most fertile parts of the West Bank, with the best water sources – while the very meager land he proposed to give in return was desert land with not a single drop of water – completely worthless land, where no Israeli had ever to come to live in all the years that Israel existed.

Of course, Arafat rejected out of hand this kind of “territorial swap” – he would have been mad to accept. This was one of the main reasons for the failure of Camp David (though it proved impossible to convince the mainstream of the Israeli public of that. We tried very hard, but most Israelis believe that Camp David failed due to Palestinian intransigence and rejection of “generous offers” – only our hard core of supporters were willing to listen to something else).

So anyway, the Devil is in the details. The meaning of “settlement blocks” and “territorial swaps” could vary very much – some meanings are completely unacceptable, others can be lived with. The Palestinian leadership is officially willing to have “territorial swaps” at the rate of 1:1 and affecting some 2% of the West Bank; they might accept in negotiations 3% or 4% provided that the rate of 1:1 is kept. Netanyahu, of course, would not hear of anything of the kind – one of the many reasons why his negotiations with the Palestinians were foredoomed. As to the new government we might have after March 17 – wait and see.

The dilemmas of peaceniks hoping for change after the next election are already obvious. But could Obama (or the US), by refusing to veto a UN resolution sometime, change the equation? Would Israelis abandon the West Bank under any circumstances?

Well, Obama did veto the Palestinian appeal to the UN in December. Now there is a further escalation in Obama’s relations with Netanyahu, over Netanyahu inviting himself to address Congress in March and trying to wreck the administration’s efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution with Iran. Netanyahu is getting himself completely mired in internal US politics and openly siding with the Republicans. He forced the Democrats on Capitol Hill to choose between him and Obama, and the Democrats chose for Obama.

The same for many of the American Jewish community – even such a stalwart of the American Jewish establishment as Abe Foxman felt obliged to call upon Netanyahu to cancel that speech. In short, Netanyhau is systematically undoing AIPAC’s decades-long efforts to build a bi-partisan support and make sure that – whoever sits in the White House or has the majority – support for Israeli policies will remain solid. I think the AIPAC leaders must be gnashing their teeth, like a veteran lawyer whose client is ruining the defense case. Where will this go? Only time can tell.

But – would Israelis abandon the West Bank under any circumstances? Yes, absolutely. What circumstances? That, of course, is a big question. If a new, more or less enough peace-oriented government emerges from the Israeli general elections due on March 17, would that government be willing and able to abandon the West Bank? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Hopefully, we will succeed in getting rid of Bibi and have Herzog and Livni instead – but it would [be] no surprise if we are greatly disappointed in them. A great deal would depend on whether there would be significant international pressure on the new government to do more than talk nicely. And in the worse-case that Netanyahu manages to hold on after March, we can certainly expect increasing international pressure – but will it be enough?

One circumstance could be certain to make Israelis abandon the West Bank – if they are told that, otherwise, they must give Palestinians the vote in Israeli elections. Giving Palestinians the vote would mean the end of the Jewish Majority. From the Zionist point of view, giving up the West Bank is like losing an arm or leg. Giving up the Jewish Majority is being decapitated. Given this choice, there can be no doubt what Israelis would choose.

Assume a UN Security Council resolution giving Israel, say, three years to do one of two things: either evacuate all its soldiers and settlers out of the West Bank – or keep the settlers in place, but give all who live in the West Bank Israeli citizenship and the vote in Israeli elections. And with the clear proviso that the UN tells Israel that if three years elapse without either of the two being implemented, Israel would face severe sanctions, which would ruin its economy. In that case, there could be no doubt of the outcome – after three years, Israel would be out of the West Bank. The settlers would rather destroy their own homes with their own hands rather than give Palestinians the vote.

A few years ago, a Jewish magazine carried a story, an interview with a liberal, peace-minded housewife in the north, in a village that now has no Palestinians. She insisted that she held no prejudices, but looked forward to the day when the last physical vestiges of their (former) local presence would be eradicated. It was not part of the history that made her feel comfortable. Around the same time, my friends at JEWISH CURRENTS ran another story about an elderly lady returning to her grandparents’ village in the Ukraine. The synagogue was gone and she asked a friendly local about it, a woman who shrugged and said, “It’s not part of our history.”

There is no valid comparison between the fate of European Jews and today’s Palestinians, but the willed un-memory seems to be held in common. I suppose I am asking this question as an historian: how can memory work differently and create a badly needed sense of common history, ordinary daily history as well as conflicts? How can it help to resolve the need to move Israelis back across to the legal side of the 1967 border and Palestinians to accept the return of any significant numbers as something that will not happen.

Well, I think that in such cases – i.e., that you live in a place where somebody else lived in the past who had been driven out or murdered – the decisive consideration is whether there is any realistic possibility of the former owners coming back and reclaiming their homes and lands. For example, I think an American considering the fact that a certain Native American tribe once lived where his town is now located, might feel guilty, but does not feel threatened. Even if some members of that tribe live on a reservation somewhere, it is not likely that they would ever be in a position to reclaim their old lands.

So, I think an American can well preserve whatever archaeological remains can be found of the former inhabitants, or even call the local football club by that old tribe’s name. Israelis, on the other hand, are well aware that among the Palestinians the assertion of the Right of Return is very much alive as political aim (for many Palestinians, a military aim as well). And I think that also for Ukrainian villages, the possibility that Jews might one day come back to their village and reclaim Jewish properties (which might be very considerable) is far from out of the question. So, I think that when something in the past is liable to threaten your future, you might wish to wipe this section out of the past.

It takes longer to read this sentence than it does to support our work.

We have 2 days to raise the $30,000 needed to meet Truthout‘s basic publishing costs this month. Will you take a few seconds to donate and give us a much-needed boost?

We know you are deeply committed to the issues that matter, and you count on us to bring you trustworthy reporting and comprehensive analysis on the real issues facing our country and the world. And as a nonprofit newsroom supported by reader donations, we’re counting on you too. If you believe in the importance of an independent, free media, please make a tax-deductible donation today!