Sunday, September 22, 2013

Honoring Leah Tsemel, an Israeli anti-Zionist activist

In the mid-1970s, I lived in NYC & became caretaker of a brownstone owned by a political friend who lived out of state most of the time. As an editor of political publications my friend had many international collaborators who stayed in his home while he was away. Meeting them was quite an education for an untraveled provincial. There was the older man from Scotland I was warned (not by my friend) would be a nightmare of misogyny; I found him charming & shy & a delightful raconteur. There was another prestigious writer I expected to be intimidated by who was a misogynist boor with rude table habits.

Along with the Scotsman my favorite guest was Leah Tsemel, an Israeli human rights lawyer who stayed with me about a week while on speaking tour. She had only been practicing law for a few years then & her clientele were Palestinians before Israeli military courts in cases involving torture, interrogation, incarceration, house demolitions, land expropriations, family reunification. She has remained a champion of Palestinian human rights, still defending Palestinians in the courts & in venues like the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in South Africa (November 2011), & Palestinian solidarity activists (including on the Free Gaza flotillas).

She’s a stylish, brusque, straight-forward, gravelly-voiced woman who I anticipated might be high-handed because of her station in life. On the contrary, she could not have been less elitist, even sweet. There wasn’t a hint of arrogance in her attitude toward me--which probably helps explain not just why Palestinian defendants continue to flock to her but also her continued unflinching commitment to their cause.

She was on shopping missions to the Jewish-owned commercial district in lower Manhattan & she laid out her bargaining strategy for me. I warned her that though they might bargain in Jerusalem they certainly didn’t do so in Manhattan--which she took as a challenge. Every day she came back with packages she unwrapped while gleefully comparing their original price to the one she wrangled.

Many think it’s a pipe dream that Palestinians & Jews can one day live in harmony. Tsemel has often testified to the intransigent hold of Zionist racism on Israelis--which may explain why she came to accept a two-state solution, although that solution becomes more untenable with every new land confiscation & Zionist settlement. Israel has a one-state solution dependent on ethnic cleansing that excludes all Palestinians.

We don’t read much about anti-Zionist opposition among Israeli citizens because the persecution & censure against them is so severe. For defending Palestinians, Tsemel has been called a traitor, a whore, a self-hating Jew & her children have sustained harassment. But beside tough-minded individuals like Tsemel, her husband Michel Warschawski (founder of the Alternative Information Center), & many others, there are emerging forces of resistance within Israel including former soldiers (of “Breaking the Silence”) testifying about the military occupation; protestors against the bombing of Gaza; people opposing house demolitions; & human rights groups documenting & opposing the treacheries of the Zionist regime. The opposition may not be massive & it certainly isn’t strong enough yet to stay the hand of Israeli oppression but it reveals the potential for another kind of world. It’s far too early either to give up on the Palestinian movement or on emergent Israeli anti-Zionism.

(Photo of Leah Tsemel from video of her testimony at Russell Tribunal in Cape Town, November 2011)

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