Interview with Daniel Bar Tal, with the support of Ina Darmstädter

Daniel Bar Tal is a social-psychologist and until his retirement was professor for child development and education at the Tel Aviv University. For his research and struggle regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he received numerous awards. In November this year he was touring European countries for his project Save Israel Stop the Occupation (SISO) to win supporters among the Jewish communities for calling for the ending of the occupation of Palestine: “The continuation of the occupation is a gross violation of the norms of humanity, morality, and democratic values,” he says. “This occupation has lasted 50 years. In my opinion it’s a sin.” Together with Ina Darmstädter who is very active in the Israel-Palestine Womens Movement, we talked with Bar Tal in Berlin, Germany about the government narrative of the conflict and the consequences for democracy.

In 2017 it will be 50 years of occupation since 1967 when, after the Six-Day War, Israel occupied Gaza, Sinai, East Jerusalem and The Golan Heights, and despite UN Resolution 242 to return the territories, except for Sinai, Israel has kept control until today. Daniel Bar Tal says: “It is not only the responsibility of Israelis but of the international community, of our democratic values, our moral values, our universal values, that they should bring an end to oppression.”

The epistemic foundation for the continuation of the occupation

But Bar Tal tells us that 72% of the Israeli population would not know what he is talking about when he uses the terms “occupation” or “oppression”, because they don’t consider it an occupation. “The government of Israel with institutions and other organs have constructed a narrative that serves as an epistemic foundation for the continuation of the occupation.”  The Israelis were indoctrinated into believing that “Palestinians do not want peace” and “Palestinians want to annihilate the Jewish population”. “They do not regard Palestinians as human beings, but as terrorists, who don’t care about human life and are inherently violent. This is a picture held not only by ordinary people but also by leaders, even many opposition leaders.”

The narrative justifying the occupation has two parts, Bar Tal explains. One is: “Many Israelis believe the whole land between the river and the sea belongs to them exclusively, that it is their homeland. Palestinian land, in fact, is the heart of the homeland: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Hebron, which is the old state of Judea.” The other part is the existential threat against the Jewish people, as many Israelis perceive it. “Jewish people after the Holocaust feel that they have the right to defend themselves and they see themselves as the exclusive victim of the conflict. They do not see that the Arabs are victims of the conflict.”

Daniel Bar Tal is very pessimistic concerning change coming from within Israeli society at the moment. And he explains his pessimism with his research experiences: “There is a great correspondence between the government’s narrative and what people believe. Usually for change, there is open disparaty. Large portions of the people would not believe in the government’s story. But in Israel only 15 to 20% of the people have an alternative narrative. Spokesmen for civil rights NGOs are considered as traitors, when they talk about alternatives like the possibility of peace with the Palestinians or that Palestinians are human beings and are also victims, or that we also commit immoral acts. The government uses the educational system and the media in order to propagate the governmental narrative.” Two generations of people are now born under occupation. In 1972, Bar Tal says, the Green Line was erased from the Israeli maps. “About 75% of the maps in the Israeli text books do not show the Green Line. So an Israeli child looking in geography in the book, believes that this is the land of Israel. Children accept the narrative as truth.”

The repeated mantra of Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu was: “This is the truth and the only truth.” And interestingly, although generally he was perceived as a liar and as a corrupted person, Bar Tal says, but when it comes to the conflict and security issues he is considered as an epistemic authority and thus is very influential and considered as the only leader who can lead Israeli Jews in times of crises. “Israelis trust him on the aspect of security.”

Occupation or Liberation?

Ina Darmstädter mentions that the narrative has even sharpened within the last decade. There was the notion of “liberation of the heart of the homeland” instead of occupation. Bar Tal agrees, but adds that a majority of the Jews talked about liberation even in 1967 when the war ended. “The story is that Palestinians in this land came after the Jews began to return at the end of the 19th century. In their view it was the Zionistic movement that started to change the desert into blossoming fields, then the Arabs came and settled there and with time developed some kind of identity. But they were not a real nation, nothing compared to the Jews who had a well shaped national identity.” The consequence of this narrative has been that the Palestinians are considered as aliens in the home country of the Jews. The narrative legitimizes the Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

The use of language, in this context is very interesting to study, Bar Tal says. During a short period during the Oslo negotiations the terminology changed. Rabin used words like “Palestinians”, and described them as “victims of the conflict”. “In the last 15 years the language has moved back to how it was in the seventies. Regression and re-escalation of conflicts usually come with the sharpening of the language, the sharpening of the narrative and with these characteristics comes escalation of the conflict. In principle leaders can be sharpeners or moderators of conflicts. Netanyahu is a sharpener.”

Change must come through pressure from outside

Israel activists diverge in their opinion how to bring change, says Bar Tal. Some believe change must come from inside Israeli society. Not so Bar Tal: “Israeli society is extremely difficult to change. I don’t think it is possible because not only do the great majority of Israeli Jews hold the same views about the conflict and Palestinians as the government but also the government controls most of the formal institutions (for example the educational system) and much of the mass media and through these organs propagates and reinforces the hegemonic narrative that supports the continuation of conflict. The solution may come from outside. Pressure must be put. Fresh air can come from liberal Jews outside Israel.” Therefore he founded the movement Save Israel Stop Occupation (SISO) which wants to unite liberal Jews across the world. The 50 years anniversary provides an opportunity to raise awareness of the occupation, Bar Tal says, with many events and loud activities and with bringing people into action who usually remain silent.

SISO’s point of view is not a moral one. “We come to our activism from the point of view of saving Israel. Our basic assumption is that the occupation is a cancer that causes many negative consequences. It has extremely negative impacts on Israeli society, most of all, the deterioration of democracy. One of the basic principles of democracy is freedom of expression. But the government tries to keep its hegemony, to keep the formal narrative that it disseminates, and makes every effort to prevent an exposure and dissemination of an alternative narrative. Therefore freedom of expression is harmed.” He says it’s no wonder that Israel is ranked 101 for freedom of press by Reporters without Borders.

Tension between loyality and critical thinking

His plan is to meet with Jewish liberal communities. “They must become active and voice their opposition.” He observes that there are different groups: “Some believe in the hegemonic narrative of Netanyahu. Others see what is going on, but most of them are not ready to voice their objection because of various reasons: They don’t want to polarize the Jewish community, or they do not want to criticize Israel because they assume that they may harm it. They think “the Jews are under threat and I don’t want to give ammunition to anti-Semitism”, they are afraid to be labeled anti-Israeli or Self-hating Jew. Only a very small minority of Jews have the courage to voice their critical opinion.”

In Germany as in other Jewish communities around the world, Daniel Bar Tal assumes, there is a silent majority who detect the deterioration of Israel but are silent. In a discussion with Ina Darmstädter about whom to meet in Berlin, it becomes obvious that his task is a delicate one. The Jewish voices in Germany that are heard in the media the loudest are pro-Israel without any critical glasses, there are even liberal Jews who are afraid to meet him. Daniel Bar Tal says that he likes very much to talk exactly with those people who see clearly what is going on but are afraid to express their reservations about the process. He thinks that the way to broach the issue is to talk about the tension between loyality and critical thinking. I say: “It’s clear that loyalty is important for the survival of every group but critical thinking is no less necessary for every society. A society can only survive if it allows critical thinking.” I remind them of the story of Émile Zola and Dreyfuss [Dreyfuss was a French Jewish general of the army who was falsely accused of treason accompanied by a wide ranging campaign against him, and Émile Zola, was one of the few people who were courageous enough to voice their doubts; comment by the author] and I ask them: If I see human right violations, what should I do? I keep silent? I speak up? What do you think is the best for our Israeli society to do?”

It is a responsibility of everyone to speak up

What does Daniel Bar Tal say about the role of Germany and the common dilemma Germans usually face because of our history?  Are we allowed to criticize Israeli politics or should we stay quiet? He answers: “I feel very strongly about this question and I believe that it’s a sin to keep watching when you see that your friend is harming himself. It is a responsibility of everyone to speak up.”

On the question of how he developed the values underlying his activities, Bar Tal says that he did not undergo any big transformation like others. His mother, he says, was the most influential person in his life. “She was a very intellectual, liberal person, open minded, very knowledgeable. She was a humanist and gave me humanist values.” During his academic life he always gave his time to political activism, he says, but he considered that he could not have two careers although with his expertise he somehow combined both. “My main direction was academic but once I retired I decided that I would compensate and I became a 24 hours activist.”