The present political environment makes 1989 look like child’s play.
From the age of 14 until making aliya at 22 I was an activist and leader in the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea. Aliya, as we were taught and as we imparted to many others who we inspired to follow in our footsteps, was not simply a change of address. “Moving up” to Israel had to involve a qualitative change of life based on the most important of values – tikkun olam, repairing the world, or more specifically, making our world a better place. These are the most fundamental principles on which I have become the person that I am today.
Read About Gershon’s experience in Young Judaea
During my first 10 years here I devoted myself to trying to improve relations between Jewish and Arab citizens. I volunteered for two years and lived in Kafr Kara in the framework of Interns for Peace. I then convinced the government under Menachem Begin to hire me to become the first civil servant responsible for advancing Jewish-Arab relations.
Working with Aluf Hareven from the Van Leer institute, the first State Commission on Democracy and Coexistence Education was formed in the Education Ministry. With the assistance of the German Hans Seidel Foundation and with the support of Begin and education minister Zevulun Hammer, I established the Institute for Education for Jewish-Arab Coexistence, which I directed for seven years.
Throughout those 10 years, I thought that as long as the wider conflict with the Palestinians existed there was a very clear limit to the extent we could improve Jewish-Arab relations. This was frustrating (and remains so), but in 1976 as a student in New York, I attempted to launch dialogue with Palestinians only to discover, as the PLO ambassador in the UN said to me when I appealed to him to recognize Israel and support the two-state solution: “Over my dead body.”
I understood then that there was no point of entry for a real dialogue with Palestinians until they expressed, readiness to recognize our right as Jews to live in our land under our own sovereignty. That is why, during those years I decided to work on the issues of democracy and coexistence inside the country.
IN NOVEMBER 1987, things began to change. The first intifada broke out and mass demonstrations erupted all over Gaza, and then throughout east Jerusalem and the West Bank. These demonstrations were different from what had been seen until then. Thousands of people, led by women and youths, confronted soldiers all over the occupied territories. After several days of such unrest, defense minister Yitzhak Rabin was asked by a journalist if perhaps he should return immediately from his visit in Washington to put down the uprising, to which he replied that the situation would return to normal in a couple of days. But it did not. Some Palestinian leaders in the territories, perceiving the future, began to link the mass uprising with new, clear and coherent political statements.
The United Command of the Intifada began issuing political statements in which not only the tone was new, but the substance as well. Gone was the idea of the “secular democratic state” on all Palestinian lands; in came the message “end the occupation of the territories occupied in 1967! Two states living side-by-side in peace!”
After several months of reading these new statements I decided to see the new reality for myself. So one morning in early March 1988 I went to the Dehaishe refugee camp south of Bethlehem. Approached by some young people, I explained that I was an Israeli who wanted to understand what the intifada was about. After about 20 minutes of talking, I was invited to someone’s home. About 25 people came along. I spent six hours in dialogue about peace. They told me that the occupation of 1967 must end and they must be allowed to establish their own independent state. They were prepared to recognize Israel and live in peace. The moment I had waited for had arrived.
I resigned as director of the Institute for Education for Jewish Arab Coexistence and began to establish the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information – an institution dedicated to advancing the two-state solution.
In December 1988 I planned my first speaking tour to the US to advance the ideas of IPCRI and to raise money. My plan was to take my two-year-old daughter with me, drop her off with her grandparents and do my work. To my surprise, shock and horror, when I reached passport control in Ben-Gurion airport my passport was confiscated together with my daughter’s. I was told that I was forbidden to leave the country. No explanation. I was in tears. I felt humiliated. I was confused, I had done nothing wrong, why was I being treated like this? Every 20 minutes I tried to inquire about my status, and was told to sit down.
Ten minutes before takeoff , we were taken to the plane. No one ever explained why I was detained.
For the next four years, each time I left the country and when I returned, I was detained. Sometimes I was questioned about where I had been and what I had done, sometimes my belongings were checked. I was stripped and left naked in a small booth. I was never told why I was on “security list.”
I was never accused of any wrongdoing. I was never charged or arrested for committing a crime.
I was guilty of speaking to our enemies and of getting other Israelis and Palestinians to speak to each other. The people I brought together included senior government officials, retired senior officers from the IDF, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad, water experts, economists, business people and more. A terrible crime, I admit. In 1994, one month after being removed from the “security list,” I became an advisor to prime minister Rabin’s “peace team” in the Prime Minister’s Office.
I was a victim of the political environment of the time. The present political environment makes 1989 look like child’s play. Avigdor Lieberman and his academic allies, like NGO Monitor, are playing with fire and our democracy is at stake, along with the many innocent citizens whose ‘crime’ is working for this to be a truly democratic state living in peace with its neighbors.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.