Amidst the carnage and political debacle surrounding Gaza and Israel, it can be easy to discuss the conflict with a macro view, where families, hospital workers, UN workers and journalists become statistics and political perspectives dominate. On this episode of the Scheer Intelligence, host Robert Scheer talks to the author of what Scheer claims are “arguably the two most important books that deal with the humanity of the Palestinian people.”
Sandy Tolan, author, journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, delves into this crucial aspect of humanity in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel itself. Invoking the themes of his books, The Lemon Tree and Children of the Stone, Tolan and Scheer explore the historic details that define the war today, including the accounts of the people living through it all.
Tolan also draws from his reporting experience, describing an assignment to cover the water crisis in Gaza where, “97% of the water… was not fit for human consumption,” to exemplify the harsh reality on the ground. The 2006 blockade that saw food, water and electricity become tightly controlled is also discussed as one of the elements that paints Gaza as an “open air prison.”
Humanization, Tolan argues, should be used to catalyze actual change for the people of the region. “The civilian casualty rates are always, as terrible as they are on both sides, always highly skewed. So many more Palestinians die. And I think if we see each other, and I mean Israelis, I mean Palestinians, I mean anybody, as human beings, it’s a lot harder to do that,” he said.
The two conclude that the future appears bleak now a little over a month into the war. Tolan explains:
“If it continues the way it is, it’s hard to imagine there not being another person arising from this terrible rubble and growing up with a lifelong resentment and hatred towards Israel and perpetrating something that we can’t even envision right now. Unless there’s a way for people to feel represented and for them to feel like they have the right to freedom of movement, to be safe, to enjoy an evening in the Gaza Harbor without fear of bombs made in America raining down on them, it’s really going to be hard to imagine how anybody long term is going to feel safe.”
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This transcript was produced by an automated transcription service. Please refer to the audio interview to ensure accuracy.
Robert Scheer Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest and Sandy Tolan, I don’t want to gush here, I think this guy is just really one of the most interesting journalists we have in the country, and particularly on this subject that I want to talk about today, obviously, the war with Israel. And they say in the media it’s Israel versus Hamas, but actually it’s Israel versus a notion of a Palestine, a people without a country like the Jews have been through most of their history, our history, I happen to be Jewish. But he is very well known for writing what are arguably the two most important books that deal with the humanity of the Palestinian people. One of them, in particular, Children of the Stone, talks about the children of Palestine. Right now they’re in the news a lot because, you know, 40% of the people bombed who [are] killed by the bombs are children. In Children of the Stone, we meet them as aspiring musicians, as human beings, as people with families, you know, [who] love to travel if they ever get the chance and so forth. And in The Lemon Tree, which put Sandy on the map as a really important writer in this region, one of the most important, he goes into the whole history of what this conflict is about and so forth. I don’t want to take up any more time. I should say, he’s a professor at the University of Southern California in Journalism. He was at Berkeley’s Journalism School before that, a major producer. I think he just won the Overseas Press Club Prize for his most recent work. He’s been in 40 different countries reporting for NPR and so forth. So I’m not going to… I’ve gushed enough.
Sandy Tolan You’re making me blush, Bob.
Scheer I just think, well, the reason I’m doing that is you’re in a vulnerable position now. You know a lot about a subject, I think of Chris Hedges, I sent you his article today, and yet if you don’t come down within and within some narrow confines, even at any university, I should say, particularly any university, you’re going to be a mark, you’re going to be troubled, your people are going to attack you and so forth. And, you know, we have to meet it head on. And really, what you said about Palestine, the Palestinians, is really the most provocative thing, which is they’re human beings. And they have a right to a history, they have a right to be thought of as complex and, you know, people striving to do better. And they’ve been penned up in a situation which I’ve mentioned before on this show. I happened to go to Gaza in the West Bank at the time of the Six-Day War. I saw the reality of it, these people did not attack Israel. I don’t want to go on this much longer. I’m going to turn it over to you. But you must be in something of a state of shock of what’s going on now. So just tell us what you’re thinking.
Tolan Yeah, thank you, Bob. And that’s very generous of you, what you’ve said. And also The Lemon Tree also tells the story of the origins of Israel to and through this remarkable friendship between a Palestinian and Israeli whose common history is the same house, so I’ve looked at that as well. You know, and I think it’s important to talk about the history in the context of Gaza and how Gaza got to be Gaza as it is today. But I also want to touch on something you just mentioned, which is the human factor. A lot of our hearts are breaking, you know, our hearts are breaking for the terrible, terrible atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel and the incredibly unrelenting bombing campaign that’s killed over 4000 children in Gaza and the complete lack of any interest on the part of the powers that be for a genuine cease fire. And we could talk about that, but what I keep going back to is the people I know in Gaza. How are they doing? I thought back; the last time I was there was five years ago. And, you know, we met this family, the [inaudible] family they had gone, there’s a little tiny spit of land of kind of rock sand land that juts out into Gaza Harbor. And we were walking on it, it was a moment in the conflict where there weren’t bombs going off and I walked with a couple of colleagues down this strip and we found the [inaudible] family and they were, you know, just having a night, you know, an evening with the children. And I had three kids and we sat and we asked if we could talk to them a little bit.
And of course, you know, if anybody has ever witnessed Palestinian hospitality, it’s like, please, please, come on. And, you know, the woman was, the mother was pouring us mango soda and the father insisted on us eating chocolate wafers. And I still remember their hopes, their biggest wish, which was, you know, I’m looking at my notes now, I know the situation is horrible, but I just want to let my kids have a little change from time to time. I want them to see something different. I want my family to feel safe. So I come here to the sea and we come here so we can try to forget about the world. And those words really came back to me today because I don’t know where the [inaudible] family is, I don’t know if they’re alive. But the idea that there are members of this terrible conflict, parties to this terrible conflict that are more human than others is just antithetical to what I believe. Israelis are fully human, just as Palestinians are. And so when you read that 4000 children have died in Gaza, it’s just, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. And I don’t understand why it’s continuing but we can talk a little bit about that.
Scheer Well, you know, the whole idea of a common humanity really connects the Palestinians and the Israelis, not just because of the war and the claim on a particular piece of geography, but they’re basically people without a nation. And when I say that, you know, suddenly it is thought to be controversial. But when I went to the West Bank at the time of the Six-Day War as a journalist, and I come from Egypt, you know, which is, after all, whether the Six-Day War was a preemptive war by Israel to prevent Egypt from threatening them and Jordan and Syria and so forth or you could have a different view. The fact of the matter is Egypt had an army, they had troops in the Sinai. They were a force that had an economy. That was also true of Jordan, true of Syria. What I found with the Palestinians, they were, first of all, an occupied people by Arab nations. The people in Gaza, it was a pretty forlorn place, you know, yes, they had some rights they don’t have under the Israelis. The fact of the matter is, they weren’t treated so well by the Egyptians and we know the Palestinians, who a lot of them have lived in Jordan, we’re living in Jordan, they were not treated well.
And I know this is true throughout the Arab world. Some of them got jobs, some of them got very educated. They were restricted on what they could do, where they could own land, how they could travel. And, you know, I was just at that point, I kept thinking, these people really aren’t different than the Jewish neighborhood I grew up in, in the Bronx. You know, their economic circumstance certainly wasn’t all that different. And their life long experience of, you know, what is their nation, what is their nationality, what is their passport. It was so common. And in fact, the Israeli people I talked to and I talked to some prominent people like Allon and Dayan, as well as people in the kibbutz and they got it right away. They were out of that Labor Party tradition and so forth. They had a view and they actually said things like, oh, we can’t occupy a people will become the people, you know, that oppressed us and so forth. And I just want to ask you, because you’ve been a student of all this, something happened where the roles got reversed.
The David/Goliath, the wanderer and I look at what’s happening to the Palestinians, and they just seem to be a people that Israel… Even when they were objecting to Netanyahu, they hardly ever mention the Palestinians. And they came to be ruled by people who have an incredibly harsh view of it, which I must say the original Labor Party didn’t have. And I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a movie. I said earlier, I said, I can’t talk so much, but that happens to be a subject that I care about, there’s a movie called The Gatekeepers that had all of the Shin Bet people, and they were from the old Labor Party that occupied the West Bank, and they admitted this thing was destroying what it meant to be Jewish. I’ll leave it to you because you…
Tolan Well, I mean, I think the thing about the history of the history, if you will, the historiography, I guess, is the proper term is that you can have a day long argument about which year you start at and you can go all the way back. Some people go all the way up to the Bible. I generally go back to the beginning of Zionism in the 19th, late 19th century, but let’s take 1948 because I think that’s an extremely important year for understanding the context of what’s happening in 2023 in Gaza. So in 1948 and ’49, Israel was established by a vote of the United Nations. The British who were occupying left, and Palestinians did not want to be expelled from their own land. They didn’t want a Jewish state, they wanted one state with everybody. And we can talk about that. But the result of that was in 1948 and 1949, the 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled in fear after a particularly … infamous massacre at a place called Deir Yassin, a Palestinian village. And they all left thinking that they would come back.
The people in what’s now the West Bank, they went mostly to Jordan or into the West Bank, rather, the people in sort of near what’s now the West Bank went to the West Bank or they went to Jordan, the people in northern Israel, what is now northern Israel on Haifa, they went up to Lebanon and the people of south of there and others scattered around, went to Gaza; 750,000 people were basically dispossessed in that war and they all thought they were going to come back. They thought they would have the right to return and they never did receive that right in practice.
So Gaza went from this relatively sleepy beachside strip of land to a teeming refugee camp, which today is commonly known, and I think accurately known, as the largest open air prison in the world where 2.3 million people live. And that’s on a strip of land that’s 1/10 the size of Rhode Island, our smallest state, so that’s for context — 2.3 million people on a living in a place that’s 1/10 the size of Rhode Island and to even zero in a little bit further. Bob, when I was there last time in 2018, I did a series for The Daily Beast and for public radio’s “Living on Earth” and for Al Jazeera on the water crisis and the water health crisis, especially for children. And a lot of my reporting was out of a refugee camp called Shati or the beach camp, and it was tantalizingly close to the beach, but it didn’t feel like a beach camp,yet 87,000 people in a half a kilometer living there. And, you know, and the population and the amount of, you know, trouble with just getting around, getting a sense of just freedom of movement or of healthy water. I mean, 97% of the water at that time in Gaza … it was not fit for human consumption. People were getting blue, children were getting blue baby syndrome. There was raised infant mortality and all kinds of other maladies that were just the simple result of not having enough clean water to drink. Now, why did this happen? I mean, there are a number of reasons.
One is that the population of Gaza has put such pressure on the groundwater that now, you know, seawater is intruding and people can’t drink selenite in water and stay healthy. But I think there is something else that’s equally important, which is that Israel decided, after Hamas came in in particular in 2006, Hamas and Fatah, which is the Palestinian, essentially the Palestinian Authority, the political organization of the old PLO, were going to try to negotiate a unity agreement, which was harshly opposed by the United States and Israel and was essentially broken. And as a result, Israel basically established a siege or a blockade on Gaza starting around 2006-2007. And at that time, an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon named Dov Weissglas, you know, they talked about not letting that much into Gaza, controlling all of Gaza through these locked gates, patrolling it from the air and from the sea.
And Dov Weissglas said it’s like meeting with a dietician, we have to make Gazans much thinner, but not enough to die. And people thought maybe this was a euphemism, but only, you know, some years later, researchers were able to see that Weissglas was speaking literally. Israeli officials had restricted food imports to levels below those necessary to maintain a minimum caloric intake. So you’ve had this sense of confinement and of not having enough to eat, not having safe water to drink that has helped, and not being able to go anywhere. I mean, if you go out to sea too far, you’ll get shot at. If you try to cross, you know, in previous years, if you tried to cross the fence, you’d get shot at, you can’t leave.
And so this has contributed to a terrible situation on the ground that’s, you know, been untenable for years, but nevertheless has kept getting worse. So you have basically the children, grandchildren, now great grandchildren of refugees from 1948, which make up the majority of the population still wanting to go home, although those villages that they lived in were long ago destroyed by Israel specifically so they couldn’t come back. And then you have people just, you know, like this family I mentioned at the beginning, just wanting to somehow live in peace and have some freedom of movement and security. And these children, you know, have never known anything else than what they’ve seen in their short lives.
Scheer But the whole thing is that … most situations we examine and we both teach … I teach at the same university. We, you know, want to be objective. We believe that conversations should be calm. We should recognize [inaudible], we should state our hypothesis. I mean it’s a whole thing, except when you talk about Israel. You’re suddenly, you’re going to make people uncomfortable, the reaction is. And just the very fact that there is even a history, say, before the Hamas attack, you know, 33 days ago or 35 days ago from when we’re talking, there’s simply a denial of any complexity, of any history and a continuation of what was a myth from the beginning that this, the David of Israel, you know, was always vulnerable, was always in a weak position, was always threatened by a huge Arab mass, and that therefore anything… And it even started with a more bizarre assumption, I remember when I first heard about Zionism as a kid, I would hear the slogan of a land without people for a people without land, meaning no one lived there.
And first thing, you know, people should understand the very idea of the recreation of the Jewish Israel was a repudiation of Western civilization, which is where the Holocaust happened. I remember this because I was born in ’36, I’m a couple of decades older than you, you know, And I remember the time hearing in my neighborhood about how they turned away refugees and what was terrible things. The US was very late to get in the war. I remember hearing, you know, Roosevelt, why don’t you get in the war? You don’t care, and so forth. And so the very idea of Zionism, as I was introduced to it, was they must have a state because Germany and France and Italy and ultimately the United States will never protect Jews and they will never accept them but that’s all forgotten now.
Tolan That’s really important that you bring that up because that whole.. When I was researching The Lemon Tree the the the Israeli main character for The Lemon Tree is a woman named Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, and she was born in Bulgaria and when I was interviewing people in Bulgaria, I would interview, you know, the handful of old Jews who had not left Bulgaria for Israel in ’48, ’49 or around that time, they remembered specifically that slogan of people without land go to a land without people. I mean, that was a slogan of Zionism. And of course, it wasn’t true. But at the same time, you know, that notion of Israel being born out of the ashes of the Holocaust was very powerful and it still is powerful and it’s part of the truth of the history and it’s what I call the Leon Uris history, speaking of his book, Exodus, which is, it powerfully documented that, but it treated the Palestinians as if they were hostile or pathetic or nonexistent, as if they didn’t have a connection to the land. And of course they did. And they were already in Palestine. And then in 1948, it’s, you know, what happened, we already talked about, but there were 750,000 people dispossessed and many of them moved into Gaza. And that, you know, contributed to the situation we’re seeing now.
Scheer Yeah, but, you know, we could do this in a leisurely way because the quick kinds of conversations really miss the texture of it. And just as you know, again, why history matters, I mean, the irony that Germany now would prevent demonstrations that might show support for the Palestinians. Germany! No other country in the world was as clearly responsible for the need for Jewish people to go live where these Palestinians were living. I mean, there’s no sense of irony, even, you know, or France that is being, you know, quite belligerent, had a long history of serious anti-Semitism, you know, and so forth, or in Eastern Europe, I mean so that’s to begin with, the idea. And, you know, you’ve had a number of honors I haven’t mentioned, but one of them was, I think you were honored by as an I.F. Stone person, weren’t you?
Tolan Yeah when I was at Berkeley but you don’t have to go through that, but thank you.
Scheer The reason I want to go through that, I.F. Stone, who was a great progressive journalist, he went in with the first group in Israel, and then at the time of the Six-Day War, I.F. Stone dared write for the New York Review of Books and he wrote for some else, including Ramparts, where I was, saying, wait a minute, this is the end of the dream. There was a dream and the dream—we gave the negative view of Zionism, there was a positive view—which is that Jews who had been restricted everywhere; couldn’t be farmers, couldn’t do this, couldn’t do this activity, would not be welcome, lived in the Yiddish pale and so forth, that there was a desire for normalcy and what you had with the early Zionists, yes, you had the Jabotinsky where Netanyahu is related to and so forth, but you had a great deal of idealism in the kibbutz movement, for instance.
Tolan If you look at the writings of Martin Buber or Albert Einstein, Buber in particular, he did not want partition. And Einstein warned that, you know, we will be measured by how we treat the Arabs. People didn’t save Palestinians as much then as people do today. But those words echo. And you know, anybody who wants a little hope or a little solace about maybe someday another approach that seems eternally far from where we are, picking up Martin Buber would be a good start. So, yeah, Zionism had an idealism; if you talk to Palestinian scholars, they’ll say, well, you know, it couldn’t have worked because, you know, we were already here. But if you look at what Martin Buber and to some extent, Albert Einstein thought, there was a wish and a desire for coexistence that is almost completely gone now.
Scheer Well, that is the tragedy of it. But the solution, however, has to be found in this way, of one state. And it’s being discussed, you know, because the fact of the matter is, a two state solution, and we’re sort of jumping to the end of this story but we’re seeing the reality of a two state solution really leaves the Palestinians in a situation of, if not imprisonment, extreme powerlessness and so forth.
Tolan It wouldn’t be a two state solution in the way that we think of states because of what’s happened since, you know, ironically, in 1993 was when they signed the Oslo peace deal. But there were only about 110,000, only about 110,000 settlers in the West Bank and very few comparatively, in Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem. And now, you know, those numbers have, you know, quintupled roughly. And an entire ring of Jewish settlements surrounds East Jerusalem. There are so many settlements and military posts, you know, the listening, you know, monitoring stations. You know, I used to play a little game when you or I would go drive around the West Bank when I first got there, you know, it wasn’t that many in 1994. And you drive on these roads and they were like exclusive roads for settlers and VIPs and I was thinking, well, why are they, what are they doing? Why are they building these roads if this is supposed to be where there is going to be a Palestinian state? And, you know, in the 30 years since then, what has happened is that hundreds of settlements, hundreds of thousands of settlers now live, you know, cheek to jowl almost or valley to mountaintop with the Palestinian villages.
And if you have any, you know, time to look at what’s going on in Gaza, take also a moment to see what’s happening in the West Bank right now. But my point is that, and I’ve been writing this, you know, since 2011, that the number of settlers has reached a point where to have what the negotiators always called a viable, contiguous Palestinian state is almost impossible because the sovereignty of the Palestinians has has been sort of crunched down into about 18% of the West Bank, which itself is less than 22% of the historic Israel-Palestine or historic Palestine. And so you’re talking about Palestinians in the West Bank living on about 4% of the lands. So how would that work? I mean, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a one state solution, but a two state solution which gives Palestinians no actual political right, no actual freedom of movement to move and, you know, the ability to have people from Gaza come to the West Bank. There was going to be under some peace plans, a corridor between Gaza and the West Bank. And instead, I think what’s been a very strategic approach by a series of Israeli leaders, including, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, is they adopted what the great former soldier in the Israeli War of Independence, former vice mayor of Jerusalem, and a scholar, Meron Benvenisti called Israel’s splintering strategy. The idea is you don’t want to have the Palestinians together as a unity, as a unit. So you separate Gaza from the West Bank.
You separate the West Bank from East Jerusalem, and you make it really hard for people in the diaspora, whether they’re coming from Canada, these states or Europe, of Palestinian origin to come back and visit. It’s very difficult to get through. And so that has been the strategy that Israel has opted for. And the irony of it to me, Bob, is that most of this happened under the so-called peace plan known as Oslo that was signed a little over 30 years ago, 30 years ago this past September, and not once since then in a series of presidents, I think now six presidents, has anyone stood up and said, you know what, if you don’t stop building settlements, we’re going to suspend aid, we’re going to withhold military aid, we’re going to, you know, keep you from continuing to build settlements. The last time someone did that was James Baker under the first President Bush, and it was before Oslo was signed. So the U.S., for whatever its reasons, political, cultural affinity, I don’t know what are all of the reasons, has basically not put its foot down and said, you know, you’re ruining the chance to have a two state solution, this is our policy. And I’ve seen President Biden talk about, oh, we got to revive the two state solution but I mean, I talked to a senior diplomat who’s been out of the State Department in and out and has been very influential in negotiations over the years and he said “I gave up on the two state solution a long time ago.” And that’s somebody who has been in the government very recently. So, you know, I don’t think a [inaudible] solution would ever happen, there could be a confederation. There are lots of different ideas, but…
Scheer The way we’re going to bring some coherence to this podcast and you are a professional radio person, is really what have we got? We got two old guys here, I’m older than you and we’ve been sincerely, I know I’ve lost a lot of sleep, as certainly you have over this subject to actually most of my life, frankly. You know, you could never be indifferent to the suffering of the Jewish people, I certainly can’t. And in my own case, my mother was Jewish, but my father wasn’t, he was German. And so I took it very personally, the tragedy that was inflicted on the Jewish people. But I think many people who think about it feel torn, even if they’re not Jewish and even if they have no connection. The world owed the Jewish people something. I don’t mind, I mean, I will state it, I’ve always felt that you cannot kill off almost, it could have been a majority at some point of people, commit genocide against them and not owe an accounting and you know something. The problem is that the idea of creating a favored imperial Western state that exists only because the U.S., first England, then the U.S. would accommodate it and support it and use it as a pawn, use it as a pawn. You know, when the Egyptians were nationalizing the Suez Canal, put pressure on Israel to oppose it. So what I think the real issue and the way out, which I think it was really under the surface in this massive Israeli demonstration against Netanyahu and the ultra chauvinists that are around him now.
And I, I suspect that most people in Israel are very concerned that this war has also saved maybe Netanyahu and has taken the jingoist to the fore. And it’s very simple, Israel was founded on an assertion of certain values. That’s why I brought up I.F. Stone who wrote about the original people who went back, he accompanied them. And it certainly was a commitment to some notion of respect for human rights and not… It comes up in The Gatekeepers, the movie about Shin Bet, the security organization that controlled the West Bank. The only people who speak in that movie, an Israeli movie, I’ve shown it in my classes now about six times, were all, you know, powerful people. And they all said we cannot continue as occupiers without destroying our own selves, our own values. Okay. And I suspect, you know, for all of the right wing lurch of Israel, maybe I’m being naive, but certainly it was a majority sentiment when I was there after the Six-Day War. We cannot be occupiers and be the kind of Jews we think we’re supposed to be. There’s a contradiction, a fundamental contradiction. And it can also be summarized in one slogan: Everyone should have a vote. That’s really been the problem. Yes, you can have a Jewish state, and that is maybe a majority or a very large number. You have respect for the values, for the religion, what have you. But it really breaks down. And it broke down in Israel very early, okay? Because there was a lot of idealism in the Six-Day War, I think 70% of the officers came from the 3% that lived on a kibbutz.
And most kibbutzim were idealistic, sharing different values and so forth. But when they said that the Palestinians, many of them in Israel proper, gave blood to the army during the Six-Day War and was loyal to their government. And when you said no, but you still can’t do this if you’re a Palestinian, then you don’t have this power, this is in Israel. Once you break with the idea of one person, one vote, you’re basically breaking with the idea of basic human rights. That’s been the tragedy, I mean in my view, the tragedy of Israel, right? If you really respect some notion of Jewish values, you know, which has been registered in literature, you know, artistic creativity, respect for science and so forth, you cannot control another people without acknowledging their fundamental rights, which begins with a meaningful vote, the right to vote, and there’s going to be peace now. You know, if you commit ethnic cleansing, you know, that’s fascism, that’s terrible. So that would be the end of the meaning of a Jewish experience. On the other hand, there can’t be peace when you conquer a people and you don’t give them the same fundamental rights you have. That’s the dilemma.
Tolan And right now, what you have and all across, you know, what was, you know, Palestine in 1948 and is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is essentially a one state reality. Not everyone agrees with me, but I see it. But a lot of people have said this before I did. And what you have is, is one state controlled essentially by Israel with several different regimes of rights. You know, there are the Israelis who are Jewish, who receive full rights within a democracy for them. Then you have Palestinians who so-called Israeli Arabs who live in Israel and Nazareth and elsewhere, many of them Christians who have fewer rights that Israeli Jews don’t have, that Israeli Jews have, and they they have less rights than them. Then you have people in East Jerusalem who are getting their lands and homes confiscated and are getting squeezed out, some have left. Then you have West Bankers who have no voting rights, as you noted, and who are under basically a military occupation that that covers most of the West Bank, you know, some 60 some years, almost 60 years after the Six-Day War.
And then you have then you have Gazans who, we know what’s going on in Gaza now. You know, there is, people said go to the south but I’m hearing from people saying that’s not safe there either. We’re getting some eyewitnesses coming out, including this American nurse from Connecticut who was on CNN recently. Very powerful testimonials. But in other words, it’s it’s all essentially controlled, you know, over the years. I mean, of course, during this terrible breach in intelligence and this horrible massacre, that it wasn’t controlled at that moment. But essentially, Israel has controlled all of these regimes of rights. And if it continues the way it is, it’s hard to imagine there not being, you know, another person arising from this terrible rubble and growing up with a lifelong resentment and hatred towards Israel and perpetrating something that we can’t even envision right now. Unless there’s a way for people to feel represented and for them to feel like they have the right to freedom of movement, to be safe, to enjoy an evening in the Gaza Harbor without fear of bombs made in America raining down on them. It’s really going to be hard to imagine how anybody long term is going to feel safe.
Scheer Well, that’s why I want to return in the time that we have left to us to talk about your own writing, because what the really ugly idea that’s out there now and again, it’s the back story of how Jews were treated. You know, always their humanity was questioned, their decency by anti-Semitism that they encountered as the norm. I mean, we both teach in Los Angeles and the main social clubs that were the center of power in Los Angeles: the Jonathan Club, the California Club did not let Jews in. Now, you know, were in the company of brown people and black people, you know, and they also treated all women shabbily. But nonetheless, the center of the culture of Los Angeles, you know, was one of exclusion and anti-Semitism to an otherwise, you know, a group that found obviously in the movie industry work and so forth. But you couldn’t look a certain way and you had to change your name and what have you. And it seems to me the big issue here is this is now the flip side, is the denial of the humanity of a people called Palestinians, beginning with even are there such things as Palestinians? Do they have any claim to any identity, any national feeling, which is, of course, denied for the Jews? What are you talking about? You’re basically gypsies, [they] were just extended to gypsies, you know?
And it seems to me that right now in the mass media and all political class and the two parties competing in their jingoism, I’ve never seen a group in recent history, I mean, we saw it obviously with slavery and racial discrimination, indigenous people, but just suddenly out of nowhere, it is almost legitimate and acceptable to talk about any Palestinian as not a full human being. You know, no one could read your book, particularly the Children of the Stone, and feel that way. I mean, because you just presented a rather disturbing picture of a kid growing up in the harshness of this environment. And then they actually do, you know, some terrible things, like a jailbreak is the way I see it. But your book, you know, shows these people that want to learn to play Beethoven, you know violin concerto I mean you know and and I must say when I got to Gaza, I mean that’s what hit me. I felt these people were just, I thought they were the Jews. You know, I also felt that people on the kibbutz, where I staying. The guy who took me into the West Bank was the mayor of Nazareth, you know, a Palestinian. And he had given blood to the Israeli army, amazingly enough. And, you know, I couldn’t really, you know, the denial of, again, I was very flattering maybe at the beginning, because I really respect what you did in your work, you know, and that is lost now. Even our colleagues in the media, basically even at the university, I think this conversation we’re having would be considered with suspicion at the University of Southern California. I find the atmosphere there, and you read about it all over the country now, if you dare talk about the complexity of the Palestinians and their humanity…
Tolan I don’t know that to be the case, Bob. I know the atmosphere is really, really difficult now and it’s hard for people to speak up. And of course, the incidents of anti-Semitism going on in the U.S. are horrible, but so are the incidents of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian. I mean, people are paying the price all round because of this.
Scheer Wait a minute, no, no, you misunderstood me. No, I mean, I didn’t bring up anti-Semitism to say…
Tolan No, I am. I’m just saying the atmosphere is really, really hard right now. And you do see a dehumanization. I mean, when, you know, one of the Israeli ministers said, you know, they are human animals. And when Benjamin Netanyahu says we are the people of light and they are the people of darkness, I mean, and this is not, you know, roundly challenged in the American media and some of the things like the Nakba is called the catastrophe, that word means catastrophe in Arabic. And even though you cannot equate it with the Holocaust, it has every bit as much a defining character of Palestinian identity as the Holocaust does to Israeli identity. And now I saw in the New York Times a couple of days ago, they called the Nakba a migration. So there’s a kind of euphemistic thing happening on one level, although there is really quite, I’d say more so than in Gaza war in 2014, there are more independent critical voices, even though that they still remain the exception, that are coming out in places like MSNBC and CNN and many other places. But I think it’s a really hard time right now to speak the truth. But I think, you know, as journalists and as writers, you know, we have the right and then the obligation, I think, to refer to the facts as they are and let things let things fall where they may.
I believe the most important thing for me, anyway, personally as a journalist that I want to do is try to bring humanity to whatever I’m writing about, not just Palestinians. I mean, there’s a lot of humanity on the Israeli side for Dalia and the people that she grew up with in Israel in my book The Lemon Tree. I think if we humanize, it is so much harder to dismiss someone and there is a lot of dehumanization. If there wasn’t, it would be very hard to justify continuing to drop bombs, more bombs in a couple of weeks, American made bombs, dropped by Israel then was dropped on all of Afghanistan in one year at the height of the war there. I mean, you’re talking about an explosive power that is, you know, during the 2014 war, the explosive power of all of the [Israeli] bombs that were dropped compared to all the Hamas rockets and missiles, 440 to 1, you know, the civilian casualty rates are always, you know, as terrible as they are on both sides, always highly skewed. So many more Palestinians die. And I think if we see each other and I mean Israelis, I mean Palestinians, I mean anybody as human beings, it’s a lot harder to do that.
Scheer Yeah. All right. Well, can we just take a few more minutes?
Tolan Yeah. There’s one thing I wanted to talk a little bit about, and I don’t know if you want to use it or not, but, I mean, one of the things I think is important for people to understand, we talked about the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe, and how Gaza came to be so crowded. And, of course, then the population grew over the years and the confinement and the concept of an open air prison. But I also think it’s important to go back to that same year of the peace deal, 1993, you know Yasser Arafat arrives to the great fanfare in Gaza. People were adoring and cheering, and so many people thought that was going to be, on both sides, that there were going to be two states, you know, side by side. In the coming years, in the next dozen years or so, Arafat allowed a corruption to occur within the Palestinian Authority. He, himself, most people don’t consider that personally corrupt, but he allowed corruption to flower all around him. And you had these millionaires, you know, people skimming off the top, building high rises in Gaza, building mansions for themselves. And I was there like ’94 and it was kind of appalling to see like a black Mercedes with an important Palestinian official inside speeding past a guy, you know, on a donkey cart, you know, carrying, you know, some crops from his farm to the market or whatever. I mean, and that really created a huge resentment among ordinary people, Palestinians living in Gaza. Like, these people were skimming off the top. We can’t stand this. And when Hamas came in, I liken it to the Black Panthers in the 1960s. They came in. They were opposition of not being corrupt in the way that Fatah was. And they came in and they pledged to clean things up. You know, obviously, it hasn’t worked that way. And people in Gaza are very unhappy in general with Hamas.
However, it’s really a very little known piece of this history is a guy named Jerome Segal, who’s a Jewish American who founded something called the Jewish Peace Lobby. And in 2006, right after the election, when Hamas was put into power, he went and talked to Ismail Haniyeh, who was the leader of Hamas, because suddenly they were responsible for governing and facing this mounting economic, humanitarian and political catastrophe. And he sent a note through Jerome Segal that said, we are so concerned about stability and security in the area that we don’t mind having a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and offering a truce for many years. He wrote that in a letter to George W Bush. And this was essentially a de facto recognition of Israel with a cessation of hostilities. And he wrote, The continuation of the situation will encourage violence and chaos in the whole region. Were they sincere? We will never know. Jerome Segal delivered that to the State Department. He told me when I interviewed him years ago. And he never, they never got a response. And then eight years later, Hamas and Fatah, which is, again, essentially the PLO, that, you know, the remnants of the PLO, which is essentially the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Fatah signed a unity agreement, which the Israelis and the Americans did not like and they were sending a clear message. Hamas, again, according to Nathan Thrall, who is a brilliant analyst, a Jewish American who lives in Jerusalem, he’s got a new book come out that’s really been getting a lot of acclaim. He wrote that Hamas agreed to a government that could have served Israel’s interests, he wrote this in The New York Times. It offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza. It was formed without a single Hamas member. It retained the same Ramallah based prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance ministers, etc. And most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by America and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel.
Now, of course, we are hearing a lot and we have heard a lot about Hamas’s terrible charter. But this was basically a willingness to refute, if, again, they were sincere and throughout peace. It makes a convincing argument that the Americans and the Israelis should have listened. But instead, we have this terrible, terrible war and no real clear idea that we can come back from it. I mean, I talked to another guy who was in Gaza for the State Department and counterterrorism, worked in the Israeli embassy in Tel Aviv and the American embassy in Tel Aviv. And he said, you know, he ticked off a list of his friends that he doesn’t know who they are. He said, you know, this is not inhabitable anymore. People can’t go back to Gaza City. There’s so much that’s rubble. Where are these people going to live? There’s no water infrastructure. There’s so few apartment buildings standing. So what is the endgame here? The end game is not, you know, what was on the table some years ago. And I think it’s going to take a long, long time before we even come back to that sort of discussion. And I don’t think that that notion of a two state solution has ever been sincerely embraced by the current leaders of Israel’s government.
Scheer Well, there’s even a question of whether it was ever embraced, even by the Labor Party side at all. And again, I keep getting back to this documentary on The Gatekeepers, these guys and Shin Bet, these were all the leaders of Shin Bet at different points, I think about five or six of them. And they said if there was an interest in a two state solution, they never told us. And in the movie, they discussed the killing of Rabin. After all, an effective war leader, not a dove. And Rabin is the one who embraced the idea of peace, and he gave his life for it. And his wife blames, you know, Netanyahu among other things, for it. And I think what we have this is probably a good way to end this. I think the Israel that you and I have been talking about may not exist anymore. There is no Labor Party. There isn’t much of a peace movement. The big issue is how secular will Israel be and to what degree will people of a more fundamentalist aspirations be able to control daily life in terms of when you can drive or what you can do? But there doesn’t seem to be any opposition to the imperial ambition that there’s a big piece of territory and it belongs to the victors and there never were any… The people there were always no account anyway. And I think it’s my own view, it’s a very sad day for the Jewish tradition, which after all, was quite cosmopolitan in the best sense of the word.
After all, Jewish Jews believed in a universal notion of freedom because they knew they would be oppressed if people weren’t tolerant, if they weren’t open, if they didn’t respect intellectual freedom and ideas and so forth. Now you have a very narrow provincial you know, we’ve turned this into a chat. Let’s end just a few minutes of chatting. You know, it seems to me that, yes, whatever they do now will not satisfy any need for security, let alone space or travel for the Palestinians. It’ll be a version of a South African apartheid or something, a little zone or a region. As long as you stay in your place and obey, maybe we’ll let you stay there, won’t satisfy anyone. Nor will there be much inclination to treat the Palestinians the way [inaudible] who was the guy who was the mayor of Nazareth, when he gave his blood to the Israeli army. He told me, No, we’re all the same. And the people I was staying with in the kibbutz and even some of the military people I interviewed, they believed that at least they said they did. Okay, that’s out now. Now, you were really have a notion of a superior people and an inferior people, subhuman, animals. And, you know, it just worked.
Tolan As Prime Minister Netanyahu said people of darkness.
Scheer Yeah. And I just want to throw in one thing because there’s a lot of talk about where do you get real news and fake news and everything. And much of this history, much of all of human history, is kind of [inaudible] because people play with it, the victors define it. But you remember you brought up this issue of the Nakba and the elimination of, or disarray of the Palestinians is over. Ironically, I read Haaretz, the old left newspaper there, they actually got a pretty big readership. Now, every day I pay, I don’t know, $12 a month, I think is the latest rate and it’s not free. There’s a paywall, but they do actually very good reporting, you know. Yeah. And I just was reading a story there are actually scholars in Israel, Jewish scholars and Haaretz prints some of their stuff, who have actually gone back and visited that history of deliberate driving out of the Palestinians. The point you made, why are they even in Gaza? What was this all about? And it was done in a very brutal way. And ironically, we don’t find that out from the American media, which generally parachutes in somebody like you. The reason I was celebrating you before, you actually gave us the texture, you actually looked at who’s living there. But the fact of the matter is you can actually and at least a portion of the Israeli media get a much more realistic view that Israel never really was the David in that region, in modern history. The Palestinians were. And it’s not a slingshot and a stone. But yes, children of the stone, you really, in your book, describe it. The pathetic action of… And you have in Israel something that is not generally conceded, you know, one of the most effective, powerful high tech armies in the world, maybe the sixth most powerful or something.
Tolan And a nuclear power as well.
Scheer Yeah. And yet we’re talking about it as if Israel is still David.
Tolan I want to pick up on that, Bob, because there’s a historian at Oxford who’s Israeli by birth, veteran of the Israeli army , author of a lot of books on Middle East history. His name is Avi Shlaim, and he wrote some years ago and around the time that we were talking about when Hamas had just been elected and it was surprised to be elected. In 2006, America and the European Union shamelessly joined Israel in ostracizing and demonizing the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid, a surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier, but against the occupied, not against the oppressor, but against the oppressed. Now, of course, we have to qualify that in terms of the horrific actions of Hamas on October 7th. But he continues and so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes, which is I think, you know, the point that that that you’re making. And I still have a question: What is Israel’s and the US’s idea of the end game here if Gaza is not to be inhabitable, if Gaza City is not to be returned to, what’s going to happen?
It was 20 some years ago during the second intifada that the late, brilliant Palestinian scholar at Columbia University, Edward Said, wrote, you know, after a particular really harsh bombing by Ariel Sharon’s forces, he wrote, Said wrote what anti-terrorist purpose is served by destroying the building and then removing the records of the Ministry of Education, the municipality, the Bureau of Statistics, various institutes, special specializing in civil rights, health, economic development, hospitals, radio and television station. Isn’t it clear that Israel is bent not only on, or he said Sharon, is bent not only on breaking the Palestinians, but I’m trying to eliminate them as a people with national institutions. And to me, you know, 20 some years later, that question echoes. And yet I don’t want to end with this. If we’re wrapping up, I want to end at least my part, unless you have another question, with the spirit of Palestinians to be free. And many, many times over the years, and for the most part, that has been a nonviolent spirit that exemplified, and a spirit of resistance, nonviolent resistance, exemplified by the founder of [inaudible] the music schools that I wrote about, Ramzi Abu Radwan. He put on a series of nine symphonies in Jerusalem, in the Old City. Beethoven’s Ninth symphonies, and for the ninth, the famous Ninth Symphony, with the Ode to Joy, he and a number of other Palestinian musicians had to sneak into Jerusalem.
They climb the wall. One almost broke his arm falling from the wall or falling from the ladder that they had. Other people went in the trunks of cars underneath, blankets with their instruments and went to East Jerusalem, to this beautiful French church and with American and European supporters, musicians and Palestinians of different other nationalities who came from afar, from 14 different countries. They performed the most moving piece of music I have ever heard. And it certainly wasn’t the most technically refined version of the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Ode to Joy, but I think it was the most resonant that you could ever imagine and the most hopeful that you could ever imagine. And I just love thinking about that when we think about what could be in the future.
Scheer Okay, from your lips to God’s ear, as they used to say. Let’s hope it so. The sad thing is, and maybe we’re seeing that some on the other side also as well with the Israelis. You beat people up, you beat them, you discriminate them, you hurt them, and you produce not always good character, you produce what you saw from Hamas. You see anger, you see revenge and the story of that region, you go back to Muhammad or whatever the story of that region is one of creating bitterness, creating hostility. And so much of what we’re seeing there now is actually Old Testament biblical and it’s very depressing.
Tolan It is but, you know, I also don’t want to end this conversation without recognizing there are many people in Palestine, of course and also and I just talked about Ramzy, but there are also many Israelis who are heartbroken not only for what happened on October 7th, but for all they have fought for. I mean, Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, you know, I have been in touch with her and she’s just bereft. Another friend of mine who’s written, you know, she used to be a public radio journalist and has written for The Jerusalem Post and The Jerusalem Report. You know, she is heartbroken and people there retain, there are people there who retain a wish for there to be, you know, two people on one land coexisting with equal rights and that dream has not died. It doesn’t feel very present right now, but it has not died.
Scheer Well, okay. And let me just add there, it requires leadership. You know, what happened in South Africa is the people who are most oppressed. And, you know, Nelson Mandela was a very good example, a long time in prison. They, you know, they rose as a great moral force. And, you know, hopefully it’ll happen. But one of the problems with Israel is that the people who have claimed the mantle of democracy, the Western world and rule of law, actually, and we could end on that because really they played a terrible role and they’re doing it once again. Where is the leadership from the United States, England, Germany, for God’s sake, you know? Oh, my God. Okay, we can end on this note, we’re both journalists. And the fact is, reality breaks through. And I think the disproportionate power that’s being exhibited and the real I mean, yes, the Hamas attack was atrocious, was evil and so forth. But then to do it, what, already ten times more, are you going to do it 100 times more? That for the first time, you know, it’s not invisible. It’s happening right out there. And I think that that might change things. That’s all the optimism I can summon. I want to thank you. Maybe we can have this conversation…
Tolan Thank you. And the numbers of hundreds and hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of people on the streets indicates that there is a hunger for another view. And you know, those people a lot of people have been painted as anti-Semites. And for the most part, I think that’s just absolutely not the case. To say that you’re in favor of Palestinian rights does not make you an anti-Semite. And, you know, if people can equate that, put equal value in that, the aspiration to be free and have civil rights. Who knows where we could go?
Scheer Back to one man, one vote. That’s one thing. It should be one people with respect, you know, after all. Okay. On that note. Thank you. And I want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho KCRW, a very strong NPR station in Santa Monica, for posting these shows. I want to thank our executive producer, Joshua Scheer for putting it all together. Diego Ramos and a graduate of your journalism program at USC, for writing the introductions and being the managing editor of ScheerPost and Max Jones, another Annenberg USC graduate for putting all the video together. And finally, I want to say something. We get some funding from the J.K.W. Foundation in the memory of Jean Stein, a terrific American writer. She wrote Edie, she did a lot of books, East of Eden and so forth, and comes from an old, powerful Jewish family that Jill Stein and so forth but she was allied with Edward Said, who you mentioned and was a big supporter of his. And the two of them really did an awful lot to try to educate people to the common humanity of everyone. And so this is particularly a show she would have liked, so I’ll leave it there. Okay. Thanks for doing this.
Tolan Thank you, Bob. Thanks to your crew and I appreciate you having me on.