Complaining to Naomi


JERUSALEM—I’m suffering from complaint withdrawal, big time. I mean, whom do you call when you want to speak your mind around here?

In the States, you could always call your congressman and give him an earful. Here we don’t have direct representatives.

What you do in Israel is vote for a party. The party chooses who gets to become a member of the Knesset. Why should they care what their constituents think? We didn’t pick them; their party picked them.

For years, I satisfied the urge to put in my two cents by calling 106 at least once a week. That’s the hot line for anyone who wants to protest uncollected garbage, mosquitoes, potholes, or triple-parked cars (an Israeli tradition). They never do anything about the problem, of course, but at least they answer the phone and make all the right noises.

However, as our situation with the Palestinians degenerates into outright lunacy, 106 just doesn’t cut it anymore. They don’t even pretend they are going to pass my comments on to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

So you can imagine how cheerful I felt when Naomi Harman Chazan, one of the few peace firebrands in the Knesset, invited me to her office.

Naomi was in my class at Barnard. We were sort of friends there and took all the same constitutional law classes. I say “sort of friends” because our adviser, Professor Phoebe Morrison, whom we both adored, definitely favored Naomi. I can’t imagine why. Maybe because Naomi did the class work.

Anyway, I put this 30-year-old grudge behind me. I had found my own “congressman.” It only takes an hour to drive from Jaffa to Jerusalem, and Naomi knows all the legal places one can smoke in the Knesset.

Let the kvetching begin.

Naomi has been a member of the Knesset (we call them MKs) since 1992 and is now the deputy speaker, serving on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Pretty good considering that she is from this micro-opposition party called Meretz, with only 10 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Thousands of people in Israel, including me, would like Naomi as our next prime minister. Look, wilder fantasies have come true.

You see Naomi on television all the time. You can’t miss her—she’s the one wearing the peace-dove lapel pin, her trademark. She has dozens of them. If you ask nicely, she’ll dig into the bottom of her huge pocketbook and give you one.

“When things are really bad,” Naomi says, “I wear a double dove to remind myself to try double hard.”

I drove up to see Naomi to gripe about Israel’s policy of assassination. Specifically, I was irked by the untimely demise of Raed Karmi, a self-proclaimed Palestinian terrorist. The demise didn’t really bother me, as there was a lot of blood on his hands. It was the “untimely” part that annoyed me. His death abruptly ended a two-week lull in the violence and sparked an outburst of fury that left at least seven Israelis dead. Cute.

As Ha’aretz columnist Danny Rubinstein wrote, “The policy of assassination is a boomerang that hurts Israel badly.”

“Sharon is scared out of his mind by quiet,” explained Naomi. “If you assassinate someone and you know that it will be a prescription for more terror, you have to be responsible for your actions.”

Naomi is very organized, but I don’t hold it against her. If you ask her a question, she responds in outline form.

“Our entire policy is based on what will happen tomorrow morning; there is no strategic thinking. It doesn’t relate to where we want to go,” she said. “What is happening now is a dead end for both sides. Neither side is ever going to achieve military victory.

“You cannot crush the will of an entire people,” she added. “No one should know that better than the Jews. And the Palestinians have to understand that Israel is never going to be erased from the face of the earth.

“Both sides have to make compromises, and they know it,” she insisted. “And if both know that they are going to end up at the negotiating table in the end, why not stop the killing, the assassinations, and the humiliation—not to mention the terrorist attacks.

“Talking doesn’t kill; we need more talk and less shooting,” she said, dashing off to the Knesset floor to vote on a no-confidence motion that she herself had put on the table. It lost.

“Playing the blame game is totally useless,” she said later. “No one is guiltless—the decision to support violence is a bad decision, and the decision not to yield anything is also a bad decision.”

Naomi is also angered by the Israeli policy of demolishing Palestinian homes that the government believes snipers use for shelter.

She has been keeping count—655 houses, home to 5000 people, razed since the current intifada began 16 months ago.

“This is an utter violation of humanitarian law and totally immoral,” she said. “A viable Palestinian state alongside Israel is in Israel’s interest. Every day that we disrespect each other’s rights is a day we both suffer. The only way Israel can survive as a democratic state with a Jewish majority is if we respect the rights of our neighbors.

“I am sick of the extremists on both ends. They are mortgaging the future of people who just want to live in security,” she grumbled. “The polls are clear; the people want to get back to negotiations.

“To Sharon, going back to negotiations means having to compromise and possibly losing the post of prime minister,” Naomi shrugged as if to say “tough.”

What about the future?

“I am not optimistic,” she said. “I am realistic. We’ll get through it, but how much death and suffering and damage will happen in the meantime? You cannot divorce domestic issues from the security situation, and both sides are suffering economically. In Israel, the economy has not been this bad in years, and that is definitely related to the conflict. Today one in five Israeli children lives below the poverty line.”

But she sees “the beginning of a momentum” toward peace.

“The supposedly dormant Israeli peace camp is coming to life,” she said, referring to the hibernation the Israeli left entered at the beginning of the intifada. “There are more and more meetings, demonstrations, and caravans” (carrying food, clothing, blankets, and medical supplies to Palestinian civilians).

“And on the Palestinian side, the democratic leadership is beginning to speak out.”

“I am 55,” she sighed. “I thought my demonstration days were over, but I am out there at least twice a week with protest signs. I had to buy an extra pair of shoes.”

The shoe leather is worth it.

“Caring about Israel means supporting those policies which will allow Israel to survive,” she said. “Those who are uncomfortable with government policies have an obligation to speak their mind and say, ‘This is unacceptable.’

“Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and putting an end to this insanity is the real Zionist challenge of the 21st century.”

Most Popular