Ruchama Marton: A voice from Israel against hatred and revenge

It is 20 years now that we accom­pa­nied the Mobile Cli­nic of Phy­si­ci­ans for Human Rights Israel (PHR‑I) on a mis­sion in the West Bank and the Negev for our docu­men­tary film “1000 Women and a Dream”.* Back then, we por­trayed Israeli psych­ia­trist Ruch­ama Mar­ton, who has been cam­paig­ning against Israel’s claims to power and in favour of equal rights for all peo­ple living bet­ween the Jor­dan and the Medi­ter­ra­nean since her mili­tary ser­vice in the 1950s. She foun­ded PHR‑I in 1988 in response to the lack of heal­th­care in the occu­p­ied territories.

Since then, mixed teams of Jewish and Arab health pro­fes­sio­nals have held regu­lar con­sul­ta­ti­ons on site to ensure that sick peo­ple receive medi­cal help regard­less of their reli­gion or ori­gin. PHR‑I has been repea­tedly hono­u­red for their com­mit­ment, inclu­ding the Right Liveli­hood Award in 2010 “for their indo­mi­ta­ble spi­rit in working for the right to health for all peo­ple in Israel and Palestine”.

Back in 2004, on the occa­sion of our film­ing, Dr Ruch­ama Mar­ton alre­ady cri­ti­cised shar­ply Israel’s policy of sepa­ra­tion, which was lite­rally cemen­ted by the cons­truc­tion of the wall: “So now, with this sepa­ra­tion, the anti-sepa­ra­tion thing is to cross the bor­der and to meet the peo­ple on a per­so­nal level and also on a poli­ti­cal, to tell them: We are against this, and we are wil­ling to co-work.”

The now 86-year-old doc­tor still adhe­res to this credo. She is part of a tiny mino­rity in Israel who con­ti­nue to cam­paign for equa­lity and human rights in Israel and Pal­e­stine. She wants her ana­ly­sis of the cur­rent situa­tion on the occa­sion of our tele­phone inter­view on 7 Febru­ary 2024 to be under­s­tood as an appeal to the world, and espe­ci­ally to us peo­ple in Europe and the US.

Yes, I want a dif­fe­rent Israel.
To accuse me of anti-Semitism 
because of that is absurd.”

Here is the ori­gi­nal inter­view with Ruch­ama Marton:

20 years ago, we accom­pa­nied you and the Mobile Cli­nic of the PHR‑I to the West Bank. Even then, the peo­ple there suf­fe­red enorm­ously under the Israeli occu­pa­tion régime. How do you assess the situa­tion today?

It is as bad as it can be. There is no way to compare the situa­tion 20 years ago with what is hap­pe­ning now within Israeli society and bet­ween Israe­lis and Pal­e­sti­ni­ans. The right wing has won in prac­ti­cally every aspect: In public life as well as in govern­ment. This also applies to reli­gious thin­king, which is at an almost pri­mi­tive level. It is cha­rac­te­ri­sed by hat­red and a desire for retri­bu­tion. Since Octo­ber 7, 2023, the desire for revenge has been the pre­do­mi­nant fee­ling in the Israeli-Zio­nist public and government.

Are the popu­la­tion and the govern­ment really so united on this issue? Last year, thou­sands pro­te­sted in Israel against the right-wing govern­ment and its plan­ned judi­cial reform. What has become of this movement?

I did­n’t go to any of these demon­stra­ti­ons against the govern­ment because these pro­tests were not about the occu­pa­tion, the apart­heid policy or the ter­ri­ble things that Israel is doing to the peo­ple in Gaza and the West Bank. I did­n’t trust this move­ment – and unfort­u­n­a­tely I was right: after Octo­ber 7th, many peo­ple who had pre­viously taken to the streets repor­ted to the army and wan­ted to kill Pal­e­sti­ni­ans. Revenge has been the main theme ever since. This shows how deeply roo­ted anti-Pal­e­sti­nian fee­lings are in our society.

Nevert­hel­ess, a sur­vey by the Israel Demo­cracy Insti­tute shows that a majo­rity of the popu­la­tion now con­siders the most important goal of the war to be res­cuing the hosta­ges rather than destroy­ing the Palestinians.

The Israeli govern­ment does­n’t give a damn. We know this from the past. Twenty years ago, I wrote a let­ter to the Israeli govern­ment at the time in con­nec­tion with a pri­soner exch­ange in which I sug­ge­sted: Please release all Pal­e­sti­nian pri­soners in Israel. Let them take a hot shower, give them new clo­thes and a par­cel with sweets and children’s toys. Put them on the best buses we have and bring them back to Gaza and the West Bank in a respectful way. Wit­hout asking for anything in return. – Such an unex­pec­ted move would be a «game chan­ger» and could decisi­vely change rela­ti­ons bet­ween Israel and the Pal­e­sti­ni­ans, I am still con­vin­ced of that today. But it won’t hap­pen. The cur­rent Israeli govern­ment is pre­pared to sacri­fice the lives of all pri­soners and does­n’t give a damn about their fate.

Fail­ure of Human Rights Organisations

You have been cam­paig­ning for the end of the occu­pa­tion and equal coexi­stence for years. How does the cur­rent mood in the coun­try affect your ever­y­day life?

Many so-cal­led fri­ends from the past… – We don’t talk to each other any­more. They see me as a trai­tor. In their eyes, I’m almost as bad as the Pal­e­sti­ni­ans in Gaza. That’s bit­ter and sad. There are still a few fri­ends in Israel who think like me. But we are not a group – a few indi­vi­du­als here and there. Like Nurit Peled-Elhanan**, for exam­ple. She is one of the very few. A cou­ra­ge­ous woman who thinks cle­arly and isn’t afraid of anyone.

How is PHR‑I deal­ing with the situa­tion – the orga­ni­sa­tion that you foun­ded and led for many years?

They work very hard, but – if you ask me – not in the right direc­tion. They do won­derful phil­an­thro­pic work, caring for the woun­ded and the sick. They try to do the best they can to be good. But at the poli­ti­cal level, they are vir­tually inac­tive. I would have liked to see PHR‑I and the other human rights orga­ni­sa­ti­ons in Israel speak out loudly and cle­arly in favour of the trial at the Inter­na­tio­nal Cri­mi­nal Court in The Hague. But that did­n’t happen.

What are the rea­sons? Are they afraid of repres­sion, or are their voices sim­ply being suppressed?

That’s dif­fi­cult to say. I think fear is the main rea­son. They don’t want to be cut off from the so-cal­led centre of society. It’s dif­fi­cult to func­tion com­ple­tely out­side the centre. But even the centre has become more extre­mist today. The right domi­na­tes the public mood.

In its first 10 years, PHR‑I was reso­lute and vocal against ever­ything that was unjust in our eyes. These voices were silen­ced. Today, no orga­ni­sa­tion cri­ti­cises publicly any­more. Per­haps their repre­sen­ta­ti­ves think about it quietly – but they are not pre­pared to for­mu­late things openly, cou­ra­ge­ously and cle­arly. But that would be exactly the task of human rights orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. Because this is not hap­pe­ning, I no lon­ger have a poli­ti­cal home. At the moment, I don’t see any way of put­ting the spi­rit of resi­stance from back then into practice.

Call for boy­cott and sanctions

But the lon­ger the war goes on, the more also the popu­la­tion in Israel suf­fers from the situa­tion. Won’t this soo­ner or later lead to a rethink?

No, I don’t think that will hap­pen in the near future. Unless we get help from groups out­side Israel, or the trial in The Hague con­ti­nues and the Israeli lea­der­ship recei­ves a severe punish­ment. Wit­hout such a sanc­tion, I see no pro­s­pect of a dif­fe­rent future.

One pos­si­ble way out would be eco­no­mic punish­ment, as in the days when the world boy­cot­ted South Africa because of its apart­heid policy. If the same were pos­si­ble in the case of Israel, yes – then, and only then, would change be possible.

Since 2017, you have been a mem­ber of the inter­na­tio­nal “Boy­cott, Divest­ment and Sanc­tions” cam­paign BDS, which aims to do just that. Howe­ver, Western poli­ti­ci­ans and the media accuse BDS of anti-Semitism…

Anti-Semi­tism” is a slo­gan that peo­ple like to throw around instead of thin­king and loo­king at what is really hap­pe­ning. A boy­cott is the way to save Israel from its­elf. That has not­hing to do with anti-Semi­tism. Other­wise I would be anti-Semi­tic too. Yes, I want a dif­fe­rent Israel. To accuse me of anti-Semi­tism because of that is absurd.

The West sup­ports Israeli policy and is very reluc­tant to cri­ti­cise it – what do you think of this and what are your demands in this regard?

A dra­stic rever­sal in Western policy is nee­ded. First, the United Sta­tes and Euro­pean count­ries should stop sen­ding mil­li­ons of dol­lars and wea­pons to Israel. They are the fuel that dri­ves this machine of hat­red and revenge. If this tap is tur­ned off, the machine will no lon­ger work.

Cont­act with Palestinians

Do you still main­tain cont­act with your part­ners and fri­ends in the occu­p­ied ter­ri­to­ries? What do you hear from them? How are they doing?

Many of my fri­ends in Gaza no lon­ger exist. They and their fami­lies were kil­led in the Israeli bom­bing raids in the Gaza Strip. I keep in touch with my peo­ple in the West Bank by phone. While the IDF has ban­ned Jewish doc­tors from tra­vel­ling to Gaza since 2007, I used to visit the West Bank at least once a week. Now I no lon­ger have the energy for it. I am asha­med of what my govern­ment and my army are doing to the peo­ple there. What can I say to them? The situa­tion is very pain­ful – and I can’t offer them any support.

At the same time, none of my Pal­e­sti­nian fri­ends who are still alive have bro­ken off the rela­ti­on­ship. That’s incre­di­ble for me. They still talk to me and wel­come me when I visit them. They are in deepest des­pair and no lon­ger believe that any orga­nised action can improve their situation.

What par­ti­cu­larly con­cerns me at the moment are the efforts to destroy UNRWA. If you try to ana­lyse this plan and find out what the thin­king behind it is, you come to a clear con­clu­sion: the aim of our prime mini­ster and his govern­ment is to erase the memory of the Nabka along with UNRWA and thus deny the Pal­e­sti­ni­ans their right to exist. They also say loud and clear that they want to kill the Pal­e­sti­ni­ans and erase the Gaza Strip.

It is and remains incom­pre­hen­si­ble to me how a peo­ple whose own history is cha­rac­te­ri­sed by expul­sion and geno­cide can behave like this…

That is very sad, but easy to under­stand: They are good stu­dents of excel­lent tea­chers. Instead of con­tra­dic­ting, they copy. They know no inner shame that would pre­vent them from thin­king and acting like this. They imi­tate the thoughts and actions of the Natio­nal Socia­lists in Ger­many. I have no hesi­ta­tion in com­pa­ring the actions of the ter­ri­ble Nazi régime with what the Israeli govern­ment and public feel and do today.

You’re tel­ling me this on the phone now. If you were to say this in Israel, would­n’t that be dan­ge­rous for you?

Yes, that’s how it is. Nevert­hel­ess, I say it. I am addres­sing the world. I want the world to hear these words and try to under­stand how dan­ge­rous and ugly this way of thin­king and acting is.

The peo­ple in the Gaza Strip are dying of hun­ger, lack of drin­king water and lack of medi­cal care. They no lon­ger have hou­ses. How much lon­ger can they con­ti­nue to suf­fer like this? Peo­ple in the West, espe­ci­ally in Europe and hop­efully also in the United Sta­tes must rea­lise what a cata­stro­phe is hap­pe­ning here. And stop it. Imme­dia­tely! By cut­ting off the Israeli government’s money sup­ply and sanc­tio­ning Israeli beha­viour with boy­cotts of all kinds.

Even if peo­ple say I am a trai­tor because of this, it is the only moral path that is still open today to break the vicious cir­cle of violence.

Per­haps today’s trai­tors will one day become heroes and hero­i­nes – but only in a dif­fe­rent future that I don’t believe I will live to see.

© Inter­view: Gabriela Neu­haus, 2024

1000 Women and a Dream, © Off­road Reports GmbH

** Peace acti­vist and pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion Nurit Peled-Elhanan has been cam­paig­ning against Israel’s oppres­sive poli­cies for years. In Novem­ber 2023, she was dis­missed from the Hebrew Uni­ver­sity in Jeru­sa­lem for a quote in the uni­ver­sity col­lege group chat.

Ruch­ama Mar­ton, 2004 with the PHR‑I Mobile Cli­nic in the West Bank.

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