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Red Rag column - exchange of letters with Amos Oz (1986)
By: Gideon Spiro
5 June 2017
An exchange of letters with Amos Oz
On 25 March 1986 I sent a letter to all the Members of the Knesset about the Occupation army’s abuse of the 12 and a half year old child Muhammad Abu Wardeh, a grade 6 pupil from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus. A copy of the letter was sent to also to a list of intellectuals, including the writer Amos Oz, who was then a member of Kibbutz Hulda.
Amos Oz was angry with me for having bothered him about the matter, and he was unsparing in his criticism of the letter itself. Amos Oz’s reply initiated a correspondence between us, and he requested to publish it in the newspaper
. I agreed on condition that the entire correspondence be published. Amos Oz did not respect my condition and I was surprised to read in
on 15 June 1986 an article by Amos Oz on the correspondence, with essential omissions from my letters. I demanded that the newspaper publish the entire correspondence, and my request was not fulfilled. And moreover, Oz’s article in
was included in his book
The Slopes of Lebanon
(Original Hebrew version published by Am Oved, 1987) as well as in it’s the English translation of the book (Chatto & Windus 1990; Vintage 1991).
The full correspondence was published in
, a Hebrew-language Palestinian weekly edited by Attorney Ziad Abu Ziad, on 4 July 1986, which of course had a very limited distribution.
Recently I read the correspondence again, and despite the passage of 31 years, the words are just as relevant as if they were written today. Upon the 50th anniversary of the Occupation, I have decided to publish the correspondence on social media.
Act according to the Jewish rule
That which is hateful unto you
Do not do unto your fellow
Nor has revenge for a tortured Palestinian child
Yet been devised by Satan
To Members of the Knesset
Jerusalem (Within the Green Line)
25 March 1986
Honourable Member of the Knesset,
I would like to bring to your attention the case of 12 and a half year old Muhammad Abu-Wardeh, a grade 6 pupil from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus.
On 23 November 1985 the Israeli army conducted searches in the Balata refugee camp. The searches began at three in the morning. About that hour the soldiers broke into the Abu-Wardeh home. The parents were sleeping in one room, and Muhammad was sleeping in another room with his two brothers, 15 year old Maher Abu-Wardeh and 23 year old Amer Abu-Wardeh. The soldiers woke up the sleeping people with shouts and kicks, and while searching caused extensive damage to the house and its contents. The soldiers found a dangerous weapon in the form of five books on various political subjects, and consequently the three brothers were taken to the Far’a detention camp. Each of the brothers was held and interrogated separately.
The interrogation of the 12 and a half year old child began on that same day and revolved around the books: whose books were they, and who brought them? His answer: I don’t know anything about the books. Then began a series of blows and tortures. He was struck on his face and abdomen. Then began the shower-tortures (showers: does that remind you of something?): every hour from 4 PM to 11 at night Muhammad Abu-Wardeh was taken to a cold shower. And between showers he was interrogated to extract from him testimony against his brothers about the books. The interrogations were accompanied by blows, being tied to a chair, prolonged standing with his hands raised and other products of the cruel imaginations of the sadistic interrogators. The child cried and shouted but nothing helped. Only at 11 PM did they leave him alone and let him sleep, under the terrifying conditions of Far’a.
Muhammad Abu-Wardeh’s interrogation lasted 12 days. Every day he was summoned for interrogation that lasted about two hours, during which he was questioned again about the books as well as about stone-throwing. The interrogations were accompanied by daily beatings. After 12 days the interrogation ended and the child was left in the Far’a detention camp for 6 more days. Total period of detention: 18 days (his two brothers were also beaten and tortured). From then to today nearly 300 people, 80% of them minors, have been detained at Balata.
Israel’s national poet wrote in his famous poem “On the Slaughter”: “No such revenge – revenge for the blood of a little child – has yet been devised by Satan.”  With a small variation one could say: “Nor has revenge for a tortured Palestinian child yet been devised by Satan.”
Look at what the Occupation and rule over another people are doing. The Israeli occupiers are turning into cruel animals, oblivious to the rights and sufferings of others.
I appeal to you to for a full inquiry into this matter. We must learn the identity of the interrogators at the Far’a camp when Muhammad Abu-Wardeh was detained, and put them all on trial. If you do not do that, you will be a party to the conspiracy of silence and of silencing others, and you will bear terrible responsibility for the perpetuation of the cycle of violence. If you want to know where the next generation of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation is growing, go to the detention centres in the Occupied Territories and you will find the answer.
And another question: how can you live with barbaric laws that permit the detention and imprisonment of children in prisons for prolonged periods without any judicial proceedings? You are not only a politician, but a parent as well. Who would you react if your son or daughter were detained and imprisoned in a detention camp and received treatment like that received by Muhammad Abu-Wardeh? It behooves you to struggle tirelessly to procure for Palestinian children in the Occupied Territories rights that are equal to those of children in Israel and of the children of the invaders-dispossessors (who are also called “settlers”). It is impossible to fight racism without clearing the ground that produces it. The Occupation and the situation of apartheid that has been created under its cover are the manure from which racism sprouts. An Israel that protects torturers and murderers of children and tramples underfoot the Universal Declaration of Human Rights forfeits the right to judge war-criminals who committed crimes against the Jewish people.
”Palestinian resistance?” There’s no such thing
Hulda 4 June 1986
To Mr. Gideon Spiro – Cordial greetings,
1) I support the holding of an investigation into the matter described in your letter.
2) You have treated me quite unfairly: I am not a Member of the Knesset, I am not a journalist. I am not in possession of any means to inquire into the story that you have brought before me without having bothered to provide even a hint of the source of the story and how it came to you.
3) Certain formulations in your letter strike me as disgraceful: whoever indiscriminately calls the Israeli occupiers by the name of “cruel animals” is equal in my eyes to those who call the Palestinians “two-legged animals” or “cockroaches”.
4) As an opponent of the perpetuation of the Israeli Occupation in the populated territories, I reject the justification for Arab terror, which you call “Palestinian resistance”, that is implied in your second-to-last paragraph. The “Palestinian resistance” never concerned itself with beating children. It concentrated on killing them, indiscriminately, even before the Occupation etc. existed.
5) Your last paragraph implies a parallel between the Israeli Occupation and Nazism. That is a demagogic and immoral comparison. The sentence in the second paragraph (“showers: does that remind you of something?”) is truly revolting, unless you are claiming that the child was put to death by gas, with millions of other children, in the interest of the Israeli soap industry.
6) Although as I said, I support the holding of an investigation, I despise the propagandistic, simplistic and crude outlook that is manifest in nearly every line in your letter, including the foolish Nazi association: the Israeli Occupation is guilty of oppression, of intimidation, of tortures and denial of liberties. The Palestinian “resistance” is guilty of genocidal ideology and methods. The Nazis are not people who beat children severely over confiscated books. Go do some homework.
P.S.: You have the right to publish this letter in full or to file it away. I do not authorize the use of only excerpts from it or only the signature at the bottom.
You have not acted like Emile Zola
To Amos Oz
28 May 1986
Your letter to me is certainly an interesting document. You act like that Russian who, in reply to embarrassing questions about the Soviet reality, said: and what about the Blacks in America? You are irritated with me because I am bothering you with a picture of the ugly state of affairs taken from the reality of the Israeli Occupation in the Occupied Territories. You are angry at the mirror, instead of what is reflected in it.
You claim that I have treated you with unfairness. “I am not a Member of the Knesset, I am not a journalist. I am not in possession of any means to inquire into the story that you have brought before me without having bothered to provide even a hint of the source of the story and how it came to you.” I naively thought that it would be clear and obvious to all who read my letter that I heard the story from the boy himself. If I erred, well, now the riddle is solved. However, beyond that, I appealed to you not so that you would investigate the story. I assumed at the outset that you would not do that. I also knew, and I am not joking, that you are not a journalist or a Member of the Knesset. I appealed to you, and maybe I erred in doing so, because I thought that you belonged to the category of those who are called “intellectuals”: a Jewish Hebrew writer with moral sensitivity, a socialist and kibbutz member who is devoted to humanistic values, and who therefore would not remain silent and would not rest until the story brought to your attention was thoroughly investigated. If Emile Zola acted in accordance with your letter to me, the Dreyfus Affair would not have been exposed.
I did not expect that you would act like Emile Zola and cry out in all the city squares and from all the rooftops that an injustice had been done that must be corrected. But I did harbour a hope that you would take advantage of your acquaintance with the leaders of the State and your influence and prestige to see to it that the matter would be thoroughly investigated and to the extent that those responsible were uncovered, that they would be put on trial. It’s not much compared to getting recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations, but it’s still quite a lot in light of the racist reality that characterizes Israeli society today. But even that modest contribution is hard to get from you. What a pity.
Allow me on this opportunity to reply to a few paragraphs in your letter. You are outraged that I call the Israeli occupiers “cruel animals”. According to you, the use of that figure of speech is equal to calling the Palestinians “two-legged animals” or “cockroaches”. Where is the symmetry here? The appellations that you give as examples are racist in nature because they do not distinguish between the individuals who comprise the Palestinian people. My use of the term “cruel animals” applies only to the Israeli occupier who practices oppression and control over another people; it does not include all the individuals who comprise the Israeli people. Do I have to remind you of the incident in which settlers set dogs on a Palestinian qadi in Hebron? (I hope you will agree with me that the settlers must be included as part of the Israeli occupation forces, or do you disagree with that as well?) Do you not remember the shocking incident in which soldiers of the Israeli Occupation army wrote numbers on the arms of Palestinians, and afterwards forced them to get down on all fours and bark like dogs? Since you do not like the comparison to Nazis (and I get no pleasure from that either), I am compelled to ask for your opinion: where, in your estimation, did the settlers and soldiers get the inspiration for their actions?
Does not the appellation “cruel animals” correctly reflect what has been outlined here or in my letter to the Knesset Members?
You object to my use of the term “Palestinian resistance” in the context of the Israeli Occupation. “Palestinian resistance”, you write, “never concerned itself with beating children. It concentrated on killing them, indiscriminately, even before the Occupation existed.” Look how you are drawn into racist generalizations while demonizing the enemy. I am talking about the Palestinian resistance in the concrete context of the Israeli Occupation, and you lurch off into a description of the Palestinian resistance as concerning itself with “indiscriminately killing children”. Is this an accurate picture? How many Jewish children have been killed by the Palestinian resistance in the Occupied Territories since 1967 and how many children have been killed by the Israeli Occupation since that year? In this accounting of bloodshed, Israel does not come out looking very good. If you expand the balance-sheet of killed children to beyond the Occupied Territories, then Israel’s position is inestimably worse. The number of Palestinian and Lebanese children who were killed in the Israeli bombardment of Beirut, Tyre, Sidon and the refugee camps in the accursed war in Lebanon surpasses the losses the Palestinians imposed to Jews since the BILU Aliyah.  The picture you draw as if the Arabs are the “bad guys” and the Jews the “good guys” is simplistic and superficial and befitting of Westerns of the type President Reagan starred in. Just as that same picture, drawn in the opposite direction by more than a few Palestinians, is no less superficial and simplistic.
You accuse me that the last paragraph of my letter “implies a parallel between the Israeli Occupation and the Nazis”. I reject that accusation. As one whose family fled from Germany five minutes before the war broke out, I am very careful on this subject and alert to its sensitiveness, and I choose my words with the utmost care in order not to fall into the trap of comparisons that are not fitting. Having said that, I still stand behind what I wrote to the Members of the Knesset: whoever protects torturers and murderers of children and tramples underfoot the Universal Declaration of Human Rights forfeits the right to judge war-criminals who committed crimes against the Jewish people. I reject the manipulative and demagogic use you make of [my account of] the shower torture that was employed by the Israeli torturers against the Palestinian child. I suggest that you direct your feelings of abhorrence towards those who torture Palestinians in general, and children in particular, and not against those who try to expose it in order to put a stop to it. You harbour some kind of uncontrollable urge to invoke the Nazis. Even in places where it is not called for, with regard neither for the content nor the text. The use to which I put words: Occupation, oppression, intimidation, denial of liberties and more, accurately describe what the Israeli Occupation is doing to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Here, as above, I suggest that you not rage at the use I make of those words, and not rush to see Nazi associations in them, but direct your ire and anger towards the reality that initiates and requires the use of those words. And if you think that all those ugly things I talk about in this letter are not happening in the Occupied Territories, then nothing remains for me but to tell you: Amos Oz, go do some homework.
Jerusalem (within the Green Line) POB 7323
P.S. I will respect your request, and your letter will be published in full.
I did not ask for the Emile Zola Cross
4 June 1986
With your permission, I will publish the Muhammad Abu-Wardeh affair and the essence of the exchange of letters between us in
. That may contribute to the clarification of two matters: 1) The matter of the child. 2) Is it possible to be, as you put it, “a Hebrew writer … with moral sensitivity … devoted to humanistic values” etc., without identifying with what you call “the Palestinian resistance movement”, and without justifying its methods and objectives?
Please inform me as soon as possible if you object to the publication of the exchange of letters in
P.S. You are mistaken on one thing: I do not seek to receive the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”, nor the “Emile Zola Cross”.
Let us restore to concepts their meanings
Jerusalem (within the Green Line)
8 June 1986
To Amos Oz
Today I received your postcard and hasten to reply to you. I have no objection to your publishing the exchange of letters between us in
, but I very much request of you to include this letter too in your article. You write in your postcard that you also want to discuss in your article the whole subject of support for the Palestinian resistance, and since this is a sensitive subject, it is important to me to clarify it well to you. I do not want to be represented as one who “supports the Palestinian resistance”. All the more because that resistance sometimes takes forms and adopts methods some of which are unacceptable to me and some of which I oppose strongly. I prefer to represent myself in this context as one who recognizes the right of the Palestinians to resist the Occupation.
Nineteen years of Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian people have been accompanied by the moral, ethical and political corruption of most of Israeli society and the Israeli governmental system. Israeli racism did not emerge from the clouds. Kahane is its brutal expression, but by no means its only one. Racism is rooted deep in the Israeli body politic, from the Tehiya Party, to Likud, the religious parties and substantial parts of what is called the Israeli labour movement. If racism did not emerge from the clouds, from what soil then did it sprout? In my view, it is all rooted in the Occupation. That is the monster that raised the racism and everything that goes with it to today’s frightening proportions. This does not mean that before the conquests of 1967 everything was sweetness and light. There were problems and dark shadows, but the scale of magnitude was different, the characteristics were different. On this point I differ with some of my friends who belong to the anti-Zionist Left and who see a straight line from the First Zionist Congress  to the events of these days.
An inextricable part of the corruption I spoke of above is the new language that was created in Israel after the Occupation began. One could call it Colonial Hebrew. One could also say that Israel has adopted the method of Soviet terminology, according to which the American army in Vietnam is an expression of imperialistic aggression and the Soviet army in Afghanistan is an expression of fraternal assistance. The creators of colonial Hebrew tried to bypass all the ugliness and injustice that accompany the Occupation by using terms that convert the twisted to straight and the ugly to beautiful.
Accordingly, official Hebrew does not recognize the term “Occupied Territories” but the pastoral and Biblical term “Judea and Samaria”, which instructs that these are ancient territories that were promised to us and have belonged to us since the Divine Promise. Just as there are no occupied territories, nor is there an occupation army, and the Israeli army, even when it is an occupier, continues to be the Israel Defence Force. And if the Israeli army is not an occupier, then naturally it cannot carry out oppression of a civilian population and the denial of human freedoms, but rather concerns itself only with enforcing the law and protecting public order. Clean and pleasant language. And if there is no occupation in the first place, then there cannot be any resistance to the Occupation, and you, Amos Oz, have fallen into this trap.
Along with the language that bypasses the ugly, a language that is intended to instill contempt for and hatred of the occupied population has been created. Accordingly the Israeli language of the military government will always use the term “locals” and never mention the term “Palestinian people”. These “locals” never protest or demonstrate, they are always either an inflamed mob or rioters. And when a soldier shoots at those rioters and kills a five year old child or a young woman, it is almost always followed by a laconic announcement from the IDF spokesman that says that “the investigation conducted by the military authorities established that the soldier did not contravene the army’s instructions on opening fire”. Simple, crisp and smooth. Very few Israeli citizens ask themselves how it happens that the standing orders on opening fire permit the shooting of women and children with impunity.
As I said, in the absence of an occupation and resistance to occupation it is inconceivable that the occupied population might have combatants of its own. They are always either terrorists or saboteurs or murderers. And a people that is not occupied cannot have a national liberation movement, but murder and sabotage organizations at most. I could give more and more examples of the colonial language of the Occupation that has taken root in Israel. For example: the Palestinians have no intellectuals, but “notables”, and at most “educated people”, and so on and so forth.
What I am trying to do is to restore to concepts their true meaning. If my people rules over another people, we need to call the child by his name, and the name of the child is occupation and oppression. And if my people blows up the homes of people who have committed no crime, we need to call the child by his name: criminal collective punishment. And if my people bombs civilian populations in Beirut, Tyre and Sidon and kills thousands of civilians including women and children, we need to call the child by his name, and the name of the child is war crime; and whoever gave the order is a war criminal. And if my people denies another people basic civil rights, we need to call the child by his name: oppression and denial of human liberty. The fact that it is my people that is committing all these injustices does not make them pleasant. Those who try to sanitize their own people’s filth by laundering their crimes and sins enter into the category of the scoundrels who find their last refuge in patriotism.
I am trying to apply to the Middle East conflict those same basic standards that guide me in my approach to other conflicts in the world. Just as I do not accept terminologies employed by colonial regimes in other places in the world, I do not accept them in Israel either. Just as I do not accept the terminology created by the Apartheid regime in South Africa, neither do I accept similar terminology created by the Israeli regime of apartheid in the Occupied Territories. It cannot be disputed that a reality of apartheid according to which there is one law, a discriminatory and oppressive one, for the Palestinians, and another law that confers privileges on the occupying settlers, has been created in the Occupied Territories.
And even in cases when the Palestinian resistance commits acts of the type I strongly oppose – and in such cases I do not conceal my opinion from my Palestinian interlocutors – I never forget that the source is the Occupation above all. That is the mire that must be removed, that is the swamp that must be drained. That is where my primary duty lies.
The Jewish principle that you must not do unto your fellow that which is hateful unto you takes on sublime meaning only if it is applied universally. That is what I am endeavouring to do.
P.S. to your P.S.: I recognize that you did not ask me to confer on you the Righteous Among the Nations ribbon or the Emile Zola medal, but nevertheless I am sorry that you see no value in receiving them, that too is a sign of the Occupation.
1. The poem “On the Slaughter” was written by the Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik after the pogrom in 1903 in Kishinev in the Russian Empire (now Chisinau, the capital of Moldova). English translation by T. Carmi, ed.,
The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse
(New York: Viking, 1981): “And cursed be the man who says: Avenge! / No such revenge – revenge for the blood of a little child – has yet been devised by Satan.” My translation of Gideon Spiro’s paraphrase of the line he quoted from the poem is also based on Carmi’s English translation.
2. A group of proto-Zionist Jews who emigrated from the Russian Empire to Palestine in 1882.
3. Convened by Theodor Herzl in Basel, Switzerland in 1897.
Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent
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