An Israeli Lawmaker Tells U.S.: ‘Send Us Means of Peace, Not of War’ | Sojourners

An Israeli Lawmaker Tells U.S.: ‘Send Us Means of Peace, Not of War’

Ofer Cassif, a member of Israel's parliament, speaks out on the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and Israel’s response.
An Israeli soldier stands next to a tank near the Israel-Gaza Border, in southern Israel on May 7. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels talk with people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. This week features a guest interview by Sojourners senior editor Rose Marie Berger. Subscribe here.

Like many Israelis, Ofer Cassif, a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, knew people killed by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.

“One of them was a very dear close friend of mine,” Cassif told me. “She actually texted me from the security room minutes before she was killed with her husband.” Many progressive, anti-occupation Israeli peace activists lived in the region where Hamas killed more than 700 civilians in one day. Cassif, whose grandparents came to Israel from Poland in 1934 as part of the Zionist movement, is a secular Israeli Marxist and a leading voice against the war in Gaza. During the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987, Cassif refused Israeli military service in the Occupied Territories and was incarcerated in military prison. In 2019, he was elected to Israel’s parliament as the only Jewish member of the Arab-majority Hadash-Ta’al party. In January, Cassif publicly supported South Africa’s petition to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to investigate Israel for violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention in its war on Gaza. In February, some parliament members tried — unsuccessfully — to impeach him.

For this interview I spoke with Cassif in late March over WhatsApp. It was nearly midnight in Israel. He was still sipping his yerba mate through a metal straw.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rose Marie Berger, Sojourners: Do you hold Hamas responsible for the Oct. 7 attack?

Ofer Cassif: Yes. Obviously, I hold Hamas responsible. That’s not to say that the government of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not responsible in some respects, too. But definitely the guilt, the blame, is on those who killed, on those who raped, on those who tortured, and torched. And those are Hamas’ people.

Why do you support the petition before the ICJ to investigate Israel for genocide in Gaza?

I do not trust the Israeli government or Hamas or any other government to investigate itself. The ICJ is the authoritative branch to investigate allegations of genocide. Israel recognized its authority in 1949, when Israel became one of the first states to ratify the convention. The bottom line is to support the ICJ in calling on Israel to stop the war — to save lives, as simple as that. The more than 30,000 deaths in Gaza, most of them women and children, the disease and starvation, this is totally the blame of the government of Israel. And it should be stopped. Stopping the assault on Gaza is the only way to save the Israeli hostages. There’s no military way to release the hostages, only a political one — which necessitates cease-fire.

Some Americans critique the state of Israel through a post-colonial lens. Others believe protecting Israel as a religious state is an existential necessity. How do you understand these two perspectives?

Both views are consequences of the contradiction that characterizes the status of Israel from its establishment in 1948 — even earlier if we think of the Zionist ideology. Why? Because there cannot be a state that is both Jewish and democratic. That is a contradiction in terms. These two cannot be reconciled.

Neither of the views you outlined are totally correct. The state of Israel has never had a distinction between religion and politics or religion and the state — not only in terms of religious political parties but also in the so-called Basic Laws [Israel has no Constitution]. For example, you cannot get married in Israel except in a religious form. My wife and I didn’t want to get married religiously, so we had to go abroad to marry. And, until recently, it was impossible to have a secular funeral. There’s no separation between religion and nationality.

We cannot ignore that Israel was established as a colonial endeavor. Zionism is a colonialist ideology and movement. This is a fact — even if it makes some people feel uncomfortable. However, I can say that the state of Israel itself is not currently a colonial project. But it’s totally different when we speak of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories in 1967. The occupation is colonialism, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing. And we can say that the state of Israel was established at the expense of the Palestinian people, much like the U.S. was established on a terrible crime against Indigenous people and the crime of those brought from Africa as slaves. That doesn’t undermine the right of the United States now to exist as a sovereign state. It has the right to exist despite the crimes. And those crimes require justice to pay the price for those crimes. It is the same with Israel — also established on a terrible crime against the Palestinian people. But Israel as a sovereign state has the right to exist, provided it is without the occupation. If Israel is to be a real democracy, then it must, in the most minimal sense, be egalitarian. It cannot cling to one or another form of supremacy. That’s our current struggle against the occupation and for equality and justice within the state of Israel.

Americans are divided on how to support Israelis and Palestinians while condemning the Occupation, Hamas’ actions, and the war in Gaza.

As a member of the Knesset, I wouldn’t want to intervene in the domestic issues of the U.S. The only thing I must say, morally speaking, is that [President Joe] Biden brought this upon himself. We must distinguish between the government of Israel and Israelis. The government of Israel — I want to be very clear and blunt — is now a full-fledged fascist and racist government. That doesn’t mean that all Israelis are. Absolutely not. The ongoing arming of Israel is harming Israel. That’s a moral and a political mistake by Mr. Biden. If he wants to support the Israeli society, then he must stand firm against this government that puts all of us at risk. Send us means of peace, not of war.

What was your experience of the Trump administration’s policies toward Israel?

I could more or less rationally analyze and predict how the Biden administration would behave. I could not do that vis-à-vis the Trump [administration] because it was unpredictable. You could never know how [Mr. Trump] was going to act. Again, I’m not saying how Americans should vote. That’s not my business.

What is motivating Mr. Netanyahu to continue to wage war at all costs?

It seems Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t care for anything but his own well-being and his own good. He doesn’t care about the lives of the Palestinians. He doesn’t care either for the lives and well-being of the Israelis. It was clear for everyone in the days after the Hamas attack that the only way to get the hostages was to make a deal quickly. That meant “all for all.” Release Palestinian prisoners — and don’t begin a war. And we know what happened. I’m terrified, really terrified to think about the fate of the Israeli hostages. And I put the blame on Netanyahu and his government. They are ready to sacrifice thousands of Palestinians, the Israeli hostages, and Israeli soldiers. But Netanyahu and the government thugs around him don’t care about the lives of anyone. For them, the blood of human beings is the fuel for birthing the messianic age. The only thing that drives Netanyahu is to stay in power and out of prison. He’s been charged with very severe criminal charges, so he knows that if he’s not prime minister, then he’ll finish in prison.

When the U.S. ships arms to support the government of Israel, it strengthens the most fanatic at the expense of Israeli society. If Mr. Biden wants to assist the Israeli society and the Palestinians as well, then he must stop this crazy government. Because either the two peoples perish together, or we flourish together. It’s not one or another; it’s both or neither. Ending the war is also in the interest of the United States as well. If the war doesn’t end promptly, the whole region is going to erupt. That will require a very high price from Americans — not only in money, but also in blood. Right now, we have an opportunity [to stop the war] where both justice and self-interest meet.

This is why we established the Peace Partnership in Israel. It now includes 44 civil society organizations, political parties, and social movements that are against the war and the occupation and are for peace. We need international support. We’ve held three successful demonstrations, even though there’s political persecution against anyone who raises an opposition voice in Israel right now. The police are still violent toward demonstrators — even toward families of the hostages. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens against the war who are calling for peace.

You are a political philosopher. Around the world, democracy is under threat. Why is democracy still a moral good and a practical way to self-organize?

Modern democracy, as opposed to the democracy of ancient Athens or the Roman Republic, has been trying to find this very delicate balance between the individual’s own will or beliefs (and the right of the individual to cling to them) and the possibility of living together, despite the differences and disagreements. I think that’s the basis of democracy. [Winston] Churchill said something very nice about democracy. I might not have liked his political views, but I cannot take his wisdom from him: “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” So, the question is how do we continually amend it, how do we have a continuous amendment of democracy? Democracy is, of course, ruled by the people, but provided that the people can really influence. There must be social solidarity, for instance, for there to be peoples’ influence. If there is no social solidarity, democracy immediately turns very fragile.

One of the most brilliant books that I’ve read is Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. He analyzed it very well, even though it was almost 200 years ago. One thing which characterizes the American society, de Tocqueville said, is that Americans are very communal as far as their neighborhood or family or religious community are concerned, but very individualistic vis-a-vis the state.

Now, there is a problem here in this gap between the two that creates a situation that puts democracy at continuous risk. I see the individual human being as the supreme value, no doubt. But I also think that some social conditions must be met for the individual to realize their full individuality.

Part of the crisis of current democracies, not only in the United States and Israel, but all around the globe — just look what is going on under Modi in India or under Milei in Argentina! One basis of the crisis — and here I’m talking as a Marxist — is a class and economic issue that the liberal democracy has not and cannot resolve. In order to achieve a profound and stable democracy, there must be a very fundamental change in our perception of democracy and in the political system — a change that adopts a radical form of economic equality. I’m not talking about economic equality that’s simplistic — if you get a X, I must get X. That’s childish. I’m talking about a change that is much more complicated, sophisticated; a form of equality which will not and should not contradict liberty. De Tocqueville said that liberty and equality are mutually exclusive. I disagree, obviously. I think the other way around — liberty and equality actually complete each other. That’s not an easy task or project. But I think that if we don’t do that, the crisis is going to prevail.

What are examples of the “radical form of economic equality” that you imagine?

It may take the form of cooperatives, for instance, or communes. But not necessarily. It may take the form of direct local democracy. There are so many alternatives. It’s totally legitimate to adjust to local culture, history, and tradition. It will be different from one place to another. There’s not one formula. I do profoundly believe that respecting human beings as human beings necessitates deep equality, not simply equality before the law or equal opportunities. That’s not nearly enough. To fully respect any human being, there is one right that must take precedence over all others, that is the right of each individual to evolve and to fully realize oneself. This is both realistic and required.

Is there something that you think American Christians should know about that you don’t think we’re hearing?

One of the streams of Christianity that has impressed me so much is liberation theology. For those not familiar with it, liberation theology is a political and religious stream that emerged in Latin America and became more well known at a gathering of Catholic bishops at Medellín, Colombia, in [1968]. It began in the Catholic church, but thereafter spread to other religions — including the Islamic, Jewish, and even Buddhist world.

I find very appealing — and even, I might say, thrilling and exciting — that it combines Christianity with some basic Marxist perceptions of justice. When it was first introduced, they were very explicit in talking about Marxism and identifying Christ as an example of an exploited worker. I think that’s incredibly interesting. If everyone were to stick with their own religious faith but, at the same time, adopt some of the fundamental questions of liberation theology, then the world would look much better.

Editor’s note: A shortened version of this interview appears in the June 2024 issue of Sojourners, with the title “An Israeli Lawmaker Against The War In Gaza.”

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