Award-Winning Israeli Journalist Based in Territories Reflects on Family History, Denounces Gaza Attack
Shortly after accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women's Media Foundation, Amira Hass delivers two talks on campus sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies. "Diary of Bergen-Belsen: 1944-1945," Hass's mother's account of surviving the Nazi concentration camp, has been republished in English.
Before the ethnically fractured country broke apart, an old joke had it that the only real Yugoslavs were the Jews. Award-winning Israeli journalist Amira Hass alluded to the saying at a Nov. 3 lecture on campus while explaining her late mother's profound attachments to her own Sephardic Jewish community, destroyed in World War II, and also to the "colors and the scenes and the smells" of Sarajevo. Hass's talk that day concerned the "lost worlds" of Hannah Lévy-Hass and the diary that she hid away during her 1944-45 ordeal at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany (it has been republished this year in English by Haymarket Books). A day earlier Hass, who's spent many years living in and reporting from the Palestinian Territories for the Israeli daily Haaretz, addressed about 70 people crowded into a Bunche Hall conference room about the Israeli attack on Gaza last winter.
Diary of Bergen-Belsen, first published in book form in 1961, "did not enter into the Israeli official canon of Holocaust literature" and was known to few, Hass said. "And it's no wonder, because in its essence this book is anti-Zionist – not in the sense that we know today of criticizing Zionism the secular movement, of criticizing the policies against the Palestinians."
Rather, Hass said, her mother's Diary carries within it a plea for "the naturalness of the diaspora as a habitat of Jews." Lévy-Hass and other communists rejected the claim that Jewish national sentiments could only be satisfied with the creation of a Jewish state.
Both of Hass's parents were Holocaust survivors and, eventually, Israelis. During the 1982 Lebanon War they protested what they saw as Israel's "merchandizing" of the Holocaust, particularly the comparisons of Yasser Arafat to Hitler. Hass said she knew the "depression" of her mother but was able to ask her parents questions about the past, unlike other survivors' children who knew nothing and nevertheless took in their families' sadness "by osmosis."
Prompted by the First Intifada, Hass joined Haaretz as a copyeditor in 1989 and began reporting from the Palestinian Territories two years later. She has become known as a gadfly for Israel, while also directing criticism at the Palestinian political factions in her articles and opinion columns – reporting, for example, on Hamas's executions of purported Israeli collaborators. Last month, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Women's Media Foundation.
In her talk on Nov. 2, Hass leveled hard criticism against the Israeli army for its conduct during the 22-day "onslaught" of last December and January, a lopsided fight that she said cannot be called "war." As a sometime resident of Gaza and witness to the aftermath of Israel's aerial and ground attack – she arrived in Gaza from the West Bank in January – she offered a unique perspective on the effects of occupation and on a conflict from which reporters were barred. It was Palestinian Hamas that expelled Hass from the territory before the attack, not long after she entered in defiance of the Israeli blockade.
Hass pointed out that Israel's attack was "conducted by an authority upon a people … who are actually part of its own registered population." Although the registration of Palestinians by Israel has been "a basic fact" since 1967, Hass said, it goes unnoticed in the media narrative about a two-sided war. Rather than a foreign enemy power, she said, Gaza is a "Panopticon" extensively mapped by cameras on drones and balloons as well as by Israeli agents.
"When they invaded Gaza, they had detailed maps of every single neighborhood they were in," Hass said.
The Israeli army moved on Gaza with the stated aim of stopping rocket fire by Hamas. However, Hass argued that the attack should be viewed in the context of a long-term Israeli government effort to depict Gaza as an independent and hostile state and to disconnect it from both Israel and the West Bank. Gazans today, she said, cannot study, work, receive medical treatment or visit healthy family members in the West Bank, and vice versa.
"Slowly, slowly these two [Palestinian] societies grow apart from each other," Hass said.
The winter attack resulted in the deaths of roughly 1,400 Gazans, mostly from the air, and 13 Israelis. Given the casualties, displacements and devastation, other disturbing things found in the aftermath might be thought "minor," Hass said. However, she told the audience, Israeli soldiers left behind a mixture of human waste and equally obscene graffiti inside the homes. She said that these breaches of decency sent a message from the army itself.
"The soldiers expressed this limitlessness that they sensed from the army, that they sensed from the official policy," said Hass.
Hass said that Judge Richard Goldstone's report on the winter hostilities, since endorsed in a vote by the United Nations General Assembly, has prevented Israel from sweeping aside allegations of criminality. The report accuses both Israeli forces and Hamas militants of crimes against humanity.
Both of the lectures by Hass will be available as podcasts from the Center for Near Eastern Studies, the sponsor. The discussion of the Diary was cosponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies and the Maurice Amado Program in Sephardic Studies at UCLA.
Published: Thursday, November 05, 2009