‘Jews in the diaspora pay the price for what we do in Israel’

Former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon gave a candid interview at Limmud


One of Israel’s most decorated military leaders, Ami Ayalon, provided a controversial conclusion to Limmud 2020, pleading with Israel to change direction and declaring that “Jews in the diaspora pay the price and suffer because of what we do in Israel”.

In conversation with the director of Yachad in the UK, Hannah Weisfeld, Mr Ayalon, a former commander of the Israeli Navy, former Knesset member and former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, was discussing his latest book — Friendly Fire: How Israel Became Its Own Worst Enemy.

In candid comments, Mr Ayalon, who was brought up on Kibbutz Ma’agan in northern Israel, spoke about the Zionist narrative of his parents, who had emigrated separately from Transylvania.

“My parents did not see the Palestinians who lived near our kibbutz,” he said. “They came to build the state of Israel on the twin pillars of settlement and security.”

But, he said, “It has taken me 20 years to realise that the concept of settlement and security has become our worst enemy.”

As a Navy Seal and then commander of the Navy, Mr Ayalon acknowledged that he had “killed many people”, and that he had been trained to regard Palestinians as his enemies “and I knew nothing about them”.

Once he became head of the Shin Bet, however — a post he had refused when offered it by Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, only to accept the offer from Shimon Peres after Rabin’s assassination — he said, “you have to know all about your enemy. You have to know about his wife, his children, and where they go to school”. And with this information, the enemy became human. “I understood his motives and his violence”.

He said that there was “an equation which said that Israel will have security when the Palestinians will have hope. We won’t deter people [with our actions] if they have nothing to lose.”

He spoke of his early encounters with the Palestinian leader who became a close friend, Sari Nusseibeh. Each asked about the other’s background and family. Ayalon was unable to provide a family tree: “We are a generation without grandparents,” he told Nusseibeh, as his parents’ family had been murdered during the Holocaust.

For his part, Nusseibeh explained how his family goes back to 7th century Jerusalem, not least as keepers of the keys of the Holy Sepulchre Church in the capital.

Ayalon began to re-think his position as an Israeli, and how it was possible to retain his state as a democracy “in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence”.

He told Ms Weisfeld: “We have to change the narrative which enabled us to create the state of Israel.”

The only viable solution was to share the space with the Palestinians. “In the West Bank, we are not a democracy. We have two different legal systems, one for the Jews and one for the Palestinians, this is not a democracy and we are deceiving ourselves”.

Such deceit, he claimed, was “penetrating into Israel — and if this is our narrative, Israel will not be a democracy”.

He urged the nearly 400 people viewing the Limmud session on Zoom — “Israel  is the state of the Jewish people, and we Israelis do not have the right to destroy it. You [in the diaspora] have a duty to tell us what you see.”

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