An Interview With Israeli Activist Jonathan Pollak
On December 27, 28-year-old Israeli activist Jonathan Pollak was sentenced to three months in jail. He was the only one arrested at a Critical Mass bike ride in Tel Aviv, thus clearly indicating the arrest was politically motivated. Jonathan went to jail on January 11. We spoke on January 2 in Tel Aviv.
RV: About your decision not to appeal and not to do community service—can you explain why?
JP: The decision not to appeal is part of the general context. My case received a lot of attention, both because of the absurdity of the case—but there are people sent to jail for many absurd cases—but also because I am a Jewish Ashkenazi Israeli from a certain background. If I appeal, I will probably be acquitted—we have a very good case.
But if I appeal I will be made a figure for Israeli democracy. The Israeli courts will have saved the day again, from the deterioration of Israeli democracy. While in fact my story, as uncomfortable as it is, is really just a side note in this very massive campaign of persecution against the popular struggle, against the civil struggle against the occupation [for more, see Joseph Dana and Noam Sheizaf's article in the March 28, 2011 issue]. And I think it would have been a mistake for me to appeal in this context. Yes, I could probably have won my freedom, but only for the reason that it would serve the purpose of perpetuating the occupation and of strengthening Israel’s ability to suppress resistance.
The other issue is that I simply don’t recognize the authority of the court to try me for what I did. And by appealing it I would be recognizing the court’s authority. I did not choose to go to the court, I was taken to court. And I would never, out of my own initiative, go to the court requesting it. The court operates under the laws made according to the vote of only part of the population which is affected by it, and I cannot see how it is legitimate.
The decision to not do community service stems from the fact, again, that I’ve done nothing wrong. I am not going to cooperate with my punishment for protesting, for resisting the occupation. Also, there is the issue that they make money out of people who do community service, and they lose money if they send people to jail. And there’s absolutely no way I’m going to send good money to the state, voluntarily put money into the state’s piggy bank.
RV: There’s an increasing crackdown on Jewish Israelis, and an increasing crackdown on Palestinian unarmed activists, though obviously they are not at all comparable in terms of severity. Do you see this as part of the same pattern?
JP: I think they’re both part of the same pattern and two different patterns. There’s the general pattern of the deteriorating ability to protest, the narrowing space for political activism against the occupation, everywhere, with the growing space for racism and nationalism. So this is sort of an umbrella, this is sort of a dark cloud that lies atop of everything.
But I don’t think the repression against Palestinians and the repression against Israelis is comparable. I don’t even think that the repression against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Jewish Israelis is comparable. I think what scares the regime most is the Palestinian movement, and that’s where the bulk of the repression is, whether it’s administrative orders, such as in the case of Adnan Gheith, who was banned from the city he was born in, the city where he lives, under secret evidence, under no charges. [Adnan, an activist in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, was expelled from Jerusalem the day after Jonathan’s trial.]
So if it’s these kinds of cases or if it is the political persecution in the military courts, where the military prosecution clearly says it’s politically motivated—I mean you don’t need my opinion for it, they actually say it. In the sentencing arguments for both Abdallah and Adeeb Abu Rahmah [members of the Popular Committee in Bil’in], they said the sentence should be harsh in order to serve as a deterrent, not just for Abdallah and Adeeb but for others who may follow in their footsteps. What are their footsteps? Grassroots organizing! So it’s very, very clear.
RV: We’re actually feeling a lot of optimism in the United States, that the movement is growing and that there is a lot of grassroots organizing. It feels like things are changing there. But here in Israel among activists, I hear mostly despair. In terms of the work you’re doing, do you feel you’re trying to reach other Israelis?
JP: I think the most important thing is that there’s a movement on the inside, a Palestinian movement undermining Israeli occupation in a very basic, insurrectionary way. That is the foundation of the movement. If the movement outside is a lot stronger than the movement inside, there will be no one to take over the power and it will just backfire.
So I think the main goal should be building and strengthening the Palestinian movement. Of course this is something that has to be led by Palestinians, and is a Palestinian thing. I think the role of the international community, aside from pressuring Israel through BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] initiatives and things like that, is actively and directly support[ing] the grassroots movement, the grassroots leadership. And I think it’s very important, because it’s very easy. BDS is immensely important, and it’s a wind that blows a lot of support back here. But I think what the movement here needs is activism around what actually happens here. Activism that directly supports the [Palestinian] movement, and not just tries to isolate and attack Israel.
RV: Do you see any purpose at this point in speaking directly to Israelis?
JP: I think change is a question of power, and right now the balance of power is such that the whole discourse in Israel is directed in a way that allows no conversation. The whole discourse is directed in a way that strives toward perpetuation of the Israeli narrative of “security” and control—of cementing Israeli control over Palestinians. So it is sad to say, but I don’t see the bulk of our activity as addressing the Israeli public, yet.
RV: What role do you see for internationals and especially for Americans? What is most needed from us?
JP: Well, I think generally nowadays there’s a deterioration of activism into Internet activism as the only platform, or at least the main platform, for activism. And I think part of what we need to see is a return to traditional forms of activism that actually have on-the-ground effects: pickets, sit-ins and direct actions, consumer boycotts. We can utilize the Internet, but I don’t think it can be the all-encompassing tool.
I think the antiapartheid movement in South Africa was very successful in actually creating an international grassroots movement. There was really a movement; it wasn’t letter-writing campaigns. The letter-writing campaigns are great, but they’re not enough. So I think part of the responsibility of civil society is to actually create these networks that can provide real support for the grassroots network here.
RV: How do you see the interaction between the unarmed struggle in the villages with the BDS movement. How do they strengthen each other?
JP: Civil resistance has one point, which is both a weakness and a strength: it is susceptible to pressure. If people can’t afford to take to the streets, you have no movement. But also its repression is easily identifiable, and it easily attracts support. It attracts support because it’s very clear that it’s an armed force facing civilians.
That is exactly the role of civil society abroad, and largely the international community: to put pressure on their government, and then of these governments to put pressure on Israel, so it is not able to suppress this movement. Also because the alternative to civil resistance is very clear, and it’s very brutal.
Civil society is not limited to waiting for government election, for institutionalized action. There are many tools civil society can utilize in pressuring Israel, and one of these is BDS. But I think it needs to be very clear that it’s connected to what is happening on the ground in Palestine, and not necessarily only to long-term political targets. It should also be directed at short-term targets that will assist what is happening on the ground. One thing needs to support the other: the grassroots movement supports BDS, but BDS and the struggles of civil society abroad need to support what’s happening here.
RV: The BDS movement has grown enormously, even in the last couple years—and that’s in combination with the situation on the ground getting worse and worse all the time. So would you say overall you feel optimistic? Pessimistic?
JP: I’m a born pessimist, but it’s what allows me to keep on going. I think we should strategize around achieving defined goals. Often things become worse before they get better. Movements can be crushed, but they can rise again from the sand. We need to be careful and we need to be smart about it and we need to see how we sustain this movement and how we are most effective. But I think it needs to be clear that neither jailing us nor killing us is going to kill this movement, or the movement that comes after, the struggle that comes after.
[The day before this interview, Jawaher Abu Rahmah, 36, died from tear-gas inhalation after participating in the demonstration against the wall in Bil’in. A year and a half earlier, her brother, Bassam Abu Rahmah, had been killed by a direct hit to the chest by a tear-gas canister.]
RV: What’s the impact on the movement of these kinds of deaths?
JP: I think death has a very interesting effect, a very complicated effect on the movement. It can be destructive, but it can also be unbelievably motivating. When people ask about sacrifices, I usually say “This is the path we chose, no one forced it on us. And obviously we do know that prices have to be paid, and often we know what the price is.” And I can say personally that I do know it’s part of life. I expect them on the other side to try to repress me, because we’re trying to take them down as well. We’re trying to overthrow the occupation. We’re not asking it away. So death is enraging, but it is also very powerful. And it motivates people. But it can also bring a movement, and individuals, to a breaking point. And that is also its intent.
RV: What are your plans for after you come out of jail? More of the same?
JP: Just as before, more of the same.
Update: Pollack was released on February 24, after his sentence was reduced by a third. The next day he was back in action, at protests throughout the West Bank. In an interview for YNet (the website of leading Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot), he reflected on his experience in jail: “It was important for me to be in prison. After all, our activities are meant to undermine the existing boundaries, break through them, and prison proves that even we, the Israeli Jewish protesters, are no longer immune.
"We, who have always believed that everything is permitted and that there is no price to pay—are starting to pay the price. Which is why my prison term proves that our attempts to break through the borders are working. Things are starting to stick to us as well.”
Many thanks to Antonia House for her help in the preparation of this interview.