|Native name||יהודה הכהן|
Alternative peace activist
Yehuda HaKohen (Hebrew: יהודה הכהן, born 1979) is an Israeli peace activist and critic of government corruption and Westernization in the Middle East. He is a vocal member of the Semitic Action movement for grassroots dialogue and an outspoken opponent of the two-state solution, Israel's West Bank barrier and Jewish cooperation with America's Christian right.
HaKohen is a proponent of a post-Zionist "Hebrew Universalism" that addresses the challenges facing the Jewish people in the 21st Century and creates the conditions for Middle East peace based on a foundation of "Semitic Unity" rather than non-belligerency. His approach to Israeli–Palestinian peace is based on the claim that Jews and Palestinians have been experiencing two radically different conflicts with one another and that each side understanding the narrative of the other could actually lead to satisfying the aspirations and grievances of both peoples.
Yehuda HaKohen immigrated to Israel from New York City in 2001 and studied in Jerusalem's Machon Meir institute. Through involvement with several grassroots organizations, HaKohen was active in initiatives to increase the Jewish presence in the West Bank and resist Ariel Sharon's Gaza Disengagement policy in 2005. During that time, he was part of the Am Segula group that launched a series of non-violent protests and hunger strikes in order to pressure the Israeli government to demand the release of Jonathan Pollard from American imprisonment.
Following the violent confrontation at Amona between the Israeli police and teenage activists in early 2006, HaKohen and fellow activist Elie Yossef went on a three-week hunger strike vigil protesting the violence. The activists displayed banners and handed out flyers calling on both the Israeli government and settler leadership to seek ways to avoid future bloodshed. As this took place just before national elections, the hunger strike drew criticism from some settlers who had felt victimized by the government and sought to use the tragedy as a means to hurt the ruling Kadima party in the polls. The government had no official response to the vigil.
In 2006, HaKohen helped found the Zionist Freedom Alliance to promote Jewish national rights on American college campuses and co-hosted a radio program called Jewish Campus Radio on Israel National Radio (channel seven). The program dealt with all issues facing Jewish college students in the West but focused primarily on political activism on American college campuses. In the summer of 2007, INR asked HaKohen to host their new program, The Struggle, which dealt with Jewish history and global issues that concern the State of Israel. HaKohen used his radio show to speak out against Islamophobia and to place blame for the Arab–Israeli conflict on third parties, particularly the United States and Europe. In December 2008, HaKohen told Israel National News that:
"It was the British who originally turned local Arabs and Jews against one another in order to further their own colonialist agenda for our region. And now Western governments arm both sides and then attempt to impose artificial diplomatic solutions. The Israeli government and PA leaderships today both behave as puppets to foreign regimes and both the local Jewish and Arab populations are suffering. The way to achieve real peace between peoples here is to work from the bottom up and not the top down. The Jewish and Arab peoples are both native to the Middle East. We have a great deal in common. But for efforts at genuine peace to succeed, Western governments and multinational corporations need to leave our region alone and let the indigenous Jews and Arabs settle things between ourselves."
HaKohen frequently used his radio program as a platform to challenge the linear political spectrum and to launch attacks on President George W. Bush, Evangelical Christians and America's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan before eventually leaving INR in 2010.
In August 2011, HaKohen publicly opposed a Jerusalem rally organized by conservative American broadcaster Glenn Beck and other rightist figures, accusing the organizers of promoting a Christian agenda disrespectful of Jerusalem's indigenous culture. HaKohen also dismissed Beck's support for Israel as having imperialist motives, saying:
"Rightwing Americans like Glenn Beck may support the State of Israel, but that support is based on a flawed view of Israel as an American client state in the Middle East. Beck wants to see an Israel that serves as a Western satellite in the region and this directly conflicts with the Zionist goal of a politically independent Jewish state that expresses our authentic Hebrew culture and is capable of making peace with the other indigenous peoples of the Middle East... Zionism is about Jewish liberation and not about creating a 'Robin' to America's 'Batman' in the region."
In 2010, HaKohen became a visible member of the Semitic Action movement for grassroots dialogue between Jews and Palestinians living in the West Bank. At a November 2011 meeting between the two groups, HaKohen was quoted as saying:
"The first step towards achieving peace is for both populations to learn to be good neighbors. And this is less relevant to people in Tel Aviv than it is to ethnic Jews living here in Samaria. ... Both populations need to learn to see and accept the other as indigenous and belonging here. The closest people in the world to the Jewish people are the Arabs. Any hostility between our two peoples is completely unnatural and the result of foreign powers exploiting both populations. ... If we examine the last two decades, we see that thousands of people have been killed on both sides and that our two populations have been forcibly segregated. ... Both peoples have also suffered several other injustices. Thousands of Jews have been forcibly expelled from their homes and turned into refugees. Entire towns and villages have been destroyed. And Arabs have their freedom of movement restricted by a military bureaucracy every day of their lives. ... Before Oslo there were no checkpoints or walls here and everyone could travel wherever they liked. Peoples lived together in a situation that may not have been perfect but was still much better than the situation we see today."
HaKohen refers to himself as an "alternative peace activist" due to his opposition to the two-state solution. On a radio program in August 2015, he defined "alternative peace activism" as circumventing the "peace industry" and international community, bringing the more militant actors from both populations together and working towards a solution that forces neither side to compromise but rather allows the Israelis and Palestinians driving the conflict to feel full satisfaction with how they respectively experience the same solution.
Use of narratives in conflict resolution
Following several organized encounters between Jewish and Palestinian activists, HaKohen became a vocal advocate for a one-state solution and has argued the need for a larger narrative capable of encompassing both the rival Zionist and Palestinian narratives.
He later further developed a position on narratives that allowed for Israeli and Palestinian versions of events to hold equal legitimacy and emphasized a need for both peoples to engage the identities, aspirations and grievances of the other without feeling their own identities threatened.
When interviewed about the Levy Report in July 2012, HaKohen called it "a perfect example of competing narratives simultaneously coexisting."
"On the one hand, the committee’s findings are correct in that the Jewish nation has a legitimate claim to sovereignty over the Judea and Samaria regions, which from a legal and historic perspective are not only intrinsic parts of the Jewish homeland but also the cradle of Jewish civilization. It would therefore be grossly inaccurate to refer to an Israeli presence in these regions as an 'occupation' as that term implies these territories to lie beyond Israel's legitimate borders. Yet at the same time, its true that there are millions of Palestinians living in these territories under a military bureaucracy that forces them to endure humiliating checkpoints and intrusive walls while severely limiting their freedom of movement on a daily basis. From this perspective, an 'occupation' very much exists and those claiming – based on the Jewish people's legal and historic right to the territories – that there is no 'occupation' sound foolish at best."
HaKohen argued that "both narratives are equally valid and so long as they seek to negate or eclipse one another, both peoples will continue to suffer."
"Even if one narrative were to finally win out over the other, it would lead to injustice for at least one of us. The sad truth is that Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank actually undermines the Jewish people's legitimate right to Judea and Samaria. The Jews in Judea are not the Americans in Afghanistan. We don’t occupy some foreign people’s homeland. The problem is that many of our political and military leaders behave like the Americans in Afghanistan, bestowing credibility on claims we don’t belong in our own country. ... The bottom line is that in order for both peoples to achieve justice without creating any new injustices for either of us, we need to collectively arrive at a larger narrative big enough to encompass both seemingly rival narratives."
As one of the hosts of the "New Generation New Conversation" alternative peace conference on October 22, 2015, HaKohen brought together Jewish and Palestinian activists to each tell their story in Jerusalem before an audience he then encouraged to construct a larger narrative able to include both stories.
Critiquing what he views as both sides feeling threatened by the narrative of the other, HaKohen frequently emphasizes the need for Israelis and Palestinians to open themselves up to understanding the narrative of the other in order to work towards constructing a larger narrative inclusive enough to encompass both ostensibly rival narratives.
"In most conflicts, each party is certain he is right and the other wrong. And in the reality he lives in, this is genuinely the case. But in order to solve a conflict like ours, it is necessary to step into the reality of the 'other' – to see the world and events from his subjective perspective so that we can reconcile his reality with our own and merge these opposing versions of events into a bigger holistic truth inclusive enough to encompass both ostensibly rival truths. These subjective perceptions of reality constitute unique 'movies' in which we are each the protagonist. And any genuine approach to Israeli–Palestinian peace requires us to recognize the completely separate broader movies our two peoples each collectively live in. Both have experienced the past hundred years very differently and the major obstacle to attaining peace has almost nothing to do with territory but rather the inability on both sides to acknowledge, understand or accept the narrative of the 'other' without defensively feeling our own narratives threatened. I define the term 'narrative' here as a version of reality – a story told about a chain of events that organizes facts while being influenced by ideology. The same chain of events can be organized into many narratives, especially if influenced by different ideologies. The separate movies we live in very much impact how we relate to history, to ourselves and to each other in this country. Both sides tend to approach the conflict as a zero-sum game where there can only be one winner. And the conflict continues to rage partially because many of us are so trapped within our narrow paradigms that we refuse to acknowledge how things may look from different perspectives. Advocates on both sides often cite hard facts to support their positions. And while these facts might be true, they are not the only facts. And how we select, connect, contextualize and understand them is very much determined by the movies we live in. ... There is so much blame and pain powering this conflict. And acknowledging the narrative of the 'other' often feels like betraying our own. But if we can learn to see the greater movie comprising both our smaller movies and define the core aspirations and grievances of each side, we can begin to chart a course that allows both peoples to be protagonists in a single story that successfully transcends the dualistic 'Arab versus Jew' paradigm and enables us all to experience the fulfillment of our deepest yearnings."
HaKohen has frequently criticized Israeli leaders for desiring to be part of the West while living in the Middle East. He claims that despite many centuries of a forced Diaspora existence, the Jewish people is indigenous to the Middle East and a subgroup of a broader Semitic collective. He views the other peoples of the Middle East as Israel's most natural allies and claims that Israel trying to attach itself to Western powers and present itself as a Western country is actually the largest barrier to peace. He has consistently rejected reducing the definition of peace to an absence of conflict and insists that real peace requires a situation of "Semitic Unity" in which Israel exists as an organic part of the region.
On November 5, 2013, HaKohen told students at Hunter College in New York City that peace in the conflict must be synonymous with unity and that Israel should embrace a more inclusive “Semitic identity.” He criticized the international community for aggressively pushing a two-state solution on Israelis and Palestinians and expressed particular frustration with Israel’s relationship with the United States, stating that Israel should stop “trying to be a Western satellite in the Middle East” and calling for Israel to integrate into the region by improving its relationship with its neighbors.
HaKohen claims that Zionism as a narrow Jewish nationalist movement has successfully run its course, peaking with the conquest of Jerusalem from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, and that it has now become necessary to shift towards a uniquely "Hebrew Universalism" that deals with the questions of what makes a nation-state "Jewish", the ideal role of a non-Jew in a Jewish society and the role Israel should play on the international stage. He has often defined peace with the Palestinians and economic independence from United States foreign aid as the next stages of Jewish liberation.
"The situation of the Jewish people today is radically different than it was only a century ago. We have achieved the impossible. And we did so through a very necessary yet narrow Jewish nationalism called 'Zionism' that currently appears to have outlived its usefulness. If we define Zionism (as most Israelis do) not as the Jewish struggle for liberation over millennia but as a 20th century national movement that succeeded in returning the Jewish people to nationhood, we are currently living in a post-Zionist reality... Few still approach Zionism as an ideology with any intellectual depth, because the Jewish people are by and large ready and thirsty for something new. In order to advance to the next stage, however, we need to shift away from our narrow Jewish nationalism in favor of a uniquely Hebrew universalism that reflects and expresses authentic Jewish values while being more inclusive to non-Jewish groups in our society. We need to dig deeper into the wealth of our ancient sources in order to arrive at policies and structures that will at the same time make our country more Jewish, democratic and inclusive of the 'other.' Hebrew universalism should not be confused with Western universalism but should actually be seen as an alternative to it... Advancing to the next stage of Jewish liberation doesn’t require that we shrink our nationalism or negate its achievements... Our nationalism needs to deepen and expand to the point that it explodes and spills over into universalism, transcending the either/or 'Arab versus Jew' paradigm and making the State of Israel, from river to sea, both the fulfillment of historic Jewish aspirations and a genuine light unto nations that will benefit and inspire all humankind."
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