What does Miko Peled think of what’s been happening in Gaza?
“There’s only one way to describe what’s happening now. It’s a massacre. There is no way to justify it, to excuse it, to paint it in different colors. It is unjustifiable, inexcusable and unforgivable.”
You might expect this analysis from a Palestinian spokesman. But Miko Peled is Israeli. Deeply Israeli. His grandfather was one of the original Zionists. His father was a national hero who fought for the establishment of Israel in 1948 and as a general in the Israeli army in 1967. Miko Peled himself was one of the famed Red Berets of the Israeli army. He has recently returned to San Diego from one of his frequent visits to Gaza.
“This is not the Israel my parents fought for,” he says.
Now he is fighting for what he calls “Jewish values.” His aim: an Israel that embraces Palestinians as full, equal political partners. Nothing less than a Republic of Palestine-Israel. It is ambitious. Some would say quixotic.
And for that, you might blame, or credit, San Diego.
“My journey into Palestine began in San Diego in 2000,” he writes in his recent book, The General’s Son, Journey of an Israeli in Palestine.
Miko Peled lives in San Diego but grew up in Jerusalem. He was educated in Israel, Japan, and the United States. He served in the Israeli Defense Forces and then became a martial-arts professional. He holds a sixth-degree black belt in karate and until recently ran his dojo in Coronado.
We meet not far from it, at the Café Madrid.
Growing up in Jerusalem, Peled was already used to controversy, thanks largely to his famous father, Matti Peled.
“My father was very clear. While still in uniform after helping bring about the victory of the 1967 war, he said, ‘It’s time to make peace, particularly with the Palestinians.’ He dedicated the second half of his life to recognizing the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.”
Were the general’s ideas popular?
“Everybody in Israel thought my father had lost his mind. He started talking about the need to speak to the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]. People called him a traitor and all kinds of terrible things. People who hadn’t served a day in uniform called him a traitor. So, swimming against the tide was something I always did, because of my father’s views.”
But it was two events that really made Miko question the direction his country was going in.
The first happened on September 4, 1997, in Jerusalem.
“It was the beginning of September. My niece, Smadar Elhanan, went out to buy schoolbooks, she and some friends. Suicide bombers blew her up. Killed her. She was 13. I was here, already feeling that I had to do something [about the Palestinian situation], but now I absolutely had to get involved,” says Peled.
His first instinct was to talk to “the other side.”
“I placed ads in the San Diego Reader’s classified section, asking about dialogue groups, but got no reply. I searched the internet and finally I came across the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and they referred me to George Majeed Khoury, a Palestinian American from Jerusalem who lived in San Diego, and he told me about the San Diego Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue group.”
Just the idea of meeting with this group frightened Peled’s wife Gila. “‘You don’t know these people,’ she said to me. ‘What if this is a trap?’ Because the amazing fact is, even though I was born and raised in Jerusalem, which is supposedly a mixed city, I never met with Palestinians. Jerusalem is completely segregated. Israelis never meet Palestinians. I had to come here [to San Diego] to do that.
“I remember driving up to [Khoury’s home] in Rancho Bernardo that night for the first meeting. And I was very excited, I was nervous, I was hopeful, and also feeling a sense of dread. Because this was the first time I had met Palestinians in a normal setting, naturally, without external tensions, checkpoints, curfews, permits to worry about.
“So I went to that meeting, and I loved it immediately. We talked and talked. I felt a very strong connection to the Palestinians, more so than to the Jewish Americans there.”
His book explains best how this was so. “The things that characterize American Jewish culture — New York Jewish humor, Jewish delicatessen food — were completely alien to me. On the other hand, traditional Palestinian warmth and hospitality, Arabic food, and photos of our shared homeland put me completely at ease. Perhaps the fact that we — the Palestinians and I, the lone Israeli — had actually lived in the Middle East and had memories of the same land created an almost instant bond.
“I came out realizing two things: first of all, that we had an astonishing amount in common. And the second thing was that there was something terribly wrong here, and I needed to put my finger on it. Hearing Palestinians talk about their narrative, especially when you don’t see them as ‘the other’ anymore, changes everything. Even though they are telling you a story that’s diametrically opposed to what you ‘know’ to be true. That’s a very powerful thing. It’s a very powerful moment [that] pushed me to investigate more, to read more.”
And Peled wanted to see more of that “other side.” He traveled, spent a lot of time on risky trips to the Palestinian territories, making contact with peace activists, joining protests, getting arrested, entering tunnels where goods are smuggled in from Egypt, teaching kids karate, and increasingly understanding the Palestinians’ plight.
But that has consequences. Now, like his father, he, too, is being labeled “traitor” online and losing his old friends in Jerusalem.
How far have his views changed? He used to believe in the “two-state solution.” Now he believes that the land of Israel should become one shared country, a “Republic of Palestine-Israel,” a country no longer defined by religion but by the equal democratic rights of all its citizens, where Palestinians have equal rights and equal votes as full citizens of a shared, secular state.
“My father and his supporters’ idea was, ‘We need to focus on the future because we cannot undo what was done.’ I think that’s wrong today. I think we have to look at what happened [at Israel’s birth] in 1948. Israel has to take responsibility for the countless refugees [it created]. And, like Apartheid had to be undone in South Africa, [Israel needs to] allow for a real democracy to emerge that embraces Israelis and Palestinians with equal rights.
“It comes down to this: why can’t we live together? For 1500 years we did. In places like Palestine, Syria, you had Jews, the Sunni Muslim majority, Armenians, all the different Christian sects — and there was a tolerance. I talk to Jews and Palestinians whose families lived in the Old City of Hebron for centuries as neighbors. And the stories are always like this: during the Sabbath when Jews were not allowed [by Jewish law] to light fire, the Muslims wouldn’t smoke. Just to not offend their Jewish neighbors. The Jews wouldn’t cook during the day in Ramadan, so as not to spread any food smells during the fasting time. Small things. Neighborly things. This is what we need to get back to.”
But would Palestinians accept to share their territory with Israel?
“Actually, the idea of a single democratic state in all of Palestine was originally introduced in the 1960s by the PLO. Most Palestinians that I talk to know it is the only solution and that the two-state solution was a poor idea and is long dead.”
What would his father think of his son’s “radical” views now? “Oh, in his time he never hesitated to slaughter sacred cows. I’m sure he, too, would call for a single democracy with equal rights today.”
What the general would not agree with, the son insists, is the recent attack on Gaza.
“This action in Gaza? These are not Jewish values being practiced. Jewish values are tolerance, kindness, humanism. There’s certainly nothing Jewish about dropping tons and tons of bombs on a civilian population, like shooting fish in a barrel. We are better than that.”