Peace Now's new director is a different kind of leftist
Avi Buskila has no intention of being a 'pet Mizrahi' for the left-wing NGO; in his first interview since taking over 6 months ago, he declares, 'I won't apologize for spending more time in the army than Bennett, or for being in the periphery longer than Miri Regev. I also won't apologize for thinking it's our turn to take the peace camp forward.'
Avi Buskila, the new director of Peace Now, is the opposite of a stereotypical leftist leader: his parents emigrated from Morocco, he grew up in the periphery, and he served as a combat soldier in the IDF.
“The left has a hard time understanding me," Buskila tells Yedioth Ahronoth's weekend magazine Hamusaf Leshabat. "They want to continue doing the same things that brought nothing but failures.”
Buskila talks about the kind of posts he encounters in left-wing groups on social media. For example one person wrote: “We've gathered the savages and brought them to Israel, and now they are destroying us,” meaning Jews of Mizrahi descent. "After all, right-wingers equal Mizrahim, equal religious," he says.
But Buskila says has no intention of being the “left’s pet Mizrahi.”
"I won’t apologize for serving in the IDF longer than Naftali Bennett or for living in the periphery longer than Miri Regev,” he says defiantly.
“The portrayal of the left as old and Ashkenazi is accurate. There are a lot of people in the (peace) camp who would rather see us fail than give up their control. They refuse to recognize that it’s time they retire and leave. But I have news for them—they are going to lose control and if they don't, we'll take it from them, both in the political parties and in organizations. The left, in many ways, failed to speak to the people. For years, it just told everyone why they are wrong.
“The left doesn’t respect the painful narrative of fear. I don’t doubt my mother's fears. She spent most of her life in shelters under the threat of rocket fire. Speaking their language means I'm not preaching, and I'm not constantly explaining to someone why he's wrong. It's not about coming from Tel Aviv to tell a Netivot resident that his fears and the discrimination he feels are nonexistent bullshit. I accept what they're telling me.”
Neutralizing a Jewish terroristBuskila, 41, is salt of the earth. In 1994, he enlisted in the Nahal Brigade's 50th Battalion. "I was comfortable where I was; I believed I was changing the world".
During his officers’ training course, he experienced a seminal event. "On January 1, 1997, my unit was stationed in the old Hebron bus station. Bibi (Netanyahu) had been prime minister for six months, and he instructed us to open the intersection crossing the Jewish settlement to Palestinians. Before we took our positions, I gave a briefing on the possibility of a Jewish terrorist. We were afraid of another Baruch Goldstein. We took our positions in the roundabout, and a uniformed soldier with a weapon, wearing a yarmulke and a sweater came in our direction. It was hot that day.
“I went on the radio and said, 'Guys, this soldier looks strange; watch him.' He wasn’t in battle gear, and he had a long weapon, meaning he wasn't a fighter. I knew most of the faces (of people) living around there. Then he stopped and opened fire into the market. He unloaded almost an entire magazine, but he didn’t know how to shoot and he fell down from the recoil.”
What was going through your head?
"One, that he had to be stopped as fast as possible, and two, I was thinking whether to shoot him and endanger everyone that was at the market. I told myself, 'I can neutralize him.'"
Buskila was an exceptional runner—one of the best for his age in Israel. "My record was 100 meters in 12.04 seconds. So 30 meters seemed like nothing. I remember running while cocking my weapon. I got to him as he was reloading and jumped him, pushing the weapon aside. My soldiers took his weapon, and he yelled, 'Don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me.'
"I grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and threw him aside, as all of a sudden Palestinians started rushing out of the market. They were coming for him. His name was Noam Friedman, an IDF private from Ma’ale Adumim. His mother, by the way, called my mother and thanked me for saving his life.”
The entire incident was caught on camera. "Three minutes later it was all over foreign media. News agency photographers are in Hebron all of the time, and they were all documenting the incident. The media coverage was enormous. It was madness for 48 hours. They put me on TV, using me to cover the shame. They turned it into a heroic tale instead of realizing this was an Israeli soldier who was shooting at innocent civilians.
"A week later, Bibi held a ceremony and gave me a certificate of appreciation. This was during the implementation of the Hebron Protocol, and he told me 'Thank you, you've protected the agreement.'
"In the Galilee, I was a celebrity. Only the settlers didn’t like me. They cursed, threatened, and threw eggs at me. It’s ‘Ishmael’s Defense Forces’, they said."
A leftist in a Likud family
Buskila left the IDF after the 2006 Second Lebanon War. "During the war I realized a few things. You realize stuff when you're sitting in an operations room and rockets land around you—you could die, and you're thinking about the rest of your life and how you're going to live them,” he says.
One of the things he realized was that he had to come out. "I always knew, I just thought I was confused and I tried to check out other options. So I played around, checked things out and lied to myself a lot. I repressed. I lived with women. And at some point I felt I wanted to live my life. I told my family very late, it was very hard for me. And in the army it came slowly, because there's no one to just stand in front of and announce it. Today I am a reservist, and everyone knows. We even laugh about it. They say, 'Buskila might be gay, but he's still the best fighter we know.'”
Buskila now lives Tel Aviv's Yad Eliyahu neighborhood, but he was born and raised in Mishmar Ha’Yarden, a moshav in the Galilee.
"The division was between Mizrahim who lived in moshavim and Ashkenazim who resided in kibbutzim. Our moshav has a Moroccan majority. Most people are Likud voters and the secretariat has a huge poster of Jabotinsky. Everyone is traditional: yarmulkes in the pocket, not on the head. I went to synagogue every Friday with my father.”
Buskila is one of five siblings: four brothers and a sister. An open, traditional home. "We listen to Zohar Argov and Umm Kulthum, but also to Chava Alberstein and the Rolling Stones."
Politically, he says, his family is Likud voters. "You don't get exposed to other views, so you share everyone's opinion. But I started to think differently even before my military service. I met different people, for example in the Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement. I didn’t see them as leftists. I related to the values of socialism and human dignity. In high school, almost everyone was a kibbutznik. But I felt closer to those who came from Kiryat Shmona (a mostly Mizrachi town near the Lebanese border). The kibbutznik was a role model for all of us. We all wanted to be like them."
Referring to the prevalent tradition of enlarging the neckline towards the sleeves, he continues, “So I cut my shirt and adopted their language. Today I am much more comfortable with my Mizrahi identity, with the music I like. When I was younger I was embarrassed and tried hiding it. It’s not like anyone tells you anything, but you quickly learn what is right and wrong.
“For example, my grandmother’s name was 'Freha' (also slang for a Mizrahi woman: implies a bimbo); when I wrote a paper about my family’s roots, I changed her name to 'Perhiya.' I invented it. They called me 'Ars' (slang for Mizrahi man; implies a criminal) because I dressed differently and listened to different music. You know how it goes, they call you 'Ars' once, twice and three times. The fourth time you slap the person who called you that. And then you really become an 'Ars.' A year ago we had a class reunion and we talked about these issues. And I realized that those we blamed didn’t get it. They were also caught up in the situation. This was how they were brought up, so that's how they lived."
Over the last three years, Buskila has been in a relationship with Shimri Segal, who was the spokesperson for former MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) and the public advocacy director in Israel Hofsheet—Be Free Israel—a grassroots organization that advocates cultural and religious pluralism.
Over the last decade Buskila has made a living working in advertising agencies. He started at the bottom and became the CEO of two different ad agencies—one that specialized in the LGBT community, while the other advertised in various sectors of Israeli society.
But then came Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in the summer of 2014.
“I came out of Protective Edge in a bad emotional state. My team's mission was the evacuation of the wounded and the dead. Three Nahal Brigade soldiers were killed, and 38 were wounded. It’s a very heavy responsibility: A wounded soldier is likely to survive if you get him to a hospital within an hour. We had a 95 percent success rate. There was one seriously wounded guy that we took to a makeshift landing strip in Netiv Ha'Asara We put the stretcher in the helicopter, and I saw the doctor holding his head. I asked, 'Hey man, what's up?' And he said, 'He won’t make it.'
“It was like a punch to the gut. You think about the mother who’ll get a knock on the door in a couple of hours, the father who will be called out for a minute to talk. Most of my team was over 40 years old. All of a sudden these (wounded) soldiers could be our children. The first casualty we evacuated, I looked at him and thought, 'Wow, he's actually a child!'
“I realized I couldn’t go back to the advertising agency to sell shampoos and jeans. I had a small business and a good salary, but then I found myself on the verge of bankruptcy, with debts to suppliers because of Operation Protective Edge. The state paid us NIS 5,300 ($1,370) for five or six weeks in Gaza."
Buskila, who had already been a periphery and a gay-rights activist, began organizing a protest of independent reservists. At the same time, he also led, along with a friend, a project to create a treaty of teenagers for fair discourse in Israeli society. This was his rehabilitation after the war.
"I got my energy back and realized this was what I needed to be doing. A year later, Tzali Reshef (a founder of Peace Now) called me and said, 'We’re looking for a director, and a little bird told me you might be a good fit.’
"I had 15 minutes to think about it, and I decided to try. When they called to say I got the job, I felt it was the best compliment I ever got. I was given a chance to do something for the country."
But you didn’t grow up in Peace Now. You were brought in as "Mizrahi talent."
"They wanted to rebuild the organization. They interviewed a lot of people for the job. I am well versed in local politics, and my name is known in the center-left. In the interview, I was very clear about what Peace Now should do next. It should become a movement that speaks to the Israeli public. The logic behind this is that we have to expand the movement. I admit that it's easier to come and speak in certain places when your name is Avi Buskila. I get significantly less abuse.”
Why is it so difficult to speak to people? You offer peace. Isn’t that a good thing?
"The peace camp comes across as an elitist Ashkenazi camp. The entire left-wing leadership throughout the years has been Ashkenazi. (Former Mizrahi Labor Party leader) Amir Peretz is the exception. It makes sense for Mizrahim to hold left-wing views: They identify with minority, disenfranchised, Israeli Arab, and Palestinian rights. But that didn’t happen because the oppression of the Mizrahi population led to extreme alienation toward government. Likud doesn’t care about the development towns and the periphery, but the people who immigrated to Israel and were dumped in the periphery still vote emotionally. I tell them, ‘Peace has nothing to do with religion, identity, or nationality—it should be wishful thinking for a better future.'"
Aren’t you afraid that they hired you to be the left’s Miri Regev? The Mizrahi symbol?
"I don’t think of myself as a Mizrahi symbol. I am a person who happens to also be Mizrahi, raised in the periphery, and served in the army. There are a lot of people like me. But they are either not part of the left, or they didn’t choose politics as a way of making a difference. I don’t want to create another crisis between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. I'm saying, we come with equal rights and the need to speak to those that the state abandoned.
"Miri Regev doesn’t respect the Mizrahi narrative. She harms it. She shouldn’t take advantage of the fact that she is Mizrahi to justify the social fragmentation she creates. She isn't raising the Mizrahi issue for discussion; she's making it all about Miri Regev. Amir Peretz tried to raise the topic for discussion, but he used it to unite people, while she splits them up. She says, 'You are still a weak and oppressed population.’ But instead of transferring funds to the periphery and investing in local leaders, she says, ‘Let's take revenge on Ashkenazim’. But Mizrahim don’t need revenge, they need equality."
The Ashkenazi settlers
Peace Now was founded in March 1978 following then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel. The organization's goal was to persuade the Israeli public and its governments of the need and the possibility of achieving peace with the Palestinian people and the Arab states in return for territorial compromise, which is based on the principle of land for peace.
It seems that the organization has never been farther from its goal. "Leftist" has become a form of insult in Israel, and the idea of making peace comes across as bizarre, naive, and unrealistic.
In recent years, the organization made headlines mostly for tracking the government’s illegal actions in settlement construction—a project the Israeli public doesn't really care about. If anything, the public mostly just finds it annoying. The Israeli public wants Peace Now and other left-wing organizations to stop sharing the injustices Israel commits with the rest of the world.
A recent speech by B’Tzelem Executive Director Hagai El-Ad at the UN Security Council caused great outrage among the Israeli leadership and public. Peace Now was invited to speak as well, but declined. This was Buskila’s doing.
"The UN Security Council asked us to come and speak about settlements, and we specialize in settlements. We had a serious dilemma whether to participate or not. I felt it was wrong because we want to influence specifically the Israeli arena. Because we love the State of Israel and work for the good of the country, it didn’t feel right to speak at that forum. We have a Friends of Peace Now organization in the US made up of Jewish Americans, our colleagues. But they don’t take orders from us. They have their own set of considerations. When we announced that we wouldn’t be there, they accepted the invitation from the United Nations and spoke instead.
“The world has a crucial role in future negotiations—it could provide the seal of approval for the agreement. But first the Israeli public needs to understand why it’s important to end the military occupation of the territories. The Israeli public wouldn’t have liked it (if we went to the UN), but if I thought it could convince them, I might have done it. At the end of the day, I want to speak Hebrew to my people. There is no way to reach an agreement without the Israeli public."
What do you think about the international work of left-wing NGOs?
"Everyone can do what they think is right. I respect and support these organizations. At the end of the day, Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem are my partners, and we all have the same vision. What distinguishes between us is our style of work. I don’t feel their international work harms Peace Now. However, I do strongly oppose BDS. It hurts us and undermines a possible agreement. We need to speak up in the international arena but to choose carefully whom we speak with. I have not lost hope for the State of Israel."
A question that often arises: Where does the money come from?
"You can find the full information on our website. By the way, if you search for the sources of funds for (the right-wing organization) Im Tirzu, you’ll find 'secret donors.' Why is this allowed? We get contributions from countries that believe that we share their values. They support organizations fighting to end the occupation, not to destroy Israel. The State of Israel has dealings with these countries: It receives ammunition, culture, and education from them. We are a Zionist organization. The majority of our members were combat soldiers, the best Israeli citizens. We don’t snitch. The Europeans do not need us to know what is going on in the occupied territories.
"There's a small settler group that delegitimizes the entire country. Naftali Bennett speaks of annexation and other such nonsense, but he is terrified. He doesn’t have the courage to go through with it. Why isn’t this right-wing government annexing the territories? Bennett is dangerous because his party produces the most extreme statements that threaten Israeli democracy.
"For example, Uri Ariel, a man who symbolizes all that is bad in my eyes—the scared Diaspora Jew who walks around with a grenade in his pocket fearing for his life. He doesn’t care about anything but Greater Israel and is willing to pay for it with rivers of blood. The man uses the Torah to produce racism, homophobia, and a lot of money. He is not alone; he sits with (Bezalel) Smotrich, who is insane, and Ayelet Shaked, who manages to say the most terrible things with such a sweet tone. She seems not to understand that a more Jewish state means that I do not have the right to live here because I am gay, that the entire country will be closed down for Shabbat, and our children will learn to read from Torah scrolls in the first grade.
"Ask Bennett for me: how many Mizrahim are in his Bayit Yehudi party? There aren’t a lot because it’s a party that represents a settler elite, which is Ashkenazi and Anglo-Saxon. They think that he people should worship them. And within this elite there is another elite: the Hebron settlers who are Ashkenazi and receive even more money than other settlers. They don’t think of other Israeli citizens, not even my mother or their friends in Kiryat Shmona. They think only of themselves. NIS 300 million went to settlements in recent months. How much money went to the residents of Kiryat Shmona? Did Bibi visit Kiryat Shmona or even look down at it from a plane? The city is on the verge of collapse. When it was under attack during the Second Lebanon War, it was relatively protected. Today it interests no one."
And who do the residents of Kiryat Shmona vote for?
"They vote Likud because of a narrative of fear."
During the Gaza Disengagement in 2005, 7,000 settlers were evacuated and there was pandemonium. Putting aside those who live beyond the Green Line for a moment, do you think you could evacuate 150,000 ideological settlers?
"I don’t think there’ll be much of a choice. And I'm not talking about the evacuation; I'm talking about returning home to the borders of our country. The story isn’t over yet. We can’t have political dialogue without territorial compromise. There will be political dialogue. And if we're not the ones leading it, it will be forced on us, just like we were forced to accept the US-Iran deal."
Break down people's anxieties
Buskila has been the director of Peace Now for six months now, and he has big dreams. "I see Peace Now as becoming a huge movement. I want it empowered, a big and established grassroots movement that can lead to significant changes in public opinion. Today more than 10,000 members are registered, but we can only count on 300-400 activists that go out to the field.
"I think we can reach masses of people. We just need to break down their anxieties and fears. I cannot give you a number. I know we want to be present everywhere. If filling Rabin Square is the measure, let’s fill Rabin Square. When citizens get up in the morning and send their kids to school, we want them to ask themselves if they want their children to grow in a country at war all their lives. We are talking about 50 years of occupation. It means even the grandparents don’t remember what it’s like to live without occupation. I'm not trying to influence the hardcore Likud supporters. I want to influence the fluid centrists who have no clear agenda.
"We are marking 50 years of occupation with the ‘Decide at Fifty’ referendum campaign. Fifty years of successive Israeli governments decided not to decide; they don’t ask us, the public, how we feel about the issue. No one consulted us. This campaign says, give us the mandate to decide: one state or two states. We at Peace Now are not answering the question. We believe the public should decide because the government is simply not interested in making a decision."
Are you going around the country talking to people?
"I argue with people who tell me, 'I was a combat soldier, not an occupier.’ And I say: ‘You don’t know what it’s like not to be an occupier. But let's invert your experience: Did a soldier come into your home at midnight and take your father? Was your home ransacked during a raid? Were you stopped at a checkpoint, told to get out of your car, its seats dismantled, and then told you have to reassemble them?' I don’t blame the guy—military service in the occupied territories flattens reality. Soldiers are extras in this film. Everyone is an enemy, a terrorist, at least potentially."
Do they ask about foreign money?
“Sure. In Moshav Avigdor there was a very difficult discussion during a political forum. Someone asked me, 'What’s your monthly salary? Who pays it?' I told him, 'NIS 15,000 a month gross salary ($3,900 or $46,000 annually), and Peace Now pays it. You can visit our website or go to the NGO Registrar to see who contributes the money.' He said, 'Is this all you make?' I said, 'Yes, you want my pay slip?' ‘He said, 'You’re an idiot, why are you doing this?'"
You want to convince the Israeli public to make peace. Have you tried convincing the Likud supporters you grew up with?
"Yes, I held a discussion (with the moshav members). A very good friend of mine said 'At the end of the day, you know there is no one to talk to. You will eventually be killed too.’ I said, 'I don’t agree with you. Yes, there are people there who want to kill me, like there are people here who want to kill them.’ Her comment stems from the fact that she has no idea what the Palestinians are and she doesn’t see them as very important.
“I told her, 'for decades they taught you to think that "they" are evil. If you agree to that, you might as well also accept what they said about us, the Mizrahim, that we are barbarians, that we had no culture, that we offer nothing. So what, now that we climbed up the ladder, we became racists?' Suddenly I could see she was getting it.”
Have you convinced your own parents?
“I try convincing them all the time. They are under constant attack. But while they are Likudniks, my parents still think a little different. They think we have no choice but to separate from the Palestinians. They think there is a problem with the occupation. And they function as my control group. I test my arguments on them. Arguing with them I learned that logical discussion succeeds. I've tried to convince them not to vote for Bibi. I succeeded with my mother and failed with my father."
Translated from Hebrew by Maya Haber , PhD Director of Programming and Strategy, Partners for Progressive Israel.