PeaceCast #240 Transcript: Billboard Brouhaha with Eran Nissan

Ori Nir  00:13

Hi, and welcome back to PeaceCast. I'm Ori Nir with Americans for Peace Now. We've done more than 200 episodes now. And you know, each episode when I started, there's a little bit of a pitter patter. And this time it's a little more than the usual because I haven't prepared any notes-- I'm doing it kind of without any written introduction or anything like that. But if there's any interviewee who will be tolerant of that, it's my friend, Eran Nissan, who's joining us from Israel. I'll introduce him. And maybe he'll introduce himself in a little more detail in a moment. Eran actually has been a guest on on PeaceCast in the past. And today, we'll talk about an interesting activity that the organization with now, Mehazkim, did yesterday. So, Eran, thanks for joining us.


Eran Nissan  01:06

Thank you for having me again, it's always a pleasure. I can say that I'm a fan because I listen to PeaceCast episodes whenever there's a good title, or someone that I know that is interviewing. So it's a pleasure to be here. And it's an amazing platform.


Ori Nir  01:25

Thanks. Appreciate it. So maybe before we start talking about what happened yesterday with the flags, just say a few words about Mehazkim and then maybe just a few words about yourself to remind our listeners who you are.


Eran Nissan  01:40

Fantastic. So very briefly, Mehazkim, which is in Hebrew, "strengthening," or "empowering," making something stronger, is a nonprofit. We are a progressive digital movement. That means that we are explicitly outspokenly, left wing, progressive liberal, and we work mainly on social media. So Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok. This is our main area of expertise. We've been around for the past six years. And we understand that our theory of change is that through the digital battleground, we can unite the progressive camp in Israel and promote a united voice and a holistic approach to face the challenges that Israel is facing.


Ori Nir  02:34

And the Israeli Palestinian issue is not the only thing that you deal with, right, you deal with a multitude of-


Eran Nissan  02:39

Things across across the progressive agenda. So from climate change to LGBTQ, to women's rights to democracy, accountability, and also of course, peace and occupation, but also social justice. And what we do is we are managing the most successful -- I want to say viral -- for the past two years. It's a it's a triggering word, viral, but the most, the strongest independent social media arm in Israel. Our content reaches more than a million and a half Israelis a month through our various platforms. And this is like a noise machine but with progressive political content.


Ori Nir  03:24

And you know, if the listeners who would know you would remember you, I think from an episode that we recorded when you were in Washington doing a sort of an internship with an organization called New Story Leadership.


Eran Nissan  03:40

Yes, so um, so my name is Eran Nissan. I live in Jaffa with my fiancée, and I'm an Israeli peace activist. For the past two and a half years I've been with Mehazkim. But before that, I was in Washington, DC. I interned in Congress for representative Jamie Raskin from Maryland. And right now I'm working as both the Regional Coordinator for New Story Leadership and another organization which is a British organization. It's called Solutions not Sides. I see myself as a generational peace activist. I'm trying to unite my generation Israeli and Palestinian to fight the occupation, and to bring a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict. And before that, for three years, I've been working for Shalom Achshav, Peace Now in Israel heading the education and advocacy department. And when I say that I'm a generational peace activist, I believe that the conflict that you pass on to our children is a conflict that we lost. And I'm, I'm a member of a very unique generation that does not remember Oslo, a generation that was born during the First Intifada grew up during the Second Intifada, and experienced unfortunately four wars in Gaza in the past 13 years. I've been a combat soldier with the Israeli special forces. The experiences that I went through during my military service turned me into a political and peace activist. And this is what I do. I am trying to strengthen the core resistance. Israelis and Palestinians fighting together for a better future are not only Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank in Gaza, but also Palestinians within Israel.


Ori Nir  05:21

Now, just to complete the picture, which I think is something that is worth noting, you also volunteer as a medic, right?


Eran Nissan  05:29

Yes, I'm an ambulance driver for Magen David Adom, for Israeli emergency medical services. And my undergrad is in political science and philosophy and my master's is in emergency and disaster management.


Ori Nir  05:42

Oh, I didn't know about the master's degree. That's interesting.


Eran Nissan  05:46

Things you do during COVID? Yeah.


Ori Nir  05:50

Okay, Eran, so that's, you know, now that we've introduced you and the organization: The organization did something really interesting yesterday. And I wanted you to talk a little bit about the anatomy, about how it all came out. And then maybe we'll zoom out a little bit and talk about what it means. So what did you do?


Eran Nissan  06:10

Okay, so maybe I'll start with the end of it. And then I'll trace back. Yesterday morning, we had a giant billboard hung in the middle of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, nearby city called Ramat Gan, but above the main highway, the Ayalon highway. And that flag, it was a big sign, a billboard sign, on a very high building with an Israeli flag, a Palestinian flag, and the slogan in Hebrew and in English, "we are meant to live together." Now, the context of us, when bringing the sign, is piece of legislation that that preliminary vote was held yesterday. So we timed the billboard sign with the fact that this very controversial piece of legislation was put up to the first vote. And basically, the sign survived about three hours before it was taken down. And I think that this shows a little bit about   what I hope we'll get into later about the tension or the complexity of how Israel as a state and the Jewish Israeli majority, is dealing with the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Arab minority within Israel, that a part of is a very complex and complicated identity is its affiliation and identity. With the Palestinian flag casting and people on the Palestinian cause, the context of the legislation in our campaign, we felt like we're in a very violent month. That is more this last period of time around the national holidays are Israel's independence day, Nakba day, but not only... the amount of racist and nationalistic incidents against Arabs has risen up and the audacity of high ranking Likud members to incite and bully and attack. The Arab minority and Palestinian citizens of Israel is something that we don't remember, even from last May during all the violence because we are used to the extreme right wing:  Itamar Ben-Gvir and Lehava and Kahanist movement, being very racist and nationalistic. But usually the "mainstream," quote unquote, Likud is trying to have a more, In Hebrew we have a word called mamlachtiut, like this very dignified appearance. But in the past two weeks, we have seen two high ranking Likud members: Israel Katz, who used to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Yoav Galant, who used to be the Minister of Education, standing in the Knesset and like bullies in a schoolyard threatening, Palestinians who are citizens of Israel saying "you should ask your grandparents what happened in 1948. And if you don't put your head down, we will do another Nakba." And when you see that only a year ago, Netanyahu, when he was trying to form a government, he was hugging the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Arab minority, saying that they refer to him as Abu Yair, Yair being his oldest son, saying that we need to work together because the Arab list was the kingmaker and he was trying to hug them. But they chose to go with Bennet and for the first time in Israel form a government with Palestinian or Arab Muslims. And now, since the formation of the government, the opposition led by Likud and Netenyahu has used this racist troll to attack. They found the cooperation between Jews and Arabs as a wedge, but they can divide Israelis, Jews and Arabs, but also undermine the legitimacy of the government. So basically, what we had with this piece of legislation, and this past month, is a political maneuver, a very cynic and dangerous and violent political maneuver by the opposition, trying to return back to power, trying to undermine the legitimacy of the government. But by that, hijacking our future, because our saying in the in the billboard, and then in the digital campaign that followed-- of course, the campaign will continue-- is that we are meant to be together, that unlike what they're saying, they've been saying this for years about Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, that this illusion that some morning, we will wake up, and we will be only Jews here. And this is of course, a dangerous illusion, a racist illusion, but a dangerous one, because it's not going to happen the same as the sum of the wishes of Palestinians that one day, the Jews will be gone. And we're not going anywhere. And the Palestinians are not going anywhere. But within Israel, when we talk about the Israeli society, only Israeli citizens, the biggest minority 17%, 1.7 million citizens are Arabs, some of them Muslims, some of them Christian, but a lot of them identify with the Palestinians' flag. And by saying that you're not part you have dual loyalty, you are traitors, you are a Trojan horse, like these have been things that have been said by high ranking Likud officials, the narrative of it is something that jeopardizes any chance of our future of equality, injustice, and not only coexistence, living side by side, but shared society of Jews and Arabs together. And we, Mehazkim, as a progressive movement, we wanted to say enough is enough. And also because we haven't heard our representatives for mandates from Labor, coming up and standing up to those bullies, and to this rhetoric. So we said that our job as civil society is to challenge our representatives, but also to throw a counter narrative into on the table of public discourse, and give a choice to Israeli citizens saying, "we are meant to live together." And we see it not only in the hospitals, which is like the example that they give that we have a lot of Arab doctors, but everywhere. We are meant to be-- to live together, not "we are destined," like it's like it's a bad thing. And we have no choice. We want, we need, to choose to build a future together. Because our strength comes up, comes not only from our being the same, not only from our unity, but from our diversity. We are stronger when we are more diverse.


Ori Nir  13:43

You know, when I saw the billboard, I thought about something and I'd like to ask you to take it up a notch, to take up a notch the meaning of the billboard. I'll tell you a quick story. And then I'll tell you what I mean by that. So when I see "we were destined, we were meant to live together," I always remember an incident. This was in 1986 Israel, the Israeli occupation in the in the West Bank allowed the mayor of Qalqilya who was sort of a collaborator and you know Qalqilya quite well because you grew up just across the border from it on the Israeli side. They opened the zoo there. I don't know if you remember this incident, it was many, many years ago. Anyway, so it was the only zoo in the West Bank. I don't even know if it's still there or not. But they got some donations of animals. For the zoo. It was pretty miserable place, I have to say it didn't look that great. The head of the Civil Administration, the coordinator of the COGAT, the coordinator with Israel's activities in the territories, came over to open the zoo and then they made it into a big media event and so on. And he gave a speech there in which he said this kind of sloganish thing ‘we were destined to live together,’ nigzar aleinu, In other words, it's an edict of history that we were, you know, not so much destiny. So anyway, so he said that and my sort of mentor, Danny Rubinstein, who then was, you know, he's like the oldest, most veteran journalist covering Palestinian affairs, was standing next to me. And he pointed at the poor looking lion in a cage. And as Shlomo Goren, who was then the head of the Civil Administration, said that we were destined to live together. He said, yes, but not in this way. In other words, not in a cage. So at that time, the Palestinian flag, as you probably know, was outlawed. You could not show it anywhere. It was, you know, in the West Bank, there were people who were actually shot and killed for waving the Palestinian flag. And that was a time in which the Palestinian national movement was outlawed. We have gone a very long way since then. And what I feel that is happening today, is that the Palestinian national movement, and symbols, obviously, the flag and other things, is, again being delegitimized in the conversation about Israeli-Palestinian relations, is turning into a zero sum conversation on the Israeli side, on the on many, many on the Palestinian side as well. So as you know, I read the billboard is saying, We the two national, not only Jews and Arabs, Israeli people who define themselves as Israelis and Palestinians, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean were meant to live together. But the two national movements in this area were meant to live together and we should accommodate each national movement. Was that a kind of another level of meaning?


Eran Nissan  17:02

Definitely. And we weren't discussing the exact meaning of the words because we want less words that will say more. That's what we're looking for in a billboard. We want the minimum amount of words. And I think that what we chose at the end, is something that symbolizes, that works on various levels. And yes, I totally agree that you see an Israeli flag next, a Palestinian flag, and your mind goes to a two-state solution to the conflict. Two states side by side states represented by flags. And I think that there's also the realization, in the past couple of years that I noticed that it used to be that we spoke, even in Shalom Achshav, we talked about a political solution around the terminology of separation--of divorce, some will even say segregation. But you're going to be in your corner, I'm going to be in my corner. And I think that in the past couple of years, we see a shift that we're still talking about two separate nations, two independent countries. But we understand that the conversation around it has to be one of partnership, and of sharing this land, and not separating the land into two. Because there are a lot of Jewish Israelis that feel strongly and feel even stronger emotions towards Nablus and Hebron, then they feel about Haifa and Petah Tikvah. And there's a lot of Palestinians that feel strongly about Haifa, in Akko and Jaffa more than they feel about the Ramallah or Jenin. And understanding that all of the land does not belong to the Jewish people. And all of the land does not belong to the Palestinian people. But both people belong in this land, all of it. And the realization that even if we talk about two states, we need to recognize the deep historical and emotional connection of both people to all the land is something that I see changing in the narrative, even of those two-Staters that I identify as one. And I think that this is a step forward. Because the true end of conflict is not peace, and is not the end of violence, but reconciliation, and reconciliation has to start from recognition. It's a necessary step. And one more, maybe I'll return a story with a story. In the 1980s. As you said, it was before the Oslo accord before the Palestinian Liberation Organization was taken off the terror list. There was an exhibition of artists, Palestinian artists, and the paintings and the artwork contained the Palestinian flag, and army officials, Army Israeli army generals came and said, you cannot show this because this is an illegal propaganda or illegal symbol because it symbolizes a recognized terror organization. So the artists, they changed it into watermelons, and they created artwork, and you see plates and you see paintings of watermelons, because like in passing the flag, the watermelon is green, red and black. And they said, This is so stupid, so foolish to try and censor and not only censor art, but censor a flag. A flag is a symbol and you're trying to, to, it's like trying to kill an idea. And I think that also now we see that even if the conversation is delegitimizing Arabs in the Palestinian identity and the Palestinian narrative to outlaw the waving of a flag. So now they just can take-- its summer, they can take watermelons and start filming themselves, post watermelons and coming to Sheikh Jarrah with more watermelons and whatever the police are going to do. So again, I think that I agree that this campaign, and this billboard is about our future. And it's about a vision of a shared future, not necessarily in one political workframe, one state. But yes, that we're not going anywhere. And they're not going anywhere. Right now we have a conflict, but it's temporary.


Ori Nir  21:37

Yeah. And you know, one of the things that I am really enchanted by, I really like it, is that A. I saw that the billboards, which were placed in Arab communities in Israel, were not taken down, at least not the one in Nazareth that I've seen. And the other thing that I'm seeing, and this is something that must give you a great deal satisfaction as an organization that focuses on the digital sphere, is that this is becoming a sort of a meme on social media, which, which I'm assuming was one of the intentions, right?


Eran Nissan  22:13

Actually, it wasn't that. It turned out like this because... I don't think we would have gotten the same amount of media if it wasn't like... the fact that they took it down created this Twitter storm, but also the media storm for... Mehazkim has been around for six years. And we never got this amount of media attention. Ori Kol, which is the executive director and the founder of Mehazkim, and myself, we were rushing from a radio interview to a television interview, and I interviewed in three languages: in Hebrew, in one of the biggest radio networks, and then in Arabic, in Radio al-Shams . Yeah, and then in Russian, in Radio Reka, which is an Israeli radio, public radio for Russian speaking Israelis. And the fact that interests right wing media, Likud media, I think that it was amazing. And yeah, the memes, got even out of the political sphere. So we saw.. so imagine that you have the Israeli flag on one side of the Palestinian flag on one side and above it, we are meant to live together and then somebody is changed. Instead of flags, he put pineapple and pizza or Bamba and cola, Coca Cola, right. And then it even... it became something like more even more meta than that. So reality TV, like figures from reality and, and this morning, even the Ministry of Justice, which is headed by Gideon Sa'ar, their digital social media, like Facebook page, they put like, the public attorney and like the main... like the bodies that constitute the Ministry of Justice, and Yoaz Hendel, who is purely right wing, the Minister of Communications, he put an internet supplier and an Internet provider. And it was like a real carnival, of creating a meme. And we felt very satisfied to see this.


Ori Nir  24:27



Eran Nissan  24:27

So again, you never know how it's gonna turn out. And again, I think that the fact that they decided to remove the and "they," I mean, the the company, the billboard company, they got a lot of responses because Israelis's triggering, it’s quite controversial. They don't... they're not used to driving and seeing the flag that they have been indoctrinated to believe symbolizes terrorists. Although when Abu Mazen is meeting with President Trump or President Obama there's a Palestinian flag. When Netenyahu met Abu Mazen, there was a Palestinian flag next to an Israeli flag. We didn't invent anything. This representation of an Israeli flag side by side to Palestinian flag, something that has been not only in Washington, DC in the Rose Garden, but in the Prime Minister residence if we talk about symbolic gestures. So we are trying to challenge, not to bring something new to the conversation-- to bring something maybe that was forgotten from the conversation.


Ori Nir  25:33

Yeah, I'll go back to textual analysis and maybe end with that, you know, in Hebrew, it said, "we were meant to live together." In Arabic, there was a bit of... which suggests we're not living up to a certain vision to a certain ethos that is that we should be. And in Arabic, it said, "our future is to live together," which I found particularly appealing, because it's kind of forward leaning and looking into a situation the future. And...


Eran Nissan  26:03

It's amazing. First of all, the fact that you speak Arabic, and the fact that you notice the nuances. I read Arabic and my Arabic is pretty basic, but the first round of when we when we designed this, we sent it to somebody to translate, and he returned it with kutiba alaina Like it is written on us, to live together. And I said, this is not the right nuance that I want to convey. We need something else that is more optimistic and hopeful and mustakbalna, like our future is something that is forward thinking and forward looking. And I hope that we got the nuance right, and also from Palestinians, Palestinian citizens of Israel, because as I said, it went up not only in Ramat Gan but also in Nazareth. In Ramat Gan it was taken off, in Nazareth, it was not. Nobody vandalized or put pressure because God forbid, an Israeli flag is waving in a totally Palestinian Arab city. So I think that this is only the first step of a very difficult conversation that will make a lot of Israeli Jews who identify as Zionist who carried with them to trauma of intifadas and terrorism and war. I think that we're entering into an era of truth telling. And I think that this is something that is very, very important. Because in the past decade, our future has been hijacked by Netanyahu and the right wing. And right now, we have the ability to start this very difficult conversation around the world, not only about Israel-Palestine, I think that we can see it also in the United States and in other parts that there are difficult conversations, and even the liberal people that find themselves that they're a part of the majority, there is this resource guarding or status threat, the fact that they're going to... they're going to change something that will make me less fortunate or privileged or superior. But I think that in the long run, when we think about the next generation and our children, that we want to live a more just more equal, and more democratic infrastructure for equality, and justice and prosperity and security. I think that this is the sacrifice that we need to make to have this... to lean into the discomfort instead of trying to steer away from it.


Ori Nir  28:43

Yeah. Eran, Thank you very much. Keep up-- Keep up the good work, keep telling the truth. And hopefully we'll talk again soon when you have another, you know, particularly captivating campaign.


Eran Nissan  28:56

I will work towards it--to be lucky enough to be chosen, to be another episode with you. I really enjoyed this conversation. So thank you very much. Thank you.


Ori Nir  29:16

Thank you.