Our Way to Fight, reviewed by Daniel Kerr, Assistant Professor, Department of History, American University, Washington DC. Published in Oral History Review, Winter-Spring 2012.
With his latest book, Michael Riordon sketches the life stories of dozens of Palestinian and Israeli peace activists, each struggling against mighty odds to sustain hope and construct the foundation for a just future. Riordon’s portraits interweave descriptions of the current endeavors of these activists with concise life histories, an approach that offers a dynamic sense of what motivates “normal” people to do extraordinary things.
As we learn about the life experiences of these individuals, the real and oftentimes unexpected personal costs of occupation for both Israelis and Palestinians become apparent. At the same time each activist creatively seeks to move beyond the literal and ideological walls that isolate, fragment, and divide themselves from their neighbors, families, and their own sense of what it means to be fully human.
Riordon documents a surprisingly wide range of peace work by Israelis and Palestinians, both within the occupied territories and Israel. His narrators include Nasser Abufarha, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology and co-founded the Canaan Fair Trade olive oil company. Canaan Fair Trade has significantly increased the base price farmers receive for their olives and other agricultural products. In doing so, the company has revived the economic stability of farming in the region around Jenin—an area that had been known more as a hotbed of suicide bombers than as a center of production for some of the finest olive oil in the world.
Eitan Bronstein, founder of Zochrot (the Hebrew word for remembering), documents and commemorates the remnants of former Palestinian villages within Israel. He argues that “silencing or hiding” memory “is one of the most powerful, brutal ways to oppress people” – an oppression that distorts the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis (173).
Ruth Hiller co-founded New Profile, an organization that supports young people who are considering or who are in jail for refusing to join the Israeli Defense Force. The group challenges the very foundation of Israel’s military culture.
Mohammad Khatib, a leader of the Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements, has helped organize weekly non-violent demonstrations protesting the construction of the separation barrier through the Palestinian village Bil’in. The protests eventually led to the issuance of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that resulted in the moving of sections of the wall that encroached on the village’s land. In addition to documenting these activities in the book, Riordon keeps readers apprised of the ongoing struggles of the activists and their organizations with his frequent and regular posts on his blog.
Each of the activists Riordon interviews face varying levels of suppression, including physical violence and criminalization. The Israeli government is the source of much of this repression. Our Way to Fight, however, reveals more complicated dynamics in these activists’ struggles. As Israeli and Palestinian peace activists try to chart an alternative way forward, they find themselves in an uneasy relationship with their own “people”. Jewish Israeli peace activists face condemnation from friends and family members, anonymous death threats, as well as pervasive efforts by other Israelis to delegitimize, pathologize, and marginalize their beliefs and actions. Palestinian peace activists receive little support from the Palestinian Authority and find themselves oftentimes at odds with more traditional and conservative elements within their own communities.
In each of the portraits, each activist addresses how she or he persists in the face of despair. While they face tremendous risks, the benefits of their activities seem unclear as hopes for real peace in the region seem more distant than ever before. Nonetheless, Meir Margalit, who struggles to prevent the demolition of Palestinians’ homes, argues that peace activists “do not have the luxury to feel despair” (41). Emily Schaefer, an Israeli lawyer who has supported the Palestinian campaign in Bil’in, reflects, “when we feel defeated, we are still preserving the humanity and the connection between two peoples for the future. If this is all we accomplish, still it’s something.” (230).
This book is not an academic one; it is directed towards a popular audience. Riordon omits any footnotes or references beyond those mentioned in the text. He also does not portray his book as an “oral history.” Nonetheless, there is a lot here that will be of interest to oral historians. While Riordon rightfully maintains the narrative focus on his interviewees’ compelling stories, he always sketches a rich background context describing the interview process itself. Riordon offers up enough about his own motivations and sympathies to provide insight into the interview dynamic. Furthermore, Riordon repeatedly questions his own questions. These moments of self-reflection give form to the context of power shaping the dialogue.
Where Riordon is at his best is in his acute observation of the small things that usually go unnoticed. Throughout the book, he keenly observes and interprets the non-verbal forms of communication that give meaning to what is being said – the awkward moment of silence, the twinkle in the eye, the sarcastic intonation, or the subtle grin.
Our Way to Fight exemplifies the advocacy tradition of witness and testimony at its best. Riordon seeks to build bridges between these activists and a North American audience that has little access to the world he documents. In doing so, Riordon effectively counters the dominant narrative about the Middle East that fixates on violence, portrays Palestinians as terrorists, and defines Israelis as embattled victims. He highlights the power of the question and demonstrates the subversive capacity of stories from below. By introducing the reader to real people and organizations, he offers an essential guidebook for other North Americans interested in building solidarity with those working for a just peace.