Amira Hass Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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Amira, welcome to Berkeley. Where were you born and raised?
And looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
They were Jewish Holocaust survivors, members of the Israeli Communist Party. My mother had been a partisan in Yugoslavia against German occupation, but then she was deported to a concentration camp. My father was in the ghetto. I think I was raised in their personal attempt, an ideological attempt, to compensate for the terrible emotional and ideological vacuum and family vacuum created after the Second World War, with the loss of most of their family and friends, history and life; to compensate this with the hope that you can work on for a better world, where the principle of equality is recognized as a basic for human life.
In the introduction to your book, Drinking the Sea at Gaza, you talk about family. I get the sense of both a legacy of loss, of looking back, but also of resistance. Is that fair characterization?
Yes, only that the loss is not that you look back and you feel the loss. The loss is always there. You don't have to look back to feel the loss. It's in everyday life. If your brothers and sisters and other beloved ones have all been murdered by the Nazi system, then the loss is ever-present.
Your mother [Hanna Levy Hass] was a writer.
Tell us a little about that.
She wrote a diary in the concentration camp [published as Inside Belsen], which already was a death penalty if she [had been] found writing it. Her friends or the other inmates in the barracks were covering for her when she was writing. She wrote on pieces of paper that she found who-knows-where, and she described the life there. She didn't talk so much about herself. She made a kind of analysis of what was happening to people around her. She was also teaching children. It was another forbidden activity for inmates in this concentration camp back in Bergen-Belsen. She taught children because she felt that they needed to be taken care of in this hell. To her it was a way of fighting, for sure, to have these most forbidden activities.
Where were you educated?
Jerusalem and then Tel Aviv.
At what university?
I went to the Hebrew University and then Tel Aviv University, but I was stuck with my M.A. studies.
First you did some human rights work, but then you became a journalist?
When I was already working for Ha'aretz as a text editor, I needed something for my neshamah, as you say in Hebrew, for my soul. [So] I volunteered. It was in the middle of the first Intifada. I volunteered in a group called Workers Hotline. We assisted Palestinian workers, mainly, whose rights were violated by Israeli employers. They were not represented properly by Israeli trade unions. So we started this advocacy group, and also offered active assistance in the sense of approaching the employers either through lawyers or directly in order to get for these people what they deserved.
Is this where you first developed your consciousness of the plight of the Palestinian, years ago?
That goes back further?
Yes. I grew up in a political family and a political surrounding. I was active in the Israeli left wing for years. So occupation; I mean, I've been involved by accident in occupation, but I always thought that our activity should be in the Israeli street with Israelis, and to explain to them and to try and promote the understanding that occupation is wrong. For this I didn't need to go and meet with or experience Palestinian occupation. But there was a change with the first Intifada, and I felt that all this kind of political activism led nowhere.
With this activity of mine with Workers Hotline, I came to know Gaza, especially, and it was like discovering this new world. I didn't have prejudice, I think, but I didn't have much knowledge about ordinary life there; mostly I had theoretical knowledge. So it was an opportunity to have more detailed knowledge. I was fascinated by people in this society. I found it a very warm society, a very welcoming society, a very resilient society.
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