Meet Gershon Baskin, an innovator and leader. A self-described "peacenik", Gershon founded and leads IPCRI (Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information) and is devoted to developing practical solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had the privelege of meeting Gershon at events for peace in Israel and was impressed by a man who is as equally dedicated to peace as he is to his family. My interview with Gershon follows:
What early influences in your life shape your perspective on Middle East peace?
I have been a peacenik since I was nine years old. In 1965 we were on a family visit to Williamsburg Virginia. In our hotel I opened the yellow pages to search for a restaurant for the family to eat at – right before my eyes I saw advertisements that said “WHITES ONLY”. I was shocked. I didn’t understand it and couldn’t believe it. When I got back to NY I insisted that we talk about it in school. I was selected in school to represent a Democratic candidate for the NY Governors election. In doing so I also learned about the war in the Vietnam and began to go to demonstrations against the war. My Congressman, Allard Lowenstein was one of the most vocal anti-war voices in Congress. When I was 13 I would open the democratic party headquarters in our town after school and give out flyers against the war to men coming home from work on the train. I had the pleasure to meet Lowenstein. He was supporting Eugene McCarthy who was running for President in the Democratic primaries and was very anti-war, close to Martin Luther King and a real leader. I joined the McCarthy campaign and had the pleasure to meet him as well. After he dropped out I supported Robert Kennedy until he was killed and then I joined the campaign for Hubert Humphrey only because it was important to try to prevent Nixon from winning. Unfortunately, Nixon won and the rest is history.
At the age of 14 I joining a Zionist Youth Movement – Young Judaea and found myself immediately trying to understand the Israeli-Arab conflict. I was from the beginning known as a peacenik in the movement and as early as 1972 I was asked by the movement to try to explain the position of what was then called the “New Left”, In 1976 I met Lova Eliav who was one of the leaders of the Peace camp in Israel. I read his book Land of the Hart which had a deep impact on me. I also read the book Zionism and the Palestinian by Simha Flapan (1979) which also helped me to articulate my own positions.
You moved some years from the United States to Israel. What did you think about peace before you came? What did you realize when you got here?
I visited Israel for the first time for my Bar Mitzvah with my family in 1969. I joined Young Judaea in 1970. I returned to Israel in 1973 as the president of the Long Island region of Young Judaea for the establishment of Kibbutz Ketura and then I spent 1974-75 in Israel on a year long program of Young Judaea. During the course of that year of study in Israel we never spoke to a single Palestinian. When I got back to the States I understood that I had a very slanted view of Israel and began searching out more people and more answers for the many questions I had about Israel’s future. I came back to Israel in the summer of 1977. I made aliyah in 1978.
You lived in Kufr Kara, an Arab village, for two years. What was the effect of this experience? What other experiences helped shape your thinking about solutions to our conflict?
I lived in Kufr Qara for 2 years in the framework of Interns for Peace. The aim of the program was to train community workers in Jewish-Arab relations work. My own personal goal was to remove the stigma that was attached to me as an American jew living in Israel – naïve, stupid, etc. I was being told for years by Israelis “You don’t know them” (them meaning the Arabs, of course). I needed to find a way to remove that stigma and living in Kufr Qara achieved that goal. I soon became an “expert” and was being asked questions by the same Israelis who shortly before called me naïve. In the village I taught in the schools, helped to establish a community center, led a leadership training course and organized Jewish-Arab meetings with nearby Jewish communities.
After completely Interns for Peace I proposed to the Israeli government that the government needed to take responsibility for Jewish Arab relations in the State. I proposed that they hire me and create a new position. After 14 months of lobbying I was hired. I was given a high level position in the Ministry of Education. I reported to the most senior professional person policy in the person. I had access to the Minister and to the Director General. I helped to establish the Department for Education for Democracy and Coexistence in the Ministry. I got recognition for Neve Shalom-Wahat al Salaams school of peace. Through the Ministry and the Prime Minister’s office (Menechem Begin was PM and Zevulon Hammer was Min. of Ed) I established the Institute for Education for Jewish Arab Coexistence and was director there until I created IPCRI.
Will you tell us how you started IPCRI and what it makes possible today.
From the IPCRI web page (www.ipcri.org
) : In December 1987, after 20 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian territories erupted in a mass popular revolt for freedom and for internal societal and political reforms. The intifada emerged from the most dispossessed part of Palestinian society - the refugee camps. The intifada was directed externally against the Israeli occupation, but also internally against the political and societal stagnation that existed within Palestinian society itself.
At that time Gershon Baskin interpreted the intifada in a very different way than was the standard consensual Israeli understanding. Many Israelis were pretty convinced that the State of Israel had devised the ideal occupation. They even termed it 'the benevolent occupation'. They were convinced that the relative calm for 20 years after the 1967 war meant that the local Arab population - as they called the Palestinians, were basically content - certainly better off then Arabs in other Arab countries. The intensity of the intifada shocked them. Gershon Baskin says "I remember an Israeli school teacher saying to me 'how could they do this to us?'. I viewed the intifada as the Palestinians standing up for themselves, speaking in their own voice and not waiting for others to solve their problems. I believed that the intifada was essentially the beginning of a new Palestinian political movement that would have to lead to a peace process."
(More information available on IPCRI's website
What are your plans for IPCRI? What would you like to see our peacemaker community become?
I dream of a time when we won’t have to spend some 50% of our time searching for funds. IPCRI, like many other organizations has faced a severe financial crisis since the end of 2004. We cut our staff down from 26 to 6 in one year (we now have 9 people on staff). The two directors, myself and Hanna Siniora have been on 50% salary for 2 ½ years and on a personal basis it is very difficult to make ends meet. I never did this work for the money and I am always deeply offended when people speak about “the peace industry”. This is my life. Working for peace is a life choice. I have been offered many very high paying jobs over the years and I am sure that if I left IPCRI for money I would have no problem finding rewarding employment. It pains me that we have no financial security in IPCRI. We have no foundation or permanent backer and there is a constant search for funds for basic organizational needs. So my #1 priority is to achieve financial stability.
We are working on a new project – YIPCRI – the young IPCRI – aiming at integrating younger people into the policy development work. We are still searching for funds for this so the project has not yet begun.
In 2000, out of wishful thinking and prodding by one of our board members I drafted a ten-year plan for IPCRI in the post-conflict setting. We are obviously not there yet, but I would really love to see the time when we could implement that plan. A post-conflict IPCRI is an institution that is celebrating peace and building relations across the borders in every field possible.
My hopes for the immediate future are to continue to help to secure the release of Gilead Schalit. To work for the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas (and the other factions) to continue to assist the negotiators and the negotiating process with good, solid, policy documents, meetings, discussions, challenges, etc.
I want to see through the creation of the International Fund for Palestinian-Israeli peace. I also want to see through the establishment of Ministries of Peace in Israel and Palestine as part of the peace process and I would not say no to the offer of becoming the first Minister of Peace in Israel!
As a passionate peacemaker and dedicated father and family man, how do you balance your time and commitments?
Time is by biggest enemy. I do not have enough hours in the day. I sleep less. I read less – which I don’t like. I try to spend Shabbat, when I am at home, with the family., Family holidays are great but we need more time on the daily basis. It is very difficult to balance – if someone has figured it out, please let me know.
Which people are inspirations your work? How do you overcome pessimism?
: Noam Schalit inspires me. I have been inspired by Lova Eliav, Martin Luther King, Matti Peled, Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Frankenthal, my daughter Elisha, and many more. The biggest inspiration in my life was my mother, Rita, who was killed in a car crash in the end of February this year. The void she left is so huge and it is impossible to verbalize how much I miss her.
My mom, like myself - we were born optimists. Pessimism is a very short passing experience. I am always searching for the way to make things better and always coming up with ideas on how to do it.
What advice will you offer peacemakers who are just getting started?
Be persistent. Be yourself – your integrity is the most important thing that you have. Do not relate to this work as a “job” – this is a life choice and it has to be much more than 9-5. Translate your values into your work and vice versa. Be optimistic. Never say never. Never agree that it is “too early”. People will tell you that the time is not right – for those kind of people, the time is never right, but in my view, the time is never wrong or too early for making peace.
Visit the IPCRI website
to learn more about Gershon Baskin and IPCRI
Thank you Gershon for inspiring peacemakers and for innovating education for peace.