Anna Baltzer is a Jewish-American Columbia graduate, former Fulbright scholar, the granddaughter of Holocaust refugees, and an award-winning lecturer, author, and activist for Palestinian rights.
As a volunteer with the International Women’s Peace Service in the West Bank, Baltzer documented human rights abuses and supported Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Baltzer has appeared on television more than 100 times (including most recently The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) and has lectured at more than 400 universities, schools, churches, mosques, and synagogues around the world with her acclaimed presentation, “Life in Occupied Palestine: Eyewitness Stories & Photos,” and her full-color book: Witness in Palestine: A Jewish American Woman in the Occupied Territories. For information about Baltzer’s book, DVD, speaking tours, and eyewitness reports, visit her website.
Baltzer recently did an interview for this blog where she answered questions about her work and how she became such a dedicated activist for the Palestinian cause.
Q: On your webpage, you say that you grew up with a positive view of Israel as a “peace-seeking democracy.” Then you go on to say that you heard stories from Palestinians that escaped the war of 1948… Most people have a hard time accepting narratives that don’t agree with their worldview… How do you think you were able to be swayed? Was it difficult to accept?
A: It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t happen quickly. My first reaction to the Palestinians’ stories was disbelief and anger. I began doing research because I wanted to prove them wrong, but I immediately realized I was the one with missing information. I didn’t know who or what to believe until I went to Palestine and saw it with my own eyes.
I immediately became critical of the occupation, but my attachment to Zionism made it difficult for me to confront Zionism itself. I wanted to believe that Israel just needed to reform itself as a democratic Jewish state. I wanted to believe that the injustices were a perversion of Zionism, rather than a natural consequence of it.
For at least two years I struggled with how to reconcile Israel with my fundamental belief in equality and human rights (the beliefs themselves, by the way, were a fundamental part of my upbringing; we just had a blind spot when it came to Israel). Eventually, after a long period of struggling with reality, I recognized that the problem was not simply occupation, but rather the creation and maintenance of an ethno-nationalist Jewish entity at the expense of the indigenous population. I realized occupation was just one step in a much longer process, and I couldn’t simply oppose one and not the other.
Q: What was the defining moment, the exact incident, that made you change your opinion on the situation in Israel/Palestine?
A: Everyone asks this question, but the truth is that there was no one incident. It was a long process, and every experience pushed me along the way towards overcoming my prejudices. No one event alone would have been enough, and that’s why I understand when others need time to digest these realities. I never expect audience members to transform immediately after watching my talk, for example. That is extremely rare.
The one experience that started me on my journey was a friendship with a young man named Mahmoud and his family, Palestinian refugees from `Akka living in southern Lebanon. I was traveling alone, and they took me into their home. The kindness, tolerance, and love they showed to me prompted me to want to figure things out for myself. My book is dedicated to them.
Q: What fact(s) regarding the situation in Israel and Palestine do you think are commonly overlooked amongst Zionist supporters in America and elsewhere?
A: Israel is not the peace-seeking democratic state that most Zionists believe it to be. Many don’t realize that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza live under a system of segregation, constant military attacks, house demolitions, land confiscation, imprisonment without trial, and torture. They don’t realize that Palestinian citizens of Israel do not have equal rights, but live as second or third-class citizens. Most people don’t realize that the vast majority of Palestinians living in historic Palestine and the rest of the world are refugees from Israel’s creation in 1948 and its expansion in 1967. These 7.2 Palestinians are denied the basic human right to return to their homes and lands simply on the basis of their religion and ethnicity. I, on the other hand, could move to their land next month if I wanted to, simply because I’m Jewish.
Most importantly, most Americans don’t realize that these are not simply crimes committed by Israel, but are indirectly committed by us and anyone who pays U.S. taxes. As Americans, we bear a particular responsibility to stop supporting Israel’s transgressions and to stop profiting off of their oppression of Palestinians. That is what the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions is about—taking the profit out of occupation and discontinuing any support on an individual and institutional (and hopefully one day, the governmental) level to Israel’s crimes.
Q: You say that the media is responsible for much of the misinformation about the situation in Israel and Palestine. How do you feel is the most effective way to counter the media’s staunchly pro-Zionist influence?
A: I believe it’s time for us to stop complaining and start organizing! Biases in the media do not come out of nowhere; they are largely (though not entirely, by any means) the result of active monitoring by media watch-dog groups that inundate media who stray from the extreme Zionist party line with hundreds of complaints. (Some media won’t see such complaints—those continuing the status quo with classic US coverage.)
Why can’t those desiring more accurate information in the media about the denial of Palestinian human rights be as dedicated as those other groups? Why aren’t media being inundated by people like us who want to see the whole story that is reported to the rest of the world every day? We need to be the change that we seek. We need to write media—not here and there, a couple of us, but consistently, hundreds of us, a collective voice demanding fair coverage. I list some ideas for doing this on my website here.
Q: You recently appeared on “The Daily Show” with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti. On the televised version, nearly all of your responses were edited out. Why do you think that is?
A: There is lot of speculation about this. During the interview Stewart directed most questions to Dr. Barghouti, and that bias was even more striking by what they cut out of the television version. I should mention we were told ahead of time that we had just seven minutes, so if the interview went over, then things would be cut and available online. So what is interesting is not that they cut stuff out, but what stuff they cut.
I’d like to believe that the cuts were for the right reason—that as a Palestinian, Dr. Barghouti is naturally a better spokesperson for the Palestinian struggle than I could ever be. In fact, when we both began speaking at one point, I deferred to him for this reason. But I’m not sure that was the reasoning on the part of the Daily Show.
Some have speculated that it was some mixture of sexism and ageism—that the words of an older, accomplished male were considered more credible than those of a radical young woman. The fact of the matter is that Dr. Barghouti is more accomplished than I am, so there’s the big-shot factor too, which likely played some role.
Most would say that I was cut because of my messaging: Dr. Barghouti spoke of peace and co-existence, while I actually criticized Israel’s violence, the U.S. media, and U.S. foreign policy, and went further to bring attention to the Palestinian call for Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions against Israel. That is clearly a much more radical message, perhaps one harder to stomach for potential critics or sponsors.
I wonder also if there was something easier about hearing about Palestinian suffering from a Palestinian rather than from a Jew. It’s easy for people to dismiss a Palestinian saying these things but hearing the same things from a Jew may be, for certain people, more uncomfortable and confusing, forcing them to re-examine their categories and stereotypes.
Although I was disappointed that some of my major points were cut, I am relieved that it wasn’t Dr. Barghouti instead who was cut out. As a Jew, I am constantly invited to tell Palestinian stories, while Palestinians themselves are silenced. Palestinians themselves are the experts on their own plight and liberation struggle, and their voices are the ones that count the most. Had they instead cut the Palestinian voice in favor of the Jewish one, it would have been much more problematic.
I’m also happy with the response that the online uncut version received. It became the highest rated interview in Daily Show history, with more than 200,000 views and counting. People can watch Part 1 and Part 2 of the full version, and then the cut version to compare.
Q: One unique aspect to your approach is a constant smile with a calm and mellow delivery. Is that part of your personality, or is that something you trained yourself to do?
A: It’s not something I do on purpose–and when I see myself doing it on video I’m always surprised–but the instinct has probably served to my advantage. If audience members find me likeable, they are more likely to relate to me and what I’ve seen. Rather than talking at people, my tone invites them on the journey with me, and rather than telling them what to believe matter-of-factly, I gently and clearly show people what’s happening and let them come to their own conclusions. If audience members decide for themselves, they will own those beliefs, and that will make them stronger thinkers and activists.
Q: As a Jewish American, you have a unique opportunity to reach people that would automatically dismiss Arabs/Muslims as biased parties. Do you feel that your Jewish background has helped you be a more effective ambassador for the Palestinian people?
A: First, I want to clarify that I do not claim to be an ambassador for the Palestinian people. As a non-Palestinian, I cannot speak for Palestinians, but only for myself as a Jewish supporter of their struggle.
As such, I am indeed invited around the world to tell Palestinians’ stories, precisely because I am Jewish. I have been able to reach hundreds of thousands of people (now millions with The Daily Show), but what is so striking is that Palestinians themselves are rarely invited to tell their own stories! Or if they are invited, audiences are less likely to show up to listen to them. Palestinian voices are dismissed as biased or irrelevant, when the truth is that they are the experts on their own experience and their struggle.
Too often, non-Jews fear taking the next step until given the okay from Jews, reassuring them that it is not anti-Semitic to speak out against injustice in Palestine. I have chosen to fill that role at the request of Palestinians and in the interest of accelerating the movement, but I consistently challenge audiences to ask themselves if they would have come to such a presentation if it were a Palestinian giving it. Until Palestinian voices are given the attention, preference, and reverence they deserve, the struggle will continue. Privileging of my voice over those of Palestinians perpetuates the false and racist notion that what’s important is what Jews think about Palestine, not what is right.
Q: Has the scorn of the Zionist/Jewish people you encounter made it difficult for you to keep a positive attitude, since you grew up as a member of this community?
A: I have always felt optimistic about the inevitability of change on this issue, and criticism never sways that; in fact, the more I’m criticized, the clearer it is that we are being effective at threatening the status quo. Sadly, I have lost Jewish friends who disagree with what I do, but for every friendship lost I’ve gained a hundred more. There are thousands of Jews and others working on this issue, and it is through my activism that I have found a Jewish-American community that I can relate to. In fact, it is through my activism that I have found what it means for me to be Jewish.