Book Review: Refusing to be Enemies February 14, 2015 11:00

By Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta, Ithaca Press, 2011, paperback, 502 pp. 

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Reviewed by Andrew Stimson


While on tour in Washington, DC* to discuss her new book, Refusing to be Enemies,Quaker/Jewish activist and author Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta quipped, "In a way, this book is penance for the fact that I was an ardent Zionist, in my teens." Despite her teenage desire to live on a kibbutz, she began to understand the nature of the Palestinian attachment to their land while attending a Quaker-sponsored program in Ramallah in 1979. "I realized," she told the audience, "we would have to work out a way to live together in this land we both loved and regarded as our homeland."

Later, while living in Jerusalem from 1988-95, she worked for the Alternative Information Center as a Hebrew translator and participated in a number of joint Israeli-Palestinian nonviolent activities. She has returned frequently to the West Bank and Israel since then, collecting interviews with nonviolence activists such as Gene Sharp, Sami Awad, Jean Zaru, Neta Golan and Yonatan Shapira. Her book is the result of years of research, along with personal analysis and contributions from Jeff Halper, Ghassan Andoni and others.

Refusing to be Enemies has joined a flood of new works covering nonviolent activism in Palestine. With the international critical success of "Budrus," well-attended U.S. screenings of "Little Town of Bethlehem," and a number of similarly themed books, it seems that Western audiences finally have a wealth of mainstream alternatives to the Zionist narrative that equates Palestinians with violence and terrorism. In her book, Kaufman-Lacusta lets the practitioners of nonviolence tell their story in their own words. We learn how various activists—Palestinian and Israeli, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—provide their own context, which nonviolence strategies they favor, and how they view the prospects for peace. The result is a multitude of voices, each unique, but revealing the common themes of a personal commitment to nonviolence and the need for just and equitable peace.

Constituting one of the book's strongest sections is Kaufman-Lacusta's examination of the opportunities and challenges facing joint Palestinian and Israeli efforts. The successes of joint activism in the villages of Bil'in and Budrus, where coalitions were able to defend against Israeli encroachment, are promising and suggest a model for future efforts. One of the most difficult challenges facing these coalitions, however, is the phenomenon of normalization. First arising after the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, Israeli organizations began to work with Palestinians in anticipation of the end of the conflict. As the Oslo process disintegrated and the euphoria faded, many Palestinian organizations understandably began to distrust such joint endeavors, considering them premature and possibly damaging. For Israeli activists, Kaufman-Lacusta argues, "solidarity is not enough." Non-Palestinians must be sensitive to the "inherent imbalance of power in their relationship with the Palestinians," making sure to place the Palestinian agenda before their own. Among the benefits of this cooperation, she told her DC audience, is that "those Israelis who stand side by side with Palestinians and see the conditions of their lives firsthand…are best able to heighten the awareness of other Israelis."

Also compelling are the sections of Refusing to be Enemies that chart a course toward more effective nonviolent movement and outline visions of a shared future. Kaufman-Lacusta observes that "a broader cross-section of Palestinians is participating in nonviolent actions and, in contrast with the past, they are now actually calling what they do 'nonviolence' (la'unf, in Arabic)." Moreover, religious and political figures are increasingly supportive of nonviolent strategies. Kaufman-Lacusta said she was surprised that a "sizeable plurality" of the activists she interviewed favored some variation of a bi-national federation, with some eventual form of "regional federation," or even an "internationalist (or nation-less) arrangement." Ultimately, Kaufman-Lacusta notes, the activists' visions of a common future are "a refreshing and hope-inspiring antidote to the despair that threatens to descend when one is confronted with the day-to-day reality in the region."

Kaufman-Lacusta describes Refusing to Be Enemies as intended to appeal to the broader public that is unaware of the history and widespread use of nonviolent activism by Palestinians and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole. While her work is replete with evidence to sway the skeptical reader, however, it also contains a few structural issues that hamper its attempt to have a wider draw. The author's method of minimizing her own commentary and letting the activists speak for themselves creates a dizzying array of opinion and insight that can sometimes be overwhelming and feel inconclusive despite her helpful chapter-ending summaries. A more narrative-based structure and a brief discussion of the history of the conflict would have helped make the book more accessible to those less acquainted with the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. Nevertheless, its content makes it a treasure-trove of information on the individuals and organizations at the heart of the movement. Remarkably intimate, insightful and highly readable,Refusing to Be Enemies is an unparalleled resource for activists, academics and readers with some exposure to the complexity of this conflict.

**At a May 5, 2011 event co-sponsored by the American Educational Trust Book Club, Interfaith Peace-Builders, Nonviolence International, and Canadian Friends Service Committee.