Born in 1946 in Hibbing, Minnesota, Jeff Halper was active in the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Macalester College (Minnesota) in 1968, he attended a rabbinical school and then immigrated in 1973 to Israel, where he worked as an adjunct lecturer in anthropology at Haifa and Ben-Gurion Universities. Halper also became a citizen of the Jewish state at that time, but during his mandatory Israeli military service, he refused to bear arms or to be stationed in the Palestinian territories.
In 1977 Halper earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He later worked as a professor of anthropology at Friends World College (FWC) from 1987-96, and served as FWC’s director from 1991-93.
In 1997 Halper co-founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), where he has been the director ever since. Halper is also affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and has spoken at numerous events sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine. He frequently addresses church and collegiate audiences across the United States, and has often shared a podium with Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican priest who founded Sabeel—an exponent of liberation theology.
“I am a leftist who is not ashamed of that,” says Halper, emphasizing his belief that “only if a just peace with the Palestinians is reached, can the state of Israel survive.” Depicting Palestinians as the permanent, innocent victims of intractable Israeli aggression, Halper, through his work with ICAHD, routinely condemns the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) practice of bulldozing and demolishing Palestinian houses where suicide bombers reside, where bombs are assembled, or where secret entrances to illegal arms-smuggling tunnels are located. By Halper’s telling, this IDF practice harms many innocent people and is “clearly a war crime” that “may be likened to rape.” It has “nothing to do with security,” he claims, but is intended mainly “to break the will of the Palestinians.”
Halper personally has taken part in a number of direct actions designed to block the IDF from razing Palestinian houses. In 2000, he told an audience at Macalester College that “sitting under a bulldozer [to obstruct its path] with a Palestinian is a bonding experience.” All told, Israeli authorities have arrested Halper at least eight times for such activities. “As Israelis, we are privileged,” he said after one of those arrests. “They [IDF] are not going to shoot us if we resist the demolition, but if a Palestinian had done it, they would have certainly shot him.”
In September 2002 Halper spoke at the United Nations International Conference of Civil Society in Support of the Palestinian People—an event whose theme was “End the Occupation!” Other speakers included Phyllis Bennis, Pierre Galand, and Adam Shapiro.
In 2005 Halper lamented that “Israel has become a Sparta, an aggressive country with no moral brakes”—a nation that “endangers its neighbors, peoples of far-away lands, and … its own population.” He further accused the Jewish state of having “become a handmaiden … to American Empire,” thereby “compound[ing] the sins of occupation by joining forces with chauvinistic neo-cons [and] corporations pursuing war profits.”
Halper commonly uses terms such as “apartheid” and “war crimes” to describe Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians—including its “systematic and massive violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention protecting civilians living under occupation,” and its “indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations.” He further accuses Israel of having constructed “a regime of warehousing, of outright imprisonment of an entire people”—calling it “a form of cultural genocide” that is actually “worse than apartheid.” Moreover, Halper has coined the term “Matrix of Control,” which is used frequently in ICAHD materials, to describe Israel’s “maze of laws, military orders, planning procedures, limitations on movement, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, settlements and infrastructure—augmented by prolonged and ceaseless low-intensity warfare—that serves to perpetuate the Occupation.”
Halper characterizes Israel’s “state terrorism” (or “terrorism from above”) as a phenomenon far more egregious than the “small-scale” acts of Palestinian “terrorism from below”—where “oppressed peoples” engage in “legitimate resistance” against “oppression.” “The Palestinians’ need to resort to terrorism raises questions of fundamental fairness,” he explains. “One cannot expect a people to suffer oppression forever, to abrogate their own human rights in favor of those of others.”
In Halper’s calculus, the economic impoverishment of modern-day Palestinians can be traced directly to the doorstep of Israeli injustices: “After … decades of deliberate Israeli de-development … the Palestinians are left today with scorched earth. No functioning economy … no agriculture … no homes for the young.”
Halper claims that because Israelis “just don’t give a damn” about other peoples, they “make everyone else a non-issue…. They see themselves as the victim, and if you’re the victim, you’re not responsible for anything you do.”
While Halper does not openly call for Israel’s destruction, he maintains that the nation has no moral right to exist as an independent, sovereign entity. “A Jewish state has proven politically, and in the end, morally, untenable,” he said in 2003. “The ‘two-state’ solution envisioned by all Israeli governments since 1967 … is simply unacceptable,” and “a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” would require “an international campaign for a single state.” “I think it is impossible to have a Jewish state,” Halper reiterated in 2008.
Also in 2008, Halper helped organize the newly formed Free Gaza Movement (FGM), on whose board of advisors he currently sits. Though claiming to “have traveled to Gaza not out of identification with Hamas but out of solidarity with a nation which has lived under our [Israeli] occupation for too many years,” Halper in 2008 condemned the Jewish state for attempting “to replace the democratically elected government of Hamas [with] a collaborationist regime more amenable to Israeli control.”
Halper strongly backs the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) movement as a means of pressuring Israel to “giv[e] up its occupation.” In particular, he has lent his support to a boycott campaign against the Caterpillar company, which manufactures the bulldozers that are used in the IDF’s house demolitions.
By Halper’s telling, “a just peace” in the Middle East cannot be fully achieved unless Israel agrees to accept the Palestinians’ “unconditional right-of-return”—a proposal rooted in the premise that the Jewish state was, as Halper puts it, responsible “for driving out half the Palestinian people in 1947/48, as well as for the expulsions of 1967 and displacement ongoing since.”
Halper has also been highly critical of Israel for promoting and exporting capitalism, which he views as a heartless, greed-driven economic system that exploits poor and powerless people all over the world.
In a July 11, 2014 article in Mondoweiss, Halper alleged that recent Israeli military operations in Gaza were not, as Israel claimed, carried out in response to rocket attacks that Hamas had directed against the Jewish state. Those Hamas attacks were merely exploited as a pretext, he explained, for Israeli assaults which “would have been launched regardless.”
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