Shachaf Polakow is a professional photographer, with experience as an organiser with the group Anarchists against the Wall in Palestine.
These are clips taken from an interview recorded in Tel Aviv, Israel, for a documentary never finished by its original producers, which hoped to show anarchism in all its forms around the world today and in history. But, I think it succeeds even better at that task as a video catalogue for those interested enough to find the clips that piqued their curiousity.
To see the full catalogue of interviews click here.
- An Introduction to Shachaf Polakow | Anarchism: A Documentary
- Shachaf Polakow on why he became an anarchist | Anarchism: A Documentary
- Shachaf Polakow on what it’s like to be an anarchist in Palestine | Anarchism: A Documentary
- How Anarchists Against The Wall came about and how it evolved | Anarchism: A Documentary
- Some key events in the campaign against the Israeli wall | Anarchism: A Documentary
- Some common direct action tactics anarchists in Palestine use | Anarchism: A Documentary
- Shachaf Polakow on whether Anarchists Against the Wall is a secular organisation
- Shachaf Polakow on whether we should be advocating for a one-state or two-state solution
- Shachaf Polakow on whether the term apartheid system applies to the situation in Palestine
- An introduction to what is the International Solidarity Movement and whether it’s effective
- Shachaf Polakow on what is anarchism? | Anarchism: A Documentary
- Shachaf Polakow on how he practices anarchism in his day-to-day life | Anarchism: A Documentary
- Shachaf Polakow on why many anarchists practice alternative lifestyles | Anarchism: A Documentary
- Shachaf Polakow on the different tendencies within anarchism and the often unproductive infighting
- Shachaf Polakow on how optimistic he is about reaching an anarchist society or world
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Shachaf, I’m an Israeli anarchist, I grew up in Israel, mostly in Tel Aviv.
I’ve been involved in activism and from a very young age, since the age of 12 more or less, more in a political way, more in the democratic game in Israel.
I followed the normal route in Israel. I went to the army, I did community service for a year before.
And, after the army I became more and more radical, partially because of my army experience and then more because of the reality of Israeli politics becoming more and more extreme and right wing.
And since 2007, I’ve been active in a lot of Anarchists Against the Wall actions, organizing stuff sometimes. And also a member of activist students collective which is an activist photography collective, where most of us are anarchists as well.
Why did you become an anarchist?
I think the core reason for why I’m an anarchist is the education I had at home where human rights and equal rights between people is one of the basic values that we were raised with in my house.
And, my father left South Africa because of apartheid, my parents were involved in a lot of left organizations in Israel for many years.
Only in recent years I started to call myself an anarchist, but looking back I can see that a lot of my values were anarchist values, ike equality and justice before nations and flags. And very often in Israel, nationality is really important.
So it was not always there, but it was there even before I went into the army and after the army it became stronger, where I start to understand that probably if I would define myself as something it would be an anarchist. And when I became active in Anarchists Against The Wall it was important to me to define myself publicly as an anarchist, just because how anarchists in the world or at least in Israel were being portrayed negatively, so I also defined myself as an anarchist in order to show a positive example.
What is it like to be an anarchist in your culture?
I think with being an anarchist in Israel, the image we have in Israel as of anarchists it’s something very relative to what we did and how the anarchist against the world started, the anarchist movement before wasn’t as strong.
There were parts of left-wing organization that some of the people or some organization concerns have anarchists, but in the early 90s, or late 80s, there weren’t really political anarchist group for quite a while.
And today, for people in Israel it doesn’t really matter if you’re anarchist or radical left, they pretty much hate. Specifically in the last year or so, maybe two years, the nationalist patriotic feelings are getting really high, the propaganda is really based on de-humanizing anything that is pro-Palestinians. And because Anarchists Against The Wall most of our work is towards the Palestinian issue, so you are being demonized. Many times when there are some demonstrations or actions they try to portray that we do it, even if we are not part of it.
Anarchist didn’t used to be a bad word in Israel, it had no meaning for many people, it’s not like some countries that anarchist has a full history behind it and has been demonized or praised, it doesn’t really matter.
I think as political activists in general, we are facing harder and harder times, like legal system supporting the nationalist side of the situation, with more more arrests in demonstrations, they’re trying to pile up more and more legal cases in different ways it’s gonna be illegal gathering it can be trying to stop us going to Palestine and then charging us for going to e to close military zones or places we can’t go.
So, it’s not exactly about it’s anarchism, but it’s easy for them to portray a lot of this pro-Palestinian stuff as anarchist things.
How did Anarchists Against The Wall come about and how did it evolve?
Okay, I’ll start in the beginning of anarchists against the wall is what I heard from different people and this is how I usually introduce anarchists against the wall Israel started to build the apartheid Israeli security fence what however you want to call it in 2002, 2003 was the beginning of it and during the thing it’s around April 2003 there was an activist camp in in the village of Moscow which is in the west bank it’s a Palestinian village it’s a pristine it was a pristine call for solidarity and actions against the world there were Palestinians Israelis and internationals over there there were a lot of direct actions going out from there or a lot of brainstorming and at some point the media wanted to talk with people and the Israelis after some process they find himself as anarchist against the world is how it started since then the group and the members been go some people stayed in the then some people start to focus on different aspects of the struggle, but we mostly are working with with our calls for solidarity from Palestinians this is most of the work we do at least in Palestine which is where we came most of us stuff we do we used to do more stuff also in Israel but also legally it’s a higher cost sometimes and in terms of energy it’s it’s better to believe Palestinians and better and do the solidarity actions demonstrations direct actions than just being in Israel where actually the crowd in the streets don’t care that much like we do have demos and it’s become more frequent recently because of the aggression of the Israeli government or Israeli policies is also becoming much higher.
What were some key events in the campaign against the Israeli wall?
So after the camp ended and this were actually the one of the stronger points of the popular struggle the pristine purple struggle which the ark is joined and the camp was I think raided or had to be stopped because of the army from some for different reasons and the then we had uh several demonstrations in different villages that joined the struggle against the world this hello captain in in its village work of the popular committee the Israeli oppression was stronger in some villages was less stronger than others somebody just kept demonstrating and some people we just stopped a lot of them uh till this day I’m not quite sure the exact numbers but also some people consider it as part of the struggle that between 17 to 23 people died in demonstrations and when somebody died in a village it’s really hard to not hard but somebody just don’t don’t want to risk any more after it or if the world is already constructed. We came to a point today where there are at least four villages every Friday with a constant demonstrations that we what we do is mobilizing Israeli crowds in some internationals or at least people that live in Israel it can be tourists and it can be Israelis we mobilize them to the to the demonstrations. We actually did some street medics or demonstration medics courses to be sure that there’s some medical people other medics and then we also take responsibility in the legal side of it for people who’ve been arrested we have legal teams that work with law firms that support people who ask us for legal support, it can be Israelis and Palestinians
Among the years as I said some the struggles in some villages were shorter than the others, most of it were where it’s focused today it’s the region of Ramallah where there are three villages demonstrating in one village near Bethlehem which also now has uh almost a week once a week or twice a week direct actions to try to stop the bulldozers who tried to construct construct the wall over there we also join other direct actions in uh and staff around the west bank, unfortunately the Gaza strip is prohibited to get close, if you get close you cannot be sure to probably be stopped before and we didn’t really have a call of work with them we’re not imposing ourselves on anybody else so we just answer calls.
What are some common direct action tactics anarchists in Palestine use?
Well as I said before it’s it’s really depends on reality we during constructions of the world we have places where directors and direct action takes more places because it’s it’s happening and you can try to stop a bulldozer you can try to do sit-downs you can try to there’s no confrontation while the or direct confrontation with soldiers and border police while the wall or the fence is constructed you know you’re pretty much facing a wall you’re not facing anybody else there were a lot of actions in the last years and now as I said in the village of Wallachia which is between Jerusalem and Bethlehem they’ve been stopping the bulldozers in the last few weeks several times in the in nearly in Ramallah there was a success there was two successful actions in the last year of actually taking down parts of the concrete wall which is five and seven meters tall we do have other again it’s it’s really hard for us to to actually come with an idea of direct action because we can come and say oh let’s go and tear down part of the world but we go back home while the Palestinians will suffer from the army aggression later on so it’s we’re waiting for a Palestinian initiative that we can give our advices from our experience and see if they’re willing to pay the price we’ll be there to be with them with solidarity if we’re invited again there was a one direct action in Tel Aviv a week ago when they painted one of the when the main fountain in Tel Aviv with a red color so they dyed it to look like blood it was against the seeds in Gaza and Israeli aggression there were direct actions where people put barbed wire in the middle of the street and blocked over the streets in Tel Aviv in Jerusalem declaring a closed military zone these days I think most of the direct action uh are in the places where the construction is still going on because it’s something you don’t need to plan too much it’s either you succeed to do it or not.
We had at least one success, I think it’s I can guarantee it’s a real fact but the people who built the wall the constructor builds well in the village of Neolin where we succeed to stop the boulders around dozens or times or suddenly stopping the bulldozers also when a demonstration gets close they had to go away for the security so it’s actually stopping the work and apparently he got bankrupt because he lost a lot of money from damage to the bulldozers and losing a lot of our hours and none of the insurance company in Israel is willing to ensure a new person work on the fence so for apparently we succeeded to do some kind of like some kind of achievement even if the world is there but somebody lost something because of it.
Your group was started by Israelis, so do you define your group as a secular organization, Jewish, or by some other term?
First of all, in our case, it’s a group of people that we don’t really have definition like we’re not it started with people that were more anarchist maybe the members today sounds them a lesson okay it’s a group that wants to mobilize people a lot of the really active people are anarchists a lot of the people will be finding some anarchists but the group is open to everybody we we don’t we try not to define ourselves as as anything because while you define people you dismiss other people into the struggle we try to bring people into demonstrations or actions as long as they have respect and understanding that the Palestinians are leading the these demonstrations and they need to respect the Palestinians we we don’t we can’t define ourselves as Israeli you know it’s not something we were actually talking about the disgusting music we are based in Israel most of us like are Israelis but there were international activists that didn’t come with the international solidarity movement or other movements in Palestine that actually felt that they want to work with us as they came and were active with us and help in some aspects we open to everybody that feel comfortable we’re not trying to tell somebody not to be because of the nationality or because of their beliefs we have people that come to demonstrations that believe in god we don’t not only they believing that we we’re working with Palestinians that every demonstration that starts on a Friday starts actually from the Friday prayer, so there’s the issue of being secular or ethicist is something that we don’t raise much we raise among ourselves in some discussions but it doesn’t show how the nature of the group is.
In the short term should we be advocating a one-state or two-state solution?
Well it’s I’m kind of the no instrument today but it’s really because of the trying not to have any political stand specifically for the solution and I think most of us there’s no group decision because to start we we don’t join petitions most of the time we don’t try to to show a specific decision because we want to have the freedom of each member to have his own decision what is the right thing in the end we won’t accept people that are against the Palestinian you know or acting against Palestinians even if the consumers are proposing we won’t accept them so as a group I think most of us will talk about one state it is the closest thing we can think about some kind of uh of justice two states is something that will continue to separate between Palestinians and Israelis it continue to do some injustice while one state with a concrete uh and built up constitution which would be circular giving the freedom to worship but doesn’t include inside the politics might lead to some kind of a state that can look better from what we’re having now we actually have one state but we have a segregated apartheid state with the Israelis control of the area and we control four million people and it’s one state we want we don’t want this situation to stay obviously a lot of us will have utopian fault of no states and no borders but utopia is one thing and reality is the other thing and in the one state can be one thing that we can I think we can again it’s like compromising in a way but it’s it’s what we in reality is what might work won’t be easy but I think two states won’t solve any of the uh hate between both communities.
Do you think the term apartheid system applies to the situation in Palestine? Is it similar in that way to South Africa?
It’s a totally personal answer not like a group answer just to clear it actually when people started to use apartheid for Palestine I felt a bit uncomfortable I think it’s two racist systems that have a lot of similarity there’s all this separation idea of based on race nationality in is Israel and South Africa so you had the bus two tents here that enclosed people in their own communities their permits to work in specific places and in Israel we we actually as breaking down the Palestinian territories into smaller and smaller segments and it’s easy to take history definitions and imply to apply to a current situation but I think it’s more complicated I think uh while South Africa were South African were actually proud of it the regime here was very clear we this is a very slow this is what we believe in and it’s what’s going to be it’s why in Israel the Israeli government froziers always try to have an excuse and dismiss the idea that it’s a racist separation they always say it’s a security issue but the core of both of them come from a very colonialist starting point which evolved to two different nationalists or racist systems it doesn’t really matter how you look at it and while the Israelis being more and more advanced through the years this clarity of apartheid had more resistance around the world because it was so clear Israel is smart enough to to have the people to talk for this kind of separation as a security issue not a racist issue but but it’s uh but it’s very familiar you send settlers to sit on an indigenous land and then you just develop your own system of what is better to separate the indigenous people from the colonies people and then people can use the terms apartheid I think it’s it’s good because people refer to something on the other hand I think it should be something more defined as a specific thing to for Israeli policy we need to find a world a definition that will when people say apartheid they don’t have the South African apartheid Israeli apartheid they have they’ll have something about Israeli separation system which is of course not good uh definition but something a word that will be in history and at the moment uh reflect directly only for Israeli policies.
What is the International Solidarity Movement and what are your thoughts on their effectiveness?
I’ll talk generally and go specifically about Israel and Palestine what we do see in the last 15 20 years is people travelling to do good stuff in other places this house they call it all volunteering charity it’s become more and more popular because mobilizing around will become easier NGOs and globalization make things much more accessible unfortunately those people that come to a place that doesn’t have any context relevant to what they where they are you have if you come here in South Africa and you go to Soweto you have a few blocks that are renovated and look nice look like the middle of I don’t know a village town in Europe if you had some greens around it or the red bricks nice side-walks people go there a few minutes and go away have no reflection to the millions of people around and they live in checks and not connected to electricity don’t have basic needs and same thing can be in in let’s say environmental volunteering when you go to some places and you’re like oh we save the turtles what about the communities that are really poor over there that you don’t care about you sit in extend evidence and very clear in Palestine so organizations that bring people and doing I my kind of provocative term is occupational safari they take a bus they stop in a demonstration for two hours then they go to another place they eat the ethnically Arabic food in the in the restaurant to go to some tourist areas they do get a glimpse of what the occupation is but they don’t really refer and a lot of these people my my a lot of other activists main problem is that these people are not active home on their own issues I don’t need 30 Italians to come and tell me what’s right and what’s wrong you know we had the Italian woman telling one of our members the cheese member inactive for seven years after the terrier started in one of the villages he said oh now you’re happy with your government it’s like what do you mean first of all we anarchist against oh we’re not happy with the government as a but definition of anarchist second this person she’s mobilizing an organizing thing for seven years and then you have tourists that come for just a glimpse and think oh you are like the soldiers because you are Israeli or because you’re living here and that’s why I i don’t like this I don’t like to go and like I wouldn’t go to any struggle and be there for like a few days and trying to say that I’m that I know everything about it actually even if I move let’s say I moved to South Africa I would move to job and I’m starting to be involved here about issues I won’t make suggestions after only one after a while just when I feel really comfortable of like how things are and that I actually understand what’s going around not let’s bring stupid ideas around it it’s the same thing in Palestine and you and you have times when it’s really big numbers because it’s very easy for them to be with solidarity with Palestinians of course it’s a very clear oppression compared to other oppression you have a new country you know it’s easier to go and see Palestine because it’s an easy place to get to with all these Israeli Israeli attempts to pro to make people make it harder to people together it’s still much easier what about poverty in your country what about other ethnic groups in your country most of people come from western countries doesn’t do any solidarity work with people in their countries so this is my problem and some other activists as well like it’s all about the idea of them coming there it’s about the idea of having a glimpse and thinking they know everything and being only active on specific things and not in a global issue.
How would you briefly explain anarchism to someone who had never heard of it before?
I think my vision of anarchism and how I will introduce it it’s the idea that it’s a to believe that equality justice basic human rights or animal rights for a lot of anarchists are the core of many societies we need to we’re responsible for each other and we need to fight for it there’s nothing there’s no institute or a person that can stand a group of people that can stand above it I can make it this is like the easiest way for me to explain this is saying I don’t the idea of people dying because there’s some vague border being decided many years ago it’s pretty bad the idea of people dying for some vague ideas that are just for institutional or governmental things or for people names or for sacred places is for me it’s one of the worst formation where humanity came to so for me anarchism is the opposite for it what you fight for dignity equality human rights animal rights it’s a I don’t have a specific thing I think it’s a right to be to have your own life with respect to others maybe the basic.
How do you practice anarchism in your day-to-day life?
Well I think first of all being active in anarchists against the wall and confronting the idea of the Israeli government authority it’s like this is a big thing that I would I’m feeling it’s part of my anarchist belief having solidarity part of a fight as it supports oppressed people where anarchists were part of in many places around the world this is where I feel that I’m active as a photographer I try to document a lot of social struggles I try to bring up the issues of people that being oppressed by the system by their society by government, by the neighbours, it can be many things, on the other hand I try to to consume less where I can obviously as a photographer I have a lot of like mainstream commercial consumerism of computers and camera and electricity and everything that belongs to technology actually but on the other hand if I can do dumpster or place where I can do dumpster diving I’ll try to do dumpster diving I there are times that maybe I shoplifted I can’t I can’t be sure if it was shoplifting or I just had a special sale the deal for myself and then and the main thing is going in and talking with people and sharing the idea of sharing is a big thing in my life from very young age not making money to be what control my my daily life so if I have friends or even comrades or people like tell me oh we can’t eat or we don’t want we can’t go to our to this hike because it’s so expensive and at that moment of time I have the money to spend on them I will do it in and the other thing is trying because I’m travelling a lot as a photographer and actively trying to network between different communities that I know as anarchists or activists and talking about it as much as I can and trying to explain to people my views in different places.
Why do many anarchists practice alternative lifestyles?
Well I think it’s an evolution in society, we try to make autonomous areas and define our own places. So a squat is can be excluded from the city where you’re living it you can have your own ideas and community inside where things that for the normal people so-called normal people normal society looks strange and you can define like if you feel comfortable only with vegan people so you can have your vegan community in a squat or in a house it doesn’t matter and you don’t need to hear the criticism of the people around you unfortunately uh anarchy is being criticized all the time and when you the thing you mentioned veganism squatting dumpster diving always look weird for people so you’re creating your own places which are our alternative for what we not believing in we don’t believe in the capitalistic money chasing society so we’re creating something better we don’t believe in animal abuse so we we people get been being vegan I’m not vegan so I don’t want to talk in the name of vegans but many of my friends is this how they say vegan and they it’s what they believe and a lot of this anarchist uh way of life is also confronting the idea that you need to be as people tell you to be telling you to rent a house and telling it to work in this thing and when you’re doing the things that you’ve been told you you actually supporting the system that you’re trying to be against and you make it stronger your money goes to people that you don’t want it to go the abuse and injustice of different people and animals and even continuing if you are continuing with the normal way of life so we create an alternative where we can live in obviously we are privileged to do it compared to other people if you ask me what I think about it and it’s great that we have the opportunity but you have a lot of squatters that being a squatter is a highlight of their anarchism they won’t go and do solidarity work with anything else many squatters will do solidarity work many activists will even squat but it’s happening that it’s very privileged in specific societies look at the landless people here look what they’re facing compared to the privilege of being able to squat in Europe in different cities look at the at house eviction house demolitions in Israel we can’t squat in Israel it’s very harsh but it’s it’s thing that’s been tried so it is great that people can do it but we always need to remember that we are privileged to to do most of these things it’s a privilege that we can choose a lot of people don’t have the choice to to go to a lot of those alternative things.
What are your thoughts on the many different tendencies within anarchism and the often unproductive infighting?
Well, I’m not familiar enough with the reason that there are so many conflicts, I tend to believe that all these conflicts are almost signs of as much even if people call themselves anarchists it’s almost like being a politician you know I think the great idea of being an anarchist that you can define your own reality if some people tell you you’re not anarchist enough it’s their problem it’s not yours I know I’m not trying to prove to anybody so when people argue about it it’s great I think it’s good to have these discourses and discussions and I don’t know if you can call it the evolution of anarchism or ongoing things but need to remember that practising anarchism is more important than talking about it uh for me that’s why I don’t have many views about it.
How optimistic are you about reaching an anarchist society or world?
In the anarchist 12 I’m not optimistic in a revolutionary way I don’t think the world will ever be none of the world won’t be ready for it and not that you don’t see more popular or social movements growing up in many places I just think the forces we’re facing are much more stronger they’re controlling much more and they have the ambition to control while we as anarchists trying to change to our reality was there’s no control and it’s very hard to do it on the other hand I do see merging again of societies and autonomous autonomies areas where people who live in anarchist point of views or anarchy’s values I mean you can buy you can create syndicalist farm networks in in some areas it will work better than the capitalistic way of living you can as we said before it can be something smaller like a squat it can be your flat I just think the revolution if you aim on a revolution you you missing the reality at the moment and it’s too far away it’s to do it because we are we are not strong enough not not even as a number of people you know even if we reach the numbers that are strong enough for evolution then we need to have the equipment to do it and unfortunately uh the other side being much stronger you see it when the when the anti-g8 the anti-G8 protest started or it’s you can say that the initiative moment of the time point the beginning was Seattle in ‘99 well it became more global and more famous you had a G8 protest after it but if you really look at the movement or the movement of movements as it’s called from the after Genoa and to find out start to just break down unfortunately we didn’t know how to go on from it with as a global movement and we don’t network enough between people around the world and uh until we maybe when we start to network more then we’ll have a better chance to show some kind of alternative but it doesn’t mean it will be anarchist alternative it might be more it just means that it might be more powerful the simple person you know for more power to the people around the world.