Estonia's social nerve on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Gaza, October 31.
Gaza, October 31.

In the course of one week, two public letters authored by Estonian cultural figures have voiced opposing viewpoints regarding the Middle East conflict. Social scientist Mati Heidmets sees in them the difference of core values: one letter prioritizes Jews and Palestinians' right to self-determination and self-defense, the other pleads for civilian protection and human rights.

On Tuesday evening, Jaan-Eik Tulve, artistic director and conductor of Vox Clamantis, sent a letter to the media in which he and 53 other Estonian cultural figures appealed to "all people of good will."

"We recognize the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, including the right to live in their historic homeland. We call on people to oppose all forms of support for terrorism, which includes spreading misinformation about Israel, justifying and trivializing terrorist acts, and questioning Israel's right to self-defense," the letter said.

The authors and signatories of the letter also say that "we recognize the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and support the idea of two mutually respectful states, of which the recognition of the existence of the State of Israel by the Arab countries is an essential component."

The letter was signed by a number of prominent cultural figures, including composer Arvo Pärt and his wife Nora Pärt, writer Tõnu Õnnepalu, the head of the Estonian Writers' Union Tiit Aleksejev, artist Siim-Tanel Annus, actress Julia Aug, composer Sven Grünberg, director of the Art Museum of Estonia, Sirje Helme, conductor Paavo Järvi, poet Doris Kareva, and others.

Jaan-Eik Tulve. Source: Private archive

Tulve, the initiator of the letter, told ERR that what prompted him to write the letter was that when he spoke to a number of people, it became clear that they all wanted to show their support for Israel. "But our letter is certainly not a letter of support to the Israeli government – some have asked if it is a letter of support to the Israeli government, but it is not," Tulve said.

"There is a feeling spreading as though the terrorist side of the world is getting more of the support and attention. That's why people wanted to express their thoughts, so that the letter of 134 cultural workers published last week would not be the only one made public, as we don't want people to think that all cultural workers in Estonia now think like this. Our letter is in no way against the Palestinian people; on the contrary, we support the idea of two states so that the agreement would be reached," Tulve said.

In Tulve's opinion, Estonia does not have to choose sides in this war, but he believes that the Estonian government has expressed very correct views in its current stance. "Our letter is not an appeal to the government, but to the people to think," Tulve said.

"There have also been expressions that the State of Israel has no right to exist at all, and our letter is a call for people to think and study history and to understand what the State of Israel is, where it was created, why Jews live there and why they cannot live elsewhere, and why they have the right to be on this small piece of land. I repeat: we are all in favor of the Palestinians having their own land as well, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine," Tulve said.

Tulve added that he drafted the letter on Sunday and by Sunday evening most people had already agreed to sign it. "A few others joined. We got the signatures quickly, even though some people earlier said that they didn't want to make public statements on the issue. Some also said they didn't want to take sides, but I repeat, our letter does not take sides on this issue," the initiator of the letter said.

One of the signatories was writer and former politician Jaak Jõerüüt, who said he joined the petition because he supported the message of the letter.

Ockba: We see what is happening in Gaza

Kristi Ockba, a Middle East observer and activist who wrote a letter to the government last week in support of Gaza residents, told ERR that at the time the letter was written, "the Estonian government was seething over what Israel is doing in Gaza. As if the suffering of the people there did not deserve a solution," which prompted her and Birgit Poopuud, a researcher at the University of Tallinn, to draft an appeal to the government.

"We needed to highlighted that we see what's going on and we can't stand by and watch in silence," Ockba said.

Kristi Ockba. Source: Lauri Varik/ERR

In the letter, 134 social activists called on the government to stand up for the human rights of civilians in Gaza and to take a clear stance for an immediate end to hostilities in Gaza and a ceasefire.

"The undersigned unequivocally condemn Hamas' acts of terror against civilians, as well as the Israeli military's indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets and destruction of vital infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. There is already a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions in Gaza," the letter said.

The signatories called on the government to work urgently for an end to hostilities in Gaza and a ceasefire.

"The government must also publicly recognize the right of Palestinians to self-determination and civil liberties and the violation of their human rights by the Israeli state and military, and confirm Estonia's willingness to support Gaza with humanitarian aid and to accept Palestinian refugees arriving here," the appeal said.

Ockba said that during the week there has been a welcome response to both the letter and the people who signed it. "There are those who agree with us and those who disagree, and that's normal," Ockba said.

"It is important for us that the coverage is not only biased towards our allies. We must also speak out about war crimes against those we call friends," Ockba added.

Ockba said she had seen the letter of support to Israel. "What is interesting about this letter is that it suggests paying attention to history, and gives the impression that the 'Arabs' have simply been too cheeky at the exceptionally good offer from the British. One also gets the impression that only a few Jews returned to their homeland of 3,500 years ago, but the majority were already living there, and their right to self-determination was restored to them by the colonial powers. It also gives the impression that no one has in any way prevented the Palestinians from having their rights," Ockba said.

The letter, which drew attention to the rights of the civilian population in Gaza, was signed by cultural and social figures such as political analyst Tõnis Saarts, editor-in-chief of Müürilehe Aleksander Tsapov, actor Henrik Kalmet, historian Aro Velmet, film director Anna Hints, artist Marge Monko, civil activist Alari Rammo and others.

Hasso Krull. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The petition was signed by writer Hasso Krull, who said he had long been interested in Middle East issues and had read literature on the subject.

"This is a long-standing issue where it is difficult to take a firm position: things have gone so far that it is difficult to take a stance. I signed it because there is a widespread attitude, both in the media and in society at large, summed up by the French historian Henry Laurens: In the eyes of the West, it is inconceivable that Palestine can defend itself. It looks at these problems from a completely unbiased angle.' And we can only be radically impartial, as we cannot really stand up for anyone," Krull said.

"'Genocide must be stopped' - it's good when someone, somewhere, says that. The Gaza Strip was built to carry out genocide, and the fact that terrorism comes from there in response should surprise no one. It is not possible to take sides in this conflict; it is only possible to be a radical pacifist, which is why I signed this letter. The other option is to take a Machiavellian stance and side with the stronger side, which is Israel. It is hard to blame small nations like the Estonians for behaving this way," Krull said.

"Obviously, as Laurens also pointed out, there are in fact wider interests at play in the Middle East in this conflict, which have nothing to do with either Jews or Palestinians. Let me remind you of the event in Nagorno-Karabakh in the autumn, where the Armenians were not given any aid and the incident did not receive wider publicity," he added.

Heidmets: Cultural figures have a sensitive social nerve and are quick to react

Mati Heidmets, a social scientist, believes that in a democratic country, it is natural to have different opinions on important issues like war and to express them. "That is the way it should be. The other way around – everyone seeing things the same way and thinking the same way – would be terrible and, fortunately impossible," Heidmets said.

"These two letters are not about the polarization of Estonia but about the fact that one and the same event (the war!) can be seen from different positions and perspectives. One letter emphasizes the right of Jews and Palestinians to self-determination and self-defense. Which is as natural as the Estonians' right to self-determination and self-defense," Heidmets continued.

"The second calls for protecting civilians and respecting human rights and that, too, is natural and understandable. Of course, human life is at the top of the European ladder of values, and it makes no difference whether it is Jewish or Palestinian," he added.

In Heidmetsa's view, these letters do not invite to choose sides, but rather point to the different values of the people who signed them.

"One is concerned with the rights of peoples, the other with the lives of individuals. Since both philosophies of life – group-centered and individual-centered – are present in Estonian thought, there is nothing unnatural in their expression and argumentation," Heidmets said.

He sees the different views on the war and the courage to express them as a friendly democratic discourse. "It would be even better if now the opposing views on the Gaza conflict could be debated in the coming weeks in a peaceful and reasoned way, without personal attacks and grandstanding," he said.

Mati Heidmets Source: Kirke Ert/ERR

Both letters generated a lot of excitement, demonstrating how important this is to many people. "It wouldn't be a bad thing if people holding other views and perspectives also tried to articulate their position. The goal is not to achieve absolute unity but to understand that what happens in the world matters to people in Estonia and that our value space has a lot in common, even when perspectives differ," he said.

On Documentcloud, you can read both the letter in support of Israel and the letter in support of the Palestinians.


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Editor: Mari Peegel, Kristina Kersa

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