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Dark Hopes for Peace in the O.T.

David Shulman, Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine (Univ. of Chicago Press, June 2007)

On a gorgeous late afternoon I follow an energetic boy through his father’s desert garden on a hillside. It has been another sweltering day, but by now the weather is cooling off nicely out here in the country. As the orange sun hovers low the sky continues to turn darker shades of blue, and I stumble over rocks in order to keep up with the child and his dog.

Below us is a valley. In the distance one can make out two villages, to our left and right. “Do you ever go over there?” I ask, wiping a slight sweat from my forehead.

“Are you silly?” he replies, giggling. “Those are Arabs!”

“Oh,” I say. So they are. It is strange, this land of Israel and Palestine. So small geographically, and yet with so many places off limits. This little boy might very well die an old man without ever crossing the valley below and seeing what—and who—is on the other side. I’ve traveled longer distances simply to buy groceries. The effect of such stark segregation is that even in the vast open spaces of the desert, one can feel downright claustrophobic. Certain roads you never take; certain villages you never enter; certain people you never talk to.

I’m here visiting Israel and parts of the occupied territories, for a two-week stretch in August 2006. It’s my first trip to the Middle East, and there’s a war going on, but I’ve no ambition to be a war correspondent. My Jerusalem-born girlfriend, Daniella, and I purchased tickets a number of months before Hezbollah began firing rockets into northern Israel and Israel began its devastating destruction of Beirut in response. We considered postponing the trip, but as Daniella eventually concluded, there wasn’t any reason to suppose that a future trip wouldn’t also correspond with renewed fighting. So off we went.

It is during our second week that we travel to the home of Daniella’s second cousin, a portly man named Adam. He was raised in the US but moved his family to the Jewish settlement of Bay Ayin a number of years ago, and recently completed the construction of his new house, which hovers over the garden where his son and I gaze out at the Arab villages. Bat Ayin is a thirty-minute drive south of Jerusalem, and lies just within the boundaries of the future separation wall/fence, which will one day run along the valley floor below us. (The path of the controversial barricade—whose advertised purpose is to prevent the entrance of suicide bombers—follows a circuitous route in order to incorporate illegal settlements like Bat Ayin, amounting to a significant Israeli land grab. It also cuts through the middle of a number of Arab villages, separating farmers from their fields). Presently peaceful, the religious community of Bat Ayin is perhaps best known for being the home of a Jewish terrorist cell that attempted, unsuccessfully, to blow up a Palestinian girls’ school in East Jerusalem in 2002.

Once the sun sets we pile into two cars and wind along a dirt road that leads to a nearby restaurant, whose waiters hand out menus with handguns prominently displayed on their hips. “It’s like the wild, wild west out here,” chuckles Adam upon seeing my raised eyebrows. The dark hills surrounding us are occasionally illuminated by passing caravans of vehicles. “People travel in groups for safety,” Adam explains as our waiter uncorks a bottle of delicious, and locally grown, red wine.

It all feels surreal. Here I am, sitting in the occupied West Bank, enjoying a feast served by armed wait staff. “So what led you to come out here?” I ask Adam mid-way through our meal. He is originally from Maine; I had spent the week before leaving for Israel in Maine, and it was relaxing. No guns, nice weather.

Adam explains the basics, which doesn’t take long: the Bible says that this land belongs to the Jews. By this land, he means greater Israel—which includes the entire West Bank and Gaza. Pretty simple, really.

My girlfriend’s father, a rabbi at Yale University, asks Adam about settler violence, commenting that a good friend of his works with Palestinian cave dwellers in the South Hebron Hills. The friend has come back with numerous stories of being beaten and shot at by settlers.

Adam seems skeptical. “There is violence on both sides,” he ultimately concludes, and we leave it at that.

I ask about his views on the security barrier going up around Bay Ayin. Will it make people feel safer?

He scoffs, shaking his head. He doesn’t want the barrier. All of the settlers are against it. Sure, it might keep out Palestinians, but it hems the settlers in, too. Away from the land God gave them.

“But things can change very fast around here,” he continues. What he means is clear: if one day the settlers have a means to expand, they will. Knock down the wall and claim a few new hills. There might be violence, Adam admits. But God says that this land—all of it, currently occupied by the Arabs or not—belongs to the Jews. The land, the rocks and dirt, plants and water, belongs to the Jews. I listen and nod. There is nothing else to do, really. I can argue politics till I’m blue in the face, especially when wine is being poured freely. But there’s no answer to such certitude. Here’s a man, after all, who by all accounts should be residing in some cul-de-sac in a U.S. suburb, living the American dream with callous-free hands and a flat-screen TV. Instead, he spends his days sweating in his garden under the brutal desert sun, away from many amenities, in the middle of what feels like a war zone. And he is satisfied.

I came away from the pleasant meal, and the pleasant Adam, with a better appreciation for the difficulties that face the Israeli peace movement. I’m no Middle East expert, but an evening with Adam was enough to highlight a key barrier to achieving peace in Israel and Palestine. How does one confront such clarity of purpose? How to stay engaged and motivated, without writing off the expansion of settlements as nothing more than an unstoppable train barreling down the track, colliding with everything in its path? If the goal is a two-state solution following the borders of the pre-1967 Green Line—which seems sensible enough to me—how to reign in the religious settlers who keep claiming more Palestinian land for themselves?

Such daunting questions are especially relevant when considering the new book by David Shulman, Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine. Shulman is the cave dweller activist referred to over dinner, and is a good friend of my girlfriend’s parents (though I’ve never met him; he was away in India when we visited). Shulman doesn’t have a traditional activist resume. He’s a professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he teaches Sanskrit, studies classical Hindustani music, and translates obscure Indian dialects of poetry. Born in Iowa, he moved to Israel in 1967, at the age of 18, and served as a combat medic in the Israeli Army during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Moved by his experiences in the Lebanon War—“at best an arrogant folly, at worst a crime”—and the increasingly rightward tilt of Israeli politics, Shulman began his activist work during the first Intifada, which consisted mostly of visiting and hosting Palestinians from a village near Bethlehem called Beit Sahour. Yet for a person dedicated to the study of language, Shulman quickly grew impatient. “The dialogue sessions, though intoxicating in their own way, soon came to feel insufficient,” he writes. “I tired of the endless words. I wanted to do something more tangible: the reports of terrible suffering, of brutal treatment of innocent Palestinians by soldiers in the territories, were driving me mad.”

He eventually joined a group called Ta’aush (Arabic for “Living Together”), which emphasizes non-violent action rather than words, and it is the campaigns of Ta’aush over the last five years that are chronicled in Dark Hope. Early on, Shulman advises the reader that his book does not provide an exhaustive historic catalogue of rights and wrongs, which vary depending on who is doing the cataloguing; he has witnessed enough of that to believe it won’t point a way forward. “I am not interested in who ‘started’ the fight. I want to end it,” he writes. And although his sliver of reality—the ground level dispatches facing hostile settlers in the occupied territories—is limited, the continued expansion of these illegal outposts plays a key and often overlooked role in the instability of the region. And it is a story that has needed a teller like Shulman, who writes in a clear and intimate manner, free of polemics but full of passionate reporting.

Shulman divides Dark Hope into chronicles of his activist activities arranged geographically. He takes readers into Arab villages within Jerusalem being cut off by the separation barrier, and up north to towns in Samaria, where he helps protect Palestinians trying to harvest olives. (Ta’aush’s central role in the territories is to provide a buffer from settlers so that Palestinians can go about their daily tasks without being harmed). But his most wrenching accounts are of the Palestinian cave dwellers in the South Hebron Hills, where the normal ambiguities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict give way, in Shulman’s words, to a “remarkably straightforward” injustice.

The Palestinian farmers and shepherds in the South Hebron Hills have played no previous role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the midst of all the violence, the cave dwellers have sought only to be left alone in what have been their homes since at least the early 19th century. But in the 1970s they became the target of increasing harassment by the Israeli army and Jewish settlers, with the ultimate goal being their forced evacuation. The Israeli Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of the cave dwellers’ right to stay in 2000, but the army and police nonetheless continue destroying caves, stopping up wells, and doing whatever else they can to convince the inhabitants to leave (which sometimes only requires them to overlook the violence of the Jewish settlers—a pattern akin to the FBI’s passive observation of violent whites in the South during the Civil Rights Movement).

Ta’aush’s activities in the South Hebron Hills are so innocent—and the responses they receive so brutal—that were Shulman a novelist many of the scenes would be criticized as unbelievable. Stopped by the Israeli army while riding in a truck full of blankets to transport to the villagers, Shulman and others set out on foot, blankets in hand. As they march past the checkpoint along a muddy path, a policeman attacks a Palestinian activist named Yasir. As Shulman recounts, the policeman hits Yasir “hard and continuously, screaming at him as he does so, ‘You’re attacking me!’” “Do they teach them this useful phrase in the police academy?” Shulman wonders with his characteristic combination of blistering anger and detached bemusement.

The group—as they are forced to do whenever entering the occupied territories—eventually pushes its way past the police and obscenity-screaming settlers, negotiating and renegotiating in order to continue. By late afternoon they reach their destination, dropping off the blankets. Blankets: not exactly a national security threat. Yet on the march, one of the settlers yells that the activists are on the side of Osama Bin Laden, causing Shulman to observe:

We ignore all this and keep walking, but the settlers have allies among the policemen. Another bout of blocking and resistance is inevitable; they are determined to keep these blankets away from the cave dwellers. It is quite cold in the Hebron Hills, but the blankets will apparently leave indelible scars of ignominy on the history of the Jews. Who knows, this is probably a matter of life and death, since the Jews’ survival is so fragile a business; delivery of a single blanket could be fatal.

White-hot anger runs through the pen of Shulman—whose sarcasm and appreciation of the absurd reminded me of Vonnegut—but it is not an anger that proclaims one side deserves all the blame. He acknowledges that the Palestinian side is also “staggering under a burden of folly and crime.” But he writes as a peace-cherishing American-born Israeli Jew, who has seen the very real threat of terrorism being “systematically exploited by the Israeli right to further its own far-reaching, brutal program.” (For US readers, this ought to sound pretty familiar). Any honest seeker of a solution must first see this injustice, and those that need the message most—the general Israeli public and unconditional supporters of Israel in America—are his target audience.

Shulman has a central question for this audience, a question that he has been forced to ask many times while out on the front lines: What have we become? He is beaten and shot at by settlers, and spends a day collecting pellets of rat poison that settlers have scattered widely throughout Palestinian barley fields. The pellets contaminate the fields and kill off goats, sheep and deer; this is the land, it bears remembering, that the settlers’ ostensibly cherish above all else. Shulman, not a fan of the symbolic, cannot help but recognize the profundity of this poisonous act. Again: What have the Israelis become? The question is pointed not only at the settlers, of whom he finds little sympathy, but of the Israeli and American political leaders and citizens, who alternate between passive acceptance and active encouragement of the expansion of settlements.

On his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” The tensions in the occupied territories are not hidden from ordinary Palestinians, of course. But they remain for the most part hidden from uncritical Israel supporters—both in Israel and the United States—who fall back upon the spurious Bush doctrine of “with us or against us” without taking an honest inventory of their country’s actions.

The activities of Ta’aush bring to mind King’s statement, and it is instructive to ponder the nature of their direct actions that elicits such violent retribution. Ta’aush members bring blankets and medical supplies; assist with the olive and wheat harvest; plow fields; excavate bulldozed cave-homes; collect poisonous pellets. Direct action at times implies a combative protest, but Ta’aush activities are thoroughly humanitarian and altruistic; the familiar Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, “healing the world,” comes to mind. Yet what makes Ta’aush so dangerous is that such actions—whether they serve to partially heal the world or not—imply that Palestinians just might have the right to remain and thrive on their land. And it is this notion that the settlers cannot stomach.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Dark Hope is the sheer honesty with which Shulman contemplates his efficacy. He is but one man, confronting a situation that just keeps getting worse. A friend is blown up by a suicide bomber on a Jerusalem bus; Palestinians are taken from their homes and disappeared into Israeli jails; Lebanon is demolished once again. The recent bloodletting between Hamas and Fatah is only the most recent reason for pessimism. There will undoubtedly be many more.

Yet even when things appear so hopeless, an active peace movement made up of Jews and Palestinians still persists. Perhaps their ideology is best summed up, as Shulman writes, in a worldview that believes “either both sides win or both sides lose,” and therefore refuses to give up hope that the Israeli state can be redeemed. The remarkable members of Ta’aush and the broader peace movement are often described as “extremists” by the media, but Shulman disputes this characterization. “Most Israeli peace activists—I speak from long experience—are moderate, sensible people who abhor violence of any kind. Perhaps they are extreme in their gentle moderation.”

Such gentle moderates do exist among Israelis and Palestinians, and Shulman does a great service by chronicling their all-important struggles. Indeed, if a peaceful two-state solution with borders along the pre-1967 Green Line is ever to be achieved, these gentle moderates will need to swell the ranks and replace ineffective and corrupt political leaders. That, and reign in the settlers.


Gabriel Thompson


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2007

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