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A Moral Witness to the ‘Intricate Machine’

I am an Israeli. I live in Jerusalem. I have a story, not yet finished, to tell.” This is the opening line of David Shulman’s powerful and memorable book, Dark Hope, a diary of four years of political activity in Israel and the Palestinian territories. It is a record of the author’s intense involvement with a volunteer organization composed of Israeli Palestinians and Israeli Jews, called Ta’ayush, an Arabic term for “living together” or “life in common.” The group was founded in October 2000, soon after the start of the second Palestinian intifada.

This book aims,” Shulman writes,

at showing something of the Israeli peace movement in action, on the basis of one individual’s very limited experience…. I want to give you some sense of what it feels like to be part of this struggle and of why we do it.

Struggle with whom? Shulman explains:

Israel, like any society, has violent, sociopathic elements. What is unusual about the last four decades in Israel is that many destructive individuals have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise. Here, in places like Chavat Maon, Itamar, Tapuach, and Hebron, they have, in effect, unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population; to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill—all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.

His diary proceeds to show how this happens.

Shulman speaks of “the last four decades.” It is forty years since the Israeli victory of 1967 brought the West Bank under occupation. That was also the year Shulman immigrated to Israel from the US, just after graduation from high school. In the Israeli army he was trained as a medic, which turned out to be a great asset for his later work in the West Bank. His first aid skills, as well as the medical kit he always carried with him, were equally in demand by Israeli comrades and Palestinian villagers injured by settlers, soldiers, and police.

Shulman attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he acquired, among many languages, a good mastery of Arabic. This, too, proved to be useful in dealing with the Palestinians whom he and his friends tried to help. He emerged as a formidable scholar: on Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit poetry, Dravidian linguistics, Carnatic music, and Tamil Islam. His linguistic and cultural interests were mainly focused on South India. In 1987, when he was thirty-seven, he received a MacArthur Fellowship. He has published many translations of Indian poetry. Shulman’s language in his diary is fresh and uncontaminated by the lazy clichés often used to describe the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. By temperament and calling, Shulman is a scholar, not a politician. Recalling Auden’s lines on Yeats, we may say that mad Israel hurt him into politics.

Into what sort of politics, one may ask. Shulman’s work on India and its culture suggests that his politics—if this is the term—would draw on Gandhi’s example. He writes, “We follow the classical tradition of civil disobedience, in the footsteps of Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King.” This suggests a much larger question: Would the two sides to the conflict have fared better if the Palestinian struggle against the occupation had been carried out in a Gandhian spirit of nonviolent resistance? This question can be raised as a matter of moral principle, but it can also be raised on practical, tactical grounds.

It is by no means new. At the beginning of the first intifada, in 1988, Israel expelled Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American child psychologist who advocated Gandhian tactics for resisting the occupation. The Israeli government understood right away that nonviolent tactics had the potential to embarrass Israel, and was determined to stop him. In truth, however, the government had no reason to be worried, since Awad made no headway among the Palestinians. I once asked a Palestinian friend why in his opinion Awad failed to convince the Palestinians of the validity of nonviolent tactics. His answer was revealing: nonviolent struggle is perceived by his fellow Palestinians as “unmanly.” They are drawn to the slogan “What was taken by force must be regained by force.”

Since the second intifada, the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh has become the main advocate of Gandhian nonviolent tactics among the Palestinians, both on moral and practical grounds. Nusseibeh does not accept that nonviolent tactics have no chance with the Palestinians because of cultural macho. He believes that nonviolent struggle—in the form of strikes and other protests—was very much in use by the Palestinians during the Ottoman rule of Palestine, and later against the British and the pre-state Jewish settlement in Palestine.

Are Israelis more likely to support making concessions to the Palestinians when they are violent or when they are nonviolent?

We seem to have an answer to this question from a surprising source. When Ariel Sharon came to power, he commissioned the political analyst Kalman Gaier to conduct a private poll for him. Gaier asked Israelis whether they were ready to accept a solution to the conflict that would relinquish 94 percent of the territories to the Palestinians in exchange for peace, with 2 percent of the rest of the territory exchanged in a land swap. Palestinian refugees would be settled in Palestine, and East Jerusalem divided. (These terms are close to the Clinton proposals of December 2001.)

Raviv Druker, an Israeli TV journalist, recently had access to polls Sharon never published. They reveal that in March 2002, at a moment when the second intifada was particularly violent, 70 percent of the respondents were willing to accept such a settlement; but when the poll was repeated in May 2005, a period of calm (just before Israel’s disengagement from Gaza), only 44 percent were willing to settle on those terms.

Do these findings indicate that Israelis understand only the language of force, and should they be seen as a decisive argument against nonviolent resistance? I don’t think so. In order to assess a nonviolent strategy one should not compare a period of violence to a period in which violent attacks were not taking place. One should compare, if possible, a period of violent resistance to a period of active nonviolent resistance. But more important than the question of how Palestinian violence influences Israeli public opinion is the question of how it influences Israeli leaders; and here my impression—and it is no more than that—is that no prominent leader, whether of the center-right or center-left, is willing to make serious concessions to the Palestinians in times of violence, lest he or she be perceived as weak. (Sharon, the exception, could withdraw from Gaza while maintaining his popularity.) The factual question—how Palestinian violence affects Israel’s policies toward a peaceful settlement—remains in my opinion an open question. The effect of Palestinian violence on Israel’s war policy is clear. During the second intifada, Palestinian violence elicited an intense military response from the Israeli side, resulting in devastation of the Palestinian community in the West Bank.

Regarding the moral issue of violent struggle, Shulman cites Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law professor at the Hebrew University, whom we both regard as a moral force in Israel:

Even if you accept the Palestinian reading of what happened at Camp David and assume that the Israeli proposals were inadequate, still it is impossible to accept the violence they have adopted as their weapon while still faced with an Israeli partner who wanted to reach a solution. It is not clear what the Palestinians want—for us not to be there [i.e., not to exist at all], in the territories, or for us not to be. They have the right to end the occupation, but not at any cost. But the Israeli Right uses Palestinian violence to its own advantage. Thus, worst of all, we may well find ourselves in a paradoxical, soul-destroying situation of having to serve in an army that is bent on illegal acts.

Shulman advocates a Gandhian approach on moral grounds and perhaps also on practical grounds, and a large number of his activities would have pleased the Mahatma. But in my opinion he is trying to do something that can be accurately seen as part of the nonviolent struggle to alleviate the burdens of the occupation but is also different from it. Shulman is a moral witness1—he makes an effort to observe and report on suffering arising from evil conduct. He may take risks in doing so, but he has a moral purpose: to expose the evil done by a regime that tries to cover up its immoral deeds. A moral witness acts with a sense of hope: that there is, or will be, a moral community for which his or her testimony matters.

About such hopes, Shulman can be ambivalent. The original Hebrew title of his book is not Dark Hope but Bitter Hope. Abraham, the great believer, is praised by Saint Paul as he who “against hope, believed in hope.” The Russian writer Nadezhda (“hope” in Russian) Mandelstam admired Paul’s account and called her first book about persecution in Stalin’s Russia Hope Against Hope; yet the title of her second book, Hope Abandoned, is drawn not from Paul but from Dante’s Inferno. Shulman’s account seems to me to vacillate between the two: between hoping against hope and abandoning hope.

Shulman starts with an impersonal account describing what happened on April 2, 2005, near a settlement south of the Hebron Hills where the Palestinians lived in caves and kept flocks of sheep and goats:

It began some two weeks ago when Palestinians from [the village of] Twaneh noticed a settler—almost certainly from Chavat Maon, the most virulent of the settlements in the area—walking deliberately through their fields in the early morning. Shortly afterward the animals got sick and the first sheep died. Then the shepherds found the poison scattered over the hills, tiny blue-green pellets of barley coated with… deadly rat poison from the fluoroacetate family…. The aim was clear: to kill the herds of goats and sheep, the backbone of the cave dwellers’ subsistence economy in this harsh terrain, and thus to force them off the land.

Visiting the Arab settlement, Shulman writes:

After half an hour I start to wonder if we have come here for nothing. I stare hard at the rocky ground, the purple wildflowers, the thorns, the fresh sheep droppings. Still no poison. Then a surprise: bending low, with my face nearly touching the soil, I see two—no, three—of the blue-green grains of poisoned barley….

Five minutes later Judy [his companion] strikes gold—a huge cache of them…. The real art of this grotesque treasure hunt is to retrace the vanished footsteps of the poisoner; one pile of pellets should, in theory, lead to another. And so, indeed, it goes.

Shulman then observed that all the while, on the hill opposite, directly under the settlement,

  1. 1

    For an extensive discussion of the idea of moral witness, see Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Harvard University Press, 2002), Chapter 5.

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