David Shulman is the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an activist in Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership. His latest book is More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India.


 (April 2015)

Jerusalem: Why Should Things Not Get Worse?

Palestinian demonstrators attempting to break the barrier separating parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Israel, Jerusalem, October 28, 2015

Fear, also hate, makes for a light finger on the trigger, especially in an atmosphere of rabid nationalism that is deliberately fanned by government spokesmen and the prime minister himself. Army intelligence predicts the current violence will get worse; already, Hamas is said to have directed its forces on the West Bank to carry out suicide bombings. And why should things not get worse?

Gaza: Killing Gets Easier

Rescuers looking for survivors and bodies at the Qassam Mosque in the Neuseirat refugee camp, Gaza Strip, August 9, 2014

In early May, Breaking the Silence, the organization of Israeli ex-soldiers, published a report on the Israeli army’s campaign in Gaza last summer. It revealed that the large number of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side was a consequence, among other things, of military tactics and orders explicitly adopted by the IDF.

Israel: The Stark Truth

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming victory in Israel's general election, Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015

The Israeli electorate has given a clear mandate. There will be more antidemocratic legislation, more attempts to undermine the courts, more rampant racism, more thugs in high office, more acts of cruelty inflicted on innocents, more paranoid indoctrination in the schools, more hate propaganda, more wanton destruction of Bedouin villages, more war-mongering, and quite possibly more needless war.

Inside the Hidden Temple

View of the Tabo monastery from the east, June 21, 2006

Peter van Ham, an authority on early Indo-Tibetan art, has given us a splendid photographic record of the mid-eleventh century masterpieces of the Tabo monastery—the most intact of all early medieval Buddhist artistic sites in the Western Himalaya.

At the Heart of Hinduism

Roberto Calasso in his house in Milan with a sculpture of an Indian snake, 1989
Every year, on a certain Tuesday in October, worshipers of the Golden Goddess, Paidi Talli, gather in a grove of trees somewhere outside the small town of Vizianagaram in southern India. Which grove is chosen depends on the goddess, who will have appeared to her main priest in a dream …

Gaza: The Murderous Melodrama

A smuggling tunnel in Rafah, Gaza Strip, 2012; photograph by Paolo Pellegrin
Clearly, this was the summer of Israeli discontent. For weeks the most common word on the TV and radio news and talk shows, with their familiar line-up of dusted-off former generals, was “deterrence.” More specifically, the question was how to restore or reinvent this somewhat nebulous, almost metaphysical objective.

Palestine: The Hatred and the Hope

A street littered with stones at the Qalandiya checkpoint north of Jerusalem, a day after Israeli soldiers fired on a large West Bank protest march there, July 25, 2014

Since the Gaza war began, an unprecedented wave of blood lust and racist violence has raged within Israel. Similar manifestations have occurred in earlier periods. What makes the present moment distinct is the incitement by politicians, including members of the cabinet, the Knesset, and other figures within the Israeli establishment.

Occupation: ‘The Finest Israeli Documentary’

Israeli border guards detaining a Palestinian during clashes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, after the settlers had allegedly set fire to fields near the village of Asira al-Qibliya, West Bank, June 2, 2010
I know a Palestinian shepherd from the South Hebron hills who was out in the hills with his sheep and goats, some years ago, when Israeli settlers brutally attacked him. There is nothing unusual about that. After a while some soldiers turned up and arrested the shepherd when he dared …

In the Trap

Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), an Israeli intelligence agent, interrogating a young Palestinian named Omar (Adam Bakri) 
in Hany Abu-Assad’s film <i>Omar</i>
Toward the end of Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s powerful new film, Omar, nominated for the Oscar in the best foreign-language film category, the eponymous Palestinian hero (played by Adam Bakri) says to Nadia (Leem Lubany), the woman he has loved and lost: “We have all believed the unbelievable.” The impossible …

Decency Without Hope

Adam Bakri as the title character in Hany Abu-Assad’s film <i>Omar</i> (2013)

What does it take to remain decent under the conditions of the Israeli occupation, on either side of the Separation Barrier? Is it even possible? These are some of the questions explored in Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s powerful new film, Omar.

Bitter Faces in the Holy Land

Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem area (click on image for enlarged view)

We tend to imagine the Wall, or the Separation Barrier, as it is officially called in Israel, as a single, monolithic structure. In reality it is a set or system of walls and fences within walls and fences, a recursive infinite regress of barbed wire, rock, and cement that turns inward as it slithers over the hills, enclosing most Palestinian villages on the occupied West Bank in non-contiguous enclaves even as it incorporates into Israel as many Jewish settlements as possible. Upon completion, its dizzying route is expected to run for over 700 kilometers. Wall, Josef Koudelka’s new book of eloquent black-and-white photographs, taken over four years in repeated trips to Israel and Palestine, reveals a Biblical landscape ravaged by greed and by the desperate illusion that safety, at least some tentative and temporary form of safety, can be found in a big fence.

Hope in Hebron

Palestinians at the Bab al-Shams

Whatever real chance there is for peace remains in the hands of the Palestinians. They gave up long ago on Obama. They’ll have to do it themselves, though some Israelis will be there to help, if they’re needed and wanted. One has to hope that when the third Intifada comes, as it will, it will have at least a component of nonviolent popular resistance. In the past the Israeli army has sometimes successfully turned nonviolent protest to violence, which it clearly prefers. Maybe it’ll be able to do this again. But growing numbers of Palestinians, both the leadership in Ramallah and village councils on the West Bank, have come to the conclusion that mass nonviolent resistance may be their best bet.

Creating and Destroying the Universe in Twenty-Nine Nights

Kudiyattam performances are never short. In their natural form, they range from twelve hours to over one hundred and fifty hours. This summer I spent all of August in central Kerala with my Sanskrit and Malayalam students, witnessing one of the great compositions of this tradition, the so-called Anguliyankam, or Drama of the Ring, which went on for some 130 hours spread over twenty-nine nights.

The Revenge of the East?

Pankaj Mishra, New York City, 2003
There was a time, some decades ago, when the works of Rabindranath Tagore were popular in Israel. They were translated by Pua Shalev-Toren (not from the original Bengali but from English) into a highly ornate, sentimental, purely Orientalist Hebrew and published in small pocket-size hardbacks that adolescents read surreptitiously during …

‘I Am an Illegal Alien on My Own Land’

A Palestinian couple inspecting their former cave dwelling in Susya following an earlier expulsion, September 6, 2004

In 1949, shortly after Israel’s War of Independence, the Hebrew writer S. Yizhar published a story that became an instant classic. “Khirbet Khizeh” is a fictionalized account of the destruction of a Palestinian village and the expulsion of all its inhabitants by Israeli soldiers in the course of the war. The narrator, a soldier in the unit that carries out the order, is sickened by what is being done to the innocent villagers. Sixty-three years have passed since Yizhar wrote “Khirbet Khizeh.” I wish I could say that what he described was an ugly exception and that such actions don’t happen any more. This week I find myself in Susya, in the South Hebron hills, whose inhabitants, if the Israeli Civil Administration gets its way, will be, quite literally, cast into the desert.

Israel in Peril

Even apart from the disastrous political consequences of current Israeli policy, it is critical to recognize that what goes on in the territories is not a matter of episodic abuse of basic human rights, something that could be corrected by relatively minor, ad hoc actions of protest and redress. Nothing could be further from the truth. The occupation is systemic in every sense of the word. The various agencies involved are all inextricably woven into a system whose logic is apparent to anyone with firsthand experience of it. That logic is one of protecting the settlement project and taking the land.

From the West Bank: When Brutality Enters the Mainstream

An injured activist in Anatot, in the West Bank

There are tragic internal concomitants to the dramatic political failure at the top in Israel. That failure and the moral pathology that motivates it are more and more seeping down into the Israeli grass roots; or maybe they have been festering there for years, fed by the occupation and its cruelties. Ehud Barak used to say that when a truly moderate Palestinian leadership would arise, the demand to make peace would well up from below in Israel and force the government to act in this direction. Evidently, he was wrong. Consider what happened on the second day of Rosh Hashana, Friday, September 30, in the settlement known as Anatot, just north of Jerusalem.

From the West Bank: The Palestinians Are Ready

An Israeli soldier stopping Israelis, foreigners and Palestinian demonstrators as they try to reach Palestinian owned farm land, in the settlement of Karmi Tsour near the Palestinian village of Beit Omar in the West Bank, October 8, 2011

On the West Bank, the Palestinian September has come and gone in an eerie quiet. Abu Mazen returned from the UN to a hero’s welcome in Ramallah, and there were low-key celebrations in other cities as well; but the mass demonstrations that many predicted, and that the Israelis feared, have not materialized. The Palestinian security forces were given strict orders to keep demonstrators away from potential places of friction such as roadblocks, checkpoints, and of course Israeli settlements. Expecting the worst, the Israeli army invested considerable resources in the latest crowd-control technology, including the infamous “Skunk” spray, which disperses an unbearable malodorous mist, and which some of us have experienced in Bil’in and al-Nabi Saleh; but so far they haven’t needed these methods. In the meantime, has anything changed on the ground?

Two Marches, Two Futures for Jerusalem

A protester in Qalandia, Palestine, June 5, 2011

On one side, we have a violent, mystically charged racism with its vision of brute domination of one people by another, and of an endgame of perpetual disenfranchisement and dispossession. On the other side, we have the prospect of a free Palestine, with its capital in East Jerusalem, the end of the Occupation, and the realistic hope of an agreement based on compromise and mutuality.

Goldstone and Gaza: What’s Still True

UN investigator Richard Goldstone visiting the destroyed house where members of the al-Samouni family were killed during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, Gaza City, June 3, 2009
On April 1, Richard Goldstone made a much-discussed retraction of part of his commission’s report criticizing Israel’s behavior during the 2009 Gaza war. Goldstone’s statement has produced in Israel a predictable burst of self-congratulation. From the Prime Minister on down, the message from the Israeli government is a defiant “We told you so!” spoken from the always privileged vantage point of an innocent victim wrongly accused. Along with this, we have an updated Israeli version of the Prodigal Son; Goldstone, a South African former judge and liberal Zionist of the old school, has supposedly come (rather shamefacedly) back home.

Goldstone’s Retreat?

Richard Goldstone investigating the destroyed house where members of the Samouni family were killed during Israel's Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, Gaza City, June 3, 2009

Richard Goldstone’s much-discussed retraction of key findings in his committee’s report on the 2009 Gaza war has produced in Israel a predictable burst of self-congratulation. From the prime minister on down, the message from the Israeli government is a defiant “We told you so!” spoken from the always-privileged vantage point of an innocent victim wrongly accused. Along with this, we have an updated Israeli version of the Prodigal Son; Goldstone, a South African former judge and liberal Zionist of the old school, has supposedly come (rather shamefacedly) back home.

Israel & Palestine: Breaking the Silence

Sari Nusseibeh, Jerusalem, April 2004
A few weeks ago I was in al-Nabi Salih, a Palestinian village northwest of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. It wasn’t so easy to get there; the Israeli army had closed off the area on every side, and we literally had to crawl through the olive groves, just beneath one of the army’s roadblocks, before we managed to reach the village. Al-Nabi Salih is a troubled place. The large Israeli settlement of Halamish nearby has taken over nearly half of the village lands, including a precious freshwater spring. Most Fridays there are dramatic confrontations between the soldiers and the villagers protesting this land grab and the other difficulties of life under occupation. Yet the first thing I saw in al-Nabi Salih was a huge sign in Arabic and English: “We Believe in Non-Violence. Do You?”

Living in India’s Spirit World

Ascetics, or sadhus, at Varanasi Ghat, India, 2001; photographs by Raghu Rai
The most voluble person I ever met was a somewhat chubby, middle-aged Indian ascetic, or sadhu, who had taken a strict vow of silence. I found him—well, to be honest, he was the one who adopted me—in the famous pilgrimage site of Dwaraka, on the northwest coast of India. When …

Eyeless in Gaza

Tear gas fired from Israeli assault ships surrounding passengers on the second deck of the <i>Mavi Marmara</i>, one of six vessels in the “Freedom Flotilla,” which was intercepted by the Israeli military while trying to bring humanitarian supplies to
Can we make any sense of Israel’s policy toward Gaza? I think we can—a rather sinister sense—but only if we look beyond the mass of sometimes conflicting details that have emerged since the attack on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” on May 31. On the face of it, it’s hard to …