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…

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