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Israeli soldiers detaining a Palestinian during clashes at a protest, Hebron, West Bank, February 2018

On June 2, 1980, three members of an offshoot of the right-wing Israeli settler movement, a terrorist group that became known as the Jewish Underground—Menachem Livni, Uzi Sharabaf, and Shaul Nir, all West Bank settlers—placed bombs under the cars of the Palestinian mayors of Ramallah, Bireh, and Nablus. The mayor of Nablus, Ghassan Shakaa, lost both his legs; Kareem Khalaf, the mayor of Ramallah, lost a foot. A rumor circulated that Menachem Livni worked at the military governor’s office in Ramallah. If so, I must have seen him there. When I heard what he had done and saw his picture, I wondered at the incongruity of his innocent-looking face.

The three were apprehended in 1984 and convicted in 1985 after another attack, which killed three Palestinian students at the Islamic College in Hebron. They received life sentences, but these were commuted by Israeli president Chaim Herzog. In 1990 they were released from prison, to the cheers of Jewish settlers and no real show of public protest. Menachem Livni now produces cabernet sauvignon at his winery in the settlement of Kiryat Arba next to Hebron.

After the bombings, Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights NGO, met with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and urged an investigation of settler violence in the West Bank. In 1981 a committee to carry one out was formed by the Israeli attorney general, headed by his deputy, Judith Karp. The Karp Report: On the Investigations of Suspicions Against Israelis in Judea and Samaria, published in 1984, described numerous acts of violence carried out by Jewish settlers against Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, including assaults, destruction of property, armed threats, shootings, obstructed access to places of employment, and attacks on schoolchildren. It was not followed by any significant change in the ways settler violence was addressed by the Israeli police and security services.

Such criminal behavior is more widespread now than it was in the 1980s. Then, the Israeli army was solely responsible for security and the pursuit of criminals in the West Bank. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1995, security has been shared between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), with the latter restricted to Area A, which constitutes only 18 percent of the Palestinian territory. The violence takes place mainly in Area C, where the Palestinian police cannot operate. Yet even within their jurisdiction, the PA police, with whom the Israeli security forces coordinate, do not assist Palestinian citizens during army or settler raids.

During the first intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993, Palestinians in the West Bank confronted the settlers who tried to intimidate Arab farmers. Not so anymore. Now the farmers are on their own, except when solidarity groups like Ta‘ayush, the Arab-Jewish Partnership, come to their aid. Many villagers fear that if they fight back they will lose their security clearance to work in construction and agriculture in the settlements. With nearly total immunity from prosecution, settlers now commit acts of violence almost weekly.

For fifteen years, David Shulman, a renowned scholar of South Asian languages and religion and a frequent contributor to these pages, has been involved with Ta‘ayush, whose name is the Arabic word for coexistence. The group has been protesting in the South Hebron Hills, in Area C of the West Bank, where some 300,000 Palestinians, most of them farmers and shepherds, live, in about thirty villages. The Israeli government has been methodically working to displace these communities by refusing to grant building permits to Palestinians and then demolishing houses that have been built without a permit. Orders are also issued for the demolition of cisterns where water is collected. Shulman’s Freedom and Despair: Notes from the South Hebron Hills is an account of his experiences there and an attempt to understand the deep antipathy that drives the violence and destruction in the region.

Shulman does not like to use the word “evil.” He prefers “wickedness” to describe the behavior of both the settlers and the army. In the 1980s, when I was involved, through my work as a human rights lawyer, in trying to save Palestinian property from the settlers, I used to believe that Shlomo Moscowitz, the head of the Central Planning Council at the Civil Administration, was wicked. He would plan Israeli settlements over large swaths of land and confine Palestinians to tiny enclaves. When I reminded him that these cities and villages needed room to grow naturally over the forty-year life of the statutory plans he was preparing, his answer was, “Let them build up.”

Moscowitz was implementing the policy of the state he served. The widespread use of the Planning and Building Law to confine Palestinians in small areas and separate them from other Palestinian villages, while leaving the bulk of the land for Israeli settlements, was similar to the policy that was used against Palestinians who stayed in Israel after its creation in 1948. Shulman argues that to call such policies “wicked” reduces the element of the deliberate, calculated strategy out of which they arise. But he believes that the officers and bureaucrats of the Civil Administration are worse than the “sociopathic settlers,” who are blinded by ideology. He writes:


All evidence on the ground points to the existence of senior [Civil Administration] bureaucrats who are motivated by outright malice…. The technicalities, indeed the entire abstract language of permits and approvals, are profoundly corrupt from start to finish. They embody malice of a high order, different in kind from the indeterminate wickedness of the courts or the police.

He concludes, “If causing great harm to innocent beings is morally, humanly, unacceptable, then a system like that of the Occupation that is entirely rooted in such acts of inflicting pain must be wicked.”

As for the Israeli army, which enables the occupation to continue, Shulman reports that on several occasions he tried to challenge the soldiers on the legality of the orders they were carrying out, hoping to prick their consciences. He never succeeded. Invariably, they said they were engaged in the preservation of order. He put the question to one soldier: “What about your conscience?”

The soldier answered, “Are you asking me to disobey orders, to refuse to serve?”

“No, I’m not, but I’m curious about the state of your conscience.”

“I have my orders.”

Throughout the book there are moments of black comedy. After settlers beat a fifteen-year-old Palestinian and stole his donkey, the boy was taken to the police station in the settlement of Kiryat Arba to submit a complaint, but the donkey remained with the settlers. Shulman reminds his readers, “If you live in a tent or a cave in Tuba, on the edge of the desert, with no access roads to the outer world and the settlers at our throat day after day, a donkey is no small matter.” The Israeli solidarity activists were determined that the donkey be found and returned. So they began to chant in rhythmic Hebrew: “Ha-hamor hayyav lahzor! The donkey must come home!”

At moments like these, some soldiers admit how preposterous their situation is: “Crazy? Of course it’s crazy. Everything down here is crazy…. The settlers are crazy, the Palestinians are crazy, even the sheep and goats are crazy. That is why I stick to my orders. They are clear….My job is to keep the peace.” After other soldiers tell him that they “feel nothing when they carry out their orders,” Shulman muses that “after half a century of occupation, numbness of this order is, I think, endemic to the Israeli male.”

In an afterword to Khirbet Khizeh, the 1949 novella by S. Yizhar about the violent expulsion of Palestinian villagers by the Israeli army in the 1948 war, Shulman wrote of his own army experience:

One day before we were to swear our oath of allegiance and obedience unto death, an officer from the General Staff in Tel Aviv was sent to talk to us, to explain the meaning of the oath. Someone asked him what we should do if faced with an order that we regarded as immoral. To his immense credit, he answered: “There is no rule for such a situation. It is between you and your conscience.” I’m not sure today’s recruits would hear such an answer.

In Freedom and Despair, Shulman attempts to distinguish army behavior then and now by quoting Benny Gefen, an eighty-something veteran, who was with him on one occasion in South Hebron. Gefen tells the soldiers, “I am ashamed of the uniform I used to wear, the uniform you are wearing now. In the Palmach [the elite army ‘strike forces’ before and during the 1948 war], they always taught us: think of what the other is feeling, put yourself in his place.” Yet was it really so different in the past? Did the Palmach not force the Palestinians out of their homes in the village of Lydda in 1948, and did they not commit the massacre at Dahmash Mosque, as Yerachmiel Kahanovich, a member of the Palmach, has testified?

The book doesn’t offer an explanation for why criminal behavior in the West Bank has become so widespread in the past decade and a half. There is little doubt that the reluctance of the Israeli police to prosecute settlers is a contributing factor. But that cannot be the only reason.

I believe a prime factor is education. In 1983 an Israeli friend of my father who was engaged in a tour of Israeli schools and speaking to students came to visit. He told my father that he found the students were being encouraged to view Palestinians negatively, not as neighbors with whom Israelis could live in peace. He proceeded to warn my father, who lived in Ramallah, that Palestinians living under Israeli rule should be prepared for difficult times.


The intervening years proved him right. Israel and its apologists have often accused the Palestinian Authority of refusing to recognize Israel in its curriculum for Palestinian schools and of encouraging anti-Semitism in its students. This is utter hypocrisy. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, who conducted a study of more than twenty Israeli geography and history textbooks published between 1994 and 2010 for use in both the government-run school system and independent ultra-Orthodox schools, concluded in her 2012 book Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education that the negative representation of Palestinians in these curricula “is quite contradictory to the persistent Israeli claim…that ‘Palestinians teach their children to hate us and we teach Love thy neighbor.’” Peled-Elhanan also points out that none of the geography books she examined is called The Geography of the State of Israel. “The titles are usually Israel or The Land of Israel, which entails the inclusion, in all maps, of territories beyond the state’s official borders, including the occupied areas”—not, of course, so identified.

This erasure has startling effects. Leaving Israel this spring, I was asked by the border official reviewing my passport, “What is the West Bank?” She was a woman in her twenties and had never heard of the West Bank. Before she was born, the Israeli government had changed the name to Judea and Samaria. She thought “West Bank” referred to a city in the US. Peled-Elhanan argues that the process of influencing future army recruits starts at school:

With such distorted pictures and skewed maps firmly fixed in their minds, Israeli Jewish students are drafted into the army, to carry out Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, whose life-world is unknown to them and whose very existence they have been taught to resent and fear.

In Shulman’s confrontations with the Jewish settlers, he is often told acerbically that Judea and Samaria is their God-given land. Their argument is that any non-Jew is a trespasser who interferes with the coming of the Messiah and must be removed. Shulman writes of these views, “Their patent foolishness embarrasses me…. It is even hard to believe that Jewish people, of all the peoples in the world, can believe them.”

In another encounter, Shulman is told by a senior commander from the Civil Administration to tell his “Palestinian friends to leave.” Instead Shulman tells him, “You’re the one who should go away. You shouldn’t be here in the first place, you’re no better than a common thief.” The settler answers, “Where do you want me to go? back to Auschwitz?”

Confused as they seem, such invocations of the Holocaust to justify the requisition of land from Palestinians are not uncommon. In 1988 the Auschwitz survivor Yehuda Elkana wrote in Haaretz on “the need to forget,” arguing that Israel’s emphasis on remembrance prevents the nation from moving forward and finding peace:

the deepest political and social factor that motivates much of Israeli society in its relations with the Palestinians is not personal frustration, but rather a profound existential “Angst” fed by a particular interpretation of the lessons of the Holocaust, the readiness to believe that the whole world is against us, and that we are the eternal victim. In this ancient belief, shared by so many today, I see the tragic and paradoxical victory of Hitler.

Shulman believes that the settlers’ “claim on the lands in question is pale, ‘mythical’ in the bad sense of the word.” But he seems to confine the problem to the occupation in the West Bank, without taking account of how the Israeli state has historically exploited Palestinians. Surely the occupation policies are an extension of earlier policies pursued by Israel. For there to be a real change Israel will have to take responsibility for its earlier actions of expelling Palestinians and robbing those who stayed behind of most of their land. Otherwise the state will continue to feel it can get away with repeating the practice of land confiscation and the designation of these lands for the sole benefit of the Jewish citizens of Israel.

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Palestinians watching Israeli soldiers through the separation wall, Hebron, January 2018

In his afterword to Khirbet Khizeh, Shulman went further than he does in his new book. There, he made the connection between what was taking place at the time of writing (2007) and what had happened in 1948. He wrote, “What began in 1948 under different circumstances continues today, and there is at the moment no war to provide even the semblance of a rationalization.” He ended by declaring, “Maybe I’ll make one [sign] for myself: ‘No More Khirbet Khizehs.’” Why did Shulman not make such linkages in Freedom and Despair?

Perhaps it’s because his intended audience is the Western reader, not the settlers who refuse to listen to him and whose claim to the land he finds absurd. He reports that after his book Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine was published in Hebrew, he met with a group of settlers. “They had asked to meet me,” he writes, because “I had tended to lump all settlers together with the savage ones who so often had assaulted us on the hills of South Hebron.” He came out of the meeting convinced that the settlers tend to be “thoroughly imbued with the fierce ideology of the religious right, which is mostly immune to claims based on universal values.” They tell him, “If you believe the word of the Bible, you know that God gave this land to the Jews—only to us. All that we do follows inevitably from that.” Against such conviction there is little room for rational arguments.

But Shulman is also writing for himself, to try to understand why he gets out of bed on a cold Saturday morning to go out to the hills and engage in a futile struggle. The book begins with a meditation “on the usefulness of despair.” Shulman writes, “If I didn’t despair, I wouldn’t keep going down to South Hebron.” He quotes the pre-Islamic poet al-Harith ibn Hilliza: “Nothing consoles you like despair.” He recommends despair as a place to start and adds, “Sometimes the worse things get, the more hope there is.”

All too often, he writes, his efforts feel like “battering at windmills.” One of his answers is that he wants to bear witness: “Maybe we can do something useful, in our own small way, for truth—by bearing witness, by not turning away. Truth, surprisingly, requires such assistance. The alternative is not appealing.” The reportage in the book itself is an act of witnessing, whether it tells of settler violence, weddings, meals, visits with farmers, or solitary walks in the hills.

Shulman recognizes that “we are unable to change the political situation itself. Some day the Occupation will end, but it will not be because of our small victories. And yet, in my own sense of what all this means, it is the micro-moments that matter most.” He then muses over “the strange beauty of fighting a hopeless battle,” for, as he says elsewhere, “a moral act that emerges out of true perception…will set me free.” “In fact, truth itself may be more of a feeling than an act of thinking.”

Guy Hircefeld, a longtime member of Ta‘ayush, told Shulman how he came to the group: “[It] is the most real thing there is. We speak only the truth, with no facade, no cover-up. We tell it as it is, no apologies…. The more poisoned the public space is—by the government and the general public—the stronger I feel the need to act.”

Shulman agrees: “As it happens, long experience in South Hebron also teaches you something about seeing, or not seeing, what is truly there.” He tells us, “Often it’s like a litmus test: you can see in broad daylight who the thief is and who the innocent victim.”

Some of the Palestinian farmers Shulman speaks with tell him that “as far as they’re concerned, the settlers can stay; there is plenty of room—but only on condition that they act like human beings.” With the passage of the Nation State Law last July, which in effect legitimizes the state’s discrimination against its Arab citizens and declares in Article 7 that “the state sees the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation,” even such a low standard seems ever more unreachable.

What also seems to keep Shulman going through the apparently futile battles is that he is happy in the South Hebron Hills. He writes, “I sometimes think I am happiest when I am walking, either alone or almost alone, under the sun and wind in South Hebron…. A dimension of solitude inheres in the heartscapes of South Hebron.” He believes that

such expansiveness is intrinsic to true perception. A broader vision overrules a constricted one. Similarly, what expands my own self, and my awareness, has a natural relation to truth. An existential truthfulness would then be linked to what makes me more, rather than less, alive.

It is in these reflections that the strength of the book lies.

The South Hebron Hills that Shulman has come to love are being destroyed by settlers, just like the Ramallah hills near where I live. We inhabit, in his words, “a landscape, ravishing beyond words or thought, that is being cruelly violated, torn apart, raped, poisoned, destroyed. It is in the nature of a colonial venture to do that.” It is painful to witness the expansion of existing settlements and the establishment of new ones, feverishly pursued by the Israeli government since the election of President Trump. I agree with Shulman’s faith in the transformative power of hope. We part ways when Shulman writes, “It is not for myself that I feel this despair but for the Palestinians whose pain I have made my own.” Israelis, whose own humanity is at stake, cannot afford to give up hope any more than Palestinians.

Shulman is told by Menachem Brinker, a philosopher and literary historian and one of the founders of the Israeli peace movement, that the Jews “had first to learn—decades ago—to overcome their deep passivity, to rediscover how to act in the world, defend themselves, fight back; and this lesson they truly learned. Now they have to overcome the fascism that comes with blind, autistic power: witness the settlers, their primitive malice, their adoration of brute compulsion.” It is in this battle against fascism that neither we nor the Israelis can afford to remain passive, and must fight together.