Sunday, April 27, 2008

David Shulman's New Testimony

Last year I posted some excerpts of David Shulman's book Dark Hope, a memoir mostly about his work with Ta'ayush, the Jewish-Arab group that supports those who are suffering the most from the Israeli occupation. (I translated from the Hebrew, not realizing that the book was about to come out in English.)

Yesterday, I read Shulman's moving Afterword to the recently-published English translation of S. Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh, the novella that describes an expulsion of Palestinianan villagers in 1948. I will have a separate post about that book.

But today I want to help circulate a report from Shulman that I just received from Dr. Elliot Horowitz. As far as I know it is not yet on the web. The post also mentions the recently-departed Gerald Cromer, also a professor, and a friend of my daughter's inlaws.

What can I say? My brain screams when I read things like this...and I am reading more and more of them.

Um Zeituna, April 5, 2008

Things are heating up in the hills south of Hebron. We're not sure why. One guess is that someone in the Civil Administration, that is, the Israeli occupation authority, has taken a deliberate decision. Or it may simply be the further, continuous entrenchment of the occupation itself, with its natural effects—the remorseless appropriation of more and more land, the consequent harassment of Palestinian civilians living on or near these lands, the expansion of the settlers-only road system, the soporific, shameful legal system that mostly serves the soldiers and the settlers. In any case, there is no doubt about what is happening on the ground. Two weeks ago Palestinian children were viciously attacked by settlers, and several wounded, as they were walking to school. The army escort that was supposed to protect them stood by passively. Over the last weeks, each time our volunteers have come down to escort shepherds to their grazing lands, they have been assaulted. Amiel and a small group near the settlement of Maon were surrounded, beaten, and nearly lynched. Meanwhile, one of the settler Rabbis has published a legal opinion setting out a calculus of human value in the occupied territories: one Jew, says the Rabbi, is worth a thousand Palestinian lives.

It's clear we're needed. The rains failed this year, the earth is dry, and the grazing grounds are much reduced. The cave-dwellers depend on their herds of sheep and goats for subsistence. For now, at least, there are still a few green wadis suitable for grazing, and the shepherds have to make the most of them. In theory, a rough modus vivendi was worked out with the soldiers: Palestinians can graze their flocks in the flat bed of the wadis between the settlements, but they are forbidden to let the sheep graze anywhere on the hills. Never mind that these hills have belonged since Biblical times to these same shepherds. In practice, moreover, the settlers drive the shepherds away even from the wadi bed, too, usually beating them for good measure.

We walk down the rocky slope, thick with thorns, to join Ahmad, who is grazing his herd just below the cow-barn of Maon. Ahmad is from Tuba, with its tents and caves, a kilometer or so away over the hills. Lambs bleat in the fierce sun. It is early morning. Within minutes, a discovery: small piles of parched maize are scattered over the bed of the wadi; beside them lie a few dead birds and rodents. Ahmad says he thinks they're coated with poison—a repeat of the episode three years ago when settlers from Chavat Maon spread poison through the fields in Twaneh, just down the road. Later we hear that children from Tuba saw several young people from Maon spreading the suspicious maize last evening, the whole length of the wadi. Carefully, we collect samples, which we will have tested in Jerusalem. We mark the many sites with piles of stone, and we send word to the other shepherds to keep their sheep away from this wadi, the main access route to the village.

Morning pastorale. To our left, above us, the cow-barn; to our right, the well-appointed houses of Maon. We follow the goats and sheep through the dry bed; they are chewing furiously, a silent symphony, under the shepherds' gaze. We meet Ahmad's brother Khalid, among others. I sit down on a rock; there is time to chat a little. Ahmad is twenty-two years old. Married? I ask. Not yet. Maybe soon. How soon? Who knows, perhaps a few weeks from now. To whom? Is there a bride? Yes, there is a woman he loves, in Lebanon. This sounds unlikely. Has he studied, thought about going to university? No. He points to the sheep. The Tuba people have no money, only these few animals to keep them going. Soon, when the summer intensifies and the green is gone, life will be precarious again, even more precarious than now. Does he come here day after day? Yes, he does. He comes with the flock, and most days the settlers descend from Maon, beat him up, and chase him away. He points uphill, and we can see that Maon has us in its sights. Someone is studying us through binoculars. A car, probably the security vehicle of the settlement, rattles along the top of the ridge. They are very bad people, Ahmad says. They want to hurt.

Still, he is nonchalant, insouciant, smoking the cigarettes he's been gifted by Amiel; every once in a while, he moves—with astonishing grace and swiftness—to turn a sheep back from the slope, to shape and mould the grazing mass. He seems subtly alert to the physical presence of each of his animals, some hundred in all; he holds them in his mind even as he sings a few snatches of song, teases us for our broken Arabic, tries to fill in the contours of some mental picture of our urban world, so remote from his. He accepts us as if we were simply another piece of this jagged landscape of thorn and stone and grass, with the occasional eagle overhead, and the dark perimeter of his enemies a mere 200 yards away, riding the hill.

I soak in the sun. I am in mourning. On Sunday Gerald died, a friend of infinite closeness; he was 63. Cancer ate through his body with lightning speed—a mere six weeks ago he was vigorous and apparently well. A man of total integrity, a fighter, a Jew of the old school, religious, a humanist, dedicated to doing what was just, and to peace. I cannot understand why I am drinking in this sunlight and tasting the dry wind from the desert and the mingled smells of cigarette smoke and sheep 3dung and wildflowers, and he can no longer feel. I puzzle at this with my mind, sadness welling up through my veins. I turn back to Ahmad with a question. And then they are upon us.

We expected it, after all. A group of settlers is racing downhill toward us, crying out their throaty battle-cries—not words but grunts and hisses and clicks and, from time to time, a menacing scream. There are three in the lead: one in sandals, long white shirt, long blond hair, wild eyes, the mandatory fringes of his under-Talit dancing as he runs; a second with face masked by a black cloth, leaving only a slit for the eyes; a third more heavy-set and ungainly. Behind them, still high on the hill, are more. All right, I say to myself, ready to act, eager to protect: Gerald, this one is for you.

We fan out over the hilltop as the Palestinians cluster with the herd in the wadi below us. We try, at first successfully, to block the settlers' access. They weave around us among the stones, cursing now and crying: "Ufu mipo, Get the hell out of here." We cut them off, again and again, but still they are starting to close in on our friends. Somewhere my mind registers the fact that, for once, they are not carrying guns. On the other hand, a handful of soldiers, armed to the teeth, are also fast approaching from the direction of Maon—a sergeant and several privates. The settlers reach the bed of the wadi and, circling past the shepherds, begin driving the sheep before them, out and away.

We invoke the "law," for what it's worth: these shepherds have the right to graze in this wadi, there's a document signed by the Matak, the senior officer in this area….But the sergeant is scornful of such niceties. "Don't talk to me," he says, "and don't tell me what to do." To his privates, he remarks with derision: "Look at them, it's like kids in elementary school." To us, after a moment's reflection, walking fast, he says: "I don't incline to either side here. Get out." And who are we to tell him that his very presence, guns and all, is what allows these settlers to go on living in Maon and Susya and Carmel—that it is he, by sustaining them here, who allows them to prey upon the shepherds, to beat them and humiliate them and steal their land? I know he won't listen, I swallow my words.

Amiel sends me to stand on the other side of the herd, to keep them from running away as the settlers want them to. I'm not so good at masterminding sheep. In fact, these sheep seem to me imbued with a Zen-like emptiness; they ebb and flow, responding rapidly to the rough shouts of the settlers, who are poking and pushing them toward the end of the wadi, and then, in sudden reversal, to the shepherds' commands to turn back. Every few seconds a fuzzy wave of sheep and goats washes across the wadi floor in some new direction, uphill and down, northward or southward, lapping at the grey boulders, trickling past the whole surreal congregation of helmeted soldiers and settlers in their Sabbath white and the impassive shepherds and our now furious activists. In the midst of these ovine eddies and riptides, there is a steady stream of invective flowing toward us: "You filthy Nazis," the settlers scream, and so on, the usual remarkably unimaginative pastiche. The blond one, his face contorted, grotesque in hate, suddenly rushes down the slope and smashes into Amiel. "Did you see that?" I say to the sergeant. "Arrest him! Look who's being violent here." "Don't tell me how to do my job," says the sergeant, bored, detached. "I told you not to talk to me."

And so it goes, for I don't know how long. Minutes pass. One of the settlers lashes out at Efrat; Amiel, ever chivalrous, rushes in to defend her. "We have the right to hit them, that's what the Torah says, doesn't it?" one settler shouts to his friend, obviously an authority on Biblical hermeneutics. Still busy containing the sheep, I manage somehow to reflect on what I'm feeling. I wonder, for example, if there is hatred in my heart. I scan my innerness as best I can: no trace of hate this time. No fear either. Perhaps, by now, after so many of these clashes, I'm inured. But I'm definitely a person who can hate, that I know. I repeat the scan. There is fierce anger, no doubt about that. Also, I am ashamed to report, something verging on contempt. I see their eyes, almost beyond the human; I hear the crude insults they are shouting; I sense the primitive splitting of the world, the terrible shallowness of mind and heart, the tribal lust for blood, the smugness, above all the frightened, impoverished manhood of the bully. OK, so I feel contempt. I wish I could work myself up to something better, but it probably won't happen today.

By now the settlers have been joined by their security officer, carrying an M-16. Definitely not a friendly presence. He ardently hopes, so he tells us, that our Palestinian friends will stab us in the back when we're asleep. He's pretty sure that they do this regularly. Meanwhile Efrat, delicate, focused, and wonderfully self-possessed, has had enough, and she says to him in crisp rapid-fire, each syllable ringing out distinctly in the desert air: "Maybe you're a killer, too. We don't know. What we know for sure is that you're a thief." "A thief?" he replies, rising to the bait, "at least I care about the Jews, and I'm prepared to give my life for my country." "I hope you won't have to do that," I say to him, breaking my own firm rule: don't engage in banter with the enemy. It never does any good. He turns to me. "And you," he says, livid with hatred, "would you give your life for this country?" "Most definitely not," I answer. I really don't like the idea. In fact, standing there amidst the sheep, I find it hard to think of a worthy enough cause. Is there such a thing? I ponder the problem. Flags, postage stamps, and Independence Day parades are clearly out. My children, grandchildren, friends, my students—yes. No question. But for a state? Maybe, I think to myself, a little whimsical, I'd risk it for the sake of some amorphous notion of integrity. In order to do the decent thing. In order to feel again the strange, unexpected, utterly intoxicating feeling of being free, truly and deeply and shockingly free, that I'm becoming aware of at this moment as the sun burns through my skin.

The soldiers stand more or less between the warring camps; our settler foes are but a pace away. It is Shabbat, almost noon. Amiel deliberately, with excruciating precision, lights a cigarette—almost as serious a crime, in the settlers' eyes, as befriending a Palestinian; a violation of God's commandment for this day of rest. (What rest?) They watch him in disgust. Though I don't much like smoking and usually feel unwell afterwards, I briefly consider whether, under present circumstances, to light my own cigarette might be the Jewish thing to do, an affirmation that God exists.

Amiel is more angry, I think, than I have ever seen him. He is a one-man peace movement, single-handedly keeping alive an ongoing course of weekly protests against the route of the Separation Wall in the Bethlehem area, south of Jerusalem. Some years ago, settlers shot him during the olive harvest in the north; he survived. Somehow today the brazen foolishness has gotten under his skin. I can understand his rage. On the way down, in the minibus, I asked him how he imagined things here, in the territories, in five years' time. "More of the same," he said cooly, "only much worse."

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