June 18, 2013
Milton Viorst on Israel’s Tragic Predicament
Posted on Feb 1, 2008
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
—Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice,” Act III.
By David Shulman
University Of Chicago Press, 236 pages
Lords of the Land
By Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar
Nation Books, 576 pages
Toward an Open Tomb
By Michel Warschawski
Monthly Review Press, 128 pages
In opening his stunning memoir, “Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine,” David Shulman declares: “I am an Israeli. I live in Jerusalem. I have a story, not yet finished, to tell.” It is a very sad story, of a society gone astray with power, and of decent Israelis in despair over the failure of their efforts to save it from itself. The story, as Shulman says, is not yet over, but he asks whether its end is not already determined. Is tragedy inevitable? Can Israel right its course to achieve its once glowing promise as a refuge and as a nation?
Shulman’s memoir is not unique in raising these questions. Two recent books share his foreboding: “Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007,” a careful work of scholarship by Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, and “Toward an Open Tomb: The Crisis of Israeli Society,” a stinging essay by Michel Warschawski. Shulman and Zertal are college professors, Eldar is a journalist, Warschawski is a peace activist. All are Israeli Jews. Whatever the stylistic differences of their books, they are equally unforgiving of Israel for placing its future in stark jeopardy.
None of these authors, it should be emphasized, is an apologist for Arabs. They do not deny that two peoples of vastly different cultures are engaged in a conflict of nationalisms, in which both sides have killed intemperately. All agree it is a conflict with too many victims, in both cultures. But these writers, good Israelis, are convinced Israel cannot resolve it by military superiority, much less by physical abuse.
Israelis such as these do not often make the news from the Middle East. It is easier to conclude that the country is dominated by fanatic settlers supported by compliant officials and fierce warriors, a perception that is not altogether false. They argue, in contrast, that Israel owes to its survival and to Jewish moral traditions the creation of a society living not in implacable hostility but in harmony with its neighbors. That is the perspective from which they write. And though their camp in this fratricidal combat is the weaker, its members have not given up the fight.
Shulman is among the Jews of diverse organizations—it is fair to call them “human rights” organizations—who travel to the occupied territories to stand nonviolently as a barrier against the settlers’ avaricious takeover of land. Their work is difficult and sometimes dangerous. The settlers—women no less than men—shout: “You are aiding the enemies of the Jews. They want to kill us and you help them. You should be ashamed.” Sometimes they are attacked and bloodied. Occasionally, he and his fellow activists win small victories, slowing a land confiscation, for example, but the odds they face are huge. In his account of weeks of struggle to save the dwellings of Arabs who for generations have lived in caves near Hebron, he calls his adversaries “human evil.”
Shulman tells of the uprooting by the settlers of thousands of olive trees, icons of the local culture and the chief source of income of the inhabitants. He remembers when settlers washed a dog in a village well, a deliberate insult, then destroyed the well. He writes about Nibin Jamjun, a Palestinian girl who, while standing in the doorway of her house, was shot dead, for no apparent reason, by a settler walking by with a group of his friends. Most of his stories are confirmed by Israel’s vigilant press. In the case of the Palestinian girl, no effort was made to find the killer. The authorities refused to investigate or even to open a file. Israel’s army and police, Shulman notes, far from acting to protect the victims of settler violence, are the force that makes it possible, by acting as passive observers and sometimes even joining in.
Shulman writes that he often carries a sign to demonstrations that says, “So that we may end the oppression wrought by our own hands,” a phrase taken from the Yom Kippur prayer book. The settlers—their “curses soar like arias in a high soprano”—scream that he is a treacherous Israeli and self-hating Jew. Self-hating Jew has become a universal term; American Jewish leaders use it regularly to defame Jews who think like Shulman and dare to criticize Israeli practices. Shulman’s Jewishness is never in doubt. He made aliyah to Israel to express it. He knows Jewish guilt when he sees it.
The settlers, he writes, “have stolen and desecrated not only olives, not only land, but the dignity that once belonged to Jewish books, the love I had for the ... Jewish God of my childhood, the musical Hebrew of my early poems. ... My own grandfather, a Jewish humanist of the old school, would never have believed it possible. ... I know that I am seeing ...the prelude to the vast expulsion that these Jews are planning for these people, all three million of them. Let no one say he did not know; let no one talk of vast historical forces, of wrongs piled on wrongs ... let no one speak philosophy.”
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