Saturday, May 28, 2011

Aggressively Non-Violent: Ras al-Amud

My friend David Shulman, who has appeared often as a guest blogger here, filed the following report from our non-violent demonstration in Ras al-Amud on Friday afternoon. I particularly admire how he captured our feelings at the moment we sat down; no need for me to add anything about it. David is also the author of this lovely essay on Gandhi and Palestine in the current Harper's (still behind a pay wall, alas). And this post on Judge Goldstone for The New York Review.

Ras al-Amud, May 27, 2011

We gather at 4:00 outside the settlers’ multi-story stone building opposite the old police station at Ras al-Amud, on the Mount of Olives. This was the week of Netanyahu’s speech before Congress; if, utterly unlikely as this may be, there is anyone in the world who failed to notice that he was lying, then Wednesday’s official ceremony unveiling the new settlement here in East Jerusalem should be enough to remove the veil.

It is hot, dusty, dry, and from the start I’m thirsty, and it keeps getting worse. I’m also a little high on the mood of the crowd: I sense a savvy toughness, a clarity of purpose, and I feel the rage. The lines are lucidly drawn. Some 20 to 30 settler children, boys and girls, and a few adults line the rooftop overlooking the street and the activists milling just below them; sometimes the children spit at us, or spray us with water (not unwelcome in the fierce heat), and sometimes they sing or chant, as if to mimic the rhymed slogans we’re shouting to the beat of the drums. They hang a sign down from the roof: “refuah shlemah, Speedy Recovery,” the implication being that we are mad, perhaps suffering from some kind of mass psychosis. Perhaps
they’re right.

Not only Jews are here to demonstrate today; there are many Palestinians, far more than in most of the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations, and they’re up front in the thick of it, facing the police. There’s a large underground parking area beneath the massive stone apartments; we’ve taken our stand on the path leading up to it, so settler cars entering or leaving are having rather a hard time. At one point one of them, surrounded by activists, suddenly accelerates, plowing through the crowd; people leap to the side; miraculously, no one is hurt. The police bark and push and shove at us, trying vainly to clear a way. It all takes time, a long time, as the tension slowly mounts, reaching toward a climax, though there are also moments of anomie and perplexity, and the weariness of boredom, thirst, and heat.

A Palestinian boy, maybe 12 years old, takes the megaphone and boldly leads the chanting for a few minutes, half in Arabic, half in Hebrew, the languages running together on his tongue: la l’ihtilal, ken le-meri ezrahi, “No to Occupation, Yes to Civil Disobedience.” I like the sound of it, coming from him. Civil disobedience is
what is called for in the extreme conditions of Israel-Palestine 2011—and with it relentless provocation, a constant seeking of the point of friction, giving no inch. The police seem bewildered, out of their depth: what are they supposed to do with these 200 demonstrators? I can see the two commanders hesitating, uncertain; they’re not much of an enemy, this time round; for once they don’t seem eager to arrest us. Maybe—just a guess, or wishful thinking- the senior one, who carries himself with a certain dignity, doesn’t really like defending these fanatical settlers.

Still, we prod them, taunt them, we call them a “settlers’ police” (all too true), we tell them they have the right and, indeed, the duty to refuse illegal orders, we spill over the line they are trying to hold, and finally we do what many have done before us, in Gandhi’s India, in Alabama and Mississipi, in the Vietnam years, in Tibet—we sit down on the approach road, blocking access to the building and its parking lot, and wait, arms looped together, for the police to pry us loose and drag us away.
It takes some time. The usual happiness washes over me.

THERE IS REALLY nothing quite so sweet as doing the right thing. I am, at last, or again, one with myself—apart from the tormenting thirst and the occasional drizzle of spit from above. We’re packed together in an ungainly mass. Profound equality, communitas, like a physical force, binds us together in the face of what is about to come. But I’m not thinking about the future now. This moment is enough.

Of course the ranks ahead of me are rapidly thinning out, for the police have begun their attack; they grab whatever part of the body presents itself first, head, feet, arms, buttocks, they struggle to separate us one from another—it isn’t easy—and they drag us, one by one, sometimes punching us for good measure, yelling curses, to the side of the road which, of course, must be kept open for the settlers at all costs. I can’t see the larger scene very well from my small piece of paradise on the ground, but I hear the shouts and cries and the steady roar of the drums, and I can see the soldiers’ black boots getting closer and closer, the first couple of rows gone by now, only two or three meters left, they will be on me in a moment, I really ought to be
afraid but nothing seems capable of shattering my eery peace.

Perhaps, I think, I’ll be able later to write about that peacefulness and explore it further; I know I’m not the only one to feel it. Eileen will say later, when it’s over: “That moment all of you sat down was beautiful and powerful.” She’s right about that. Maybe that’s why, as she says, I love it so. Let’s say a hundred of us were sitting there, defiant, ready to be pummeled or dragged away or arrested. Clearly we didn’t have to explain it to anyone, least of all to ourselves, because the rightness of it was perfectly evident, and, after all, we’ve done such things before, many times, and by now we’ve learned what had to be learned—above all the lesson of action, saying “no” not in words but with our bodies, again and again, as long as it’s necessary to do so until some day we win. But even that thought is not right and not needed, these days we’re not thinking much about winning.

I smile at Tehila, just behind me, remembering our arrest in south Hebron just a month or so ago—her first time. But the smile is because I have just realized that we are doing this precisely because we can’t know where it will lead or what effects it will have, and I have just remembered the verse from the Bhagavad Gita which says that human beings are given the right to act but should never consider the fruits of action—it is enough that it is good, godly, and intrinsically humane.

There’s quite a lot of tugging and tearing and poking and grabbing and punching, and to my surprise I am swept, as if by a whirlpool, away from the center and toward the curb, since by now the soldiers and police have cleared just enough space for one of the settler cars to struggle through, and they’ve apparently tired of
the struggle against these interlaced arms and legs and heavy bodies. I guess I was lucky. Someone just a yard or two away was not: they shot him with a Taser, and he fell, clutching his right chest, his eyes racing wildly in their sockets, his body twitching a little, hardly conscious. I rush over, but before I can begin to dredge up my medic’s instincts, Daniel is there, cradling his head in his arms; Daniel is a doctor,with the doctor’s assurance.

We call an ambulance, but within a few minutes our friend comes to, sits up slowly, even more slowly tries to stand. Tasers are dangerous; they hit you with an electric shock that can kill. My son Misha warned me some months ago that we’d be likely to encounter them one of these days, and today it happened, my first time. Our wounded activist, uncowed, rejoins the others still sitting on the road.

THERE ARE ARRESTS, of course—six, to the best of my knowledge; but when they try to arrest one of the Palestinians, the activists swirl around and manage, with much difficulty, to extricate him from the clutches of the police. One minor victory. Meanwhile, while I was busy, many things have happened. Uli, my former student, comes week after week to hold up a black flag with a pirate’s skull and bones; some have found this banner enigmatic, though Uli says its message is self-evident, a perfect emblem of the settlers’ ways. Today one of the settlers manages to snatch it and tear it off the pole, which now, I have to admit, looks a little forlorn. Maybe it’s become a Buddhist flagpole, supporting the deep emptiness of all that is.

Then Uli’s cellphone rings, and on the line is a former girlfriend of his, whom he describes as a nihilist or anarchist, utterly apolitical; and by a strange twist such as turns up regularly in Israel, this woman happens to be the sister of one of the settlers inside the building, and the sister’s children are with the former girlfriend and are supposed to be taken “home”, if a stolen piece of Palestinian land counts as home. What to do? Uli doesn’t want the children to be traumatized: “Wait an hour,” he suggests.

And then—when? Some two hours or more have gone by-- it’s over. The police drive off with their captives. Eileen sees Palestinian children grasping stones and broken shards of ceramic in their fists. This is a new danger, worse than anything that has happened so far. She goes over to try to calm them, and others join her, and it works--or maybe the boys decide rightly by themselves. No tear gas or rubber bullets today. On the main road just beside us, while we’re still embroiled in the melĂ©e, drums beating, people screaming, a Palestinian car, brightly decorated with white ribbons, with bride and groom inside, painfully threads its way past this battle zone, somehow avoiding the jeeps of the Border Guards that block the way. Will they make
it in time to the wedding?

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position, how it takes place
When someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully

The Auden poem happens to be about us, Eileen and me: we spent this morning in Tel Aviv shopping for Misha’s wedding. Should I be feeling guilty for this great joy, this pleasure, when I could have been in south Hebron or Silwan or Nabi Saleh, when I could have bound up the wounds of the suffering and tried, at least, to free the slaves?

No, I should not. But you know—it’s utterly impossible to make sense of these sharp transitions. It’s crazy. One moment we’re having our espresso in Tel Aviv, and the next we’re here with the police and the settlers and the dust and the drums and the pain and the unanswerable questions and the hopelessness and the dread. Whatever god invented the world we inhabit didn’t think things through. I wish Him a speedy recovery.


Y. Ben-David said...

Shulman refers to the Jewish houses on Ras al-Amud as being on "stolen Arab land", which of course, they are not, but I wonder if Shulman himself lives on stolen Arab land in west Jerusalem, as does Dr Avishai. I am sure that at least some of the other Jewish protestor there live on stolen Arab land (1948, of course). The Hebrew University campus on Givat Ram is on stolen Arab land (Sheikh Badr), and the progressive Tel Aviv University is on stolen Arab land (Sheikh Munis). They are progressives, after all. Instead of wasting time at Sheikh Jarrah and Ras al-Amud protesting, which will have no effect on the people living there, go Givat Ram and Ramat Aviv and tell those people to leave. Since they are "progressives" and much more willing to listen to idealistic people liks Shulman, they no doubt will be easy to convince to leave and return their stolen property back to the Arabs who originally owned it.

Lee Diamond said...

I think the question Mr. Is it necessary to continue taking the Palestinian land? Yesterday, today, tomorrow, the day after. Israel exists. Lets try to resolve the conflict instead of prolonging it. Let them have their state.

To friends like David, I urge you not to feel guilty. That won't accomplish anything. We need a wider circle of involvement. We need Tahrir Square in Israel.

Y. Ben-David said...

Lee Diamond-
You have to understand that Dr Avishai and Shulman and the others are saying "let's show the Arabs that we will help them push the Jews out of Shiekh Jarrah, and they will allow us to keep the stolen land we have taken".
IS THAT JUSTICE? Do the Arabs think there is a difference between an injustice (as they see it) done in 1948 and one done in 1967 or one today? Are Dr. Avishai and Shulman moral people because they have 100 dollars of stolen Arab money (as the Arabs see it) and then they say "the Arabs have the moral right to get 20 dollars back, but not more than that, and I will go and try to grab that 20 dollars from some other Jew's pocket , but not my own since I need the money"?

john james said...

Here again Y. Ben-David makes his argument by focusing on the wrong subject; in my last comment, I suggested this sort of arguing was parasitical, because it attempts to suck the life out of its subject by getting too close to it. That may have been too poetical - what I meant was, intentional or even careless misdirection is dishonest. And here we have a new misdirection: instead of focusing on the principle question, which is 'should Israel be forcing more and more settlements onto land that they know perfectly well is intended to be part of the new Palestinian state?' he attacks Shulman on the point of 'who-is-stealing-who's-historical-deeds?' A perfectly legitimate point, just not the point of the protesters in Ras al-Amud - what they are asking is: 'this is supposed to be Palestinian territory, so what the $#@*& are the Israelis doing moving in here?'
And the answer to that question is pretty shameful: Israel wants to grab as much territory for itself as it can before a final deal is made. And Israel clearly wants to grab ALL of Jerusalem before a final deal is made. Netanyahu himself made this strikingly (and somewhat shockingly, at least to me) clear in his recent, well-discussed speech to us Yankee sycophants.
And as an important aside, as an American I'm disgusted by the regular use of violence by whatever Israeli Police Force happens to be on call. (Not that we don't occasionally see the same thing here, but thankfully it's pretty rare). And now, just a few days after Netanyahu's self-loving description of Israeli freedom, we see yet another example of his police behaving like a bunch of Third Reich groupies (yes, obviously an exaggeration, but I shouldn't even be able to draw the parallel. Of all nations on earth, the state of Israel is the one (for the incredibly obvious reason) we naturally expect to be most careful about quelling its fascist impulses).

john james said...

And to Y. Ben-David - two points. First, I apologize for not being more clear in my complaint in my previous comment: by 'bullying' I didn't mean that I objected to the form of your argument, but rather that I objected to its tone - specifically to the way you were referring to Prof. Avishai as 'Bernie', which was mere mockery/taunting - and a form of bullying. Also your writing had a deeply sarcastic air to it, which struck me as deeply disrespectful - another form of bullying. (And as you are now referring to him as 'Dr. Avishai', I'm assuming that you figured my meaning out, and politely conceded the point. For this I thank you - not vainly, but as a human being. Clearly we all come off better, and closer to the people we'd like to be, when we show a little courtesy. What's interesting is that the same can apparently be said about our arguments.)
HOWEVER... I have since noticed that Prof. Avishai has been guilty of the same crime: specifically, he often refers to Prime Minister Netanyahu as 'Bibi' (a rather childish nickname... though one notes that the possession of childish nicknames seems to be a peculiar weakness of conservatives (suggesting a greater weakness for sentiment)). In any case, this indulgence is also mockery, no more attractive than yours - and equally as bullying. And what's more, it seems possible, if not likely, that you were calling him 'Bernie' in response to his inappropriate use of the name 'Bibi'. While I doubt that any one act of belligerence justifies another, it does at least provide an explanation, and for missing this possibilty (as well as my general obtuseness) I also apologize (while referring to the common principle I've lately (and vainly, I suppose) been calling 'Newton's Third Law of Fascism':
For every act of fascism there is an equal and opposite act of fascism. And not just equal - often there is escalation.
Well, the vanity was supposed to be humorous, but sadly this law explains a lot about the present Israeli-Palestinian predicament - and come to think of it, about most of our other predicaments as well.)

Y. Ben-David said...

John James-
You should note that Dr Avishai refers to settlers and Haredim as "Judeans" in order to emphasize they are not Israelis like himself. Of course it is his blog, he can ban me if he chooses and he can say anything he wants, but this type dismissal of one's opponents does tend to inflame the discourse.

Y. Ben-David said...

John James-
I found this quote of your quite puzzling:
Of all nations on earth, the state of Israel is the one (for the incredibly obvious reason) we naturally expect to be most careful about quelling its fascist impulses).

I would think you would make that statement about Germany, not us in Israel. Why is that since we were victims of mass violence, we are supposed to act BETTER than everyone else? What is the connection? I'll give you an example...South Africa today is plagued by massive amounts of violent crime, almost all of it carried out by blacks. It is usually explained away by saying that the blacks were victims of apartheid for many generations. Why don't people say about them like you said about us Israelis..that since they were victims of an unjust system and its associated violence, they should be expected to be extra NON-VIOLENT, but I don't hear anyone say that. Only us Jews are held to a higher standard than everyone else. I wonder if there is a term for people who hold Jews to standards they don't hold for themselves or anyone else....?

Michael said...

It borders on the obscene to invoke Ghandi it what amounts to, at the most, a property dispute.

Is your position that Jews can't own land and live in dwellings in a future state of "Palestine"?

The perfidy of making the so-called "settlements" a major issue is obvious to anyone with at least half a brain.

Tell your buddy Abbas to sit down with Netanyahu, agree on some borders, and when this is done he MUST welcome any Jews living in Palestine to become citizens of his new state with full rights.

To any fair-minded "liberal" person this has to be a MINIMUM requirement that must be expected of a new Palestinian democracy. The "growth" of "settlements" between now and the advent of a serious agreement would prove to be negligible in the big picture.

All you're doing in fomenting these "protests" is to embolden the Palestinians with further intransigence.

Spend you energy pushing moderate Palestinians to sit down and, from your perspective at least, call Netanhyahu's bluff.

The vast majority of us middle of the roaders see folks like you as clowns, at best, promoting hatred.

Anonymous said...

Michael, in case you haven't realized - Bibi, not Abbas, is the one that is now refusing to come to the table, hiding behind the excuse that a part of their future govt. (Hamas) does not recognize the state of Israel (although if one were to ask many of the MK's of Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Beitenu and the like, most would not entertain the idea that Palestine has the right to exist either - The spiritual leader of Shas(Ovadia Yosef), once even called for Palestinian's extermination)

And to a certain extent, your comment asserting that "The 'growth' of 'settlements' between now and the advent of a serious agreement would prove to be negligible in the big picture." is a vacuum. If only we hadn't seen what Bibi's strategy is again and again. It consists of finding any reason to stall negotiations (whether it is the excuse that the Palestinians are divided, or in the case of the current reconciliation, that he does not like a certain faction of the now united Palestinians), and during these stalls, he attempts to slowly create facts on the ground that will allow Israel to offer less and less at a point where he does decided to actually enter negotiations. It's disingenuous, and Abbas knows it.

While I won't argue that in the past the Palestinians have shot themselves in the foot (Re: Arafat), a dangerous new horizon has begun where Israel is fast becoming the impediment to true and lasting peace.

Potter said...

Nice writing from David Shulman. I wish to read his essay on Palestinian non-violence in Harper's and will wait until it is available online.

Ben-David whines:

"Why don't people say about them [ black victims] like you said about us Israelis..that since they were victims of an unjust system and its associated violence, they should be expected to be extra NON-VIOLENT, but I don't hear anyone say that. Only us Jews are held to a higher standard than everyone else."

By the same token, aren't right wing leaders in Israel, and their constituencies demanding Palestinians somehow be non-violent in the face of all sorts of violence and injustice?

I believe what Mr. James meant was the same as many say: that having suffered injustices for prolonged periods in history, it is reasonable to expect that Jews would not want to perpetuate that human behavior by becoming oppressors because they know oppression. This assumes some evolution. Israel insists on playing by the old rules- might makes right. This old system is fine while you are strong. You become become the oppressed again when the injustices you have perpetuated come back at you... eventually.

Y. Ben-David said...

Might makes right with a little bit of morality thrown in is the way the world operates. That's what we Jews learned from the Holocaust. Not that "we are supposed to be better than everybody else".

For Anonymous's information-
Rav Ovadia Yosef supported the Oslo Agreements.

Anonymous said...

Y. Ben David, your comment about Ovadia Yosef supporting the Oslo Agreement speaks VOLUMES about how you view the conflict.

You refuse to look at the current situation and seem to mentally be in many timezones, none of which are current.

I comment that Ovadia Yosef has called for the execution of Palestinians; you reply that around 15 years ago he ostensibly supported a two-state solution.

Others call for Israel to live up to their own expectations (forget about what other countries want - Do we want our country ruling over a majority Arab population in the West Bank who lack basic civil rights? I don't) And you wax predictable Holocaust fear-mongering rhetoric.

Listen, the holocaust sucked - It decimated all my great grandparents and almost all of my grandparents siblings. But stop using past injustices to perpetuate present injustices. It's insulting.

Y. Ben-David said...

What we are going today is a logical consequence of what we learned 70 years ago...its not "injustice", its called SURVIVAL. I know today it is popular to be considered a "victim". It odd how the Arabs, with their great warrior tradition now revel in the "victim" status and try to convince everyone that is what they are. But we have had enough of being victims.

Potter said...

Ben David's response to my criticism of whining about what is expected of Jews: "Might makes right with a little bit of morality thrown in is the way the world operates. That's what we Jews learned from the Holocaust. Not that "we are supposed to be better than everybody else".

"A little bit of morality..."?? This is a self- serving statement. Just enough morality to suit, the rest is then justified revenge and greed... which you can expect justified in return. Fortunately "Jews" are not monolithic (ridiculous arguing "we Jews") when it comes to the philosophy gained lessons learned.

Y. Ben-David said...

We Jews are a nation with our own nation-state on a specific territory, just like Americans, British, Syrian, Egyptians, Sudanese. We have no obligation to be better than any of the others, only to be true to our own value system. In other words, if American can overlook massive violations in human rights in an ally like Pakistan, they can't come to us with double-standards.

Potter said...

What "specific" territory? Isn't this the issue??

"We have no obligation to be better than any of the others, only to be true to our own value system."

There does not seem to be agreement amongst Jews about those values and obligations.

Pointing elsewhere to justify violations is a last resort. Americans are not overlooking massive human rights elsewhere,but rather in connection to our special relationship with Israel and continued support, difficult to square with our own values and practical needs in the Middle East.

Potter said...

The continuing belief I hear from some Israeli's that the only thing they- Arabs- understand is force is a huge mistake. I mean relying on that. It has bought some time- but that hides the humiliation hate and anger that goes subterranean to be expressed in the future. Buying this time has bought the desire and attainment of advanced weapons. In addition, with the settlements, harder and harder to remove, harder and harder to believe that they can be removed, as they grow. Israel has backed itself into a corner not only demographically but in these ways. Netanyahu speaks out of some illusion of control as though he can call the shots.

With these Arab revolutions close-by surrounding Israel, countries, as they become more democratic, will be expressing more formally sympathy to the injustices that Palestinians endure ( spread by all kinds of media).

Potter said...

(sorry- I need an editor).

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