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The False Promise of Protest
David Shulman’s diaries of resisting the Israeli occupation show the limits of activism in the face of rampant dispossession and despair.
Shortly after her release from an Israeli jail, Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year-old Palestinian teenager who had been held in detention for close to eight months for slapping an Israeli soldier in her village in the occupied West Bank, disputed public portrayals of her victimization.
“I’m not the victim of the occupation,” she said. “The Jew or the settler child who carries a rifle at the age of 15, they are the victims of the occupation. … His heart is filled with hatred and scorn against the Palestinians. He is the victim, not me.”
I often encounter such moral certitude among Palestinians, both in the occupied Palestinian territories and in the diaspora. Conviction in the righteousness of their struggle is a powerful antidote to ever present and often crippling feelings of despair. No matter how painful our struggle, many Palestinians will declare, history is on our side. The long arc of justice will bend toward us eventually. We have won the moral argument.
This logic is bolstered by a common belief among Palestinians that, deep down, Israeli Jews must also acknowledge these assertions. When they go to sleep in their once Arab homes, they must know they are the perpetrators of injustice, violence, and theft.
To many of my Palestinian interlocutors, this deeply held conviction explains why Israel believes it must arm itself to the teeth: to safeguard a reality that could prove to be ephemeral. The machismo of Israeli Jews, invoked in Tamimi’s image of an armed 15-year-old child, is merely a sign of fearfulness and insecurity. For many Palestinians, Israeli bravado registers as an unconscious acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
I thought of these sentiments as I read David Shulman’s reflections in Freedom and Despair: Notes From the South Hebron Hills. Shulman, an American who immigrated to Israel in the 1980s, is an accomplished academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the world’s leading scholars in Tamil and Sanskrit, who has written numerous books on Indian history. He is also a peace activist and an outspoken critic on Israel’s political left.
Shulman is thus well suited to engage with such expansive and nebulous concepts as freedom and despair, evil and good, and, perhaps most importantly, hope, a concept deeply informed by his years of activism in the organization Taayush (Arabic for “coexistence”). Established in 2000, Taayush describes itself as “a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership.”
In 2007, Shulman wrote a small book, Dark Hope, about his and Taayush’s activism. The book offers a deeply frustrating glimpse into the seemingly futile effort to slow Israel’s colonization of Palestinian land and the dispossession of its inhabitants. By recounting the battles to confront the occupation from the perspective of activists standing in solidarity with Palestinians, Shulman grapples with what he views as the self-destructive, and troubling, ideology of Israel’s settler movement. Dark Hope leaves readers wondering how a modicum of hope, harvested from small victories such as protecting Palestinian shepherds from settler violence, could be sustained, dwarfed as it is by the larger apparatus of Israel’s occupation.
A similar discomfort permeates Shulman’s new book. In Freedom and Despair, Shulman takes us on another journey, through a collection of entries written in the first person. In the face of a “nagging sense of futility and despair,” Shulman recounts how he and his fellow activists travel weekly to the South Hebron Hills. With full knowledge of their likely failure, they stand alongside Palestinians who are facing the wrath and hatred of Jewish settlers working assiduously to dispossess them of their lands.
In their mere presence, the activists sometimes successfully deter settlers from beating up Palestinian shepherds. Or they accompany Palestinian villagers to gather water from their wells, which the Israeli government has appropriated for the sole use of nearby Jewish settlements. Or they work to dismantle a roadblock, whose only purpose is to hinder the freedom of movement of Palestinians.
Small triumphs are fleeting. A roadblock dismantled is a roadblock that will be reconstructed the following day. The only sure thing in those hills is that victories will be swept away by the unrelenting machinery of Israeli colonization.
Shulman is a master storyteller. He tells how, in the West Bank villages of Gawawis and Khalail al-Khair, he and other activists accompany a father and his son to their fields that had suddenly been declared a closed military zone. At risk of arrest, the activists complain to army officers that Israel’s Supreme Court has forbidden the imposition of such zoning on Palestinian shepherds if it means keeping them off their lands. A nonsensical and bewildering exchange ensues, with rising stakes, until the tense standoff dissipates when the Palestinian father and son back off, too fearful of risking arrest.
In another anecdote, Shulman intervenes on behalf of a child, Ahmad, who had somehow managed to so egregiously offend an armed Israeli officer in a conversation over Ramadan fasting that he faced the possibility of being detained. (Palestinian children are frequently held for months on end in a labyrinth of Israeli jails, away from their families and from due process.) Shulman’s exchange with the officer is infuriating to him and the mother’s wails for mercy heart-wrenching. The officer’s determination is broken only after the father offers obsequious apologies and the child demonstrates his pacification in the face of such immovable authority.
Unchecked settler violence among the Palestinians has only been gathering pace in recent years, and Shulman’s horrific stories foreshadow others to come. As America’s ambassador to Israel firmly aligns the U.S. government with the settler movement, and the Trump administration removes references to “occupation” from its State Department records, the reality that Shulman and his fellow activists are battling appears to be getting more entrenched than ever before.
Insanity, so the saying goes, lies in doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting different results. Yet Shulman—like hundreds of other Jewish, Arab, and international activists—persists. Why?
Freedom and Despair tries to offer some answers. Interspersed throughout Shulman’s diary entries are meditations and philosophical essays that begin to chip away at this question. His reflections are a thought-provoking and touching ode to activism and action—even when such activism is not, or cannot be, ultimately victorious. And herein lies the crux of the matter.
For Shulman, victory might be relative and, possibly even, irrelevant. Freedom and Despair celebrates activism in the face of crushing odds—“the strange beauty of fighting a hopeless battle.” For Shulman, the act of resistance in itself, regardless of whether or not it yields tangible consequences, is a victory. In today’s world, dominated as it is by disturbing dogmas, activism holds the line. It sounds the alarm. There is an inherent comfort in this call to arms.
Is this celebration of Sisyphean resistance—all too common on the left—sufficient, or is it, more likely, a form of defeatism? Is it merely a fetishization of activism as an act of goodness despite its failure to bring change?
Good despair, Shulman argues, is the kind that drives people toward action even when change is unlikely. Shulman is well aware that what he offers as anecdotal evidence to explain the cause of his despair is in fact the product of a whole bureaucracy that has been institutionalized to implement what he calls “wicked” acts. He grapples with the different layers of Israel’s enterprise, all saturated to various degrees and in various ways with wickedness.
Bureaucratic actions, even though given a modicum of propriety in offices and state buildings, are far worse than the actual acts of violence that take place in the hills. “There are those who are capable of killing a man or a woman or a child, and there are those who take delight in killing a person’s right to exist as an autonomous being,” Shulman argues.
In his view, a broader willful passivity lulls Israelis into inaction. It is in the act of doing the right thing that the essence of life itself can be found. In that moment, when one breaks from the herd and follows one’s own trajectory, knowing it is the right trajectory—that is where the true elixir of freedom lies. Shulman sees the glimpse of full emancipation— “this strange, unexpected, utterly intoxicating feeling of being free, truly and deeply and shockingly free”—affirmed in the knowledge and certitude that one has sidestepped the morally dubious and stood for the values of truth and justice.
“It’s not about the result,” Shulman stresses. “It’s not even about that intoxicating sense of freedom. It’s not ‘about’ anything except the intrinsic goodness that sometimes infuses good despair, which transmutes itself into something that cannot be denied.” While laudable, this sentiment might strike many Palestinians as a tad privileged. For them, resistance and activism are not about transcendence but survival.
Palestinians are instinctively familiar with the moral universe that Shulman chronicles in his diaries. The Palestinian struggle rests on the bedrock of sumoud, of steadfastness, of the drudgery of remaining rooted in opposition to all attempts at physical removal and political elision. Even though Shulman focuses on the aspect of the occupation that is manifest in the South Hebron Hills, his reflections resonate with the experiences of Palestinians struggling to survive under different facets of Israel’s hegemony, from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, from East Jerusalem to Umm al-Fahm.
Very few Palestinians in any of these areas, or in the diaspora, could verifiably claim that their struggle is gaining them the justice they, their parents, or their grandparents deserve. Yet in what is perhaps one of the darkest moments in their centurylong struggle for self-determination, Palestinians in Gaza still march for their rights under the threat of gunfire from Israeli snipers; schoolchildren in the West Bank put up desks next to their demolished schools to study; Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon dream of return. The alternative to Palestinian sumoud is oblivion. Their persistence is neither a choice nor a pursuit of fleeting emancipation. Their struggle is existential.
The same is not true for Israeli Jews. Arguably, Shulman has the option of living an oblivious life, as many of his countrymen and women do—one that involves looking the other way and not seeing the occupation. For him, that option, even if present, does not constitute a choice. “I know I can never be free in any meaningful way if they [the Palestinians] are not free.”
When one is out in the fields of the Hebron Hills, Shulman writes, one “can see in broad daylight who the thief is and who the innocent victim.” Whereas in other areas, such as Gaza or East Jerusalem, the mechanics of the occupation might be more obscure, in the settlements of the West Bank, one can witness truth distilled to its purest form. In those mountainous arid lands, the occupation is reduced to its most basic component: land theft.
Faced directly with systems that are inherently wicked, the option of looking away should be a nonstarter, Shulman writes. Refusal to be complicit is “an affirmation that life is worth living.” Yet the vast majority of Israeli Jews have chosen to do precisely that. Tel Aviv is a universe away from the crimes being carried out in the name of Israelis throughout the occupied territories. Shulman’s efforts to appeal to the morality of his interlocutors, those individuals who are actively enforcing the occupation, are almost naive. (“What do you think you’re doing? Why did you arrest him? Why are you being so childish? Some hero you are, lording it over children. This is how you choose to show off your power?”) The vast majority of Palestinians are too cynical to appeal to any morality in the hearts of their oppressors.
Yet Shulman persists. Might the army officer or the judge or the civil administrator or anyone operating in the vast ecosystem of oppression that surrounds this simple act of land theft be compelled to choose the right path? Almost none do. They all choose to enforce the laws of the state—the same state that recently passed a nation-state bill institutionalizing Jewish supremacy over democratic values.
Perhaps those enforcers of wickedness will one day be paraded in front of the International Court of Justice, Shulman fantasizes. Many Palestinians dream of a similar future. If and when that day comes, it is likely that thousands of Israeli Jews—the same ones who recently extended another mandate to Benjamin Netanyahu to form the most right-wing government in Israel’s history—will shake their heads and begin to rewrite their personal histories, falsely claiming that they, too, stood in opposition to the wickedness being perpetrated on their behalf.
Until then, Israeli Jews are more likely to remain willfully passive. This is to say nothing of diaspora Jews, many of whom celebrate the Israeli state while ignoring its dark underbelly. Oblivious or not, those individuals are all accomplices, propping up wickedness to sustain their own privilege. “Willfulness of this sort, even if it is unconscious, lies at the heart of complicity with what is wicked,” writes Shulman, “and may be the single most powerful factor in giving wickedness room to do its worst.”
How then, can individuals fail to see the truth that Shulman has painted so vividly?
Fear is one possible answer. Israel, it seems, lives in a perpetual state of existential worry. The feeling is so palpable that it has permeated all levels of daily consciousness and spawned an ugly system of military rule that legitimizes the inflicting of pain and suffering on millions of people.
Another is the comfort of the status quo. Israel has no real, compelling reason to change course. The economy is thriving. The Tel Aviv corridor is the wonder child of a highly touted start-up economy, where United Airlines has daily direct flights to San Francisco’s Silicon Valley.
Yet another possible reason is the manner in which this wickedness has corroded Israeli society itself, to the extent that Palestinians are no longer seen by many Israeli Jews as equal human beings. Almost reflexively, Palestinians are seen as inferior, members of a foreign race, hateful and vengeful creatures. They are snakes to be quashed. Or they perform their suffering to get the world’s attention. Or they celebrate death because they possess a culture of hate.
The harsh truth that Shulman fails to acknowledge or engage with when thinking about this willful passivity is that, ultimately, for Israel and many of its backers, Palestinian lives are simply not worth saving.
Shulman speaks of “good despair” spurring action. That is correct on the philosophical level. But when Shulman and his fellow activists leave the South Hebron Hills, they return to their homes in comfort and safety. They are respected as human beings, as citizens, as a people.
Palestinians have no such privilege, and good despair often festers into bad despair, into absolute hopelessness, into misery and depression, into violence. Indeed, a crippling pessimism—one might say a nihilism—pervades the occupied territories and the camps of exiled refugees today, where Palestinian lives only register when they end. The so-called martyrdom that is often celebrated is not a sign that Palestinians have a culture of hate or that they have little regard for the lives of their children. It is, rather, a bleak reminder that the value of Palestinian lives has been so desperately eroded that, for many, it can only be actualized through death.
In light of the slow withering of Palestinian existence, Shulman’s assertion that there is no grander purpose to acts of nonviolent resistance beyond the momentary feeling of intrinsic goodness is inadequate. Activism might be rewarding on an altruistic or moral plane. It might be a victorious affirmation of sound politics. But the stakes are too high for Palestinians today, who have entered the second century of fighting against forces that remain obsessed with ensuring their erasure. For them, steadfastness is survival. Activism for the sake of activism is nowhere near sufficient.
The crucial activism of Taayush and other organizations that remain rooted in the principles of a shared humanity must be tethered to a tangible hope and must be focused on achieving real change. Solidarity has to be about something. It has to be strategic and focused on shifting the battle on the ground, conclusively. The final outcome of a century of resistance cannot be momentary transcendence. Such fleeting moments of emancipation crumble under the collective weight of three generations living under the boot of external control.
It is worth reminding the activists who celebrate their small and temporary victories—such as protecting Palestinian water supplies from contamination by settlers—that wicked acts still occur after they return to the comfort of their homes. Once poisoned, a well will never quench thirst.
After putting down Shulman’s book, one line kept floating through my head, with an unexpected message of hope. “[T]he universe resonates to the sound of a refusal to do wrong,” Shulman writes. That sound of refusal needs a great deal of amplification. Like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the apartheid regime in South Africa, a moment will come when ordinary citizens recognize their complicity in oppressing an entire people.
As Palestinians remain steadfast, and wage their own hopeful resistance, those individuals—whether on the streets in Tel Aviv or Los Angeles—also hold power to change the current dynamic by refusing to be drafted into a system of wickedness. Their solidarity is essential to halt Palestinian despair from tipping into its dark side.