On being human
inspired by David Shulman

by <george.salzman@umb.edu> 2009-04-12
this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/s/2009-04-12.htm

    I’m interrupting myself, temporarily setting aside my rereading of the terrifying chapter in Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization [1] in which he writes about the unbelievable atrocities against Algerians carried out by Algerians ‘in the name of God’. It's a mammoth chapter (pp. 631-719) that horrified me some years ago when I first read it, because of the supposedly ‘principled’ killing of children. I love children. To me they are sacred, all of them, regardless of the ethnicities and nationalities that society forces on them. This note is different from my usual stuff — nothing about capitalism, socialism, competition, greed — just about love, real love. I’m reprinting an essay from a man I’d never heard of until a few days ago, David Shulman. When I read his essay, it recalled to me the almost final words of the great writer and human being, Bruno Traven, who, three weeks before his death forty years ago, in 1969, wrote:[2]
    This world, with all its troubles, shortcomings, disappointments, pains, problems, unwelcome events, occasional hailstorms is after all, still too beautiful to abandon even if you are sick, tired of life or close to a hopeless end. Stick it out. Keep on fighting, don’t give up. Spit Death in its face and turn the other way. The sun is still in the sky surrounded by stars.[3]
    It was the last two paragraphs of David Shulman’s account that recalled to me Traven’s affirmation of hope and defiance. It’s the children, our hope for the children, for their future, that makes it all worthwhile, that gives us hope and determination.

Natalia and her father, Juan José García Ortíz, in their home in Guelatao de Juárez, a small indigenous mountain town high in the Northern Sierras of Oaxaca, Mexico. Juan, a Zapotec Indian, is a video film maker. Natalia's occupation is "being a child", as it should be. Photo taken 23 November 2003 by G.S.

      Here’s the e-mail as I received it, but with the first line enlarged as a title:

Fw: David Shulman recent impressions from South Mt. Hebron
Date:Wednesday, April 1, 2009 9:16 PM
From: David Nir <d-nir@zahav.net.il>
To: David Bloom <david@bloom.org>, Bruce Taub <brt@brucetaub.net>, Anders Dejke <dejke@mac.se>, Rudolf Hinz <rudolf.hinz@t-online.de>, George Salzman <george.salzman@umb.edu>, Hannah Schwarzschild <hannahesq@gmail.com>

David Shulman adding a new page to his ‘Dark Hope’ activist dairy.
In my opinion a ‘must’ reading.
I feel that this time David excelled his own high standard of writing.
Ehud Krinis <krinis@bgu.ac.il>
Villages Group

March 28, 2009 Sha’ab al-Butun

      In the end you reach the fundamentals, which are simple. Why are we here on this hilltop, pounded by the end-of-winter wind, feeling cold, sorrowful, and despairing? I’d like to think it’s to do the decent human thing. No more than that, and hopefully no less. And to bear witness and record. And to tell the truth, let’s not forget the truth. But then truth may not be something that one “tells”, it is rather something that emerges naturally, coming to light, coming to life, when there is someone nearby to notice it. Noticing it and cherishing it for its own sake are deeper acts than simply standing here beside the Palestinian shepherds from Sha’ab al-Butun, whom we can’t really help very much, much as we’d like to. We’d like to ensure that they have at least a chance of grazing their scrawny goats on their own lands, which the settlers have stolen and fenced off; that’s ostensibly why we came. It seems a long way to come just to notice the truth. Was it really necessary? Yes. No other way. Of course, we’re not likely to succeed. Anyway, it’s a daily struggle, as one of the shepherds tells me in heavy, bitter words; tomorrow they’ll be at it again.

      Maybe after all it’s an early spring wind, and the winter is over; the hilltop and the valleys are sprinkled with green, also with delicate purple-and-yellow flowers, each one of them a miracle in this bleak setting. The soil is soft under our feet; it has rained this week. Mostly, of course, what grows here are the white-grey rocks and the hardy thistles that are constantly sticking to your shoes and socks. Hebrew has a name for slopes like this one, admat terashim; and Israeli law says that such lands normally revert to the State, even if they are privately owned, unless they’re under continuous cultivation. In the present case, the State has given them to the settlers who set up the “illegal outpost” of Havat Yair and who are now screaming obscenities at us under the icy sun.

      It’s not me who says the outpost is illegal. Just last week the Minister of Justice himself, Daniel Friedman—no friend of the left or the peace camp—said in a television interview that all the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are illegal. He’s certainly right about that. Within this general rubric of theft and criminal dispossession, you have those settlements that are termed “illegal” in everday Israeli discourse—that is, settlements set up, like Havat Yair, without an explicit government decision. In practice, of course, there’s no real distinction. Havat Yair, like all the rest, is hooked up to the Israeli electrical grid and to the water supply, and it, too, has a contingent of soldiers to guard it, with the necessary approach roads, the hideous watch tower, the barbed wire, and all the rest. And like all the rest, it’s continuously expanding, swallowing up more and more of the ancient grazing grounds of its Palestinian neighbors.

      So now, after playing our usual game of hide-and-seek with the soldiers and climbing up, down, up several awkward hills, we’re standing here surrounded by hysterical settlers with their guns and a baffled and indecisive set of soldiers and policemen. The shepherds are only a few meters away; every once in a while one of them turns a weather-beaten, wrinkled face to the settlers and cries out the simple truth: “These are our fields. You have taken our fields.” Sometimes one of the settler women shouts back: “God himself gave this land to the Jews. It belongs to us and only to us. Abraham got it from God. You are aliens here.” This profound historical vision is immediately echoed and freely elaborated by a chorus of settler children, including a young girl, maybe seven years old, the daughter of Mordechai Deutsch – the founder of Havat Yair. Deutsch, a smug, well-fed man, is also furiously haranguing us with obscenities not worth recording, the child following suit. Mostly we ignore the curses being hurled at us, but at one point Amiel breaks his own rule—to keep silent under provocation—and addresses Deutsch directly. “There is one thing,” he says, with the strange serenity that always comes over him in such situations, “there is one thing for which I cannot forgive you, and that is for having turned this young Jewish girl into a racist.”

      On second thought, the settlers’ screeching has produced at least two other memorable statements. One of the women, searching desperately for some new insult after having kept up a steady barrage for 10 or 15 minutes, comes up with the following: “You’re occupiers here!” By “you” she means us, the peace activists and probably the Palestinians and maybe even the soldiers who have, in her eyes, somehow assumed control over her territory; she’s keen on driving out these usurpers. I think it is a rather lovely twist. Then Deutsch himself, in the midst of his tirade: “Look at you, you’re like the “motley crowd” (‘erev rav) of Jews that came out of Egypt.” We’re less then two weeks away from Pesach, the Jewish festival of freedom, when we’re supposed to remember that we were slaves in Egypt and then that “motley crowd” that was so unready and unable to be free, as people always are. I always thought it was a privilege to be descended from those slaves, even if they never existed, and there was even a time when I thought that Jews didn’t go in for hurting other people because they reminded themselves, year after year, what it felt like to be a slave. I guess I was wrong about that, too.

      The sun is so bright I can hardly see the shimmering desert spread out at our feet, and the wind is still whipping at our eyes and ears; every few minutes a heavy cloud casts its purple shadow over the hills. It’s clear we won’t have much luck with the soldiers today. Their commanding officer produces the inevitable map with heavy lines drawn here or there; he tells us that, assuming the authority vested in him by the State, he is declaring this area a Closed Military Zone, and he gives us ten minutes to leave before they arrest us. Again Amiel rises to the moment. He is by now the world’s expert on Closed Military Zones. He tells the officer that the Supreme Court has thrown out the army’s attempt to declare Special Security Areas around illegal outposts, and that he, the officer, will be in contempt of court if he continues to insist that we leave, and that we will pursue this through our lawyers, and so on—an amazing, legalistic filibuster that leaves the officer speechless for some moments. Sometimes I think Amiel has missed his vocation; he’s a great Latinist, and a beloved teacher, but to me he’'s the stuff of heroes. He’s worked with every Palestinian activist between Jerusalem and Twaneh, planned one doomed demonstration after another, often with amazing ingenuity. The bumbling, good-natured, ineffectual policeman standing beside him here has arrested him dozens of times. Nothing stops Amiel.

      Still, it’s clear that we are going to have to move on. The settlers, clucking and growling from deep in their throats, have chased the Palestinian goats off the hilltop, despite our best efforts to stop this stampede back toward the dilapidated tents of Sha’ab al-Butun. Goats are not, I can tell you, the most intelligent of beings—once someone clucks at them, off they go, not lingering even a moment to mull things over rationally. Tomorrow the shepherds will come again with their flocks to the barbed-wire fence at the edge of the outpost, on the hilltop where they have grazed for centuries, and the settlers will come rushing out to beat them and humiliate them and drive them away. We haven’t changed anything on that score.

      So what are we doing here, I ask myself. Who or what are we anyway? Something between a mosquito and a gadfly. We turn up time after time, we sting the soldiers or the policemen or the settlers, we poke them or prick them or prod them, we bring the goats up to the wire, we stand beside the shepherds for an hour or two, then we move on to the next place, and the next, where we sting and prick and poke again, and at day’s end we go home. It’s not a very glorious role. I recall an Indian story about how a mosquito ultimately conquered a stubborn elephant. I remember nights in India when a single mosquito was enough to keep me awake until morning. But here, in occupied Palestine, we can’t aim so high. Let’s say we drive the soldiers a little nuts. So what? Let’s say someone has to stand up to the settlers, and no one will do it but us. OK, we do it. We use the press and we reach out to the international community and we buzz madly around from one hopeless emergency to another and sometimes, rarely, we achieve some local success. A well is saved, like at Um al-Kheir. The shepherds graze for a day or two without being attacked. The tents and shacks at Susya are still standing, despite the vast machinery of government and army that has been trying, for years, to destroy them and to drive their inhabitants into exile. Such things matter. But there are not many of us left on our feet, and the tortuous system that Israel has put in place in Palestine is fully intact, indeed more so than ever. We haven’t budged it an inch. I’m really tired of being a mosquito, and I have no idea what else we could try.

Probably anyway it's too late.

      Doubt lashes out at me like the wind, but when we arrive at Um al-Kheir there’s some relief: as soon as my friend ‘Id sees me, his face lights up with the most wonderful smile, the kind that sweeps away any calculus of action and intention and effect. I remember now—simpler things, who I am, why I’m here. In the cold afternoon, barefoot children scamper over the rocks. A small pen holds some ten or twelve new-born kids on spindly legs, bleating sweetly at our approach. There’s more heartache, however, because at Um al-Kheir, the most forlorn and miserable of any place I’ve seen on earth, the army recently demolished seven homes. You can’t call them “houses”—they were rickety confabulations of canvas, tin and nails—but they were most certainly “homes,” and now they’re jagged heaps of metal and cloth and a few broken beams, still piled up here in the middle of the site. Nowhere is the cruelty of the occupation more apparent than in Um al-Kheir. Fifty meters away, no more, stand the dozens of polished new villas built by the Jewish settlers of Carmel who have taken over the hill and the Palestinians’ land, purchased 60 years ago with good money from the original owners in the town of Yata. These people at Um al-Kheir are Bedouins, refugees from Tel Arad in the Negev at the time of the 1948 war. I love them. Um al-Kheir is my kind of place.

      We sit in one of the cold tents, the flaps rippling under the fierce wind. In one corner a handsome woman, Um Yasir, is churning butter in a goat-skin vessel swinging over a wood fire. It’s hard work, and she’s been at it for hours. For some thousands of years, the Bedouins have been making butter like this. They flay the slaughtered goat, taking care to make no rip or tear in the skin, which has to be water-tight. They hang it from one of the tent-beams, pour in the milk, and then the woman pushes it back and forth over the fire and the liquid starts slowly to solidify, you can hear the swish and rustle of the chunks of cream inside. Once in a while she puts her mouth to the skin and blows air inside. They offer us a taste, poured with much strain and difficulty from the goat-skin into a small glass: sour, fresh, an earth-tang, the subtle, tart flavor of the real. Like doing what you can and not asking too many questions. Like trying to find the decent thing, no more and certainly no less. Like noticing the honest truth when you see it. An old man sitting in the tent, wrapped in his robes, seeks out my eyes. I know him from earlier visits, I have seen him in agony—some of the wrecked homes were his and his family’s—but today he is strangely content. He is glad we have come, he welcomes us again and again with the old formulas of the host, he presses more butter-milk on us, he points to the sky and says in his deep-throated Bedouin Arabic: “God has given us this good life. The earth is good, the trees are good, the animals are good, and some of the people are also good.”

[1] Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilization: The conquest of the Middle East, Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, London, 2005.

[2] B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends, Karl S. Guthke, Lawrence Hill Books, English translation, 1991.

[3] ibid. p. 404.

George Salzman is a former American Jew living in Oaxaca, Mexico, an Emeritus Prof of Physics, Univ of Massachusetts-Boston.

All comments and criticisms are welcome.    <george.salzman@umb.edu>

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