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 through his teeth, then Wednesday’s official ceremony unveiling the new settlement here in East Jerusalem should be enough to remove the veil. He used the word “peace” many times, in most cases meaning “war.”
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. Would Jews demonstrate against other Jews, even if the latter are outand-out thieves?
But 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 and almost at peace with the world—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. I need nothing more.
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. I’m a little worried about Eileen, who is standing somewhere near the edge of the street; I can’t see her, I hope she’s not within range of the blows the border police are showering with evident abandon, as if finally freed from irksome constraint.
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 melée, 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 along…
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.