In The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, the short story by Ursula Le Guin about an imaginary paradise, when its happy residents come of age, they are let in on a horrific secret: The idyllic life they’re leading depends on one innocent child being imprisoned forever in a basement room. Some of the Omelans can’t take it, and they walk away.
Wherever I went in Israel last month – speaking to Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem, visiting my relatives near the Lebanese border, staying with my friends outside of Tel Aviv – I could not get the image of Omelas out of my mind. For underneath the outdoor pools, well-appointed museums, universities, and popular cafés lurks the terrible suffering, not of one child, but of 1.8 million people trapped in “the world’s largest open-air prison,” Gaza. Many of them children; for in that densely crowded entity, the average age today is 17. And some Israelis do walk away – if not out of the country, out of the mindset of fear and hatred that at present prevails there.
The question is, is that enough? Is it enough that they are one in spirit with the incredibly courageous Palestinians who have been resisting the West Bank version of this occupation, for example in the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani, which has been the scene of a good deal of relatively successful nonviolent protest, mostly thanks to a man I greatly liked and admired, Hafez Jawal, sometimes called the “Gandhi of the South Hebron Hills.” Is it enough, given that my Israeli friends could not accompany me even into Bethlehem, where I gave workshops to very appreciative Palestinian and international supporters, much less into the villages of South Hebron?
The Jewish refugees who came flooding back to their ancient homeland after the Holocaust were traumatized, perhaps more deeply than we can readily imagine. This is a very bad state in which to remain. He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me; in those who harbor such thoughts, hatred will never cease. These words of the Buddha sound a serious warning: “If hatred will never cease, peace will never begin.” To cite an uncomfortable parallel (this will offend many Israelis, but I’m going to say it anyway), I once had the chance to study German popular magazines from the run-up to World War II, and was startled to see that the dominant tone in all of them was, “We are victims.” Never mind of whom.
Whether it’s based on reality or paranoia, or both, to be frozen in a posture of victimhood is to invite disaster. It means that anyone who attacks you is immediately demonized as the Ultimate Enemy – and sadly many Palestinians (not to mention five wars) have stepped into that role. No one has ever dealt with the trauma of those early refugees; there has been no healing. On the contrary, the right-wing majority that defines Israel’s present policy have deliberately perpetuated it as, to quote one statesman, “the defining event of the Jewish state.” (Whether there’s anything particularly Jewish, in any meaningful sense, about the modern state of Israel is another question).
Operating from this self-definition, Israel has reduced the Palestinians, and in particular the Gazans, to a state that would be recognized by sociologist Ted Gurr, who in Why Men Rebel showed that even the most placid populations will fight back when the alternative is extinction, or a humiliation that murders hope. This is the very state that was eloquently described by one Gazan recently, Um Al Ramlawi: “They are killing us all anyway – either a slow death by the siege, or a fast one by military attacks. We have nothing left to lose – we must fight for our rights, or die trying.” Murder is murder. As Gandhi said, “It little matters to me whether you shoot a man outright or starve him to death by inches,” exactly what the murderous, senseless blockade of Gaza accomplishes.
In this situation of clashing desperations, real and imagined, reason will have little purchase. Where, then, is the hope? Let’s start with those who walk away. On this trip I learned that there are more of them than I had thought: one-off experiments like the Palestinian-Israeli soccer club depicted in the film Promises; dialogue and reconciliation groups; and long-standing schools with students from both communities like the famous “Oasis of Peace” Neve Shalom/ Wahat al-Sala’am. And now, of course, social media gets into the act. #JewsandArabsrefusetobeenemies, with 7,000 friends and over 10,000 tweets so far this month.
But what we need to do now is close the gap between these personal reconciliations and real policy. “Maybe that will change the policy eventually?” says the curator of the hashtag just mentioned; but that “maybe” and that “eventually” are not good enough. In Promises, you may remember how the Palestinian boy weeps when, summer over, he realizes that his new Jewish friends will go back to join the IDF while he and his friends go back to their hopeless village – or refugee camp. One-on-one friending and reconciliation work is the sine qua non, to be sure, the psychological foundation on which a healthy society could be erected. But now we have to erect it.
It should not be impossible. The well-being of Israel doesn’t really depend on the suffering of Palestinians; quite the contrary. And a phrase I heard on both sides was, ‘the tail is wagging the dog’; in other words, there are extremists on both sides – there will probably always be extremists everywhere – but aside from the 500,000 Jewish settlers on Palestinian land, they are not a majority. They just act like one. It is alleged, for example, that the killing of the three Jewish teenagers that triggered the present violence was done by a rogue element, the Qawasameh clan of Hebron, known to act counter to the policies of Hamas and deliberately disrupt their ceasefires and other arrangements. (Of course, one could even argue that the Israeli tail is wagging the United States dog, but that again is another question.) Israel is still a democracy and the people still have some agency. I say this knowing that in their present state of panic, 95 percent of the Israeli public recently voted that the attack on Gaza is “just.” They reached that state through systematic propaganda, and, unlike the extremists, their minds could change. How, then, can we create a climate in which the destructive fury of these elements on either side does not resonate with the larger public and unduly amplify their influence?
We might take a clue from the climate that prevailed in Montgomery, Alabama, at the successful conclusion of the famous bus boycott, in 1956. To disrupt the progress won at such cost, some Klan members set off a bomb; but instead of panicking, people just ignored it and the try fell flat. That’s the power of nonviolence. And there are ways that the nonviolence that’s been a bright spot on both sides of the struggle could be amplified. It could be reported on (what a concept) and otherwise supported. More and more Israelis could be made to understand that, while it frustrates some of their projects for taking over land and demolishing homes and farms, it is not something that ultimately threatens them. (Think of the way they deported Mubarak Awad, an architect of nonviolent resistance in June, 1988, but Sheik Yassin, a founder of Hamas, was left free to operate until they finally assassinated him (and nine others) in Gaza in 2004.)
We should never ask that the Israelis, or Palestinians for that matter, renounce security. Nor do we need to. We might instead be able to help them rethink what they mean by security. “They define security as only military. We (Palestinians) define security as human security – not just personal, but territorial, economic, geographic, historical, identity, existential; there are all sorts of different aspects to human security.” And the critical aspect to human security is what’s called common security, where one sees that her or his real security comes when the other is equally secure, not a threat held in check. How long can the Israelis rely on intercepting missiles and blowing up fighters the minute they emerge from their tunnels? To have any meaning, “security” can only mean a state where there are no rockets or tunnels – and thoughtful people can surely understand this, especially as the failure of military “security” becomes more evident.
As the ferocity of the present conflict makes clear, we are running out of time to find a permanent solution. The hatreds on both sides are like molten lava (in the words of my friends at Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem), which has already spilled over into the West Bank, where about nine Palestinians have been killed so far, and is ready to explode into even wider violence in that region’s turmoil.
Prior to the slaughter of innocents (and some combatants) now going on in Gaza, two things had changed for the worse in the last few years. Israeli police and military more or less dropped the pretense of staying within the four corners of their own (already biased) law, sometimes operating with brazen disregard of that law; and in uncivil society, a kind of “brown shirt” element acting like racist thugs has emerged, three of them having murdered Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir and helped precipitate the present outbreak.
In a very real sense, no one can stand apart from this violence. Let me give the last word to Meir Margalit, a founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.
“We are demonstrating not only for Gaza, but to try and save the human condition.”