“First there is the forest and inside the forest the clearing and inside the clearing the cabin and inside the cabin the mother and inside the mother the child and inside the child the mountain.” (p. 1, Prologue. Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson.)
I melted down in the bathroom of Continental Flight 85 from Tel Aviv to Newark. The upwelling of grief had threatened several times this trip but not yet spilled. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the willed capacity to transmute sensed and felt pain into some other energetic form has finally exceeded the body’s glandular production of tears.” Ah well. The problem, as I see it, is not to squash the senses but channel their expression in nonviolent forms. How does one expel emotion without perpetuating a residue of symbolic violence?
The last couple of conversations in Qabatiya with Palestinians who advocate reactive violence as the only possible response to Israeli violence weigh upon my heart. How does one refute the logic of a man who believes “it is no surprise Europe strove to expel its Jews,” when his daily experience &emdash; for every day of his entire life &emdash; is of inhumane, systematic, vicious oppression? If, as a child, you only see the uniform and a gun, witness murder, and suffer the loss of friends and family members. . . and eventually hear stories that the people wielding these weapons were subject to a forced expulsion from other lands &emdash; what counterlogic is necessary to interrupt such a seamless, causal argument? The perspective of long-term history that contextualizes humanity’s fierce competition for power and resources casts an invisible shadow in the glaring light of today’s stark dialectic between privilege and powerlessness.
Israelis moral ambivalence about the occupation of Palestine has its own long root of rationalization. I heard many excuses, including “if the US did it [with American Indians] why can’t we?” Copying someone else’s wrong does not make it right. Just as Palestinians have logics that demonize Jews, Jews have logics that dehumanize Palestinians: “They didn’t cultivate the land.” False.
I cling to what I learned from Sandy Tolan’s (The Lemon Tree) tracing of the thin thread of possible cooperation and cohabitation in a delicate balancing act between the horrors of the Holocaust and a meticulous description of the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes, lands, towns and properties. Both groups, in the present day, have not only allowed the past to become the present, they have embraced its discourse. “The unconscious, it seems, will not let go of its hoard. The past comes with us and occasionally kidnaps the present, so that the distinctions we depend upon for safety, for sanity, disappear” (Gut Symmetries, p. 105).
“When we killed what we were to become what we are, what did we do with the bodies? We did what most people do; buried them under the floorboards and got used to the smell. I’ve lived my life like a serial killer; finish with one part, strangle it and move on to the next. Life in neat little boxes is life in neat little coffins, the dead bodies of the past laid out side by side. I am discovering, now, in the late afternoon of the day, that the dead still speak. Past? Present? Future? The language of the dead. The totality of time” (Gut Symmetries, p. 49).
There are cultural differences. The immediate present holds vital currency in the Palestinian way. I hazard this prioritization of “the now” as the basic principle underlying the relaxed orientation to time and accompanying gracious hospitality that most appeals to constantly harried and hurrying westerners. Prioritizing the short-term is a Palestinian virtue that Israeli political ambitions have exploited in every international negotiation to date.
“Newton visualized time as an arrow flying toward its target. Einstein understood time as a river, moving forward, forceful, directed, but also bowed, curved, sometimes subterranean, not ending but pouring itself into a greater sea. A river cannot flow against its current, but it can flow in circles; its eddies and whirlpools regularly break up its strong press forward. The riverrun is maverick, there is a high chance of cross-current, a snag of time that returns us without warning to a place we thought we had sailed through long since” (Gut Symmetries, p. 104).
The Israeli media is harder than the U.S. media on Israeli policy (both official and de facto). Quarter page ads, long reports, and extensive editorials in November 23rd’s Haaretz call on Prime Minister Olmert to make peace at the upcoming Annapolis conference. Meanwhile, none of the Palestinians I spoke with had one good word to say about Annapolis: “it is all for the Israelis, there is nothing of us.”
“I have noticed that choices seem to be made in advance of what is chosen. The time gap in between the determining will and the determined event is a handy excuse to deny causality” (Gut Symmetries, p. 120). There is, of course, no way to guarantee that certain actions or decisions will produce the precisely desired effects, but we can learn to attend to the effects we set in motion. I watched Palestinians choose to tease and talk and be with each other so successfully that time ceased to be a burden, the structural limitations and restrictions fade into the background, and living is a pleasure. I also saw mood shifts as a memory or bit of news triggered a deluge of political criticism and idealized problem-solving. Even when banished by interpersonal connections, the occupation warps each and every link in the chain of human relations.
Israelis have much more luxury. The occupation is removed from daily living; its crimes committed elsewhere. One of the most devious policies currently in effect is the restriction on travel of Israeli citizens into the densely populated portions of Palestine &emdash; in particular where refugee camps are located, but also all major Palestinian cities. The occupied have no face, and little possibility of establishing interpersonal relationships with Israeli citizens. No friendships, no peace? Israelis cannot go to Egypt, either.
“In space-time there is always a lag between prediction and response . . . sometimes of seconds, sometimes of years, but we programme events far more than we like to think…I have seen my father pushing the world, he quite unaware of what was pushing him. He did not believe…as I did, that the mind is a self-regulating system, where consciousness and unconsciousness work as load-balancing pulleys” (Gut Symmetries, p. 120).
The mechanisms for a two-state solution have long been in place. It seems the growing discourse of a one-nation solution (as well as the reality of an ever-deepening intertwining of “facts on the ground”) may push Israel to actually follow through on the hard core commitments: ceding East Jerusalem, no more settlements, closure of outposts, in addition to millions of dollars of compensation for refugees. More is needed than positive spin in the Israeli media, but the Aix-en-Provence group’s “‘reverse engineering’ approach” seems to me like evidence of substantive behind-the-scenes progress: “The sides first agree on their destination, that is, on the blueprint of the final agreement, and then decide how to get there.”
A nonviolent strike by lawyers in Ramallah after the Six Day War demonstrated, as Sandy Tolan records, “Palestinians could rely on themselves to deliver their own justice” (p. 142, The Lemon Tree). Hope is not enough, compromise will feel unfair, but the courage to end the occupation and adapt the energies of resistance to building anew is the only way to alter the course of this wide river’s flow. “I know the action-reaction of violence is negative to us and to them,” Ahmed told me, “but the only way is to meet [Israeli] violence with violence until finally someone will make the Israeli government stop.”