Book Review:

Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine
by David Shulman
University of Chicago, 2007

by Bill Griffin, Catholic Worker

David Shulman is a professor in the department of comparative religion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a member of Ta’ayush or the Arab Jewish Partnership. The Arabic word literally means “living together.” Founded in October, 2000, Ta’ayush activists have repeatedly and tirelessly engaged in small, concrete acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against the occupation of the West Bank by the Israeli military and encroaching Israeli civilians. The latter are creating settlements illegally, but are tolerated by the Israeli government. Numbering only several hundreds of students, academics, lawyers, writers and retirees, Ta’ayush volunteers have concentrated on the protection of Palestinian civil rights under the law and on the immediate relief of their physical suffering during emergencies. Their actions have included the delivery of massive supplies of food and blankets, voluntary manual labor to help with the harvesting of olives and grapes, and the provision of expert legal services.

Ta’ayush was started in response to and in solidarity with the broadly-based Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation, collectively known by the Arabic term, intifada, which means “shaking off.” If some striking manifestations of the uprising have been horrifically violent, the Intifada is not predominantly of a violent nature according to David Shulman, who provides much evidence for that position which we do not often hear of in this country. He is viscerally and existentially aware of the terrible weight of terrorism and has suffered his own intense, personal losses but, he writes, this “cannot concern me here; my concern in these pages is with the darkness on my side.”

Furthermore, he asserts that “we should also bear in mind the vast disparity in power between the two sides. Israel has the power to change reality, to make peace. Were she genuinely to want to do this, and were her American backer and banker to want it, Israel could, I am certain, create the conditions for a breakthrough. Anyone who knows the Palestinian reality, in all its complexity, on the ground knows the powerful forces that are ready and eager to move toward peace.”

This book is presented in diary form. David Shulman’s entries run from January 2002 to September 2006. Five nonviolent campaigns which took place in different parts of Israel/Palestine make up the subject matter. Each section is introduced by an essay which clearly lays out the relevant political and historic context. Each diary entry is self-contained but linked to the others. Organizational and logistical details which are part of every civil disobedience action are mixed with vivid descriptions of marches and strategy meetings. Confrontations with the Israeli military and irate Israeli settlers, who consider the Jewish members of Ta’ayush traitors, are graphically pictured. The great harmonious beauties of the landscapes and skies of Israel/Palestine are contrasted with the tragic disharmony which reigns among the human beings who are the prisoners of clashing social roles. David Shulman is a poet. He also gives us numerous thumbnail sketches of salt-of-the-earth Palestinian, Israeli and international peace activists, such as Christian Peacemaker Teams members. These portraits are also meditations on what it means to believe in a philosophy of nonviolence.

Something more needs to be said about David Shulman’s background because his personal history makes this book much more than reportage. He was born in Iowa. His Jewish grandparents had immigrated there after the First World War from the Ukraine. He, himself, chose to emigrate to Israel in 1967 when he was eighteen years old. At the Hebrew University he studied Arabic and Islam but gravitated eventually to Indian studies and became deeply influenced by the writings of Mohandas Gandhi. He served as a medic in the Israeli army during its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and saw that war as, “at best an arrogant folly, at worst a crime.” David Shulman describes his own political evolution as “slow, cumulative and uneven.”

His choice of what is important to emphasize reveals a great deal about his beliefs in nonviolence. He is not drawn to any great heroics but rather to the small human gesture of kindness and to the sharply felt moments when a keen sense of community between Palestinians and Israelis is fleetingly achieved. In contrast, he can also write with great anger at the injustices which he sees are being inflicted collectively on the Palestinian people in order to drive them from their ancestral lands. Such injustices have nothing to do with real security concerns, as David Shulman illustrates.

One of the more surreal campaigns of nonviolent resistance organized by Ta’ayush occurred in the remote South Hebron Hills. There, the organization undertook the defense of the homes of several thousand Palestinian peasants who inhabited a network of caves. They had lived there for hundreds of years tending their flocks of sheep. However, a newly-founded, very small, nearby settlement of Israelis invoked security fears and persuaded the Israeli army to seal up the caves of the Palestinians. Ta’ayush volunteers came for days at a time to manually excavate the caves laboriously by hand. In his poignant fashion, David Shulman asks, “How can a soldier bury a home? Did it mean nothing to him to run a bulldozer up to the entrance, to gouge out chunks of earth and rock and pour them over it, sealing it for years…? How could he bury a family’s entire memory under the ground?”

Another of the intense questions haunting Israeli society today has to do with the refusal by some of its soldiers to perform their military service in the West Bank. David Shulman goes into this burning issue in his chapter entitled, “Saying No.” There, he describes a raucous conference held at the Hebrew University in which the “refuseniks,” as they are known, were given a platform from which to explain their position. Shulman quotes from the speech given by the philosopher David Enoch, who is a “refusenik” himself. Here is part of what that thinker said:

It would be easy to go on, analyzing argument after argument, but what we must bear in mind is something else. Think about the occupation and what it means—the continuous repression, the large-scale seizure of land, the humiliation, killings, dispossessions, the impoverishment of millions. Think about arrogance and domination, about arbitrary injustice, about the planned route of the Separation Wall. Think about the abysmal disregard for human rights, the cynical contempt for other human beings. Think about the lies we have been told and continue to tell ourselves—as if all this were really related to the war on terror (terror, in itself, is an abomination). Were the war on terror truly the goal, the means would certainly be very different.

David Shulman struggles often with feelings of despair in the pages of his diary. The dire crisis in Israel/Palestine seems insoluble. He personally believes in a two-state solution but has no grand scheme to propose in order to achieve this goal. His emphasis is always on the personal sufferings he sees all around him. He writes that he always wants to be aware of them because he has “dogged convictions about what it means to remain human.” And, mysteriously, he is given, again and again, the hope and energy to return to the fray.

Here is a final example of his inspiring writing. These reflections came to him after the civil disobedience action at the Palestinian village of Bil’in when Ta’ayush activists joined with the group led by Abdallah Abu Rahmeh, the “Palestinian Gandhi.” Their aim was to block construction of the Separation Wall. Many were arrested and Shulman is returning to the village center in search of his comrades:

I am walking with Asaf who I remember from Silwan and other actions. We greet each of the villagers we meet, and they answer graciously with the melodious blessings of the host. As we reach the main street a group of men sitting on a balcony high above us call down to us. ‘We thank you. We honor you for coming here.’ It is the happiest moment of the day, this simple obviously genuine statement of welcome, bonding, thanks. It was all worth it—there is no doubt. For them and for us. We faced it together. And suddenly I am aware of a feeling that has been slowly building up in me throughout the day but that only now becomes fully explicit—a breathtaking experience of freedom, perhaps more complete and more satisfying than at any other point in my life. Later I will wonder what such freedom consists of and why I felt it this way. Clearly it has little to do with armies, policemen, jails. It is not, however, disconnected from external things, despite what people (especially those of a romantic temper) sometimes say. Above all, this sense of being free must be linked to a mode of being with—Ta’ayush—of acting, of caring, or caring enough, of overcoming fear, not looking away. It is not so easy not to look away…


This story originally appeared in the March-April edition of the Catholic Worker, an organ of the Catholic Worker Movement, 36 East First St. New York, NY 10003


Ta’ayush—Arab-Jewish Partnership

See also:

by Matt Vogel, Catholic Worker
World War 4 Report, December 2004

From our Daily Report:

West Bank: Israeli forces again attack anti-wall protest
WW4 Report, June 8, 2008

Israeli army seizes non-violent activist —in front of UN and Amnesty officials
WW4 Report, Dec. 9, 2006

Settler tree-theft from Palestinian cave-dwellers
WW4 Report, Feb. 23, 2006

Israel represses non-violent protest in occupied West Bank
WW4 Report, Sept. 9, 2005


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, July 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution