Diary of an unrepentant idealist

David Shulman’s latest work is poetic and filled with empathy – but it is also imbued with a toxic blindness to modern antisemitism.

A PALESTINIAN shepherd herds a flock of sheep near his home in the village of Ghwien, south of Hebron. (photo credit: NAYEF HASHLAMOUN/REUTERS)
A PALESTINIAN shepherd herds a flock of sheep near his home in the village of Ghwien, south of Hebron.
Most of us soon enough close our hearts to strangers, trusting only those closest to us. Not David Shulman. This enchanting 65-year-old secular holy man is filled with an enviable life spirit that has found ongoing spiritual nourishment for the past two decades working as a peace activist for Ta’ayush, helping Palestinians in the West Bank. He preaches nonviolence in the manner of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
His compelling new book Freedom and Despair: Notes from the South Hebron Hills is a follow-up to 2007’s Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, which ruminates on similar themes.
Shulman seems in so many ways an odd duck. He is an esteemed scholar and poet and a linguist fluent in Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil, and countless other languages. Born in Iowa, the son of a doctor, he remembers how his loving Jewish parents taught him that there “was an intimate link between Judaism and universal human rights.” They preached empathy for the underdog. They took Shulman to Israel in 1962 for his bar mitzva and he fell in love with the country and with Hebrew. He would return alone just a few years later in 1967 and make Israel his home. He was soon firmly entrenched at the Hebrew University, where he focused his studies on all aspects of southern India.
Shulman spends most weekends in the South Hebron Hills where Palestinian shepherds and farmers attempt to survive by tending their flocks and planting low-grade wheat and barley. He and his companions, Israelis and Palestinians both, attempt to help the local population cope with the tragedies inflicted upon them. Their houses are often destroyed by the Israeli army, their sheep poisoned by settlers and their water wells sabotaged. Shulman does not deny the complexity of the issues surrounding the confrontations, or the wrongdoings perpetuated by both sides, but focuses his energy on working toward peace. He is an unrepentant idealist.
But he is a realist as well.
Shulman tries not to focus too much on the hatred he sometimes feels. He feels joy in achieving small victories; even while knowing they will most likely soon be reversed. He admits his work can sometimes seem like an endless cycle of meaninglessness and futility circling each other in an effortless dance, but he has come to realize that it is precisely this dance that liberates him from despair. He describes a euphoria while partaking in small acts of resistance that is supreme.
Some of the most gorgeous poetic passages in the book have to do with his inner journey; the minute-by-minute experiences of an older man feeling things he didn’t believe he was capable of ever feeling. The joy of helping someone he doesn’t know. The feeling he gets on certain special days that he has possibly changed one mind and heart by saying something provocative and challenging. The humility of walking with his comrades in the brutal heat as police and settlers beckon and being able to see past their threatening faces to the magnificence of the landscape that surrounds them. The thoughts that wander through his mind as he waits in a police van peeking through the slits at sheep who are blessedly unaware of the human madness surrounding them.
HIS EMPATHY seems boundless. He feels for the soldiers that are often forced to participate in acts of cruelty that he knows will scar them. He was a soldier, too. He worked as a combat medic in the First Lebanon War. His three sons served in the army as well, as will his four grandchildren. Sometimes he catches a glimmer in a soldier’s eye that seems to be speaking to him and he tries his best to help. He knows the pressure that soldier is under; the group-think mentality that dominates army service. He even tries to understand what motivates the settlers to do what they do; although it is clear he is most bothered by the cold-heartedness some of them show. He notices the ones that don’t seem so fierce in their righteousness; the ones that seem to be wavering.
He remembers the stories on which he was weaned – Jewish stories of “pogroms: it’s something Jews know about. I grew up on those stories – Cossack raids on the shtetl, the torture and killing and wanton destruction. My grandmother had a brother. They lived in Mikhalayev, in the Ukraine. One day the Cossacks came, and everyone panicked...”
His grandmother’s brother died that day and a part of his grandmother did, too. It was a wound deep inside of her that never really healed. He finds it unbelievable that some of his fellow Jews would today be reenacting this primal trauma upon their Palestinian neighbors, this time as perpetrators.
“What is a decent human being supposed to do in the face of devastating threats to human dignity and basic human rights?” he asks. “Are we to turn our backs on our Palestinian friends in the South Hebron Hills and stand idly by while the state demolishes their homes, arrests them and expels them from their lands?”
He watches the Palestinians closely, noticing how their weathered faces reflect the torment of their experiences. He notices the scars left by the “agonies of impotence” inflicted upon them, particularly the men. Sometimes he walks behind the other younger protesters with his old friend Menachem Brinker, a philosopher and literary historian, and they talk about how wonderful it would be if some charismatic figure would appear amidst the Palestinians leading them in non-violent resistance to the oppression they are enduring. But so far no one has.
Some days there are moments of transcendence, like when he finds himself sitting by a bonfire in the desert with his fellow activists and someone starts to play a flute leaving the air “light with Bach and Mozart and Hebrew and Arabic folksongs.” Or a feeling he gets in his lungs from the power of just saying no to one authority figure or another.
Or simply remembering the day when Benny Gefen came to join their protest, telling the soldiers gathered what he had done for the Israeli state. Gefen was 80 already, and had served in the Palmah during the 1948 war, after which he served 29 years doing reservist duty as a paratrooper. His son was killed on the Lebanese border; he was part of the Golani reconnaissance unit. Gefen told them they were behaving inappropriately, and he watched many of the soldiers heads drop in shame. Although Shulman never speaks about God directly, we feel his presence in Shulman’s desire to save Jewish souls. He doesn’t write with the closedmindedness or the harangue of the zealot, but there is an intensity about his rhetoric that touches that ground.
It’s easy to fall for Shulman; he is a decent and tender man. But also a forgetful one. He seems to have almost willed himself to a certain toxic blindness when it comes to recent Jewish history, the Holocaust or antisemitism – which he never mentions once by name. It is a grotesque lapse in an otherwise moving chronicle. His perceptive meditations on the endless states of elevated consciousness man can and should aspire to start to fall on deaf ears when one allows oneself to remember what Shulman has chosen to forget.
That Jews must always remain vigilant. They mustn’t lose ground. The same forces that have come for us are still coming; they just have new masks.
Which is why I finished Shulman’s book convinced he was an extremely seductive and dangerous man. Dangerously good. Dangerously forgetful. A voice the Jews must never again fall prey to.
By David Shulman
The University
of Chicago Press
206 pages; $18