A few years ago a group of us came to the Palestinian village of Jaloud. We came to support local farmers planting olive trees in one of their fields, which they couldn’t access due to attacks by Israeli settlers. Indeed, during the day, a pickup truck came in our direction from one of the settler outposts. An armed settler came out and demanded that the work stops. His manner was abusive but as there were dozens of us, we disregarded him. As he was waiting for the soldiers that he called in order to kick us out, he said threateningly to the Israeli participants: “Why are you meddling here? These farmers will pay the price for that”.
It all ended well and we had all reason to be satisfied with the accomplishment of the day. But we were very worried by the armed settler’s threat. We took him to be serious and we knew that the village was subject to raids and violent attacks by settlers previously.
What should we do? What could we do? Actually it was very clear to us what was called for. We should turn to the Jewish settlers in the area and find the ones who would share our concern and help us to prevent an attack. To many people, this idea could seem very naïve or very stupid: Settlers and Peace activists do not work together. “Fanatical right wing nationalists” and “extreme Left self hating Jews” as members of these two groups often tend to call each other, have nothing in common. Also, from a political perspective, turning to settlers for assistance would be recognizing the legitimacy of their presence in the Occupied Territories.
Other options – such as turning to the police or army – were not practical: We knew that they would not do anything. Our conviction that turning to settlers was the right thing to do was three-fold: 1) We could not tackle this issue alone, we needed help. An ally who belonged to the same community as the potential attackers would be the most helpful. 2) We had the obligation to do all that we could to prevent the farmers from being attacked. No matter what we thought of settlers living in the Occupied Territories and no matter what recognition our turning to them would grant them, preventing the attack was the top priority. 3) There is much more to “settlers” than the limited and stereotypical images that we “activists” may project on them.
These convictions, which were spontaneous and not a result of lengthy deliberation, were a direct fruit of our Dharma practice: Awareness that we are not self-reliant, an obligation to prevent harm and a turning away from the tendency to demonize.
We managed to get in touch with a Rabbi living in Shilo, the main settlement near Jaloud. He heard us on the phone and came to meet us in Jerusalem the next day. His response was not something to take for granted – he did not share our political viewpoint and many in his community would call us trouble makers and shut themselves off to anything we had to say. But for him, the potential of violence and the possibility to prevent it came before political views and contorted perceptions. The
encounter was very warm. In spite of the ideological divide, we discovered that we had shared values, shared concerns and that we could trust each other.
To make a long story short – practically speaking the endeavor was unsuccessful. The political gaps and straight forward animosity did not enable the Rabbi to find partners for this task in the settlement and we too were limited in our ability to engage Jaloud residents with the grievances he had towards the village. A few days after we understood that this endeavor will not bear fruit, a Jaloud teenager working on his family’s fields was shot in the stomach by settlers. He was hospitalized and recovered in a few weeks. The attackers were never caught.
We stayed in touch with the Rabbi. We visited him in the settlement once. A few times he sent us emails with his views on political issues and a few times we did the same. We can sum it up by saying that politically our meeting and correspondences with the Rabbi did not achieve much but that a mutual respect developed. Or, we can say that a mutual respect developed but politically not much was achieved. Which of these phrasings would be the right to use?
As mentioned above, the polarization between Israelis of opposing political views is great. There are several large hate groups against “leftists” on Facebook. On various occasions left wing activists have been physically attacked. Among left wingers you can find those who demonize against religious Jews and settlers. As activists who learn firsthand of the discriminatory policies of our government and the violence of both soldiers and settlers against Palestinians, we need to be careful of the negative mental and emotional patterns that we may develop towards those groups. Mindfulness of inner processes, as well as reflection on our experiences and cultivating the qualities of the heart, are essential for this task. The story above, as well as the ones that will follow, give a taste of how we contend with this specific aspect of our Dharma inspired activism.
A couple of years ago, our friends from the Palestinian village Deir Istiya told us that sewage from Revava, a near-by settlement has been spilling into their olive groves. We went to see the area and found the beautiful olive groves flooded by disgusting sewage. The scenario is a typical one: The settlers are totally indifferent to the damage they are causing and the automatic response in us is to be furious, and to fall into an “us” vs. “them” approach: No use in talking to them, we need to make them accountable1. Instead, we tried to approach it differently and give Revava the chance to take responsibility. Ask any experienced anti-occupation activist and they will tell you: “No use trying to do such a thing”.
One of us called the council of Revava and asked to speak to its director. After hearing the word ‘sewage’, the director immediately snapped: “Who the hell are you?” When he heard the answer “I
have friends in Deir Istiya”, he burst into a torrent of abuse and slammed the phone. How would you feel if this happened to you? Perhaps, “We gave them a chance but they are assholes and now we can go public with the story”. But a minute later our guy picked up the phone, dialed the same number and asked for the director again. Somehow, this time a conversation ensued. The director, still aggressive, refused to take any responsibility. Instead he demanded: “Why are you helping them? Do you know how much trouble I have?! Why are you not helping me?”. A ludicrous comparison: Revava enjoys the financial and military backing of a strong regime and its residents are well able to demand that their needs be met. Deir Istiya has no such backing and the little it does have, is under threat by that same – occupying – regime. Still, our guy responded “What kind of help would you want?” and the conversation ended with the director inviting our guy to pay a visit. It took them a few more phone calls to coordinate a time and in the process the director started to call our guy on his own initiative.
When our guy arrived at the Revava council offices, he saw that they are located right above the settlement’s sewage facility which broke down and was pouring its filth to the nearby olive groves. The meeting was a frustrating and depressing one. The director felt comfortable enough to express openly his arrogance and racism: “We” (Jews) are good, intelligent, blessed… “I know Palestinians much better than you do”. “A Jewish soul is not like that of a Gentile. I have special powers. I can recognize a Jewish soul”. A while later our guy said that be that as it may he would like to know how the director intends to fix the broken sewage facility. To this the director gave the astonishing answer: “I have so many assignments on my list. This is not in our priorities”.
We informed the director that we intend to issue a complaint against the settlement. We published a petition and hundreds of people sent complaints to the Ministry of environment. This ministry intervened and new infrastructure was put in place – the contamination has stopped (but no compensation to the farmers was given). So was it a waste of time to try and communicate with Revava? And what will happen the next time we run into a similar situation – will we then think “no use approaching ‘them’, we already tried that before”?
Well, recently we met the same situation. Sewage from another settlement has been flowing for several weeks into a Deir Istiya farmer’s olive groves. We walked through the beautiful olive terraces and again witnessed the magnificent trees immersed in filthy, smelly sewage. We reached the security fence surrounding the settlement. Right on its other side was the flood of sewage gushing out of the sewage pipe. And next to it stood a resident of the settlement who noticed us approaching and came to… why did he come?
It didn’t start off so well. As we were speaking to the man and asking him questions about the leak, one of us started filming. The settler got into a rage: “Stop filming at once”, he demanded. Our guy stopped the filming but the man did not calm down. “Come here”, he yelled, “give me your camera”. The settlement’s fence was separating him from us so he couldn’t do much, but he continued to
surprised when the man phoned us and declared: “We must make the authorities fix the sewage. I want you to phone X and I will phone Y and together we will make them do it”. The next morning he phoned again and informed us: “I made them fix it. I screamed at them and told them what I think of them. And they came and fixed it. I love you, you are my (Jewish) brothers and I don’t care about your politics”.
We were happy but also perplexed. For weeks this man –and others in the settlement – knew about the problem but did not fix it. What was it in meeting us that made him turn his powerful energies to get it finally fixed? Usually, Dharma stories focus on qualities of compassion, listening and kind speech, and give accounts of how expressions of these qualities transform both the conflict and the harmful mindsets of the people involved in it. So now we have a new kind of Dharma story: We stood up to this man’s aggression. We didn’t speak in a soft voice but instead raised our voice and expressed our dislike with his manner. That transformed his behavior. Confrontation can also be transformative.
These are three examples of our attempts to communicate and arrive to mutual understanding with people living in settlements in the Occupied Territories. There are plenty more such stories we could tell. Is there a moral to these stories? There are certainly some clear patterns:
1) Communication is possible. Sometimes it will reveal to us the racism and aggressiveness of our political foes. But even then patience, steadiness and friendliness can bring down some of the barriers of hostility between “us” and “them”. And at many other times the will to communicate will allow us to meet kind and wise people and allow them to meet us and see our kindness and wisdom. This is extremely valuable when the norm is for Israeli right-wingers and peace activists to be extremely hostile towards each other.
2) When communicating with people in a position of power and privilege one should not shy away from confrontation. True communication may not be possible without a will to challenge power and privilege that have been abused. As much as we would like these qualities to work wonders, listening, acceptance and compassion may not always be enough. Sometimes confrontation is also called for.
3) Our commitment to communicate and reach out has limited practical results in terms of stopping violence or achieving justice. Time and again we have reached this sort of dead end.
This gap gives rise to several dilemmas. Communication is very tempting. The pain of animosity is something many in the Dharma community and general Israeli society wish to be able to heal. But we
must not let our ability to offer a sense of healing to blind us to the fact that it is of a very partial nature. Yes, we must take responsibility for our demons and devote energy so that our projections and prejudices don’t close our hearts and minds. When meeting with people of different views we want to be open, friendly and free of aversion. But we should not feel content in this achievement: Our main responsibility is to change the reality of injustice and systematic violence that is the occupation.
Engaged Dharma Israel is a group of Israeli Dharma practitioners. As part of our Dharma practice we engage in Israeli-Palestinian solidarity and aim to raise awareness in the Dharma community to the reality of Palestinian life under occupation.
You can contact us at email@example.com
Our (Hebrew language) blog is www.engagedharma.wordpress.com