Two of my young Israeli friends, key activists in Solidarity, the folks who for nearly two years have demonstrated every Friday afternoon at Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem where Israeli Jews have been buying up Palestinian property and claiming that the neighborhood is legally Jewish, were assaulted September 30. My friends, graduate students, were assaulted by Jewish settlers in a village near Jerusalem, a 20-minute drive from the center of the city, an hour’s walk from the Old City, in Anatot, once the home of Jeremiah the prophet.
Assaf Sharon’s nose was broken, and his body bruised; Sara Beninga’s tongue was bloodied.
Here, in brief, is what happened, as far as I understand: An Israeli Arab, Yassin al-Rifa’i, owns some land in Anatot and decided to plant trees there. Knowing he might be intercepted by some of Anatot’s 800 residents, he asked the folks of Ta’ayush, a determinedly nonviolent association of Jewish and Palestinians Israelis, to escort him. They all arrived at noontime that Friday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah (which is, in fact, celebrated for two days even in Israel), and were set upon by settlers who denounced them as traitors and whores, then physically assaulted them, eventually driving them away. That evening, the folks from Solidarity, having learned of what had happened, came to Anatot, some 50 of them now confronting about 200 enraged settlers.
Through both episodes, the police were passive bystanders, perhaps because reports that many of the settlers are themselves policemen are accurate.
The bodily wounds and bruises will heal. I am less confident of the rest — heart, soul, mind. Sara, who is studying art history, writes that until now, “fascism” was an abstraction, a word to be used with a wink, an agreeable and acceptable exaggeration. But now, not wanting to believe what in fact happened, she is shocked and hurt by the fact “that I can’t express the feeling of abandonment I experienced, and the awe that untangled me on the brink of an abyss threatening to swallow me up.” She fears that her belief in law and justice may be naive, an illusion. Fascism is no longer an abstraction.
And Assaf? His words haunt me. “Physically, I’m not too bad — broken nose, black eye and some colorful bruises back and front. Spiritually — well, that’s a different story. As someone who is not new to settler violence, I can tell you this was something else. The fact that this is what we have become and the ignorant indifference with which our stories are met break my heart. Have we lost the fight?”
Have we lost the fight? I do not know; no one does. No one can. The one thing I know for an absolute certainty is that if Assaf, and Sara, too, decides that the fight is lost, then it is lost. If they and their friends become convinced that it is futile to resist the hooligans, the vandals, then the fight is over.
So I reply to Assaf’s letter, fully aware that I sit in my version of comfort here in Boston, thousands of miles from what has become the battleground for the soul of the Jewish people, likely for its body, too, and I tell him that a sober analysis does not support sunny days ahead; that he knows, as do I, that the ship of the Israeli state and, for that matter, of its people lists rightward; that he knows, as do I, that things that were unthinkable 20 years ago and unspeakable 10 years ago are now part of daily discourse, are now proposed as legislation by Knesset members; that survey after survey shows a coarsening of attitudes regarding Palestinians, whether Israelis or not. But there’s an ethical imperative to take into urgent account: We are forbidden from changing the odds for justice and decency. Even if those odds be 99 to 1 in favor of chaos and cruelty, we cannot drop out lest the odds shift, become more menacing still.
There are days I am weary of the battle, when I wonder what it is that keeps me here, writing, thinking, speaking out, and such thoughts come and go in a flash because I know the answer. It is Assaf and Sara and their colleague Hillel ben Sasson and Dafni Leef, she whose bold action launched the summer of the tents and the protests in Israel; and David Shulman of Ta’ayush, the specialist in Sanskrit poetry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who shows up and puts his body on the line to make it clear that fascism, no matter how ascendant, has not won; and Hagit Ofran, Peace Now’s expert on Jewish settlement in the West Bank, who was herself recently threatened by the huns, and so many (though not enough) others.
There is no other choice, whether or not our noses are broken along the way.
Contact Leonard Fein at firstname.lastname@example.org