From a war-zone — with Thoreau in mind

Thoreau endured the moral-political chaos of the 1850s and 60s with passion and aplomb.  He rested by the still waters of Walden, and hosted an abolitionist meeting at his cabin, met John Brown, and contributed to the the purchase of arms for a raid on Harpers Ferry.  If not simultaneously, he knew both moral outrage and the deepest serenity in proximity to one another.  So I hold him up as someone who endured neighboring and distant moral-political violence with passion and aplomb.

Here are some aspects, impressionistically delivered, of the difficult reality I confront — not in Gaza, and not near it, and not on the West Bank, but near Tel Aviv, where I teach Thoreau (among other things) and am clearly an American.

For nearly all Israelis ‘on the street,’ apart from those who have friends or relatives in the invading army units, there is little sense of immediate danger.  There is communal mourning at Israeli deaths, on a scale one has never seen in America (thousands or even tens of thousands of citizens mourn a single soldier’s death).  But Israelis, Palestinians or Jews not in  or near Gaza, and not in the West Bank or near it,, don’t feel physically threatened. People hear the sirens and disregard the official protocols (dive for cover, enter a shelter).

Tami still visits her Palestinian-Israeli butcher, with whom she’s had amiable relations for a dozen years. He’s in an Arab village down the road (not in the West Bank).  He tells her, as she inquires after his feelings about the mess, that all the sensible Arabs he knows want a cease-fire and think that Hamas is suicidal and making trouble for everyone. We have hummus later in the day at an Arab-owned cafe, and pick up an orchid at a Palestinian-owned nursery. The headlines of (real) horrors blot out the reality of peaceful relations, sustained over decades and through these days of trouble. The moral evil is evil. The moral good is good. The challenge is to live with eyes open to both. I write from Hod HaSharon, near Tel Aviv, where you can hear one or two booms each day, preceded by sirens. Talking of “the” Palestinians or “the” Muslims or “the” Israelis hardly does justice to realities too easily blurred or erased.  Thoreau lived with eyes open.

The news (and the Israeli government) like to keep the justification for retaliation and “success” against the rockets and tunnels front and center, and so report (more or less) that Israel dropped 100 bombs in answer to 100 rockets from Hamas.  You have to read on to paragraph two or three to be reminded that exactly zero Israelis have been hurt or killed by this ‘rain of rockets’ over populated areas.  That’s not to discount the potential danger.  And that’s not to say that Israeli response is in error, period — though I’ll pass up polemics on this issue.

I’m not exactly nonchalant abut the potential threats to Israeli non-combatants — far from it.  But seeking for analogies from my own now relatively long experience, I’m reminded of my early days in Berkeley where terrorists kidnapped Patty Hurst, shot a judge in his Marin County courtroom to free the San Quentin prisoner James Jackson, and killed a Black Oakland school principal with poisoned bullets all within a few months and a few miles in the late sixties  — raising the level of fear and outrage even as life — and the Vietnam War — went on.  I wasn’t exactly nonchalant, but I wasn’t scared out of my mind, either, even as friends from miles away wrote that they were scared for my safety. The National Guard occupied the Berkeley campus, teargassed students from helicopters, shot rubber bullets, and tented out in surrounding neighborhoods, just a few blocks away.  Not to mention a dozen or more students shot by the Guard at Kent State.

Here, around Tel Aviv, restaurants and summer camps stay open, buses and trains run, and no one misses a day of work.   There was more panic (legitimate, in my view) in America after 911 and for  months after than there is around here right now.

Of course all it would take is a new tunnel-entry into Israel, a kidnapping, a suicide bomber, or a Hamas rocket that actually hit a target, to upset the relative “life goes on” atmosphere in towns more than 10 miles from Gaza and not in or near the West Bank.

Hate it, and hope that assembled world figures descending on the region this week can enforce some sort of halt, though I’m not optimistic.  Tomorrow I’ll bath not in Walden but in the Sea close to where Odysseus was washed up by the surf.



One comment on “From a war-zone — with Thoreau in mind

  1. dmf says:

    The rising hills, the slopes,
    of statistics
    lie before us,
    the steep climb
    of everything, going up,
    up, as we all
    go down.

    In the next century
    or the one beyond that,
    they say,
    are valleys, pastures,
    we can meet there in peace
    if we make it.

    To climb these coming crests
    one word to you, to
    you and your children:

    stay together
    learn the flowers
    go light

    “For the Children” by Gary Snyder

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