Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood. Photo by AFP
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This article is part of a special edition of Haaretz, to mark Israel's book week.

The Moment


The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage,
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
Climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

Recently I was in Israel. The Israelis I met could not have been more welcoming. I saw many impressive accomplishments and creative projects, and talked with many different people. The sun was shining, the waves waving, the flowers were in bloom. Tourists jogged along the beach at Tel Aviv as if everything was normal.

But… there was the Shadow. Why was everything trembling a little, like a mirage? Was it like that moment before a tsunami when the birds fly to the treetops and the animals head for the hills because they can feel it coming?

“Every morning I wake up in fear,” someone told me. “That’s just self-pity, to excuse what’s happening,” said someone else. Of course, fear and self-pity can both be real. But by “what’s happening,” they meant the Shadow.

I’d been told ahead of time that Israelis would try to cover up the Shadow, but instead they talked about it non-stop. Two minutes into any conversation, the Shadow would appear. It’s not called the Shadow, it’s called “the situation.” It haunts everything.

The Shadow is not the Palestinians. The Shadow is Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, linked with Israeli’s own fears. The worse the Palestinians are treated in the name of those fears, the bigger the Shadow grows, and then the fears grow with them; and the justifications for the treatment multiply.

The attempts to shut down criticism are ominous, as is the language being used. Once you start calling other people by vermin names such as “vipers,” you imply their extermination. To name just one example, such labels were applied wholesale to the Tutsis months before the Rwanda massacre began. Studies have shown that ordinary people can be led to commit horrors if told they’ll be acting in self-defense, for “victory,” or to benefit mankind.

I’d never been to Israel before, except in the airport. Like a lot of people on the sidelines – not Jewish, not Israeli, not Palestinian, not Muslim – I hadn’t followed the “the situation” closely, though, also like most, I’d deplored the violence and wished for a happy ending for all.

Again like most, I’d avoided conversations on this subject because they swiftly became screaming matches. (Why was that? Faced with two undesirable choices, the brain – we’re told -- chooses one as less evil, pronounces it good, and demonizes the other.)

I did have some distant background. As “Egypt” at a Model U.N. in 1956, my high school’s delegation had presented the Palestinian case. Why was it fair that the Palestinians, innocent bystanders during the Holocaust, had lost their homes? To which the Model Israel replied, “You don’t want Israel to exist.” A mere decade after the Camps and the six million obliterated, such a statement was a talk-stopper.

Then I’d been hired to start a Nature program at a liberal Jewish summer camp. The people were smart, funny, inventive, idealistic. We went in a lot for World Peace and the Brotherhood of Man. I couldn’t fit this together with the Model U.N. Palestinian experience. Did these two realities nullify each other? Surely not, and surely the humane Jewish Brotherhood-of-Manners numerous in both the summer camp and in Israel itself would soon sort this conflict out in a fair way.

But they didn’t. And they haven’t. And it’s no longer 1956. The conversation has changed dramatically. I was recently attacked for accepting a cultural prize that such others as Atom Egoyan, Al Gore, Tom Stoppard, Goenawan Mohamad, and Yo-Yo Ma had previously received. This prize was decided upon, not by an instrument of Israeli state power as some would have it, but by a moderate committee within an independent foundation. This group was pitching real democracy, open dialogue, a two-state solution, and reconciliation. Nevertheless, I’ve now heard every possible negative thing about Israel – in effect, I’ve had an abrupt and searing immersion course in present-day politics. The whole experience was like learning about cooking by being thrown into the soup pot.

The most virulent language was truly anti-Semitic (as opposed to the label often used to deflect criticism). There were hot debates among activists about whether boycotting Israel would “work,” or not; about a one-state or else a two-state solution; about whether a boycott should exclude culture, as it is a bridge, or was that hypocritical dreaming? Was the term “apartheid” appropriate, or just a distraction? What about “de-legitimizing” the State of Israel? Over the decades, the debate had acquired a vocabulary and a set of rituals that those who hadn’t hung around universities – as I had not -- would simply not grasp.

Some kindly souls, maddened by frustration and injustice, began by screaming at me; but then, deciding I suppose that I was like a toddler who’d wandered into traffic, became very helpful. Others dismissed my citing of International PEN and its cultural-boycott-precluding efforts to free imprisoned writers as irrelevant twaddle. (An opinion cheered by every repressive government, extremist religion, and hard-line political group on the planet, which is why so many fiction writers are banned, jailed, exiled, and shot.)

None of this changes the core nature of the reality, which is that the concept of Israel as a humane and democratic state is in serious trouble. Once a country starts refusing entry to the likes of Noam Chomsky, shutting down the rights of its citizens to use words like “Nakba,” and labelling as “anti-Israel” anyone who tries to tell them what they need to know, a police-state clampdown looms. Will it be a betrayal of age-old humane Jewish traditions and the rule of just law, or a turn towards reconciliation and a truly open society?

Time is running out. Opinion in Israel may be hardening, but in the United States things are moving in the opposite direction. Campus activity is increasing; many young Jewish Americans don’t want Israel speaking for them. America, snarled in two chaotic wars and facing increasing international anger over Palestine, may well be starting to see Israel not as an asset but as a liability.

Then there are people like me. Having been preoccupied of late with mass extinctions and environmental disasters, and thus having strayed into the Middle-eastern neighbourhood with a mind as open as it could be without being totally vacant, I’ve come out altered. Child-killing in Gaza? Killing aid-bringers on ships in international waters? Civilians malnourished thanks to the blockade? Forbidding writing paper? Forbidding pizza? How petty and vindictive! Is pizza is a tool of terrorists? Would most Canadians agree? And am I a tool of terrorists for saying this? I think not.

There are many groups in which Israelis and Palestinians work together on issues of common interest, and these show what a positive future might hold; but until the structural problem is fixed and Palestine has its own “legitimized” state within its internationally recognized borders, the Shadow will remain.

“We know what we have to do, to fix it,” said many Israelis. “We need to get beyond Us and Them, to We,” said a Palestinian. This is the hopeful path. For Israelis and Palestinians both, the region itself is what’s now being threatened, as the globe heats up and water vanishes. Two traumas create neither erasure nor invalidation: both are real. And a catastrophe for one would also be a catastrophe for the other.

 

From the Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood's latest novel

God must have caused the Animals to assemble by speaking to them directly, but what language did He use? It was not Hebrew, my Friends. It was not Latin or Greek, or English, or French, or Spanish, or Arabic, or Chinese. No: He called the Animals in their own languages. To the Reindeer He spoke Reindeer, to the Spider, Spider; to the Elephant He spoke Elephant, to the Flea He spoke Flea, to the Centipede He spoke Centipede, and to the Ant, Ant. So must it have been.

And for Adam himself, the Names of the Animals were the first words he spoke—the first moment of Human language. In this cosmic instant, Adam claims his Human soul. To Name is – we hope -- to greet; to draw another towards one’s self. Let us imagine Adam calling out the Names of the Animals in fondness and joy, as if to say – There you are, my dearest! Welcome! Adam’s first act towards the Animals was thus one of loving-kindness and kinship, for Man in his unfallen state was not yet a carnivore. The Animals knew this, and did not run away. So it must have been on that unrepeatable Day – a peaceful gathering at which every living entity on the Earth was embraced by Man.

How much have we lost, dear fellow Mammals and fellow Mortals! How much have we wilfully destroyed! How much do we need to restore, within ourselves!

The time of the Naming is not over, my Friends. In His sight, we may still be living in the sixth day. As your Meditation, imagine yourself rocked in that sheltering moment. Stretch out your hand towards those gentle eyes that regard you with such trust -- a trust that has not yet been violated by bloodshed and gluttony and pride and disdain.

Say their Names.
Let us sing.