A Life Less Ordinary

Dealing with cancer and thinking about his impending departure from this world, noted sociologist Baruch Kimmerling - a 'new historian' before the term was invented - talks about how he has coped with a lifelong disability and why, despite everything, he considers himself a happy man.

This month he will celebrate his 67th birthday, and after being betrayed by his body for most of his life, Prof. Baruch Kimmerling is now also confronting incurable cancer. He is disabled as a result of cerebral palsy at birth, has difficulty speaking, and for years has used a wheelchair: His lower body is almost completely paralyzed. All this has not prevented him from continuing to teach at the university and travel to conferences all over the world.

In the draft of his new book, to be titled "Marginal in the Center - The Autobiography of a Public Sociologist" (in Hebrew), Kimmerling reveals many details about his condition. He says that the book should not be interpreted as a preparation for departing from life, but in the beginning there is quite a long passage that discusses his impending death:

"As things look at the time these lines are being written, I will be a professor emeritus, in other words a pensioner, in about three years from now. But unrelated to that, what has preoccupied me, especially in recent years, is when and how I should depart from the world. As a free person, I am not frightened by death and I can definitely understand, both intellectually and emotionally, the transition from existential, physical and mental "being" to "non-being." My body barely responds to me and my speech is less intelligible than ever. My backside hurts from pressure sores resulting from my constant state of sitting or lying down; sometimes just sitting is painful. However, I have learned to cope well with all the pains, and they do not disturb my rest; even typing itself involves considerable pain in my fingertips, and it is very slow and full of mistakes, which requires me to return several times to words that I was already supposed to have typed.

"At the same time, I think that my thinking has never been as clear and orderly as it is now ... The real problem is whether I will know when my time has come and whether I will be in a physical condition that will enable me to put an end to my own life without assistance, since it is doubtful whether I will ever receive such assistance. Practically speaking, the subject has interested me since the operation I underwent in 1985, and during one of my sabbatical leaves I even read with interest the book by Derek Humphrey, "The Final Exit." From the book I learned that it is not at all simple to kill yourself without assistance, even if only passive."

"Self-exposure is difficult for me," he says. "It's not my style. Nor am I used to writing in such a genre. Professional writing has ruined me. On the other hand, I'm trying by means of this book to say something about Jewishness and Israeliness, and immigrants and academia - everything together - something that cannot be said in a newspaper column or a professional article. It's also important to me that my children know something about their roots. The book tries to cover at least three generations: my generation, that of my parents and that of my grandparents."

As someone who dreamed of being a writer, are there any other literary texts you have hidden?

"No, that was only a youthful ambition, like being an astronaut."

For almost 40 years, Kimmerling has taught in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem; during those years he published nine books and hundreds of articles and essays. He has decided to retire in the coming year, but he will continue to mentor doctoral students, do research and write. Officially he is a professor of sociology, but he describes himself as "a creator and disseminator of ideas." Although he is not a historian, he has been identified for years with the "new historians," whom he actually preceded by quite a number of years.

A long, difficult journey

"I was born with cerebral palsy, which was expressed mainly in involuntary movements, speech problems, difficulties in walking and unaesthetic facial tics, which sometimes look like a mocking smile, quite frequently insulting to people who don't know me," he writes in his book. "Until the age of about 25, my physical condition steadily improved, and I attained more and more control over my body. For example, up to the age of 17 I would wet my pants every time something or someone made me laugh or touched some sensitive part of my body. Later the condition of my body remained stable and I was able to function almost like anyone else. I didn't consider my disability my problem, but rather mainly a problem that others had to overcome in their contacts with me, the 'other,' and that I had to help them overcome. The range of reactions of people who didn't know me well was very varied: Some considered me a kind of martyr with supernatural abilities, and some treated me as a retarded person and spoke to me slowly, loudly and in simple Hebrew so I would understand. There were also some people who were afraid that my condition could be contagious."

Aside from his physical problems, he also had to deal with difficulties resulting from Jewish history. He was born in 1939 in Romania, about a month after the outbreak of World War II, in the border town of Turda in Transylvania. He came into the world as a premature baby, born in the seventh month, and he suffered from congenital breathing problems that damaged his brain. His father was a traveling salesman who sold radios, whereas his mother, who had completed high school in Hungary with an emphasis on classical studies, was a literary type. When the couple met they did not have a common language. His father spoke Romanian and his mother Hungarian. He himself is fluent in both languages. His parents raised him like an ordinary child, constantly reminding him that where there's a will, there's a way.

Turda was a transit town to the Russian front for the German army. The family home faced the main street, and as a child Kimmerling would go out to the balcony to watch the convoys. He admired the motorcyclists with sidecars, who were dressed in helmets and leather coats, and he would wave to the soldiers, or stand at attention and salute, shouting "Heil Hitler!" The German soldiers would smile and respond, "Heil Hitler."

In the summer of 1944 his parents and his uncle left the city on a gypsy wagon harnessed to a horse. Five-year-old Kimmerling was nestled in his mother's arms, and she didn't stop singing Hebrew songs to him and telling him stories. The next day they found themselves trapped in a convoy of refugees, which was occasionally strafed by German planes.

"During one of these surprise attacks, my uncle threw me out of the moving wagon into a field of corn at the side of the road. Next to me lay a young Romanian soldier who smiled at me. A few seconds later his head was smashed by bullets from the plane, and parts of it splattered on me. I was trembling and I continued to tremble every time I heard the noise of a plane engine for years after the incident - even when I was already an adolescent in Israel and the planes were 'our' planes."

At the end of the war the family returned to Turda, but his parents found no trace of their property. They lived in an apartment in the center of the city and Baruch attended school. In the winter of 1947, when he was in second grade, the teacher announced the end of the monarchy and the "popular revolution." His brother Adam was born, and a short time later his parents bought a big house with a yard and fruit trees. Baruch had a private teacher who taught him critical reading of texts: For school, he learnt what was required by the curriculum, while the tutor provided him with further knowledge and taught him Greek mythology and philosophy.

During Israel's War of Independence in 1948 his parents were riveted to the radio, hoping for a Jewish victory. In January 1952, they set out for Israel, and here they underwent the usual journey from the Sha'ar Ha'aliya (Gate of Immigration) camp near Haifa to the Gan Yavne ma'abara (transit camp).

It was a hard winter. Years later Kimmerling put the picture of the ma'abara mired in mud into a book he wrote with his colleague Joel Migdal about the history of the Palestinian nation. The reason: the photo reminded Kimmerling of the Deheisheh refugee camp.

Afterward the family moved to a hut in the Nes Ziona transit camp, and in 1954 into an apartment in the Dora neighborhood in Netanya. Kimmerling found peace and quiet in the school library, where he sat reading one book after another. In his new book he writes about an eighth-grade classmate who told him: "You'll never be one of us. You aren't like us. You're so foreign. Polite. Refined. In short, not a sabra. Aside from that, your disability will also stand between us and you."

He describes his life as a long and quite difficult journey, but one replete with accomplishments. He completed his academic studies with excellence, succeeded with women in spite of his physical limitations, and then fell in love with Diana Aidan, an outstanding Libyan-born student who had immigrated to Israel from Naples in 1967, and was beginning her work on a doctorate on the philosophy of biology. They married in August 1975. During her first pregnancy she understood that she would have to give up her professional career, and when she told her mentor, Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, that it was hard for her, he replied: "Someone who performs one mitzvah (good deed) is released from all the other mitzvot."

They had three children: Shira was born in 1976, Eli in 1978 and Naama in 1981. Diana took care of the children and the house as well as her husband, while he established his professional status. In his book he reveals the story of his relationship with his wife and her tremendous difficulties as his partner and as the one who bore the entire burden on her shoulders. He says he was not the best of fathers and only a so-so husband.

Country of immigrants

Kimmerling has never succeeded in feeling truly Israeli. "Because I experienced all the difficulties of becoming Israeli here with my parents, from a ma'abara with tents to some kind of 'here' that I can't precisely define, some of the consciousness of the immigrant and perhaps even of the refugee has remained part of my identity," he says. "That's why it is so self-evident to me that we are a country of immigrants and not an indigenous nation - an idea which many people can't agree with. A country of immigrant-settlers, like North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and Algeria. That's a starting point for me in any discussion of Israeli society."

How does that change your angle of perception?

"It actually changes everything. Inwardly, we're more heterogeneous than all the older nations, and that contains a potential promise of multiculturalism that we have yet to fulfill, and perhaps never will. Instead we all crowd together under an umbrella of some kind of Jewishness, which we invented and improved on here. It's a mixture of secularism and religiosity that we call Judaism, which includes nationalism and a constant existential anxiety, alongside the cult of the Holocaust and a sick ethnocentrism. It's the final incarnation of what is called Zionism, and anyone who is unwilling to accept this identity is defined as post-Zionist or anti-Zionist.

"Outwardly, we were destined to live by the sword as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, because we settled in a region whose population did not want us, and we didn't have the strength to deal with them the way other immigrant nations dealt with the natives. We did it partially in 1948, but by doing so we didn't really solve the problem, but perhaps even exacerbated it."

In 1974 Kimmerling wrote his doctoral thesis, which appeared afterward as a book: "Zionism and Territory: The Socioterritorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics." He claims that he did not try to expose injustices or take a moral stand in the book. "I conducted dry professional research of the problems of the land and how it was obtained and what tactics and strategy were used by the immigrant settlers in order to ensure a maximum amount of territory for themselves. Only years later, when Benny Morris invented the concept of the "new historians," was I swept up enthusiastically into the debate, and I actually enjoyed it."

Did you pay a price?

"If I was partially isolated at the university, that was not the reason. But yes, I paid with a two- to three-year delay in promotion. At the time it was hard for me. In hindsight, it was a small price to pay. The fact is that several of my colleagues suffered and continue to suffer from me: I constructed a different conceptualization of Israeli society as a society of immigrant-settlers, a conceptualization that brought Zionism close to a certain type of colonialism. That made the writings of most of the scholars who had previously discussed Israeli society irrelevant, and threatened their reputations. It was a professional and generational debate, which was invested with a great deal of emotional and ideological fervor, and it also contributed to delays in promotion. This grudge remains, mainly because I came out ahead in that debate."

What has changed in your attitude toward Zionism?

"We built a society here on the ruins of another society. Perhaps it was a mistake from the beginning. The fathers of Zionism were unaware of the complexity of the solution they proposed. They grew up toward the end of the colonial era, when it was still only natural that a European could settle anywhere outside the Old World, both for his benefit and as someone bringing progress to the natives. And they also grew up at the beginning of the era of nationalism - the combination of these two factors gave rise to Zionism and its consequences for the nations of the region. Mainly the Palestinians, of course.

"Does that justify dismantling the state? I don't think so. We've built a glorious Hebrew society and culture here, with all the negative and positive aspects. One does not erase injustice by creating another injustice. History is not a time tunnel in which one can travel backward. Nor is there any point, on either side, in waxing nostalgic about the past. We should - we must - try to find solutions for the future. The argument as to who is to blame for the situation doesn't lead anywhere, except to increasing the mutual hatred."

You have a reputation as a post-Zionist, or even an anti-Zionist.

"I happen to be a Zionist. I'm a Zionist by dint of the fact that I live here and constitute part of Hebrew culture, even if I am opposed to the present regime and criticize it harshly. I am opposed to the definitions and practices of Zionism. They have taken on monstrous forms, alongside islands of marvelous humanism and creativity. Of course, there is a political and cultural struggle over the question of what Zionism is and who is a Zionist. For now, I'm on the losing side of this struggle, therefore I'm defined as anti-Zionist. So be it."

What portrait do you draw of Israel 2006?

"There's no point in my repeating what everyone knows: the fact that we have turned into a non-egalitarian society similar to Third World societies; the distortion and waste in the distribution of national resources as a result of the project of colonizing the Palestinian territories; the shortchanging of Arab citizens; the corruption of public morals; our addiction to belligerent and militaristic solutions. I've been writing about all those in Haaretz for about 30 years, and I'm completely worn out.

"At this moment, mainly as a result of the war and the cynicism demonstrated by politicians like [Defense Minister] Amir Peretz and [Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert, who misled their electorate, and because of the generals who didn't deliver the goods they were expected to deliver, we can add the most serious problem of all - the disintegration of confidence in the political system and the rules of the game. That is a situation that recalls German society in the early 1930s. On the positive side, if we manage to emerge from this crisis, perhaps we will learn to recognize the limitations of power and to embark on a new path. We have potential, but the ethical and institutional infrastructure is missing."

All these things are certainly known to academics, and nevertheless, generations of Israeli academics seem to have managed to remain silent at every opportunity.

"As opposed to what is generally believed by part of the public, a university is not a hothouse for growing subversive oppositionists, or true prophets, or false prophets. If once in a generation there is one great [Yeshayahu] Leibowitz and several small Leibowitzes, it's a matter of personal initiative and temperament and not necessarily related to the university. Within the university there is a built-in mechanism of anti-intellectualism: There is a demand for specialization and excellence in a specific field, and pressure to do research and publish in one's field of expertise. If there is politics, and there's a great deal of politics, it's internal politics.

"Nor is there any basis to the assumption that the university is leftist. The only political organization that is active and is based for the most part on university people is actually very right-wing. We have over 1,000 staff members at the Hebrew University, of whom a maximum of about 40 to 50 people take a public stand to the right or the left. In the social sciences, due to the subject matter, there are a few more. All the rest, even if they have strong opinions, don't think it is their duty to be politically active or to appear in the public arena, and I don't want to judge them for that; they fall into the category of the rest of the laymen in Israel. They see their role, at best, as good researchers and teachers who advance knowledge in their field. Don't expect more than that from them. I happen to have an irresistible urge to be active in a role which is nowadays called a 'public intellectual,' alongside my work as a researcher and a teacher."

An open marriage market

It is generally thought that the 1967 war was a great Israeli victory, and now you come and claim in your book that in terms of politics, Israel was the loser in that war.

"Who is Israel's main rival in the region? The Palestinians. We are fighting them over the same piece of land we stole from them. Until 1967, Palestinian nationalism was constantly on the wane. Both we and the Jordanians made sure of that, with quite good results. In 1967 the three parts of the country were united under foreign rule, as far as the Palestinians were concerned. The reunification of Arab residents of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel itself, and the renewed encounter, recreated our historical rival as a political entity rather than a humanitarian refugee problem. By the way, George Habash [founder and secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP, 1967-2000] thought the same. To a great extent we returned in 1967 to the pre-State situation."

About six weeks before the 1982 massacre in the Lebanese Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, you wrote that the Lebanon War would mark a decline in the willingness and motivation to serve in the army; the reservists would find it difficult to serve in an army that was exploited for political purposes. Were you mistaken?

"I may have been mistaken, but I'm not certain. Because of the fact that during the second Lebanon war the Katyushas directly hit the civilian population, and there was also successful manipulation on the part of Olmert, Peretz and [Chief of Staff Dan] Halutz, this war was seen, at least during the first stage, as a war for our home and as a justified war. On the other hand, we must be aware that at least about a quarter of the 'good' youth, the urban Ashkenazi middle class and the kibbutz youth, who used to fill the ranks of the elite units and serve as officers, are fleeing military service. They have been replaced by the knitted kippot [a reference to religious Zionist youth] and the Mizrahi middle class."

In 2002 Kimmerling received a proposal from a British publisher to write a political and military biography of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, who was at the height of his power. Kimmerling says that he decided to refrain almost entirely from discussing Sharon's personal life, with the exception of a short description of his childhood.

"As a sociologist, I was more interested in discussing his life, his actions, his failures and his views as a reflection of parts of Israeli culture, of which he was a typical product, in my opinion." Kimmerling called his book "Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians."

The book was conceived at the height of Operation Defensive Shield in the spring of 2002, he explains. "It was clear from the actions of the army that the intention was to destroy the military, government and public infrastructure of the Palestinians, in order to prevent the possibility of any level of political existence, and primarily the establishment of a state."

Do you see a possibility of resolving this conflict?

"In spirit, I am close to the tradition of Brit Shalom [Covenant of Peace, a Jewish peace group founded in the 1920s by Martin Buber, Yehuda Magnes and others to seek coexistence with the Arabs of Palestine], in searching for a solution with which both nations can live, but I have never considered a binational state a solution. On the contrary - a binational state is liable to end in two stages: Jewish rule over the Palestinians in a more sophisticated manner, followed by terrible bloodshed. In short, a Balkanization of the region. I have spoken, I have dreamed, about changing the paradigm - the creation of a new Jewish-Arab local nation, something similar to what Anton Shammas [an Arab-Israeli writer] proposed years ago. But that requires an open marriage market, and there is no chance of that. Both Jews and Arabs are hermetically sealed within themselves. Moreover, neither we nor they have a separation between religion and nationality, and that is a genuine tragedy."

So what solution do you propose?

"I'm still in favor of the formula of two states for two nations, but I don't see a chance of its implementation in the foreseeable future. The Geneva Accords may approach that, but there too, there are still problems that at this point are unbridgeable."

I have brought about revolutions

His new book will enable his readers to learn about the daily difficulties of the man behind the ideas. In one chapter Kimmerling discusses his failing body and the way in which he has learned to deal with his new disabilities. "If I have taught myself anything new in the past 20 years, it's to be tolerant and patient with myself, my body and all those around me, and to accept my almost total dependence on them. Since the early 1980s, my physical condition has deteriorated slowly, but very perceptibly. Activities that were taken for granted - and not only free movement in space - such as holding and leafing through a book, or lifting an item from the floor, have become difficult and require endless time and patience. I sometimes even have to be fed by Diana, if I don't want to dirty myself and my surroundings, and I'm also dependent on her when I perform bodily functions.

"Once I thought that if I were to reach such a state or something similar - it would be the end of the world, and here I have discovered that that is still not the case. This is all thanks to Diana's dedication. But this situation has created an increasing mutual dependence between me and my partner. So that because I'm dependent on Diana for taking care of my most basic needs, Diana is dependent on me as well. This dependence extracts a high emotional cost from both of us, and perhaps more from Diana, since she is the one committed to providing the service, whereas I receive it, and that is not necessarily to be taken for granted."

The picture of your wife as she is described in the book is of someone who paid a tremendous price for life with you.

"Yes, I owe Diana everything, and I can't compensate her with anything. Because an autobiography cannot repair or change anything. But perhaps it's a kind of release, and she also deserves to have people know that she gave up a doctorate under the great Leibowitz for the sake of the family."

If you were able to begin everything over, would you behave the same way?

"I have no idea. I don't regret anything. Maybe I should have devoted a little more to my parents, my children, my wife. All that would have come at the expense of my career. I think that I would repeat the same mistakes."

When you discovered that you had cancer, were you angry? Did you feel that it was a direct continuation of that endless process of betrayal by your body?

"No. I didn't feel it was a direct continuation, but a kind of cumulative addition. My basic emotion was in fact a kind of anger. The feeling that it came too early."

How are you dealing with the illness?

"It's still fresh and I'm still checking what and how to do, and whether it's even worth continuing with treatments. Life is not an end in itself, one needs a minimal quality of life as well. 'Where do you come from and where are you going' - underlying this question is the idea that we don't know where we will go. Where do I come from? From the genes of my mother and father, and generations before them. As a total atheist, I don't believe that we 'go' anywhere, we simply cease to exist. I know that it scares many people. I have no fear of death. I'm only afraid of the suffering it sometimes involves, which is totally superfluous."

Have you also had periods of happiness in your life?

"All in all, I see myself as a happy person. I overcame two periods as a refugee and I recovered. I have reached the height of a career that a person can attain in the academic world. I married a wonderful woman, who also experienced difficult times, and I raised a wonderful family. In my professional field, I dare to say that I caused revolutions in Israeli sociology. Let others assess how significant that was."