Evil for Its Own Sake

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"Ezor Hadimdumim" ("Twilight Zone: Life and Death Under Israeli Occupation, 1988-2003") by Gideon Levy, Babel Books, 802 pages, NIS 118.

"On Sunday I embarked on a journey into the provinces of Israeli evil, into the cave district of the shepherds in the southern Hebron hills and the shantytown on the outskirts of the Abu Dis garbage dump."

This is how Gideon Levy begins his story of the cruel eviction of the Bedouin tribe of Jahalin from its land - one of many stories in this hefty anthology of selected articles from Levy's weekly column in the Haaretz Magazine. Each article is the story of one person or one family or one incident, told in minute detail and accompanied (in the newspaper - not the book) by the images that Miki Kratsman has captured on film. Together, they tell the horrifying story of the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces in the occupied territories.

This is a shocking book that weighs heavily on its readers and takes them on a rocky ride that can be draining and even numbing. Gideon Levy writes about the goings-on in the territories from personal experience: "Pale, hairless and feeble, Yasser Abu-Khalaf dragged himself this week to the nurses' station at the oncology ward of Hadassah Ein Karem, but Nurse Mika refused to admit him or even administer emergency care. With my own eyes, I saw this shameful incident."

The authority of the speaker and judge is that of an eyewitness. Again and again, he finds it hard to process what he has seen and to decide what shocks him the most. "On Monday, I visited the Deheisheh refugee camp [near Bethlehem] to see what life is like below the poverty line. Two days before that, I had been to Carmiel and Haifa, visiting new immigrants barely eking out a life. I thought it couldn't get worse than that. Until I came to Deheisheh."

Indeed, just reading the book is a serious test of the reader's moral sensibility. Gideon Levy makes an important contribution to sharpening the moral acuteness of the Hebrew language. He has reintroduced nuances into a language that has become sadly impoverished. In order for language to be able to address and analyze moral issues, there have to be expressions and idioms that can convey the subtleties involved. In writing about "targeted assassinations," for example, Levy cites Yitzhak Laor's poem "Izun" ("Balance"), reinforcing the dialogue between his book and Hebrew literature.

Levy tells of evil and brutality that go beyond politics: "No legal justification or circumstantial evidence can paper over the terrible cruelty and injustice of the destruction wreaked by the civil administration in parts of the village of Anata." There is no way that readers can explain these things away politically. They cannot say: "This is a necessary and proper response to Palestinian terror."

Israeli evil is portrayed as pure evil, unconnected to the source of the conflict, to the guilty parties or ways of resolving the crisis. It goes beyond the responsibility of the other side, because there is no terror attack that can justify what Levy describes. Yizhar Be'er, director of the human rights group B'Tselem, entitled the report he submitted on the beatings of Palestinians in June and July "A National Affliction." Beatings, stopping women in labor at army roadblocks resulting in infant deaths, lengthy administrative detentions without trial - what political sanction can there be for such things? This is evil for it's own sake, and a direct product of the culture of occupation in which we live.

Levy himself looks for an explanation of the army's behavior. He attributes it to racism: Palestinians are not perceived as human beings like we are, or equal to us in any way. This is a mechanism that allows people to maltreat others without seeing it as an unethical act or a violation of human rights.

"But this is not a book about them. This is a book about us," writes Levy. "About what we do to others. About what is done in our name. The killing, the destruction, the uprooting of trees, the humiliation, the torture, the tractors, the arrests, the blockades, the strangulation - all this is done in our name." This theme runs like a thread throughout the book.

Who is `you'?

Levy begins his column of September 18, 2001 with a series of direct questions to the Israeli reader: "What do you say to a bereaved Palestinian mother who claims she has always been against terror and in favor of peace, but now that Israeli soldiers have killed her eldest son, she wishes all Israelis an excruciating death?" There is no question who the "you" is: Levy's Haaretz readership, and now the general public.

But where is Levy speaking from? He never fully decides what side he is on. He takes a kind of flexible middle position that is neither here nor there. As much as he identifies with suffering of the Palestinians, he never takes their part entirely. He never completely shrugs off his Israeli identity. In describing Palestinians like Bashir al-Khayri, author of "Letters to a Lemon Tree," he writes: "His political views are hard to digest from an Israeli perspective, but his life story is hard to digest, too."

Gideon Levy's Israeliness is the place he is coming from, and from which he speaks. Over and over, he writes about "us" and "ours," as opposed to "them" and "theirs." He writes: "The fate of three kidnapped Israeli soldiers being held in Lebanon generates a great outcry, and rightly so; the fate of Palestinian children who have been killed and maimed does not disturb the sleep of anyone, in Israel or the rest of the world, and that is not all right."

So when he writes "the sight of a toddler, sitting and crying on a pile of gravel, her parents and sister beaten and handcuffed, is not easily forgotten," the reader asks himself: "Forgotten by whom?" And the answer is by Gideon Levy himself, who stands midway between the Israelis and the Palestinians, trying to carve out a moral voice for himself and inviting Israelis to join him.

In adopting this voice, Levy has not gone over entirely to the Palestinians, but neither does he have two feet planted on the Israeli side. He does a kind of hopscotch between them. A moral stance that is not firmly rooted in a national ethic and ignores the concrete history on each side is a very complex moral stance. Levy does not shy away from this complexity. Again and again, he complicates the universal moral statement with references to the reality we confront in these parts. He brings in the suicide bomber, the roadblock, behaviors whose ethicalness is evaluated by the person in question, his private history, the situation at hand, and past events that may have served as a trigger.

Disturbing wavering

Palestinian terror is as unjustified as Israeli terror: "That is the other side of the coin - Israeli terror. A roadblock that detains a woman in labor is a deadly roadblock. It harms innocent citizens. Like a suicide bombing, it makes no allowances for women and children, not to mention newborn infants. This week, two bereaved families, victims of Israeli terror, sat at home in the village of Yamoun, their heartbreak visible to all. Buried in the nearby cemetery were their dead children, Mohammed and Suleiman, who survived for only a few hours. The blood of these two infants is on our heads."

In his writing, Levy walks on a tightrope, sometimes tilting to one side and sometimes to the other. This wavering creates a disturbance. The voice in the book is not uniform - contrary to the impression of many Haaretz readers, who are quick to label him.

The suffering Palestinians nearly always have a first name and a last name. They have personal biographies. In the newspaper, they have a face. They are not anonymous victims known only for being trampled under the boot of Israeli occupation. Neither are they passive victims. Levy never falls into the trap of stereotyping his subjects. He does not cram them into pre-cast molds that present them not as they are but as they are perceived by a tendentious outside observer.

Using stereotypical language adds insult to injury: Those who are oppressed are branded in that light only, as if their whole identity consists of being occupied and having no power whatsoever to change their fate. Levy's testimony works well because his observations do not produce a homogeneous, clear-cut picture. He moves toward his subjects and then pulls back again. He always leaves something hanging and unclear that deviates from the standard image of the oppressed.

Levy's handling of the oppressors is no less effective. He breaks down the forces of occupation into components. The occupiers are people. Very often they have a name, so that guilt is laid at their door. Thus blaming everything on some elusive thing called "occupation," which has been forced on Israel, no longer offers an honorable escape. In the final reckoning, the decisions are made by individual human beings. It is they who decide whether others will live or die. In Levy's book, neither misery nor cliches provide a haven from wrenching moral judgment.

Levy had two options. He could write a readable book that would draw a large readership and work on people's minds, or he could publish a massive volume of data that would serve as a record, an important addition to the archives of the occupation. He has chosen the second option. In doing so, unfortunately, he has scared off many potential readers. What he needs to do now is publish another book - preferably a shorter one, embellished with the photographs by Miki Kratsman that have become an inseparable part of his "text."

Prof. Hannan Hever's book on the poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg was published by Am Oved.

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