Making Do With Defiance

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In the late fall noonday sun, I was sitting on the patio of Café Diplomatico, in Little Italy. I was joined by Azmi Bishara, MK, an Israeli Arab, as they used to be called, or Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament. He had a small entourage of Arab Canadians. Only he wore a suit. Nice suit, and shoes.

“For over a year, ” he said, “I have urged people to go into the streets and break the curfew. Now it happens and here am I” — as he looks around at the stylish intersection.

A cellphone rings. Everyone reaches, but it’s Dr. Bishara’s. He starts barking into it loudly. The others explain. There is a big demonstration in Gaza, people have streamed into the streets, breaking the curfew. He is addressing them.

Israeli journalist Amira Hass of Ha’aretz has described how the curfew-breaking began, in response to the recent siege of Yasser Arafat. “Suddenly, at about 11 p.m. on Saturday night, people started calling one another to ask with disbelief if it was true there was demonstrating in the streets,” as reported on Al-Jazeera, which interrupted its newscasts.

Until then, most people had accepted the curfew. “What is happening to us?” they would ask each other “shamefacedly.” Now, “everyone was shocked by this collective audaciousness, even the people themselves.”

Young women were “running back and forth, trying to avoid the tear gas and shouting up at lit windows, ‘Please come out to demonstrate.’” The movement spread to other cities, camps and Gaza. The “diary” in Ha’aretz ended by saying “everyone hopes” that the mass protest, after so many suicide bombings, “marks the turning point.”

I asked Azmi Bishara if he thought it might. His reply was sobering. He talked about why turning away from violence is difficult. For those who have spent thirty-five years under occupation (which he has not), life is marked by joblessness and futility. Its central experience is the checkpoint, where Palestinians may be delayed, badgered, humiliated, even killed, often by teenage soldiers.

In this endless, hopeless mire, he says, the only imaginable response and relief for many is the thought of revenge. He does not say this with approval. He rejects attacks on civilians and says “no one ought to die simply because he is somewhere,“ waiting for a bus, for example.

At this point, I realize he is not a medical doctor. I ask about his academic field. Philosophy, he says. Of course. And in particular? Hegel, with the many gradations and shadings of the Hegelian dialectic.

What could possibly replace the grim satisfactions of revenge? In the long run, perhaps a healthy, independent society. In the short term, one can hope that a positive experience of collective accomplishment, by taking the moral high road of non-violent protest, might beckon as an alternative.

There’s also this: The route of suicide bombings is, for the majority, passive. They can identify with the attacks, but not experience anything directly. It has something in common with the vicarious passion of the sports fan, with obvious differences.

But breaking the curfew with thousands of others to defy a colonizing authority is a direct involvement. It began, wrote Amira Hass, as “the work of a few activists who lost patience with their helplessness at the right moment.”

With some tight-lipped optimism, one can imagine the trend expanding. This week, the trial of Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, for involvement in terror killings, turned into a debate when he issued his own “indictment” of Israel, said he was guilty only of wanting freedom and called, significantly I’d say, for more breaking of curfews. “He was a student of mine for three years,” said Azmi Bishara.

“In the end, I think the Israeli government will have to talk to him.”It may seem crudely psychological to hope that the compensatory satisfactions of community and agency can replace bloodletting, but human beings don’t seem to grow less primitive in their needs, even as their technology and political rhetoric become more exalted.

About twenty-five years ago, I visited then revolutionary Mozambique. My hosts put a game park on the itinerary and I balked; I’d come to see a social transformation, not a zoo. Of course, once I got there, they couldn’t get me to leave. It was the people who were in a fenced compound, the animals roamed freely, in their home.

As we sat on the porch at night, the guides liked to point out bullet holes high in the wall above us. Frelimo, the liberation army, had infiltrated the park early in the war, to prove it was a serious force; then the guerrillas fired over the heads of the “racist” colonizers and Rhodesian holidayers who stayed there — in order to make a point: that their commitment to their just cause outweighed their desire for blood or vengeance.

I used to try to picture them in the evening, out there beyond the fence, sighting the targets through their scopes, then raising their rifles, deliberately.

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