The Banality of Violence

On a recent trip to Palestine, I met two Israeli settlers who spoke of peace and hate, of victimization and violence. They reside in Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories. Efrat was founded by Rabbi Riskin and about 200 families in the 1970s, and now houses 10,000 people, 40% of whom are from the United States, including Ardi and Batya.

Ardi and Batya recounted a time when Jews and Arabs lived happily together, a time when there was a territorial dispute but one that seemed surmountable. Leaving aside the fact that many people are simultaneously Jewish and Arab (although the term Arab Jew is frequently avoided by referring to such individuals by the somewhat broader category of Mizrachi or "Eastern" Jew) and that it is thus inaccurate to portray the categories as mutually exclusive opposites, for Ardi and Batya, Jews and Arabs living happily together meant a time when "we employed the local village Arabs and gave them electricity and modernization. We improved their quality of life tremendously. It was a wonderful thing for them." Ah, the white man's burden.

Batya went on to explain that all was well until the Palestinian Authority was formed and started shaking things up, reminding me of white people in the U.S. talking about how well they got along with Black people until those civil rights agitators came into town. In Ardi's words, it was around this time that Palestinians shifted the political situation from one in which land was the primary source of the conflict to the main cause of violence being "pan-Islamism -- it's no longer about turf but about an extreme religious ideology that denies a Jewish presence in the Middle East. And it is slowly reaching its hands around the world to effect where you live." However, when asked whether to achieve real peace they would be willing to leave the West Bank and relocate to behind the green line, land suddenly became pertinent again. "That's such a rhetorical question that I don't even answer it when people ask," Ardi answered. "I don't think it will happen that way. No mainstream government would include this community in a peace package. We would become annexed."

For me, this encounter was one of the most difficult moments of my time spent in the region, in some ways even harder to deal with than all the soldiers and more extremist settlers roaming the streets and terrorizing Palestinians with their automatic weapons. Ardi and Batya do not belong to this extremist camp. They are friendly people and seemingly well-intentioned. They describe themselves as having "moderate" political views and as "against housing demolitions, demeaning behavior at checkpoints, and the wall following a route that unnecessarily makes lives of Palestinians more difficult," although they insist that these measures are all responses to terrorism.

The same day I met Ardi and Batya, I met another woman who spoke of peace and hate, of victimization and violence: Zleikha, who founded a kindergarten for traumatized children in the West Bank. She saw that the children were absolutely terrified of the soldiers they encounter on a daily basis, so in addition to art therapy and play time, she began a program of going with them to checkpoints and having them walk through, helping them get used to the idea that they will not automatically get beaten or killed if they come within range of a soldier. This process helps the children to overcome their fear and thus enables them walk on their own from home to school, for example, which often requires passing through multiple checkpoints.

Zleikha explained that many of these traumatized kids are hyperactive and violent. She and other volunteers work hard to provide counseling, non-violent outlets, and to help the kids learn to concentrate so they can do well in school. She sees this as fighting a battle against the education in violence that these kids get every day: "There are soldiers on the roof near the kindergarten. They often point their guns at the children who are coming and say, 'children go home.' When we ask them why they are scaring the kids, they say, 'We have orders, there is to be no school today.' Many people say, 'Palestinians teach their kids to be violent and to hate us.' This is not true. The soldiers are teaching them violence."

This, however, is something that Ardi and Batya refuse to understand. It is much easier to sleep comfortably if you make yourself believe that the prison you are committing others to for your entitlement to a particular piece of land needs to exist because those people are all potential terrorists. It is much easier not to think about the terror of ghettoizing people, of shoving guns in children's faces, of demolishing people's homes and displacing them from their land, of humiliating people at checkpoints, of starving people by making their local economies nearly impossible to sustain, of shooting holes into people's water-tanks or putting dead chickens in them to poison the water; in sum: of all the ways life is made as miserable as possible for Palestinians in the hopes that they will leave. It is much easier not to think about the production of violence. The comfortable lives Ardi and Batya lead in their West Bank settlement depend every day on the occupation, brutalization and humiliation of others. They remain in complete denial of this relationship, however, as their role in the production of this violence is quite banal. They are simply trying to go about their lives. Simply without considering the lives of their fellow human beings.

Cecilia Lucas is a resident of Oakland, California.

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