I missed the pogrom at ‘Auja west, or ‘Auja Fok, last Friday, though I was just a few kilometers away with the shepherds. Some thirty armed settler thugs descended on the village at midday, wielding sticks and metal bars, creating havoc.
One Palestinian was wounded and had to be evacuated to hospital. These young settlers are religious, or hyper-religious, or hyper-nationalist-religious, and they have a rather derelict, even miserable look, as is only fitting. They are crazy. And dangerous. The police arrived fairly quickly. In one of the videos a lone policeman can be seen, running, pathetically, after these settlers, shouting at them to halt; they of course ignored him.
There is nothing to distinguish last week’s pogrom from the pogroms against Jews in Czarist Russia, including the one in which my grandmother’s brother was killed by Cossacks (he was seventeen years old).
By contrast, today went by peacefully; the four of us—Sarah, Pavla, Gabi, and me– joined six or seven herds, and for once no soldiers came and no settlers interfered, though there was no dearth of anxiety—more precisely, terror—among the shepherds.
I feel it as soon as we make contact with Khalil, whose flock is just outside the settlement of Mvoot Yericho. You need to know that for the last weeks, Palestinian shepherds have been chased off their grazing grounds in that area by wild settlers—almost every time they’ve gone there. There is not too much we can do when that happens. This is not like when the soldiers come with their (illegal) Closed Military Zone orders. You can sometimes argue with the soldiers—last week there were several occasions where our activists persuaded them to go away— but when the settler goons come plowing into the herd, shouting their horrible curses, playing their horrible loudspeakers, dancing and kicking and throwing things, it’s impossible to keep the sheep and goats from scattering over the hills, with the shepherds frantically trying to gather them together again. It means that grazing is over for that day. Our presence provides a certain protective shield and gives them some minimal sense of safety—no more than that.
Sometimes it’s easier to disperse the herd using the settlement’s security vehicle.
Khalil seems terrified. Stay here, he says, no, go there, go quickly, Salameh’s herd is in danger, they may come at any moment. Give me your phone number, I’ll call you as soon as something happens. Hurry. So we join Nadia and another shepherdess who are tending Salameh’s sheep, also Isma‘il’s, maybe a hundred meters away. The two women are calm.
It’s a warm spring morning turning hot in the Valley. Brilliant sunlight, fragrances of spring, an infinity of green grass just waiting for the sheep and goats.
Two young brothers, Muhammad and Jibril, six and seven years old, at once shy and curious, are happy to speak with us; and there are other kids as well.
Everything is, in a word, idyllic, except for that fierce undercurrent of fear that doesn’t go away.
I’m supposed to be writing an essay about Jean Améry. Who could add even a single syllable to what Améry has said about torture, about life in the concentration camps? “Nowhere else in the world did reality have as much effective power as in the camp, nowhere else was reality so real” (Améry, “At the Mind’s Limits”). I don’t think Khalil or Isma‘il or Musa or Salameh would put things like that. And nobody is comparing Nu‘ema or ‘Auja to the camps. Definitely not I. But it may be true that I come to Nu‘ema and ‘Auja because there life feels more real to me in hundred ways, and part of the reason for that feeling is the presence of routine, quotidian evil.
Améry wrote about physical torture, which he suffered when captured in Belgium by the Gestapo. Many, possibly even most Palestinian adult males know about it too. But there is much to be said about psychic torture as a form of daily life. Ask any of the shepherds. When they wake up in the morning, they remember. “It’s strange,” Musa says to me—he’s in general a rather joyful person, full of jokes and wit—“the world is a good world, or it would be good, except for all of this.” He points at the settlement, whirls around to point at the ugly army base down the road, gestures toward Omer’s farm, the worst of all the ‘Auja settlements, a source of continuous malice and danger. Even in Musa, you can see the way fear corrodes his very being. That is just what the Occupation wants, if we can speak of the Occupation as some living, demonic thing.
“For example,” he says, “why can’t I come to Jerusalem? You live there and you can come to ‘Auja, but I am not allowed.” I think he’s never gone farther north than Hebron. “And why can Gavriel get up in the morning, have his coffee, and then come charging into the herd, just for his pleasure, and with total impunity?” Let me introduce Gavriel, whom I have seen in action. He’s a kind of clown, but no less treacherous for that. He likes to dance and jump and yell when he attacks. And he’s not the worst of them.
The shepherds know when Gavriel gets up—mid-morning. They’ve had lots of experience. He apparently likes to sleep in. So today at around 11:00 they suddenly announce that in order to preempt the inevitable attack, they are crossing the road, away from Mvoot Yericho, in the direction of Omer’s farm. Wait a minute, I say, we’re here to defend you, you don’t have to go. Musa explains: Many of the sheep are pregnant and, when attacked, are likely to miscarry. “When,” not “if.” OK, I say, but what about the women and their herds? They seem much less given to panic then the men. “They’re leaving too,” Musa says. And indeed, within minutes, the shepherdesses are gone, heading home. I call Nadia, I call Isma‘il, he wants them to stay, on principle, not to give way too easily, he wants them to turn back, but it’s already too late, and anyway the sheep have had over three good hours of feasting on the grass, which is no small thing.
We cross over with Musa and Ibrahim. Meanwhile the kids have descended on the huge green garbage bins behind the army camp. Only in India have I seen something similar. They even dive into the bins, scavenging anything that can be salvaged or somehow used. Suddenly the utter poverty of these Palestinian families is transparent. They bring out sliced loaves of bread in plastic bags, an unopened plastic tub of hummus, some torn plastic sheets, scraps of metal. I try, fruitlessly, to pry them away from this trove, I’m worried the soldiers will come out and arrest them, but their hunger for more bits of jetsam, more scraps, army leftovers, is overpowering. Once across the road, they open up the hummus and devour it with the army-issue bread that I remember too well.
Musa is still reflecting on the imperfection of the world. “All this land,” he says to me, “belongs to Allah. That is something we know. I don’t understand why the Jews think they can take it away, hoard it, claim to possess it. Or why they would want to. It’s a mistake. And once they’ve done that, they’re at our throats.” Insanity, the total senselessness, is intrinsic to terror.
Yet I’ve never seen any of them depressed. Afraid—yes, of course. Angry. Enraged. Outraged. But also insouciant, nonchalantly defiant. Sometimes even happy. It’s a mystery. Here’s another. When the day’s grazing is mostly over, after we rendezvous with Is‘mail and his son and their sheep on a hilltop overlooking Omer’s farm, after we take leave and promise to return, we drive to Samir’s house on the outskirts of Nu‘ema. Sarah knows the family well, and she’s brought some clothes for them that her own children have outgrown. Samir is gentle, soft-spoken. We sit on the couches outside, and he tells us, in passing, that not long ago another of the Mvoot Yericho settlers—someone worse than Gavriel, he says—tried to run over his son. The boy narrowly escaped. Samir is a religious man, and on Fridays he goes to the mosque instead of taking his sheep to graze. He insists on feeding us a simple Palestinian lunch. We chat, we laugh, there are jokes, news, some memories, not all of them good, to say the least: that black undercurrent again, the stuff of tortured minds. I don’t like leaving them. How could anyone not love Samir? Then that other mystery: How could any human worthy of the name want to hurt him, to kill his child, to drive him out of his home and land, taking pleasure in his pain?
Like Musa, I don’t understand it. Even after all these years. But a wise friend of mine, a specialist in Holocaust hisory, once said to me: You can understand it; and to say that we can’t is to become an accomplice in the crime.
text David Shulman © 2020; photographs Margaret Olin © 2020 except where noted