Great Souls of Israel and Palestine: Or, Today’s Gandhis

Great Souls of Israel and Palestine: Or, Today’s Gandhis

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a profile of Joseph Lelyveld, author of the much-discussed new Gandhi biography titled "Great Soul." I focused on the parts of the book that focused on Gandhi’s association with Jews–from the possible homosexual relationship he had with a Jewish architect, to his tenuous position on a Jewish state. But in the new issue of Harper’s, the courageous liberal Israeli journalist David Shulman writes the kind of review I wish I had: he highlights the real-life Gandhian figures in the Palestinian territorities and Israel who, one hopes, will gain wider renown.

To be sure, we’ve heard about some of these figures before, like Abdallah Abu Rahmah. He’s the 39-year-old Palestinian activist who, for six years, has led the nonviolent campaign against Israel’s security barrier around the West Bank Arab village of Bi’lin. Rahmah has been gaining an international profile, perhaps tipped off by the documentary "Bi’lin My Love," an Israeli-made film about the nonviolent protests led by Rahmah.

And there’s another Palestinian Gandhian Shulman highlights in the Harper’s essay too: Ali Abu Awwad, a incredibly intelligent Palestinian well versed in Gandhian tactics. Shulman met Awwad last year at a Ramallah protest called International Peace Day, and told Shulman this: "Some people think that satyagraha [Gandhi’s word for nonviolence] is weakness; they believe the angrier you are, the stronger you will be. This is a great mistake. … You cannot practice nonviolence without listening to the other side’s narrative. But first," he adds, "you have to give up being the victim. When you do that, no one will be able to victimize you again."

Last, there’s the Israeli Gandhis; Shulman highlights Ezra Nawi, who, in striking contrast to Awwad, is not the least bit the intellectual. "A tough-minded, soft-hearted plumber who, I think, has never read a line of Gandhi" in his life, is how Shulman describes him. But he’s still been leading nonviolent protests in Hebron, the West Bank region teeming with religious settlers. That Nawi is not particularly well-educated is critical, since it highlights the main point of Shulman’s essay.

Lelyveld’s book shows that while Gandhi had indeed become a deified figured during his own life, he was in fact far from perfect (though being well-educated was, of course, not one of his flaws). He made poor political decisions and often failed to live up to his own standards of rectitude. But he was better than most, and for the simple reason that he saw a moral failing in his world and decided to do something about it–nonviolently.

"The whole beauty of this way of being in the world," Shulman writes, "is that you don’t need to be a Great Soul; indeed it’s probably best not to be one. Any of us can do it. Ali Abue Awwad says, ‘I want Israelis to recognize Jewish fear and what it does to us all. I wish you could show me your sorrow and your pain and not your strength, which is not real strength in any case. We read read Gandhi, but you know what? We don’t need to study him anymore. We need to study ourselves. There is Gandhi in every human being.’"

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