The Elegance of a Dissident


Jerusalem's Temple Mount behind a barbed-wired fence.

Sometimes sanity prevails. In Israel today, I feel the need to point such an unusual—such a not surrealistic—moment. David Shulman, renowned scholar of Indian religions, won the country's highest civilian honor—even after announcing that he would donate the prize money to an intensely controversial Israeli-Palestinian group.

I regret to inform you that this has implications that are not black and white.

The Israel Prize is a kind of local Nobel, with the state rather than the bequest of the long-dead rich funding the awards. In contrast to the Nobel, the fields for which the prize is granted vary from year to year, in order to give recognition to a wider spectrum of achievement. It's very much a national institution: The prize ceremony is held on Independence Day, with the president, prime minister, and chief justice in attendance. 

This year one of the fields was philosophy and religious studies. A committee of four judges—chosen by a branch of the Education Ministry firewalled from politics—named Shulman. As a scholar, the Hebrew University professor was a natural choice. He could add it to the MacArthur fellowship he won nearly 30 years ago and a list of other honors, but inside Israel this one has a particular, hometown hero resonance.

Shulman grew up in Iowa and came to Israel at age 18 in 1967—so he wrote in his 2007 book, Dark Hope—“mostly because I had fallen in love with the Hebrew language.” By then he'd also learned Russian, Yiddish, and Latin. From there he went on to Arabic, and then to falling in love with Sanskrit and more Indian languages, with classical Hindustani music, with the culture of south India, with literature and philosophy that sometimes had been swept into obscurity during the colonial period. In one study that Shulman wrote with two other scholars, for instance, they describe how in today's India, students of political science “focus on the long tradition of Western political thought, from Plato ... to Hegel [and] Marx.” Then they reopen the world of South Asian political thought, exploring a 16th century emperor’s treatise on statecraft.

On the other hand, Shulman most definitely didn't get the prize for his activism against the occupation in general, or for being a co-founder of Ta'ayush in 2000. In Arabic, the name means “Living Together” or “Partnership.” The Israeli-Palestinian organization started out organizing food convoys to villages in occupied territory that were cut off by Israeli forces in the early months of the Second Intifada. Afterward a major focus became the South Hebron Hills, the southernmost part of the West Bank. There, a rural Palestinian population has suffered constant harassment from extreme and violent settlers and from the Israeli military, which has sought to evict them from much of their land.

Dark Hope, Shulman's account of his involvement with Ta'ayush, begins with rejection of romanticizing the Palestinians. “I am not one of those who think that what has happened here is entirely our fault. The ‘other side,’ as it's called, is also staggering under a burden of folly and crime. ... The threat of terrorism is a fact that cannot be denied.” But, he says, tabulating the opposing side's violence to justify one's own is a hollow, senseless argument, because, “each act of violence is entirely and irreducibly singular in conception and execution.” Singular here means discrete, standing apart from the chain of false justifications, demanding opposition. And, he says, what Israel “is doing, on a large scale, to civilian Palestinian populations in the territories... is singularly cruel.”

Meanwhile, the Israeli right, in and out of government, has spent the last several years portraying Israeli human rights groups, particularly those focused on the occupied territories, as enemies of the people. In that atmosphere, the Israel Prize's firewall cracked a year ago. Filling in as education minister before last year's election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the unprecedented step of vetoing some of the proposed judges for the literature and film prizes, leading to the resignation of more. Not by coincidence, novelist David Grossman, a prominent critic of the government, had been a leading candidate for the literature prize. Grossman withdrew his name amid a storm of criticism against Netanyahu.

The current education minister, Naftali Bennett, is the head of the Jewish Home party and has built his political appeal on being more dependably hardline than Netanyahu. His “accomplishments” in office include a new edition of the national high school civics textbook with a rightward slant—though not quite as tilted as it was before educators and editors examined early drafts.

But Bennett kept to tradition by keeping his hands out of the Israel Prize selection. Commentators from Bennett's political camp responded to Shulman's award in tones of betrayal. In response to media queries, Bennett issued a short statement, saying that the prize was “given to Professor Shulman for his breakthrough research into the literature and culture of southern India. Minister Bennett believes that one should not disqualify someone for his opinions, left or right.” It's possible he decided that denying the prize wasn't worth the likely public and legal fight. It's also possible that in an unexpected fit of good sense, he decided that the prize really should be outside politics. These things happen. People are complicated.

This left Shulman with a problem of conscience. Last week, shortly before the award ceremony, he released a short video describing Ta'ayush's work. At the end, he said, “I thought over whether it was appropriate to accept the prize in light of the deteriorating situation, which recently has included persecution of Ta'ayush activists and other peace and human rights activists by the establishment and the far right.” The subtext, I think, was that accepting the prize might suggest acceptance of the state's actions; rejecting it would be agreement to place himself and other dissidents outside the community of Israelis.

And so, he announced, he would donate the prize money—about $20,000—to Ta'ayush. The right-wing group Ad Kan (This Far) demanded that Bennett prevent Shulman from getting the money. Both Netanyahu and Bennett, it appears, realized that it was much too late and too costly to object. The ceremony passed without incident.

The beauty of this story, as I see it, is that it leaves nothing as clear-cut as the people of slogans would like. It does not indicate that Israeli democracy is healthy. Shulman is correct that it is not. But the fear of democratic pressure, or even a remaining shred of propriety, kept the politicians of the angry right in check. At the same time, Shulman showed that you can oppose what a state is doing without rejecting the state itself. Instead he accepted a symbol of shared community that is more, or can be more, than what its current leaders have made it. Amid the craziness, this gives me hope. 

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