There is much talk these days about promoting American-style freedom and democracy around the world to those oppressed by cruel and sadistic dictators. Over 2000 Americans have died in Iraq alone to support this effort to export freedom. What makes one group worthier of being offered freedom over and against another? Left entangled in the tentacles of cruel overseers, this question is avoided by the current administration at great length. West Bank Diary is a book about freedom precisely because it shows what freedom is not. And who better to write about freedom than Jerry Levin, the former CNN Middle East Bureau chief in Beirut who was robbed of his freedom for almost a year as he survived the forced isolation and hell of being a hostage of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah? Who can better identify the terrorism of individuals and the terrorism of the state than a survivor of both?
Strangely enough, instead of being embittered, Levin emerged from his experience in captivity deeply convinced of the futility of violence and concerned about how easily we label some good and others bad—without trying to understand the problem. As a reporter, he knows context is everything and anyone can be labeled good or bad—depending on your point of view. With West Bank Diary, Levin debunks two myths long part of our popular culture. The first is that violence committed by an individual Israeli or the state of Israel, the so-called good side, is acceptable and understandable but Palestinian violence is not. The second is that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is about two equal but squabbling parties.
For the past three years, Levin has sent Internet reports to friends and colleagues about the everyday life of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and his participation in their lives as a volunteer of the Christian Peacemaker Team. West Bank Diary is a collection of those essays which, read together, leave an indelible impression as they paint the scenes of the daily hardships and frustrations lived by ordinary people who struggle to survive under the most arduous of circumstances in the land of their birth. Levin presents them unadorned, unplugged. He resists interpreting their words or transforming them into an academic discourse filled with theory and polemics. The simple story emerges of two peoples who are unequal in a lopsided conflict and an unfair fight. The core of the Israeli occupation is laid bare for what it is—the violent geographical and political repression of a people by a state backed by its superpower patron. It is not freedom.
Further, Levin knows terrorism when he sees it in all its contortions. With his West Bank Diary he demands we look at it too. Some of his accounts unfold in layers, other are a folksy reportage. All suggest we suspend our focus on the numbing foreign policy mantras of “Israeli security needs” and “America’s mission to spread freedom in the Arab world” and instead concentrate on the behavior and actions of the Israeli military and settlers toward the Palestinian people in real time and real space. Levin provides us with documentary evidence of the dehumanization of one people by another. The insidious violence of the Israeli occupation is exhibited for the waste of precious resources, time, and lives that it is.
The collection begins with Levin’s accounts that locate the geographical land of Palestine not through maps but through the people who live there—the Christian and Muslim descendants of generations of Holy Land dwellers. In the first report we meet Jamal, a taxi driver required to take passengers on lengthy circuitous routes because of arbitrary divisions and apartheid-style separations. Area A is Palestinian controlled, Area B gets Palestinian and Israeli supervision, and Area C, which encompasses 60 percent of the West Bank, is Israeli controlled for security purposes. Jamal asks, “What is the difference for Palestinians in Area A, Area B and Area C? … Nothing, Israel controls everything.”
Next we meet elementary students trying to get to school, headmasters trying to get pupils into classrooms and the Israeli military arbitrarily imposing another curfew, creating chaos in the street, fueling anger instead of learning. These very streets and roads, the location of so many violent actions Levin describes in a report entitled “Road Rage,” become the instruments of land theft, the prison boundaries of physical movement and the permanent borders which preclude a contiguous Palestine from ever being formed. The ongoing destruction of land, villages and family life to make way for Israel’s wall, Levin shows in his twelfth essay, is but more Israeli violence in a form of economic and social terrorism that ratchets up the repression of Palestinians who just want to get their kids to school each day.
The occupation is collective violence, according to Levin, a never-ending series of personal and community harassments, embarrassments, restrictions and fear. “Getting in the way”—his preferred method of nonviolent resistance intervention—is fraught with risk but he does it anyway. When a twenty-something-year-old soldier arbitrarily denied a woman’s permission to pass a checkpoint despite her possession of all necessary papers showing her medical need, Levin went to work. Repeatedly questioning the mean-spirited orders did not endear him to the soldier or the military authorities he insisted be called in.
This time, at least, neither he nor his camera was hurt as they had been before. It did, however, mean the world to the woman trying to get to Bethlehem to see a doctor for an appointment made weeks in advance. Levin’s interference on her behalf allowed her to get to her appointment—and Israel’s security was never in jeopardy. All Levin used was words.
Nonviolence, Levin demonstrates, is not passive but active, something one does. Nonviolence is a belief, but also a practice. Thus, when the Bush administration began its mission to spread freedom to Iraq using military violence, Levin readied his armament of words and self. With his wife and a small delegation of like-minded practitioners of nonviolence, their Christian Peacemaker team went to Iraq. Levin’s reports of the U.S. invasion of Iraq included in West Bank Diary rip open the question of whose violence is good and whose violence is bad—as if you could tell the difference. The Iraqis speaking to us via his reports tell of curfews, land confiscation for military purposes, checkpoints, no water, no electricity and no access to medical care—to say nothing of exploding bombs. One frustrated onlooker, unimpressed by the U.S. mission of freedom, surveyed the destruction of Baghdad and asked Levin, “What is the point of free speech if nobody listens?"
Upon their return to the West Bank a few weeks later, Levin reports finding the situation has worsened. Settler violence has increased, a farmer weeps for his field blocked from his tending, and the chronic traumatic stress syndrome runs especially rampant in the children. The military raids continue unabated with no end in sight. Hebron remains a flash point for extremists and violence from every side. Levin chronicles this agonizing existence using words to challenge us to act for justice and peace. Then he meets Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli practitioner of nonviolence who confirmed the existence of Israel’s nuclear military arsenal. Recently released from 18 years of Israeli prison, 11 of which were spent in solitary confinement, Vanunu describes his trek from atheism to a Christian faith, his view of his Jewish heritage and his devotion to the practice of nonviolence at the expense of his own freedom in his beloved country.
Levin leaves us with a promise of more reports to come. He is skeptical that true Palestinian freedom can be achieved given the continued violent Israeli occupation supported by U.S. policy and funding. In one essay he describes children and their discouraged teachers and worried parents as “Dying Stones” in an ironic reference to religious tourists who swarm over rocks and fossils of another era in a quest to touch holy relics of their faith, while ignoring the plight of the people of Palestine, quaintly known as the living stones of the Holy Land. Levin’s indictment is succinct: “Dying Stones are the norm here now—the defenseless children and adults in both Palestine and Israel who have become the predictable and unwilling victims of the no-end-in-sight violence, of the vicious cycle of resistance, oppression and inevitable revenge by both the oppressor and the oppressed.”
As he continues his nonviolence advocacy for the freedom of the Palestinian people, Levin tells us to “please stay tuned.” Sadly, we will.