Language of War, Language of Peace by Raja Shehadeh, book review: A steadfast faith in justice and reconciliation

Palestinian writer is a remarkable witness with an Orwell-like devotion to the truth

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 05 February 2015 15:00
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Despair beckons: a baby's funeral after the Gaza attacks last summer
Despair beckons: a baby's funeral after the Gaza attacks last summer

In May 2012, I spent an unforgettable day in Ramallah with Raja Shehadeh. We walked and drove around the breezy heights of the West Bank, where his family has lived since they had to leave Jaffa during the wars of 1948. The Palestinian writer and human-rights lawyer pointed out to me the encirclement of his home town not only by hilltop settlements but by the Israeli military highways that now carve up this beloved landscape.

In person, as in the print of lyrical, visionary and quietly impassioned books such as Palestinian Walks and Occupation Diaries, Shehadeh – the scholarly jurist, rational and unflappable – projects an almost eerie calm.

This gathering of recent lectures is perhaps his bleakest book. Nonetheless, he manages to reiterate his plea for peace with justice among Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, "in this beautiful but tortured land which we share". Here, the prose has an urgent topicality that sometimes lacks the grace and charm of his more subjective works. Yet still he embodies, and celebrates, the virtues of the Arabic word sumoud: steadfastness; perseverance.

Despair beckons at many turns as he reflects on the events of the past few years. Every prospect of a just accord in the region has now reached "the end of the road". During the Israeli army's assault on Gaza last summer, which killed 501 Palestinian children, he admits to feeling an uncharacteristic upsurge of "deep and intense anger". Scrupulous as always, he also records every Israeli civilian killed and wounded by the random rockets of Hamas.

Like his father before him, a pioneer of the "two-state solution", Shehadeh has always placed his faith in the law as the road not only to justice but to reconciliation. Along with this ideal of due process goes his Orwell-like devotion to clear, truthful language and a sensitivity to its abuse. Here, he shows how Palestinian refugees have lost not only territory and family but also the title of exile, dwindling into "absentees", "infiltrators", "abandoners" – and, of course, potential "terrorists". With Gaza under fire, this stalwart faith in the language of justice and the justice of language totters. He fears that "All my attempts over many years at invoking the law, municipal and international, had come to nothing."

Even in this pit of broken hope, sumoud serves him well. He affirms that: "Human beings can tolerate humiliation for a certain time but not for ever." For all his fury, he seizes on every scrap of sympathy and solidarity he can find on the side he refuses to consider as "other": from the young Israelis moved by a film about the Arab families who once lived on their land to a (banned) radio ad made by the admirable Israeli human-rights group, B'Tselem. It simply recited the names of Gaza's dead children.

Shehadeh has never before sounded quite as pessimistic. Even so, he ends with a cry against the darkness: "What we should seek is not the destruction of Israeli society, but ways to forge a new relationship that would make it possible for both of us to have a full life based on justice and equality." Later in February, this remarkable witness – I am almost tempted to write "prophet" – will be speaking at Jewish Book Week. If you can, go to hear him.

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