The Humiliation Machine

By Amy WilentzJuly 22, 2016

The Humiliation Machine

The Way to the Spring by Ben Ehrenreich

THE WAY TO THE SPRING, Ben Ehrenreich’s new book about the Palestinian struggle against the ongoing and seemingly endless Israeli occupation, is bound to be a highly controversial work. I hope it will be, anyway, because it is sharp enough and opinionated enough to spark big fights about a situation that always ignites anger and even fury from all sides. In the book, the author plunges into hotbeds of Palestinian resistance with an intimacy one rarely sees from a Western journalist. And good for him: an American readership needs to see what makes the Palestinian struggle tick, and we need to see it ticking on a daily basis. Ehrenreich gives us that. What allows people to continue a struggle that seems unending? In an interview at the Los Angeles Public Library’s ALOUD series, he said that the entire book is an answer to this question.

According to Ehrenreich, there is a vicious circle churning here. Palestinian resistance continues because the Israeli occupation of Palestine (however you want to define it) continues, supported in large measure by the United States. Palestinian resistance is or can be harsh because the occupation is harsh. The farther the Israelis go in hampering and limiting daily life in the territories, the more indignant and angry the Palestinians become. The Palestinians and the Israelis are each other’s mirror image (and I know this kind of phrase makes people on both sides go crazy). Let’s put it this way, instead: stone throwing doesn’t happen in a vacuum; stone-throwers must always have stone-throwees. If the stone-throwees never showed up, the stone throwers would stay home. But reliably, whenever Palestinians gather to protest, whether by the tens or the scores or the hundreds, the IDF always comes out in force. So do the media, who then present the struggle to the outside world.

But this book is not just about stone throwing. It’s about the wall and the settlers and the checkpoints, and all the other forms of imprisonment and harassment visited on the Palestinians by the hyperpowerful and hyperparanoid Israeli state.

In The Way to the Spring, Ehrenreich visits three different kinds of Palestinian flashpoints. There is the village of Nabi Saleh, home to the Tamimi clan, which has been at the forefront of resistance to and violence against Israel for decades. There is the city of Hebron, where the tiny and fanatical fundamentalist settler community wreaks havoc on the daily lives of the greater Palestinian community. And there is the Bedouin village of Umm al-Khair, where shepherds watch their dwindling flocks by night and day as the wall, the settlements, and the state of Israel encroach further and further on their culture and their way of life, tearing down homes, appropriating land, denying villagers electricity and water. Above this destruction and drought, the adjacent settlement of Carmel sits like a green and pleasant American suburbia.

In his introduction, Ehrenreich makes it clear that he is not attempting to take on the whole scope of the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. Rather, he is resolved to show us only the Palestinian side. This is not an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other kind of book. Because he stands with the Palestinians, Ehrenreich has been called brave and courageous, but as someone who has also tried to do this kind of work in the Middle East, I can say that for a certain type of reporter, it doesn’t take bravery — there is something very seductive about victims, and to follow the Palestinians is simply to follow a reporter’s instinct for a good story. The Palestinians’ plight is so obviously terrible and their struggle for land and freedom and life so patently justified. There is something stirring and romantic about their resistance, too; as Ehrenreich suggested on Jon Wiener’s The Nation podcast, Start Making Sense, he sees certain resemblances between the first Palestinian intifada and the Spanish Civil War.

Where the romance stops, for many, is at the moment of the suicide bomb’s explosion. (Of course, if you look at ISIS videos, you can see that for them that’s where the romance begins.) When you’re reading moving testimony about harsh Palestinian lives and the hardships of raising kids in the territories, you might like to know if this testimony is coming from supporters of suicide bombings — I want to know that. Ehrenreich’s book is not entirely forthcoming on this subject.

A number of people in the Tamimi clan, for instance, like many other Palestinians, have at times embraced armed struggle, although according to Bassem Tamimi, one of the heads of this extended family, that’s not their strategy now. Wouldn’t you, Ehrenreich’s book basically asks, embrace armed struggle if this were what your country had been reduced to? But we the readers are not made fully aware of the extent of this embrace as we read about the Tamimis’ difficulties, and their prison terms, and the deaths of uncles, brothers, cousins, at the hands of the IDF, and all the arrests. We see how hard it is to make a life, find work, have a future, get an education, and fill the larder on the West Bank — it ain’t easy — but not if, how, or when they respond with violence.

Beyond the pain and the literal roadblocks in the lives of Nabi Saleh’s Tamimi family, there’s also an element of idyll. In Nabi Saleh, Ehrenreich writes,

Everyone knew everyone, and everyone was related by some link of blood or marriage. Children were free to run in screaming swarms from house to house, knowing that someone would feed them in whichever kitchen they ended up. Often, when the kids weren’t around and I asked Nariman [Tamimi, Bassem’s wife] where they were […] she would shrug and reply, “In the village.” They might be playing soccer in the pitted field behind the mosque or chasing one another through the olive groves or picking figs or playing video games in someone else’s living room.

In one stirring scene, Bassem carries his old crippled mother out into the night so she can watch the kids and the shooting stars.

I don’t want to belabor it, but as I’m reading about these wonderful and poetically described people, I would like to have heard more discussion of one story the Ehrenreich mentions only briefly: at least three of the male Tamimis, including Bassem, were arrested for the 1993 knifing and burning murder of Chaim Mizrachi, an Israeli who did business with Palestinians. That information would help me understand them. And it lessens their humanity and their agency not to include details of this, and their thoughts about it. These are people who resist, and have resisted in many ways. They’re not simple victims — they take action, and have taken action. I want to know more about that, from their point of view. Ehrenreich ought to have included more — otherwise there’s a risk, for the fast reader, of missing this entire (controversial) aspect of the Tamimis’ struggle. Is Ehrenreich afraid his Western readers won’t like the Tamimis if they know more about them? Perhaps, but those readers might come closer to understanding them in the fullness of their suffering and their attempts, both advised and ill-advised, to end that. I want to know more, too, about cousin Ahlam Tamimi, also from Nabi Saleh. Ahlam was a young journalist in Ramallah when she guided a Hamas suicide bomber to a crowded Sbarro pizza outlet in Jerusalem in August 2001 (the target chosen by Ahlam after careful reconnaissance because of the “large crowds”; 15 killed, eight of them 18 years old or younger). Here’s the full extent of what Ehrenreich tells us about this Tamimi cousin:

[Ahlam] was sentenced to sixteen consecutive life sentences [for the Sbarro bombing plot] and released in 2011, when Israel traded 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit […] Ahlam was exiled to Jordan, where she now works as a journalist on a Hamas-run television station. Her relatives in Nabi Salah still speak of her with great affection.

Well, well, I have to say. They may still speak of her that way, but don’t we expect just a touch more from our reporter on site? Don’t we want to know what the exhausted, taciturn, but kindly Bassem, our host in Nabi Saleh, thinks of her and her actions? What Nariman, Bassem’s wife and a militant mother, thinks of her? We want to know because that might affect how we interpret Bassem and Nariman, who are among Ehrenreich’s and therefore our most important guides in the book. But on this subject we are never informed, unless Ehrenreich means us to understand an awful lot when he says that Ahlam’s Nabi Saleh relatives “speak of her with affection.” Is this code of some kind?

To be generous, Ehrenreich is perhaps trying to show us what might lead people to become supporters of suicide bombings, without putting us off from the get-go by telling us that that’s what they are — or what they were at one time. One of the questions being asked here, albeit tangentially, is what degree of violence one can rationally support if one has no other way out of a grinding and decades-long humanitarian and political injustice; if one’s people have been the victim of relentless and indiscriminate overkill, as in the bombings of Gaza.

Ehrenreich says Bassem now calls suicide bombing “the big mistake.” But that doesn’t mean Bassem thinks suicide bombing is morally wrong. “Taking up arms again would be foolish,” Bassem tells Ehrenreich (like most Palestinians, Bassem does not consider stones to be arms). We don’t really know what Bassem thinks about the morality of suicide bombing, because Ehrenreich doesn’t tell us, and I would guess that the reason we don’t hear much about this is because Bassem doesn’t think it was wrong. Just foolhardy, strategically mistaken, because it took the romantic Palestinian narrative and turned it into something with the blood of children on it. In the 1990s, during Oslo, the Palestinians made the mistake of thinking that Palestine at the end of the century was like Algeria in 1962, and that the Israelis were like the French. They thought perhaps that slaughtering soft targets would work the same trick as in the Algerian rebellion. It didn’t. Unlike the compromising French, the Israelis dug in deeper, and suicide bombing became a disaster for the Palestinian cause domestically and internationally.

These days, though, the cause seems to have recovered, thanks to Netanyahu and his government’s ongoing intransigence and aggression.

The Way to the Spring is filled with the powerful poetry of the desert and of small villages, of single bulbs that stay on way into the night as men converse, of children laughing and playing and protesting, of herds of goats wandering over ancient lands, of long nights sleeping on the roof near the cistern under a huge sky glittering with stars. It also has brilliant recountings of how the wall went up and what it has meant on the largest scale and the smallest, as single houses get locked into a Kafkaesque isolation. It shows how, with enough protest, sometimes Palestinians can get the wall to move, however slightly.

It also describes rigid Israeli obduracy and especially IDF and settler bad behavior with gusto and accuracy. Though many have tried with varying success, no one has quite captured the vileness and sincere zealotry of Anat Cohen, the well-known Hebron settler, the way Ehrenreich does. A good moment, of which there are many in the book, is an afternoon when Ehrenreich and a friend, sitting around in hotly contested Hebron, are watching a video of a 12-year-old who’s been detained at a checkpoint (that’s the kind of entertainment you’ve got in Hebron …). Someone runs in to say there’s been an incident at a nearby Palestinian girls school. Ehrenreich and his friend rush over to the school, passing a woman in a long skirt scrambling down a hill in the opposite direction.

This, it turns out, is Anat Cohen, daughter of an infamous settler terrorist and scourge of almost three decades of Palestinian life in Hebron. Cohen, who is carrying a can of what looks like spray paint, hurries to the main street and washes her hands at a public tap. Meanwhile Ehrenreich and chum find that the girls school has been defaced with white spray paint. They film the vandalism, and then return to the friend’s house. Surprise: Cohen is there also, and — speaking to two IDF soldiers standing outside the friend’s house — accuses Ehrenreich of having tried to throw a stone at her. Anat Cohen is everywhere, rushing here and there, causing trouble. The tiny brouhaha attracts the wasted and pointless attention of two vehicles full of soldiers and police. Eventually nothing comes of the vandalism or the invented stone-throwing attempt. Cohen’s eyes gleam throughout. We like the delicacy of her accusation: that Ehrenreich — the (to Cohen) Pal-sympathizing, despicable, immoral, Jew-hating, internationalista American reporter — tried to throw a stone. She’s a zealot, but a careful one.

One of the most moving sections in the book is a short chapter on the Qalandia checkpoint. Ehrenreich describes this disgusting and tortuous human filter as he moves through it. The checkpoint, with its holding pens and one-human-width cages and painful waiting times and unusually high turnstiles, is an unseemly and inhuman “humiliation machine” (Ehrenreich’s apt phrase) made to impress upon each Palestinian the threat that he or she presents to the state of Israel, and the dismissiveness with which the state treats Palestinians’ rights and humanity. Ehrenreich uses Qalandia as a metaphor for the entire occupation.

Ehrenreich also presents little moments of insight for me, such as the moment when, during a protest, “someone delivered a giant box of rocks.” I just didn’t know that this was how the shabab, as the stone-throwers are known (translated traditionally into English as “the lads,” but in Ehrenreich’s more American version, as “the guys”), got their ammo. I thought, naïvely, that the stones they threw were stones they picked up from the roadside.

Another little moment of insight is an aside when Ehrenreich is meeting up with Bassem in Ramallah at their usual café. Bassem, Ehrenreich tells us, again without comment, is getting ready to go to Amman to visit Nizar Tamimi, one of the men arrested with him in the long-ago murder of Chaim Mizrachi. Nizar, it turns out, has been released from jail and is now married to and living with Ahlam Tamimi, of the Sbarro attack. Ehrenreich says very little more about this, but the alert reader begins to understand the connections and the political solidarity here, and again suspects some whitewashing.

Ehrenreich’s ongoing castigation of the supine Palestinian Authority is also instructive. At every turn, we see Mahmoud Abbas’s PA and its police doing the bidding of the occupation. (Interestingly, the militant Bassem Tamimi works for the PA.) We see their corruption and profiteering, from chapter to chapter but also distilled for our delectation in a brief “Interlude” section on Riwadi, a PA high-rise gated housing development about which Ehrenreich writes with a style that combines the Wealthlandia verve of Tom Wolfe and the reeling, swirling worldview of Pynchon. Ehrenreich also goes into various killings of Palestinian protesters and kids and villagers in great detail to show us how cruel and offhand the IDF can be about the lives of these others.

What you feel when you finish the book is that — alongside its author, with his brilliant eye for detail and his deep compassion — you have walked with the Palestinian people for a time, and seen what they see, lived as they live, suffered what they suffer. It’s a draining story. You finish feeling wrung out. Not just because of all the suffering but also because of the relentless and unending quality of the confrontation. How to get out of it? Can the Israeli government ever be budged? What kind of Palestinian comportment could stop the occupation from continuing to grow, much less begin to bring it to an end? (“Was there no form of Palestinian resistance so innocuous that it would not win condemnation?” Ehrenreich asks.)

Do the Palestinians indeed have any voice whatever in their fate, no matter what strategy they undertake? The Palestinians’ existential quandary — in which both personal and political morality mean nothing, lead to nothing, change nothing — ends up creating a kind of despair that can explode at any moment, as it did recently when a young Palestinian killed an even younger settler girl as she slept in her bed. And such existential explosions will always meet with outsized Israeli retaliation, as we have seen repeatedly, and this last time, too. The Way to the Spring makes us understand that the creation of this kind of Palestinian despair, leading to desperate action, is exactly what the humiliation machine wants to produce in order to justify, to itself and to the world, its continued repression, its endless and ever-expanding occupation.


Amy Wilentz teaches in the Literary Journalism program at the University of California, Irvine, and lives in Los Angeles. She was the Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker during the Oslo period and is the author of, among other books, Martyrs’ Crossing (Simon & Schuster), a novel about the conflict.

LARB Contributor

Amy Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier and Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for memoir in 2013. Her novel, Martyrs’ Crossing, won the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award in 2001. She teaches in the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine.


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