Vered Cohen Barzilay
The beginning of 2009 did not usher in the usual feeling of optimism. As the world was preparing for the New Year my home turf, Israel, was in the midst of intense fighting which brought about yet another heartbreak in the personal and national mood. Seconds before midnight I was still trying to remain positive, but the moment the clock struck twelve the black cloud which burdened my soul was quickly released into the new year, creating a horrifying vision of the future. I stared at the clock’s hands and imagined Big Ben in London joyfully announcing the New Year to the crowd of people dancing in the street. Light, salty tears made their winding way down my face, washing away the morning’s make-up. The tears collected at my mouth and heavily dropped to the floor like Big Ben’s “ding dong” chime. The news anchor seemed serious and reserved. “Happy New Year,” he announced in a mechanical voice. He then moved right along to the military commentators who gave a brief report on the operation in Gaza. The number of Palestinian casualties had already reached a thousand, but in most Israeli homes that colossal number did not evoke any feelings of compassion. Even if any such feelings tried to emerge from under the reassuring promises of homeland security and the great sensation of fear, they were quickly muted by every Qassam or Grad rocket landing in the area.
In the next room my four year old daughter exchanged her dreams of princesses and weddings for thoughts of bad guys and good guys, of the living and the dead. Her angel face and rosy lips gave her innocence away, but this new reality she was encountering determined it was time for her to discover terms of war. My baby had yet to turn five and already witnessed two wars. I picked up the phone with a trembling hand and called the Italian author who for the past five years had been accompanying me in my attempts to find sanity in this crazy Israeli life. Just like all those people in London celebrating, the author was also in the midst of an experience quite distinct from mine: an exotic trip to Marrakech, Morocco. Sounds of sanity and joy from her world quickly and aggressively penetrated my body, completely breaking me. “I can’t take it anymore,” I uttered, not allowing her warm words of comfort to strengthen me. I hung up the phone. Having to face the sane world seemed only to hurt more. It burned my soul, taking the commitment to Human Rights which I had zealously adopted following in her footsteps and stacking it on the pyre for the sense of loyalty to my country. Why must these things be so extreme? So conflicting? I sadly wondered. The sound of the telephone relieved me from the answer. It was a call from Morocco, attempting yet again to comfort and strengthen me with the soundness of a reality celebrating the New Year.
The following day I walked into a classroom of college students in the outskirts of Tel Aviv. In my hand I held tightly the book the author from Italy had written. Thirty pairs of young, fearful eyes were looking at me with curiosity. The professor introduced me as a former journalist who had assisted in the research for a novel dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It had first been published in Italy and just debuted in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This was a book which changed my life and led me on a long journey of many stepping stones. The professor’s words were indeed a rather accurate description of my life in recent years, however the lightness with which they were spoken seemed to have lifted the weight of the traumatic feelings that have become part of me. It felt as if it they were released into the air as helium balloons longing to rise to their unknown destination.
There was silence in the room. The book, still in my hand, pressed up against me. It wanted to protect me, as it has loyally done for the last few years. The students, who were very interested in my past and current occupations as a Human Rights defender, announced straight away that I worked for an anti-Semitic organization. I smiled. If I had a penny for every time I heard that accusation I could make quite a bid on Big Ben and throw my own New Years’ Eve party. In the midst of war, when most people are riled up with hate and fear, asking thirty pairs of eyes to open up to a different point of view is no easy task. I was trying to expose these students to a different reality, replace the feelings of hate with compassion, shake off the notion that everybody is out to annihilate us and examine the tremendous power with which we are hitting our enemies in Gaza. Is it really meant to ensure our security? Is everyone indeed our enemy or are we perhaps our own biggest foe? Is it not possible that the immense power and feelings of fear collaborate and blind us from the truth, creating the illusion that we are the only victims? Or a reality in which Palestinians are no longer humans?!
Despite the harsh questions, the discussion was kept at the intellectual and literary level. During my years working for a Human Rights organization I have known some less pleasant conversations. I have learned, however, that at the moment I start using the power of literature and talking of horrifying realities through literary devices, I am able to penetrate the shields of my audience, reaching a place where logic and emotion do not function in the threatening shadow of fear. I asked them to look out the window at a vibrant tree. “Does that lively shade of green you see on each leaf convey the intensity of the world to you, with all its complex, splendid colors? As you walk down the street, are you aware of the world in which you are trapped, as I was, in a gray coat of terror and fear, anxiously considering every step you take, fearing that a wrong turn could lead to your death, could drag you to where satanic terror resides?!”
The sour scent of blood went up my nose as I if I were once again standing on an ash covered street after a bombing attack, trying to get eye-witness reports for the television channel I worked for. It was as if I was standing in a pool of blood with body parts strewn all around me, waiting for a good mother to come and pick everything up, just as she used to do when we were young and left the house in a mess. But in this reality there is no good mother, no one to pick up the mess. The streets are rinsed, body parts of scorched flesh meticulously collected and brought to burial, but the images keep coming back long after normalcy reinstates itself, adding to the national feeling of chaos.
The book in my hands brought all those images back to me, relentlessly haunting me with recurring nightmares of bombing attacks. More than anything else, the book insisted on telling me that even in a reality without mercy or reason there is still room for humanity and compassion. It was up to me, the one who was there to witness it all, to find them. The book introduced me to the same thing I was hoping to introduce to the college students: a different life. A life in a world in which fear cannot blind me from seeing the world’s true colors, a real world not only of gray but of vivid shades of green, white, black, blue and yellow, a world of true poetry, of joy and pain, a world in which I am the victim just as much as I am the assailant, a world in which a thousand Palestinian lives do amount to a tragic sum, a world in which little boys and girls have to dream of princesses and weddings and are spared from the pain and trauma of war, a world in which a new year begins with joy, not death.
As minutes went by, the students’ eyes seemed to slowly open wider and wider. They shared their pain, their fears and their strong desire to live differently, to see the enemy in a human light. When I read excerpts of the book to them they embraced it, just as I did, allowing it to show them a different path. For five years I have been walking this path, casting off the spoilt reality, seeking sanity in an insane world. I was paying a heavy personal price of friends and family attacking me and labeling me as “Bin Laden,” yet for the very first time I was living a different life: a hopeful life of peace in which the only war is the one against ignorance and hatred.
When I returned home that evening, my daughter asked me whether the good guys had already won the war. I looked at her and said that in war there are no winners, only losers. Her little eyes looked at me with astonishment, as if they were one more pair amongst the thirty pairs of eyes in that college on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Right after that, she jumped on a small bug that crawled uninvited into our living room, crushing it until its tiny soul went up to bug heaven. “I killed it!” she announced proudly. I looked at her and chills went up my spine. At that moment I realized: this is the personal price I am paying for this war, the price of the loss of my daughter’s innocence. The four year old girl who had become so familiar with war already comprehended the effect of evil, of taking life.
During World War II human life lost its value as the world completely shattered all its ethical and moral laws. At the end of the war despair was so immense that it seemed the only solution could be God’s act in the time of Noah: destroy and rebuild all. The world, as we all know, was not destroyed, but the world’s leaders understood that they must instill new values, new lines which would not be crossed again. They therefore drafted and committed themselves to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sixty years later we are proven that even as the world finishes a year’s cycle and is on the verge of a new one, world leaders still continue to cross lines everywhere. Human Rights violations occur at any given moment since the power of hatred and its ability to blind too often overpower tolerance, compassion and peace. It is our duty to strive with all our might to change that.
Those who can help us in doing so are authors and poets, whose sensitivity and intellectual ability to grasp the different reality is asset humanity has not been wise enough to take advantage of. As we read a novel we go through an emotional process that enables us to place ourselves in the shoes of every character, even our own enemies. It allows us to feel “the other,” their complexities and their humanity, and let go, for two or three hundred pages, of the blinding hatred and fear. The book which showed me the way to do that has also managed to pave its way to the hearts of so many people in hatred and fear stricken Israel and convey to them the message of humanity for all, Human Rights for every human. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights opens with this decree: “All human beings are born free and equal.” When the best of the world’s authors come together and masterfully weave short stories inspierd by the thirty articles of this important declaration, they succeed in raising great hope for true change.
Authors are often able, through their writing or social activism, to bring about a significant change in public opinion, even regarding very controversial issues, without enraging the public. In Israel the contribution of authors such as David Grossman, S. Yizhar, Sami Michael and others to the field of Human Rights is beyond compare. Due to that contribution during the 2006 Lebanon War a significant part of the population awoke from its indifference and protested against the fighting, leading to the war’s termination. Václav Havel, Bertolt Brecht, José Saramago and many others act similarly around the world. The more books on Human Rights that are written and the more authors overtly commit themselves to Human Rights, the more hope we have that in the future, when Big Ben tolls in announcement of a new year, we in Israel will also be celebrating in the streets. Israelis next to Palestinians, we would not be launching missiles or bombs at each other, but sending blessings of true companionship, in celebration of the different lives we would then finally lead.
Come and meet us and hear more about Human Rights Literature and how it can bring hope universally.
Click here to “The Power Of Literature and Human Rights” in LSE Literary Festival, LSE University, London UK