The Power of Literature V The Power of Hatred

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.

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The Temperature of the Middle East

Vered Cohen Barzilay 

The story goes that one of the first things that Václav Havel did after becoming President of Czechoslovakia was to summon all of the ‘agents’ that followed him during the years when he was a dissident. When they assembled in front of him they were afraid that he would use his power and authority for revenge. But Havel immediately calmed them and said that since they were the people that knew him the best and were very familiar with his habits he wished to nominate them to become his presidential guards. This small story represents one of the most admirable characteristic of Vaclav Havel and this is the example he gave to his people and is one of the reasons that explain Czechoslovakia and later on the Czech Republic became a democratic country.

For many years Havel was harassed and persecuted by the authorities for his views and human rights advocacy. He was jailed several times over an extended period and was not able to enjoy a free life or even to practice his art, as he desired to do since he was a child. But he never resented these people for it, as he never resented the agents that followed and kept him under surveillance. Havel understood that the people were afraid and that it was the system that was forcing them to ‘live in a lie’. He believed that the only way to fight a lie is to tell the truth. Havel, a gifted playwright, essayist and a poet used his talent to “fight” these dark forces with his pen. He never stopped being hopeful and tried for years using nonviolence creative ways to bring the truth to the people. It was through his famous essays “The power of the powerless”, the publication of the Charter 77 manifesto and his plays that he was able to convince the Czechoslovakian people they had the power and means to achieve the change that eventually lead to the Velvet Revolution.

At the time of writing this column (November 29th) a very historical event took place in the U.N. – Palestine recognized as a ‘non member observer state’. This symbolic, but very important event, happen exactly 65 years after the UN countries supported the U.N. partition plan for Palestine that eventually lead to the creation of the state of Israel.

Havel believed in the ‘two state solution’ and in an interview he gave during one of his visits to Israel he expressed a deep sorrow for not being able to host the Oslo talks In Prague. He believed that the history of Prague would have influenced the two leaders and helped to find the way for a permanent agreement.

In a lecture given by one of the most famous Israeli authors, Amoz Oz, he shared a story about his first very secret meeting with Vaclav Havel in 1986 in Czechoslovakia. Oz remembered a very “strange refreshing lecture” about “the temperature of regimes”. Havel claimed, said Oz, that in totalitarian regimes the temperature is very cold.  It’s not the temperature outside but the coldness between people that trickles down from the authorities, from the power, the bureaucracy to the people. It is cold even when it is very warm outside; it is cold in the houses, between people and even between lovers. This coldness influences people’s behavior and they become more suspicious toward one another, more guarded and cautious.  This  theory lead him to believe in human warmth as the tool to melt the coldness of a totalitarian regime. People, said Havel, crave for human warmth because it is one of the basic urges just like they crave for love or food.

Those that personally knew or met Havel all agree that he was not just preaching these values, he himself was a very loving and warm man but more important he used this theory in his political campaigns. Above everything Havel was human and a humanist. For this reason he was able to touch many people in his county and outside the world and make magic as the Velvet Revolution.

Havel set an example for leaders around the world especially in the countries with long and deep conflicts such as Israel and Palestine. Even if he is not with us, able to spread his human warmth or inspire people by his writing talent, wisdom or bravery, we owe it to him to try and follow his way.

Less than a month ago a military operation cut off the calmness of life in Israel and in Palestine. The people in both Israel and Gaza got a clear message from the leaders in both sides that life in this area will never be safe and there is no place for calmness and therefore no place for hope for peace. It was very cold here and it was not because of bad weather. Not only totalitarian regimes suffer from coldness but also countries in a long bloody conflict that ‘live in a lie’ and that don’t allow human warmth to enter inside of them.

Havel understood that a strong civil society is important not only to fight the darkness of a current regime but for the days after the ‘revolution’ and regime change. For that reason it is essential that civil society will continue to act to defend human rights in both countries. It is essential that writers and intellectuals In Israel, as well as in the new Palestinian state and around the world, will continue with their daily efforts to defend human rights until it becomes a meaningful and popular word and not an excuse for hatred. We must continue to try and approach the people with messages of peace and human rights until the temperature will get warmer, which allow the ‘better angels’ of humanity to emerge and create the ‘revolution’ that can lead to peace and equality.

(Published in the Czech Republic newspaper online web “Hospodárske noviny” in honor for the memory of the leader, author and Human Rights advocate,  Václav Havel).

Click here to read more essays about Havel in English and Czech