Amiel Vardi at Hebrew University, Classical Studies http://experts.huji.ac.il/eng/classic.htm
David Shulman at Hebrew University, Comparative Religion http://religions.huji.ac.il/faculty/shulman.html
I wasn’t there that day. I heard what happened. About half a ton of grapes were scattered by the roadside and on the road. The riot police—the notorious Yassam—were their usual ungentle selves; maybe even more ungentle than usual. Amiel and Eli were arrested. The police trumped up their usual charge of having been assaulted by their detainees; the video footage shows Amiel being carried off, unresisting, to detention. Eli was once my student in an honors class at the university: we read Plato and Dostoyevsky together. Now he’s standing trial. Amiel, a fine Latinist, is my close colleague. Such are today’s defendants. You can’t help but think of Socrates and his accusers.
I was confused about the date. When I called Amiel’s home in the morning, his young daughter said, nonchalantly: “Abba’s not home. He’s on trial.” Actually, she was right: it’s all in a day’s work for Amiel. I rushed over to the court. At the entrance the security guard asked me while carrying out his check, “Who is this Amiel Vardi?” “Why do you want to know?” “So many people are coming to his trial.”
The usual scene: prosecutors to the left, Amiel and Eli and their lawyer Gabi Lasky to the right, the judge in his black robes elevated on his dais beside the computer typist. From the start, Judge Barkali seems impatient with this case and, in particular, with the prosecution’s endless string of witnesses. They are soldiers from the Yassam who were there at the event, who saw what happened and made the arrests. They seem to be cut from the same cloth: each with his heavy pistol in its holster on his waist, the mandatory sunglasses pushed up high on his forehead, his grey-blue uniform and badge of rank. They tell their story, speaking fast in the staccato style of colloquial Hebrew. The demonstrators came. We closed off the road. They dumped the grapes. Cars started sliding on the road….
Judge Barkali: “Did you see a car slide?”
Well, actually, no.
“And you closed off the road yourselves, with your command cars.”
“So why did you say the demonstrators did it?”
It was an illegal demonstration, a public nuisance. We warned them that if they didn’t disperse within ten minutes, we’d arrest them.
“Describe the arrests.”
Pointing to Amiel: I told him he was arrested, and he resisted arrest.
“How did he resist?”
He sat on the ground and we had to pick him up.
“You call that resisting arrest?”
I think it’s called passive resistance.
There’s quite a lot of video material, from both the police videographer and from Ta’ayush photographers. An old TV, dusty, scratched, perched on wheels, is maneuvered into place so the judge can watch. This takes time. The police footage is apparently very disjointed—sitting on the spectators’ benches, we can’t see it. The police videographer is sworn in as witness.
“Why does the film jump all over the place?
I wasn’t trained as a photographer. It was my first time. During the arrests I stopped filming.
“Why was that?”
I saw my friends needed help, so I went over to be with them.
He’s young, this witness; crew-cut, somehow shy, a little awkward in this setting where words have weight. Likeable. In fact, there’s an odd innocence about all of these guys. They’re, in general, not very articulate, clearly not too well educated, typical products of the Israeli school system and the army. They look a lot worse, I can tell you, when they’ve got their riot gear on and their big sticks and guns and they’re screaming at you on some rocky hilltop, but even then they’re hardly what you would call “evil.” The judge yawns. I try to think this through, not for the first time.
Could we expect even one of them to stop serving the occupation? No, it’s far too much to expect. The very idea is ludicrous. They bask in the warm comraderie of the tribe. They do what they’re told to, that goes without saying. Probably some of them are even a little racist in the common Israeli mode—contemptuous of Arabs in a non-specific, non-committal way. Some of them certainly speak Arabic. They have been trained to violence, but I don’t think they’re particularly violent by nature, no more than anyone else. It’s true that from time to time we do meet, in the field, a bona fide sadist or two, someone who takes obvious pleasure in hurting. Such people thrive in a system like the Occupation, which gives them ample opportunity to indulge their secret passion. But they’re rare, on the whole. Usually what you get is someone like these men—young, young enough to be overtly macho, a bit fuzzy, the inevitable blend of good and bad, gloom and cheer, obedient to their officers, their minds rotted to some extent by government propaganda and what is known in Israel as the “consensus.” Probably not one of them has ever really thought, freely and boldly, for himself. Well, maybe one. After the arrests that day, in the police station, Amiel and Eli were passing the time discussing the Odyssey and the moral quandaries of its hero; one of these same Yassam soldiers overheard them and, having read the book himself, ardently joined in.
So is evil banal? No, that is certainly not what Hannah Arendt meant. In fact, the term is unfortunate. There are hungry Palestinian viniculturists and farmers in and around Al-Khadr; Israel has starved them and wants to rob them of their lands. These are facts, and they constitute naked evil, visible for anyone with eyes, incapable of any justification or rationalization. Nothing banal about that. This evil stalks the genteel, somewhat tacky courtroom on this cool autumn day, though of course no one speaks of it or, for that matter, really notices its presence. Courts deal with highly formal and technical matters: he did this, I did that, regulation no. 683b tells us it’s illegal. The stuff of life is distorted here. No one in this room can taste the hunger. Even despair has been exiled, for the moment, to somewhere outside, somewhere not very far away.
It seems Arendt was trying to tell us that the evildoer is banal. She was thinking of the grey bureaucrats who, sitting in their offices, moved millions to their deaths; she was thinking of their impoverished consciousness, their truly astonishing blindness and moral obtuseness, or deadness, and their servile nature. Hers was a great discovery, an insight peculiarly modern, in a time when systemic evil, on a vast scale, has become so easy. But I think she was wrong, and not only because these soldiers from the Yassam have nothing in common with her middle-European bureaucrats. I’ve seen real evil, fully embodied, fully activated, in the demented Israeli settlers in south Hebron; I’ve seen the eyes of killers rushing to attack. They’re not very banal, either, and, more important, they’re the icing on the cake. The Occupation endures because of affable, mostly good-natured fellows like these soldiers, who follow orders.
And I wouldn’t want to demean them by denying their right and their ability to make a choice. I think they make the choice, unwittingly for the most part, yet not entirely so. I think it’s a very subtle thing that happens on the cusp of awareness, not at any one moment but again and again, in moment after moment, each tiny choice edging the chooser further along the path he or she creates; each such fleeting, unnoticed decision making it harder to turn back. Harder, but not impossible. And it’s not so much about thinking, although each of them also thinks, I am sure of it, like everyone else in Israel, about what the right course should be. Cruelty—that is evil—is born in that subtle, murky space. It is, in its origins, a very slight movement of the soul that can, in a full-fledged system of oppression, collectively amplified, blossom into something overt, massive, and lethal. Often, I think, it is hardly more than a quick, almost inadvertent turning away, a failure of attention—a choice, that is, not to see. That is the movement that counts, and it happens in all of us every day, many times a day. These soldiers saw the Palestinian farmers carrying their grapes. You can’t tell me that they didn’t know, somewhere, without knowing they knew, that behind the boxes of rotting fruit stood the specter of great hunger. You can’t tell me they didn’t know, without knowing, that we have caused that hunger, whatever the “other side” may have done or not done to make our cruelty seem a natural part of the endless chain.
That’s the thing about evil: it’s not something abstract. It’s not some ontic principle or impersonal metaphysical entity. There’s nothing autonomous about it, nor is it alien to us. In fact, it may be our most intimate friend, at home in the recesses of our everydayness, in the blank internal space that we instinctively defend, where we feel safe but not free. It may not even be “bad” per se, and there is certainly no way, indeed no real need, to root it out. The internal movement that is required is not one of rooting out. Much depends on the quality of our attentiveness, mostly though never entirely drowned out by the background noise or lulled to sleep by opportune distractions or savaged by the way we treat our bodies, our minds, our world. I wouldn’t release anyone of us, not myself, not any of the soldiers, not the judge, not my beloved, from making the constant, crucial mini-choices and from what they entail. You don’t have to be aware to make the choice, though maybe it would help if you were.
Today the judge makes his. He’s tired of the grapes and, it seems, of the whole foolish and sickening scene. The prosecution, sensing this atmosphere of impatience, decides to withdraw the charges, and Barkali dismisses the case. For three years the threat of punishment, even prison, has been hanging over Amiel and Eli. For a moment, the threat lifts. But it won’t go away so quickly; Amiel has more trials coming up in a week (for being in a Closed Military Zone, countless times). And things are getting harder, consistently harder and more violent, on the ground. It’s not so hard to see what lies ahead.