The Subtle Surfaces of Wickedness: An Interview with David Shulman

By Caitlin Moroney

May 31st, 2016

Visiting Vivekananda Professor David Shulman is an expert on Indian languages and poetics, as well as South Indian religious history, which he teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His extensive publications include scholarly works about Southern India, translations, and original poetry in Hebrew. He is also a peace activist, and is involved with Ta'ayush, a volunteer organization of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation through nonviolence and by constructing an Arab-Jewish partnership.

During Professor Shulman’s May 31st lecture, entitled “The Subtle Surfaces of Wickedness, From Nigamasarma to the Occupation of Palestine,” he discussed the Indian idea of wickedness as the integral act of whole persons and how it applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Global Voices interviewer Caitlin Moroney spoke with him before the event.

Global Voices: Your lecture tonight is entitled, "The Subtle Surfaces of Wickedness, From Nigamasarma to the Occupation of Palestine." How did you draw the connection between South Asian religion and the situation in Israel and Palestine?

Professor David Shulman: It's a personal connection that's built into the structure of my life, so it didn't require a lot of premeditation. I spend most of my waking hours in the 16th century, studying various South Asian sources in Tamil or Telugu or Malayalam or Sanskrit. Those are the kinds of texts that I work on and think about all the time, but quite often, I spend my weekends in the Palestinian territories, the occupied territories, mostly in the area called the South Hebron Hills. I'm the same person, whether I'm reading those texts or whether I'm there.

I tend towards [the word] “wickedness” rather than “evil” because it has a slightly more personal ring to it, less abstract. It's a universal human problem. All the great human civilizations have had some kind of ideas about it, and people think that this is actually the core of human civilization, the notion of what one does with this fact that there's so much suffering and sorrow and wickedness in the world. So it's not at all hard to draw a connection between South Indian materials that actually deal explicitly with this question and the kinds of things that I see in the field. So I'll be talking about a South Indian story about Nigamasarma, who is pictured as the most wicked person imaginable, and what happens to him, and then, because there's an Indian dimension to the lecture, and the whole way I think about these things, I'll move from that story to the very personal experiences that I've had in the territories.

Global Voices: In what way has Swami Vivekananda influenced your work as both an academic and activist, and as an advocate of interfaith understanding and cooperation?

Shulman: Vivekananda is a very modernist figure, and he belongs to what you might call a neo-Hindu vision of the world. My own proclivity is towards something called Advaita. Advaita is a classical position that some people think is the mainstream of Indian philosophy, and it's based on a notion of non-duality. That's what the word advaita means, non-duality. Vivekananda was in the same stream [of thought]. Non-duality means that one sees the world as a very deeply unified field, even though it looks as if we're very separated and chopped up into little pieces that have no connection to one another, and that we're in this entropic world where we're no longer part of a single mass or whole. Even though it looks like that, in advaita there's a sense of an underlying unity of experience, unity of the person and of the world. So it seems—and this is what my colleagues and my students sometimes tell me—that I have this intuitive vision of the world. And it may even be true. It's not a clear-cut, conscious, and deliberate choice, it's [just] some part of the way I think.

Within the modern period, Swami Vivekananda was one of the proponents of that field, in a particular modernistic version. It's not the same as older, medieval and classical statements about advaita, but he was an advaitan, and he says things that go along with that. So I can't say that I was directly influenced by Vivekananda, but on those issues, these basic themes of how the world holds together, and how a person is a single person, despite [having] incredible conflicting configurations of feeling and thought at any given moment. In that respect, I feel a certain affinity with him.

Global Voices: Do you think your experience in Israel is what helped you to foster this advaita ideology, or do you think that studying the Indian philosophy led you there first?

Shulman: I'm part of a group of activists. We've been working in the field there for fifteen or sixteen years, since the second intifada, which began in 2000. Like with any group of people—we're not talking about a big group of people, it's like thirty or forty people—there's a diversity of views, and all kinds of ways of thinking about the world. One of the [group’s] central figures taught us how to do a Gandhian-style, or Martin Luther King-style nonviolent resistance. [His name is] Ezra Nawi, and he's a central figure in the group, Ta'ayush, that I belong to. He's a plumber, and he's probably never read a single word of Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Henry David Thoreau, or any of the theorists of nonviolent civil disobedience. But he's somehow, from the basis of his experience, and his own inner life, re-invented this method, in a way that is very close to that that Gandhian world. It's a remarkable thing, that in the later generation, somebody who's coming from a completely different background would be able to somehow re-capitulate in his own mind the pragmatic ways of doing non-violent resistance. I, like all of us, learned from Ezra Nawi. In response to extreme situations, which are very common there, we just discovered what one does.

Unlike Ezra, I've read quite a lot of these theoretical works. I grew up in the States in the sixties, so Martin Luther King and the anti-segregation campaign are the methods I knew, and that I read. And just because I worked in Indian materials, I read quite a lot of Gandhi and other works around these kinds of themes. So when it actually came to enacting these ideas, with real live human beings, in the field, I had some of that in the back of my mind, and it became close to the front of my mind. So somehow, [I had] a conflation of these two things. I don't know what exactly came first. I knew them in a theoretical sense, and at the same time, I was caught up in these experiments, in the field, with Ezra and people like him, and became fully committed to acting, in a consequential way, but without violence. And so these two things fit into one another, in a way, except not in a conscious way.

Global Voices:  What unique challenges do you face working with Ta'ayush?

Shulman: Everything is unique down there. You're faced on a daily basis, really on an hourly basis, with really rather daunting challenges on all levels. To put it simply, the reality of the occupation is that many people are living there, [under very difficult circumstances, for] almost fifty years. So we're talking about a system that's been in place for a long time, and it has a certain set of operational rules, structures, and dynamics. Within that system, you encounter severe human rights issues and challenges at every step of the way. For example, a lot of the issues, the substance of what we do there, have to do with the ownership of land, because the standard thing of the occupation is the appropriation of Palestinian land. That's an ongoing process.

It's the true, I think the only, raison d'etre, the only rationale of the occupation, despite what people sometimes say. Israelis like to think that there's a security component, but I don't think so. If it were a security thing, it would not look like it does in reality. What that means, in practice, is that you have huge amounts of Palestinian land, perhaps as much as sixty percent of the West Bank, that has been appropriated by Israeli settlers acting at the instigation of the government.

We work in this area called South Hebron. It's a desert area, and there's not a lot of good cultivable land. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Palestinian landowners who have lost their lands, but who have not yet given up the hope that they will reclaim them someday, because these are their lands. They usually have actual title deeds over these lands, going back to the Ottoman period. We're routinely involved in the attempt to help these people reclaim their lands. We'll go down there Saturday morning, with the Palestinian landowners to some plot of land that has been taken from them. You have to be present there with them on this soil, on the land, in order for there to be any hope that, eventually, this land will revert to its rightful owner. If they just sit at home—and usually they're at some place like the city of Yatta which is very far away from the land—if you don't come physically, day after day, week after week, to the fields, then they're lost, they're certainly, totally lost. You have to be there. There's an Israeli law which says that land that is not cultivated over three consecutive years reverts back to the state. It's an old Ottoman-period law. What that means is that they have to be there and do something on the land, even though it's been taken from them. They cannot go to these lands by themselves. If they were to go there without us, without the activists, the Israeli-Palestinian activists, they'd be chased off at gunpoint, possibly beaten up, possibly shot at, possibly wounded or even killed. And [that could happen] with impunity, because settlers who do these things are above the law.

So we go with them to be present at these lands. Usually, the standard thing that happens, is that within a few minutes of our arrival, soldiers will show up with a piece of paper declaring this to be a “Closed Military Zone.” That's a zone in which nobody has any right to be present. I say "nobody;" it doesn’t apply to Israeli settlers, [but] people like us, the original Palestinian owners, the activists, are not supposed to be there. That piece of paper, the declaration of the Closed Military Zone, is illegal, according to a ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court from 2004. They're not supposed to do it, but they do it routinely all the time. So then, you're faced with an immediate challenge once you're presented with this piece of paper. It's going to be signed by some senior army officer, who may well be present on the spot. You have a choice, under those circumstances. You can obey these soldiers, and leave that plot of land, having photographed the actual document so you can bring it to the court. You can, in other words, go through the very humiliating and agonizing experience of being driven off of these lands. It happens week after week. That's one possibility. Or you can, on principle, decide that you're not going to leave. In which case, you'll be arrested, together, probably, with these Palestinians.

And you have to decide, each week, what you're going to do. It's a contextually driven decision, because there are moments where you cannot go on with this illegal order, and you have to go through with this whole business of the arrests, and whatever comes out of that can be a big deal, and there are other moments where, for all kinds of reasons, mostly because you don't want to get the Palestinian landowners into some kind of jeopardy, you'll follow them and leave the spot. That's a typical situation, a kind of moral dilemma, you might say. And it has all kinds of repercussions and implications. Another thing that happens is that you might be physically attacked, especially by these very violent settlers. Many times, I've been attacked. They'll do everything from beating you up to actually shooting at you, so that's the kind of challenge you have to face. If you're there, in order to make a moral statement, and hopefully with some kind of pragmatic effect, you're going to be facing extreme situations every time you go down there, or almost every time. And there will be sometimes very agonizing decisions that have to be made.

Global Voices: Do you see any examples of how wickedness or nonviolent resistance can be applied to current events outside of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Shulman: Wickedness is everywhere. We live in a world which is saturated with wickedness. That's not to say that human beings are wicked by nature. I don't think they are. I have met people, in my own experience, who are perhaps beyond redemption, who, for whatever biographical reasons, are completely locked into this wicked way of being and thinking and feeling. But I have to say that's not usually the kind of people I meet in the field. Even the settlers, most of them, and the soldiers and the policemen, they end up doing things that I would class as "wicked," and I think that the occupation system as a whole is wicked, but that doesn't mean that they're wicked people. Like everybody else, they're a mix of good things and not-so-good things. That's going to be true everywhere, and there are plenty of places in the world where the situations that we encounter are very similar to things that turn up [in Israel and Palestine]. Even in this country, there are very powerful racist groups and racist opinions. This is part of the political arena, especially today. There's discrimination, there's collective institutional cruelty, there are situations that need to be addressed by nonviolent means, civil disobedience of one kind or another. That’s true almost everywhere you go, throughout the world. There are conflict zones everywhere, and usually there are systemic hatreds in the society that good people should be resisting in a nonviolent way.

Global Voices: Here at UChicago, the student body is rather divided on the issue of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement. What are your thoughts on the morality and the efficacy of that movement?

Shulman: I have complex feelings about it, and I'll probably avoid talking about it today because I don't feel that the Vivekananda lecture is the right place to talk about it. It's obviously a very contentious issue. If we break it down into its components, I'm very much against what's called the "cultural boycott." That's one aspect of the whole BDS movement, a cultural, intellectual, and academic boycott. I'm opposed to it for reasons that I can spell out, which include things like that it's ineffectual, and I don't like ineffectual politics. It punishes that part of Israeli society which is perhaps least deserving of punishment. Above all, it plays right into the hands of the right, or the extreme right, because they love to feel boycotted and victimized. So it does no good, and it may do some bad. Also, an academic and cultural boycott tends to deprive young Israelis of contact with the kinds of people who they most need to hear and get to know: thinkers, intellectuals, artists. It deprives them of direct contact with them. Aside from all of that, I'm a professor at a university, and I myself am involved in all kinds of international cooperations, and I can't advise people to boycott me, I can't ask myself to boycott myself, it's ridiculous So I'm against the cultural boycott.

In terms of the general boycott, I'll tell you one thing. I've never signed the statements and petitions that people have sometimes circulated in the universities here. One main reason I cannot sign onto that is that the tone of the discourse that I see or I hear when I read these materials—and I've read a lot of them—it seems to me to be driven by hate. There are the actual, intrinsic, intellectual issues that are connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the texture of the Boycott movement, the style, the emotional tone, is perhaps driving it more than the substantial themes. The tone and the texture are, in my view, unacceptable. I'm active in the Palestinian territories, I'm a very outspoken opponent of the Israeli government and its policies. It's been like that for many years, everyone knows who I am and what I think, but I'm not driven by hate. I act from another place.

There was a time, I think, when I used to feel hatred, especially for the violent settlers who would attack us, but even for them, I no longer feel hate. I'm angry at them, I think they're very wrong, but that hatred fell away, and it was replaced by something much more useful, and maybe better for a human being to feel than outright hate. So I don't want to sign onto anything that's driven by hate. I'm one of the very last people in the world who would use the word "anti-Semitism," I oppose the fact that Israelis trot this out at every opportunity. I think the Jews have a very deep emotional investment in the existence of anti-Semitism, which they use in order to feel that they're being victimized. That's not to say that there's no such thing. There is such a thing. So I don't want to use that word in its reference to the BDS. But there's hate there. So I can't sign on to that.