December 21, 2023

Scribo, Ergo Sum

You don’t have to know much Latin (I myself am a Latin dunce, never having studied it in school) to figure out the meaning of my title. “I write, therefore I am.” Whether I write to live or live to write, or possibly both, writing is what I’ve been doing for most of my life. But as I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find things to write about, especially during these dark times for our world, I’m beginning to wonder whether if I stop writing my blogs, will I continue to exist? Maybe I think that as long as I write, I can stave off my death. I’m not ashamed to admit I will cleave to any superstition I can get.

As some of you know, I recently managed to survive my 88th birthday, a three-day extravaganza during which I received many kind greetings from my family, friends, ex-students, and even a few of you fans of mine for which I belatedly thank you. I gained several pounds in the process, as I had also received a chocolate cake and other sweets, and am now in recovery (and on a diet!). Anyway, here I am at 88.

As we approach the nadir of the year and Christmas, now a week away as I write, this should be a joyous and celebratory time, but apart from my birthday festivities, I don’t find I have much joy in my heart, only sadness and dismay about the present and apprehension about the future. So it’s hard for me to write the kind of upbeat and humorous blogs I like to craft at such a downbeat time for our sorry and imperiled world.

Case in point: Gaza.  

If you’ve read any of my blogs about Israel and the current war, you will know that my sympathies lie with the Palestinians now crowded and trapped like rats in a cage in Gaza while being subjected to relentless attacks by Israel, which so far have killed a number fast approaching twenty thousand, many of them children.

I think of them at night, in the cold and rain, shivering without food or shelter, and without hope, many of them on the verge of starving, fearful about the next attack, wondering if they will live or die or, if they survive, whether they will be maimed for life. And even if they do survive, all of them will suffer from post-traumatic stress, probably for most of their lives.  

And where will they go, once the carnage finally stops? Their houses are destroyed, Gaza is quickly turning into a mountain of rubble and reeks of stench, and the Gazans have no outlet. They are refugees, millions of them, with nowhere to go.

Can one die of heartbreak? That’s how I feel most of the time, and certainly whenever I think of those poor souls, huddled together, with mothers screaming and weeping over the death of their children.

Still, these are abstractions, statistics, nameless persons we can never know. But there’s one man whose misfortunes I have been following from the outset. His name is Mosab Abu Toha. He is a 31-year-old award-winning poet, married, with two children. 

I first came across him by reading one of his articles in The New Yorker, which was heartrending. At the time, he had just discovered that his house in Gaza had been destroyed, and his precious library of books that he had spent years collecting and gone to great lengths to preserve, had all gone up in smoke. I felt so terrible about that, knowing how much my own books mean to me, I immediately tried to send him some money to replace his lost books. I tried to do so through a poetry foundation to which Mosab belonged, but it was all in vain.  

Later, I read that he had been detained, imprisoned and tortured, having been (falsely) accused of being connected with Hamas. He was eventually released, but the damage had been done.  

This morning, over my breakfast, I began listening to a podcast of an interview with Mosab that was conducted by the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick. In the first part, Mosab tells how he was detained, forced to strip naked before a young solider, beaten, kicked in his face, sworn at and brutalized before being arrested. Horrible. (I couldn’t listen to the rest; I had to take a break.)

But I don’t only think about people like Mosab and his fellow Gazans. I also think about the Israelis who were killed in the October assault by Hamas and of all those families waiting in fear about the fate of the hostages that Hamas abducted, some of whom we now know have been killed, including, most recently, three by mistake by IDF soldiers. The Israelis, too, are suffering grievously and many of them are still enraged with Netanyahu and his government. Israel, too, will be a long time recovering from this.

Hard to be full of good cheer when one is mindful of what’s going on the Middle East. And, there is still Ukraine, too, whose hopeless war, stalemated and stuck in trench warfare like that of the First World War, has almost been forgotten. From all that I’ve read and seen, there is no chance that Ukraine will survive intact as a country. Their soldiers fought and still fight valiantly, but it seems clear that Putin’s forces will outlast them and that Putin has already won, even if he hasn’t been able to conquer and subdue the Ukrainians.

I was only two years old in 1938, but it seems like 1938 to me, the year before the world was engulfed in the conflagration of the Second World War that would last six years, during which sixty million people died, and which wasn’t even over when it was over.  I really fear what lies ahead in the years to come.

And then there is all this turmoil on our nation’s campuses, including some of our leading universities, which has caused such difficulties for university presidents who are trying to walk a fine line in contending with all the forces that seem to be raging on our campuses, including my own university, UCONN, where I taught for many years.  

On many of these campuses, an organization called Students for Justice in Palestine has been very active and vocal in pressing the case for Palestinians, and many Jewish students are involved in this movement, too. But other Jewish students, who support Israel, are often afraid to wear a kippah on their heads lest they be assaulted or otherwise threatened. Fear and turmoil and unrest continue, though these may abate during final periods and then the holidays. But they will not stop. It’s hard to see where this will go, and meanwhile rancorous debates continue about settler colonialism and Israel’s savage warfare.   

When we look at the dismal and depressing state of politics in America, we find no relief from the dark clouds that hover overhead that also presage worse times to come.

I’ve never been a fan of Biden, and for many reasons, but in the next election, we seem to have a choice of a doddering and etiolated President, a wacko conspiracy theorist with a famous name, and a would-be dictator with a foul mouth who is bent on vengeance and who, if elected, would probably sound the death knell for democracy. To say nothing of the obstructionist and mostly delusional Republicans in Congress who seem like fractious children playing in a sandbox. Is this what America has come to? A land of mass murders every week, mendacious and ineffectual politicians, and an electorate, half of whom, seemingly in thrall to a deranged cult leader, have gone off the rails?

I grew up during a very different time in the fifties when my cohort was called “the silent generation,” as we slept through the Eisenhower years. I did go to Berkeley, but that was before the sixties broke out all over and Berkeley had its moment with the Free Speech Movement. How different things seem now when mayhem and raucous dissension threaten to turn into violence as the fabric of democracy continues to unravel.

Didn’t the great historian, Arnold Toynbee, say something to the effect that most empires start to rot from within after a couple of centuries or so? Perhaps that is what’s happening to our country even before we mark the 250th anniversary of its founding. Sit transit gloria mundi.

I used to take solace in my reading, but lately even there, I find myself reading about even worse times and people even more vile than those who vie for our attention on the stage of our dysphoric times.

I’m currently reading two books (and various articles) about the Congo, both written about twenty years ago.  One is a book called King Leopold’s Ghost. Do you know about the Belgian King who raped the Congo beginning in the mid-1880s, and over more than twenty years enslaved millions of Blacks and in the process of extracting ivory and rubber, killed about ten million people? Leopold, who oddly enough never set a royal foot in the vast region he plundered, was motivated by an overweening amount of cupidity. He was a moral monster of almost unparalleled brutality. And he had many others whose help he enlisted who also enriched themselves of the spoils to be extracted from the Congo’s rich resources, including the famous explorer, Henry Stanley, who discovered Dr. Livingstone to whom he definitely didn’t say, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” He is another odious and hateful figure in this mostly now forgotten genocide.

The other book is actually a novel written by Barbara Kingsolver, who lived in the Congo as a child. Her book is called The Poisonwood Bible. I’m only partway through it, but so far, it deals with a later period of the Congo’s history, but one still marked by the effects of Leopold’s malign legacy. It, too, is a sad tale of what that stricken land and its people have suffered.

And the suffering goes on today. There is still an on-going war that is being waged by various contending forces during which it is estimated that as many as six million people have died. Today others toil to scratch out a living.  The Congo, you see, is still rich in copper and especially cobalt, which is used in your smart phones and in the batteries for your electric vehicles. Exploitation is still the name of this wretched game, long after King Leopold went to his grave. The West still profits while the Africans suffer and die. 

What a world. Please let me off at the next stop. I don’t really want to continue to live in such a benighted and doomed planet, which has far too much toxicity and not nearly enough love.  

Well, sorry for this rant, my friends. I hate to be such a downer at this time of year when we are all supposed to be cheerful and whoop it up at new year’s when the ball falls and the confetti flies. But, at least for me, and perhaps for some of you, this does not seem to be the time for rejoicing and seasonal hoopla.  

Please pray for peace, and for those who continue to suffer from the tragedies and horrors of our own time. 

But for now, I will leave you with this image of hope:

December 5, 2023

On the Art of Kvetching

Since I turned out to be a flop as a Zen practitioner, I have decided to return to and cultivate a spiritual practice I know I am good at – the art of the kvetch.

Even if you are not Jewish, as, until my recent decision to become a Jewish apostate, I was for many years, I can assure you that you don’t have to be Jewish in order to learn to kvetch. Anyone of any religion or none (actually, some of the world’s leading kvetchers are atheists) can become a kvetch adept with a little practice.

I’m assuming that you already know what it is to kvetch.  Basically, it is to complain with humor. For example, when you wake up with a backache, as I often do, you could just mutter, or, if you are an Episcopalian, you could pretend to feel fine since talking about one’s body is thought to be unseemly – or you could kvetch by saying something along the lines of “Oy vey, my aching accursed back. If this keeps up, I’m gonna have to take myself to the nearest body shop and demand a backectomy!”

You get the idea. Jews are particularly good at this because, if you know anything about Jewish history, and who doesn’t, Jews have had a lot to complain about. Which is one reason why during the 20th century, about eighty percent of comics were Jews.

Of course, Jewish humor often has a hostile edge to it and sometimes it is not even subtle, as, for example, the nasty humor Don Rickles, if anyone remembers him. And, yes, it can be cruel to joke about other people, but to lampoon oneself, ah, that’s the way many comics make a living. That’s their shtick, as we Yids (or in my case, erstwhile Yids) like to say. Consider Woody Allen, who before he became a well-known film director (and an alleged pedophile), was a standup comic who amused audiences by making fun of himself. (And, by the way, is there any other kind? Have you ever heard of a sitdown comic? Besides, if you ever saw the film, “My Favorite Year,” which is actually one of my favorite films, you might remember being taught that you must never attempt to tell a joke sitting down.)

But back to kvetching. Several years ago when I was in my early eighties and still in my prime, I wrote a humorous piece, with a lot of kvetching in it, and it got such a good response that it actually led to my becoming a blogger in what I continue to regard as my advanced middle age (I am about to amass as many years as the number of keys on the piano). And since I am now running out of both time and things to write about, I thought it might be worthwhile to share that blog again with you. I figured that in these incredibly sad, dark and dystopian times, you might appreciate a little levity, if only as a distraction from the news about wars, mayhem and Republicans.

Of course, some of you may have already read this blog, but so what? A good blog, like an erotic billet-doux, is worth re-reading. Why should a good blog be read only once and then be, like Don Rickles, forgotten? And if you haven’t read it, well, you’re about to. I hope you enjoy it and learn something about the art of kvetching in doing so. Who knows, it might induce you to take up the art itself. The world, after all, could use all the kvetchers it can get.

As for me, I plan to continue to hone my kvetching skills by delving into a new book that just arrived at my door, courtesy of Amazon. Its title (and I’m not making this up; this really happened just as I was finishing this prologue): Born to Kvetch. Some things are just too good to be false.

Waiting to Die

The bright realization that must come before death will be worth all the boredom of living.

What’s it like, waiting to die? Of course, it’s different for everyone. I can only say what it’s like for me. On the whole, it’s rather boring. 

Don’t get me wrong. I still have many pleasures in life and – knock on silicon – I’m lucky not to be suffering from any fatal illness, though if I were, that would certainly add some drama in my life. I could then follow the example of the poet Ted Rosenthal, who after contracting leukemia, joyfully called his friends and said, “Guess what’s happened to me!” Well, no thanks. I’ll take my boring life any day and intone a hymn of gratitude every morning I wake up with only the ordinary indignities of an old man – coughing, wheezing and sneezing, and, oh, my aching back!

But still….I’m used to having productive work -- writing books, helping other authors with their books, being involved in various professional pursuits, and so forth. But recently I published my last book, which I puckishly entitled, Pieces of My Mind Before I Fall to Pieces, which was a kind of potpourri of stories and interests from my later years, and just after that I wrote what I expect to be my last professional article, the foreword to a colleague’s memoir. Now what? More precisely, what do I do with my time now that I have clearly entered the epilogue to my life? Honestly, I feel as if I have stepped over the threshold into my afterlife before dying. 

Of course, I can watch films – I’ve become quite a “film buff” in my later years; I still have interesting books to read. I am blessed with a wonderful girlfriend. Still, since life has become a spectator sport for me, and I can no longer travel, except locally, I find that I am spending more time on my sofa, honing my couch potato skills, watching sports. Yet I must confess that even they have lost a good deal of their allure for me. My home town baseball team, The San Francisco Giants, finished in the cellar last year; in golf, Tiger has gone away; in  basketball, Michael Jordan is long gone; and in tennis, which is now the only sport I follow with some avidity, it is chiefly because of the great Roger Federer. Nevertheless, I can only wonder how long he can at 36 continue to produce one miracle after another? Surely, he, too, will begin his inevitable decline soon, and with his descent from the heights of glory, my interest in tennis will also flag. So what will be left then? I will tell you.

The body. Mine. It has already become my principal preoccupation and bête-noire. These days, I can’t help recalling that St. Francis referred to the body as “brother ass.” It seems I now spend most of my time in doctors’, chiropractors’ or dentists’ clinics, as they strive to preserve my decaying body parts by inflicting various forms of torture on me that would even impress Torquemada, or doing physical therapy in what is most likely a vain attempt to delay the encroaching onset of wholesale physical deterioration. Really, is this any way to run a navy? There are many days when I think the only surgery that will preserve me would be a complete bodyectomy.

Well, okay, I realize this is only par for the course of the everyday life of an octogenarian. Wasn’t it Bette Davis who famously said “old age is no place for sissies?” It isn’t for wimps like me either, it seems. (I can often be heard crooning, “turn back the hands of time….”) Still, I wouldn’t go so far as the saturnine Philip Roth who said that old age is “a massacre.” I guess at this point I find myself somewhere between Davis and Roth, but the waiting game still seems to be a losing proposition and I might very well come to think of my current boredom as the halcyon days of my decline.

Nevertheless, consider a typical day in the life of this old wheezing geezer. 

It begins with the back. Every day does. In the morning, you get up, but your back doesn’t. It hurts. Even though you take a hot shower before bed, by the time you wake up your back has decided to take the day off. When you try to use it, as for example, when you bend over to pick up the comb you’ve dropped into the toilet, it begins to complain.

And finally, it gets so bad, you have to lie down on your once neatly made bed, remove half your clothing, and apply some ice to it while listening to mindless music and cursing the day when some enterprising hominid decided it would be a good idea to change from the arboreal life to a bipedal one. Big mistake. The next one was the invention of agriculture, but never mind. We were talking about the back and its vicissitudes.

Nevertheless, a little later, you decide to take your body out of a spin. “Don’t look back,” the great Satchel Paige advised, “something might be gaining on you.” In my case, it’s the man with the scythe whom I hope to outstrip for a few more years.  

Of course, the back, which had only been moaning quietly before now begins to object vociferously, asking sourly, “what the hell are you thinking? Nevertheless, you press on, thinking your will will prevail, and your back can go to hell.  

\But the next dispiriting thing you notice are all these chubby old ladies whizzing by you as if they are already late for their hair appointments. How humiliating – to be passed by these old biddies! You think about the days in junior high when you were a track star, setting school records in the dashes and anchoring the relay races, which you used to run in your bare feet. Then you ran like the wind. These days, you are merely winded after trudging a hundred yards. 

When you can go no further, you turn around only to become aware of still another distressing sight. Actually, it is your sight – or lack of it. It ain’t working. You could see pretty well after your corneal surgery last year, but now you can’t see worth shit. What is that ahead of you? Is it a woolly mammoth, a Saint Bernard or merely a burly ex-football player? Where are the eyes of yesteryear? Gone missing. Well, they didn’t give me any guarantees as to how long my vision would last before it decided, like my back, to begin to object to its continued use outdoors. The way of all flesh doesn’t stop with the flesh; it continues with the cornea, so now I am cursing the darkness in the middle of a miasmal morning.

I finally arrive home in a disconsolate mood, but now it is time to hop onto my stationary bike, which is the only kind I have ever been able to ride since my balance is worse than that of an elderly inebriate on New Year’s Eve. I used to be able to pedal reasonably fast and for a long time. But lately someone must have snuck in to affix some kind of a brake to the bike since suddenly it seems that I am pumping uphill at an acute angle. Heart rate is up, speed is down, my old distance marks are a treasured memory, which I can only mourn. All I am aware of now is the sound of someone huffing and puffing.

At last the torture is over, but now I really have to piss. That damn enlarged prostate of mine has no patience – it must be satisfied now! I race into the bathroom, unzip my fly before it is too late, and make sure, because I have my girlfriend’s admonitions in my ears as I piss that she will behead me if I continue to treat the floor as an auxiliary pissoir, I am pissing very carefully into the toilet bowl. Of course, these days, my urinary stream is a sometimes thing. It starts, it stops, it pauses to refresh itself, it pulses, stops, dribbles, starts up again with what seems to be its last mighty effort to produce something worthwhile and finally drips itself into extinction.

I’m relieved, however, because at least I haven’t soiled my pants this time. But wait. What is that? Pulling up my pants, I can feel some urine on my left thigh. How the hell did it get in there? Is there some kind of silent secondary stream that runs down the side of my leg when I am otherwise preoccupied with trying to keep my penile aim from going astray?

Now I have to find a towel to wipe off the offending liquid and just hope my girlfriend won’t say, when I return to the kitchen, “what is that funny smell, darling?”

Well, you get the idea. Life is no longer a bowl of cherries, or if it is, some of them are turning rotten. And naturally I can’t help wondering how long I have to go before I really cross that final threshold into the unknown. For years, I’ve joked that I’ve wanted to live to be 1000 – months – old.  Now I’m at 984 and counting. I’m getting close, and it’s no longer just a joke.  

And of course I now also have to wonder what will be next? I mean, after I die, assuming I will ever get around to it.   

Well, in my case, I have some inklings because I’ve spent half my life researching and writing about near-death experiences and in the course of my work I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have told me what it was like for them to die – at least for a few moments – before returning to life. And what they have told me has been, I am frank to admit, profoundly reassuring.  

I remember one woman who said that in order to grasp the feeling of peace that comes with death you would have to take the thousand best things that ever happened to you, multiply them by a million and maybe, she said (I remember her emphasis on the word, “maybe”), you could come close to that feeling. Another man said that if you were to describe the feelings of peace that accompanied death, you would have to write it in letters a mile high. All this might sound hyperbolic, but I have heard such sentiments from many near-death experiencers. Here’s just one more specific quote from a man I knew very well for many years, telling me what it was like for him to die: 
"It was a total immersion in light, brightness, warmth, peace, security … I just immediately went into this beautiful bright light. It’s difficult to describe … Verbally, it cannot be expressed. It’s something which becomes you and you become it. I could say “I was peace, I was love.” I was the brightness. It was part of me … You just know. You’re all-knowing – and everything is a part of you. It’s just so beautiful. It was eternity. It’s like I was always there and I will always be there, and my existence on earth was just a brief instant."
After listening to so many people describe what it was like for them to die, it is easy for me to imagine what it might be like for me – for anyone – to take that final journey. And many great writers have said much the same thing as those I have interviewed have told me about what is in store when we die. Walt Whitman, for example, who wrote “And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death.” And Herman Melville, with even more eloquence, said, “And death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the dead could adequately tell.” It seems that in our own time, these authors from the dead are today’s near-death experiencers, and the revelations they have shared with us appear fully to support the claims of these famous 19th century American authors.

So having immersed myself in the study of near-death experiences for so many years, I’m actually looking forward to my passage when my time comes. Still, I’m not looking forward to the dying part. In that regard, I’m with Woody Allen who quipped, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I just hope that all those stories I’ve heard about how wonderful death itself is aren’t some kind of a spiritual trompe l’oeil, a cosmic joke played by a malevolent god. Or as that marvelously antic diarist and composer, Ned Rorem, whimsically jested, “If, after dying, I discover there is no Life After Death, will I be furious?”

Of course, when I am faced with the imminence of death, I hope I’ll be able to comport myself with some equanimity, but who knows? Think of Seneca who wrote so eloquently about suicide, and then horribly botched his own. Well, naturally, I’m not planning to hasten my death by such extravagant means, though I wouldn’t refuse a kind offer of a little help from my doctor friends to ease me on my way if I’m having trouble giving birth to my death. It can, after all, be a labor-intensive enterprise. I just hope I can find myself on that stairway to heaven I’ve heard so much about and can manage to avoid a trip in the opposite direction.   

Meanwhile, when did you say Federer will be playing his next match?

November 28, 2023

Zen and Ken

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D

Zen Man

When I was in my late thirties, I decided to get serious about my spiritual life. I had already been strongly drawn to Zen Buddhism and, generally, to Japanese aesthetics. I was fascinated by Japanese cultural practices and had become intrigued with Zen, which had for so long been an integral part of Japanese spiritual life. I loved gazing at Japanese rock gardens (and had visited one twice in Dallas). Although it took many years before I actually was able to travel to Japan, and, still later, to discover the films of the masterly Japanese film director, Yasujiro Ozu, I already felt the pull of Zen, which likewise had exercised an immediate appeal to me.

So, being a young professor at the time, I started reading books about Zen. But I quickly realized that reading books, though informative, was not Zen. After all, as the old saying goes, if you want to know what food tastes like, it will do you no good to spend your time looking at menus. Zen is a practice, not a religion.

To do Zen, one had to meditate doing a form of meditation called zazen.

So I got myself a little Seiza bench that enabled me to sit on my butt with my knees on the floor (I could never even come close to assuming the lotus posture), and tried to meditate, with indifferent success.  It was not long before I knew if I were to pursue this seriously, I would have to take myself to Zen centers and receive instruction there. 

And so I did. I travelled to Rochester where there was a well-known Zen center with a famous teacher, Philip Kapleau; I also went to a Zen center in Providence. But I finally lucked out when I found there was actually a Zen master who conducted zazen sessions in a home not ten miles from the university where I taught. I soon learned that he had a small but devoted following and was himself an exceptionally gifted man – not only a Zen master, but a poet, translator and psychotherapist (I later sought him out for therapy). I came to have enormous respect for this man and learned a lot from being with him.

Nevertheless, I found sitting (i.e., zazen) difficult.  It was very hard on my knees and physically taxing.  Still, I persevered.  I knew Zen would not be an easy path to walk.  But I enjoyed the atmosphere at that house and had already been drawn to the quietude of the Zen centers I had previously visited when sitting with other Zen aspirants.  I really did feel “at home” in such settings, even if my knees did not. 

In Zen, there are special intensive Zen sessions lasting several days called sesshins. My first one lasted three days, and, frankly, it was a bitch, though I found it worthwhile. I finally decided I needed to undergo a longer one, so I signed up for a weeklong sesshin in Massachusetts. 

I had a paradoxical reaction to it. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life and its effects lasted for days afterward. My mind was calm and serene, absent its usual chatter. A sense of stillness pervaded my consciousness and I experienced the world in a different way, which was beautiful. 

At the same time, it left me with no desire to go through another ordeal like that. Regretfully, I found that despite Zen’s appeal for me, I did not have what it took to become a dedicated practitioner of Zen.  I could definitely see its value; I just wasn’t prepared to pay its price.

So I had to admit that I had flunked Zen 101. Besides, by then my work on NDEs was taking up more and more of my time, and that was where the excitement was for me.  And it didn’t require sitting!

Nevertheless, I never lost my interest in Zen or in Buddhism generally. I still “hung out” in those circles and at conferences. I even danced one memorable night with a well-known Zen teacher in San Francisco, and for a time I became very friendly with a Tibetan lama. I met him once at his home in England where we drank saké together.  And another time, when we were both speakers at a conference in California, he actually gave me a backrub when my back was ailing, and it really helped, too! He was very jolly and had a great sense of humor, but I never studied with him – I just enjoyed his company. 

Finally, I should mention that the woman I had lived with during my “Zen years” had also been practicing Zen with me, but unlike me, she stuck with it and became a Zen teacher herself. We have remained loving friends ever since we separated as lovers, and I’ve spent a lot of time hearing about her Zen-based life and listening to some of her recorded teishos (a sort of discourse on Zen practice).

So much for my abortive life as a Zen practitioner, but just recently I finally learned “the secret of Zen,” and before long, I will reveal it to you.

Huston Smith

Someone who truly did practice Zen in a serious way is the famous scholar of religion, Huston Smith. He is best known for his bestselling book on religion, originally called The Religions of Man and, later revised and expanded, it was renamed The World’s Religions.  It has now sold millions of copies, and it is a wonderful introduction to the religions of the world. Smith also authored about a dozen other books, and though I haven’t read any of them, I have read several articles by him. In any event, he was a renowned and eminent scholar and lived to a great age, dying a few years ago at 97.

I knew Huston, but was never really friends with him. We just had a nodding acquaintanceship when we would encounter each other at conferences or, once, at Esalen. That is, we would just nod at each other and sometimes exchange a few pleasantries.  I know he was familiar with my work on NDEs, and of course I had read his book on religion, but we were never really drawn to each other. He had actually grown up in China, the son of Methodist missionaries, and wherever I looked at him he really did seem to have the visage and bearing of an old Chinese sage. Huston was widely beloved, both venerable and venerated, and, frankly, I was somewhat in awe of him. He had an august and serene presence of the sort that only a spiritual adept could evince.

Oddly enough, the only time I actually had a conversation with him was years later when I met him in an eye doctor’s waiting room.  I had taken my mother there so she could be examined for her glaucoma, which had developed when she was in her early eighties.  (I’ve had glaucoma since I was sixty, but my mother was a late bloomer.)  But this was not an upscale office. It was full of down-and-out people like my mother, who by then was indigent and on Medicaid. I was shocked to see Huston there, and he seemed to be embarrassed when he saw me. Still, he was pleasant and kindly and we had a warm exchange. It proved to be the last time I was to see him.   

The Secret of Zen

I spent Thanksgiving this year quietly by myself, mostly reading during the day and taking care of my ailing body. I was still recovering from some very nasty oral surgery a few days ago whose details I will spare you apart from saying it was the worst and most painful experience I had ever had in a dentist’s chair.  Extracting in infected molar, which took over two hours, was like giving birth.  There were times when I wasn’t altogether convinced I would survive or even wanted to.  I’m better now, but the healing is slow and I won’t be able to get my sutures out for another week or so. Meanwhile, I can only eat “soft” foods in little itty-bitty bites, which will explain why I could not participate in any elaborate turkey festivities this year and just had to settle for some of Amy’s ravioli for dinner.  

Nevertheless, that evening, I received a delightful surprise, courtesy of a dear friend, now in England, who was kind enough to forward me something she had received from an American colleague.

You will now see why I was tickled all shades of pink to receive it.  Here’s what my friend sent to me:

At the end of Huston Smith’s extremely arduous month-long practice period in a Japanese Zen monastery (the last week without sleep for most of the monks; though as a sybaritic Westerner, Huston was allowed 3 hours nightly), Huston went to pay his respects to the teacher, Goto Roshi (from whom, he says, “a Marine sergeant could have learned a few things”). 

Goto Roshi then proceeded to knock Zen off its pedestal.

Koans can be a useful exercise, he said, but they are not Zen.

And sitting in meditation, he went on -- that is not Zen.

Then why had I been torturing myself with koans and body aerobatics, I wondered, and what the hell, then, was Zen?

 "You will be flying home tomorrow," he said.

"Don't overlook how many people will help you get home -- ticketing agents, pilots, cabin attendants, those who prepare your meals."

He bowed and placed his palms together, demonstrating gassho, the gesture of gratitude….Then he did a gassho to me.

"Make your whole life unceasing gratitude," he said. 

"What is Zen? Simple, simple, so simple.
Infinite gratitude toward all things past;
infinite service to all things present;
infinite responsibility to all things future.
Have a safe journey home."
And he gave me a wonderful smile. "I am glad you came." 

Huston Smith. (2009). Tales of Wonder. HarperCollins 

Huston’s autobiography published on his 90th birthday.


There you have it, friends – the secret of Zen. It is one of Zen’s many paradoxes that you are still required to sit until your balls ache and your knees start to scream.  That, at least, is not so simple, but I still prefer Goto Roshi’s version of Zen.

And now for a final word from our sponsor….

On My Last Legs

My mother died at the age of 88. In her last years, living in a nursing home in Berkeley, she was unable to walk. When I inquired as to the reasons, I remember being told that my mother was suffering from “contractures.” I had no idea what that meant.  I don’t think I pursued the matter. The fact was that my mother could no longer walk. And that was that. From then on, she would be confined to a wheelchair.

In those days, when I would visit her, I would take her out for a spin, so to speak, pushing her chair around the level streets in her neighborhood, chatting away while my mother, for the most part, remained silent, stoical and forbearing. She once told me that I talked too much.

She never did walk again, of course. She mostly lay in her bed, quiet and uncomplaining, waiting for death to come.

In a few weeks, I will turn 88. In the last year, my legs, already weakened by years of spinal stenosis, have become even more unsteady and fragile. For various reasons, I have not been able to exercise since the beginning of the year, but I used to be able to walk down and back on my street. No more. I can’t even walk to the end of my little court without stopping a number of times, so I no longer even try.  My daughter, Kathryn, gave me some leg strengthening exercises in hopes that they would help me, but when I try them, they just strain my back and put it out of alignment.  At least I am spared from having to do any more zazen!

I have to be very careful now when I walk, very mindful, which is the only form of Zen practice I can still manage. I must avoid making any sudden changes in direction.  When I get up from my chair from which I watch my TV, I do so very gingerly. I hold onto surfaces as much as possible, lest I fall.  I do stumble a lot as I shuffle about, but so far I have managed to avoid falling. Since I live by myself, falling could not only be serious, it could be a calamity.  I’m not sure I could get up again.

Right now, I am writing this while sitting in my computer chair, which I have rigged up to ease the pressure on my back. Since it has wheels, I’m thinking I might have to begin using it as my non-motorized vehicle to scoot around the house. Fortunately, my house is small and all on one level.  I might have to locomote that way if my legs finally give out like my mother’s did.

I am my mother’s son, all right, and I seem to be following her course toward immobility.

Of course, I have no intention of winding up like she did. Sure, like everyone who has ever lived, one day I will die. But how and under what circumstances, that is the question I am pondering. I’m definitely not going to end up in a nursing home like she did. No way! I want to remain in my house until I croak, even if I have to crawl around the floor. But no, before it comes to that, I will have to find a way either to live with some dignity or to do myself in.

I have long joked that my body has expired before I have, and that’s true. But I have been lucky – knock on Formica – that as of now I am not suffering from any great pain, just the tedium of crippling infirmity in my small-compass life as a shut-in.  For the most part, it’s not really that bad, and there are many days (I will elide the rest) when I feel tolerably well and can enjoy my life.

But as I grow weaker and more unsteady on these last legs of mine, which formerly and for many years had been so sturdy and reliable, I can see that the end is in sight. Whether it is in the distance or, figuratively speaking, around the corner, who can say?  All I know is that I’d better watch my step.  In any case, I’m determined to live on my own terms until the good Lord relieves me of the burden of my life.

November 15, 2023

Why I Am No Longer a Jew

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

[Dear Friends.  I had inadvertently omitted a passage toward the end of my blog about Israel yesterday.  So here is the complete version.  If you already read the blog, all you have to do is scroll down to the last few paragraphs to see the addition. If you haven’t read the blog, it is now complete, so you can read it straight through to the end. My apologies for my oversight.]

I am Jewish and according to what I have been told, am descended from a long line of Lithuanian rabbis.  However, in my family, my mother and all her siblings rejected Judaism, and some of them were outright atheists.  One of these was my Uncle Bill, and it was from him that I received my first lessons and indoctrination into the world of freethinkers and radical politics.  So I never had any religious training, never had a bar mitzvah, and, indeed, hardly knew any Jews outside my own family until I got to graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

Still, although I had an aversion to Jewish orthodoxy and was completely secular in my approach to Judaism, I was always proud to be a Jew.  I loved Jewish comics growing up, Woody Allen films, lox and bagels, and always felt comfortable with Jews.  They were, after all, “my people.”  Indeed, several of my wives were Jewish.  I even spent a couple of years in my late sixties reading a great deal of Jewish history. That deep immersion into Jewish history, which of course included many accounts of the Holocaust, just served to reinforce my sense of Jewish identity.  

Nevertheless, some years ago, when I was in my early seventies, quite by chance, I became aware of how badly Israeli Jews were treating Palestinians.  Actually, I had been aware of this, but had never felt drawn to learn more. Once I did, I determined to travel to Israel and the West Bank to see things for myself.  Doing so changed my life and my feelings about being Jewish, as I will recount in what follows.

Those of you who read my recently reposted blog about Israel I wrote last year will know I have become very critical of Israel, particularly in regard to its treatment of Palestinians.  Here, I want to tell you what has led me, within the past few days, to make a radical rupture in my life.  I now mean to disavow my Jewish heritage and identity.  Here’s why.

In 2008, I traveled with then girlfriend, Anna, with a peace delegation to Israel and the West Bank. We were there for two weeks.  For a good part of our time there, Anna and I traveled throughout the West Bank and were able to stay with or otherwise talk to many Palestinians.

Although we had seen any number of documentaries about life in Palestine and read several books on the occupation before leaving on our trip, nothing could have prepared us for what we were able to witness with our own eyes and learn from talking to Palestinians.

We saw mounds of rubble and destruction everywhere.  We saw many signs saying, in both English and Arabic (as we were told), “Death to the Arabs.” We saw how they were treated roughly and humiliated by young Israeli solders manning the innumerable checkpoints, as we walked through the tunnels and turnstiles with them.  We saw the conditions under which they were living, their lack of water and other necessities, the roads they were forced to take, the roads they were forbidden to use. 

We saw many things that opened our eyes to the myriad ways in which Israel was determined to make life as miserable as possible for Palestinians and to encourage or compel them to leave the country.  Israeli soldiers and vicious, hateful “settlers,” illegally occupying Palestinian lands, would routinely cut down their olive trees, harass or beat Palestinians, and confiscate their lands.

Anna and I were shocked, dismayed, disheartened and appalled.  We kept asking ourselves, “How could Jews, of all people, act like this?”

In Israel and the West Bank, we met any number of “good” Israelis – peace activists who were also strongly opposed to the horrors or the occupation, and who were doing their best to curb the worst of its egregious abuses. 

We learned so much from them.  But Anna and I were also struck by the kindness and generosity of the Palestinians we met who opened their houses and hearts to us, who treated us with such courtesy and warmth, when they had so little to spare (including their precious water). Yet, they could not have made us feel more welcomed. We learned a lot from hearing their stories, too.

We visited them in some of the main towns in the West Bank to see how they processed their olive oils, we visited their theaters and cafes, we saw how they lived and also the deprivations under which they suffered.  Here’s a photo of me talking to a couple of Palestinian kids (that’s Anna to my right) in Jenin.

While we were there, we also met with a number of Palestinian professional people, including journalists and writers.  I became fast friends with one of them, Ghassan Abdullah, and after I got back home, we collaborated on a book about the lives of contemporary Palestinians, some of whom I had met on our travels.  The book, which we called Letters from Palestine, was published in 2010.  Afterward, Anna, especially, became an ardent activist for Palestinian rights, and together we sponsored and helped to support a deaf Gazan girl.  (Many Palestinian children in Gaza have suffered extreme hearing loss or deafness because of the constant noise from drones and jets flying overhead, day after day, even when Gaza isn’t being attacked.)

We were not allowed into Gaza while we were there, though I came to know many Gazans through the email messages they were able to send to me in connection with the book I co-edited with Ghassan.  Most of these Gazans, mainly young people, were soon to suffer grievously when Israel launched one of its periodic assaults on Gaza.  The school of one very bright Gazan engineering student was destroyed, preventing him from completing his education.  Others suffered the destruction of their homes.  Some, I’m afraid, were killed since I never heard from them again.  Many of their stories, written while they were being attacked, are featured in the last portion of our book.

Which brings me, finally, to the unconscionable obscenity of what Israel is now doing to the long-suffering inhabitants of Gaza, who continue to be penned into their tiny enclave where they live, if they manage to survive this heinous onslaught, like prisoners in an open-air prison, with nowhere to go and no sense of what kind of future they will have.  The lucky ones will be killed.  Those who survive, whether wounded or not, will be traumatized for life.

You’ve seen the photos and videos. You’ve seen what has been happening at the hospitals. The lack of food, water, fuel and shelter, and so on.  The relentless bombing day after day.

As terrible as what Hamas did to the citizens of Israel (and I hate Hamas, too), who have also suffered horribly and who still wait, with fear in their hearts, for the release of their hostages, hoping they are somehow still alive, nothing can justify the continuing barbaric assault on Gaza, effectively making the innocent Gazans, most of whom do NOT support Hamas, the victims of collective punishment, which is itself a war crime.

As a result of Israel’s actions, there has been a steep rise in anti-Semitism throughout much of the Western world.  And in the United States, as of the other day, there had been close to a 400% increase in anti-Semitism since Oct 7th.  It is the action of Israel that is making the lives of Jews throughout the world at risk now.  It has never been safe to be a Jew, the perennial, often despised, outsider. Now, they are less safe and secure than they have been for many years.  Who knows how much worse their situation will become in the years to come.

I personally am not afraid, but given all that I’ve written and all that I have witnessed, I am now – because of Israel – ashamed to be a Jew. 

Do you remember when, a few years ago, the great scandal of the modern Catholic Church erupted with the disclosure that so many Catholic priests had actually been pedophiles, and that the Church hierarchy had done all it could to conceal this terrible, devastating discovery? At that time, many Catholics, appalled by what they had learned, left the Church in disgust.

The same thing has been true for me because of Israel’s reprehensible and heartless slaughter of so many innocents in Gaza.  So I feel compelled, as an act of protest, to renounce my heritage and identity as a Jew.  There are many Jews I still love, of course, and always will.  But I no longer wish to be one.

October 19, 2023

What You Should Know About Israel

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

In 2008, after having become aware of the situation of Palestinians in Israel, I traveled there and to the West Bank, to see things for myself. I wasn’t there that long, but I saw and learned a lot. And I also met and became friends with a number of Palestinians. After I returned home, I co-edited a book with one of my new Palestinian friends about the lives of contemporary Palestinians. The book, Letters from Palestine, was published in 2010. This is how it begins:

Early in February, 2008, I came into possession of a book about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people.  Entitled Dark Hope, it was written by an American-born Israeli professor turned peace activist named David Shulman. Although I had long been distressed over the seemingly intractable nature of this conflict and dismayed by what I knew of Israeli practices and politics in relation to the Palestinians, this was the first book I had ever read on the subject. By the time I finished it, it had changed my life completely.

Shulman, a man about sixty, turned out to be a distinguished professor of Indology (he is also a MacArthur Fellow) on which subject he has authored many books. But Dark Hope of course was a book of a very different kind than those Shulman has written on the various areas of his own professional expertise. In it, he described, in hauntingly evocative prose, his work with an Israeli peace group called Ta’ayush in the West Bank. In summary, he and his colleagues would travel into the West Bank to help Palestinians with their agricultural work -- and to try to keep them from being attacked by Israeli settlers who would frequently harass, intimidate and often assault Palestinians as they tried to go about their work in the fields.

Shulman’s book begins with his forays into the hills south of Hebron where many of the Palestinians who reside there are actually cave dwellers and pastoralists who have lived there for generations. However, this area is now an embattled zone because of the presence of so-called settlements or outposts whose inhabitants are Jews of the most strident ideological leanings many of whom are prone to violence. These settlers, who are often armed, want the land the Palestinians have lived on for hundreds of years, and they are at war with them in skirmishes that never seem to end. The Palestinians, who are forbidden to use arms, are defenseless, except for the intervention of peace activists since the soldiers and police in this area are there specifically to protect and defend only the settlers. 

The work of Ta'ayush and other peace groups is in effect to interpose themselves between the settlers and the Palestinians in an effort to fend off the former from attacking the latter. And since the peace groups are committed to non-violence, their members are often injured and suffer many other hardships in the course of their efforts to deter or deflect the settlers from their predations. Shulman himself has been beaten up more than once. 

Although Shulman often writes in a restrained, unassuming and at times almost contemplative mode about the travails he and his comrades must endure in order to do this work, he is forthright when it comes to his depiction of the settlers he encounters who are well known to be among the most vicious in the country. At one point, after returning home from one typical day in the fields, he finds himself suddenly filled with fury, and writes:

What we are fighting in the South Hebron Hills is pure, rarefied, unadulterated, unreasoning, uncontainable human evil. Nothing but malice drives this campaign to uproot the few thousand cave dwellers with their babies and lambs. They have hurt nobody. They were never a security threat. They led peaceful, if somewhat impoverished lives until the settlers came. Since then, there has been no peace. They are tormented, terrified, incredulous. As am I. What black greed, what unwitting hatred, has turned Israeli Jews into the torturers of the innocent? … I rage in my well-appointed kitchen; I am inflamed, crushed, mad with pain.

I was shaken by Shulman’s book, which was a revelation to me. Although I certainly could not claim to possess anything like his exquisite sensibility, his reports did enable me to see, and to see clearly through his eyes for the first time, just what life was like for the Palestinians living in such conditions. And even a person with only the most rudimentary sense of empathy could easily identify with Shulman’s anguish, while admiring his bravery and commitment, and feel something of the same explosive grief and anger that he could no longer contain. 

Shulman’s book opened a door for me, and once I looked inside, I had to enter.

I decided I needed to read more, to inform myself further, so I quickly found some other books that could tell me more about the life and situation of the Palestinians living under occupation -- that is, living under the military control of Israel either in the West Bank or Gaza. One of those books, Witness in Palestine, was written by a Jewish American woman named Anna Baltzer, and it helped to flesh out and provide an historical context for much of what Shulman had described in his book. Through reading Baltzer’s illuminating book, which allowed me to glimpse what daily life was like for many Palestinians, I was beginning to form a more definite impression not only of their suffering but the reasons for it.

By this time, I had started to share what I had been learning with my partner, Anna, and I remember one day I showed her a map in Baltzer’s book that depicted how many and how extensive were the Israeli settlements (they now number about 120, not including so-called temporary “outposts”) in the West Bank. Anna was shocked and appalled. And I remember her exact words, “I had no idea. We have to do something about this!”

By this time in my life, I was 72 years old, and had long been retired after spending nearly 35 years as a university professor and author. Although I had a passing interest in politics and world affairs, I had never been an activist, and I had no real desire to disrupt my pleasant life in Marin country, near San Francisco, where I was now living happily enough with Anna.

At this point, I should probably say a bit about myself, but mainly in order to show just why it was that by the time I read books like Shulman’s and Baltzer’s, I could scarcely do otherwise than walk through the door they had opened to me and begin to enter the world that their writings had unveiled.

I was born in San Francisco, grew up in the Bay Area, went to Cal-Berkeley with a major in psychology, got a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, became a professor and taught for many years at the University of Connecticut. My main area of research dealt with near-death experiences on which subject I wrote five books and probably almost a hundred articles. During those years, 1977-2000, I traveled widely and lectured on near-death experiences and similar subjects all over the world. After I retired from teaching, I still continued to work in this field, but also explored and wrote about other topics, such as classical music composers, and wrote some memoirs, too, but mostly about other people in my life, not myself.

As to what led to my strong response to Shulman’s and Baltzer’s book, it is necessary to go into my Jewish past in order to explain my Palestinian present. 

My ancestors — both on my mother’s and my father’s side — came from Lithuania. But I mostly only know about my mother’s side of the family. Her father, who was a cantor, came to America in the early 1900s. He and his wife had five children, my mother being the last of them. However, all of these kids rejected the Jewish faith and almost all of its rituals, and I myself was raised in a completely non-religious, even anti-religious, environment. Unlike most Jews, we didn’t even live in a Jewish community. In fact, I don’t think I even knew that I was Jewish until I was about 6 or 7. And I scarcely even knew any Jews outside my own family until I got to graduate school — there they all were!

Still, in those days, even though I had no use for Judaism itself (and still don’t), I was nevertheless proud to be a Jew because of the fact that so many outstanding people in the modern world were of Jewish descent — FreudMarxEinsteinOppenheimerMahler, and on into the night. Obviously, a lot of Jews were smart cookies, and even though we were a very small percentage of the world’s population (I think it’s now about 0.02%), our achievements as a people were vastly greater than our numbers alone could account for. And a lot of us were professionals, despite coming from humble backgrounds. For example, in my family, no one before me had ever gone to college. But in my cousinly cohort (four of my mother’s sibship had one kid each), I became a professor and author; my closest cousin, a cardiologist; another cousin a professor and outstanding jazz pianist; and a fourth cousin, a podiatrist, though he’s now internationally famous for some oddball research he does. In this respect, we are just typical Jews, though none of us cares a whit about being Jewish, and we virtually never talk about it.

But another reason I was glad to be a Jew was that American Jews had played a major role in the civil rights movement and were often found, again in disproportionate numbers, engaged in liberal causes — in causes on behalf of the underdogs in our society. My own family was not at all involved in activism of any sort, but we were liberal, and I had a Communist uncle who was very important to me when I was young, so I learned about the values Jews of this sort stood for at an early age.

In any case, I had my life and career, and though in the course of it I had met many Jews, that’s about as far as it went until one day a few years ago, I happened to read a book by an author, now deceased, I admired very much — W. G. Sebald, a marvelous, highly original writer. He wasn’t Jewish, and he only wrote about the Holocaust rather elliptically, but his books got me wondering about my own Jewishness and Jewish history. So all of a sudden, I found myself delving into my Jewish past, individually and collectively. Over the course of a year or so, I must have read easily at least three dozen books on the subject, including several on Lithuanian Jewry, which I found fascinating. And through this immersion in Jewish history I learned a great deal about what had formed the Jewish people as well as what shaped the contours of my own psyche that I had never known or had only dimly appreciated.

Necessarily, I read a lot about what the Jews had suffered — the history of Jews, after all, is, with some notable exceptions, such as in medieval Spain, pretty much a history of suffering, humiliation, horror and of course violent displacement and mass murder — not only during the Holocaust but at earlier times, too.

But then I found myself wanting to read about other people who had suffered similar fates, so after a while I turned my attention to the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks (who deny it to this day). I read four books alone on that topic. And then I started digging into the literature of other peoples who had endured similar terrible tragedies and genocides — the extermination of the Australian aborigines, for example, or that of the American Indians (of course I had read about that much earlier), the treatment of the Chinese by the Japanese in the 20th century, the recent genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, then other books on ethnic cleansing, on World War I and II, the history and treatment of homosexuals, etc. — reading about the most vile, heinous, unspeakable cruelties, all in an effort to understand how people could do such things to other people. How they could act like beasts, not humans, worse than any animal, by engaging in collective acts of such barbarity and savagery that you could barely keep from vomiting when reading about it? In reading these books, I wound up taking a long trip through human-induced hell, always asking “Why?” How could people do such things to one another?

It was at this point in my life that I came across David Shulman’s book.

I had long detested Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians, but I never had had an inclination to go to Israel (in fact, had an aversion to doing so), so I had never taken an active interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, as I had said, it was this book that first opened my eyes and shocked me into a realization.

In a nutshell, this is what I saw immediately. First, all the terrible crimes against various peoples I had read about had already taken place; they were matters of history. This crime — that the Israelis were guilty of toward the Palestinians — was happening now, and was on-going. Second, it was being committed by Jews — of all people! How could they adopt policies against non-Jews that were so unmistakably suggestive of those used against Jews in Nazi Germany of the 1930s? (Of course, as a psychologist, I could understand this, but as a human being, I could not countenance it.) Third, it was already clear to me that it was principally the support of the United States that was making all this possible. Americans, and especially many American Jews, were Israel’s best friend and its bank.

I felt ashamed to be a Jew, if this is what Jews had become. Furthermore, this was an injustice I could do something about now. Had to do something. I couldn’t stand the thought that some of the people of whom I had once been proud to be member had sunk to this level of depravity. I thought it was up to American Jews especially to speak out against this, and to do more than speak out — to stop it. (Subsequently I realized that it was not up to American or other Jews to “stop it,” but to support Palestinians in doing so -- but here I am only speaking of what I felt then.) 

At that point, I became a Palestinian in my heart.

So when Anna said “we have to do something about this,” I was ready. Shulman’s book was the trigger, Baltzer’s made me pull it, but clearly the gun had been loaded for some time. 

“Let’s go,” I said.


Fourteen years have passed, and the situation of the Palestinians is no better. In fact, in many ways it is worse. And David Shulman, who is now about as old I was when I went to Israel, has continued to document and bear witness to the atrocities that are still being perpetrated by the fanatical Jewish settlers in the South Hebron hills. Below is his most recent article on the subject, which also features a review of a recent book that tells the same story, only with more detail. So here is Shulman’s update for you.

The State of Israel vs. the Jews
 by Sylvain Cypel, translated from
the French by William Rodarmor.
Other Press, 360 pp., $27.99

November 10, 2021: Twenty Israeli settlers, armed with guns and clubs, their faces masked, descend upon the hamlet of Halat al-Dab’ in the South Hebron hills. They attack the Palestinians who live there, smash windows, cars, and whatever else they find. Six Palestinians are wounded, at least one from gunshots. There are Israeli soldiers nearby who make no attempt to interfere and who leave the area while the pogrom is going on. I use the word deliberately. What happened that day in Halat al-Dab’ is not different in kind from the pogrom in Nikolayev, in Ukraine, in the early years of the twentieth century, when my grandmother’s brother was killed by Cossacks.

September 28, 2021, Simchat Torah, the end of the Sukkot holiday: Dozens of masked settlers storm the tiny Palestinian encampment of Mufagara, also in the South Hebron hills, wreaking havoc. Basil al-Adraa, an activist from the nearby village of at-Tuwani, reported that the settlers 

went from house to house, and broke windows, smashed cars with knives and hammers. A large stone they threw hit a 3-year-old boy, Mohammed, in the head, who is now in the hospital. The soldiers supported them with tear gas. The residents fled. I can’t forget how the villagers left their houses, terrified, the children screaming, the women crying, while the settlers entered their living rooms, like they were possessed with violence and wrath.

September 17, 2021: A convoy of activists from the Israeli-Palestinian NGO Combatants for Peace and other organizations is bringing a water tanker to a village near at-Tuwani, which has no access to running water. The army violently attacks the convoy with tear gas and stun grenades. Six activists and a journalist are wounded; one of the activists is thrown to the rocky ground by the senior officer in command and has to undergo surgery on his eye. Seven Palestinians are arrested.

No one should think that these events—a random selection—are aberrations or exceptions to the rule. They are now the norm in the occupied Palestinian territories. Settler violence, backed up by Israeli soldiers, happens every day. Government ministers and high-ranking officers, including the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, make bland statements condemning the violence but do nothing to stop it. Some of them actively support it. The goal, by no means a secret, is to expel Palestinians from their homes and lands and, eventually, to annex as much of the West Bank as possible to Israel.

Any means to achieve this goal is acceptable. The minister of defense, Benny Gantz, has recently outlawed six Palestinian human rights organizations on the pretext that they are connected to Hamas.* The vehemence with which the government and the security goons have defended this pretext is evidence that they know it is false—yet another attempt to stamp out Palestinian protest and dissent. Some readers might be reminded of the days when the ACLU was attacked by Joseph McCarthy as an alleged Communist front organization.

All of this is Israel in 2021. So what is a onetime liberal Zionist like Sylvain Cypel supposed to make of it? His father, Jacques Cypel, was an outstanding leader of labor Zionism in France and also the editor of the world’s last Yiddish-language daily newspaper, Unzer Wort. (It closed down in 1996.) The young Sylvain, bilingual in French and Yiddish, grew up in Bordeaux and Paris, where he was a member of a labor Zionist youth group. He went to Israel after high school, served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army, and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After living in Israel on and off for twelve years, he returned to France, where he eventually became a senior editor at Le Monde and then editor in chief of Courrier International.

In The State of Israel vs. the Jews, Cypel describes the change that came over him in the years following the 1967 war:

I had always thought that when Israel was founded as a refuge for the persecuted Jews of the world, justice had been on the Israeli side…. But I was gradually discovering that the expulsion of the Palestinians and the seizing of their land had been deliberately brutal.

By the time he left Israel, he was an anti-Zionist, hence ostracized by some former friends. He clearly couldn’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance that so many of us in the Israeli peace movement have to live with. As he puts it, “Israel was evolving into something no idealist could stomach: a racist, bullying little superpower.” The raison d’être of his book lies in documenting and substantiating this thesis.

Cypel’s trajectory is not unusual. I know quite a few originally left-oriented, idealistic Zionists who have been similarly disillusioned and who have given up on the Jewish state. Some of them think that from the very beginning, the Zionist movement was caught up in, indeed defined by, a teleology of increasingly violent crime against the Palestinian “other” who inhabits the same small chunk of land on the Mediterranean coast. I don’t subscribe to this overdetermined view.

But Cypel’s story has a particularly French, or rather French Jewish, dimension, spelled out in a chapter of his book subtitled “The Blindness of French Jews.” France was the first European country to emancipate the Jews (in 1791; their rights were confirmed and expanded in the following decades), and the Jews of France had good reason to identify with the liberté, fraternité, and égalité of the French Revolution, even if these slogans were often honored in the breach. But with the influx of more than 300,000 French-speaking Jews from Algeria and elsewhere in the Maghreb during and after the Algerian War of Independence of 1954–1962, the French Jewish community underwent significant changes. Many of the new immigrants to France carried with them bitter memories of their formal status as dhimmis, a tolerated but humiliated minority, under Islam. They took vicarious pride in the rise of Israel and even felt a slight taste of revenge on their Arab oppressors.

And while French Jews are by no means uniformly “Israelized”—the term used by the historian Pierre Birnbaum to refer to an unthinking commitment to the ethnonationalist program of the Israeli right—Cypel has only harsh words for the community and especially for the organization that claims to speak for it, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France. He also mocks French Jewish intellectuals for their public silence when it comes to Israel.

There is another element in the transformation of this former Zionist into a ferocious critic of Israel. Cypel remembers from his childhood the war the French fought to maintain their colony in Algeria. As a student in Jerusalem in 1969—only seven years after Algeria achieved independence—he was shocked to hear Israeli students who “talked about the Palestinians exactly the same way French settlers there [in Algeria] used to talk about the Arabs.” French Jews on the left had mostly, sometimes passionately, opposed the French colonial war in Algeria. Now it was all happening again in Palestine, even if the historical parallel was inexact. (The French colonists in Algeria had, at least in theory, a home country they could return to, unlike nearly all Israeli Jews.)

For Cypel, just out of the Israeli army and haunted by recent memory, the result was the discovery of the “yawning gap between the promise and the reality of Zionism.” But for people like me, who still remember the late 1960s and early 1970s in Israel, before the settler movement began, those years call up memories of the old, moderately humanistic, mildly socialist Israel. Make no mistake: the underlying project of dispossession, or “thinning out” the Palestinian population, as it was then euphemistically called, was very much underway. And the occupation had clearly taken root. Israel was no utopia, yet it was utterly unlike the shameless hyper-nationalist state we have today. Cypel shows us, in strident but truthful tones, the dystopian world of an ethnocratic polity immersed in systemic repression, institutionalized hatred toward Palestinians, and quotidian criminal acts in the occupied territories, where a colonial settler regime is firmly in place.

He also gives us chapters on other kinds of transgressions, like the sale of sophisticated Israeli spyware to the world’s most cruel and despotic states, among them South Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar, for use against their own citizens—a business, he writes, that earns “Israeli companies an amount estimated by various sources at between $1 billion and $3.4 billion a year.” He describes the increasing attacks on Israeli human rights activists by the state security forces; the rehabilitation and relegitimation of Kach, the overtly racist party of thugs founded by Meir Kahane, now once again represented in the Knesset by the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party; and the antidemocratic legislation initiated by the Israeli right, such as the “nation-state law” that enshrines inequality among Jews and non-Jews within the state. Jewish privilege—and the concomitant discrimination against Israeli Arab citizens—are now no longer a latent, though widespread, Israeli dream but a legal reality. All of this leads Cypel to quote with approbation—as the book’s epigraph—the late Tony Judt’s statement in 2003 that “the depressing truth today is that Israel is bad for the Jews.”

This seems a lot like saying that Italy is bad for the Italians, which may well have been true, in some sense, from the 1920s through the early 1940s but can hardly be an enduring theorem; or that the United States under Trump was bad for the Americans. Most states, especially ethno-nation-states, are quite often bad for their citizens, and it sometimes, indeed often, seems that a self-destructive telos is built into the very notion of an ethnocratic nationalist polity. But Judt’s statement, and Cypel’s citation of it, smack of Jewish exceptionalism. For centuries the Jews, with good reasons to habitually fear the worst, have viewed any event in light of the question “Is it good or bad for the Jews?” Now they have a state of their own, and the question is still there. It might be better to ask if Israeli policies are good for Israeli citizens and for the Palestinians who share with them the land west of the Jordan River. To the extent that Jewish communities throughout the world support current Israeli policies, they, too, bear some responsibility for the evils of the occupation. On a good day, I sometimes manage to believe that a time will come when Israel will revert to its roots in the humane side of the Jewish tradition and the universal values articulated by the Hebrew prophets. That day seems far away.

There is not much point in rehearsing here the well-known litany of state terror and abuse that define the Israeli occupation. The information is there for all to see, in Cypel’s eloquent J’accuse and elsewhere (the website of the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, for example). The disjunction between the ethical vision of the biblical prophets and the reality of life in the West Bank and Gaza has already opened up a fissure between Israel and some progressive Jewish communities in the Western world, especially in America (not yet, perhaps, in France, if Cypel is right). That gap, I believe, will widen. It also exists in the liberal, younger wing of the Democratic Party in the US. That doesn’t mean that the Judt-Cypel axiom is acceptable to these critics of Israeli policy. It does mean that new and perhaps more effective forms of pressure on Israel are beginning to take practical form.

It is important to note, however, from an internal Israeli perspective, that the days are over when presenting the crimes in the occupied territories to the Israeli media, and thus to the wider public, might have some positive, constraining effect. Put simply, no one really cares. More precisely, judging by the results of the four recent elections, something like a third to half of the population ardently support the policy of repression, expulsion, and escalating violence directed at Palestinians. Many among the other two thirds or so are unhappy with this policy, but only a tiny minority are prepared to do anything to stop it.

That passivity and/or indifference constitute the heart of the problem. They are far worse and infinitely more consequential than anything the settlers or soldiers can do. Without the compliance of the vast majority of Israelis, state-sponsored terror on the West Bank could not continue to run wild. One can sometimes hear the clucking of tongues—not much more than that. Perhaps the great defender of human rights Michael Sfard is right when he says that someday, when the occupation has finally ended, nearly everyone in Israel will claim retroactively that they were against it from the beginning.

A form of mass protest did develop in Israel over the last two years with the aim of removing Benjamin Netanyahu from office—certainly a worthy goal. For months, many thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, came to Jerusalem every Saturday night to demonstrate outside the prime minister’s residence. Ultimately, they succeeded, at least for now. But Netanyahu was an easy target. How much mendacity, venality, and sheer selfishness on the part of a leading politician does it take to get a decent citizen into the streets? However, it was not the occupation that moved many of these protesters. They wanted to rid themselves of a prime minister who, in order to remain in power, was undermining the entire fabric of state institutions, including the courts, and who had cultivated a culture of rabid hatred for any opponent, from within or from without, along with a personality cult such as one sees in authoritarian regimes.

Urgent ethical quandaries remain to torment those of us who live in Israel. What about the minimal moral basis of statehood, and the social contract rooted in some notion of decency, that political theorists from Locke to Rawls and Walzer have posited? What happens to a state in which moral abominations serving utilitarian considerations become routine? Does such a state forfeit its legitimacy? Can it redeem itself, and if so, how? Or is sheer force, in the end, immune to ethical considerations? Cypel quotes Netanyahu:

In the Middle East, and in many parts of the world, there is a simple truth—there is no place for the weak. The weak crumble, are slaughtered, and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.

I’d like to bring such questions down to a concrete, more personal perspective. There is, unfortunately, no lack of instances we could examine. Here is one not atypical of the Israeli-Palestinian situation—the case of Harun Abu Aram, twenty-four years old, from the village of al-Rakiz in the South Hebron hills.

On January 1, 2021, Harun’s neighbor Ashraf was fixing a roof over his sheep pen. Five soldiers, apparently summoned by the settlers of the nearby illegal outposts of Avigail or Chavat Maon, came to the village, invaded Ashraf’s house, and discovered there, horror of horrors, a small electric generator. (Al-Rakiz is not attached to the electrical grid.) The soldiers seized the generator. Ashraf protested. A scuffle developed. Harun’s father, Rasmi, came running to help his friend and, like Ashraf, was beaten and kicked by the soldiers. Harun, hearing what was happening, rushed to the scene. For a few minutes, there was a tug-of-war between the soldiers and the Palestinians, and the generator changed hands several times. Then one of the soldiers, standing to the side and in no danger, shot Harun at point-blank range, hitting him in the neck. He fell to the ground, his spinal cord severed between vertebrae six and seven.

The soldiers, now the proud owners of the generator, set up a roadblock at the main road in and out of the village. Here comes the worst part of the story. Rasmi and Ashraf managed to get Harun into a car in order to drive him to a hospital, but the soldiers, including the one who shot Harun, stopped the vehicle and shot at its tires, puncturing one of them. Miraculously, Ashraf managed to drive the car on three wheels past the roadblock and into the village of at-Tuwani, where Harun was transferred to another car, which, after running into another military roadblock, finally got him to a hospital. The doctors said that if they’d come ten minutes later, Harun would have died.

Harun is paralyzed from the neck down. After many months in hospital, he can again breathe without assistance. He is now in a specially equipped house in the town of Yata and requires twenty-four-hour care. His life is ruined. Before the incident, he was about to be married. The army demolished the house his father had built for the young couple, one of many recurrent demolitions in al-Rakiz. The soldier who shot Harun has not been punished, and the State of Israel has refused to take any responsibility for Harun’s fate or to cover any of the enormous costs of his hospital stay.

This is a single instance among thousands. The essential point is that whatever the soldier who shot Harun was thinking—maybe he panicked, maybe he was taught to hate Palestinians—the incident illuminates the inner logic of the Israeli occupation as a whole. A Palestinian should not have a generator, nor should he fix his fence or sheep pen. A Palestinian must never protest or disobey a soldier. A Palestinian can be killed by settlers or soldiers with impunity. A Palestinian will never receive justice in the military courts that operate in the territories. And so on. Given that logic, what happened to Harun, and to countless other Palestinians over the past decades, was natural, in fact inevitable. It is wrong to class it as a tragic mistake. Once the soldiers entered the village on their ugly mission, all the rest unfolded along familiar lines. The ultimate malice, no doubt a decision on the part of those same soldiers, took place at the two roadblocks.

Charles de Gaulle, reelected president in 1958 to keep Algeria French, came to realize that the very survival of France as a civilization among the nations of the world required that it extricate itself from Algeria. Israel has yet to achieve a similar understanding about the occupied Palestinian territories. Even one Harun vitiates the state’s claim to common decency and indelibly stains its ethical core. And Harun is by no means alone.

I don’t believe in a statistical calculus of morals. Any evil act has its own intrinsic horror, its own lurid integrity. We will never be able to tally up the number of crimes committed by Israelis against Palestinians and weigh them against the crimes committed by Palestinians against Jews, as if one side could “win” in the giant sweepstakes of victimhood. Ultimately, the two sides will either lose everything together or win together, despite their shared belief that the conflict is a zero-sum game.

What we can say is that the Israeli side is still, after fifty-five years, maintaining in the Palestinian territories a system that ruthlessly causes the death or wounding of innocents in large numbers, just as it continues to steal more and more Palestinian land with the backing of the Israeli courts. It would also be fair to say that the situation is deteriorating from day to day. Those who know that situation firsthand also know that there is no possible way to justify it or to make sense of it without resorting to a claim that eternal Israeli supremacy over all Palestinians is a worthy and attainable aim.

January 12, 2022

*See Raja Shehadeh, “What Does Israel Fear from This ‘Terrorist’?,” The New York Review, December 2, 2021.


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