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.


This is what you should know about Israel.

October 17, 2023

Spontaneous Contacts with the Dead

Part I

My mother died in June, 2001, at the age of 88, which age I will reach this December.  She spent her last years in a nursing home, no longer able to walk, and slightly but not seriously demented.  (She always recognized me, however, and was able to converse.)  During those years, my mother had a characteristic odor -- sort of a sour, spoiled milk, musty quality, but very distinctive.

Some years ago, I went to see the film Amour, which is about a woman in her 80s dying a slow and painful death following a series of strokes. It is a great film, very moving, and the woman actress, Emmanuelle Riva, strongly reminded me of my mother in her later years. I kept reliving scenes of my being with her while simultaneously being absorbed in the film.
During most of it, I had my left hand under my chin, and soon I noticed that I was smelling that same unmistakable odor around my hand that my mother had given off.  The odor lasted throughout the film.  It was so obvious to me that afterward I asked my then current girlfriend if she could smell anything unusual when she sniffed my hand; she could not.  By that time, I didn't bother to see if the smell had persisted, but while it lasted, it emitted a very strong malodorous stench.

What I experienced is now called an after-death communication (abbreviated ADC), and according to a new book on the subject, such olfactory ADCs are surprisingly common, making up some 28% of such cases.  For example, here’s another one I have drawn from this book, which has some similarities to mine:

After I received a phone call from the respective doctor at the hospital where my mother died, I rushed to the hospital about 40 km from where I live. When I arrived in the town in which my mother died, the traffic lights turned red and I was forced to stop and wait for a while. There I sensed my mom's spirit: I smelled her. I could smell her presence. It was her unique smell and I knew at that moment that she was in the car visiting me. It wasn't just thinking she was there -- it was knowing that she was with me in the car. So I started crying tears of joy to be able to have her near me again and I spontaneously shouted joyfully: "Mom, you are here. You are here mom, aren't you?" It was an unforgettable experience which led to my intense research about life after death and after-death communication.”

This case, and others that I will cite in this blog, is drawn from a just published book entitled Spontaneous Contact With the Deceased.  The research reported in this book, which involves more than a thousand cases from three language groups (English, French and Spanish) is now the most definitive study of ADCs ever to be undertaken. But it is not just a collection of anecdotal testimonies, but a thorough, scientific analysis of such experiences, which inform the reader about how often they occur, under which conditions, and how they affect people who report them.

Thanks to this research, we can now estimate that the incidence of ADCs is between 50 and 60% in the general population, mainly, but not always, occurring to the bereaved.  So they are surprisingly common, though not nearly so well known as near-death experiences.  

The principal author of this book and lead investigator of this project is a Swiss researcher named Evelyn Elsaesser, who happens to be a very dear and long-time friend of mine, someone to whom I am very deeply indebted.  So before turning to the findings of Evelyn’s research, I would like to tell you a little about her and my connection to her.

Around 1990, Evelyn introduced herself to me in an e-mail. She was then working on a book about NDEs and wanted to interview various experts in several different countries.  She had selected me to be the representative of American researchers and asked if I would be open to be interviewed by her.  Of course, I was flattered by her interest in me and my work, so I readily assented.  

Not long afterward, she arrived at the University of Connecticut and, after greeting her, we repaired to my private office for the interview.  It took the rest of the day, lasting some six hours!  (Evelyn recently reminded me that she told me she had ten pages of questions and I replied that I only had five pages of answers.)

It was the longest and most searching interview to which I had ever been subjected, before or since.  I was really impressed with this woman, and, not surprisingly, we quickly became great friends.

A few years later, after I had just moved back to California, and was working on my book, Lessons from the Light, I became quite seriously ill.  I had nearly completed work on the book, but was no longer able to finish it, and I really despaired of being able to do so.  I had to give up on it.

Eventually, I recovered, though I still felt unable to return to the book. But I was invited to lecture about my work in Stuttgart, Germany, and since Evelyn lived near Geneva, she was able to meet me there.  Evelyn asked someone to take a photo of us while we were having a meal.  Here it is:

You can see we were already quite chummy.  I remember that encounter because I talked with Evelyn about my unhappiness and disappointment concerning my unfinished book.

“Please let me help you,” she offered. And she did. Although I had done virtually all the writing for the book, Evelyn helped me to continue my research for it, and it was only with her help, involving many hours of work, that I was able to complete it.  That book would never have seen the light and dark of print without Evelyn’s vital assistance.  I felt so indebted to her that she is listed as a co-author of the book. 

But there was still a problem. Although my agent had always been successful in finding a good publisher for my previous three books on NDEs, he was unable to secure one for this book. But Evelyn again came to my rescue.  

A published author herself, she was very savvy about the world of publishing, and in short order, she had managed to find an excellent publisher for the book. Not only that, but she then became my new agent, and through her industrious and unstinting efforts, she secured the rights for many foreign editions of the book. As a result of her agenting work, this book has since become by far my most popular book and has continued to sell twenty-five years after its original publication. And next year, there will be still another updated edition of this book, not only in print, but as an e-book and audio book as well. Not to toot my horn too loudly, but I have been told by my current publisher that it is now regarded as “a classic.” None of this would have happened without Evelyn’s unwavering and selfless support.

On a subsequent trip to Europe, this is how I thanked her when she saw me off on my flight home:

Whether this was actually a “Hollywood kiss” like they do in the movies, where the leading man appears to kiss his beloved, but really doesn’t or the real thing – well, a gentleman never tells…. 

Since those early years of our friendship, we have visited each other quite a few times, both in Europe and in California.  Perhaps our most memorable encounter was at my home at the very end of the year 1999 when, as some of you will remember, it was the y2K year when we were to roll over into the new millennium.  There was global anxiety and uncertainly then because nobody knew for sure whether our computers, banks and ATMs would still function and, if they didn’t, what then? 

Well, we all breathed a huge collective sigh of relief when the digital world made its transition seamlessly.  Evelyn and I celebrated this momentous day by joining many gaily dressed, if weary, new year’s revelers by walking across (most of) the Golden Gate Bridge the next morning.  What a great way to mark the beginning of the year 2000!

Of course, since that time, Evelyn and I have exchanged not only more visits, but hundreds of e-mails and have remained the dearest of friends and collaborators.

So much for our friendship. Now it’s time, at long last, to turn to Evelyn’s book and what it has to teach us about ADCs.

Part II

Evelyn, after having spent some years studying and writing about NDEs, found that she was becoming increasingly intrigued with ADCs.  Like me, she was familiar with Bill and Judy Guggenheim’s book on the subject, with its treacly title, Hello From Heaven!, which is a collection of anecdotal reports of ADCs (Evelyn eventually translated this book into French).  But Evelyn wanted to undertake a more scientific, systematic and analytic investigation of this phenomenon, which led her to form her own research team. After receiving grant funds to do this work, she and her colleagues were able to produce, as I have indicated, the definitive book on the subject. 

To begin with, let me briefly summarize the principal findings of her research before presenting some illustrative case histories of ADCs.

Because of space limitations, I can only give you a kind of generic summary of the main features of a typical instance of an ADC.  There is, first of all, a very definite sense of the presence or some other distinctive sign of a deceased loved one, though in many cases, the deceased person is actually seen.  In any case, what the deceased person conveys is this:  “I am fine, I feel wonderful, do not worry about me.  I am alive, just in another realm.”  

The impact of such an unexpected and even shocking visitation usually has a profound emotional effect on the recipient. Feelings of gratitude are common, and the recipient usually feels comforted and reassured that his or her loved one continues to exist on the other side of the veil, so to speak. 

ADCs occur in a variety of ways, most often when the recipient is either asleep or dreaming, but in the latter case, it is usually stated with emphasis that “this was no ordinary dream, it was real.”  Here is a table of the various ways an ADC can manifest and their relative incidence.

Sleep – 62%
Tactile – 48%
Visual – 46%
Auditory – 43%
Sense of presence – 34%
Olfactory – 28%
Coincident with death – 21%

But now to give you a vivid sense of what these ADCs feel like to the recipient, let me cite a few representative cases.  

My brother died by suicide on 3 July 2011. He was 32 years old and struggled for 15 years with depression. He was my little brother; we were 5 years apart. I always felt he was fragile and I always felt the need to protect him. But I always knew he would die young, so much so that as a child I would look at his lifeline in his hand to reassure myself. The month after he died, I was home alone and watching TV in the living room. I was watching a programme I was passionate about and I wasn't thinking about my brother at that moment. I went quickly to my room to get something. I was in a hurry because I didn't want to miss the continuation of the TV programme. When I entered my room, I saw my brother lying on my bed. He was lying full length in his favourite position, with his arms crossed behind his head and his legs crossed, looking relaxed and serene as he did when he was a child. It was so real, or rather so unreal, that I was scared and turned my head away. I wondered for an instant if I was hallucinating. When I looked back at the bed, he was gone. 7 years later, I am sure it was not a hallucination. This image brings back a memory of him when he was 5 years old, lying in the same position and whistling happily.

Some of Evelyn’s most provocative cases are those in which the deceased loved one manifests to the recipient at the time of his or her death.  As noted, such cases make up about 21% of ADCs.  Here are some examples, beginning with a couple of short excerpts.

My mother was not anticipated to live more than a few more days. I was in bed around midnight, suddenly sensed her presence at the side of my bed. She spoke my name and patted my shoulder. I felt mom had passed. Within 10 minutes my brother phoned to tell me she had died a few minutes before his call to me.

My aunt passed away in the middle of the night, at about 2.30 a.m. At that moment I was woken up by a caress on my cheek, like a breath of air. The window was closed, there was no draft in the room. Ten minutes later, the hospital phoned me to tell me that she had died.

Next, a couple of longer reports when a loved one appears as if to say goodbye, but not to worry….

I was 23 years old. At that time I lived in Lyon. My grandmother lived 80 km north of Lyon. We were very close, we had a great relationship and friendship. I had been seeing her a lot less lately because I had a very busy job. I didn't come home very often at weekends to see her and my parents who lived in the same small town. My grandmother was very ill and we knew that the illness would soon take her away. My mother asked me to come that weekend and we all went to the hospital (many sisters on my mother's side). On Sunday evening in the hospital we were all around her bed to say goodbye. I was the last to leave... trying to comfort her and telling her not to be afraid, that she would be reunited with all the people she loved. I left knowing in my heart that it was the last time and, strangely enough, I was not sad! 

On Tuesday night I wake up attracted by a strong presence. I am sitting in my bed overlooking a large open loft. And there, right in front of me, only 2 or 3 meters away, slightly higher, I perceive her presence without seeing her! A sort of luminous white haze and above all an incredible sensation invades me, of happiness, of peace, of Love. I smile at her. I know at that moment that she has passed to the other side and that she has come to say goodbye and reassure me. I go back to sleep soothed and the next day leave for work. The telephone rings at my workplace in the middle of the morning, it's my mum. She tells me with emotion that my little grandmother has died!

I awoke suddenly for no reason from a good sleep and saw my grandfather standing at the side of my bed. He seemed slightly younger, healthier and radiating pure love. He smiled at me and said “I’m going away, my wee dove” (his pet name for me). I smiled back at him and looked at my alarm clock, it was 06.00, then he was gone. It didn’t occur to me to ask my grandfather where he was going or why he was in my room at 6 in the morning. I just slipped back into a peaceful sleep. I was later wakened by the telephone ringing and my grandmother sobbing on the phone that papa was dead. His death certificate later stated approximate time of death 06.00.

Finally, one last account that conveys just how powerful and moving these experiences can be.  In this case, there was also an unexpected confirmation of this person’s ADC:

I received a visit from my deceased wife, in July 2013, 10 months after her passing in October 2012, while unconscious under anaesthetic on the operating table for a gall bladder removal in 2012, a year after her passing. At the age of her passing she was 71 years of age. In her visit she appeared younger in age, serene, composed, beautiful, youthful, happy, smiling, full of love and compassion. She was bathed in a gold and white light. The vision was magnificent in its clarity. She assured me with a loving smile that she was "alright" and that "things were wonderful on this side" and that "I would be alright too and had no need to worry". The experience was timeless, beautifully intense, deep, blissful, full of love. I have no idea how long it lasted. One second, one minute, 5 minutes - seems irrelevant. When I woke up, or recovered consciousness, I felt incredibly relaxed and had full recollection of the experience. I felt that I had experienced heaven. This intensely relaxed state stayed with me for several days during which time I initially assumed that the wonderful experience might be drug-induced (the anaesthetic). In the months that followed, the magnificence and intensity of the experience remained but I researched as much as possible with medical people, hypnotherapists and the like to try and determine if there was a drug-induced explanation which caused the experience. I could find no such explanation. Around the same time as my experience my dentist (who had treated my wife shortly before her passing) and a very close lady friend of my wife independently advised me, both in a somewhat "shaken" (for want of a better word) state, that they had been "visited by my deceased wife” asking that "they would look after Matt (that's me)" and she told them that she was alright. This happened around the same time that I had my deceased wife's "visit". This information came independently from and was instigated by my dentist and friend and was not a response to any question I had asked.

Now, some five years later, I feel blessed that I have had this very real experience. I have only to recall it to go into an immediate relaxed and peaceful state. It has been a life changer and I have no doubt that I have experienced an after-death communication from my beloved wife and had glimpsed at the other side that I can only describe as heaven.”


Since there are hundreds of cases presented in Evelyn’s book, you can understand that since I am only writing a blog and not a book, I have only barely begun to scratch the surface of the domain of ADCs.  But if I have managed to whet your appetite to learn more about this remarkable phenomenon, you now know where to go – to Evelyn’s compendious book on the subject. 

To conclude, I would just like to say a few words about where ADCs fit into the general picture of what happens at and after death. Recent research has now revealed a number of fascinating interlocking jeweled facets in the diadem of death-related phenomena (isn’t that a mouthful?).  These days, these miraculous events are collectively referred to as end-of-life experiences (or ELEs).  To begin with, we have what traditionally have been called deathbed visions during which a dying person perceives deceased loved ones who appear to form a kind of “welcoming committee” to help escort the dying person into the realm beyond death.  We also have instances of terminal lucidity in which a previously demented person “wakes up” and becomes lucid, usually shortly before dying. And of course, there are NDEs, which give a person close to death an intimation of the life to come. And now, in addition to the work of mediums who appear to channel the dead to the living, we have ADCs, which require no mediation by mediums.  Rather, as Evelyn’s work shows, these are direct evidential contacts between the dead and us, the living – except they are not dead, just living elsewhere, separated from us, to use William James’ famous phrase, “by the filmiest of screens.”  

What happens at the advent of death and what happens afterward should give us every confidence that when we die, we don’t.  We just live elsewhere and when an ADC occurs, we now have additional evidence that life is forever, and that there really is no death, just a change in location.

A personal postscript

I have written this blog on Friday, October 13th, 2023. Since I was born on a Friday, the 13th, in December of 1935, I have always considered Friday, the 13th my lucky day.  So in exactly two months, as I said at the outset, I will reach the venerable age of 88.  Frankly, given the vicissitudes of my health lately, I am not convinced I will live much longer nor, given the sorry state of the world, do I care to.

But drawing on the hopeful implications of Evelyn’s work, I have promised to make an effort to send her an ADC after my death.  Since, as some of you may remember, I have long been an ardent tennis fan, I intend to return in the following form:  

So, Evelyn, if you should see a tennis ball bouncing crazily into your backyard, well, that’ll be me!