You can't resolve conflicts by force. It will always breed more conflicts, more force. And the history of mankind proves it.
An edited interview by Jaycob Lazaros, May 2023 (The interview in Hebrew)
Nitsan, what led you to activism? How did you end up in the Jordan valley?
I have been active on environmental issues for many years, and then I joined 'Engaged Dharma', a group of meditation practitioners who adopted two Palestinian villages in the West Bank; mainly helping with olive picking and trying to stop the settlers from pouring their sewage into Palestinian fields and groves. We were asked as a group to help in the Jordan Valley when the first outposts appeared there. That was about 7 years ago. I met there for the first time these shepherds' communities and I was really fascinated by them. In the beginning we went there every few weeks but very soon we started to go once a week to help them. With one of these communities we developed a really deep friendship, and this community became like a family to me. It was such a deep friendship that I couldn't not go. I wouldn't miss a week even if I was sick. It was almost compulsive. After a few years my wife said, “Come on you must relax!”, but I couldn't leave them alone to the mercy of the settlers.
You still go with them?
Not for shepherding, as they were forced to give up most of their pasture land. So at the moment I help shepherding in other places. I go there only to visit or to help if they need something.
Can you describe a day in the Jordan Valley? A typical day when you go. Whether it's a peaceful or a troubled day? Whether the settlers show up or not? How does it feel on a peaceful day? And how does it feel on a troubled day?
A peaceful day is wonderful. We go with the herds to the hills, climb on rocks in all kinds of weather. For me it's a real communion with nature. Before I used to go to Sinai or travel in the desert. But once I started going with the shepherds it totally took over. It was like travelling abroad, but much deeper - travelling with a purpose. And I stopped going anywhere else.
I was amazed by this biblical culture; and I use the word 'culture' on purpose - an ancient culture with a lot of wisdom, beauty and ecological values. I'm fortunate to experience such a culture. It's a sin to destroy it - and that's what's happening. The settlers with support of the authorities destroy it. Of course, like in any other society, there are all sorts of people there, but generally, these people are so beautiful, so simple and innocent compared to us. So on a calm day it's very nice. After spending so much time with them I became a little bit of a shepherd myself. I learned somehow how to deal with the sheep.
So can you make these amazing sounds that the shepherds make to communicate with the sheep?
It's a kind of language. I can imitate them, but it's not the same.
I want to know more about this, because I don't speak Arabic and I can't ask them what's the meaning of the sounds.
To stop, to go, to change direction... But they don't use exactly the same sounds and whistles. Each shepherd has his own variations.…
Being there so many times, I got to know the families, the children, the elders and the women. I know who got married, who is sick, and who studies what. I feel at home there. But with this one community it's like my family. Other places I go because it needs to be done. I'm less connected emotionally.
So, describe the bad days. What happens?
Well, bad days are bad. Sometimes it's really traumatic to be assaulted like this. The settlers scatter the herds with all-terrain vehicles, with horses, motorbikes and drones, scaring the sheep and sometimes wounding and killing them. Pushing and threatening the shepherds and us. One has to be on guard all the time. After the first times we were attacked and were not able to stop the settlers, I couldn't sleep for a few nights. I would toss in bed because I was so agitated. I did get used to it, in a way, but still, it's tough. Like some bully who stops you on the street and slaps you without any reason - just because he decided that you're walking on the wrong place. It's an ongoing abuse. And the army (who is the sovereign in these areas) and the police, who is supposed to enforce the law, are doing absolutely nothing. And the way the soldiers talk to the shepherds; it's infuriating. I keep telling them, "Why do you have to talk in such a degrading way? They are not your dogs" So a bad day is bad, even now after so many years. Perhaps these days I take it less personally, but still, it's very upsetting.
Do you mind talking about a particularly traumatic day? Was there one time that made you feel you didn’t want to return?
Nowadays, the assaults are on a daily base and the level of violence is much higher, but somehow, I got used to it. But incidents that made me feel bad? Well, there was one time that soldiers, who themselves were settlers, came to chase us away, I guess out of their own initiative, because we were on the fields that belong to the shepherds. And they were incredibly aggressive. It didn't come to an actual physical fight, but all the time it was on the verge. And they kept pushing us towards the road. It was a very long encounter because we refused to leave. Only when the shepherds gave up and left, we left together with them. For me personally it was very tough. Perhaps one of the worst days that I had, because I felt so defeated. And this officer who kept screaming "cross the road, cross the road", went on following me even after we crossed the road and demanded my ID card. He kept screaming: "your ID card". "No" I said. "Your ID card" he shouted again. "Listen" I said "If you'll say please can I have your ID card I'll give it to you". He went on shouting. I said "no! no way! If you want to get my ID card, you have to say please give me your ID card!”
It's a very Israeli argument.
Not really, I didn't try to tease him I was simply infuriated. In the end, he said "please give me your ID card" and I said "fine, take it", and he took a picture of it. This aggressive barking really upsets me; as though everybody around them is their slave. This, of course, was only one encounter. There were many clashes that were worse than this. But this one especially left a mark on me. Though sometimes we were successful and we managed to block the settlers. And then it was wonderful, we felt that it's another tiny victory that allows the sheep another day of grazing.
I wanted to talk about why you film, why activists film? Why is it so important that there are cameras, that you'll take pictures and videos with your phone?
Because the settlers are simply lying. A settler can push you and attack you while screaming "don't push me, you're pushing me." Or he calls the police and claims he is being attacked while it's the other way around. Or he says "they try to mix their herd with my herd", while his herd is a few kilometers away. These are blatant lies. I wouldn't be able to lie like this. So we must film everything. But I'm really terrible with cameras. Whenever I film, I push the wrong button. So usually I'm doing the talking or the running, and somebody else is filming. It's important, because if you don't film, the situation will be totally twisted by the settlers. So at least there is some evidence that these guys are lying.
Do you think that things are worse when it's not being filmed? Or it's the other way around? When the activists and the cameras are there the situation becomes more volatile.
Often people blame us for being provocative, that our presence there with the cameras aggravates the situation. But this is total nonsense. The fact is, that when we are not there the shepherds are being attacked on a daily basis, and they're completely defenseless. In these tense encounters, I always try to communicate, to start a conversation with the settlers in order to reduce the level of violence as much as possible. This is my way of dealing with these situations, but it's getting harder and harder. In the beginning it was possible sometime to stop them by talking. And if I did manage and he said "but stop filming", so I'd say to the person who is filming to stop filming (again according to the situation) and we talked. "Let's have a talk without a camera". But otherwise, it's really necessary.
I want to know more about this. Why talk to settlers or not talk to settlers? Because I interviewed another activist and he said he doesn’t ever speak to settlers.
That was a big argument within our group. Some people did talk to settlers, some people didn't. In my opinion, if there is a very volatile situation which is likely to explode, talking might dissipate the violence. It's not that I think I will convince the guy, but I feel that the moment I divert his energy to communicate verbally, it's already few degrees less dangerous. And my concern is for the shepherds; all they want is to pass this day without being harmed and without problems. So that's a way to reduce the tension. That's one reason for talking. And the second reason is, that the settlers (and many of the soldiers) dehumanize the Palestinians, and I don't want to behave the same. So I try to find a human spark within this guy in front of me. There must be a human being there! He has been a child and perhaps himself suffered from abuse? I know that many people were upset with me: "Why do you talk with the settlers?" But that's my way, my predisposition.
I'm such an outsider, I'm Jewish, but not Israeli, I don't really have a family here, but I would like to understand how do you think somebody can grow up on the same tiny piece of land and have so much hatred, such a different point of view? To make the life of the other so horrible. What's in his life experience causing this? And why are you different from them? What led to this?
Why am I different?
Yes, why are you different and how did they end up so different from you?
First of all, it's a mystery to me as well. Let's say that nowadays, I communicate less with the settlers because I feel now, at this level of hatred and violence, it's almost useless. But in the beginning, I couldn't conceive that somebody can be so inhuman. I simply didn't accept it within myself. I thought it cannot be - there must be something human there. And why am I different? I don't know, my parents raised me this way, even though they were right wingers. But they always respected everybody and taught me to be respectful as well. I really have no idea, it's beyond my understanding as well. "Don't do to others what you don't want to be done to you" is the most obvious thing. What do they expect? That they'll treat the Palestinians so brutally and the Palestinians won't be furious? What do they want to achieve? It's unimaginable for me how they behave. But obviously there are people like this…
But there are a many people who think about it the same way as you do. They don't support driving the Palestinians out of Area C, and yet, they are not doing what you are doing in the Jordan Valley. So you seem to care about what's happening and they don’t?
I really don't know - I cannot answer this question either. It's a good question. But it's true - I care. I care about this country, I care about the people, and I feel that if I care - I act. And if I don't act - I don't care.
There are few kinds of people. There are people who don't want to know about it, because if they know, they will have to do something. So they just close their eyes. And there are people who are afraid, which I understand, because it's scary sometimes. But I feel that sitting and doing nothing is worse. The moment I started to be active, I felt much better with myself. So I prefer the discomfort of activity than the discomfort of passivity. And then there are those who really don't know about it, because they're being fed lies by the media and have absolutely no idea what's happening there. That's the third kind of people.
I want to talk about nonviolence. Describe to me what is nonviolence to you? Why is it so important that this movement is nonviolent?
Well, to me personally it's very important. That's my character, so for me it's natural. I see many times that in such volatile situations people get really furious - and rightly so. They would love to hit back the intruder or retaliate in some other way. I also get agitated, so I can understand these people. But I don't think like a military man. It's very clear to me that you can't resolve conflicts by force. It will always breed more conflicts, more force; and the history of mankind proves that. Why is it clear to me? I don't know. Maybe I trained so many years in Tai Chi which is based on connecting to the energy of the person in front of you, and not on a forceful clash with him.
What is Tai Chi? I don't know anything about Tai chi. I've seen people doing it.
Well, it's also a Martial art but a very unique one. Perhaps it's my interpretation because other people will say different things, but for me it's an art of connection, and that's why I was attracted to study it. It's about finding your center and sensing the other, whatever they do. Anger is blinding. When I act out of anger I lose my center, and the moment I'm out of my center, it's easy to take advantage of it. But beside that, Tai Chi is also good for health.
It's defensive, it's not offensive.
You have all kinds of people doing different things under the name of Tai chi. But it's not a question of defending, I'd call it connecting, an art of connection.
So you are using the energy that they're putting in. If they're punching, you're using the strength of this punch to respond.
Yes, like a surfer in the sea. He doesn't battle with the waves, he uses them in order to surf.
So maybe you should teach the shepherds to fight like this.
Well, in a way they have it naturally. Not all of them, but sometimes I'm amazed how they accept things and survive nonetheless. It's a miracle how they do it. I remember coming back all agitated from a heavy clash, and the shepherd prepared for us this wonderful sweet tea that they drink, and said: "We live like this all our life, no point to be so upset." Just imagine, he tried to comfort us.
I want to know more about the relationship you have with some of the shepherds, how did this develop? You hear so much about Palestinian/Israeli relationships, and about 'normalization'. For some Palestinian even talking and communicating with Israelis means collaborating with them. Is it difficult for them to have you inside their communities?
When we first came to some of these communities, the only Israelis they knew were either settlers or soldiers. So we were the first people they met who were different. And we spent days and days together. When you go out with the sheep for grazing - and we would stay up there all day long - we had a lot of time to talk. We Talked about every subject you could imagine. They didn't speak Hebrew or English and my Arabic was (and still is) quite poor.
So how did you speak?
My wife speaks better Arabic, and I somehow managed to speak with them even with my poor Arabic. We had amazing conversations. About raising children, about relationships, about how they get married, about religions. We were talking about everything possible. And they loved it, they were really interested. Because for them we were really exotic creatures. And we were playing with the kids that came with us, inventing all kinds of games. We came once with a yeshiva student and they asked him about Jewish prayers and he put Tefillin right there, in the middle of the field - and the shepherds were sitting around watching him. (Tefillin are worn by adult Jews during weekday morning prayers.)
And the shepherds were happy to see that?
Yes, they were incredibly interested. They loved it.
Many people say there is no chance for a change from the Israeli side, because this would mean that the Israelis will have to give up their privileged position for the others to have equal rights. And you are talking about connection and dialogue. Do you think this kind of communication would contribute to peace?
I'm sure. You know, once you see that they are human beings exactly like you, it makes a huge difference. The problem is the separation. Because then it's easy to dehumanize them. And Israel is of course the stronger side in this conflict. It's like strangling somebody and blaming him for struggling to get your hands off his neck. We have to stop it. And I really believe that it's possible. I think it's even not complicated. You just have to want it. That's all.
It is complicated, but in a way it's not. You just have to want it. Once you have the wish to do it, you will find a way.
Last question, I want you to speak in the future tense. Describe how the Jordan Valley will look like physically when there are equal rights for all the citizens living there, or when there is a Palestinian state. How would this land look like?
Well, it's beautiful already.
But there is so much darkness as well.
Yes, there is so much darkness. It's hard for me to talk in a future tense, because at present you see these outposts sprouting like mushrooms, taking over more and more land. And these Israeli settlements which are all surrounded by fences and barbed wires, and you ask "why? What do you do? What's the point of it? What are you afraid of?" There is no reason for this fear. And fear is a very bad guide. It locks you inside a prison.
I think we can live together very nicely. OK, it's two different cultures, but it's not the only place in the world where there are two cultures living together.
I once talked with some prominent people from Mechola (one of the early settlements in the Jordan valley) and I asked them "tell me, in all these years that you are living here, did you ever go and visit your neighbors across the road? And they said "no". "But why?" I asked, "because we are afraid" they answered. And I move in and out of these communities without a second thought.
And again, when I first came there, I was so amazed, because that's how our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jaycob, lived in the biblical time. This culture should be preserved. It's so amazing. Going to the well to fetch water, and the connection to nature and their herds. The outposts settlers don't have the same connection with their sheep or cows, they're there for political or commercial reasons.
I know an old shepherd, 84 years old, that the sheep and the goats understand every sound that he makes. In a way it's ancient knowledge that's disappearing from our world. An endangered species that is part of human heritage. And a lot of my struggle is to preserve it. To say, look this is so precious! Why are you destroying it? What for? And always I hear the same sentence from all the shepherds: "There is enough space for everyone, if they want to be there, be there, but why do they chase us away? What do they want from us? In earlier days there were many more herds together here and we managed without any problems."
But settlers take over more and more grazing land, putting up fences, and not letting the shepherds enter. In the last 7 years the shepherds lost 90% of their pasture land. So basically, they can only graze around their camps and they have to buy more and more food for their herds, not to mention the ecological implication of over grazing.
The reason I asked you to speak in the future tense is because I want to have a touch of positivity, imagination of a better future.
OK, so a touch of positivity. People ask me many time "how you don't get desperate"? I feel that what we are doing, by connecting with the people, is sowing the seeds that perhaps will sprout in ten years, twenty years, hundred years. The children there see us and they love us. You know, I met these children when they were 6 or 7 and now they are teenagers and they love us, I know that they love us. We were playing with them building toys from scrap, teaching them to work with work tools, making nonsense. They saw that there are different people here, they saw people that care about them. They saw people that are human. And that is sowing the seeds, grains of hope, because they see it and absorb it inside themselves, and that's giving a chance for something else, for a better future.