Sulaiman Khatib, “The Moral Imagination,” and What We Need Now

“Transcending violence is forged by the capacity to generate, mobilize and build the moral imagination. . . .stated simply, the moral imagination requires the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies; the ability to sustain a paradoxical curiosity that embraces complexity without reliance on dualistic polarity; the fundamental belief in and pursuit of the creative act; and the acceptance of the inherent risk of stepping into the mystery of the unknown that lies beyond the far too familiar landscape of violence” (John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, 2005).

Before he turned fifteen, my friend Sulaiman Khatib — “Souli” — stabbed an Israeli soldier and was put into an Israeli prison for ten years. As one of the founders of Combatants for Peace, today he works with Palestinians and Israelis who have exchanged weapons for tools of non-violent social transformation. I’ve been thinking a lot about Souli as I follow the relentless conflict and social turbulence in The Middle East and the United States and finish a recently published book, in this place together: A Palestinian’s Journey to Collective Liberation, about his life.

Souli grew up in Hizma, a Palestinian village near what some consider expanding Israeli neighborhoods of a “unified” Jerusalem and others consider “settlements” because they are built on lands that Israel conquered in 1967. Years after Souli got out of prison, the Israeli government seized Ta’mira, part of his family’s land, to build “The Wall”/“The Security Fence.” While tending to the olive trees before the land was placed out of reach, his father suffered a heart attack from which he never recovered. Like his father, Souli is deeply rooted in the land. At the same time, he has learned to travel unfathomable distances while staying in the same physical place.

Now a man in his late forties with tightly coiled black hair, Souli keeps his facial hair scruffy, wears faded shirts with holes in them, and rolls up the bottoms of his faded jeans. There’s something unusually graceful about how he holds himself and he moves with a sense of freedom that one rarely sees among “grown-ups.” When speaking English, he peppers his words with Arabic and Hebrew. I’ve seen him take a flute from his pocket and play. At an artists’ retreat in the desert of Mitzpe Ramon in June of 2017, I watched as an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man in his sixties, grey-bearded, in a dark suit, a black kippah on his head, wrapped Souli in a bear hug.

In their book, Souli and his co-author Penina Eilberg-Schwarz tell the story of Souli’s life before prison, in prison, and in the decades after his release. It’s a story of imagination, empathy, courage and growth — a story of hope in yet another moment of despair.

I have a close relationship to such despair. For eleven years — 2006 to 2017 — I lived in Jerusalem. For more than twenty, I’ve worked with educators, artists, community leaders, university students, and youth from across lines of conflict in the Middle East, South Asia, the Caucasus, Europe, and the United States. I have felt levels of connection across chasms of experience and perspective and had moments of clarity and “collective effervescence” that inspire me with hope at least on a small scale. But the basis for such hope can feel like droplets in a river flowing in the contrary direction. In this context, I see Souli as somebody who has achieved something exceptionally rare — which happens to be at the root of peace-building, of “conflict transformation,” of “leadership,” of successful democratic civic engagement, of social movements in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. that transfigure the texture of human life along with social, political, and individual possibilities.

To put this another way, Souli embodies a bundle of values, practices, capacities, that compose “the moral imagination.” You can see this in how he interacts with people — for example, with Israelis at checkpoints, in dialogue circles, and on panel discussions. You can see it in how he engages with the infighting in his own society and across the overlapping circles of people who work in different, sometimes contradictory, ways, on behalf of Palestinians. You can see it in how he approaches the past in all of its complexity, what he sees on the horizon, and how he is moving ahead.

Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians inhabit the same land but in parallel realities that seldom touch. Even in the city of Jerusalem, they live in different cities. Take ten different kinds of tours of Jerusalem and you’ll find yourself in ten different universes. Across the region, the extremes of emotional geography trump physical distance. At the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron— also known to Jews as The Cave of the Double Tombs and to Muslims as the Sanctuary of Ibrahim/Abraham — Palestinians and Israelis (Jews, Muslims, Christians) visit the graves of revered common ancestors like estranged relatives who can barely stomach the presence of “the other.”

For Palestinians navigating checkpoints, walls, and the bureaucratic controls of the Israeli State, Jewish-Israelis are the occupiers, the oppressors. For Jewish-Israelis, Palestinians are another enemy in a long line of enemies stretching back thousands of years, and the battle against them is yet another battle in a familiar series of battles to survive.

Most Jewish Israelis experienced the missiles that Hamas launched in May as part of an undifferentiated war against them. They could not see the escalation of violence, which took place during the Islamic holy days of Ramadan and the Eid, as it looked from “the other side.” During the holidays, Palestinian Muslims in Jerusalem usually gather at The Old City’s Damascus Gate; this year Israeli police prevented them. In the weeks before Hamas launched missiles, Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in Jerusalem just below French Hill, faced eviction from their homes based on lopsided laws that favor Jews at the expense of Palestinians. Of course, I completely condemn Hamas launching missiles. At the same time, if one wants to understand the dynamics on the ground it’s critical to examine what Israelis are usually oblivious to — the realities that Palestinians who live so close by confront. Too often Israelis are blind to their own power, the inequalities between them and the Palestinians, the impact their government’s policy has on Palestinian lives. Israeli media does not consistently cover how right-wing Jewish groups with the support of the Israeli government continually expand control, extract resources, and inflict suffering on Palestinians in ways that are relentless and palpably unfair.

In their weakness, The Palestinians possess something that Jewish Israelis crave: the power of recognition. When Palestinian leaders like Hanan Ashrawi call Israel a “Western colonial enterprise” and “the remnants of Western colonialism,” they imply that, like the French in Algeria, Israel will vanish. To many Jews, this understandably conjures up fears of annihilation — of being driven to the sea. When Palestinians argue that Jews are “only” a religion and deny a Jewish peoplehood, they deny what Jewish Israelis need to feel safe and to feel that there is a partner on “the other side.” In his strength, Souli has developed a rare capacity for generosity that enables him to make room for Jewish connection to the land and Jewish history in the land. By doing this, he opens up space for the future. In their book, Penina touches on how, for some, Souli has strayed too far from his roots. From what I have experienced, though, no matter how much time Souli spends in city coffee shops, no matter how far his mode of existence or ways of thinking wander from mainstream Palestinian models, his strength derives from how deeply rooted he is in who he is, how he has grown and how he keeps growing. His strength is based in how he is both rooted and a citizen of the world.

Souli’s strength coupled with his intellectual curiosity (desire to understand) inspire him to explore where most Palestinians, most Israelis, most people, don’t go. Once, several years ago, at his request, we went together to Masada. He has told me about Palestinian families in the south of the West Bank that light candles on Friday night. We have shared stories of Palestinian friends who know of Jewish ancestors just a few generations back. He often talks about the common culture that he shares with Israeli Jews whose families come from Arab countries. Trained as an historian, I’ve shared my perspective on that craft (which walks a delicate line between science and poetry). We’ve explored ways to enlarge and shift “narratives.”

The past is not “history.” The past includes everything that has ever happened; it exists as an incomprehensible infinity. People in societies, in communities, “make” history by selecting and taking care of particular facts, specific memories, while letting others swirl along. History is what people make of the past — what they make from the past. Patriotic narratives use neat categories and clean lines to keep people focused in particular ways. They brush aside or cover up the messiness — the complexity — of the past. If we look there are always underground narratives in the corners, in hidden places, in the origins of words and place names, in borrowed melodies, in shared foods, in old habits and rituals, in conversations with people about what they heard around the kitchen table growing up. The land has stories to tell, too. These underground narratives with their “mixed-upness,” their complexity, has potential, I believe, to challenge the neat platitudes of mass produced history that separates “us” from “them.” This messiness that I’m talking about has the potential, I believe, to encourage the moral imagination. One memory continually returns to me from when I was living in Jerusalem and Souli and Penina were working on their book and he invited me and my colleague Maria to meet them in Battir, a Palestinian village in the hills outside of Bethlehem.

I had already visited the nearby settlement of Betar a few years before and got the connection. Betar is named after the village where, under the rebel leader Bar Kochba, the Jews took their last stand against the Romans about sixty years after the destruction of The Second Temple, a hundred and thirty years or so into “The Common Era” (known in the Christian calendar, which has become the “secular” calendar for human beings today on this planet, as A.D., “the year of Our Lord”). The residents of today’s Betar are large ultra-Orthodox Jewish families being priced out of Jerusalem. As Betar grows, it expands into the land of the Palestinian villages below.

The Palestinian village of Battir is built into the side of a nearby mountain with breathtaking views of the old train tracks winding through the valley between Jaffa/Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Battir — not nearby Betar — is on the actual site of the ancient village of Betar where Bar Kokhba and his army fought the Romans in that final battle.

Souli’s visit to Battir that day was part of a larger quest to explore Jewish roots in the land. He is fascinated by traces of Jewish history, traces of Jewish practices, remnants of culture rooted in the land once known as Canaan, a land that the Jews and Palestinians of today still unequally share.

Walking in Battir, one is transported back to a quieter time. The cultivated land is terraced and organized by the placement of stones. Old stones have been stacked in various configurations, abandoned, and rebuilt, for generations. As we walked up and down the village that day, Souli pointed out the ancient irrigation system that allotted each farmer water in a fair and systematic way.

According to historians, in the summer of 135 C.E. the Roman armies laid siege to Betar. The siege eventually ended in a blood soaked battle. According to some sources, after the Roman victory, The Emperor Hadrian was presented with Bar Kokhba’s severed head.

Things did not end well for Bar Kokhba or his army, just as they did not end well for those last Jewish fighters at Masada. For centuries Jews of the Diaspora more or less ignored such defeats in favor of stories and traditions that make a portable Jewish peoplehood possible. In contrast, Israelis have amplified the voices of those in Jewish history who fought violently to their deaths to keep the land. For most Diaspora Jews, Bar Kokhba has been a minor historical figure passed over quickly, if at all, but in Israel, he is a great national hero of armed resistance. His name is everywhere. My first apartment on French Hill in Jerusalem overlooking the Jordan Valley was on Bar Kokhba Street. Israelis built the new Betar where they did for a reason; the settlement is spreading out according to plan.

Yet walking with Souli that day in Battir, we saw outlines of refreshing possibilities. “The people here, beyond the politics, they are filled with stories,” he told me, smiling. “Some of them feel related to these ancient ruins. Just imagine that back in the days of Bar Kokhba some Jews hid in the caves after the Roman beat them. They stayed and had children. . .”

Whether this specific story about survivors of a battle almost two thousand years ago is accurate is besides the point. Underground narratives certainly exist with potential as the foundation for a shared future liberated from the constraints, suffering, and injustices of the status quo. Today Battir and Betar exist as neighbors at least in geographical terms. The fates of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians (Israeli citizens, those in Jerusalem, Gaza, and The West Bank) are intertwined. I believe with conviction that Souli points in the right direction and that the book he and Penina have written is very much worth reading — especially now: with striking changes taking place in Israel and Palestine; as dangerous clowns and charlatans compete for the limelight across our planet; as true courage has become so difficult to notice; as meaningful communication across lines of difference has become increasingly rare. In his love for a diverse range of people on “both sides,” in his love for the land, in his exercise of “the moral imagination,” Souli encompasses larger, richer, more inclusive, more just, narratives of the past and visions for the future. His message — relevant far beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — is illuminated by the flames of our age when a disturbing number of people ignore or actively reject what he stands for. I hope this book will be translated into Arabic and Hebrew. I hope it will reach a large North American audience. If only those of us who celebrate his achievement could distill and distribute what Sulaiman Khatib has learned so far in his life— we’d be getting somewhere.

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Daniel Noah Moses

Daniel Noah Moses

Director of Educator Programs at Seeds of Peace until May 2021, with friends, Moses has started an initiative,“The Fig Tree Alliance,” to build upon such work.