I have just finished teaching my class at an engineering college in Beersheva. It is difficult to put into words what I have experienced. When I arrived to teach this evening, I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed with sorrow to the extent that I would be reading the attendance register after the break whilst stopping to clear my throat after each name and hold back the tears. Even as I write this now my eyes once more well up and my heart is heavy with grief. And yet who am I to refer to my own sorrow when it is for those that are truly affected and afflicted that I cry?
I am writing this now not to give vent to my grief but to another’s and to many others who perhaps do not have the privilege that I now have to be in front of the keyboard on my iPad as I take the train back to the center.
It was about a quarter to seven in the evening and I had just released the class for a 30-minute break. Ahead of me lay the vision of the canteen and an idle repose in the staff room of the English department. I was just collecting my possessions together and about to leave the room when a tall, thin somewhat gaunt looking youth with a thick and healthy black beard approached me with an earnest look upon his face. “When are your reception hours?” he asked me, confirming with his intonation and tone the earnestness that I had noticed in his expression. “I need to speak to you urgently about a problem I have,” he continued. “You see I”m going to have problems attending all of your classes.”
When I look back, I feel now a twinge of guilt at the initial assumption I made to myself that this was perhaps one of those skiving students trying to shirk his responsibility from attending the full scope of the compulsory course in academic English that I teach, and where attendance and participation in the course is mandatory. I braced myself for the typical student excuses that I have come to know so well and which I have, over the years, become somewhat of an expert in reflecting. I told him that we could meet before next Tuesday’s 5 o’clock class or alternatively after my Friday class at 12 o’clock.
He looked at me, or rather into me, with a deep and penetrating sadness which I still did not comprehend and informed me that that would be no good for him and that he would not be available at those times, and that he had to speak to me nonetheless, and that if he couldn’t speak to me he would have to speak to the head of the department about his problems. I began to realize that I had been wrong in my initial assumptions and that there was here a gravity to the situation that required both sensitivity and compassion. I looked around me. The class had mostly emptied and the two or three students that remained seemed far enough away and sufficiently distracted to enable the conversation to continue with sufficient discreetness. Nevertheless, I lowered my voice as I explained to him with affected concern that I did not live in Beersheva and so could not avail myself at other times for students.
Maybe he could detect the concern in my voice and it encouraged him or maybe it was simply his need to give a voice to what was so terrible that it could not lie hidden any longer, even if the front of the classroom was the most inappropriate of places to unburden himself in this way. Whatever the case his words came forth and I was fully unprepared to receive them. Even now, when I think of the scene before me, I am filled with pain. With his pain. “You see I’m from Umm al-Hiran,” he said to me. You know about Umm al-Hiran, don’t you? You’ve heard about what happened there?”
“Yes,” I replied, staring back into his sad eyes and already wanting to hug him, although I was still not at all prepared for what he went on to say. “Our house was destroyed. My father was killed.” “It was your father whom they murdered?” I repeated back to him, stunned and not really knowing what I should be saying.
He had used the word killed, it was me who had used the word murder, but the words were irrelevant at this moment. He wasn’t interested in making a political statement to me, he was making an existential one. That was clear enough. “You see it’s so difficult for me,” he went on, wiping away the tears that had welled up at the corner of his eyes and which threatened to stream down his face. “Everything was under the rubble. I even had a workbook for the class but that too was under the rubble together with my ID card and all our other belongings. They didn’t give us any time to leave. They bulldozed the house with all of our possessions in it. I’m trying to return to my studies. It’s important for me to continue, in spite of everything. But it’s so difficult for me. My head just isn’t there. And it’s going to be difficult for me to attend all the classes and prepare for the presentation.”
It was now my turn to try to keep back the tears before him. He wasn’t speaking emotionally. There were no dramatic tones, no gestures. Rather, before me was a young man whose whole life, including his father, his home, his land, his possessions had all been obliterated in a morning’s work by the Zionist apparatus in order to make way for a Jewish settlement on the ruins of these lives. Before me was a young man who had simply been emptied of all his life, and stood in front of me now as this broken vessel wanting to go forward and continue, when all about him was nothing but a wilderness stretching out in all directions. I didn’t know what to say to him, at this moment, I really didn’t. But I felt that I wanted to say something about his family. I wanted, in spite of everything, to instill some light into this broken soul.
“I remember hearing your mother speak on the radio after the event,” I told him. She is such a strong woman. So learned. So brave. She defended your father so well, too. After all they said about him. After all those lies, all those poisonous lies, where the whole state apparatus was intent on reducing him into nothing more than an ugly terrorist.”
He looked at me for a second uncomprehendingly. “My mother? Ah, you mean the woman who teaches at Michletet Kay?” I nodded. “No, she is not my mother. She was his second wife.” I nodded again whilst he wiped away some more tears from the corner of his eye.
“All he did his whole life was study and teach,” he said nostalgically. “He was dedicated to helping others. He was dedicated to his work. He was such a good man.” He was silent for a moment as if allowing himself to reconnect with his murdered father in the gap between his words before continuing, “But why did they have to destroy everything like that without even giving us time to pack our belongings and move? They never gave us any alternative. I mean even if they wanted to build a Jewish settlement on our village, why couldn’t they give us land and homes elsewhere and time to move on. Why do it like that?” He was speaking quietly, almost reservedly. There was little inflection in his voice. Little emotion colored his questions. I was almost angry at him for not expressing in his voice the emotional intensity which was needed to indicate the outrage and resentment which I would have thought so natural to show towards the murderers of his father and the annihilators of his life. But when I look back now I think that such emotion, even if of little use and perhaps even destructive in itself, would have been impossible from one so entirely hollowed out by such utter decimation.
The desire welled up once more to hug this youth tightly in my arms and give him back the strength and vitality that had been emptied from his being. Instead I stood before him as the teacher from his class and tried at the very least to think of some practical solutions for him. He opened the way for me by saying, “I think I should speak to the head of the English department and explain to her my position.” My mind switched to V, the new head of the department. As was the case with everyone else in the faculty, she wasn’t too keen on the Arab population and put up with them as a burden that they had little choice but to accept. How often over the years in my break times, had I come into the staff room only to find myself in a virulent space awash with the most fundamentally racist and derogatory comments against the Arab population in Israel and the Palestinian and Bedouin students at the college. I stopped long ago trying to even defend their rights in their presence. It was like speaking to a wall. A wall of self-righteousness. And I was so entirely overwhelmed, so entirely outnumbered.
I am the token left-wing humanist in a department full of staunch defensive Zionists who look upon the Palestinian population in their midst as an existential threat and treat them as little more than primitive animals that need to be tolerated at best, and who should learn their place gratefully at the side of the masters who permit their presence. I was sure that V would think of his father as “that terrorist who had fortunately been neutralized” were he to open his heart to her, just as everyone else in the department would were they to hear the story as well. What sympathy would he receive from her? What concessions would be made in his case? I tried to make him understand as diplomatically as I could. “V may not see the situation in the same way as I do,” I said. “Her politics are a little different to mine. And from the department’s point of view, you are on a compulsory course and your obligations are to attend all the classes, do the presentation and pass the exams in order to pass the course.” He nodded. I was thinking hard.
“You know what you should do,” I went on. “You know if I were you, I would make an appointment first to speak to the Dean of Studies. The dean is there for the benefit of the students, is he not? Surely, if anyone was to show some understanding here, it would be him. And from a hierarchical point of view, his word would mean a lot more. Were he to make a decision in your favor and convey it on, the English department would have to abide by it. It’s worth a try don’t you think?” He nodded. “If that doesn’t work then go to the English department. Then speak to V. But try the dean first.”
He thought that was a good idea and looked at me with gratitude in his eyes, before becoming aware of the time that had passed and adding with a start, “I have to go now. I’m sorry but I have to go. I won’t be able to be in the second part of the class either. I have to leave.” I looked at him comprehendingly. What’s your name?” I asked him. “Nur,” he replied. He extended his hand with a strong and abrupt gesture towards me, and I was surprised by the strength of his handshake. Perhaps that strength was a sign of hope that all was not lost, but that like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its own demise, Nur too would rise up from this calamity and return to life. I would like to think that this could be the case, in spite of the utter chasm into which he has been thrust and in which the state is happy for him to remain.
I left the room after Nur feeling sadder than I can possibly describe. It was a sadness that I was not used to, it was so poignant, so utterly present, so vivid. I had about 10 minutes left of my break but I didn’t know where to go or what to do with myself. I decided to go to the canteen if only in the hope that some food might take the place of the deep sorrow that I felt myself drowning in. On the way, I found myself unable to leave the weight of that encounter and questioning why I had not done more to try to help Nur. And then it came to me that there was no reason why I couldn’t drive out to his village on Fridays after my class and offer to teach him there and help tutor him for the course. That is what I decided at least to offer him. I would seek out his phone number and phone him up and discuss the option with him. I saw it as a small gesture in the midst of such an immense tragedy, but I saw it as the least I could do under the circumstances. On my way back to the classroom I looked up Umm al-Hiran on the GPS navigation program Waze. I wanted to check how far a drive it was from Beersheva. I distinctly remember having looked up the village on the day that it was to be demolished because I had intended to join the demonstration then if time had permitted. Then the GPS showed the navigation to the village quite clearly. I remember this fact in my mind’s eye. Now, however, no village with this name in Israel came up on the app, despite the fact that there are houses in the village that are still standing. The only village with that name that appeared on the app was in Jordan. That meant that the GPS app Waze was also collaborating with the state. It too had acted to cause the village to disappear.
I can recall the tragic day very clearly. It was several weeks ago and I was in Beersheva. I had a meeting at my bank there and I remember listening to the invective on the radio against the Bedouin and Palestinian population of Israel. They were traitors to the state, Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security, was saying. Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, had been shot in the head by a rubber bullet as he was protesting peacefully against the house demolitions and ethnic cleansing of the Bedouin village before a massive and heavy-handed police presence. A high court ruling had given the go-ahead for the state to demolish Umm al-Hiran in order to construct a Jewish settlement and a national park on the site.
The vice-principal and local schoolteacher, Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an, had hit a policeman with his Jeep who died of his wounds, whilst the schoolteacher was immediately “neutralized” by the police and branded as a vile and repugnant terrorist by all the news outlets in Israel, by the chief of police, by the minister of interior, by the defense minister, by the prime minister – in short by everyone.
The state machinery wasted no time “proving” that Yaqoub Mousa Abu al-Qia’an had ISIS affiliations. The main proof that was poured with relish onto the news outlets throughout the country was that they had found copies of the right-wing Israeli newspaper “Israel Today” (the mouthpiece of Benjamin Netanyahu owned by Sheldon Adelson) in his house in which there were articles referring to suicide bombers. Nothing more was needed. For days, the newspapers, the TV networks, the politicians and the analysts were having a field day referring to the Bedouin population of Israel as a fifth column, as enemies of the state, and looking into ways in which they could be fettered and put under control.
And then, as the days passed, slowly but surely the evidence revealing categorically that this was a demonic terrorist seem to dissolve into the ether. In its place came video footage from the ground and the air that began tearing apart the “facts” that had been presented to the public by the police and the state apparatus. Whilst Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan continued to refer to Abu al-Qia’an as an ISIS sympathizer who deliberately rammed the police officer, the video footage actually revealed that Yaqoub Mousa was driving his Jeep down the hill at a slow pace when he was shot in the legs without provocation by police officers. Only after being shot did he lose control of his Jeep and only then did the Jeep plow into the police officers. The fact that he was shot in the knees and the legs by police officers in advance, before the Jeep sped up and before he was subsequently killed, was also verified by a subsequent autopsy and forensic evidence performed on the body. The video evidence together with evidence from bystanders also revealed that this revered vice-principal and prized schoolteacher was left to bleed to death for over half an hour without receiving any treatment whatsoever.
Howard Cohen posted this essay to social media. “I felt I had no choice but to put what I experienced into words for others to read and take in,” Cohen wrote to us in permitting us to publish the entry. –Ed.
Update, April 24, 2017 — Since writing this article I have visited Nur at his village and have set up a crowdfunding campaign to help restore some hope and dignity to the lives of Nur and his extended family. They have lost everything and it is truly heartbreaking to witness: their four-wheel vehicle in which Nur’s father, Yakoub, was murdered has been confiscated; Yakoub’s life savings for his family which were in the Jeep at the time “disappeared” and were never seen again; much of their livestock were killed during the demolitions or died subsequently because of lack of shelter; almost all their possessions have been lost or destroyed under the rubble of their houses including their clothes and schoolbooks; water tanks and solar panels were crushed and destroyed by the bulldozers…. The list of destruction is almost endless. The site appears apocalyptic. The campaign that I have set is the least I feel I can do to try to help.