The Scholar and the Activist

David Shulman between South Hebron and South India.

There are two places.

In one place, “poetry ripens with the rice.” Red chilies dry on the roof, water buffalo wander the streets, a goddess is drawn from the mud. A bite of fresh mango is “a golden electrocution.” The heat is a “living, menacing being, roused, relentless, driven by its own autonomous moods.” A piglet on the run is “a streak of dark lightning.” There is a glut of dust and light.

This place is thrumming with mystery. Telugu poetry from the sixteenth century is summarized and woven into English-language diary entries from the early twentieth: “Tigers think the water, stained red by the setting sun, is blood. Deer think the forest is on fire. The gods are lost and confused without a map.” The rains arrive, fill the night with a “soothing drum-drone.” Fuzzy caterpillars arrive, too. The people who populate this place range from Smile, “a balding bon vivant, every inch a poet,” to M. Adinarayana, a “gaunt, lithe” man whose business card reads, “Enjoyed walking 15,000 kms.” This place, in short, is a joy to enter.

In the other place, stories center around “the grief that stalks the night, the fright of each new day.” Food is “a greasy business,” people ache and are ashamed and humiliated and frightened. Despair abounds, though it is seen as a potential ally and friend, if used wisely. By the side of the road, an old shepherd sits with his head in his hands. Around him, a group of young men “mock him, torment him, strike at him.”

This place is brimming with weapons. A smug battalion commander revels in his power, brandishing a “long black submachine gun, as do all of his men, and he seems to enjoy fondling it.” A man named Ziad Muhammad Yusuf Muhamra, from Bi’r al-‘Id, tells of being shot in the throat by a soldier. “They fed me through a tube directly into my stomach for a whole year.” Houses are destroyed, whole villages are nearly erased, “the wicked mostly flourish like the green bay tree.” In this place, it is hard to breathe, despite the expanses of untrammeled landscape and open sky. In this place, in short, “happiness is more than we can expect.”

The first place emerges in Professor David Shulman’s reflections, collected in a book entitled Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary, on his time spent in 2006 in the city of Rajahmundry and throughout the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. (In 2014, Andhra Pradesh was divided into two states, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and a few of the destinations to which Shulman journeyed in 2006 are now part of the latter). The second place is also drawn from a book by David Shulman, Freedom and Despair: Notes from the South Hebron Hills. Freedom and Despair centers around Shulman’s volunteer activism in the South Hebron Hills region of the occupied West Bank with Ta’ayush, a group founded in 2000 whose goal is “to end the occupation and to achieve full civil equality [between Israelis and Palestinians] through daily non-violent direct action.” Ta’ayush’s activism has garnered scorn and demonization from the highest official levels of the Israeli government (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labeled its members “extremists within our midst”) and has led to Shulman’s arrest, numerous times, at the hands of Israeli authorities, a fact of which he is proud. In 2016, when Shulman was awarded Israel’s highest official honor, the Israel Prize, for his scholarship and research on South Indian histories, cultures and languages, he gave the $20,000 prize money to Ta’ayush.

There are two places.

Spring, Heat, Rains is, as its title indicates, a diary: “private, raw and fragmentary.” It begins in early 2006, when Shulman, already an accomplished scholar and translator of the widely divergent Indian languages of Tamil and Sanskrit, arrives in Andhra Pradesh, with the hopes of increasing his fluency in Telugu, a language spoken by some 80 million people in South India, and of immersing in its poetry. It ends, seven month later, with Shulman laughing—in the company of mosquitoes, the moon, a lonely deity inside a shrine, a “lime-scented breeze”—at the absurdity of the idea that he was to reinvent himself in Andhra. “I will be going home as I came,” he writes, “heavy of tongue, light at heart, hungry still.”

In between arrival and departure, the diary unfolds as an invitation for the reader to follow Shulman’s daily journeys: to temples throughout the region, to university lecture halls, to dinner parties and literary salons, to the quirky local washerman’s shop, to photograph paintings that have fallen into disrepair, to visit new and old friends. The book is light on explication; heavy on texture, smell, and sensation. It is an intimate sketch of the dialectic of frustration and ecstasy that is learning a new language. At its core, this book is a love poem to Telugu poetry, in particular, but also to poetry writ large. “Incandescent orange ripens in mauve and dark blue,” Shulman writes. “Poetry will happen, I can learn, I am speaking, the bougainvillea burns on a branch. A slow burning in me.” In our Twitter-quickened times, the book feels like a balm of slowness. Patience is required. I read the following passage on thickness once, then a second time, then out loud to my wife and family, and then went back and underlined almost every word. Read it slowly, is all I ask:

“One wakes to the thickness. The air is thick, saturated, heavy with heat, dust, light, existence. Memory is thick, soaked with sadness, fear, hunger, need, hope, with the sensual imprints of color, taste, sweat, prickly skin, wrinkled self… Language is thick, viscous, creamy, a mass of buffalo-milk sentences, intricate whirlpools of sound on the edge of meaning. One wakes exhausted: outside the dawn light is already burdened with all of this, the dust, taste, cream, even the longing we drag along inside us can only be felt as an intensification, upacaya, vijrimbhaṇa, of what is already in place… Kāvya, poetry at its strongest, takes this thick bodily matter and shapes it, stretching perception like clay or resin. It is no wonder a poet can make something be, for what he sees is already there, in the thickness.”


Freedom and Despair shares, in part, Spring, Heat, Rain’s episodic and associative diary structure. It too is told in fragments by a subjective and reflexive first-person narrator, who combines gentle self-deprecation (regarding a politically fraught backhoe: “OK. I confess. I have always wanted to drive one of these things”) with unselfconscious spirituality (regarding consequential freedom: “We recognize it, unmistakably, because it preexists in us.”) as well as moments of blistering moral anger (regarding those who enforce the occupation: “One pays for cruelty in the currency of aliveness.”). But while Spring, Heat, Rains focuses mostly on a seven-month period, beginning when Shulman arrives and ending when he departs, the time period in the scope of Freedom and Despair spans a full decade, and stories from 2007 sit alongside reflections from 2017, with memories from Shulman’s own experiences as a soldier in Israel’s first Lebanon War interwoven sparsely but poignantly throughout. Shulman’s time in Rajahmundry was a concentrated sabbatical, while the South Hebron region of the occupied West Bank is a mere hour from his home in Jerusalem.

Freedom and Despair focuses on Shulman’s portraits of a number of these Saturday journeys to the South Hebron Hills. Under Ta’ayush’s auspices, Israeli and international volunteers accompany Palestinian shepherds and farmers seeking to graze their flocks or work their fields. In some cases, these Palestinians have either been denied access by “a state that seeks to drive them away”; in others, they are afraid to go alone because of “the often violent, insatiably greedy, Israeli settlers who have been planted in their midst, on their lands.” The scene referenced in this essay’s opening section, in which the old Palestinian shepherd sits with his head in his hands, as young “settler toughs” strike him and mock him, is witnessed, by accident, as the Ta’ayush minibus bumps toward a destination further south. The minibus stops, Shulman and the others rush out, and the settlers stop tormenting the old man, turning their ire instead toward the Jews who have come to disturb their activities. The scene transforms from something that pulses with unadulterated wickedness to something much more absurd. One of the settlers, to Shulman: “You’re a Jew, so I am not allowed to hate you, according to the Torah. But if I could, I would certainly hate you.”

If the beating heart of Spring, Heat, Rains is poetry, the core of Freedom and Despair is far more prosaic, and not by accident: Shulman is adamant not to sentimentalize the activism he describes in these pages. Romanticizing the choice to act on moral grounds, he writes early in the book, “is the one sure way to undermine it and siphon away its value.” In a later section, Shulman rails passionately against “earnest innocence,” and calls instead for an “ironic joy.” One of the worst failings of Ta’ayush, and of the Israeli peace movement in general, he writes (in Spring, Heat, Rains), “is the failure to convince others that you are not a hero.” In this anti-romantic vein, Shulman summarizes much of Ta’ayush’s activism as culminating in being “physically pushed and poked off some piece of stolen land” by armed men backed by the full might of state power, and given a carte blanche by an often “willfully passive” public. “Poked” is a precise description: so much of this sort of nonviolent direct action in the South Hebron Hills involves being prodded and shuffled and herded; it is often clumsy, inelegant, humiliating, and bizarre. Reading, I could feel the echoes of various fingers, real and metaphorical, poking at my ribcage, herding me away.

I was familiar with this feeling, in part, because I also spent numerous weekends over the past decade with Ta’ayush in the villages and hills that Shulman describes. While I knew virtually nothing about Telugu poetry or Andhra Pradesh, and thus had the magnificent experience of reading Spring, Heat, Rains as a true novice, I was not only familiar with the setting of Freedom and Despair: I was physically present for the events that took place in at least one chapter of that book, and I was pushed and poked off of many of the same pieces of stolen land, time and time again, though far fewer times than Shulman. (Perhaps there exists, somewhere in the wilderness, the mythical Objective Reviewer, though I am dubious. In any event, I am not they: I got to know Shulman while living in Jerusalem, and I admire him deeply, and while I seek to engage with his books honestly, I do so without any pretense of neutrality). My reading of the latter book had its own type of thickness: my mind was thick with memories, biases, and preconceived opinions; my chest was crowded with exhaustion and residual fears and resentments. Breath itself is, of course, just as abundant in South Hebron as it is in Rajahmundry; the feeling of constriction in my chest as I read some of the early chapters in Freedom and Despair had as much, if not more, to do with my own subjectivity as with the fixed reality of the South Hebron Hills. In an effort to blend Shulman’s disparate works in the soup of my mind as I set out to write this essay, I alternated reading the two books, 25 pages Spring, Heat, Rains, 25 pages Freedom and Despair, and some mornings, I felt as though I was tumbling from a place of bliss to one of dread; from escape to entrapment; from expansive poetics to narrow politics; from a sense of freedom to one of despair.

Perhaps this internal vacillation could be summarized as the feeling of delving into the unknown and then returning to the known: the setting for Spring, Heat, Rains is not devoid of violence, and that of Freedom and Despair is not barren of beauty. But there is a core sense in which one book orbits the gorgeous renewal that comes from being away, while the other is about the familiarity and ache, the daily grind and grime, of being home. This sense was most pronounced for me while reading the sections of Spring, Heat, Rains in which Shulman writes about the Naxalites.

Throughout his South India diary, Shulman often refers to the ongoing, endemic violence between the government (and government-backed militias) and the forest-dwelling Maoist rebels known as Naxalites; whose name derives from Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal where a peasant revolt rook place in 1967. In one scene, Shulman recounts rumors that the “Naxal hunters” among the local police keep the “pickled genitals” of slain Naxalites in jars in their stations. In another, he tells of learning of a Naxalite attack in Errabore in July 2006 in which the Maoists “murdered thirty-three tribals.” He speaks of meeting a Sanskrit-speaking police chief who is known for his “Homeric ferocity in the war against the Naxalites,” and writes about Naxalite “‘revolutionaries’—to dignify them with a term they don’t deserve,” hijacking a tourist boat. In another section, Shulman writes: “I feel I have to ask my friends, again, why the government doesn’t put an end to the problem,” and asks later, “Why… has the Andhra government given them so much slack? Why let them act at will? The government could easily end this stalemate.” In other sections, he calls their group a “pestilence,” and refers to a region as “Naxalite-infested.”

At first blush, something in this language felt discomfortingly familiar from the Israeli context: it was certainly not the careful, critical language of the left, of which Shulman is decidedly a part in Israel, nor is it that of the committed active Israeli right. Rather, it sounded like the language of the Israeli mainstream, for whom state violence against non-state militants is often spoken about speculatively (i.e., “Why does the government cut Hamas so much slack?”) and who might well use words like “pestilence” and “infestation” to describe violent Palestinian extremism, without intending the dehumanization that is a staple of the ideologically-committed right.

But on further reflection, the parallel to Israeli mainstream rhetoric feels imprecise: It is not that Shulman in Israel-Palestine is a leftist Israeli, while Shulman in India becomes a mainstream Indian. It is that Shulman in India is ultimately, and self-consciously, a visitor, while Shulman in Israel-Palestine is at home. So perhaps, then, Shulman’s reflections on the Naxalites could be more accurately analogized to those of a knowledgeable visitor to mainstream Israel (Perhaps we might imagine, here, an Indian scholar of Hebrew and Aramaic, or ancient Judaism?): curious, deeply informed, opinionated, but for whom, ultimately, what transpires between the state and the militants is beside the point of their visit. Indeed, the times in the book in which Shulman comments on Indian politics, he does so mostly through the prism of his experience in Israel: About the Naxalites, he writes: “The Israelis would long ago have imposed a radical solution.” About an environmental protest: “Only the private activists stand a chance of doing something. Shades of Israel.” And about what a colleague calls “designer victimhood,” i.e., the fabrication of a narrative of victimization: “Now it’s India’s turn; I know the protocol only too well, from Israel.”

If reading these works raised questions regarding how one comments on the politics of a place where one is a guest, it also raised questions of how one might open their eyes to the beauty and magnificence of a place that is as known and as haunted as home. Just as violence and oppression were certainly present in the South Indian reality described in Spring, Heat, Rains, the South Hebron Hills of Shulman’s Freedom and Despair are not stripped of serenity, or, indeed, of happiness. Indeed, Shulman writes explicitly of feeling happy: Outside of a village called Tuba, Shulman, Ta’ayush stalwarts, and other peace activists rush up a hill toward an area which the army has decided, as usual, to designate as a “Closed Military Zone,” a favored bureaucratic tool of Israel’s military for restricting access to a given area. As they successfully bypass the soldiers, in violation of the Closed Military Zone designation, Shulman is suddenly “happy in this moment, happy to be with these people who are doing something that is good and right… a little drunk, perhaps, on so much freedom.” Happiness here, then, is not too much to expect: it just flows from a different source than in South India, and is found not in a moment in which Shulman rides on the back of new friend’s scooter through golden light of evening after attending—and understanding—a Telugu lecture on Derrida, but rather in a moment in which Shulman and his companions break through a line of soldiers who “snarl and threaten.” Just as there is happiness, so too there is beauty in South Hebron. Shulman writes, early in the book, of “the desert that cascades and flows, white and yellow and brown, all the way down to the Dead Sea. In the distance you can see the purple mountains of Moab in Jordan. There is not, I think to myself, a more stunning view in the world.” Later, he tells of spring in the region, in which “the green does something to your eyes. I blink in unbelief.” Alongside the violent political murk mentioned in South India, and the beauty noted in South Hebron, comes the question: are these two places really so disparate, so dichotomously opposed to one another?

In an email exchange, Shulman told me of “the South Indian notion that the greatest human problem is our tendency to harden ourselves, to turn parts of our ourselves into objects, to develop a rough crust that encases us and prevents us from feeling things like empathy, for others and ourselves, or wonder, or true joy.”

When I last visited Jerusalem, in the summer 2018, I was, perhaps, the softest I’ve ever been, the least encrusted in my adult life: My daughter –who shares a first name with Shulman’s grandson, a fact that I either hadn’t known or hadn’t remembered when I sent out an email announcing her birth, and I was delighted when Shulman reminded me of the linkage– was three months old. I arrived at Ben Gurion feeling a profound joy at hearing Hebrew, a wonder at getting to introduce my child to friends, family, sights, smells, a burst of empathy and fondness for everyone around me. My own hardened crust was not readily available, then, when, instead of being waved through the passport station with my wife and our child, I was instead held for questioning by the Shabak, eventually sent off with a “warning conversation” about the “slippery slope” of my past involvement with nonviolent left-wing groups active, in large part, in those same South Hebron Hills. If the Shabak wanted to scare me, or to fluster me, or to deter me from going back to South Hebron to protest the occupation, then they succeeded. If I entered the Shabak back room without enough crust, I left it with a surplus: I walked away from Ben Gurion, a few hours later, and wanted to crawl away, back into my shell, and indeed to fly away, back to the US, or off to India, or to anywhere else. I have not been back to visit since the end of that trip; in some ways, reading Shulman’s Freedom and Despair was the closest I’ve come to the world that was once such a central part of my existence, and which, I believe, remains central, in a certain barricaded chamber of my heart.

Reading Spring, Heat, Rains, I felt a profound urge to soften, to melt, as Shulman put it: there were moments of reading in which I truly felt myself melting into the thickness. Reading Freedom and Despair, on the other hand, my crust was so thick before I opened the book, that I barely noted, the first time around, Shulman’s words about the “green of unbelief,” about the “welcome, yet surprising opening of the heart” that comes from time spent pushing against the enormity the occupation in the South Hebron Hills.

And so: I wish not to “conclude” this essay, but rather to end with something softer, something thicker: a note of gratitude, and of longing. I long for meltedness: I long to visit Rajahmundry and the other places Shulman described in his South Indian diaries, now that I have been given some taste of the region’s light and dust and people and poetry. But I long also to see the people I have called friends in the South Hebron Hills, both the residents and the visiting activists, to stand amidst those hills in springtime, surrounded by the green of unbelief, facing the wickedness that flourishes there.

“Every once in a while,” Shulman writes in Spring, Heat, Rains, “two or three of the incompatible worlds inside me collide and shatter; I hear the crunch like broken glass.” May this internal crunch of broken glass abound, for all of us.

*David Shulman, Spring, Heat, Rains: A South Indian Diary, University of Chicago Press, pp. 234

*David Shulman, Freedom and Despair: Notes From the South Hebron Hills, University of Chicago Press, pp. 224

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