Neta Golan, a thirty-year-old Israeli peace activist and Buddhist, lives with her Palestinian husband in Ramallah, in the West Bank. Last year she cofounded the International Solidarity Movement, an organization committed to nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation of lands captured during the 1967 Arab/Israeli war. On several occasions, from mid-February through early April, Tricycle spoke to Golan by telephone.
How does your Buddhist practice inform your activism?
Without practice I doubt I’d be an effective activist. Buddhism is not what motivates me, but it’s what gives me the tools to stay sane. Living here with any kind of awareness opens you to a lot of suffering. Being active is my way of dealing. Being engaged makes it bearable.
How do you cope with the fear that goes along with living in the West Bank?
I try to embrace it, but that is an area in which I need to grow. As Israelis, we learn that Palestinians are somehow more violent than we are, that their culture is crueler. These ideas are deeply embedded in the Israeli psyche. Five years ago, when I started coming to the occupied territories, I used to take a minibus once a week to Ramallah to take part in civilian dialogues between Palestinians and Israelis, and once a week I’d have an anxiety attack. For the first fifteen minutes of the drive, I’d be sure everybody wanted to kill me. And I would know that in another ten or fifteen minutes, I’d calm down, and that I’d be able to look at people, to watch them going to work and going on with their lives. And then the fear would subside. But the next week the fear would come up again. And then, after a year and a half, it stopped coming up every time I got onto the bus. But it still comes up in a crisis situation. Again, I’ll think they’re going to kill me. But because of the teachings, and my practice of embracing my fear, being with it rather than letting it stop me, I am able to go on. I’ve begun to see that healing can take place. I am able to see the Palestinians for the human beings that they are. Without the tools of practice, I’d be too afraid to come here. Most Israelis are trapped in their fear and would never come here, let alone live here, let alone now.
Considering the suicide bombings, doesn’t fear make sense?
Definitely. The bombings have been brutal. But more than one thousand Palestinians have been killed in the last year and a half, yet we Israelis don’t view ourselves as brutal. Part of that has to do with the weapons we use. When people don’t have sophisticated weapons and they murder with their hands, we consider them cruel. But when people murder by bombing from an F-16 or shelling from a tank or firing from an M-16, we think that it requires less cruelty. Actually, that’s not the case. If we look at numbers, at how many people are murdered, the Israelis have the lead. But murder is murder. And both sides are engaged in terrorism, state-sponsored or otherwise. It’s just that when Israelis do it, it’s immediately assumed they’ve done it in self-defense. When Palestinians do it—even if the victims are armed combatants for an occupying army—it’s still seen as “This is what they’ve done because they hate us; this is what they’ve done because they’re violent.”
You continue to work for broader understanding. But given the circumstances, are there moments when you have no hope?
Certainly. Since the beginning of the Intifada, it just gets worse and worse. The violence escalates, levels off, and then escalates again. With each escalation I completely break down, I’m lost, I don’t know how this will ever change, how we will go on living. But I know that this is something I have to go through. When the wave of despair passes, I gain new perspective on what I need to be doing. It’s a process that is an essential part of coping, of breaking down and rebuilding.
How do you deal with anger in the face of grave injustice, and the death on both sides?
I don’t really have an answer. I’ve spent three weeks away from Palestine since the Intifada started. I spent one week in Plum Village [Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in France]. It wasn’t enough, but it was something. Here there’s no real break, no time for process. And it’s so difficult to keep the teachings in mind. For instance, I’m very committed to nonviolence. When I see what the suicide bombers do—and what they do is gruesome—I see the suffering. And yet there is a tendency to justify violence in some way. At one point, it became a real problem. I would hear about Jewish settlers in the West Bank being killed, and I wouldn’t feel pain. That really worried me. Or Israelis being killed, and I’d feel nothing. And yet, these are my people; it could have been my family. I could see my anger, and the anger was closing my heart. I didn’t like what I was becoming. I found that the anger is a form of aversion, and underneath it is a hell of a lot of pain. At Plum Village, as soon as I took some time to work through a little bit of the pain and the despair, the anger lessened. But most Palestinians, and the settlers, cannot leave. They’re in this pressure cooker every day, and so it’s obvious that they’re all going to be a little nuts.
How does your family in Israel respond to you?
It’s most difficult for my dad. If he could stop me, he would. But my relationship with him did not begin with this Intifada, and I’d already come to accept the fact that my father doesn’t accept what I do. My mother is an Orthodox Jew and also a true humanist. Despite the fact that she believes this land was promised to the Jewish people, she doesn’t believe that gives us the right to dispossess another people. It’s very challenging for her. Somehow she manages to maintain her humanity. She’s very open, and she understands what’s motivating me.