Dark Hope for the New Year
and Palestine. University of Chicago Press, 2007.
I want to call attention to this book by David Shulman an American born Israeli, renowned scholar of comparative religion at the Hebrew University, and peace activist. I have not read the book, but just finished reading this admiring review of it by philosopher Avishai Margalit (also at Hebrew University) in the New York Review of Books. What Shulman offers is a "diary" recording his work for peace with a mixed group of Jewish and Palestinian activists called Ta'ayush, which in Arabic means "living together" or "life in common." On Margalit's account Shulman and his comrades are quite remarkable. I intend to hunt the book down and read it soon.
The book, it seems, is clearly related to themes that I take up fairly often (e.g., here). But I want to pick up on something Margalit says in his review. He characterizes Shulman as a "moral witness" and he means that in a quite specific way.* As he explains:
"Shulman advocates a Gandhian approach on moral grounds and perhaps also on practical grounds, and a large number of his activities would have pleased the Mahatma. But in my opinion he is trying to do something that can be accurately seen as part of the nonviolent struggle to alleviate the burdens of the occupation but is also different from it. Shulman is a moral witness - he makes an effort to observe and report on suffering arising from evil conduct. He may take risks in doing so, but he has a moral purpose: to expose the evil done by a regime that tries to cover up its immoral deeds. A moral witness acts with a sense of hope: that there is, or will be, a moral community for which his or her testimony matters."
This, I think, is an important insight. I want to point out an ambiguity and an analogy here. The ambiguity comes out in the final sentence, which I have highlighted. And it has to do with the question of whether a moral witness is addressing some extant or hypothetical community or whether she hopes to bring such a community into being. The latter is a properly political activity, the construction of a "we," who might act collectively for shared ends and in defense of shared interests or commitments. The former, it seems to me, is an act of supplication, a request that someone step in and remedy or alleviate whatever state of affairs the witness is bringing to light. This seems to me to be a major, important distinction.
The analogy will, I trust, be obvious. A photographer - regardless of whether she deems herself a documentarian or artist - who depicts any of the wide varieties, past, present or threatened future, of humanly created mayhem and devastation, or the suffering to which they give rise, often is portrayed (by herself or others) as a "witness." It seems to me that in this sense photography can be used, among other things, as a tool either of politics or supplication. Do these two uses interfere with one another, each making the success or the other less likely? I suspect so. But I have not thought the matter through, yet.
* In a footnote to his review Margalit suggests: "For an extensive discussion of the idea of moral witness, see Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Harvard University Press, 2002), Chapter 5."