Of transplants and transcendence: Questioning social and symbolic categories in Israel

14 November 2005

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Palestinian carrying the body of Ahmed Khatib, 12-year-old, during his funeral in the West Bank city of Jenin November 6, 2005. (MAANnews/Mohamad Torkoman)


Boundaries and borders. Checkpoints and chokepoints. Walls, barriers, cantons and enclosures. This is the terrain of our security-obsessed world — particularly in the Middle East. Here is the bleak landscape of supposedly pure nation states, exclusive ethnic and religious groups, and monolithic mentalities that separate groups into neat little boxes, ranking people according to distinctions that are assumed to be natural and enduring, but which are always human constructions.

The British anthropologist, Mary Douglas, observed in an article entitled “The Two Bodies” that the human body serves as a symbolic template for the social body, i.e., social roles, organization and processes. Douglas hypothesized that societies with a strong sense of group solidarity and purity would also be characterized by strong ritual and symbolic emphases on guarding and covering the body and protecting its various orifices. Taboos on social contacts, certain foods, or the display of particular parts of the body would thus be part and parcel of everyday life in strongly group-oriented societies.

Social and cultural demands to keep the inside in and the outside out are illustrated by how the body is treated, regarded, displayed, and handled, in life and as well as in death in any society, accordihng to Douglas. The degree to which the social body is symbolized by the physical body, and the physical body is shaped by social conditions, becomes clear when we consider common metaphors: the “head of the family,” the “long arm of the law,” “breaking the back” of one’s opponents, and “going to the heart” of a matter, not to mention numerous obscene examples of employing bodily images and processes to describe strong emotions about social or political situations.

Daily media images from the West Bank, Israel, Gaza and Iraq are saturated with images of destroyed and dismantled bodies. Children ripped to shreds, Passover and wedding guests torn to pieces. Civilians blown apart in cafes, at bus stops, theatres, and markets. And afterward, amidst the acrid smell of burning flesh and scorched metal, the images of body parts on the sidewalk, pools of blood and intestinal matter splattered across public spaces. Everything inside is now out; bodily borders and boundaries are violated in the most horrific and shocking manner, whether as the result of suicide bombings or as the consequence of proximity-fuse shells, phosphorous explosives, or one-tonne bombs crashing into civilian residences.

A common sight depicted on television screens after suicide bombings in Israel is the work undertaken by teams of rabbis who painstakingly collect every bit of human flesh that they can find. This is not just an arcane religious duty, but rather, a practical attempt to recover and repair the integrity of individual bodies so as to repair and mend the social body; it is a particularly arresting example of Israelis resisting attempts to fragment or destroy the Jewish people. Even in death, even when ripped to shreds, the body carries meanings that transcend the individual person.

Images of these rabbis solemnly searching for bits of flesh, hair, and organs heighten the sorrow of such acts, and also illuminate the poignant limitations of human responses to murders of this kind. But attempts to reassemble the pieces of damaged bodies are rooted in religious and ideological principles and beliefs that are also represented by Israeli attitudes and practices towards those outside the social body of Israel, i.e., non-Jews. Zionism is premised on the belief that the Jewish people need their own exclusive home and haven, that they must live as a people apart, distinct from others, proteced from others.

But there is not yet, in Israel, a firm and clear legal definition of who is a Jew. So the focus on keeping inside things in and outside things out, as a social and ideological focus of group life, is a matter of perpetual concern and anxiety. Defining the conceptual borders of the Jewish state is translated into laws, policies, towering concrete walls, and everyday, unspoken attitudes and practices towards the physical bodies of the Other. Everytime I visit Israel, a verse from a song by the Indigo Girls echoes in my head as I notice the ever-increasing barriers, walls, wire fences and checkpoints: “I wrapped my fear around me like a blanket/And I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it.”

Elaborated social classifications are echoed in the classification and control of actual physical bodies in Israel. Arab citizens, whether Muslim, Christian, or Druze, are classified as non-Jews, defined not according to what they are, but what they are not. Though tax-paying members of Israeli society, they are not and can never be members of the Jewish social body. Thus, Israel cannot be both a democracy and a Jewish state simply because not everyone inside is considered deserving of being inside. One quarter of the country’s population are non-Jewish, though fully human.

For Palestinians in the West Bank, or in supposedly liberated Gaza, the social categorizations and bodily treatments are even harsher: Israelis do not consider Palestinians under occupation to be human, otherwise, how could their human rights be violated in a daily and systematic fashion for four decades while the whole worlds watches and does very little? Palestinians’ homes can be demolished, their children gunned down, their olive trees uprooted, their villages bisected by 30-foot high walls, and they can be held in “administrative detention” without charge for months or years, all with complete impunity.

The interplay of the two bodies, social and symbolic, is intrinsic to much of the daily political news emanating from the Middle East. Images of bodily violation resonate viscerally among North American audiences, who find such actions evil and incomprehensible. Evil they may well be, but incomprehensible they are not.

Torture, for instance, is never about causing one individual body to feel personal pain. Rather, torture is a systematic practice intended to break and wear down the social body, a means of tearing apart the tissues of a community’s intersubjective reality along with the muscle tissue of the torture victim. Torture is simultaneously the most private and public of crimes: a violation of the flesh that is meant to send a message to others that they are not inviolable. Torture communicates a chilling message: “You are powerless,” to anyone in the same category as the torture victim.

Crimes against humanity also pack a heavy symbolic wallop. For instance, in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982, few women and girls who were murdered were not also raped first, often in front of their horrified families, who were then killed with the last image in their minds being the most profane violation of their sisters’, daughters’, wives’ and mothers’ most private and sacred orifices. Women’s breasts were cut off. Men were castrated; babies were sliced in half.

These violations of individual bodies were not haphazard or random acts carried out in the heat of murderous rage, but rather, part of a grammar of political exclusivity, a systemic and coherent — though certainly deranged — message that an entire group could be violated, perhaps even eradicated, with impunity. The message of that massacre endures and echoes a quarter of a century later. Its scars are social, physical, and symbolic, and are felt far beyond the scene of the crime.

Symbolically, suicide bombings in Israel can also be read as statements: “If you won’t let us in, if you won’t let us breathe, if you won’t allow us to cross boundaries, if you won’t recognize us as individuals or as a group, then we will violate your most sacred boundaries by blasting your individual bodies to bits; we will turn your insides out. We will shatter your group by shattering your flesh and bones, and we will so with our crushed and excluded bodies.”

Suicide bombings in Iraq, Jordan or the UK are not, in my opinion, symbolically equivalent to those committed by Palestinians in Israel. The same crime can have different meanings in different contexts, although the mainstream media tend to conflate all such attacks as being rooted in a sinister Arab-Islamic propensity for violence and evil. All suicide bombings are grave violations of international law. They are clearly indefensible acts of murder targeting civilians. But lived meanings of the body and local languages of emotion must also be considered. The act is in the intention.

Suicide bombings by Palestinians in Israel are usually rooted in immense frustration; they stem from dignity denied and inviolability violated. They take place on one land claimed by two peoples, a land that, eventually, will be shared as one state by all. This is an economic, political, and ecological inevitability.

In Iraq, and this week in Jordan, suicide bombings fit more clearly into the interpretive framework of “asymmetrical warfare.” More so than in Israel/Palestine, these attacks are rooted in ideological excesses that have reached, indeed surpassed, the level of criminality and are carried out by those who lack the air forces and tank formations to make their demands known on a conventional field of battle. This is not to deny the often understandable grievances of those who commit such acts in Iraq and Jordan, nor is it an attempt to excuse them, but rather, an effort to highlight the disparate meanings of actions that appear, on the surface, to be all one and the same. In Palestine, suicide bombings are personal, in Iraq and Jordan, among the Osama-wannabes, it has become, in the lingo of “The Sopranos” series, “professional.” It’s business.

The past week was distinguished by particularly stunning media images of violated bodies, of insides turned bloodily out, of shattered groups and brutally blurred boundaries between one body and the next, between the living and the dead. Over 60 killed in hotels in Jordan, dozens killed in Iraq, and, less prominent on mainstream media screens, several Palestinians, among them children, shot dead in the West Bank.

But there was something new, too: a story which conflated the symbolic and social bodies in a surprising, creative and moving way, an act that transcended and questioned suffocating borders and arbitrary boundaries and granted a glimpse, however short and fleeting, of new grammars of social and political being whose coherence surpasses and cancels out the criminal language of killings and counter killings. It was also an act that served to illuminate the intimacy of suicide bombings in Israel, an emotional dimension that is usually lacking in suicide bombings in Iraq.

Earlier this month, as Palestinians were celebrating the Eid al-Fitr, a young boy from the traumatized Jenin refugee camp, 12-year-old Ahmed Khatib, was shot by an Israeli soldier who thought his toy gun was real. Ahmad, critically wounded in the head by a sniper firing from 100 meters away, was taken to an Israeli hospital in Haifa. He had no hope of survival, and lingered between life and death for a few days. Doctors told his grieving parents he had no chance of recovery.

Ahmed’s parents had many choices of how to react. The choice they made violated the grammar of the conflict and illuminated the intimacy and interconnections between people whom policies and practices divide and separate. Ahmed’s parents decided that their brain-dead son’s organs should be given to people needing transplants. On Sunday, Ahmad’s organs gave new life to six Israelis, Jews and non-Jews alike.

In Israel, the dearth of transplant organs is particularly severe. According to Dr. Yaakov Lavi, an Israeli surgeon who writes regularly for YNet forum, a website featuring news and views of interest to Israelis and Jews throughout the world,

“The Israeli medical establishment is one of the most advanced and developed in the world. In every medical area we hold our heads high at international forums, and we are considered frontrunners and experts.

There is just one area we fail to address, and we have been rightly criticized for it - organ transplants. And not because there is a lack of knowledge or means to carry out this mission. We have an abundance of both means and the knowledge.

Rather, we lack only the most critical part of the equation, the only part of the equation not in the hands of doctors - a willingness on the part of Israeli society to save other people.

A combination of prejudice, a lack of rabbinic support, and especially terrible indifference leads each year to the deaths of many patients in Israel, lives that could have been saved if only for an organ donor.

Just 45 percent of potential donation families in Israel actually agree to donate their organs, as compared to 70-80 percent in other Western countries.

And when this is the face of the society we live in, how can we complain about patients whose lives are flashing before their very eyes, and who look for any solution - including outright immoral ones - to save their lives?”

Ahmed’s family demonstrated the opposite of indifference, the reverse of exclusiveness and prejudice, and in so doing, offered an antidote to vengeance. Although devastated by their loss, Ahmed’s parents thought beyond borders and boundaries. They said they immediately decided to donate Ahmed’s organs as a way of remembering and honoring a relative who died at the age of 24 while waiting for a liver transplant that never came.

They also wanted Ahmed, or part of Ahmed, to live on, inside of others, no matter what their culturally constructed identities might be. Instead of turning others inside out in understandable rage at their loss, they took something precious of their own and put it inside others as an act of humanity, compassion, and magnanimity that exposed the barriers placed by policies, prejudices and practices between Palestinians and Israelis as both arbitrary and permeable.

“We made the decision to show we want peace — even if the organ recipients are Jewish,” Ahmed’s mother said. “This way I feel Ahmed is still alive.”

“I have taken this decision because I have a message for the world: that the Palestinian people want peace - for everyone,” Ahmed’s father stated when interviewed in his home in the Jenin refugee camp. “I am trying to do something humane at the same time that the Israeli Army is killing our sons.”

As a result of their action, which is, socially and symbolically speaking, the reverse of a suicide bombing, three Israeli children — two Jewish and the other an Israeli Arab from the country’s oppressed Bedouin community - got a new chance at life by receiving Ahmed’s lungs, heart and liver.

Perhaps this moving story lacked the shocking gore, the visual horror and macabre fascination of the suicide bombings of three hotels in Jordan a week after Ahmed was shot. Maybe that is why a search of news sites showed that few mainstream media outlets in the United States had featured the story of the Khatib family’s inspiring magnanimity.

What is more perplexing and amazing? Four dehumanized individuals blowing themselves and sixty other people to bits, or the wondrous lesson in humanity shown by a family that would not have been blamed for seeking revenge, but who instead repaid murder with magnanimity by donating the organs of their son, a non-Jew, to Israelis?

Pondering this question, and saddened by the media’s constant focus on, and deficient interpretations of, the Middle East’s grammar of violence, I recalled this passage from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Who shows a child just as it stands? Who places him within his constellation, with the measuring-rod of distance in his hand. Who makes his death from gray bread that grows hard, or leaves it there inside his rounded mouth, jagged as the core of a sweet apple? The minds of murderers are easily divined. But this: to contain death, the whole of death, even before life has begun, to hold it all so gently within oneself, and not be angry: that is indescribable.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, concluding stanzas of the Fourth Duino Elegy (1914).

The minds of murderers, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim; American, Israeli or Arab, are much easier to understand than the actions of Ahmed Khatib’s family. Unlike suicide bombers or IDF snipers, Ahmed’s family violated the grammar of the conflict. They brought the symbolic and social bodies of opposing groups together and illustrated the arbitrariness and barbarity of erecting walls, whether actual or metaphorical, between human beings. Theirs is a story that deserves to be told and retold, in an effort to create a new social and political grammar in Israel/Palestine.

Laurie King-Irani, a co-founder of the Electronic Intifada, is a social anthropologist and freelance writer living in Madrid, Spain.