Satyagrahi In The Holy Land


   Fulder, a 60-year-old Vipassana teacher with a soft voice and a farmer’s rough hands,   was the founder, in 1996, of the group People To People ( replaced, in 1999, by  the more action-oriented Middleway), which brought Israelis to Nablus for structured  dialogues with Palestinians. The dialogues lasted two days.

   The first day the emphasis was on relaxing, or trying to, dropping barriers, or trying to.  The second day was devoted to touching one's pain. Or the First Noble Truth.  The  Hamas street fighters arrived on the second day. They stood off to the side, cursing,  telling the Palestinians to leave, but not leaving themselves.

  When members of the group began talking about their childhoods, and the militants were asked about theirs, one of them said that his sister had been shot dead by Israeli soldiers. The other also spoke of friends and relatives who had been killed. Gradually, their resistance to the group weakened.

   "Then," Fulder recalled, "something remarkable happened. An Israeli woman of about fifty said to them, 'Will you be my sons? I will be your mother. We have to go beyond the conflict. Will you be my sons?’ And they said, yes.” Twelve years later, they still call her, talk to her, maintain their separate peace with her.


    In Fulder’s long, bearded face, the professorial (he is a biochemist who once taught

 biochemistry) merges with the otherworldly. His easy attentiveness simplifies the

 reporter’s questions in their complex shells.

    The son of orthodox Jews in post-Holocaust London, his childhood was seared by their

 tirades against Germans and Germany. Even as a child, he thought, “That’s not the way.

 That cannot be the way.”

     1975 found him in India, by the Ganges, with an Indian friend, who led him into the world of nonviolence through an unexpected door. "He spent three months watching a pair of birds in the middle of the Ganges, landing and taking off, landing and taking off. I realized then that when peace is appreciated, it opens up huge vistas of relationship

to life. It has to be touched. You have to allow it to take you over.”

     In India, he encountered the dharma as taught by Goenka. He’d been looking for a

 teaching of directness and simplicity, and at first Goenka’s stripped-down, doctrineless

 approach suited him just fine. Then, it didn’t.

     “I began to realize that the U Bakhin-Goenka lineage was offering a rather narrow

  interpretation both of practice and the dharma itself. I found myself rowing madly

  across the ocean in a rowboat when the dharma was in fact a great ocean liner.”

    He switched to Western teachers like Joseph Goldstein, Stephen Batchelor,     

  and his “friend and guide”, Christopher Titmuss.

    In India, he read Gandhi on nonviolence. In Gandhi's writings, he found the path to

  nonviolence. In Gandhi’s writings, he found that the perils of the path.

     “I found that Gandhi himself had issues of violence, or lack of peace. He had a very

strong ego. It manifested in many different ways. He was passively violent. He legitimized violence towards himself. Apparently, he dominated those closest to him.”

    To understand nonviolence, Fulder teaches, one must first understand violence. Why it happens, and what it destroys. What the pain of violence feels like. Intimacy with dukkha is vital to becoming a powerful peace warrior in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

     This intimacy can be developed individually, through self-inquiry into violence-

associated feelings. Or in the group sharing sessions Middleway conducts.

     “On one occasion, a Palestinian woman described how her father, sick with cancer, was thrown down the stairs by soldiers, and an Israeli soldier described his nightmares

 over shooting Palestinians.”


      Middleway, which continues the dialogue tradition of People To People, was born when the PA (Palestinian Authority) branded as useless to Palestinians People To People’s dialogues. Fulder acknowledged that the scope of the new organization had to be expanded. It staged peace walks throughout Israel, and set up a free holistic clinic in

the West Bank town of Bartaa. Like its predecessor, Middleway is dharma-oriented in its approach of no blaming, of working with the present moment’s unfolding rather than rehashing the past.

       The peace walks are undertaken in silence. Peace cards with messages such as

 NONVIOLENCE IS THE WEAPON OF THE STRONG are handed out to passersby.

 Sometimes the walkers get screamed or shouted at by Israelis. But mostly their dissent gets quietly absorbed into the aging bloodstream of the national discourse on peace and war. Perhaps it’s the mystifying nature of silent walking as dissent that defuses the blow-striking tendencies in people.

       The leaflets they pass out about the occupation are curiously nuanced.

        “We don’t say, ‘End the occupation,” says Fulder. “What we try to do is equate the occupation with the whole problem of violence.”

        The Bartaa free clinic, run without a budget, with all expenses borne personally by volunteers, and with minimal equipment and supplies, is a project notable for its inter-

communal dynamic.

       “The holistic clinic was set up,” Fulder recalls, “only after six months of steady meetings with Palestinians, including the village heads, in order to build trust, acceptance

and understanding. The Palestinian local authorities donated the space and Middleway volunteers invited healers and family practitioners to participate.”

        Fulder himself taught a three month, 10 session course on herbal health care  to Palestinian women.



        Unlike many Western Jews, he did not find himself in Israel as a result of spiritual, national, or existential longings. He married into Israel the way one marries into a dotty,

overheated, warring family that one must make the best of.

      “I married an Israeli woman. I never intended to come here. I would have been happier in England living in a cottage in the country.”

      An accidental Israeli now with three grown daughters, Yasmin, Tamarin and Aurielle,

 Fulder lives on a farm in his solar-powered village of Clil, in the Galilee, which he

 helped establish twenty-five years ago. He spends the early hours of each day sitting,   then feeding the chickens, and working in his vegetable garden.


      In 1985, he opened the doors of his home to dharma teachers from abroad like Christopher Titmuss. He established Israel Insight, a volunteer-based, national dharma

 organization,  and began leading retreats. As many as 1500 people annually now attend

 Israel Insight retreats.

      “Bringing people to sit on meditation cushions is fundamentally an activist task. But when the ship is sinking, you have to do something more political.”

       One of the boldest political acts an Israeli can take is to place his or her body beyond the army’s reach.  The army is Israel’s most revered institution, its firewall against threats of extinction. These days, in reaction to the country’s affluence, and its role as occupier, refusal to serve is on the rise. But twenty years ago, when Fulder was called up, resistance to military service was still relatively rare.

        The teacher said to his military interviewers, “’I will do anything you like, but I won’t touch weapons. I am nonviolent.’ I was made to stand before all these officers, who tried to frighten me. All I could do was laugh. It was such a ridiculous pantomime. Then, they just left me alone. They sent me a letter thanking me for my intention to serve in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces.)”

         Fulder laughed at the army’s nervous fiction. All it took was a little quiet firmness to unhinge battle-hardened veterans.


         “The classic example in dharma is the surgeon’s knife. Very strong action, but it is the right action at the right time. Here in Israel, it is necessary that you stand your ground

against a bullying soldier, letting him know, ‘You don’t behave like that.’ It may be

confrontational,  aggressive action, but it is done with the intention of creating harmony, of creating healing, of helping the soldier as well as the Palestinian.”


         The nonviolent Israeli, who can’t bring himself to follow in the footsteps of the Combatants For Peace activist and reject reserve duty entirely, must somehow take a stand inside the shadowlands of the occupied territories.  More often than not that means navigating the wintry Israeli checkpoints where 18-year-old recruits are put in the position of God-playing, of deciding whether a very sick Palestinian, or a very pregnant Palestinian, can pass through a checkpoint to a hospital for treatment.

       “Just recently,” Fulder recalled, “a Middleway member, Toufik, a peace activist from Bartaa, was accompanying his mother, laying critically ill in an ambulance, to the

checkpoint. For three-and-a half hours, the soldiers refused to let her through. When they

finally did, she died on the other side of the checkpoint.”

       The peace activist soldier, not unlike Father Abraham pleading with God to spare the lives of the people of Sdom and Gomorrah, will try to intervene in life or death situations, or in those cases where small deaths of the spirit are involved. A soldier may take it upon himself to throw a Palestinian’s tomatoes and eggs onto the ground upon his return from a shopping expedition. The solitary activist will try to talk some sense into the soldier, to bring attention to suffering in a place where suffering is such a drably defining fact it floats beneath the current of meaning. If he fails, and he often does, his own suffering can be daunting.

       Middleway provides an emotional safe haven for the wounded peacemaker.

      “The peace activists who come to us need a lot of support.  They can feel free to express anything that’s in their hearts. I will sometimes tell a soldier, who says he wants

to serve in the army to do good, ‘You have to be careful. You may not have the strength, or the compassion, to be able to do good. If you don’t, maybe it’s better to refuse to serve altogether.’ The dharma is asking us to be awake and aware, not to work according to formulas. I don’t think, from a Buddhist point of view, you can state absolutely: ‘You

musn’t serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.’ I think from a Buddhist point of view the statement would be: ‘Don’t cling to any forms, to any moulds. Find a way you can minimize suffering and express compassion as effectively as possible.”


     Last year, the Lebanese War threw Israeli peace activists into crags of internal exile no followers of Gandhi ever had to contend with. 

     “They were very lost,” Fulder recalled. “The whole society was under attack by rockets. ‘Yes,’ they would say to their brothers and sisters, to their parents, ‘but we don’t need to do this.’ And they would be told, ‘The rockets are falling. Of course we need to do it.’ ‘But you don’t need to bomb all of Lebanon.’ To which the response was, ‘That’s the only way to stop them.’ And so on and so on.”

       How did he deal with the war himself, amidst the endless barrage of Hezbollah rockets and Israeli artillery shells that punctuated his sitting, feeding, planting, tea-taking?

        He said he allowed,  “all the noise and violence to enter me, to pass through my

 body and mind, fully felt in my cells and tissues, not shut out, denied or sweetened

 in any way, sitting with it sometimes most of the night.”


      In Israel, suffering in the present gets wrapped around the gnarled episodes of  suffering of the past. It becomes a kind of entitlement.

       “Here, the society lives by the mantra: ‘It’s not them that’s suffering, it’s us that’s suffering.’ It’s a total brainwashing. Even people on the left, people who are spiritual,

support actions that should be opposed. My friend Moshe talked about how he went to his sitting group in Safed, and told people about Toufik’s mother. Their response was, ‘Oh, there must have been a reason why they did that. They must have done something wrong. We can’t believe Israelis would be like that.’”

      Beneath Fulder’s lament for Israel was the lament of a man who was boxed politically into a stance of negativity.  That it was burdensome to him was obvious during those

few times when he happened to speak positively of his country. His voice then would stir with the odd ingredient of pleasure, a vocal homecoming.

       “This is an open society with internal arguments about occupation and the Palestinian question going on all the time.” It is also, “a dynamic and energized society.”

       It brings together Jews from all over the world. But it brings them together in a morally tainted context.

       “By living in Israel, even as nonviolent activist, you are complicit in the machinery of occupation.  The whole society is the occupier, not just part of it.”


        Does the conflict ever anger him? Does it ever pierce his inner skin?

        “It fills me with sadness. It sometimes makes me cry. I feel a deep compassion for the soldier who is caught in it. Compassion for the person he is beating. And a deep pain.

It doesn’t go to anger. Maybe that’s just my personality. It doesn’t happen to me. Sometimes I feel like I want to die, I have had enough, let me get off samsara. That, I guess, is a sort of internalized violence.”