loader image

Anarchism and the Desert

It’s 2002.

I’m just out of jail, where I spent a few months for refusing to serve the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. With a few friends, I found an apartment, a few hundred meters away from the border between East and West Jerusalem. I work “on the other side”, so I cross the invisible border every day.

Sitting in my room, I listen to Ton Steine Scherben, a German leftist rock band from the 70. A lover from Berlin I had met a year before, had introduced me to them while we were hitchhiking from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Given the fact that in the Middle East, everything is delayed by a few decades, their lyrics, written some 25 years ago, seem to perfectly express what I feel: we don’t need no house owners, those houses are ours, and no power to anyone and we are the red front and the black front.

That connection between anarchist and communist forces as well as the sometimes blurry lines between them, seem to be both natural and relevant in my reality.

With my own burning desire for individual, artistic, sexual and intellectual freedom, for finding my own way and letting no one tell me what the fuck I should do, it feels natural for me to connect with the Anarchists Against the Wall, joining nonviolent demonstration throughout the West Bank on an almost weekly basis, fighting against home demolitions in East Jerusalem and making legal assistance available to Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons. I read Kropotkin and CrimethInc. and Proudhon. I do my best to uncover and address any hidden hierarchy in my own social circles.

At the same time, part of my political inner circle are young communists, mainly sons and daughters of Russian intellectuals. They may be socially weird, but they actually manage to organize workers on a small scale. They tell us about a hospital that just raised wages for their nurses after a strike organized by them. About reading circles, raising class awareness in the poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem and preparing school dropouts for college. About connections with Palestinian youth groups I can only dream of and how their understanding of Marxist texts differs from the Palestinian understanding, nevertheless bringing them closer.

In 2002, those two approaches, the Anarchist and the Communist, appear to just be two aspects of the same deep desire for justice in a world that seems upside down, divided along made up lines, violent to an extent that doesn’t let me sleep at night. They look like two complementing parts of the path to a better world. In my mind, I compare them to the French impressionist and the German atonal reply to Wagner: two very different reactions, getting ready to give birth to a coherent musical answer, to be born later in the 20th century. In a world in which no one seems to notice that the military oppression of an entire nation is a behemoth that will devour us all, Israelis and Palestinians alike, anyone who does notice and care is my ally.

20 years later, sitting in my studio in Berlin, after having lived in two very contrasting countries, both sporting an omnipresent state, the Netherlands and Argentina, both for several years, I feel very different.

I just listened to Ton Steine Scherben again, by chance, after having forgotten about them for 15 years. A German friend quoted them. I remember that lover from Berlin, who just might still be here in the city, possibly a few blocks away. The last time I had met her was over a decade ago. She must be 45 or 50 by now. I try imagining us, as adults, in the smoldering heat of the Jordan valley, waiting for someone to take us a few miles eastwards. Her middle aged people make up leaving black traces on her cheeks. My sweaty jeans are uncomfortably sticking to my knees. I find myself missing the desert and its unforgiving emptiness.

With the music and myself being 20 years older, their lyrics suddenly seem annoyingly childish. But it’s not their uncompromising call for revolutionary change that makes me cringe. That still echoes in me and gives me goosebumps I’m embarrassed by. Rather than that, it’s their subtle authoritarian subtext. Their call for expropriation, for the state to be “on our side”, rather than “on their side” seems to be an adolescent call for our parents to be better people, rather than standing up on our own two feet and becoming those better people.

And then I remember something I read in some US American Libertarian text, a few years ago, which suddenly makes a lot of sense: the most relevant political question, by far, in any modern society, is “how much is the collective involved in the individual’s decisions?”. In other words: in the zero sum game between social order and individual freedom, where on the scale between Fight Club and Brave New World do we stand? How much does the collective dictate whom I can love and how, what I can do with how much of my money, where I can live and in what kind of building, what I am allowed to say and in which context? Today, the collective may be on our side, and tomorrow it may decide that our sexual desires and our art and our language are immoral. It’s almost inevitable. “That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” Only the dead agree with 100% of what society deems worthy. As Jews, we should be painfully aware of that.

With that thought in mind, my communist friends and myself find ourselves on literally opposing ends of the political spectrum. My burning desire for freedom has changed, but only by becoming more detailed, not by becoming less intense. I still see myself, my intuition and my ideas as the only authority relevant to my life and appreciate anyone who feels the same. I want to raise my kids to be the least conceptive to any authoritarian thinking possible. The dream of a state that organizes every single aspect of individual life, from work through culture to sex, isn’t a complementary dream to mine. It’s an opposing dream. Maybe we share the critique of the existing situation. We do not share a vision of the future. Not the slightest.

More than that: at the age of almost 40, I feel that uncovering and addressing hidden hierarchies and structures of thought control in my immediate social context is just as important as it was 20 years ago. At my age, some of the boldest and most present chunks of restriction are at least detected, if not dismantled. But the more subtle, often just as influential pieces of emotional and intellectual censorship are still there, scattered throughout my life like little invisible walls and booby traps and magnetic fields. I stumble over some oh, you shouldn’t be thinking this or what kind of person you are if you feel like this or just a vague feeling of shame, planted by a thought structure I thought I had overcome, twice a day. Dreaming of adding to those restrictions, dreaming of a society in which the individual has even less agency, even though it may make it possible for the collective to control the individual in ways that may not always be negative only, gives me claustrophobia.

In the desert, that claustrophobia doesn’t exist. In the desert, the vast emptiness creates space for clarity. Going down from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, you may get lost geographically. But emotionally, you’re more probable to find yourself.