The Lives of Animals in Wartime

Penny Johnson’s book argues that thinking about the suffering of animals under occupation can actually reveal a great deal about humanity.

Colin Dickey
May 20, 2019
From the cover of Companions in Conflict: Animals in Occupied Palestine by Penny Johnson.

Discussed in this essay: Companions in Conflict: Animals in Occupied Palestine, by Penny Johnson. Melville House, 2019. 256 pages.

IN TIMES OF GREAT VIOLENCE against humans it can seem almost perverse to ponder the fate of animals. In 2003, Hamas detonated a bomb that had been strapped to a donkey near a Jerusalem bus stop; the president of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), Ingrid Newkirk, responded by writing Yasser Arafat and demanding that animals be spared from human conflict. Though in this instance no human life was lost, Newkirk’s plea, which struck many as placing the lives of animals over those of the intended Israeli victims, was roundly condemned for its tone-deaf indifference to the political reality of a conflict in which human lives are at stake.

Yet human and animal life are inextricably linked, and, as Penny Johnson’s new book Companions in Conflict: Animals in Occupied Palestine makes clear, thinking about animals and their suffering can reveal a great deal about humanity. Johnson, an American who’s lived in the West Bank for over three decades and who helped found the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University, won the Palestine Book Award for the 2012 book Seeking Palestine, an anthology of Palestinian writings on the ideas of exile and home, which she co-edited. Here, she turns to hyenas, camels, gazelles, and other creatures to shed light on a human predicament. Companions in Conflict moves through a series of animals, one for each chapter, teasing out not only the natural history of the creatures inhabiting these conflicted and disputed lands, but also their symbolic and cultural history.

Johnson begins with Kojak, a camel who gave rides to tourists on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives for two decades. But in 2009, Kojak was suddenly barred from Jerusalem. When his owner’s business license was revoked, he could not receive his vaccinations and was forced from the holy city. “For all his grace,” Johnson writes, “Kojak could not navigate the Israeli bureaucracy, whose representatives, the Israeli police and veterinarian services, hauled him away in March 2011 and imprisoned him in a shack near the abandoned village of Lifta.”

Kojak’s plight may be unique, but his story is part of a larger tapestry of animal tales. Tracing the rise and fall of camels, it turns out, offers—like a slice of bedrock—a cross-section of a place’s troubled past. The number of camels in Palestine has dwindled from 72,000 in 1937 under the British Mandate, to just over 2,000 today in Gaza and the West Bank, with equally thin numbers in Israel. While they remain prized and celebrated in the Arab Gulf states, in Israel/Palestine today they function mainly as tourist photo opportunities, just as Kojak did.

The slow decline of Mandate-era Palestine’s camel population was fueled in part by British preconceptions of how the land should look. “When British agricultural officials arrived in Palestine,” Johnson explains, “they clearly saw it as a ravaged land, and they put the blame firmly on those ‘rulers of the rural economy,’ as two officials termed them: camels, sheep, and goats.” Treating camels not as natives but as interlopers, the interloping British set out to restrict and manage the camel population. By the end of the British Mandate, the once-ubiquitous camels had become firmly associated with the premodern: “Camels were not only consigned to the desert but—like their Arab owners—were increasingly configured as primitive and contrasted with an emerging modernity.”

Palestinians themselves inherited this bias against the camel, a stigmatized and stereotypical symbol of backwards Arabs. As Johnson suggests, “Palestinians who grew up in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa during the Mandate may prefer to remember literary societies, excursions in the first automobiles, cinema screenings, or political affiliations rather than beasts of burden with bad breath.” When a curator organized an exhibit of work by the early Palestinian photographer Khalil Raad, the prominent scholar Walid Khalidi complained that the selected images contained too many camels.

Their disappearance, then, is a product of multiple factors, and of different cultures imposing their sense of what the land should look like on the animals who inhabit it. Now, camels, “perched in melancholy splendor along the road to the Dead Sea and on the Mount of Olives,” exist mostly for tourists. They live for the gaze of foreigners who want a premodern space frozen in time—yet another distorting perspective laid over the land.

If camels are the stigmatized, premodern past, cows are the future, particularly in a world where animals have ceased to be merely animals. Israelis celebrate their dairy industry for its cutting-edge use of technology: in 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the Israeli cow as a “computerized cow. Every moo is computerized.” Palestine is proud of its milk production, too, though for different reasons. The presence of the Palestinian dairy industry in Hebron and Jenin is perhaps primarily political, and exists almost in spite of Israeli bans and attempts to stifle it. Cows, Johnson argues, “continue . . . to be at the center of Palestinian/Israeli economic warfare.” In 2016, Israeli authorities banned some Palestinian dairies from shipping their products to East Jerusalem (one of their major markets), leading to retaliatory boycotts and, subsequently, a temporary truce whereby the ban remains in place while Israel grants temporary exceptions on a month-by-month basis.

The focus on the technological and political aspects of milk production and distribution suggests that whenever animals are invoked, they are being invoked for something other than who they are themselves. What emerges in Companions in Conflict is the way cultures, under extreme stress and undergoing rapid change, draw heavily on the animals that surround them for symbolic meaning—to anchor both what’s being lost and what they hope to salvage for the future.

But the animals, too, get a vote. While human activity, war, and the environmental disaster of the Israeli West Bank separation wall have endangered both hyenas and gazelles, jackals and wild boars have learned to thrive in this environment, living off the refuse and waste products we leave behind. As Johnson makes clear, “in a world that is increasingly dominated and shaped by human activity—our anthropocene era, heralding, some say, the ‘end of nature’—jackals and other adaptable animals will live ever closer to us, seeking opportunities to thrive through our garbage, our fields, and the nooks and crannies of our cities and towns.” If the lives of animals are a record of the past, they also foretell our frightening future as it encroaches on the present.

By looking through animal eyes, Johnson is also out to reorient our perspective of the land itself: no longer just two competing nations, Israel and Palestine, but rather highlands and lowlands, fertile grazing land and rocky desert—topographies that exist independent of politics even as they are shaped by them. This is a very different picture than two nations separated by a wall—one that, as Johnson notes, allows the free passage of small animals (via small, zigzag tunnels built at the behest of Israeli environmentalists), extremely limited and regulated passage of Palestinian people, and no passage at all of larger animals like hyenas. These inhabitants, dependent on their ability to freely roam the ecosystem, are also very much at risk. To take seriously the plight of these creatures, on which the ecosystem and its human members depend, would mean to entirely rethink the land itself.

As one member of the Palestinian Animal League says, “If Palestine was only its people, we could make Palestine in Brazil. But Palestine is the land, and the animals, and the plants, our whole environment.” Nomadic and interdependent, the animals of the Middle East know no nation, are sovereign unto themselves. By considering their lives, we might very well find a way to reimagine our own.

Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, along with two other books of nonfiction. He is currently writing a book on conspiracy theories and other delusions, The Unidentified, forthcoming in 2020.