Monthly Archives: November 2015

The importance of bonobos

In addition to Frans de Waal’s books on this fascinating relative of ours (The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, 2010, and The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, 2014), I’s like to recommend the book I just finished: Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods, 2010.

Woods, whose book is an account of the time she and her husband, primatologist Brian Hare, spent at a bonobo refuge in the Congo, writes that “six million years ago, our last common ancestor with apes split into three different lines, which would eventually become chimpanzees, bonobos, and us. Along our journey, something extraordinary happened. We grew big brains. We tamed fire. We started to talk. But all that would have been for nothing if not for one simple thing – tolerance. Tolerance is what allowed us to cooperate, and every one of our great accomplishments comes from sharing ideas, building on the thoughts and concepts of others.

In our first experiments, we found that chimps could cooperate, but only after we controlled for tolerance. Intelligence wasn’t the problem – they were smart enough to know they needed help, but their emotions got in the way. Tolerance isn’t something we always excel at either. We know that chimps have an involuntary physical reaction when they hear or see a stranger, and, to a certain extent, we have the same reaction.” Bonobos don’t. Perhaps because they’re endowed with “incredibly high testosterone,” even as babies, they’re able to use sex (the “bonobo handshake”) to create mutual tolerance – a behavior that’s absent in chimpanzees, for whom sex is part of the dominance hierarchy.

Woods says that in experiments bonobos readily share food with strangers, humans are somewhere in the middle of this scale, and chimps share the least.

“So, if bonobos are more tolerant in some ways than humans, why did they never develop our level of intelligence?” They didn’t need to – they always had everything they needed, while humans often needed additional food and other resources, and fought with strangers and predators. “Most of the time, bonobos have no hunger, no violence, no poverty,” Woods says. “And for all our things, bonobos have the most important of all possessions – peace. That’s why they’re important – because they hold the key to a world without war. If we lose bonobos [who are endangered, living in one forest in the Congo], we’ll never learn their secret. And even more tragically, because they share so much of what makes us human, we’ll never understand ourselves.”

In the epilogue, Woods says, ‘When bonobos get angry, they hug,” and “together, bonobo females [who rule the roost] are strong.”

In the acknowledgements: “The orphans of Lola ya Bonobo survive because of the generosity of people like you. If you would like to sponsor a bonobo or make a donation, please visit”

In Further Reading, “Sara Gruen is writing one of the first fictions about bonobos, tentatively called Ape House.” Ape House, a great novel, was published in 2011.

Woods’ website is

More on the effects of religious fundamentalism (Jewish)

I just finished reading Covered by Leah Lax, a fascinating, courageously honest, and important account of the author’s experience of joining a Hasidic sect as a teenager, entering into an arranged marriage, having seven children, and finally emerging from that world as a lesbian writer in a committed relationship. What most impressed me about this unforgettable book is Lax’s devotion to the truth and the way love, even for those who have mistreated her, infuses it. Definitely recommended!

I’m also rereading Unorthodox and Exodus by Deborah Feldman, the continuing account of a young woman born into the Satmar Hasidic sect in New York. Feldman is also unflinchingly honest, a great writer, and committed to following the truth wherever it may lead. People with these kinds of inclinations find it hard to remain in fundamentalist religious communities and must struggle mightily to find lives in the greater world, but when they share their experiences, thoughts, and self-forged values, we’re all richer for it. The bottom line seems to be, as my experience has also taught me, that there’s no one truth or security to cling to. To be aligned with whatever greater reality is, we have to be open to it in each moment, fully engaging in experiences and relationships that amount to life as a work-in-progress. That takes honesty, courage, and passion, qualities Lax and Feldman possess in abundance.

A somewhat less expansive, but still fascinating male version of this coming-away-from-Hasidism story is All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen.

On the general subject of Jewish fundamentalism (bearing in mind that all religions have fundamentalist groups), I would also recommend the latest edition of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky (2004). As one of its back cover blurbs indicates, it’s a “must-read for anyone interested in exploring the dark corners of an ideology that has an impact on international events.”

Go back to my October 26th post “A novel about the sexual abuse of children in a religious community” for my reviews of Judy Brown’s books, “Hush” and “This Is Not A Love Story,” too, for two more honest and evocative windows into the world of Hasidism. Brown deals with the way sexual abuse of children is covered up in Hasidic communities, and Lax mentions a short story she wrote and published about the similar suppression of homosexuality. She was inspired to write it after hearing of the suicide of an ultra orthodox gay teenage boy in Israel.

Former Israeli soldier says occupation must end

Former Israeli soldier, now author, Assaf Gavron, has a great editorial in the Washington Post today. Below is a slightly edited version:

“I was an Israel Defense Forces soldier in Gaza 27 years ago, during the first intifada. We patrolled the city and the villages and the refugee camps and encountered angry teenagers throwing stones at us. We responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Now those seem like the good old days. Since then, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has seen stones replaced with guns and suicide bombs, then rockets and highly trained militias, and now, in the past month, kitchen knives, screwdrivers and other improvised weapons. Some of these low-tech efforts have been horrifically successful, with victims as young as 13. There’s plenty to discuss about the nature and timing of the recent wave of Palestinian attacks — a desperate and humiliated answer to the election of a hostile Israeli government that emboldens extremist settlers to attack Palestinians. But as an Israeli, I’m more concerned with the actions of my own society, which are getting scarier and uglier by the moment.

The internal discussion in Israel is more militant, threatening and intolerant than it has ever been. Talk has trended toward fundamentalism ever since the Israeli operation in Gaza in late 2008, but it’s recently gone from bad to worse. There seems to be only one acceptable voice, orchestrated by the government and its spokespeople, beamed to all corners of the country by a clan of loyal media outlets drowning out all the others. Those few dissenters who attempt to contradict it — to ask questions, to protest, to represent a different view from this artificial consensus — are ridiculed and patronized at best, threatened, vilified and physically attacked at worst.

Since the start of last year’s Gaza war, there have been several incidents of anti-leftist violence to go along with the attacks aimed at Palestinians: Left-wing protesters were assaulted at antiwar demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Haifa last summer, during the war; left-wing journalist Gideon Levy of Haaretz was accused of treason by a Knesset member, a crime that during wartime is punishable by death. He’s since hired bodyguards. This month, people in Afula attacked an Arab correspondent for an Israeli TV network and his Jewish crew while they reported on a stabbing attack. On Friday, a masked Jewish settler attacked the president of the leftist group Rabbis for Human Rights in a Palestinian olive grove in the West Bank.

Facebook pages calling for violence against left-wingers and Arabs appear frequently, and any sentiment not aligned with the supposed consensus is met with a barrage of racist vitriol. One Facebook group discussed how to disrupt a wedding between an Arab and a Jew, posting the groom’s phone number and urging people to call and harass him.

Israelis and Palestinians have been killed as violence spiked in recent weeks, turning the volume up still another notch. Led by politicians from the right (with the perplexing support of members of the supposed opposition), and circulated by the sensationalist mainstream media, there has been a unified demonization of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. This past week, the trend reached its absurd peak, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ridiculous claim that Hitler decided to annihilate the Jews only after being advised to do so by Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, leader of Palestinian Arabs at the time.

There have been calls to kill attackers in every situation, in defiance of the law or any accepted rules of engagement for the military. Such sentiment has led to incidents like the death in East Jerusalem of Fadi Alloun, suspected of a knife attack but shot by police as they had him surrounded. Sometimes, it backfires: This month, a Jewish vigilante near Haifa stabbed a fellow Israeli Jew he thought was an Arab. Late Wednesday, soldiers killed an Israeli Jew whom they mistook for a Palestinian attacker.

The increasingly intolerant, boiling, racist tone of the Israeli conversation is a result of 48 years of occupying another people: of Israelis receiving a message (or at least understanding it as such) that we are superior to others, that we control the fate of those lesser others, that we are allowed to disregard laws and any basic notions of human morality with regard to Palestinians. The cumulative effect of this recent mindless violence is hugely disturbing. We seem to be in an alarming downward swirl into a savage, unrepairable society. There is only one way to respond: We must stop the occupation. Not for peace with the Palestinians or for their sake (though they have surely suffered at our hands for too long). Not for some vision of an idyllic Middle East — those arguments will never end, because neither side will ever budge, or ever be proved wrong by anything. No, we must stop the occupation for ourselves. So that we can look ourselves in the eyes. So that we can legitimately ask for, and receive, support from the world. So that we can return to being human.

Whatever the consequences are, they can’t be worse than what we are now grappling with. No matter how many soldiers we put in the West Bank, or how many houses of terrorists we blow up, or how many stone-throwers we arrest, we don’t have security; meanwhile, we’ve become diplomatically isolated, perceived around the world (sometimes correctly) as executioners, liars, and racists. As long as the occupation lasts, we’re the more powerful side, we call the shots, and we can’t go on blaming others. For our own sake, for our sanity — we must stop now.