To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.
SIMONE WEIL: The Need for Roots.

A group’s awareness of being uprooted, and of what that involves, gives a strong emotional charge to rival narratives that help sustain conflicts. What is lost when a group is uprooted? What is it to have roots? Why is being rooted a need of the human soul? Simone Weil is surely right that this need is hard to define. Her own account in terms of a certain kind of community, together with active and natural participation in its life, is a good place to start.

Putting down roots takes time. Hundreds of people may pass through an airport together on the way to their flights. They do not have roots there because as a group they have no past or future. Simone Weil’s thought about the required kind of community includes links to both past and future. Looking to the past, she says a community where people can be rooted is one that “preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past”.


Here Simone Weil’s account of having roots partly in terms of “natural” participation in the life of a community will be interpreted as a matter of belonging. To belong somewhere is to feel at home there. Even without legal ownership of a house, there is a sense of “this is my town” or “this is our village”.

It is this emotional “ownership” that makes for a place where roots can be put down, as against the life of an exile. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti experienced this contrast: “The whole story is about place. They prevent you from owning it and so they take from your life what they take… Because of the many places that the circumstances of the Diaspora made us live in, and because we so often had to leave them, our places lost their meaning and their concreteness… The vagrant holds on to nothing… Places for him are means of transport to other places, to other conditions, as though they were wine or shoes.” (REFERENCE TO Mourid Barghouti: I Saw Ramallah.)

Belonging also means being recognised as part of the place by other people there. (“A local habitation and a name.”) Simone Weil stresses “active” participation. Recognition is partly a matter of being familiar there, but other people also recognise participation in local ways of talking and intuitive ways of doing things: the way people laugh, sing, play, move about, dance, joke or cook. Mourid Barghouti laments how exile has created a generation of Palestinians who know nothing of the texture of their country’s daily life: “Generations that never saw our grandmothers squatting in front of the ovens to present us with a loaf of bread to dip in olive oil, never saw the village preacher in his headdress and Azhari piety hiding in a cave to spy on the girls and the women of the village when they took off their clothes and bathed, naked, in the pool of ‘Ein al-Deir.”


Looking forward, Simone Weil says that a community where people have roots is one that preserves “certain particular expectations for the future”. Among the expectations is a level of security and protection. It is not so easy for roots to grow when you fear your children may be killed on the way to school by a suicide bomber. And, although places and ways of life evolve, the expectations include a degree of continuity. We expect the place where we belong and our way of life to remain recognizable: that some of the continuities will be there to pass on to children and grandchildren. This in turn requires security to cover not only personal safety but also some of the contours of people’s lives. Roots do not grow so well if you fear your house may be bulldozed by the soldiers of an occupying army.


Looking backwards, Simone Weil mentions preserving “certain particular treasures of the past”. This can be important for many reasons, but here the emphasis will be on its importance for the sense of personal identity. To the extent that this depends on a personal narrative we tell (to others and to ourselves) about our own history, it may matter to us that we preserve links with things and places that were important to us at earlier stages of the story.


No doubt there are other ways of taking Simone Weil’s “need for roots”. But here I am going to interpret it in terms of the three aspects mentioned: belonging, security and identity. The fourth aspect, linked to the other three, is self-respect.

Part of belonging is having family, friends, a job, or other things that bestow recognition denied the exile moving in foreign towns from one hotel or boarding house to another. Self-respect is harder for a person whose worth is not confirmed by this recognition, as it is for people denied the security needed for protecting their family against being murdered or against their house being destroyed. Self-respect is also harder for someone when the links with the past that support the sense of self are eroded or destroyed.

The emphasis on the various ways in which being rooted supports self-respect is because of the importance of the destruction of people’s self-respect has in the contribution being uprooted makes to violent conflict.