CONVERSATION, NOT PROVOCATION
Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
336 pp., $25.00 (Hardcover)
Review by Erika Dreifus
How did a nice Jewish boy from Long Island, New York—a student at the University of Pennsylvania, no less—end up at Ketziot, an Israeli military prison camp in the Negev? More importantly, what happened once he arrived there? These questions, and their answers, guide award-winning journalist Jeffrey Goldberg’s important new book, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide.
The response to the first question comprises much of the book’s autobiographical and “background” material. We learn, for example, that Goldberg acquired a fear of anti-Semitism early on. As a child, he was sensitive to his family history, including “the whirlwind of Russian anti-Semitism” into which his grandfather had been born. Non-Jewish “tormentors” among his middle school classmates “taught [him] how to play ‘Bend the Jew’….” With that background, learning “too much truth” about the Holocaust at age 12 proved “emphatically destabilizing”: “Such knowledge turned the ground under my feet, already giving way, to quicksand.”
Soon thereafter came a Bar Mitzvah trip to Israel, where Goldberg found signs of Israeli strength (“A Jewish tank!”) more than merely reassuring. Such signs were “euphoriants”:
By the time we came home, I burned with love for Israel. I began this mystic pilgrimage a speck of a Jew, but I emerged utterly different, invested with a mission much larger than myself, larger, certainly, than the quotidian and occasionally terrifying life of a Long Island Jewish boy. Israel was my main chance: For nineteen hundred years, since the final Roman obliteration of Israel (they even changed its name to Palestine, in order to erase from the world’s memory its existence), the Jews were chased across the earth. But in 1948, just seventeen years before I was born, the Jews reentered history, building a country out of the cinders of the Holocaust. How could I miss out on this drama?
He couldn’t. He devoured the Leon Uris novel, Exodus. He signed up for a Zionist summer camp in the Catskills. As a college student, he volunteered for a 1986 mission to the then-Soviet Union, to provide aid to oppressed Jews living there (refuseniks, as American Jews like me had by then learned to call them in our synagogues and Sunday school classes, Jews refused the right to “make Aliyah,” as Jewish immigration to Israel is called).
Goldberg already assumed that after college, he, too, would move to Israel. But he didn’t wait that long. He dropped out of Penn and boarded an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Kibbutz life (Goldberg became fairly expert at work in the chicken coop), a military training course, and a job on The Jersualem Post (currently the Washington correspondent of The New Yorker,* Goldberg has also served as a Middle East correspondent for that magazine) preceded his 1990 army assignment to the military police. And here the book’s second major component, detailing the friendship Goldberg cultivated with one of the Palestinians imprisoned at Ketziot during the first Intifada (uprising against Israel) truly begins.
Ketziot, Goldberg writes, “did not feature in any dream of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, or in any program of [David] Ben-Gurion, who made concrete Herzl’s vision. Ketziot was a city of barbed wire, moldy tents, machine gun towers, armored personnel carriers, black oil smoke, sullen Arabs, and embittered Israeli soldiers.” Ketziot clearly hadn’t featured in any of Goldberg’s visions, either, as the writer explains in this characteristically eloquent passage: “It was outside my frame of reference. Ketziot was a place bleached of color, and bereft of kindness. It was a monument to expediency, poor planning, and the ephemeral nature of cheap building materials. It was a place devoid of culture, an island of small-mindedness and cruelty in a brown sea of sand. And it was swelteringly hot, except at night, when the desert cold seemed capable of cracking bones.”
He tells us that the prisoners “were the flower of the Palestinian Intifada. They were its foot soldiers, squad commanders, generals, and, from time to time, its propagandists, even its lawyers.” Despite the evident ill will many of them displayed toward Israel, the prisoners fascinated him: “Here they were, en masse, my enemy. Who wouldn’t want to know about them? I asked them questions, ceaselessly, about their politics, their beliefs and desires, their families. I poured out questions about child-rearing and bomb-making and the menu for the Ramadan break fast.”
Among the prisoners it’s Gazan Rafiq Hijazi, the eponymous “Muslim” of the book’s title, who most attracts Goldberg’s attention: “I wanted to make Rafiq my friend. I felt this keenly, almost from the moment we met. It was something I believed was actually possible. I sensed the presence between us of the enzymes of friendship. I believed that he liked me. He thought I was kind, for a Jew, and I thought he was smart, for an Arab.”
But what kind of friendship could this be? “We could not go anywhere or do anything. No double-dating, no football games. We could not, for that matter, shake hands in an even approximately normal way. The openings in the fence were too small. A streamlined hand—four fingers pointing straight out, the thumb held to the side—could work its way through, up to the knuckle. So when we shook, we shook fingers.” And, in the winter of 1991, as Saddam Hussein’s Scuds targeted Israel during the Persian Gulf War, they talked. A lot.
Their conversations comfort Goldberg: “I had consoling thoughts about Rafiq—thoughts about the thickening possibilities of peace, a peace that could be made first by two inconsequential soldiers. If Rafiq Hijazi could somehow extend the border of his compassion to take in Jeffrey Goldberg, then why should peace be impossible?” Frequently, however, Goldberg must wonder just how far this border has extended. Is Rafiq really his friend? Goldberg is crushed, for instance, when he offers Rafiq a hypothetical situation in which the Gazan might have the opportunity to kill him; after some hesitation, Rafiq says only, “Look, it wouldn’t be personal.”
But Goldberg can’t quite let go of Rafiq, tracking him down even after they’ve both left Ketziot, even once Goldberg has moved back to the United States, married, and settled in Washington, DC. When he again travels in Israel he goes to Gaza to search for Rafiq. Finding him, he learns that Rafiq, now a professor, is soon to leave for Washington, too—to complete a Ph.D. at the American University.
At this point, Goldberg tells Rafiq that “I wanted to reestablish our friendship for its own sake, and I wanted to see the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict through his eyes, in order to answer a crucial question: Could the Arabs finally accept—accept, not merely tolerate—the presence of Jews in their midst, and not just Jews, but a Jewish state? Or would we forever be viewed as invaders?” For his part, Rafiq responds with another question: “Could the Jews live with the Palestinians without fear, without guns?”
The relationship and discussions thus continue in Washington. Not always easily, given the continued stresses and conflicts in the broader relationship between their peoples. Near the end of the book, Goldberg realizes an “irreducible” truth: “The maximum Israel could give did not match the minimum the Palestinians would accept.” Still, Goldberg finds hope. Despite their differences and disagreements something else remains true. Each man cares about the other. When “something terrible” happens in Gaza, Goldberg thinks first of Rafiq and his family. It’s “the same thing” for Rafiq: “‘When I hear that there is a bombing in Jerusalem and I know you’re there, I get worried.'” In the end, Rafiq “‘[doesn’t] want [Goldberg] to die. I want you to live.'” This, Goldberg concludes, “might be the start of something.”
My only difficulty with this book—aside, perhaps, from the discomfort anyone more affectively attuned to Israelis than Palestinians is likely to experience in Goldberg’s portrayals of bad will on both sides—concerns its structure. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in narrative time, especially in the book’s early chapters, and it’s not always easy to follow. Some readers may not sense themselves well “situated” in the book for awhile.
On the other hand, the book’s Web site** is all about context. Its superb “Resources” section includes a map, a timeline stretching from 1800 B.C.E. to 2006, and a set of links Goldberg recommends for more information on the Middle East. All those items might have been nice additions to the book, too (the evanescence of Web addresses notwithstanding).
In closing it seems not unimportant to note that during the fall of 2006, when Prisoners was published, another new book, by former President Jimmy Carter, received far more media attention. At the height of the controversies Carter’s book sparked over everything from its title, to the veracity (or lack thereof) of its content, to its one-sided/pro-Palestinian approach, I was reading Prisoners. And given the evident knowledge, humanity, and, not least of all, sustained and often painful efforts to understand “both sides” that permeate practically every one of Goldberg’s pages, I couldn’t help wishing, fervently, that the readers who made the Carter book a bestseller might still turn to Prisoners. That, perhaps, might be the start of something.
*As of the summer of 2007,Goldberg is leaving The New Yorker for a position with The Atlantic Monthly.
(A version of this review was published in the Winter 2007 issue of The Chattahoochee Review.)