A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide
By Jeffrey Goldberg
Knopf. 316 pp. $25
A few years ago, when the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000 was still raging, I had occasion to chat with a group of young Christians who had come to Israel to help bring peace to the Holy Land. "If we could just get Jews and Palestinians talking to each other, that would be a huge step forward," one of them suggested hopefully.
Dialogue can indeed be a cause for hope, but it can also cause despair. Prisoners is Jeffrey Goldberg's sensitive, forthright and perceptive account of his years as a soldier and journalist in Israel -- and of his long-running conversation with a Palestinian whom he once kept under lock and key. It is a forceful reminder of how rewarding, and how difficult, discourse between Israelis and Palestinians can be.
Goldberg grew up in a family of liberal Democrats and attended a socialist Zionist summer camp. Like many other young American Jews, he grew up with next to no religious tradition but with a strong sense of Jewish identity. He was potently aware of his membership in an oppressed people that, in both distant and painfully recent history, had been unable to defend itself. But Goldberg also believed in another identity -- between his Jewish heritage and his humanistic values of peace and equality, which he saw as being one and the same.
That sense of identity impelled Goldberg to move to Israel after college and, in 1990, to join its army. He ended up in the military police and did his mandatory army service as a guard at Ketziot, the vast, desolate prison camp that Israel set up in its southern desert to hold the Palestinian rebels of the first intifada, which broke out in 1987.
Unlike his native Israeli comrades, Goldberg felt compelled to speak to the men he helped keep incarcerated. He knew that they were the enemies of his people, many with Jewish blood on their hands. But he hoped that by talking he might come to understand them and bring them to understand Israel. One prisoner in particular caught his attention: Rafiq Hijazi, a Palestine Liberation Organization leader, college math teacher and devout Muslim from a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.
"I soon discovered," Goldberg writes, "that he was the only Palestinian I could find in Ketziot who understood the moral justification for Zionism. For his part, I might have been the only soldier he met who didn't deny the existence of misfortune in Palestinian history." Unlike most of the other prisoners, Hijazi read widely and was able to think outside the box of the nationalist and Islamist ideologies preached, respectively, by the rival Fatah and Hamas factions. Goldberg, unlike many of the Israelis he met, was able to relate to this individual Palestinian as a human being, rather than as a specific instance of the deadly Arab enemy. Goldberg hoped -- and hoped that Hijazi shared the hope -- that if he and his prisoner could somehow agree on a way that Palestinians and Israelis could live together, side by side, in two states, then maybe, just maybe, their leaders could do the same.
Disillusioned by the harsh realities of Israel's struggles, Goldberg ultimately returned to live in the United States but continued to visit Israel and the occupied territories as a correspondent for the Forward, the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker. Eventually, after considerable hesitation, he looked up Hijazi -- now released -- in Gaza. There, the tables were turned. "Are you frightened?" Hijazi asked when Goldberg balked at visiting the Hamas-dominated Islamic University of Gaza. "How do I know you're not setting me up?" Goldberg asked.
But fear soon gave way to a renewal of the friendship during that hopeful 1990s interlude when Israelis and Palestinians seemed to be heading toward peaceful coexistence within the framework of the Oslo peace process. Things were different later, when both men found themselves living in Washington -- Goldberg as a New Yorker correspondent, Hijazi as a PhD student at American University.
Goldberg's prose is sometimes unpolished, but he is at his best when he recounts the crisis that nearly ended the friendship. In the face of the bloody second intifada and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hijazi moves toward fundamentalism. In the book's most telling pages, the two men read the Koran together and argue over passages that ostensibly vilify the Jews. In their prison conversations, Hijazi had told Goldberg that these verses were allegorical admonitions against arrogance. Now Hijazi thinks they predict God's coming punishment of the Jews and the destruction of their country. In the years after 9/11, Hijazi's anger seems to make any accommodation or mutual acceptance impossible.
Goldberg is also deft at portraying the huge dissimilarities in the two friends' lifestyles and cultures. His wife, Pamela, is a dynamic career woman who wears tank-tops and shorts on weekends; Hijazi's wife, Tahani, wears the hijab head-covering (and later, when they live in Abu Dhabi, adds a veil) and seldom leaves home.
Dialogue is indeed a first step but hardly a sufficient one. Goldberg and Hijazi are about as open to each other as two such men could be. Their friendship survives, but barely.
As such, Prisoners offers a modicum of hope but also a healthy dose of despair. These days, the work of bringing peace to Israel and Palestine often looks like an impossible mission. Still, as the Jewish sages taught, even if we cannot hope to complete the task, we are not allowed to shirk it. ·
Haim Watzman is the author of "Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel." His next book, "A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley," will be published in June 2007.