SHARON AND MY MOTHER-IN-LAW
By Suad Amiry
Pantheon. 207 pp. $23
THE OTHER SIDE OF ISRAEL
My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide
By Susan Nathan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 310 pp. $25
INHERITING THE HOLY LAND
An American's Search for Hope in the Middle East
By Jennifer Miller
Ballantine. 261 pp. $24.95
A memoirist is like the star guest at a dinner party whose stories replace the conversation as all chairs turn toward hers -- as her sudden laugh punctuates the end of one tale that you know you would not have told about yourself and the start of another.
If Suad Amiry could get past the Israeli roadblock between Ramallah, where she lives, and Jerusalem, where my dining table is, I imagine her voice bubbling far into the evening. She might describe how, rather than take her terrier pup to the sexist Ramallah vet who did not like vaccinating female dogs, she ended up in the clinic of Dr. Tamar at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in what she refers to as an Israeli settlement on the Jerusalem-Ramallah road -- a spot the Israeli government has long considered part of Jerusalem proper.
The pup, Nura, ended up with a "dog passport" listing her residency as Jerusalem, filling her mistress with awe and jealousy: A Palestinian architect who grew up in Amman and elsewhere, Amiry spent years after her marriage to a Ramallah man before getting an Israeli permit to reside legally in the West Bank, and friends who married East Jerusalem Palestinians waited even longer for their prized Jerusalem papers. Over salad, Amiry could recount -- as she does, with a perfect sense of the absurd, in her memoir of life under Israeli occupation, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law -- that she soon used Nura's papers to ease her way into Jerusalem. "I am the dog's driver," she tells an Israeli soldier at the checkpoint. "As you can see, she is from Jerusalem." The Israeli laughs, pats Nura's head and lets them drive on through. "All it takes is a bit of humor," Amiry concludes.
The dog tale is a variation on Amiry's theme: The occupation is irrational, perhaps intentionally so. The only reasonable response is to be unreasonable in kind yourself, as when Amiry storms into Capt. Yossi's room at the Israeli army's Ramallah headquarters, screams, cries, demands her residency permit -- and gets it. The captain can cope with terrorists, fighter planes and submarines, she thinks, but "NOT A WOMAN FREAKING OUT."
Israelis at the table would laugh, while nervously imagining more explosive types of irrational response to occupation. Likewise, her stories of the miseries of life under curfew after Israel's reinvasion of West Bank cities in March 2002 might cause squirming even by left-wing guests who criticized "Operation Defensive Shield" as a cruel, useless escalation. Amiry says nothing of the Palestinian terrorist attacks that took more than 100 Israeli lives in the month before the tanks rolled back in. Her story does not include a hint that, this time, Israel's leaders were responding to something that appeared senseless, even if they did so irrationally.
For, humor aside, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is also a dispute between two opposing stories about what has happened here. For each side, its story is the very heart of its identity. Historians can aspire to break the bounds of those narratives and approach an objective telling; a memoir aims instead at making the collective story personal and particular.
Amiry does that with subtlety and complexity. I would invite her to my table because Israelis need to hear what it was like to risk being shot to collect one's 92-year-old mother-in-law from a home near Yasser Arafat's besieged Ramallah headquarters during a brief break in a curfew -- and because I'd like to discuss with her the Israeli miseries that are left out of this tale. And if my depressed guests concluded that these two angry nations will never make peace, I'd ask Amiry to tell her anecdote about driving with her niece in East Jerusalem, where she was flagged down by an Israeli man who was sure he was having a heart attack; Amiry expected him to have another when he realized he'd been picked up by Ramallah Muslims but she dropped him off at Hadassah Hospital. Driving off, she thought of her father, who died alone in a hotel room of a heart attack. "I always felt terrible that he must have sought help but none arrived," she writes. The labels of Palestinian and Israeli evaporate, leaving a mortal human being.
Unlike the charming Amiry, Susan Nathan would empty your dining room early. This is a terrible shame because her The Other Side of Israel recounts a story that needs telling -- the tale of the pervasive inequality faced by the 1.4 million Palestinians who live inside Israel as citizens.
Nathan, a British-born Jew, came to Israel in 1999. Three years later, she moved from Tel Aviv to the Arab town of Tamra, choosing to live within and identify with Israel's Arab minority -- so much so that she uses "we" when describing the daily life of the Tamra clan with which she took up residence.
An incident from her childhood, retold without irony, foreshadows what's wrong with Nathan's writing here. When she was 2, her family spent six months in South Africa, where a black servant taught her how to carry her doll strapped to her back, the way local black women carried their babies. Back in England, "I would see other little girls in the street holding their dolls in their arms and tell them off, showing them how to do it properly." Alas, she is still telling off anyone who dares hold her doll in a politically incorrect fashion.
Nathan describes her Jewish identity, prior to coming to Israel, as built on the Holocaust and British anti-Semitism. In her "romantic notions of Zionism," taken from Leon Uris's tub-thumping novel Exodus, "the Jews had reclaimed an empty, barren land." In short, her version of the Israeli narrative was a crude caricature of the country's history. Only after immigrating did she discover that the country has Arab citizens, discrimination and ultra-nationalist settlers. Her fantasy -- that Jews could simultaneously exercise power and enjoy the righteousness of victimhood -- shattered.
So Nathan concludes that the Palestinians are the true righteous victims and embraces an equally crude version of their narrative. Palestinian nationalism is legitimate, Zionism a "damaging ideology" of colonialism. Israeli doves who seek a two-state solution are insufficiently radical. Nathan condemns Jews interested in coexistence as hypocrites and blasts like-minded Arabs as cowed. Facts mix with canards (her repeated equating of the Israeli occupation to apartheid in South Africa, rather than seeing it as part of a fight between two legitimate nationalisms over one shared land, is particularly simple-minded) as she persistently reads people's motives as good or evil based on their nationality. Unintentionally, Nathan demonstrates the potential power of the collective stories, Israeli and Palestinian alike, to shape and deepen the conflict -- at least when told without humor, nuance or doubt.
In the traveler's tale, a subgenre of memoir, the voyager mentions briefly why she left for distant, dangerous lands, then recites stories that she heard there and carried home. Such is Jennifer Miller's highly readable Inheriting the Holy Land, in which she tells of growing up in America as the daughter of State Department diplomat Aaron D. Miller, who spent many years working on the Arab-Israeli peace process, and of joining Seeds of Peace, an admirable coexistence group that runs a summer camp in Maine where Israeli and Palestinian teens learn to listen to each other. (Miller's father is now the organization's president.)
From there, she takes off for the land of Israeli-Palestinian entanglement. Unabashedly using her father's pull, our young traveler meets former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and, not long before his death, Arafat. Barak blusters and bangs the table; Arafat evades questions or provides surreal answers.
Those conversations could inspire despair, as could the haunted landscape. Nor does a stint in the Maine woods turn all of the Seeds of Peace alumni into knee-jerk doves. A Palestinian graduate of the camp argues that the journalistically objective word for bombers is "freedom fighters," rather than "martyrs" or "suicide bombers." An Israeli graduate who has finished his compulsory army service as an officer criticizes the military's role in his country's politics but also justifies searching an entire Palestinian town to find one suspect: "Jen, it's all about the fight to survive."
Yet the young Seeds are the heroes of this powerful book precisely because Miller is wise enough to retell their stories without making them fit together. Their personal versions of the narrative have fissures. They are patriots with doubts -- and with friends on the other side.
In 1967, a few months after Israel took the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the Six Day War, a young novelist named Amos Oz wrote a visionary essay called "Homeland" in which he argued that the story of Jews and Palestinians must be told not as an epic but as a Greek tragedy. "The land is our land. It is also their land. Right conflicts with right," Oz wrote. "If compromise is reached," he concluded, "it will be between an inconsistent Zionist and an inconsistent Palestinian." In the tales that Miller brought home, you will hear that young people can learn to be blessedly inconsistent. That makes her voice worth listening to, long after dinner is forgotten, late into the night. *
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of the forthcoming "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977."