Do we understand each other?

By NATHAN THRALL
November 2, 2006 12:28

Disenchanted author Jeffrey Goldberg attempts to come to terms with his American-Israeli identity.




prisoner book 88 298

prisoner book 88 298. (photo credit: )

Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide. By Jeffrey Goldberg Knopf, 336 pages $25.00 On a cutting night in the Western Negev, Jeffrey Goldberg awoke to the sound of air-raid sirens. He was a military policeman in Ketziot, Israel's largest prison, "a city of barbed wire, moldy tents, machine-gun towers," and armored personnel carriers, known alternately to its captives as Ansar Three or Jama'a Thawria, Revolutionary University. It was early 1991 and Iraqi al-Husseini missiles had been flying overhead with some regularity. The prison guards greeted the Scuds with gas masks; the prisoners with roars of approval. "Ya, Ya, Saddam," they would cry. "Falastin baladna, wa Yahud kalabna" ("Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs"). Known to his fellow soldiers as a yafeh nefesh, literally, a "beautiful soul," a bleeding heart, Goldberg refused to wear the gas masks that had been denied his prisoners, the roughly 1,400 Palestinians held in Block Four of Ketziot. Among these was Rafiq Hijazi, a "charming," "placatory" and "introspective" Muslim, a Fatah man who hailed from Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp, "the Fort Sumter of the [first] Intifada." Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew across the Middle East Divide is Goldberg's magnificent personal history of his journey from zealous Long Island Zionist to embittered Israeli soldier and his struggle to reconcile his American and Israeli identities. For 10 years a Middle East correspondent for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, previously a Jerusalem Post columnist and currently The New Yorker's Washington correspondent, Goldberg, a self-described counterphobe, has presented himself undisguised as a Zionist and Jew to many of the region's most important, colorful and fearsome characters. Through vivid encounters with such former prisoners as Fatah leader Jibril Rajoub (the translator of Block Four's most popular book, Menachem Begin's The Revolt) and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the Hamas leader later assassinated by Israel, Prisoners tells the riveting tale of a conflict that has, according to Goldberg, been transformed from one between Palestinians and Israelis in the first intifada to one between Muslims and Jews in the second. In a recent telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post from Washington, DC, where he now resides, Goldberg discussed his 15-year relationship with Rafiq and his transformation from American to Israeli and back. Not long after the disintegration of peace talks at Camp David, Goldberg spoke with the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. Goldberg writes, "There is something very American, very Christian, if you don't mind, about this [peace] process," Oz said. "They speak of liking one another, of the need to understand one another. But we do understand each other. Perhaps that is the problem." "That," Goldberg says, "was a brilliant understanding of the American mind in a kind of way. The American idea is that disagreement is a product of ignorance, that when there's a lack of communication it's because we don't understand each other. But what you learn in Israel and you learn in the Middle East sometimes is that disagreement is the product of understanding. In America there's this idea that all religions are alike, and that all religions are religions of peace. And maybe that's just not true." BORN INTO a liberal, non-observant home on Long Island's South Shore, Goldberg's adolescent Zionist ardor was an anomaly of uncertain provenance. In part, his Jewish identity was forged by the fear of anti-semitism, fear arising from Catholic schoolyard smites and stories of Cossack plunder told to him by his Moldovan grandfather. But in those stories Goldberg also found heroes - heroes of Jewish resistance wholly unlike the gelded, chin-stroking, violence-abhorring Jews of his New York upbringing. Not until a first trip to Israel, occasioned by his bar mitzva, would Goldberg see such heroes. He was euphoric at the sight of Jewish power. "A Jewish tank! And Jewish armored personnel carriers! It was a miracle," he writes. "Enough of thinking and suffering! Let's do some shooting!" Upon his return, he was soon singing "Hatikva" and "The Internationale" with his comrades in Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist Zionist youth movement. "Exile was the disease and Israel was the cure," he writes. By the time he reached Penn, where he was editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Goldberg was forgoing spring break beer bongs in Florida for furtive missions to Soviet Jewry, to whom he smuggled recorded Sharansky speeches and Jewish prayer books. Soon after, he was on a one-way flight to the Promised Land. Alas, like any romantic vision, Goldberg's idealized Israel proved easier to love from afar. He had come to rescue Jews in the next Entebbe but found himself locking rock-throwing prisoners in solitary confinement instead. "Ketziot," he writes, "was the Satan that was making me forget the justice of my cause." Disappointment met Goldberg's hopes of Hebrew labor, too, as he arrived on an industrializing Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz filled not with fellow socialists but third-generation descendants of the pioneers, apathetic youth who dreamed only of "trips to Thailand, and jobs in New York with Israeli-owned moving companies." And so it was that not long after leaving Ketziot, Goldberg returned, disenchanted and divided, to America. "Only in Israel did I feel American," he writes. His Zionist dream was not completely crushed, however. HE FREQUENTLY returns to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as a journalist, meeting with everyone from Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat to Hamas's Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Islamic Jihad's Ramadan Shallah and Fatah's Marwan Barghouti and Muhammad Dahlan. In Jabalya, eight years after they parted in Ketziot, Rafiq and Goldberg reunited. Goldberg's relationship with Rafiq is in some respects emblematic of the way disagreement can be a product of understanding. What began in the first intifada with a Zionist soldier and Fatah prisoner relaying tentative words through a chain-link fence quickly grew, as Oslo neared, into an open dialogue and friendship, one that became strained to - almost - breaking point during the explicitly rejectionist and increasingly religious second intifada, when Rafiq came as a graduate student to America and there became what Goldberg would regretfully call one of Islam's fundamentalists. In Prisoners we learn that Rafiq once attended a Gaza rally against suicide bombing, but in the months after September 11 he told Goldberg, "'I wouldn't go to that rally today.'" "Not to sound grandiose," Goldberg says, "but I'm trying to argue against easy answers in this book. One easy answer you hear all the time in the wake of 9/11 is 'well, we need to be more open and we need to bring more Muslim students to America and then they'll see how great we are and become moderates.' The assumption built into that is again a very American kind of assumption, which is, to know us is to like us. And in my experience with Muslims in America, that's sometimes very true and it's sometimes not true. Not everybody wants to be Western." Rafiq's radicalization as a student in America echoed the experiences of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the principal architect of the September 11 attacks, and Sayyid Qutb, the philosopher of the Muslim Brotherhood and intellectual father of the groups it spawned, the Islamic Group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and al-Qaeda. "Qutb came to America for a visit in 1949," Goldberg writes. "He was horrified by what he saw - wanton women, emasculated men, churches empty of spirit. He reported later, in tones of horror and disgust, that a drunk woman once propositioned him on a boat. When he returned to Egypt he announced, in uncompromising terms, that America was no place for a Muslim." "I tried to see America the way Rafiq was seeing it," Goldberg says. "Walking on the street and seeing a strip club or billboards featuring women's underwear or just walking through Georgetown in summer and seeing women wearing not much clothing at all... He saw it as an affront. But it was very difficult for him to tell me, it was very alienating to him." Alienation is not unfamiliar to Goldberg. Reflecting on his service in Ketziot, he writes, "the realization was dawning on me that it was also the Israelis, the flesh of my flesh, that I did not understand." THOUGH BOTH he and Rafiq came to a foreign land and appear to have been put off by a sense that the culture was calloused and indecent, incapable of reciprocating their sensitivity, Goldberg is dismissive of the comparison. "I think my relationship with Israel is much more complicated than his with America," he says. "I think he enjoyed the fact that what he was experiencing, or what he thought he was experiencing, reinforced his negative feelings about the culture. I was not enjoying the fact my dream did not match the reality. I have a weakness for oversimplified idealism and that always comes back and bites you in a kind of way. With Rafiq, it was a religiously based dislike of what he saw as a crude, material and faithless culture." When Goldberg's idealism met the reality of the kibbutz, he made an observation about a paradox of Zionism. The pioneers, he writes, "came to Palestine with an idea, to make whole the Jewish people, to build 'New Jews,' strong and competent and close to the land, like all the other peoples of the world." But they were too successful. Many of their descendants were "so normal that they wanted nothing to do with Jews." "We're in this remarkable phase of Jewish history," Goldberg says. "For 2,000 years we went without a single promised land and somehow survived that. Now all of a sudden, in the last 50 years, we seem to have two. One is the actual promised land, which is safe for Judaism. It's safe for Judaism, but it's not particularly safe for Jews. America, which is this Diaspora experience unparalleled in history, it's this country that seems totally inoculated against the infection of anti-Semitism, it's safe for Jews. But it's not particularly safe for Judaism, precisely because it's such a friendly place." The answer to that dilemma was clear to Goldberg when he dropped out of Penn and boarded an El Al flight to realize his Zionist dream. Quoting the words he told a fellow passenger on that flight, Goldberg writes, "'I believe it is the responsibility of every Jew in the world to serve the nation of Israel.'" Just as that sense of responsibility pulled him toward Israel, it made him alien in the America to which he returned. "Most Jews in America were happy and at ease," he writes. "But they tended to be Jews without a sense of responsibility to the past. It was only possible for them to embrace the geographical accident of their birth because they didn't think about themselves in history and they didn't think about history's lessons for the Jews. I was history-ridden and unhappy." Perhaps that responsibility to the past is an important sense in which Israelis and Palestinians understand each other. And one in which Israeli and American Jews do not. "It does make us a little bit alien to our Western friends," Goldberg says, referring to himself once again as an Israeli. "They tend to live in the future. They certainly don't live in the past. And that responsibility - which is what I felt in my teens and my 20s - makes those of us who feel it very Middle Eastern in a kind of way; that's what I mean by a geographic accident. I mean, what are we fighting about every day in the Middle East? We're fighting about the past." But though he became disaffected with Israel and returned to America, Goldberg did not fully return to the universalism of his birthplace. "Though I've come to realize that my Americanness is unconquerable," he writes, "Zionism is no worm-eaten ideology to me. It answered a need, and answers it even today. I am still susceptible to the demands of blood and tribe." To negotiate those demands is the challenge now posed by Islamists to the West. "We're all trying to balance our loyalty to our particular group with our desire to see the world as a better place," Goldberg says. "And I think that the American Jewish community is a liberal community that veers toward universalism; I think Israel, by its nature, is a place that is more concerned with the future of the tribe. I just want to live with both of those things. And that's a constant tension, of course. But that's what makes being Jewish so interesting. Isn't it interesting to be Jewish?"


Related Content

Sarah Silverman
August 26, 2014
Jewish women take home gold at 2014 Emmys

By JTA

Israel Weather
  • 10 - 18
    Beer Sheva
    12 - 18
    Tel Aviv - Yafo
  • 8 - 13
    Jerusalem
    10 - 17
    Haifa
  • 14 - 23
    Elat
    12 - 19
    Tiberias