Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada
By Helen Schary Motro
While bookstore shelves groan with titles dealing with Israel's history and politics, there is still plenty of room for a book that describes daily life here, especially over the tension-filled last few years. It is that space that Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada helps fill.
Author Helen Schary Motro has excellent credentials for undertaking this task: She has lived here for over 20 years and so has personally witnessed the nation's transformation. She leads a privileged life, having dined with then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at a small gathering at his home, but is also a typical Israeli mother who worries whether it is safe to let her teenage daughter go to the mall. As an immigrant from the United States, she can also view Israeli society from a much-needed distance. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she is a prize-winning columnist with an eye for detail and an eloquent writing style.
The reader learns straightaway that Motro is a member of the left wing who is often critical of her adopted country. In the beginning of the book she writes: "Having arrived on a mix of romanticism and Second Generation Holocaust shock, I looked around me at the State of Israel the eve of its fiftieth anniversary in 1998 and observed that at 50 I was overweight and so was the state of Israel."
She is disgusted by what she views as the nation's transformation from "egalitarian socialist model to megacapitalism" and greatly dislikes Likud politicians like Binyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. A central question for her is whether Israel will deal with its "conflict" with the Palestinians within "the great Jewish tradition of justice and righteousness" or whether it will "choose the path of jingoism and militarism." Motro greatly fears Israel will choose the latter and tries to be one of those helping push it the other way.
But those who might be tempted to pass off the book as the work of another "Israel basher" would be doing Motro a disservice. She comes off as genuine when she writes, "For all its deficiencies, I still view Israel as a miracle. There are so many instances of great humanism, great culture and great vision."
Motro is under no illusions about her ability to change things. Modest, even at times self-deprecating, she realizes that her attempts to help the peace process have amounted to just attending "scraggly" peace marches, buying olive oil smuggled out of Palestinian areas and writing articles that appeal only to the already converted. During a visit to Jerusalem, she enters a taxi and upon discovering the driver is a Palestinian, hops out in fear. Deeply mortified by her actions, she admits that she would likely do it again.
"I can no longer whitewash my true colors. I am a casualty of the occupation and the Intifada it caused - and for that I ask the driver's pardon. I used to be just waiting for peace. Since that abortive ride I am also waiting for my conscience to give me peace."
The aspect of life here that gives her hope is the everyday interaction between Arabs and Jews, her personal story of which is a centerpiece of the book. In 1988, she met Jamal el-Durrah, a Palestinian construction worker from Gaza who helped do renovation on her home in a Tel Aviv suburb. Motro daily chatted in Hebrew with el-Durrah and gave him her children's old clothes and toys. Thirteen years later, el-Durrah became an international celebrity when his 12-year-old son, Muhammad, became one of the few Palestinian victims of the second intifada in 2001. The image of Muhammad lying in his father's arms as they were crouched against a wall in Gaza caught in a gun battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators was seen in newspapers worldwide. Who actually killed Muhammad remains a subject of dispute. Palestinians contend he was intentionally targeted by Israeli soldiers, while an Israeli army study concluded that he was caught in crossfire and likely even felled by Palestinian bullets.
But Motro is not interested in getting into that debate. It is the story of herself and el-Durrah, two of the "millions of people of goodwill behind the headlines" in Israel that interests her, and ultimately makes her book compelling.
The writer has written several books and co-authored Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography (Oxford University Press).