Book Review: Behind the ‘Zion curtain’

A Belgian-Egyptian journalist describes his attempts to penetrate Israeli and Palestinian society.

A new immigrant at Ben-Gurion airport kisses the tarmac as he makes aliya (photo credit: REUTERS)
A new immigrant at Ben-Gurion airport kisses the tarmac as he makes aliya
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Everything is political, and politics is everywhere,” writes Khaled Diab, a Belgian- Egyptian journalist, in the opening to his just-published short book.
In Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land, he diagnoses two cultures in a stranglehold with one another. “Despite the fact that the Palestinians and Arabs have lost almost every single military confrontation with Israel, the voices of those who favor armed struggle are getting louder.”
On the Israeli side he sees incredible groupthink, with 95 percent supporting the summer’s war on Hamas in Gaza.
Diab’s monograph joins a long list of personal memoirs of the conflict. There have been so many of these kinds of books that former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti’s 1995 book had the same title.
Diab has been writing on the region for many years and since 2007, decided he had to come to grips with it and go behind what he termed the “Zion curtain.”
“Since 2011, I have lived with my family, excepting a one-year absence, in the Holy Land,” he writes. “This has further deepened my knowledge of the people, society, culture, conflict… Residing here is challenging and can be emotionally taxing.
Being here teaches one that everything is political, and politics is everywhere.”
Like many of those who come to the Holy Land, this is an experience that is about self-understanding as much as it is about understanding what haunts the local people. For Diab, perhaps it is his background – European and Egyptian.
He discusses how his Egyptian Cairene- accented Arabic set him apart from local Palestinians. For Israelis it made him exotic; he was not the Palestinian enemy.
“Although Israelis, with some illuminating exceptions, do not know Arabic or do not know it well enough to recognize my accent, once they discover I am an Egyptian, they are usually enthusiastic and thrilled – rather than displaying the hostility one might expect in light of the rising tide of anti-Arabism washing through society.”
Diab’s narrative goes down a well-traveled path. He sets out a binary situation of Palestinians and Israelis clamoring for violence, then identifies the good voices in each society. Among Palestinians it is men like “Sulaiman Khatib, a peace activist and co-founder of Combatants for Peace, a group of ex-fighters, both Palestinians and Israelis, who ‘decided to put down our guns, and to fight for peace.’” Among Israelis, it is the “small and courageous dissenting minority [that] swam against the pro-war current. In the media, this has included [Haaretz journalist] Gideon Levy, who now has to move around with a bodyguard.” It is ironic to call Levy an anti-war voice, given his October 26 article in which he noted Palestinians have a “right and duty to resist… the only question relates to what means.”
Is Levy really swimming against the pro-war mob, or just joining the pro-war mob on the Palestinian side? Diab’s narrative consists of a variety of interviews, some the author conducted in person and others gleaned from mass media publications, with well-known Israelis like author David Grossman, and other important voices such as performer Mira Awad, activist Gershon Baskin and Alex Stein, whom the author identifies as a British-Israeli tour guide. Reading quotes in the book from famed novelist Amos Oz and radical-Left academic Shlomo Sand, as if they are insightful, is sort of reinventing the wheel – and readers who are cognizant of the conflict and fluent in its liturgy won’t find many insights here.
The author discusses how “some of the most daring political, social, cultural and intellectual rebels have been Jews” while noting, “but there is another Israel: one that is makeshift, badly organized, mediocrely educated, poor and unproductive compared to other developed societies.”
OK, so Diab has discovered that not all stereotypes are true; there are Jewish intellectuals and Jewish bus drivers, and the bus drivers may not be to bus driving what the intellectuals were to modern science.
Diab explores the issue of aliya, interviewing olim from Anglo backgrounds (Ethiopians, Russians and others appear to be left out of this narrative): “Immigrant Jews I have encountered moved to Israel for a complex variety of reasons: ideological, personal, cultural, social, political, religious and just for the hell of it.” Readers of The Jerusalem Post will be happy to find real-life couple Ricky Ben-David, former opinion editor, and police reporter Ben Hartman both interviewed in the book.
But why did the author choose to go back into the Holocaust trauma, noting, “Unsurprisingly, the Holocaust and its attendant collective trauma are scorched deep into the Jewish and Israeli psyche.”
So many books have already explored this issue, it’s hard to see what is new here.
In the end, readers will be left nonplussed by some of Diab’s platitudes, such as his assumption that “there are plenty of Jewish women who voluntarily embrace an inferior status to men… [an] amble through the streets of the Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem or a visit to an ideological settlement will give you a very different impression [than Tel Aviv]: Women weighed down by childbearing and rearing, ground down by relative poverty and worn down by social and familial restrictions. For women, there are two very different Israels.” That’s easy to write, but what about interviewing these women? When looking at the issue of Mizrahi Jewish women, he relies on Baskin to talk about his “Iraqi-Israeli wife”; one suspects this is because the author doesn’t speak Hebrew.
But it seems if you want to look at Mizrahi Jewish women, you should interview some.
In his final chapter, Diab puts forward his “non-state solution.” He envisions “a mass, non-violent civil rights movement” among Palestinians, coupled with “a bi-national conversation, can commence to reach gradually a final settlement through a people’s peace process.”
Given the present state of affairs, that is hard to imagine.