Fragile Overtures

Book cover
Prisonersby By Jeffrey GoldbergAlfred A. Knopf. 316p $25
Back in 1978, on the way to his bar mitzvah, a funny thing happened to Jeffrey Goldberg, now Washington correspondent for The New Yorker: he started to become a passionate Zionist. His assimilated, secular, left-wing (and soon to be divorced) parents thought they could avoid the predictable alrightnik excesses of an American ceremony by doing it in Jerusalem where, absolutely everyone will agree, history comes alive. To his family’s surprise and dismay, Goldberg launched out on an all-absorbing journey that led him to insist on going to a Hashomer Hatzair (socialist Zionist) summer camp in the Catskills, and to drop out of Penn State in his senior year to make aliyah, work in a kibbutz, study Hebrew in an ulpan, serve in the Israeli Defense Forces and write for The Jerusalem Postuntil he decided he was not cut out for it and headed home.

Still, after getting married and settling permanently in America, Goldberg would often return to Israel and, more crucially, to Gaza, where he had a remarkable series of old acquaintancesPalestinian ex-convicts he had once guarded as an M.P. in the Judean wilderness at a grim fortress called Ketziot, which at the time of the first intifada was the largest prison in the Middle East. While on duty at Ketziot, Goldberg had a devastating experience of the Israeli occupation. Many, if not most, of the 4,000 Palestinians there were not criminals in any meaningful sense of the term: there were throngs of stone-throwers, grafitti-scribblers, minor functionaries of Fatah or Hamas, or simply innocent Arabs caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Israeli system, however, like some of the jailers, was indiscriminately cruel and abusive (miserable conditions, no family visits, a solitary cell just large enough for two small dogs). So of course it often radicalized the Palestinianswho called Ketziot Revolutionary Universityand occasionally debased them into murdering suspected informants and raping attractive young teenage boys. Goldberg had to do something. In his naïve, tentative fashionamong other things he was, and is, totally committed to the survival of Israelhe began making friends with some of the prisoners, even trying (mostly in vain) to shield them from the worst of their captors. The man he came to know best was Rafiq al-Hijazi, a studious, gentle young fellow who eventually got a Ph.D. in statistics from American University in Washington, D.C., and wound up teaching in Abu Dhabi.

Goldberg desperately wanted to find some common ground with Hijazitheir belief in God? their longing for peace? their fair-mindedness?and up to a point he did. But he could not help asking him whether, once he got out of prison, if he ran into his Jewish friend, Rafiq might not kill him if the need arose. Rafiq admitted he might. As their many later amiable extramural contacts showed, this was just a symbolic bit of self-definition. Still, as the book ends, the two men really have not gotten past a sincere wish not to see the other slain by fighters from their respective tribes. Otherwise, Rafiq gets more devout and harder to talk to; he leaves America because of its profane, lustful culture. (He sees abominations everywhere; his wife dons the veil and disappears into purdah.) But he can’t stand the chaos and corruption of Gaza either, so he sails off into academic exile.

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Yet, if the final obbligato note of hopefulness is rather faint, the story of Goldberg’s coming of age and coming to grips with the agony of the Middle East is powerfully told. Spending Passover in Ketziot (only married soldiers go home on furlough), Goldberg meditates on the irony of giving thanks for divine deliverance from the house of bondage in a huge Israeli-run house of bondage not far from Kadesh-Barnea, a major stopping point on the route of the Exodus:

Here we were, celebrating Jewish freedom in a prison filled with our Arab captives! We had built a prison and planted it right along the pathway of Jewish freedom, and we had filled its cages with Palestinians who were demanding only what Jews themselves demanded, in the time of the Exodus and today: freedom.

If Goldberg needed still more irony, it was all around him, e.g., in the Muslim prisoners who spoke fluent Hebrew and corrected his own amateurish patois or, worse yet, chided him for his total ignorance of Yiddish, which some of them had picked up from their Israeli bosses (shtinker was prison slang for a rat, freier for a patsy). And they mocked him for his Ukrainian peasant complexion, which roasted in the desert sun. But, well as he got along with some of them (even as Israelis blasted him for being a yafei nefesh, a beautiful soul, i.e., a dumb bleeding heart), he never made an inch of progress across the chasm that he glimpsed every time prisoners chanted the slogan Falastin baladna wa Yahud kalabna, Palestine is our homeland and the Jews are our dogs.

And it wasn’t simply the timeless bad blood; it was the grotesque, bewildering farrago of lies about Israel that they believed, as far as Goldberg could tell, with heart and soul: that the Jews had no historical connection to the land of Israel, that there had never been a temple on Temple Mount, that the Elders of Zion ruled the entire capitalist world (which was waging a war to the death against Islam), that the Mossad had engineered 9/11 and so on. Less preposterous, but another barrier to dialogue was their belief in the absolute inerrancy of the Koran and the most anti-Jewish hadith.

Goldberg could not deny the sting in Ariel Sharon’s comment to him about the failure of the Camp David Summit in 2000: [The Arabs] knew I would never give them what Barak wanted to give them, but they turned on Barak. Do you know why? Because they don’t want the West Bank. They want everything. The remark could be dismissed as mere bias, if so many Palestinians had not told him exactly the same thing.

Goldberg, it should be noted, managed to have private conversations not just with Sharon and a range of notable Israelis, from the novelist Amos Oz to Carmi Gillon, director of the Israeli Security Agency, Shabak, but with Yasser Arafat, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi (Egypt’s leading cleric), Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi (two of the founders of Hamas, both later assassinated by the Israelis), Pakistani terrorist leader Fazlur Rahman Khalil and others. He seems to have both a spontaneous drive to contact the movers and shakers, and a quick-witted, self-deflating affability that got them to open up to him.

Prisoners is a rich trove of anecdotes (e.g., about the faxes, rocks with attached or scratched-on messages expertly propelled all over Ketziot), impressions and hard-won realizations. No one even vaguely interested in the fate of Israel-Palestine should miss this book. But the author stops short of what looks like the logical conclusion to his adventures: despair. When he encounters educated Palestinians in Gaza proclaiming not just their willingness but their deep desire to see their own children die as martyrs, one can only throw up one’s hands. Or, as Goldberg himself observes on his next-to-last page, The maximum Israel would give did not match the minimum Palestinians would accept.

It sounds as if the only way out is prayer.

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10 years 11 months ago
Your review of Prisoner: A Muslim & Jew Across the Middle East Divide led me immediately to the public library. Fortunately I had to wait for the book which means others are reading it as well. Jeffrey Goldberg's portrayal of his idealism and realism, optimism and pessimism, hope and fear in pursuing his friendship with a former Arab prisoner whom he guarded as a soldier in the Israeli Army personalizes this intractable conflict. Let us hope that many more Jews and Arabs find a way to know each other as individuals, recognizing the humanity of each.

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