There is no shortage of histories, polemics and policy manuals about the Middle East. An honest but complex story, from what happens to be a personal perspective that many Americans can at least conjure, is a rarer opportunity for insight. And that is what Jeffrey Goldberg, a reporter for The New Yorker, delivers in "Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide."
To those of us who have followed Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting on the Muslim world, the publication of his first book is cause for real pleasure. First of all because his writing on the subject has always been exceptional: wise, unpretentious, and at times, unexpectedly funny. But also because the book answers many questions I've had about the author.
In Goldberg's articles over the years – some of them reprised in this book – he let drop that he speaks idiomatic Hebrew, well enough that when settler kids cursed him he knew what they were saying; that he once served in the Israel Defense Forces; and that he inexplicably felt compelled to tell a Pakistani mullah that the reporter visiting his anti-Semitic madrassa was a Jew. ("'Well, you are most welcome here,' he said. And so I was.")
But it's all mentioned only in passing. As a writer, Goldberg has always been a bit of a tease when it comes to the subject many of his readers would like to hear more about: himself.
No longer. In "Prisoners" Goldberg reveals himself to be a Jewish kid from a non-Jewish town on Long Island, with a big chip on his shoulder, who took the Zionist rhetoric of his youth to heart.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Israel and went to work cleaning chicken poop on a kibbutz. Before too long, he was a soldier, assigned to a notorious detention facility in the Negev desert which held thousands of Palestinians during the first Intifada.
The prisoners of the title are not just the Palestinians but, of course, the Jews as well: trapped by circumstance and their perceptions of one another. The book's subtitle, "A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide," refers to Goldberg and a detainee, Rafiq Hijazi, with whom the author developed an intense relationship – whether that is a real friendship is open to question – that begins with conversations through a barbed wire fence.
The relationship is unequal – guard and prisoner – or is it? The Palestinians are certain of their moral superiority to their Jewish guards and, in Goldberg's telling, are masters of the camp on their side of the fence. Palestinian prison society is revealed to be complex, highly structured and a morbidly fascinating blend of honor and brutality.
Goldberg's story is like those of so many young people who move to Israel because they feel more Jewish than American – only to discover that they are more American than Israeli. Leon Wieseltier calls it Goldberg's "unsentimental education."
Goldberg's commanding officer at the camp, a lieutenant whose family originates in the Arab world, sees the conflict as something elemental – two tribes – and Western notions of pluralism and democratic liberalism are not part of his thinking. Goldberg talks about two tribes, too, but you can feel him struggling mightily as he tries to find what he is sure must be a shared humanity.
Goldberg and Hijazi talk and talk and talk, first in the camp and later after both are living in Washington, D.C. The author is an unobservant Jew who says he is constantly aware of the presence of God (another tease, unexplained). Hijazi is an Orthodox Muslim, who finally takes his family back to the Middle East (but not to Palestine), because he believes the United States is no place to raise children.
What they seem to have in common, across a vast cultural divide, is a shared decency and the hope that their two tribes will one day live in peace.
Goldberg and Hijazi disagree about so much – about Israel's legitimacy, suicide bombings, religion – and the book doesn't offer any solutions to the 100-year war between Jew and Arab.
But the men's relationship, by book's end, seems to be one of genuine affection. Both are changed, and in that way – and that way only – Goldberg's narrative is one of hope.
By Mark Katkov