I've never been to Israel. Like David Shipler, I am neither Arab nor Jew. But through his book, I have traveled from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon to a Bedouin tent in the Sinai, from the white apartment boxes of West Bank Jewish settlements to the bowels of the Russian Compound, Jerusalem's police headquarters. I've met a bewildering variety of people--Arab soccer and movie stars, fanatic Jewish racists, grieving Jewish parents of children killed in PLO attacks, innocent Arabs subjected to interrogation by torture. I've witnessed scenes that brought tears to my eyes, been shocked by revolting stories of Arab and Jewish terrorism, encountered remarkable censorship and candor, banality and wisdom, pettiness and nobility.
Despite its eloquence and the diligence of his research, Shipler's book
has an artless quality. It's as if Shipler, after five years as Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times from 1979 to 1984, has returned to the United States to give us slide lectures on his experiences in Israel. For the book unfolds as a series of interrelated anecdotes, grouped roughly into categories and interspersed with commentary, research data and deft sketches of people and places. But the cumulative effect of the interwoven stories is deep and powerful, and by the end, I had the feeling that I had taken an immersion course in the emotional language of contemporary Israel. Shipler's book offers no prescriptions for peace, nor does it explore the political, diplomatic or military dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather, it focuses on the people--the images they have of one another, the causes of their aversions, their fears and hopes, and the kaleidoscope of interactions between them in the small territory where they live, their land of promises and dreams. The anecdotal character of the book allows readers to compose their own views and interpretations.
The book could well have been subtitled "cases of mistaken identity," since so much of the friction between the Arabs and Jews in Israel stems from the misperceptions of stereotypes and fears. Arabs tend to regard Israeli Jews as "aliens, outsiders, trespassers trying to graft their foreign cultures onto indigenous Arab land," people who are obnoxiously aggressive, loose living, cold and unfriendly, arrogant and brutal. Jews spontaneously regard Arabs as dumb, violent, duplicitous, primitive, lazy, dirty, sexually dangerous. The realities, of course, are much more complex: For instance, the fact is that Arab women traditionally keep immaculately clean homes, and there are many Jews who agonize over the moral state of their country and the brutal discrimination against Arabs.
The numerous instances of mistaken identity that occur throughout the book symbolize the central fact that Jews and Arabs constantly fail to recognize one another, to see and to understand who they are dealing with. The driver of a hijacked bus, "a swarthy Jew of Middle Eastern origins," is badly beaten by Israeli soldiers who mistake him for one of the Arab terrorists. Shipler himself is shoved out into retaliatory police fire, because the Arabs he takes cover with think that he's a Jew. A light-haired Arab woman is harassed by Jews wanting to prevent Jewish students from dating Arab men. A reporter is conspiratorially handed a copy of the virulently anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" by a Pakistani who assumed he wasn't Jewish.
Since the majority of Jews in Israel are now darker-skinned Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean region and since many Arabs speak flawless Hebrew, it is difficult to know who to hate, who to confide in. To avoid harassment, many Arabs are learning to pass as Jews in modern Israeli society, and some Jews are learning to appreciate just how closely the Bedouin in the Negev and Sinai deserts embody the values and customs of their Biblical patriarchs.