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Common ground

Prisoners A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide Jeffrey Goldberg Alfred A. Knopf: 322 pp., $25

October 29, 2006|Ruth Andrew Ellenson | Ruth Andrew Ellenson received the National Jewish Book Award for her anthology "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt."

THE history of the state of Israel has been marked with competing narratives of suffering. Two peoples claim the right of self-determination on a narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean in which their histories are deeply intertwined. Israelis and Palestinians are, in effect, prisoners of the land they live in, and sometimes the humanity of both sides gets lost.

Realization of the humanity of the "other" is at the heart of New Yorker magazine correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg's sharply observed and beautifully written memoir "Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide." The journalist offers a bracingly clear-eyed, deeply emotional and often humorous account of his life as an American Jew in love with Israel. As he navigates the country's endlessly complex realities, the narrative follows the arc of a love story: a lustful infatuation, the shock of reality and finally the mature acceptance of a nuanced bond. "Prisoners" offers no easy answers but manages to inspire the rarest of commodities in the Middle East: hope.

Goldberg vividly describes his childhood fantasies of Israel, born of powerful reactions to stories he heard about the Holocaust and his experiences of anti-Semitism growing up in a largely non-Jewish Long Island town in the 1970s. Much as it has for writers such as Yossi Klein Halevi, Israel becomes a means of escaping a feeling of Jewish powerlessness. Instead of being defined by a neurotic, nebbishy Woody Allen, Goldberg finds an alternate ideal of Jewish masculinity he can embrace in Ari Ben Canaan, the dashing protagonist of Leon Uris' novel "Exodus." He embraces Zionism through a youth movement and then drops out of college and buys a "one-way ticket to the Promised Land."

"I didn't like the dog's life of the Diaspora," he writes. "We were a whipped and boneless people. What good were these brains -- doctor brains, lawyer brains, accountant brains -- without the muscle to protect them?.... Exile was the disease, and Israel was the cure. I felt this in my cells."

Arriving at his youth movement's kibbutz in Israel in 1987, he finds little of the socialist utopia he imagined; instead, his life is defined by the breeding of chickens. Goldberg does not see his perfected Jewish self reflected back at him, but rather the cracks in the looking glass.

In 1990, Goldberg joins the Israeli Defense Forces but isn't assigned to glorious military operations like the raid on Entebbe. Rather, he finds himself in the far more bitter reality of Ketziot, an Israeli prison for Palestinians in the country's southern desert. It is the same wilderness that the biblical Israelites found themselves wandering when they were freed from slavery in Egypt. It is, in Goldberg's description, the place "where the Jews became hardened to the demands of God."

Over the course of his tenure, during the height of the first Intifada, 6,000 Palestinian prisoners come through Ketziot, guarded by 300 Israeli soldiers. Goldberg is disgusted by the Palestinians, who sing songs with lines like "Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs," but is equally repelled by the callousness of the Israeli guards who make remarks like, "You can't beat them enough."

Goldberg observes: "The hatred between the Jews and the Arabs in Ketziot was a cold hatred -- the camp was, more or less, a cease-fire zone in the Intifada -- but the hate was still as wide as an ocean."

With the dawning realization that the men he guards will one day form the leadership of a Palestinian state, Goldberg becomes curious about the prisoners convicted of terrorist crimes against Israel. In an attitude that comes off as ridiculously American to the Middle Easterners around him, he sets out to discover who these prisoners are and is drawn to an inmate named Rafiq Hijazi. They are kindred intellectuals, each with a sense of humor and a deep curiosity about the other. Although the power dynamic between them makes a true friendship impossible at Ketziot, they seem to genuinely like each other.

"It would be people like Rafiq, I thought, who would be deciding our fate," Goldberg writes. "This idea gave me hope, for a while, until the day he admitted that he would kill me if the need arose. The confession froze over the ground between us.... He said it wouldn't be personal -- my murder, that is -- but that was no consolation.... But you can't make peace by killing me, I said. 'You're the one with the guns,' my prisoner said."

It is the life-or-death stakes, very real to both sides, that make dialogue so difficult. The real or perceived threat of each group's annihilation at the hands of the other makes it almost impossible to connect. Yet when Goldberg leaves Ketziot, he asks for Rafiq's address, an idea that the Israelis and Palestinians there mock as idiotic.

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