Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide
By Jeffrey Goldberg
Knopf, 320 pages, $25.
The irreducible element at the end of every Israeli-Arab argument is always psychology. Looking at a map, any two reasonable partners could easily delineate the borders. Even the impasses over refugees and settlements, even Jerusalem, seem at least conceivably surmountable — though maybe only in a universe slightly different from our own. Still, these don’t compare with the problem of victimhood, to the pride and paranoia that taint every conversation between the two people. Approach the psychology, and you slam, face first, into a wall higher than any that will ever run along the Green Line.
Perhaps that’s the reason why — amid the abundance of books dealing with the history and politics of the conflict — very few writers enter this fraught territory. Jeffrey Goldberg, a reporter for The New Yorker whose unmistakably Jewish byline always seemed mysterious above reportage from deep inside the dens of Hamas bomb makers, Pakistani mullahs and Hezbollah financiers, would seem well suited for this task, if only by proximity to the other. Just how well suited he is becomes immediately clear once one delves into his brave and relentlessly honest new memoir. It is all psychology, but not in the glib or pop sense and certainly not for the sake of drawing generalities about the inner workings of Arabs and Jews. He only tries to understand himself and his relationship to Rafiq Hijazi, a Palestinian man who was first his prisoner and then his friend. By placing himself and Hijazi at the center of this examination — their fantasies and fears, all that is mutual between them and all that is undeniably irreconcilable — he takes us somewhere we usually don’t go.
Goldberg, who has written for the the Jerusalem Post, the New York Times Magazine and this newspaper, grew up in that quintessential of American Jewish middle-class havens, Long Island, in a household that also, typically, embraced a “free-to-be-you-and-me Judaism of ‘social action,’ of liberal Democratic politics, of civil rights, abortion rights, and boycotts, always boycotts.” There was not much that was Jewish about this identity. He thirsted for something more robust, especially since, by the age of 15, he was beginning to imagine antisemitism everywhere — partly a function of being beaten up by Irish bullies who forced him to pick up pennies off the ground, and partly from his grandfather’s stories of pogroms in the Pale of Settlement. Zionism and the promise of becoming an Israeli — in all the ways that this identity offered an escape from the passive, bookish American Jew — became the answer, and soon he came to the conclusion that “Israel was home, Long Island was exile.”
It’s not an uncommon conversion story. Typically, it’s followed by a second act of disenchantment, and a third act of realignment. And that is indeed what happened. The education of young Goldberg procedes with the nice Jewish boy arriving in Israel, living on a kibbutz and joining the army, trying his hardest to fashion himself into the calloused, beautifully rugged Israeli. But it doesn’t take long for the yafei nefesh (“beautiful soul,” as the unrepentant bleeding heart is derisively called by Israelis) to discover the high price of Zion. The way this happens is what makes Goldberg’s story so fascinating.
Israel is tangled up in the first intifada when he arrives and the army sends him to work as a military policeman at Ketziot, a sprawling makeshift prison in the Negev constructed for housing the thousands of Palestinians who have created the uprising. It is a sparse limbo land in which Israelis and Palestinians live on opposite sides of a barbed-wire fence, a place, Goldberg writes, “bleached of color and bereft of kindness,” “an island of small-mindedness and cruelty in a brown sea of sand.” It is also a kind of Petri dish, heated by an unforgiving sun, where the Arab-Israeli psychosis can be observed close up.
Goldberg is shocked by this cold, desert world, a hopeless one where each side cynically plays out its appointed roles of oppressor and oppressed. He immediately feels both alienated by the other Israelis who laugh at his sensitivity to the inmates, and endlessly curious about the faith and culture of the Arabs he is guarding. He talks to them, stands up for them as much as he can, and imagines himself in their place, something that makes him miserable (“All my life I wanted to be a Freedom Rider. Now I felt like Bull Conner”). This is not to say he forgives their faults. He is just as astounded by the prisoners’ cruelty to each other, by their embrace of violence, as he is by the pitilessness of the Israelis.
But most surprising is what develops between himself and Rafiq Hijazi, an inmate from the Jebalya refugee camp in Gaza. In Hijazi he sees something of a kindred spirit, an intelligent, self-aware young man whom he can talk to — albeit through barbed wire. The two develop what in any other circumstance might be called a friendship. Against the cruel backdrop of Ketziot, they become a Middle Eastern Vladimir and Estragon in a scenario that Beckett might have called “Waiting for Rabin.” They stand and chat for hours, pleasantly distracting each other with talk of books and the uncertainty of their fate, as individuals and as friends. Even their conversations sound thoroughly Beckettian:
“This place is kind of ridiculous,” I said.
“Really, what do you want to do right now instead of talking to me?”
“Well, I like talking to you.”
“Okay, but you don’t want to be here. Where do you want to be?”
“In Jerusalem, reading,” I said. “Maybe walking through the desert.”
“Why do you want to do that,” he said, in the manner of someone who has grown up in sand.
“This prison is very noisy,” he said.
“It’s pretty unpleasant,” I said.
“So will you help me escape?” he asked.
But Godot, as we all know, never arrives. And Rabin is gone and not coming back. Goldberg, though, is more hopeful than Beckett, if only because he feels he can redeem himself and even his beloved Israel if only this one man will recognize him as a friend: “I believed, with morbid sincerity, that if I could make him my friend, we would together, in some small but consequential way, defy the wicked logic of hate and war, that we, together, would stand as a rebuke to the grotesque idea that our problem was without a solution.”
A decade later, Goldberg sets out to find Hijazi in order to test out the hypothesis now that the two men are free. This final part of the book is the most interesting and challenging, because Goldberg must confront everything in himself and in Hijazi that would undermine a friendship. There is, of course, the inescapable fear of the enemy. One of the more telling examples comes when Hijazi, who has become a graduate student in statistics and spends long periods of time on scholarship at a university in Washington, D.C., asks Goldberg to bring back from Gaza to the States two gifts for his friends: a ticking clock and a bag of seeds. Goldberg wants to trust him but can’t get over the thought, which keeps him up all night, that he has just been handed a bomb and some anthrax. On the flip side are the unrealistic expectations of closeness. When Goldberg hears that Hijazi will be living in his hometown, he fantasizes about the two of them becoming great friends, going to baseball games and hanging out at Starbucks. And most debilitating of all, there is frustration on Goldberg’s part as Hijazi becomes increasingly more fundamental in his religious beliefs, adhering to the Quran with stringency, and pointing out to his friend what exactly his holy book says about Jews.
Still, Goldberg persists, and, if only at the very end of this book, he finally does hear from Hijazi the words he is desperate for him to utter: “I don’t want you to die. I want you to live.”
Does this save the Middle East? Not exactly. One thing worth remembering is that this friendship flourishes over lattes far away from Jerusalem and Gaza. Goldberg has long moved back to America and has given up on being an Israeli, and Hijazi is a Palestinian who has had the rare chance to expand his world. So the men’s ability to confront their differences and find a way to care about each other is significant, but still too anomalous a case to offer instruction. But that’s doesn’t really seem to be the point. Goldberg isn’t trying to show us a way out (beyond providing himself and us with a bit of hope). What he gives us is descriptive rather than prescriptive, an intimate portrait of the conflict as it plays out in the minds of two men. Not the politics and history that separate Arab from Jew, but what, sadly, happens or doesn’t happen underneath the skin.
Gal Beckerman, a regular contributor to the Forward, is writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman