Saturday, June 09, 2007

On Jeffrey Goldberg's Prisoners

Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, observes the New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg in his book Prisoners: A Muslim & A Jew Across The Middle East Divide, the Middle East has been "a landscape of wasting sadness and obliterating furies". For six decades now the Israeli state has been locked in intractable conflicts with Arab forces both without - from Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon - and within, in its ever-shifting tussle with the people of Palestine. Many rounds of talks and accords have come to nothing: the Middle East today is in more or less the same parlous condition as it has always been in contemporary public memory. Will the cycle of violence continue into the foreseeable future, or is there a way forward after so many years of accumulated resentments on both sides?

Goldberg's book, although it takes stock of many mistakes made, proposes no solutions, in part because there is no solution now that has not already been thought of before - what is missing, rather, is the will to proceed. Instead, his book is more a kind of political autobiography with some exceedingly interesting twists and turns - he is not a detached observer but an engaged party looking for some way that is acceptable to all. Sober and yet anguished, Prisoners carries on the great tradition of American nonfiction with its roots in magazine journalism, from Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Joseph Mitchell all the way down to the current editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick.

Goldberg writes that he was born an American Jew, in a family that was not very religious or tribe-conscious. But in his adolescence he began to seriously read Zionist literature and felt the pull of the state of Israel, the first real home of Jews around the world after thousands of years of harassment culminating in the abomination of the Holocaust. He bought into the perception that Jews were too soft and bookish, and unless they took up arms in their self-defence they would continue to be oppressed. With the zeal of a new convert, he journeyed to Israel in the late eighties and lived and worked for a while in a kibbutz. The state would not let him join the army because he was not an Israeli citizen, but he was drafted into the military police.

Goldberg was posted to Ketziot, the largest prison in Israel, home at the time to over six thousand Palestinians taken prisoner after the First Intifada of 1987. The presence of top leaders from Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Authority made the jail "a virtual Palestinian parliament". As a prison counselor Goldberg, who had never met any Palestinians before, had to serve as a bridge between the prisoners and the jail management. His account powerfully records, even from the point of view of someone who was not captive, what it is like to live in captivity.

At Ketziot, Goldberg established a tentative friendship with a young Palestinian prisoner, Rafiq Hijazi, and began to have discussions with him across the jail fence. Unlike the vast majority of the prisoners, with their aggravated sense of humiliation and implacable hatred, Hijazi is cool and analytical, open to another point of view. Goldberg wishes to make a friend of this person whose historical identity would make him his implacable opponent:

Rafiq and I would spend hours talking through the wire. We would ventilate our political stances. We would nitpick history. We didn't agree on much; he thought that Zionism was a form of kleptomania. But he did not mind hearing me rehearse for him the Jewish narrative. We would gossip about guards and prisoners, and we would, tentatively, with great gentility, talk about religion. We were both dedicated readers of our holy texts, though sometimes it seemed to me that he believed that the Quran was written by the hand of God, and I could not say I believed the same thing about my Bible. Despite this difference, we shared a set of essential values, because his distaste for violence seemed as real as mine.[...] "I don't like to see anyone get hurt," he told me once, and he said this without qualification.
Hijazi's abhorrence of violence is important, because Goldberg finds himself thinking that although the Palestinian liberation movement is full of the rhetoric and the practice of militant violence, there was no talk anywhere of nonviolent resistance - militant nonviolence. "The idea did not seem to exist in their moral vocabulary. It was a shame and a waste that the Palestinians had blinded themselves to the ideas of Gandhi and King. If they hadn't, they might have broken the occupation in a week. The Israelis, like the British soldiers of India, could not sustain such one-sided violence...especially in front of the television cameras."

Indeed, Gandhi's methods of recasting implacable conflicts so as to transform the dynamics of the relationship with an adversary are needed desperately now in the Middle East. As the scholar of religion Diana Eck illuminatingly writes:

Gandhi...never cast a fight in terms of the humiliation and defeat of the opponent. He saw clearly that if conflict is cast in terms of winning or losing, of us prevailing over them, then there will be no way forward [...]. Even if one wins absolutely, one still has a defeated enemy. The next round of the conflict is only postponed. In Gandhi's evolving philosophy of nonviolence, this is a crucial point. Gandhi refused to concede that the adversary...would forever remain polarized as the "other". If the polarization is not broken, then what we call "winning" is still losing, for we are left with an opponent, an enemy. [...] Gandhi refused to demonise his opponent as a person, even when he was in profound disagreement with everything he stood for.
In other words, Gandhi attempted to minimize the clash of egos, the sense of one's self-respect on the line, that is a part of any dispute, and focus instead on the principles at stake. These may be widely applicable thoughts, useful not only in a fight for political independence against a stronger party but even in an argument with your next-door neighbour.
Many years later, working now as a reporter, Goldberg returns to Palestine and seeks out Hijazi, now a free man and a professor of statistics at a university. His motto seems to be that of EM Forster, who in the epigraph to his famous novel Howards End (1910), urged "Only connect". Only through people-to-people connections, goes the optimistic hypothesis, can national or tribal hostilities be gradually broken down. Goldberg's talks with Hijazi over the years embody in microcosm the different stages and moods of the Middle East peace process.

"I realised I had all the hallmarks," writes Goldberg of his repeated visits to Palestine, "of a counterphobe, a person who seeks out close encounters with the thing he fears most." Counterphobe or not, his book illuminates in startling detail the texture of daily life in the occupied territories and the mentality of the different parties involved in the dispute. Goldberg's diagnosis is not optimistic. The radical group Hamas is now in power in Palestine, and in Goldberg's assessment it was Hamas which, "more than any other force, transformed the dispute between Arabs and Israelis into one between Muslims and Jews" in the eighties. But in humanising the conflict and making a genuine attempt to understand the thinking and aspirations of the adversary, Prisoners lays a tentative groundwork for a day when it may be possible to "only connect".

And some links: an interview with the Israeli novelist and political "dove" Amos Oz, in which he says intriguingly that he hopes the conflict will end in a Chekhovian and not a Shakespearean tragedy; "Bridging The Divide", an interview with the Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh, whose memoir Once Upon a Country was published recently; Looking At Ourselves", a speech given earlier this year by the novelist David Grossman, who lost his son in the clash against Lebanon last year; "Unwrapping The Gift", by the Palestinian emigre writer Samir El-Youssef; "Palestinians Need a Gandhi, Not a New Arafat", an old piece by Eric Weiner upon the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004; and "Gandhi vs. Terrorism" by Mark Juergensmeyer ("After a solution was imagined, the second stage of a struggle was to achieve it. This meant fighting - but in a way that was consistent with the solution itself. Gandhi adamantly rejected the notion that the goal justifies the means. Gandhi argued that the ends and the means were ultimately the same").

Jeffrey Goldberg discusses his book in a long dialogue with Shmuel Rosner here. And David Remnick, one of the best reporters of our times, has a piece here on the implications of Hamas's victory the Palestinian elections of 2006.

[A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.]

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