Thinks I’ve Been Thinking #1
A few months ago an unplanned project blossomed. While lurking on Amazon, I decided I needed to read a new book about the Middle East. (Regular readers may recall that I minored in Middle East Studies in college many moons ago and it’s an area that is of particular interest to me.) I downloaded The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine by Ben Ehrenreich, who spent a significant amount of time in the West Bank a few years ago and wrote about his experiences there.
In the book’s introduction Ehrenreich makes it clear that his book will be viewed by many as pro-Palestinian. His argument for this is that he set out to spend time in Palestinian villages and essentially report what he saw and heard. As a result, the facts and the history and the stories he presented were those of the Palestinian people who live in those villages. The primary focus of the story is a Palestinian village that for decades, if not centuries, had a spring just up the hill. Until an Israeli settlement was developed nearby and they claimed the spring and the Israeli government declared the area a military zone. The Palestinian villages then began a weekly protest. Every Friday evening marching to the spring. And all too frequently, those marches were met by Israeli soldiers with rubber bullets, live ammunition, and arrests.
As I finished The Way to the Spring, I decided I needed to read more. And more importantly, read from different voices. I purchased three more books and went from The Way to the Spring, with its clearly stated Palestinian tilt to Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi.
Like Dreamers tells the story of seven or eight Israeli paratroopers who were part of the Israeli force that reunited Jerusalem during the 1967 war and brought all of the city under Israeli control. This was a big deal to Israelis and Jews everywhere because the Western Wall, one of the faith’s most important holy sights, had until then been under Jordanian control. The book follows these paratroopers from the 1960s forward through the decades of the Israeli-Palestinian that followed the 1967 war. In some way each paratrooper profiled in Like Dreamers represents a different strain in Israeli politics. One is a secular Zionist. One is a religious Zionist. One is very active in the settlement movement. One travels to Syria to take up arms with Palestinians against the Israeli government. One joins an underground Israeli terrorist organization with plans to blow up the Dome of the Rock and engages in a few attacks against Palestinian mayors and other Palestinian targets. One becomes a business man who is instrumental in bringing capitalism to Israel. There are a couple more I’ve forgotten since I read the book.
Like Dreamers is a fascinating journey through Israeli history as it follows the lives and actions of those disparate paratroopers. However, as I read it, I began to have a kernel of an idea for something I wanted to write. In The Way to the Spring, Ehrenreich covers some of the history between the two peoples and both books cover some of the same ground. However, the different ways in which the stories of historical events are told can be stunning. There was something very basic I was discovering.
I continued reading. Next up was The Yellow Wind by David Grossman. Published in 1988, shortly after I finished college and was still enmeshed in my young, idealistic interest in the conflict, The Yellow Wind is considered to be on some level a ground-breaking classic of its type. A book that attempted to bridge the divide between Israelis and Palestinians and to put a human face on both sides. Both of the other two books, The Way to the Spring and Like Dreamers, refer to Grossman’s efforts, which didn’t begin and end with The Yellow Wind. He is considered one of Israel’s greatest writers and I believe he also had a significant role with Peace Now, an Israeli leftist group that gained significant popularity at one point and that was interested in ending the never-ending conflict. (Peace Now is now, sadly, virtually non-existent in Israel.)
The Yellow Wind is a very literary, well-written look at the people of the West Bank. Israeli settlers. Palestinian villagers. It is pretty balanced. Until it isn’t. Which I’ll get to below.
My reading odyssey ended with The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan. In 1948, when Israeli announced its nationhood and the first war between Israelis and Arabs began, a young Palestinian and his family were driven from their home in their Palestinian village. After the war was over, a Bulgarian Jewish refugee family arrived in Israeli and were given the Palestinian’s home. Almost the entire village was emptied of Palestinians and replaced with Jewish refugees. This happened in many places following the 1948 war.
Fast forward to 1967 and the aftermath of that war. The Palestinian child is now 25 years old and for the first time he can return to the village of his family home and land. Only weeks after the war is over he does so and there he meets a young woman who was only a year old when her family arrived and moved into this home they both now claim. The two become friends and over the next decades their friendship continues. The Palestinian at times is arrested and accused of being a terrorist, of being a part of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. At one point he is deported and spends several years in exile.
The two individuals – the Palestinian activist and the young Israeli woman – however, hatch a plan after her parents die. They will turn the home into a center for Israelis and Palestinians to come together. They will educate children there. And the woman makes sure it happens.
Those are the four books. And here’s the basic thing I learned from them. As much as the two sides should have a shared history and narrative, they do not. They each have their own history. Their own facts. Their own narrative.
In The Yellow Wind, David Grossman ends with an outrage over the murder of a couple of Israelis by Palestinians. It is murder to him and he finds himself unable to get past that. Unfortunately, he never feels the same way about the Palestinians who are killed by Israelis during the time the book covered.
In The Way to the Spring, there is reference to the arrest of the central figure in the book. There is reference to the fact that it is related to the death of a couple of Israeli teenagers. And there is not much else. In Like Dreamers, there is significantly more detail about what he is alleged to have done. Several years ago, two Israeli teenagers disappeared. Their burned bodies were eventually found. But immediately after their disappearance, the Israeli government accused Hamas of the abduction and arrested dozens if not hundreds of Palestinians. One of them is the central figure in The Way to the Spring. He is held for weeks or months. What you don’t read about in Like Dreamers is the duration of his detention or that he was eventually released or that he was likely tortured while he was in jail. You will, however, read all of those details in The Way to the Spring.
At one point, Palestinians held in administrative detention — where they are held without charges for weeks and months — staged a hunger strike. In the Israeli versions of this event, there is little discussion. A paragraph that mentions it happened. And then it ended. In the Palestinian version of the event, there is more detail. That thousands of prisoners participated in the hunger strike. That at one point the Israeli government decided to force feed the hunger strikers and a number of them died because of the incompetence of the prison officials in inserting the feeding tubes.
In “pro” Palestinian narratives you will hear about Deir Yassin, a pre-independence terrorist attack on a Palestinian village led by Menachem Begin – who would eventually become Prime Minster of Israel. You will read about the details of Lydda – a Palestinian village that was emptied of its Palestinian residents during the 1948 war and where hundreds of Palestinians were massacred by the Israelis. In “pro” Israeli narratives, the tens of thousands of Palestinians who fled their villages during the 1948 war did so simply because they wanted to and it had nothing to do with Israeli atrocities or crimes.
In “pro” Palestinian narratives you will also read details that suggest that virtually every Israeli leader was a terrorist before 1948, launching strikes not just on British military targets, but Palestinian targets as well. You will also read how Israeli leaders have spoken for decades about their designs on Greater Israel – which includes the country of Jordan.
In “pro” Israeli narratives you will read none of that. Instead you will read how their leaders were freedom fighters and great military heroes. You will read of the horrible terrorist attacks on innocent Israelis. And there will be little, if any, discussion about those terrorist attacks in the “pro” Palestinian narratives.
And that’s the interesting and challenging thing to me. Each side has their history. For Israeli Jews their history is thousands of years old. But there is this huge gap in their history that ignores anything that occurred before 1948. Their narrative says that what is now Israel was an unoccupied land before they set their sights on it for their nation. In other words, ignoring the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lived and farmed and loved their land there. And Palestinians ignore the historical history and connection Jewish people have to the lands, and the horror their terror attacks have brought to Israelis.
Until these two incredible groups are able to acknowledge each other’s history, there will never be peace in that land. But that seems to be the one thing neither side can do. It’s a shame. In reading these four books, one thing struck me. How much all of them are nothing more than human beings trying to survive and thrive and maintain their connection to their land and their history. But they simply cannot and will not give an inch on the fundamental divide.
If you have any interest in this subject, I recommend any of the books discussed here. But don’t read just one. You’ll never get a real and honest presentation of the big picture in just one book on this particular topic.