The Public Humanist

Reading List for Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Who has a heart large enough to contain compassion both for the longing for Zion, for sanctuary, for a homeland, of the Jewish survivors who emigrated to the nascent Israel after WWII, and at the same time the longing for return, for justice, for a homeland, of the Palestinians who were expelled from the homes they had occupied for generations to make room for what was to become Israel? –Anonymous reader

 About a year ago I began developing a proposal for the third in our series of library reading and discussion programs that began in 2003 with Understanding Islam and was followed in 2006 by Understanding the Modern Middle East. The new program would focus specifically on the political conflict that lies at the heart of the troubled Middle East and seek to provide a broad and balanced understanding of both the history and the present state of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with a particular emphasis on how the conflict is perceived by the antagonists (hence the inclusion of three novels in the series). The objective of the program would be to help participants understand that any resolution of the political conflict must come to terms with a deeper conflict – a conflict in the historical narratives that the two sides use to comprehend their situations and justify their positions. Does a resolution of the political conflict require the acceptance by both sides of a common narrative? What if the two narratives simply cannot be reconciled? Is a just resolution of the crisis possible and, if so, what might that resolution might look like?

The proposal I presented to the Mass Humanities board included five books and a collection of key documents.

The first book is Exodus by Leon Uris. First published in 1958, the novel spent an unprecedented 26 weeks at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list. (No mean feat — other titles on the list that year included Doctor Zhivago, Hawaii, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Ugly American, and Lolita.) In 1960, Otto Preminger adapted the novel for the screen with Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint in the lead roles. It is no exaggeration to say that the novel, and to a lesser extent the movie, is largely responsible for America’s popular understanding of and attitudes toward the Holocaust, the founding of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this respect, the impact of Exodus in the mid-20th century is comparable to the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the mid-19th century. This alone makes the novel an appropriate starting point for a reading program exploring the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As in any historical novel, the recounting of actual events may be questioned at times, and Uris’s portrayal of the Arabs is less than sympathetic. (One foundation board member, who happens to be Jewish, condemned the novel as “racist.”) However, the broad outlines of the story of Israel’s founding in Exodus are accurate enough to provide a serviceable historical framework for the other books in the series. The book is lengthy, but the inherent drama of the events carries the reader forward effortlessly. The novel itself is an important cultural artifact.

The second book in the series is The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra (the nom de plume of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian exile living in France). It is the story of Dr. Amin Jafaari, a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital who also happens to be an Arab-Israeli. The book opens dramatically with a suicide bombing attack in a Tel Aviv restaurant. Amin’s hospital is immediately mobilized and he goes into action trying to save innocent victims of the terrorist attack that ultimately claims 17 lives. As Amin heads home to recover from his exhaustion, he expects to find comfort from his wife Sihem, a thoroughly modern Palestinian citizen of Israel. He is surprised to find the house empty and Sihem yet to return from what was to be a three-day visit to her relatives near Nazareth. Amin is awakened by a phone call several hours later and called back to the hospital by his detective friend Navid with still no idea about the reality about to confront him — Sihem is the suicide bomber. What follows is a deeply moving story about Amin’s attempt to come to grips with the situation now confronting him. How could Sihem, how could anyone, commit such a heinous act? As he seeks to understand Sihem’s motivations, Amin is enlightened by his wife’s co-conspirators, and he begins to see how one man’s terrorist may be another man’s freedom fighter. Set in the broader context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the novel portrays vividly the hopes and fears, distrust and destruction, stereotypes and complexities of the reality facing individuals on all sides of the conflict today.

The third book is a memoir, Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, written by Jeffrey Goldberg, National Correspondent for The Atlantic, former Middle East correspondent for The New Yorker and former columnist for the Jerusalem Post. Goldberg is an American Jew from Long Island who emigrates to Israel, joins the Israeli Army and becomes a guard at Israel’s largest prison during the first Intifada. He forms an uneasy friendship with Rafiq, one of the prisoners and a rising leader in the PLO. Goldberg becomes disenchanted with life in Israel and soon returns to the United States and a successful career as a journalist. In that capacity, he travels often to Gaza and the West Bank to talk with Palestinians, many of them released prisoners, including his friend Rafiq. His conversations with Rafiq become a commentary on a parallel account of the interlude of hope for resolution of the crisis represented in the Oslo talks (1993), the eventual collapse of the peace process, and the subsequent rise of suicide bombings. On both levels, it is a search for an elusive common ground. The author clings to the hope that where friendship is possible between two men who cannot agree on anything else, coexistence is possible between Arabs and Jews. But it is clear that the friendship means much more to Goldberg than it does to Rafiq, who is much more interested in “justice” than he is in peaceful coexistence.

The fourth book is Palestine’s Children, a collection of short stories by Ghassan Kanafani. Kanafani’s stunning literary and political career ended abruptly one morning in July 1972, when his booby-trapped car exploded, killing him and his young niece. (The Israeli secret police later took responsibility for the assassination.) At the time, Kanafani was the spokesperson for the most militant wing of the Palestinian fedayeen. His militancy is reflected in these 14 stories. Beginning with a narrative entitled “The Child Borrows His Uncle’s Gun and Goes East to Safad,” Kanafani plunges into the 1948 conflict between the Jews and Palestinians, following the 17-year-old Mansur, whose actions mirror the author’s own experiences. In a series of stories, the reader follows Mansur as he carries his old Turkish gun into the thick of sharpshooting contests with “Zionists” in old Palestinian town centers. Later, Mansur’s uncle, Abu Al-Hassan, uses the gun on the British forces. These stories end, inevitably, with the consequences of defeat for the Palestinians. In the novella for which Kanafani became famous, “Returning to Haifa,” the year is 1967, but the events are prefigured by the Palestinian population’s uprooting from Haifa in 1948. Said S. and his wife, Safiyya, return to Haifa to the apartment they were forced to abandon and the memories of their infant son, Khaldun, helplessly left behind in the mass panic. Miraculously, the Jewish couple who took possession of the apartment found and adopted the child, who is now an Israeli soldier. The story ends with a renunciation of even blood ties in the sacred cause of revenge.

The final book in the series is The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan, best known for his National Public Radio documentaries. (In fact, the seed for the book was a segment Tolan produced for Fresh Air in 1998.) The title of the book refers to a tree in the backyard of a home in Ramla, Israel. The home is owned by Dalia, a Jewish woman whose family of Holocaust survivors emigrated from Bulgaria. But before Israel gained its independence in 1948, the house was owned (and the lemon tree was planted) by the Palestinian family of Bashir, who meets Dalia when he returns to see his family home after the Six-Day War of 1967. Tolan traces the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the parallel personal histories of Dalia and Bashir and their families—all refugees seeking a home. His history of the conflict is well documented (with over 60 pages of source notes) and evenhanded. As he takes the story forward, Dalia struggles with her Israeli identity and guilt while Bashir struggles with decades in Israeli prisons for suspected terrorist activities. Unlike the relationship between Jeff Goldberg and Rafiq, a true mutual friendship and understanding develops between Dalia and Bashir. The lemon tree dies in 1998, just as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process falls apart yet again, but the home is converted into a kindergarten for Arab children and a center for Jewish-Arab coexistence.

To accompany the books, I prepared an annotated list of primary sources, “Key Documents,” for those who wanted to peruse the agreements, declarations, treaties and resolutions that have shaped the conflict.

The Mass Humanities board responded enthusiastically to the proposed new program and funds for implementation were approved in September 2008. Unfortunately, one month later the state began to feel the pinch of the current economic recession and Governor Patrick, faced with a growing budget deficit, declared a fiscal emergency and cut more than $1 billion out of the state budget. The cuts included half of the foundation’s $200,000 allocation in the Department of Education budget for the Clemente Course in the Humanities, one of our signature programs. In order to accommodate the immediate loss of $100,000 for a program already up and running, and anticipating the possibility additional cuts as the recession continues, the Mass Humanities board decided to postpone all new programs indefinitely.

In the meantime, the situation on the ground in Israel and the Occupied Territories has only gotten worse with hardliners taking control on both sides of the divide.

IMAGE: 1947 Map of Partition

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