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    Between Enemies

    October 29, 2006  | 

    They say that Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are great pals. The two U.S. Supreme Court Justices couldn’t be further apart, ideologically — ‘Nino, the paleo-conservative who dips his quill in venom and Ginsburg, a former ACLU attorney and women’s libber — and they spar ferociously on the page. Yet they also vacation together. Skillful Googlers will even be able to discover a photograph of the two jurists waving from a rickety palanquin atop an elephant in India. An oyez, oyez, oyez from up there would really be impressive.

    So those two can overcome their differences and hang out. Now take it up a notch. Consider an American Jew — a committed Zionist and former Israeli military policeman — debating theology with students at a madrasa in northwestern Pakistan, or at a suicide bombers’ initiation ceremony in Gaza. While Jeffrey Goldberg, a reporter for the New Yorker and the aforementioned interlocutor, was chatting with Abdel Aziz Rantisi, one of the founders of Hamas, a man who was subsequently targeted and killed in an Israeli missile strike, Rantisi said, “People always talk about what the Germans did to the Jews, but the true question is, What did the Jews do to the Germans?” And how did Goldberg respond to this unbelievably vile assertion? He teased that his host’s neighborhood had once been inhabited by non-Arabs who converted to Islam. In other words, maybe Rantisi himself had a bit of the Jewish about him?

    Goldberg’s memoir, “Prisoners,” includes these adventures but focuses on another uneasy relationship. While he was a guard at the Ketziot prison camp in the sweltering armpit where the Negev and the Sinai deserts meet, Goldberg made an effort to get to know the Palestinian prisoners, including one Rafiq Hijazi. Moderate in his politics, devotional in his Muslim faith, bookish — a professor, actually — Hijazi becomes Goldberg’s friend while he is his prisoner. On the outside, Goldberg tracks down Hijazi and pursues the relationship as a sort of test balloon for the hopes for the Middle East.

    It is a raw book, full of honest and ugly reactions as well as considered reflection; naturally, there is plenty of disgrace to go around. Goldberg asks one of the Hamas suicide bombing instructors, why the nails? To pierce the Jews’ eyes, of course. During a conflagration in Ramallah, a teenage rock thrower next to Goldberg is shot in the neck by an Israeli soldier. They don’t have guns, Goldberg frantically tells one of the troops. “They will,” the soldier says as his compatriots continue firing “into the brown mass of Arabs.” In a moment of resignation, he almost gives up: “They deserve each other, the Palestinians, who let violence into every corner of their lives, and the Israelis, these Jews devoid of pity.”

    “Prisoners” is a memoir of friendship, but it is equally the story of a Jewish coming of age. Goldberg writes that as a boy, he was the prototypical “chin-stroking, self-doubting, smothered-in-mother-love Jewish male,” and spent hours reading about the Holocaust. Bullies (Irish ones) tormented him. Then for his bar mitzvah his parents took him to Israel, where he saw tough and tanned Israelis, carrying machine guns and full of swagger. Smitten, he made for the kibbutz, and thence a short trip to military training and to Ketziot, where things were decidedly less glamorous. Watching a sadistic Israeli guard beating Palestinians is about as bad, we learn, as watching the prisoners refuse to allow treatment for the boy they have been raping. Goldberg clearly loves Israel, but his unquestioning faith in it blows away like stinging desert sand.

    As an American journalist — he eventually retreats to the comforting nuances of diaspora Jewishness — Goldberg frequently visits the Middle East and timorously nurses the friendship with Hijazi. The pair are tested by the onset of the second intifada and 9/11: Hijazi is feeling less moderate, and so, understandably, is Goldberg. No Jew, no Westerner, could easily abide talk of Palestinian suicide bombers, with their promised virgins and rivers of wine, as “brave,” or of the Jews one day being eliminated because of their rejection of Mohammad as a prophet. Goldberg also quietly chafes at Hijazi’s sequestration of his wife behind stifling veils and closed doors. On the other side, Hijazi cannot reconcile Goldberg’s Jewish faith with the Quran’s teachings or accept America’s decadence; when Goldberg invites him to a Fourth of July barbecue, he finds a mosque instead. But as the times cool down, so do they.

    Goldberg has written a valuable book — poignant, occasionally funny, frequently sad and always honest. It will also doubtless be praised as hopeful. That might be right, but only in the grittiest sense. If these two educated, articulate, thinking people can barely bring themselves to tolerate each other’s beliefs, what can we expect from the real hotheads? Then again, cliched as it sounds, we have to start somewhere.

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