Classic review: Arab and Jew, Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land
A humane, caring portrait of people in a troubled homeland.
[The Monitor occasionally reprints pieces from its archives. This book review originally ran on Oct. 2, 1986.] The biggest problem for Middle East correspondents is not surviving danger in the world's most strife-torn area nor unraveling its labyrinthine politics.Skip to next paragraph
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It is, rather, trying to explain developments so that readers and viewers will understand and, more importantly, care about this almost tediously volatile but crucial region.
David Shipler, who was based in Jerusalem between 1979-84 for the New York Times, has succeeded where most others have either fallen into the trap of taking sides or fallen victim to the region's complexities. Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land is an exceptional work, a book that finally explains the conflict in human terms that will enthrall both the expert and the novice.
The author states that he is ``neither Arab nor Jew. By culture and creed, I should suffer neither pain nor passion over the causes and battles that entangle the two peoples. And yet as I stand outside, looking in at the exchange of wound for wound, I cannot help caring.''
Indeed, his passion almost rivals the two tribes he so poignantly portrays. ``Jerusalem is a festival and a lamentation,'' he writes. ``Its song is a sigh across the ages, a delicate, robust, mournful psalm at the great junction of spiritual cultures. Here among the constant ruins and rebuilding of civilizations lies the coexistence of diversity and intolerance.''
The predominant theme is the yearning for the land by Arabs and Jews who want to defy, as Mr. Shipler recalls, ``that immutable law of physics: Two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time.'' Unfortunately, Arab and Jew are now, politically and psychologically, two distinct bodies rather than parts of the same geographic whole. Meanwhile, both sides suffer.
The hatred leads some to stoop to torture. For others, the moral agony leads to tortured souls.
``Symmetry'' and ``irony'' are two recurring words that explain the thrust of this work, for after 38 years of conflict there are so many tragic similarities between these intense rivals. ``The longing for return is as integral to the Palestinian nationalism that has evolved since 1948 as it was, and is, to the Jewish Zionism that has moved thinkers and activists from the 19th century onward,'' he says.
``They have lived together locked in each other's grip, enduring a prolonged state of twilight warfare that has alternated between armed battle and de facto peace. . . . In essence, Jewish and Palestinian identities are now intricately bound up together.''
``Arab and Jew'' contains factual history as well as comments from those who made it. But its real richness lies in the intimate portraits and exchanges with ordinary but widely diverse Israelis and Palestinians, during which stereotypes are stripped away.
Shipler's work is, in effect, a survey of attitudes and moods, in which the long list of players -- soldiers and students, philosophers and playwrights, rabbis and imams, peace-lovers and warmongers -- all speak for themselves. On the human level there is also symmetry.
He profiles both Arab and Jewish extremists-cum-terrorists, penetrating their mindsets and the environmental factors that led them to killing and arson and other violent acts.