Grace Halsell is an extraordinary human being. Only such a person could have gotten close enough to the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian residents of Israel and the occupied territories to tell their stories as though her own life were a part of theirs.
Living with families from each of the three factions in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, she portrays their hopes and dreams, and the frustrations and problems they experience living alongside one another.
The result is as striking as were her earlier books, "Soul Sister," written after she darkened her skin and lived as a black in the Deep South and in Harlem , and "Bessie Yellowhair," an account of her experiences on a Navajo Indian Reservation.
The newest book is a stark, simple account of the causes of the friction between Arabs, Jews, and Christians in the Holy Land.
"Journey to Jerusalem" will be an eye-opener for American policymakers who regard the Palestinian problem as less than urgent. And American Jews and Christians who feel that Israel's 14-year occupation of the Arab portion of historic Palestine is not sapping the moral foundations of Israeli democracy may leave the book with some second thoughts.
Grace Halsell brings a high degree of objectivity to her task. She says she flew into Tel Aviv without a reservation, like a tourist, and then climbed into a taxi with six other people bound for Jerusalem.
The author soon began recording the lives of people she met, such as Nahla, a Muslim Palestinian; Mervat, a Christian Palestinian; and Linda, a transplanted Jewish New Yorker who lives with her husband in a new settlement on formerly Arab Territory.
Before long the author moved into a moshav cooperative settlement with Aviva and Reuven, an atypical Israeli couple who felt their salvation and Israel's depended on coming to agreement with the Palestinians. Their attitudes contrasted strikingly with those of Linda and her husband, who were ready, even eager, to fight if need be in order to expell all Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank.
In Jerusalem, the author met members of the Israeli establishment, people like eliahu and Zehava Elath, who helped build the state. Eliahu Elath spoke reverently about President Harry Truman and Clark Clifford, who helped persuade Truman to support the creation of the state of Israel.
Later, while visiting Bir Zeit, the author learned a lesson about the brutality of military occupation. She witnessed a raid by Israeli soldiers, who beat students and headmaster Gabi Baramki before her eyes, then threw her to the ground and nearly struck her with a rifle butt before one of them noticed she was a foreigner.
The section most likely to present a strong challenge to a Western reader's conceptions is the one in which Haskell talks with Palestinians who were once prisoners of the Israelis. Their accounts, which told of torture at the hands of their captors, correspond with those relayed by Alexandra Johnson, a former US consul in Jerusalem, most of which the US government has chosen to discredit.
Grace Halsell shares with readers her profound sense of concern about the future of the Holy Land, if the present wounds are not soon healed. But she offers a message of hope as well.
She sees in the aspirations of this region's Jews, Christians, and Muslims the potential for peace. ". . . Any great world religion has enough good within it provide guidelines for all men and women to live in peace," she writes. "The fact that we do not have peace is a deficiency, not in the religions, but in us. . . . Perhaps these same stars that inspired Moses and Christ and Muhammad in their desert homes will inspire new leaders who will embrace one another with confidence, faith and trust, saying, "We are truly one people.'"