Humane, caring portrait of people in a troubled homeland

Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, By David K. Shipler. New York: Times Books. 596 pp. $22.50 The biggest problem for Middle East correspondents is not surviving danger in the world's most strife-torn area nor unraveling its labyrinthine politics. 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.

Asked how he could justify killing unarmed civilians, a Palestinian jailed for firing on Israeli troops and Jewish worshippers outside a synagogue replies simply, ``I'm like any man who has a cause. . . . As a fighter, when they give me an order, I have to carry it out. . . . My personal feelings are that I am sorry that the situation has reached this point.''

The words of a Jewish terrorist, who was arrested for the bombing of three Arab mayors, are a haunting echo. ``We didn't feel any feelings of victory or pride. We just did what we had to do. We felt sorrow and disappointment that we were forced to take such a step.''

Shipler concludes, ``Terrorism is not an aberration produced by demented personalities. It is an integral part of an existing subculture, encouraged and supported and approved by the mainstream of the society that forms the terrorist's reference points. He is not deviating from his society when he attacks.''

He also probes the new generation. In one of the West Bank's squalid refugee camps, an Arab child named Amal -- Arabic for ``hope'' -- says she has never seen an Israeli without a gun. She has no interest in meeting Jewish girls her age; not yet even into her teens, Amal's solution is to take up arms.

A Jewish tot, not yet old enough to write, dictates a letter during Passover to be left under a cup for Elijah the prophet: ``Dear Elijah, let there be peace upon us and let there be no more Arabs in the state, and may Mommy and Daddy be blessed.''

The cultural divide, which has grown with time, is in part responsible for the results of a 1981 survey of 11-year-olds, in which a large majority in both camps said they felt war was ``always necessary.''

``Now, after decades, just as war and terrorism have evolved into origins themselves, so have the prejudices and stereotypes worked their way so thoroughly into literature, education, history, language, and social mores on both sides that they seem to govern the conflict as much as they are created by it,'' the author concludes.

In ``Arab and Jew,'' the landscape and images are vivid. The characters and their vignettes are wrenching. Shipler's evenhandedness may trouble those already committed to either Arab or Jew, but it will both enlighten and move those who chose to look deeper.

In the final chapter, entitled ``The Dream,'' he outlines the frustrating attempts to heal the wounded spirits and bridge the divide at an isolated mountain retreat where Arabs and Jews are brought together. The exposure and exchanges are painful. ``It all comes down to shaping one individual at a time,'' is embroidered on the wall. Shipler, at least, has not given up hope.

The human dimension, as he points out earlier, remains a key factor if this conflict is ever to end. ``Whatever happens in war or diplomacy, whatever territory is won or lost, whatever accommodations or compromises are finally made, the future guarantees that Arabs and Jews will remain close neighbors in this weary land, entangled in each other's fears,'' he predicts. ``They will not find peace in treaties or in victories. They will find it, if at all, by looking into each other's eyes.''

Robin Wright, a former Monitor correspondent in the Middle East, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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