Ben Ehrenreich is a writer and journalist who spent three years in the West Bank, staying with Palestinian families and listening to their stories, which he shares in this important book.
We are into painting with broad brushes these days. For many people, Palestinian means terrorist, in spite of the small proportion of these men, women, and children who actually merit the label. But thanks in large part to the media, the equation of “Palestinian” with “terrorist” has eroded sympathy for their truly horrific plight.
Tragically, the Israeli government also does not distinguish between the two. In the summer of 2014, for example, during Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, the UN reported that at least 2,104 Palestinian died at the hands of the Israeli army, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women. An Israeli government official told the BBC, however, that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had killed 1,000 “terrorists” during the assault.
Whether the occasion is a peaceful protest over land appropriation, the recitation of a protest poem by a little girl whose best friend was killed by soldiers, or little boys throwing rocks in defense of their villages, the Palestinians are considered legitimate targets for tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and sometimes live bullets, imprisonment without charges, house raids, land grabs, and numerous measures to make their lives difficult, such as the closure of schools and hospitals.
What the Israelis have done to the Palestinians is unconscionable.
Unfortunately, the fact that “Israeli” is also conflated with “Jew” doesn’t help get a discussion going. How the Israelis act has little to do with the life of a Jewish grocer in France, or with a Jewish daycare or synagogue in the United States. As the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace recently wrote in an opinion piece for “The Washington Post”:
“It’s not discrimination to hold a state accountable for its violations of international law and human rights abuses. The state of Israel is not the same as the Jewish people.”
Nor does it help that Israel was set up (largely by Britain) as a place for Jews to go to escape the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe because no other country wanted to take them. [In the U.S., between 1933 and 1945 the United States took in only 132,000 Jewish refugees, only ten percent of the quota allowed by law, because of anti-Semitism in the State Department, in Congress, and among the public. Even children were denied sanctuary, on the theory that, as the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration said at a party, they would all grow up to be ugly adults.]
But the British even restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Still, enough came to create a conflict with the people already residing on the very small piece of land.
No matter the difficulties of talking about it, though, ignoring the situation will only keep the fires burning in the Middle East and hurt us all. What happened to Jews before cannot justify what is happening to Palestinians now. But the rise once again of right-wing, exclusionary movements around the world (including inside the state of Israel) makes it hard to believe in a solution that will benefit all sides. More awareness is at least a step in the right direction.
Evaluation: Read this book and weep, for the cruelty that has begat cruelty, and the lack of easy answers. I wanted to stop reading, because it was so painful to hear. But that’s not the right answer. If you take away nothing from this book but the very complex nature of the issues in the Middle East, that will be a start. And maybe that understanding can lead someday to the salvation of people who have suffered for so long.
The author writes in his preface:
“I do believe that this book is a work of optimism, and of hope . . . because even in their despair, with no reason to hope, people continue to resist. I cannot think of many other reasons to be proud of being human, but that one is enough.”
The hardcover book includes a list of Dramatis Personae, a glossary of Arabic terms, maps, photos, and extensive footnotes.
Published in hardback by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
This book is read by the author, who did an excellent job. Some authors have no skill for a dramatic presentation of their work, but Ehrenreich manages to convey passion, despair, respect for his subjects, and hope for a better world in spite of everything.
Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12.5 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Random House, 2016