Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in the Promised Land
by David K. Shipler;
Times Books, pp. 596, $22.50.
ON FRIDAY AFTERNOONS, Israelis and Arabs--soldiers in fatigues and priests in cassocks, old Hasids in black suits and young Arabs in jeans--pass each other as they go through Damascus Gate into and out of the Old City of Jerusalem. For five years, David K. Shipler watched them as the Jerusalem Bureau Chief of The New York Times. And like many an ambitious Times overseas correspondent before him, Shipler has written a big book based upon his experiences in a foreign land. A very big book.
"I am neither Arab nor Jew," he writes. "By culture and creed, I should suffer neither pain nor passion over the causes and battles that entangle the two peoples. And yet...I cannot help caring." What led him to care was "the human dimension" of the Arab-Israeli conflict: "The question of how Arab and Jew saw each other began to emerge as...the target of my search for understanding."
Arab and Jew is the result of his search. In examining the human dimension of the Arab-Jewish conflict, Shipler pays only passing attention to its diplomatic, military and political aspects. Instead, he focuses on Arab and Jewish images of one another and how the two peoples interact where they live together under Israeli authority.
The book, though, is greatly flawed. Shipler argues that there is an underlying parallelism to Arab and Jewish perceptions and treatment of each other. Stories of ills inflicted upon Arabs by Jews mingle with tales of the woes inflicted by Arabs upon Jews. Chapters on Jewish stereotypes of Arabs follow discussions of Arab stereotyping of Jews. But the analogies he draws and moral conclusions they lead him to make are, at best, forced.
SHIPLER'S THESIS is that "both people are victims." True. But what he doesn't seem to understand is that the cycles of violence and animosity which have made victims of Palestinians and Israelis have their source in the betrayal of the Palestinian people by other Arabs and their own leaders.
The violent path down which Yassir Arafat has led Palestinians has been a complete moral and strategic failure. Palestinians have lived in makeshift camps for nearly 40 years, and their "leaders" have resisted Israeli attempts to provide them with better housing. Saudi petro-billions have bought the Palestinians machine guns, not a better life.
Why? Because the camps foment radicalism and provide a steady-supply of dirty and deprived young boys to send on suicide missions inside of Israel. Peace would be bad for Arafat's personal political fortunes and would not serve the purposes of his Saudi bankrollers. Just this Saturday, P.L.O. spokesmen renounced the peace process and renewed their commitment to armed struggle. If the Palestinians hadn't existed, the leaders of the Arab world probably would have invented them.
The Arab-Jewish problem is geographic--who will live where, under whose sovereignty--and the only solution to it is political. Real, apolitical hatreds may not run as deep as Shipler suggests. On the Israeli side, at least, animosity toward Arabs is not generic. A poll Shipler cites in another context showed that while Syrian Arabs were perceived as being violent by 57.6 percent of Israelis, only 20.7 per cent viewed Egyptian Arabs as violent after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel. That's roughly the same percentage of Israelis who viewed Israelis as violent.
Shipler constructs a matrix of allegedly analogous abuses of Arabs and Jews by each other. The book begins with four chapters on the forces Shipler says drive the Arab-Israeli conflict: war, nationalism, terrorism and religous absolutism. Now one of the strong points of the book is its unscholarly nature. It's the work of a talented and sensitive reporter, not of an academic. Still, the lack of rigor in his argument is astounding. What's especially disturbing is Shipler's imbalanced cast of characters. He introduces the reader, with few exceptions, to radical Israelis and "moderate" Palestinians.
ISRAEL has fought six wars since its founding and in only one did it initiate hostilities. But Shipler's chapter on war is mostly a discussion of how Palestinians have gotten a raw deal from the Middle East's wars in general and the Lebanese War in particular. Nothing about how the Six-Day War started, or why the Yom Kippur War was fought.
Shipler is also on very shaky ground in asserting parallels between Arab and Jewish terrorism. Violence is fostered by most Palestinian leaders--at least those who wish to stay alive--and is accepted by nearly all segments of Palestinian society. Violence by Jews is committed by fringe elements and is deplored by nearly all Israeli leaders.
Shipler is also angered by the relatively light sentences often handed out to Israeli extremists who commit violence--and rightly so. But his sense of outrage is rarely tempered with a recognition that Palestinains who commit violence are heroes and celebrities on the West Bank. Jews who support terorism must be as surreptitious as Arabs who oppose it.
The same misguided attempt at evenhandedness underlies Shipler's chapters on the images Arab and Jew have of each other. He tries to prove his point with examples of stereotyping in Arab and Jewish schoolbooks. While Israeli textbooks are guilty of condescension toward Arab culture, Jordanian textbooks used in West Bank schools--and Arab newspapers in general--exhibit virulent militarism and anti-semitism and never mention peaceful reconciliation as a goal. Instead, Arab elementary school children read poems such as "A bullet in the chest of the criminal aggressor/Is more delicate than the whisper of the poem and more merciful..."
Bits and pieces can be found in the 556 pages of text demonstrating that Shipler understands the difficulties Israel faces in trying simultaneously to maintain its security in a hostile environment and to preserve its liberal ideals and aspirations. In describing the lack of awareness of the Holocaust--the basis for the existence of the Jewish state--among Arabs, Shipler captures the underlying tension of Israeli society. But this paragraph, the most important and perhaps the best written in the book, is as isolated in Arab and Jew as Israel is in the Middle East.
Because Arabs fail to try to gain an understanding of the importance of the Holocaust, Shipler writes, "they cannot understand Israel."
That essential feel for the trauma, the tragedy, the aloneness of the Jews in that dark period is simply missing from the Arabs' sense of history and from their grasp of the present...They cannot understand the fierce sensations of vulnerability, the lusty devotion to military strength, the stubborn resistance to international criticism, the waves of guilt that soften the core of the hardness. They cannot comprehend the gnawing fear of powerlessness that grinds beneath the arsenal of tanks and planes, the lurking conviction that it could happen again, and that again the world would look the other way."
Many might read that as more an indictment of Israeli culture than a defense. Shipler doesn't, though. But he does not allow his understanding of Israeli society to sufficiently temper the critical tone of his book.
SHIPLER holds the Jews to a much higher standard than the Arabs, and rightly so. Still, if his admittedly vague "solution" to the Arab-Jewish problem appears especially pat and simplistic--they will only find peace, he writes, "by looking into each other's eyes"--it is because over the past 40 years, the Israelis have stood much taller than their Arab foes.
There are many problems Israel must grapple with, the sooner the better--how to assimilate Jewish immigrants from Arab lands, how to keep its economy under control and how to deal with the West Bank while maintaining the Jewish identity of the country. There is much that is rotten in Israel.
But because Shipler only looked at the Arab-Jewish confrontation in the small area in which Israel is hegemonous and the Arabs are the underdogs, it was perhaps inevitable that he would be so angered with the Israelis and sympathize with the Arabs. His outrage over domestic tensions in Israel, however, would be more justified if it were joined by even greater outrage aimed at the leaders and powerbrokers in the Arab world outside Israel's tiny borders.