Prisoners: A Muslim & A Jew Across the Middle East Divide
Jeffrey Goldberg, Washington correspondent of The New Yorker and author of the book Prisoners: A Muslim & A Jew Across the Middle East Divide, spoke to an audience of how his personal experiences, particularly as a former Israeli prison guard, led him to embark on a journey of discovery of the "other side," the premise of his newly released book.
This journey, which has its roots in Goldberg's childhood, began upon his joining the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the late 1980s, while the first Intifada was simultaneously occurring on the ground, hoping to fulfill his envision as a liberator. However, much to his dismay, Goldberg discovered that his services were needed in an Israeli prison as a prison guard, although he humorously remarked that the official Hebrew translation was "prisoner counselor."
An Israeli prison in the middle of a barren desert was not where Goldberg was anticipating working for justice for all deserving peoples, a universalist notion which was ingrained in his childhood upbringing and which led him to embrace the social Zionist movement. Nonetheless, he decided he would make the best out of the situation he was placed in to by getting to know the people on the other divide, the Palestinians. Goldberg's optimistic beliefs were firmly rooted in the idea that if he could build relations with the Palestinians, the mutual portrayal of humanity to the "other" could possibly lessen existing tensions.
Goldberg discussed one particular Palestinian prisoner, 19-year old Rafiq, whom he writes about extensively in his book. Rafiq, like Goldberg, was able to see "the absurdity of prison...and had a sense of detachment, [as well as the] capacity for self-criticism." The more Goldberg's acquaintance with Palestinian society grew, the more questions he was inclined to have answered. Having heard about many "nasty killings" among Palestinians themselves, Goldberg's inquisitiveness led him to wonder what a Palestinian would do if given the chance to kill him. After many refusals to respond to the question when asked, Rafiq later told Goldberg, "If I killed you, it wouldn't be personal," which to Goldberg, portrayed the existing power imbalance.
Goldberg returned to the West Bank, eight years after having completed service in the IDF, on a search for many of the prisoners he had befriended from the other side of the divide. He was successful in re-connecting with Rafiq in Gaza, shaking hands with him for the first time. Rafiq was faced with the same question he was asked while in prison, to which he vaguely answered that unlike his parents, who always taught him he was from Ashkelon (a city in present-day Israel) and that one day, the Palestinians will be victorious, Rafiq is now willing to lie to his children and tell them they are from Gaza, if it is for the sake of achieving peace. This hopeful optimism that many Palestinians share is what fuels Goldberg's staunch conviction that it is not too late for reconciliation, because as a Palestinian father once responded to his son contemplating a suicide bombing, "...I forbid you...When heaven wants you, it will take you. [But in the meantime, there is much to work for now in order to fix the imperfect life we have on earth.]"
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, painted a far bleaker picture of the reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Astonished by Goldberg's "obsession with people who hate him, [as well as] his continued belief that it is possible to reach across barriers," Brooks believes that conversations and dialogue are less likely to be fruitful between different groups with varied "cultural inheritances." In his view, culture is what shapes institutions, rather than institutions shaping cultural values- the Middle East is certainly no exception. This has formed Brooks' more pessimistic outlook about the ability to achieve reconciliation across different cultures.
Walter Reich, Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior at George Washington University, echoed Brooks' questioning of Goldberg's hopeful optimism, portrayed through "Goldberg's gift of words [in his] moving book." While the conflict lends itself to widespread attention (there are more journalists in Israel than on the whole continent of Africa), Reich stated that we have been witnessing the same occurrences time and again. And while the Rafiqs, and other activists Reich has spoken to, exist among Palestinian society, they have been an exception. And so Reich, like Brooks, has had more cause to doubt a hopefulness that Goldberg has genuinely placed his faith in.
Middle East Program and Division of International Security Studies
Drafted by Joyce Ibrahim