The full title of Jeffrey Goldberg's new book, "Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide," immediately conjures up notions of a Pinteresque power struggle between two people. Yet "Prisoners" is far from the tale of sadomasochism and role reversal of Pinter plays like "The Night Porter" or screenplays like "The Servant." Goldberg was a military policeman at Ketziot, an Israeli prison, where he and Rafiq, one of the inmates, developed a friendship that never truly revolved around power dynamics. Their relationship began because Goldberg recognized a "stillness" and a shared sense of irony in Rafiq.
Despite the tragedy of the Middle East and the moral dilemmas facing Goldberg as an Israeli soldier at a prison, Goldberg lightens the memoir with that irony and, at times, belly-chortling humor. For instance, in the wake of the massacre of two Israeli reservists, Goldberg describes being held captive by a terrorist cell in Gaza, where he defends his usage of the word "lynching" by saying to his captors, "Well, that was Ramallah.... What do you expect?"
He then writes, "Jokes at the expense of the West Bank usually go over well in Gaza. Not this one, however."
Goldberg, who will appear in a public conversation with author and essayist Jack Miles on Oct. 18 at the Skirball Cultural Center, finds that, unlike American Jews, Israelis seem to lack a sense of humor.
That is not his only criticism of both Israelis and Palestinians.
After a bus explosion that killed three Jewish children, he says to a follower of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' founder, that the Sheik's "preternaturally calm" statement that Israel "was created in defiance of God's will" is "pathetic." He also admits to being disillusioned by the kibbutzniks at Mishmar Ha Emek (where I must disclose I met the author many years ago), when they tell him not to clean three feet of coagulated hatchling droppings and blood in the chicken coop. They are saving that job for Arabs.
Goldberg has spent the past 15 years writing primarily about terrorists, yet in an interview from his home in Washington, D.C., where he is a correspondent for The New Yorker, Goldberg dismissed the notion that his work is so dangerous:
"The murder of Danny Pearl is the tragic, horrible exception, not the rule. All terrorists believe they're doing something good and useful. Most of these groups are happy to explain themselves to people."
In spite of his obvious courage, Goldberg writes in the book, "I am not brave, in the fuller meaning of the word."
He says that, as a military policeman, "I should have done more to try to change things I didn't like," instead of being a "get-along, go-along kind of guy."
Yet, more than once, he defied his fellow soldiers, as well as his commanding officer, whom he remembers as one of the dumbest Jews he ever met, by allowing the prisoners to shower in the kitchen and by restraining a guard from beating a helpless inmate.
Goldberg recently won the Anti-Defamation League's Daniel Pearl Award and goes so far as to suggest that being Jewish has benefited him in his dealings with terrorists.
"I've always found it to my advantage. I use my Jewishness as a tool."
He adds, "There's an attraction-repulsion quality to these encounters.
Anti-Semites spend most of their time thinking about Jews; they spend more time thinking about Jews than Jews do."
Goldberg's interest in Zionism may have been sparked as a boy in the Long Island town of Malverne, where he was subjected to games of "Jew Penny." Catholic boys, primarily Irish ones, would throw pennies at him and force him to pick them up.
If he didn't stoop to retrieve the coins, they would throw nickels and dimes at him. Either way, he would be beaten. Goldberg felt that fighting wasn't in his wiring, and he never actually defended himself until an African American friend told him to hit one Irish boy back. Even though his tormentor left him alone afterward, the wounds remained.
In "Prisoners," he characterizes his upbringing this way: "I didn't like the dog's life of the Diaspora. We were a whipped and boneless people."
By the end of the book, though, Goldberg, who immigrated to Israel in the late 1980s, has returned to America, a country he praises.
"If America had not taken in my ancestors three generations ago, we wouldn't exist," he says, pointing out, "Nothing makes you more patriotic as an American than spending three weeks in Pakistan. America with all its flaws is still a wonderful idea."
Likewise, he found that though Israel may not be a utopia, its prisons, which he says "were not nice places, especially in the first uprising," are far more humane than those in the rest of the world. At a time when prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been tortured and denied habeas corpus, Goldberg argues that the prisons in the West Bank and Gaza "became worse for Palestinians when Palestinians were running them than when the Israelis were running them."
He states without hesitation that the "baroque cruelty" and "sexually charged sadism" of Abu Ghraib did not and could not happen in Israeli prisons.
While Goldberg works on a book on Judah Maccabee for Schocken and Nextbook's "Jewish Encounters" series, he remains hopeful about the Middle East. He bookends "Prisoners" with references to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, both sons of Abraham, who join hands in burying their father. As Goldberg writes, "This might be the single-most hopeful image in all the Bible, a palliative against the despair that has seeped into all of us."
Jeffrey Goldberg will appear in a conversation with Jack Miles at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, on Wed., Oct. 18, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call (866) 468-3399.
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