Jewish Journal

Summer reading—Goldberg’s ‘Prisoners’

by Brad A. Greenberg

July 28, 2007 | 3:40 am

This week I finished Jeffrey Goldberg’s wonderful book “Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide.” In it, Goldberg, who recently left the New Yorker for the Atlantic Monthly, details his Zionist evolution for socialist camper to Israeli prison guard during the First Intifada to Middle East correspondent for The New York Times Magazine.

After serving at the Ketziot prison, Goldberg returned to Israel and the Palestinian territories to start talking with some of his former prisoners. One in particular, Rafiq Hijazi, now a professor in UAE, has captured Goldberg’s imagination: He is convinced the two can become friends, an act with symbolic meaning for the solution to that seemingly eternal crisis in Israel.

The back of the book comes with praise from far greater journalists than me, so I’ll just say it’s worth your while to pick up a copy. For an Israel ignoramus like myself, the book really helps you understand the landscape and the latent ideologies manifesting themselves in suicide bombings and the difficulty of discussing peace when two people want such divergent things.

The book is, in parts, disturbing, such as when Goldberg interviews Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a founder of Hamas:

Hamas, more than any other force, transformed the dispute between Arabs and Israelis into one between Muslims and Jews. There was no category called “Israeli” in Rantisi’s bifurcated understanding of the world. There is umma, which represents light, and then there are the Jews, who are darkness. “The Quran says that they will be behind violence and wars everywhere,” he said. “This is true throughout history. They stole money from everyone. People always talk about what the Germans did to the Jews, but the true question is, What did the Jews do to the Germans?”

A resounding theme is the difficulty of working toward compromise when fundamentalism is at work. History is rarely right; the Quran always is, Goldberg learns.

Clearly, this fundamentalism, which UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl told me comes not from true Islamic scholars but politically motivated clerics, is becoming more prevalent in Muslim countries and Europe. It’s the reason Bernard Lewis has said, “Bring them freedom or they destroy us.”

But can Western ideals and Islamic fundamentalism live side-by-side? Or are American Muslims pushed to act in a way that is haram by living in a free society?

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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