A Fraught and Hopeful Middle East Friendship

Jeffrey Goldberg’s wonderful new book, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide, opens with a scene

Jeffrey Goldberg’s wonderful new book, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide, opens with a scene worthy of Graham Greene. “On the morning of the fine spring day, full of sunshine, that ended with my arrest in Gaza, I woke early from an uneven sleep, dressed, and pushed back to its proper place the desk meant to barricade the door of my hotel room,” he writes. It was six months into the second Intifada, and Mr. Goldberg (no relation) was on assignment for The New Yorker. After breakfast with an “unhappy terrorist” with a penchant for Russian literature and a visit to the freshly bombed base of Yasir Arafat’s personal bodyguard unit, he repaired to a café. There, he was seized by gunmen from one of Gaza’s security services—he couldn’t determine which one—and accused of being an Israeli spy.

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Most readers, especially those familiar with Mr. Goldberg’s riveting New Yorker dispatches from the Middle East, will assume that the charge is absurd, but it turns out to be slightly less far-fetched than it at first appears. “We know you were in Ketziot,” Mr. Goldberg’s interrogator says. It’s not immediately clear what Ketziot is, but Mr. Goldberg writes: “My face gave away the game. My double life in Gaza had just come to an end.”

Ketziot, we soon learn, was a desert prison used during the first Intifada, “a city of barbed wire, moldy tents, machine gun towers, armored personnel carriers, black oil smoke, sullen Arabs, and embittered Israeli soldiers.” One of those embittered soldiers was the author, and his experience there is the fulcrum of Prisoners.

A rich, large-hearted and melancholy political bildungsroman, the book tells the story of Jeffrey Goldberg’s evolution from “the Moshe Dayan of the Howard T. Herber Middle School,” an alienated American boy besotted with dreams of Sabra strength, to a worldly, somewhat disillusioned journalist drawn to chronicle Israel’s fiercest enemies. At the center of Mr. Goldberg’s tale is his unlikely friendship with a Palestinian he guarded at Ketziot, a relationship that endures but also, inevitably, lets him down, mirroring the Jewish left’s growing despair about the Palestinians they hope to make peace with.

The book takes us into a vertiginous moral universe in which victims and oppressors keep switching places and liberal universalism collides with tribal loyalties. It’s a fascinating tour through recent Israeli history—Mr. Goldberg has interviewed everyone, and most of the region’s big players, including Arafat, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Hamas co-founder Abdel Aziz Rantisi, make appearances. The author has a novelistic gift for conjuring the optimism of the Oslo era, which makes the nihilistic nosedive of the second Intifada even more searing. But while Prisoners is a story of multiple disenchantments, there’s a defiant hopefulness about it—a faith, despite too much evidence to the contrary, that individual human understanding can transcend historic hatreds.

Were Prisoners a novel, Ketziot might seem too obvious a symbol of brute absurdity. Mr. Goldberg writes of a Passover Seder there: “Here we were, celebrating Jewish freedom in a prison filled with our Arab captives! We had built a prison and planted it right along the pathway of Jewish freedom, and we had filled its cages with Palestinians who were demanding only what Jews themselves demanded, in the time of the Exodus and today: freedom.” He immediately reproached himself for thinking this way, but the reader can sense his pure Zionist faith curdling.

The son of liberal New York Jews, Mr. Goldberg began his adult life in defiant flight from the humanistic, self-interrogating culture of the Diaspora. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the role of Muslim humiliation in fueling the miseries of the Middle East. The part played by traumatized Jewish pride gets rather less attention, though as Prisoners suggests, it’s essential to understanding Israel’s lionization of strength and power. As a young man, Mr. Goldberg saw Diaspora Jews as emasculated, gelded by history. He embraced Israeli militarism with a zeal born, at least in part, of self-hatred. “I was determined to be an Israeli man, not an American Jew,” he writes. To his credit, though, Mr. Goldberg was never able to shake off the values he was raised with. He remained a yafei nefesh, a derisive Israeli phrase that means “beautiful soul,” or bleeding heart. He hated the petty cruelties of Ketziot, writing at one point, “All my life I wanted to be a Freedom Rider. Now I felt like Bull Connor.”

Mr. Goldberg sought a sort of redemption in friendship with a prisoner, Rafiq Hijazi, a pious but open-minded member of Fatah. “I had consoling thoughts about Rafiq—thoughts about the thickening possibilities of peace, a peace that could be made first by two inconsequential soldiers. If Rafiq Hijazi could somehow extend the border of his compassion to take in Jeffrey Goldberg, then why should peace be impossible?” The two men’s fraught relationship is the heart of the book, even though it often seems too fragile a connection to hold all of the hopes the author piles onto it. Though he doesn’t write it, and maybe doesn’t even think it, Mr. Goldberg appears to have wanted expiation from Mr. Hijazi for the sins of the occupation. He also desperately wanted evidence that there are Palestinian activists who can accept coexistence with Israel, a precondition for peace.

Prisoners, of course, comes at a time when such evidence is rare, and the book is full of disappointment, even heartbreak. When the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti first appears in the book, he’s introduced as “mercilessly self-critical in a very un-Palestinian way … a favorite of the Israeli left, a prized interlocutor of liberal Knesset members.” He appears in the story again a few years later, during the height of the second Intifada, shouting of martyrdom and working in a residential building where families with children serve as human shields from Israeli assassination attempts. Similarly, Mr. Hijazi is not quite the exemplar of Palestinian moderation that Mr. Goldberg longed to find. At one point we learn that he took part in a Gaza demonstration against suicide bombing, but during a heated argument after Sept. 11, he says, “I wouldn’t go to that rally today.” Mr. Hijazi ended up moving to the U.S. to study statistics at American University, but his encounter with our louche mores only served to strengthen his commitment to conservative Islam. By the end of the book, Mr. Hijazi’s wife—whom Mr. Goldberg had previously befriended—is veiled and either won’t or can’t talk to him.

But the friendship somehow carries on despite all of this, and it remains a source of optimism for writer and reader alike. “If this could be done between a million different people, then the situation would be a lot different,” Mr. Hijazi says during their last meeting in Prisoners. “People would at least know what the other person thinks.” Jeffrey Goldberg is too sophisticated to believe that friendships like theirs can, on their own, save the world. “An irreducible truth remained: The maximum Israel could give did not match the minimum the Palestinians would accept,” he writes. Nevertheless, the image of the former guard and his onetime captive having an affectionate political argument in an Abu Dhabi Starbucks offers some hope in the face of desolation.

Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (Norton) was published in May.

A Fraught and Hopeful  Middle East Friendship