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The Scout. By STEVEN PLAUT. Jerusalem/ New York: Gefen, 2002.

Steven Plaut, professor of economics at Haifa University known to addicts of the internet as Israel's Jonathan Swift for his savage political satire, shines forth in The Scout as a biographer, a folklorist, a historian of northern Israel. Struck by cancer at age 49, Plaut underwent surgery for removal of a kidney, and during his stay in an intensive care ward in a Haifa hospital forged a bond with another patient, the famous Bedouin scout Salim Saadi. This book tells the story of Saadi himself, reflects on the pervasiveness of the "idea" of scouting from the Bible to medical diagnosis, and shows how hard it is for a human being to grasp the most ordinary thing in the world: his own mortality.

The Saadiya Bedouin from whom Plaut's fellow patient descended had warm relations with the early Zionists, especially Kibbutz Allonim. They did not join the Arab pogroms of 1936-39, and in 1948 Salim led them to join their fate to the new State of Israel as citizens, at the very time that so many other Arabs in the north fled, at the behest of their leaders, to Lebanon and Syria. In later years, Salim's extraordinary tracking abilities--he could tell from footprints a person's sex, age, point of origin or path of flight and time of departure--made him "a walking forensics laboratory" used by the Israeli police to track criminals and by the IDF to hunt down terrorists (in the days before they were enticed by visions of heaven as a brothel to blow themselves up).

Plaut's physical proximity to his fellow patient combined with his familiarity with Jewish sources to lead him to think about scouts of other times and places, especially in Jewish history. A particularly striking example is his comparison between the parallel stories about scouting out the land in the Hebrew Bible. In the first, Moses makes the mistake of selecting his scouts on the basis of party representation and political clout rather than scouting skills. As a result, the report on the Holy Land--flowing with milk and honey, to be sure, but a land "that eateth up its inhabitants"--discourages the Israelites, who are ready to return to slavery in Egypt. But then Joshua, acting as efficient military professional, dispatches two professional scouts--people much more like Salim Saadi--who do their job without regard to politics and prepare the conquest of Canaan.

Medicine itself strikes the bed-ridden Plant as a scouting mission, especially for a cancer patient. "One's entire anatomy is the object of search, evaluation, investigation, spying, eavesdropping." He envisions antibodies as "tiny Bedouin scouts" following the trails of murderous infiltrators and destroying them. But unlike Plaut's Bedouin friend "these tiny scouts sometimes fail. They lose a trail or fail to follow tracks or confuse the quarry being tracked for something else. Among the conditions that can result is cancer." (Lying on what might prove to be one's death-bed concentrates the mind wonderfully, but not always equably.)

Although Plaut traces many links between Jews and Bedouins, especially in his wife's rabbinic ancestors, the most compelling link between him and Saadi is that all men are equal in the face of death.

EDWARD ALEXANDER is Professor of English at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic,Jew (1998). His article, "Dr. Arnold, Matthew Arnold, and the Jews, "appeared in the Spring 2002 issue.
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Title Annotation:The Scout explores human mortality
Author:Alexander, Edward
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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