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Stuck in the Middle East with you: lessons from an improbable friendship.

Prisoners By Jeffrey Goldberg $25, Knopf

In 1990, near the end of the first Palestinian intifada, Jeffrey Goldberg, a young American Jew living in Israel and contemplating immigrating there, was dispatched on army reserve duty to serve as a guard in Ketziot, a bleak prison camp in the Negev Desert. For Goldberg, who had grown up admiring the early Zionist pioneers and the warriors of the Jewish state, being a shoter (policeman) provided a lesson in the moral ambiguities of Israel-as-occupier. In one memorable episode, he finds himself facing a seething pack of Palestinian inmates on the verge of a riot after guards shot a prisoner who had attacked them. His face covered by a gas mask, carrying a truncheon, Goldberg contemplates the ironies of his transformation. "All my life I wanted to be a Freedom Rider," he writes. "Now I felt like Bull Connor."

Goldberg's prison experience and the friendship he managed to forge across the barbed wire with one of the inmates, a Fatah activist and mathematics whiz from Gaza named Rafiq Hijazi, form the foundation of his brilliant new book, Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide. The book is, on one level, an intensely personal coming-of-age story, tracing Goldberg's progress from secular Jewish student in New York to Israeli soldier to war correspondent. But it is also perhaps the best on-the-ground portrait since Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem of the hatreds, passions, and illusions gripping the contemporary Middle East. Goldberg's journey through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Gaza, and Israel during the period immediately before and after 9/11 provides disturbing insights into the abyss separating Arab and Jew, East and West--if not a clash of civilizations, Goldberg suggests, than a perhaps unbridgeable gulf of empathy and understanding.

Goldberg grew up in an affluent suburb on the south shore of Long Island; his parents were Jewish liberals whose religious exposure began and ended with occasional visits to the local Reform temple, "a sterile place of yellow hallways, organ music, women in furs, and garmentos talking through Shabbat services." He found his way to Zionism at an early age; while his high school and college classmates were rallying around cult figures like Leonard Peltier, the Native-American activist serving a life sentence for murder, Goldberg focused his idolization on Yonatan Netanyahu, the Israeli special-forces commander and older brother of the former prime minister, who died leading the raid to free hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976. His burgeoning Jewish identity led him first to a Socialist Zionist summer camp, then on a dangerous mission to aid refuseniks in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union--where he was arrested and threatened by the KGB--and finally, in his early twenties, to Tel Aviv.

It is in Israel, first with his account of his transformation into a soldier with the Israeli Defense Forces, then at Ketziot, that Goldberg's narrative reaches the height of its power. Those familiar with his work for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine will recognize the skills that have made him one of America's finest foreign correspondents: an eye for detail, a flair for story-telling, an unflinching self regard, and a measured tone that lends his work an air of authenticity and authority. In a series of breathtaking vignettes, he paints a portrait of life as a shoter--squeezed between Israeli Arab-haters on one side, and anti-Semitic ideologues on the other. In this violent and brutalizing environment, Goldberg struggles to retain his humanity without being taken for a patsy. It is a balancing act that he ultimately finds impossible to pull off. His acts of kindness are met with contempt from both sides. Even the precarious bond he forms with Hijazi is informed by the understanding that the Palestinian would, in the right circumstances, kill him without hesitation--although, Hijazi assures him, "it wouldn't be personal."

Goldberg's account of the post-Ketziot years are equally evocative--and, at times, terrifying. Thrust into the Middle East maelstrom as a journalist, he witnesses the birth of the Oslo peace process under Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, then watches momentum toward a lasting peace crumble in the wake of rejectionist bus bombers and revanchist Jewish settlers. In Goldberg's telling, the Middle East is perennially in the grip of two dueling narratives, one Arab and one Jewish, and while he never leaves any doubt where his own sympathies lie, he is a compassionate and measured enough journalist to recognize the excesses on both sides.

Goldberg has little use for Israeli bullies like Ariel Sharon, whose visit to the Temple Mount he blames in part for sparking the second intifada. But he also offers frighteningly intimate portraits of killers such as Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz Rantisi (an inmate at Ketziot when Goldberg was a prison guard there), whom Goldberg enrages by suggesting that he, Rantisi, might be part Jewish. (Rantisi was killed by an Israeli helicopter missile strike in 2004.) Goldberg's chutzpah reaches its apex in an encounter with Samuel Haq, an Osama Bin Laden admirer who runs a madrassah for Taliban-in-training near Peshawar, Pakistan. After listening to the madrassah founder ascribe to the Jews all responsibility for the world's woes, he tells Haq matter-of-factly, "I'm Jewish." Not many Jewish Middle East correspondents would make such a revelation, but Goldberg's honesty pays off. He gets a welcome to the madrassah and spends a month there as a provocative presence, gathering insights into Islamic extremism and anti-Jewish mythologizing that he might not have gotten had he entered undercover.

Goldberg's narrative comes full circle with his reunion with Rafiq Hijazi a decade after their friendship was formed. With the al Aqsa intifada raging in the West Bank and Gaza, and the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington further poisoning the atmosphere, the pair struggle to recover the common ground--a worldly curiosity, an empathy for the other side--that had joined them in the prison camp. By now, however, the once-secular Hijazi has been tempted by what Goldberg calls the "lunatic eschatology" of Islamic fundamentalism; despite having studied at George Washington University and prospered in the United States, he announces to Goldberg his conviction that "America needed to be taught a lesson." Goldberg and Hijazi come away from their last encounter in Prisoners with a grudging recognition of each other's humanity. But their tentative reconciliation seems only to underscore the vastness of the Middle East abyss.

Joshua Hammer is an award-winning author and foreign correspondent. His most recent book is Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II, published in September by Free Press.
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Author:Hammer, Joshua
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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