In his magazine work, though, Goldberg affects the dispassionate tone of a hardboiled reporter bent on unmasking unpleasant truths while camouflaging his personal attachments. Prisoners is different. It is a work of reportage in which a love story unspools, that of a brainy Jewish teenager who discovers in Zionism an antidote to the slack and inglorious life of a middle-class kid in suburbia. Born in 1965 and raised on Long Island in a secular household, Goldberg recalls a childhood during which his thuggish classmates jeered and taunted him in a game known as “Bend the Jew,” which involved tossing coins at the unsuspecting victim’s feet until he picked one up, at which point the beating began. It was, on the scale of Jewish persecution, less than epochal, but Goldberg nevertheless felt ashamed for lacking the nerve to fight back. The story of modern Israel, of the hardy Jewish pioneers who rolled up their sleeves and decided to become masters of their own destiny, fired his imagination. It drew Goldberg first into the library to soak up the works of Theodore Herzl (the founder of political Zionism), then to a Zionist summer camp in the Catskills, and eventually, in the middle of college, to Israel itself, where he exchanged the soothing comforts of a liberal-arts education for the bracing rigors of army life.
The love story Goldberg recounts is not an uncomplicated affair. Like many diaspora Jews, he goes to Israel picturing a Zionist paradise of golden beaches and egalitarian kibbutzim peopled by noble idealists. By the time he gets there in the mid-1980s, the kibbutzim are dying out and, in December of 1987, just as he completes his army training, the first Palestinian intifada erupts. Goldberg soon finds himself sleeping in the barracks of a decidedly unromantic place called Ketziot, a prison camp in the Negev Desert, where he serves as a guard and is shocked by the brutality he witnesses—which is meted out not by the Palestinian inmates but by his fellow Jews. At one point, he discovers that the Palestinian prisoners assigned the unenviable task of cleaning the inmates’ cells rarely get to shower. He decides to let them wash up in the kitchen compound. When the bucktoothed and pitiless Israeli lieutenant in charge learns of this, he explodes in rage, berating Goldberg and ordering the garbage crew’s eighteen-year-old supervisor to spend several days in solitary confinement. “It was true, of course, that I did not understand the mentality of the Arabs,” Goldberg writes afterwards. “But the realization was dawning on me that it was also the Israelis, the flesh of my flesh, that I did not understand.”
This is powerful, and its impact stems precisely from Goldberg’s personal investment in the story—the fact that he, the fervent Zionist, the Jewish patriot, desperately wants this country to stand for something better. His disappointment is as acute as a jilted lover’s. But Goldberg’s identification with Israel and his Jewish background are also arguably what cause him to keep the Muslim in the book’s subtitle at arm’s length.
At the heart of Prisoners is the story of the friendship Goldberg tries to form with a man named Rafiq, an inmate at Ketziot who strikes him as thoughtful, tolerant, and open-minded, notwithstanding the obvious barriers between them. “I was raised to search out the familiar in the stranger,” Goldberg writes in explaining what compelled him to want to get to know this man. Throughout the book, however, Rafiq remains a stranger, an object of fascination who is asked many questions but whose inner thoughts and feelings are opaque. Maybe that’s because what most interests Goldberg about him ultimately has more to do with the author’s preoccupations than with Rafiq’s.
In a work spanning more than three hundred pages, only a few paragraphs in Prisoners are devoted to explaining how Rafiq’s family became refugees during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Rafiq’s father, Hamed, relays what happened, but the scene lacks the richness and drama of other parts of the book, including an earlier section where Goldberg describes his own family history, vividly recounting the stories his grandfather told him about the pogroms his ancestors survived. Did Rafiq grow up hearing similar stories about Palestinian refugees? Did he ever dream of going back to see his parents’ home? Might this longing have shaped his consciousness in the same way Goldberg’s beatings at the hands of his classmates impacted him?