“I wanted to see the conflict through his eyes,” Goldberg explains, “in order to answer a crucial question: Could the Arabs finally accept—accept, not merely tolerate—the presence of Jews in their midst, and not just Jews, but a Jewish state?” One can imagine a writer less emotionally tethered to Israel wishing to do this for some other reasons—to understand why acceptance of Israel’s right to exist has become so difficult even for seemingly moderate Palestinians, for example. Or to evoke what it is like for the proud members of an aggrieved people to feel weighed down by a crippling sense of shame and powerlessness (feelings to which Jews like Goldberg might well relate). Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Elena Lappin complained that, as much as Goldberg claims to want to bridge the wall between them, “we really don’t know what’s on Rafiq’s mind, and in his heart, because his Jewish friend doesn’t either.” She suggested this lacuna is inevitable “as long as there are no books about friendship between Jews and Arabs written by Arabs.”
Lappin faulted Goldberg, in other words, for the same reason the review on Amazon faulted me: his identity makes him untrustworthy. But before concluding, like Lappin, that a strong attachment to Israel will always hinder a Jewish writer who wants to draw an intimate portrait of Arab or Palestinian life, we would do well to consider the work of another author who falls into that category, David Grossman. An Israeli novelist whose reputation rests as much on his essays and reportage as on his fiction, Grossman’s most acclaimed work of nonfiction is The Yellow Wind, a searing account of life in the occupied territories that awakened many of his countrymen to the pent-up rage of their inhabitants. Based on a six-week excursion through the sun-bleached towns and refugee camps of the West Bank, The Yellow Wind appeared only a few months before the first intifada broke out, lending the book the luster of prophecy. It was soon translated into numerous languages, including Arabic. Several years later, Grossman published Sleeping on a Wire, which is less well known in the United States but even more affecting, a richly layered masterpiece that draws attention to another time bomb—the disenchantment festering among the once-quiescent but increasingly restive Arab minority within Israel.
In both books, Grossman writes with a keen awareness of how being an Israeli Jew challenges—and, more often than not, undermines—his capacity to remain coolly detached. At one point in The Yellow Wind, on a visit to a Palestinian kindergarten, a two-year-old boy points a plastic stick at him, simulating gunfire. “Who do you want to shoot?” the teachers ask. “Jews,” the boy replies. “I stand and listen and try to be neutral,” Grossman writes. “To understand. Not to judge. And also not to be like an American or French correspondent, completely severed from the whole complex of events [but] I also stand here as a reserve soldier in the Israeli Army.”
In Sleeping on a Wire, he describes getting to know Azmi Bishara, then chairman of Bir Ziet University’s philosophy department, who fumes at the degrading treatment suffered by the state’s non-Jewish citizens. When they first meet, Grossman confesses to finding something “forbiddingly Arab” in Bishara’s appearance—“his face is dark, his mustache thick.” The stereotype slowly fades, but, even so, when Bishara tells him he wants the Arabs in Israel to emulate the Jewish left, storming through the streets of Tel Aviv to demand equality, Grossman feels something in him recoil.
He speaks and suddenly I am the one facing the test. How real and sincere is my desire for “coexistence” with the Palestinians in Israel? Do I stand wholeheartedly behind the words “make room for them among us”? Do I actually understand the meaning of Jewish-Arab coexistence? And what does it demand of me, as a Jew in Israel? How much room am I really willing to make for “them” in the Jewish state? Have I ever imagined, down to the smallest living detail, a truly democratic, pluralistic and egalitarian way of life in Israel?
Neutral Grossman is not. A subtle tension swirls beneath the surface of his interactions with people like Bishara: the tension between two interlocutors staring across a fraught, potentially explosive divide.