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?
“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.