There is far more forbearance on display in Grossman’s interactions with another group of fundamentalists, members of the Islamic movement featured in a chapter of Sleeping on a Wire. It’s not that Grossman is any less wary of their brand of zealotry. (“The Islamic Movement smiles broadly at me, but with a twitch in its cheek,” he slyly observes of its unfailingly polite adherents.) But he lets the Muslims he encounters speak, and in doing so conveys not only their religious fervor but also their dedication and high seriousness. At one point, watching the young men at a Muslim work camp lug heavy bricks in the sweltering heat, without a murmur of complaint, in the course of turning a narrow dirt path into a tree-lined sidewalk, Grossman’s mind drifts to another circle of implacable idealists famous for their élan and self-discipline: the early pioneers of the Zionist movement. “It was hard not to be impressed,” he writes, “ and to feel a surprising pang of remorse, a longing for ourselves as we once were.” The comparison is provocative, if slightly forced. Indeed, one could argue that in this instance Grossman has fallen into the same trap that Goldberg stumbled into with Rafiq: instead of trying to view Muslims through their eyes, he sees them through his own, as a mirror image of Jewish idealists whom they ultimately don’t resemble all that much.
All of which underscores why making identity the measure of a writer’s work is both understandable and dangerous. It is understandable because writers and reporters are not, in fact, immune to the sway of their personal attachments: particularly when exploring subjects close to their hearts, who they are matters. But it is dangerous because the way such attachments end up shaping a story is by no means certain. Jeffrey Goldberg’s fealty to Israel may well explain why Prisoners ultimately tells us more about the appeal of modern Jewish nationalism than about the hopes and longings of the Palestinians. And David Grossman’s love for the same land is surely part of the reason he goes to such lengths to amplify the voices of Arabs and Palestinians, to force his Jewish readers to stand in the shoes of people with whom they must learn to empathize and coexist.
Attachments of this sort make reporting an undeniably more personal enterprise, but they do not make it a predictable one. Growing up as the son of a physician who became a target of the pro-life movement’s wrath undoubtedly made me feel a measure of wariness about its members. But it also made me want to understand them. Would this impulse have been stronger if I had had no personal connection to the story? Would a writer coming at the subject from a more neutral vantage point necessarily have produced a more balanced portrait of those activists? Or a less penetrating one of a person like my father and the pro-choice advocates on the opposing side?