The Identity Trap

Does the personal make reporting predictable?
September 20, 2007

One morning last year, not long after the publication of my first book, Absolute Convictions, I paid what turned out to be an ego-deflating visit to Amazon. I went there to check the latest fluctuation in the ranking of my book, which, alas, had yet to land on the best-seller list. But the true source of disappointment lay elsewhere, in a review posted by a reader that was now on prominent display for all potential customers. Its author was not a professional critic but a pro-life advocate who’d apparently tracked down a copy of my book after hearing it described as an evenhanded, narrative account of the abortion controversy. Don’t be fooled, the review warned—I was anything but a neutral narrator.

Since I don’t subscribe to the notion that journalists can ever be entirely neutral, this was not a charge to which I could offer up much of a defense. I also doubt anyone would have accepted such a claim in this instance even if I were a believer in neutrality. The subject of my book is the abortion conflict that raged for several decades in Buffalo, New York, where I grew up and where my father, an abortion provider, found himself on the frontlines of the battle, weathering a wave of sit-ins, death threats, pickets, and mock funerals, followed by the actual funeral of a colleague of his named Barnett Slepian, who was murdered by an anti-abortion zealot in 1998. To pretend to narrate these events with equal sympathy for the people who’d supported my father through the years and the people who’d vilified and harassed him would have been preposterous.

Why, then, did the review on Amazon gnaw at me? In part because, like most reporters, I aspire to reach people on all sides of the issues I write about, including ones as polarizing and incendiary as abortion. But there was something else the review stirred, a feeling that the grounds on which my credibility as a reporter had been dismissed were unfair. The review on Amazon didn’t take me to task for drawing simplistic caricatures of pro-life activists or failing to incorporate opposing viewpoints, criticisms that, had they been lodged, I could have potentially rebutted. It tried to undercut me by questioning something more basic—my identity, the fact that my relationship to my father rendered me, by definition, biased and untrustworthy. The problem was less what I’d said than who I was.

There is something unseemly about judging the work of any writer on such terms, I felt. Yet the more I thought about the review, the more it occurred to me that maybe such a judgment isn’t always misplaced; that maybe there is something natural about trying to determine whether a story is colored by a writer’s identity—and not only when, as in my book, the familial and the reportorial are tightly intertwined.

Journalists like to imagine they are endowed with the magical gift of transcending the limits of their personal loyalties and sectarian beliefs, gliding with liquid ease across freighted cultural boundaries regardless of who they are and how much—or how little—they may identify with their subjects. It’s a heartening conceit. But is it true? Isn’t it more likely that, as with most people, a reporter’s identity does play a role in determining what gets noticed and overlooked—and where the line between empathy and critical detachment is drawn? Perhaps not when the subject is, say, the hedge-fund market or the fashion world. But what of polarizing issues in which identity often does serve as an accurate gauge of a person’s loyalties? Or when the writer is a participant-observer directly entangled in the story being told? Shouldn’t journalists come clean about how such entanglements may slant their work? Or are assumptions on this score less warranted than the surface labels may suggest?

Few recent books throw these questions into sharper focus than Jeffrey Goldberg’s Prisoners: A Muslim & A Jew Across the Middle East Divide. Now a correspondent for the Atlantic, Goldberg spent the past several years at The New Yorker, where he reported frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He is also the Jew in his book’s subtitle, one with an undisguised soft spot for Israel, something readers of The New Yorker may have detected in his dispatches, which generally held the Palestinians responsible for the descent into violence in recent years.

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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?

“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.

And yet the nature of Grossman’s engagement, the fact that he comes to such encounters with no pretense of being able to play the role of a disinterested observer, enhances rather than diminishes his reporting. It repeatedly prompts Grossman to probe the limits of his own tolerance and let conversations flow in directions that put his own sympathies to the test. Large stretches of Sleeping on a Wire consist of interviews during which Grossman interjects at most a question or two, as in a section featuring Nazir Yunes, an Arab-Israeli doctor who tells him how, one day, he took his children to a pool in Gan Shomron, a Jewish settlement, and was turned away after the kids were overheard speaking Arabic. It mattered not that Yunes’s children are Israeli citizens and that he is the settlement’s doctor. Or that, as mentioned earlier in the conversation, he once took an organized tour to Eastern Europe, visiting the sites of former extermination camps in the company of the children of Holocaust survivors to better understand their history. The scene is wrenching, and it is easy to picture Grossman cringing as it unfolds, overcome by the urge to stop Yunes in mid-sentence to tell him not all Jews would have treated his children that way. But he doesn’t, having determined that, in order for someone like himself to begin to comprehend what Israel’s Arab citizens feel, “I had to stop trying to anticipate, and only listen.”

The best reporters are indeed great listeners, and, ironically, perhaps because he feels more at liberty to dismiss the views of people in his own tribal faction, Grossman sometimes seems like a better, more patient listener in the company of Arabs than Jews. In The Yellow Wind, visiting the Jewish settlement of Ofra, hearing its inhabitants declaim about how God gave this land to their people and exhibiting no sympathy for the Palestinians, Grossman’s tolerance snaps. The concrete descriptions that make his prose sparkle give way to sweeping generalizations—“who are these people…atop a mountain of injustice, impenetrability and ignorance”—and, eventually, to sheer exasperation. “I do not comprehend people who set history in motion,” he grouses.

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?

The answers to those questions don’t seem self-evident to me. It is perfectly possible for a reporter to write with greater insight about people with whom he or she doesn’t naturally identify than those with whom he or she does. An author may feel an added burden of responsibility to extend imaginative sympathy to people in the former camp, to break through the wall of fear and suspicion that many journalists situated on one side of a polarizing conflict aspire to scale. I began working on Absolute Convictions knowing I would never see eye-to-eye with pro-life activists about the morality of what my father does. But I also knew I could not do the story justice—or hope to appeal to a general audience—without trying to understand what motivated them, which would require attempting to overcome my own assumptions and stereotypes. Sleeping on a Wire offers a model for how a writer can meet that challenge. “They have no individual names, only one collective name; they have no faces, only ‘characteristic features,’” Grossman writes at one point of the Arabs in Israel. “When we good citizens meet them outside, in our territory, we treat them suspiciously, as if they were a mobile enemy enclave.” The deftness and sensitivity of the portrait he draws likely reflect his awareness that these preconceptions risk clouding his own point of view.

In the end, such hard-won awareness arises not from a writer’s personal background but from his or her sensibility, values, and judgment, things that can never be inferred from identity alone, even if identity plays an inevitable role in shaping them. 

Eyal Press is the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America (just out in paperback from Picador) and a contributing writer at The Nation.