Monday, January 22, 2007

Black and White

Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Holy Land, by David K. Shipler, Read by Robert Blumenfeld, Blackstone Audiobooks, 2003

When I was a kid, my American history books were a bland pabulum of tired stories about how the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and were saved by the kindly Indians, then how the colonists threw some tea into the harbor, then the Revolution, Westward Ho, the Civil War, some more Westward Ho, and World Wars I and II.

Left out of this account until quite recently was the enormity of the decimation of the Indian tribes, the restless incursions by Europeans into Indian territory, the Trail of Tears, smallpox infected blankets, and the indiscriminate mowing down of tribes as the Indians were pushed on to reservations or simply wiped out.

While these are not happy stories, leaving them out of children’s history books is a disservice to the stated goals of education. False impressions settle in the mind accompanied by a certain sense of privilege and a natural belief in history’s inevitability, a kind of ghostly afterimage of the white man’s burden lingering on the retina of the mind’s eye.

Interestingly, there is a parallel similarity between the founding of Israel and modern Turkey. All three states refuse to own up to the brutality of their founding fathers. Turkey denies the Armenian genocide, whitewashing the incident in their government documents, while Israeli school books suggest that all Arabs expelled in that state’s war for independence were not actually driven out by Israelis but left willingly.

It seems that any national mythology must rest upon the benevolent shoulders of noble patriarchs without stain or blemish who strove against the odds, overcame great obstacles, and were fair-minded to a fault. Ask a Native American historian these days their opinion of George “I Can Not Tell A Lie” Washington. I doubt it matches your school day memories.

David K. Shipler, who wrote for twenty-two years for the New York Times during the last years of the Cold War, while stationed in Saigon, Moscow, and Jerusalem, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for nonfiction with this book Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Holy Land. Blackstone Audiobooks presents here the updated 2002 edition which works in new material from the intervening fifteen years including the Oslo Peace Process and September 11th.

The author starts off things by declaring, “I am neither Arab nor Jew,” which is probably the kind of coda such a book needs. Few topics, unrelated necessarily to people’s personal life, can breed such virulent debate. It’s a curiosity, and Shipler treads carefully between both camps distributing equally blame, praise, and unflinching honesty. Or at least trying to.

Because when one party in a conflict is an occupying dominant force, it follows from that that instances of abuse are prone to fall heavily on that side of the ledger. While Shipler documents the virulent anti-Semitic works circulating through Palestine, much imported from Syria, as well as the frequent suicide bombings and acts of terrorism, the percentage of material devoted to Israeli belligerence seemed to ring out at 50% +.

Not that a book’s relevance or value is a measurable function of weighing equal tit for tat, merely that in dealing with a subject of such overwhelming touchiness, it behooves an author who wishes to seek common middle ground to strive for a precise accounting that doesn’t betray even a hint of favoritism. Is such a goal obtainable? Doubtful, for no matter how the deck were stacked, it’s certain a critic from one side or the other could find some niggling adjective betraying layer upon layer of bias.

What’s remarkable about Shipler’s account then is just how equivalent both sides are in so many, many ways. For simplicity’s sake, Shipler has limited his terminology — except where relevant — to Arab and Jew, both terms taking in the vast ranges of ethnic and tribal identities on each side, to religious sects, and a great many other factors. But across the board, the Arab is viewed by Jews as low, cunning, a primitive, animalistic creature, while the Jew, viewed through an Arab lens is sneaky, greedy, cowardly, and brutal.

Both sides view the Other as all-powerful yet curiously cowardly. This dual and contradictory image allows for an sweeping perspective. The omnipotent enemy allows you the comfortable pose of victim, always beset upon by the Other. This prevents any identification with the Other, any understanding of their beliefs and issues. The cowardly aspect of the enemy allows you to excuse your vulnerabilities and mistakes as only arising from the sneakiness of cringing attacks. This is an empowering feeling that gives rise to sentiments of heroic stature, ennobling, romanticized badges of honor.

A rather fascinating side note to these warmed-over racial beliefs arises when considering how Ashkenazi Jews in Israel look down upon Sephardic Jews using the exact same terms to discuss them as Arabs. (For the uninitiated, the Ashkenazim are most commonly Jews of Northern and Eastern European extraction, often tending more toward lighter complexions; Sephardim are Jews associated with the Iberian peninsula and more Middle Eastern nations such as the Ottoman Empire, Yemen, etc., tending toward darker, more Moorish features.) The relationship between Arabs and Sephardic Jews is a curious one that is close, but also often more bitter. It is correspondingly between these two groups that intermarriage is most prevalent.

Similarly fascinating, Palestinians outside of Palestine are looked down upon by other Arabs, having applied to them the kind of stereotypical faults commonly applied to Jews: sneaky, arrogant, suspiciously good with money. And that isn’t the only point of contact. The Zionist dream of return to Jerusalem from the Diaspora has its mirror in how one generation of Palestinians in the refugee camps passes on to the next the visions of old villages now in Israel, citrus groves more luscious and glorious in dream than in reality.

Shipler breaks his book into three sections, the first dealing with a quick chronicle of the region. If there’s anything that locale is chock full of, it’s history, and he does an admirable job boiling down timeframes and incidents of notoriety and conflict. Where the book becomes truly fascinating and important is in the second section, which deals with the kind of stereotypes listed above. Shipler traces many of these to biases held by elders as well as the corrosive effects of classroom teaching materials. Like the instance above denying Jewish involvement in the removal of Arabs from Israeli held lands, Shipler also catalogs a school where “on the maps in the new Palestinian textbooks, Israel does not exist. Neither its name nor its boundaries are shown.”

Anyone familiar with racial attitudes among (generally speaking) their elders will find it almost comically familiar to hear how both Arab and Jewish parents worry that their daughters will be seduced by that exotic Other Male. To hear certain Jews speaking of Arabs, I was frequently reminded of preceding generations of white parents’ concerns for their lily daughters should they become entangled with some Negro. One almost expected to hear of mysterious philtres and love potions employed on either side by disreputable males on the make.

And to some extent, hearing such once-customary tropes proved actually heartening. While such attitudes are still widely held (if not actually voiced much in public anymore) in America, their prevalence has been declining for decades. Shipler provides this dose of optimism in the book’s third section which alternates recent events, as disheartening as that may be, with the work of youth outreach groups who bring high-school-age Arabs and Jews together for camp experiences of varying lengths.

Here both sides have a chance to express to the Other their victimization, their individuality, the way they break and conform to stereotypes. To hear the children’s testimonials as they leave is to gather that rarest of gold, optimism for the protracted conflicts in the Middle East. To learn of their gradual re-assimilation back into their dominant cultural viewpoints upon return to the wider world is the crashing return to reality.

Shipler captures all of this with a penetrating style that refuses to mollycoddle either side’s all-consuming struggle to be the victor in both triumph and in victimhood. There is always something to be depressed by when one considers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet ultimately peace seems inevitable, if not from active striving at least from the exhaustion that has overtaken so many rivalries and conflicts. At some point, eternal war is a nightmare from which the vast majority of citizens are all too eager to awake.

History-book-making be damned

Robert Blumenfeld has his hands full with names and terms I could only phonetically approximate in my notes. He is your faithful, fearless guide through this particularly clear-sighted tour of the Middle East, and he is equal to the task.

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