The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Shades of Gray: A Review

David K. Shipler,a New York Times reporter based in Jerusalem during the early 1980s, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for  Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. His book, rather than attempting to give a history of the conflict, was an honest look at the relationships between Arabs and Jews. It contained interviews with many people who were deeply involved in the conflict, yet it refused to advocate for one side over the other. In his preface to the first edition, Shipler wrote:

This is not a book about the diplomatic, political, or military dimensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor is it a chronicle of Israel’s domestic evolution. Those elements are presented only insofar as they shed light on the subject at hand. Rather, the purpose here is to examine the attitudes, images, and stereotypes that Arabs and Jews have of one another, the roots of their aversions, and the complex interactions between them in the small territory where they live together under Israeli rule: the strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (xxviii).

9780553447514In 2015, the book came out in a revised and expanded edition, and I’ve been reading that edition over the last several months. While I have spent lots of time studying the ancient history of the area, I knew relatively little about its more recent history. And while, as mentioned above, this book is not a history book, I found it to be an enlightening window on the day-to-day lives of people who live under a great amount of pressure.  Shipler organizes the book into three parts:

First, the broad forces that contribute to aversion, namely the engines of war, nationalism, terrorism, and religious absolutism. … Second, the catalogue if images, each of the other, some held in parallel, some unique to the Arab-Jewish relationship, some reminiscent of stereotypes between other groups in other societies. Third, the complexities of interaction, from cultural and religious affinity to the idealistic efforts of a few Jews and Arabs to reach across the gap of ignorance.” (15–16)

The conflict boils down to this: both Jews and Arabs want to live in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and both believe they have a legitimate claim to that land. Beyond that, there are what seem like a million shades of nuance. There are not just Arabs who live in the West Bank and Gaza but also Arabs who are citizens of Israel. There are Bedouins. While most Palestinian Arabs are Muslim, there is a minority of Christians among them. There are also different kinds of Jews—the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, who emigrated from different places and generally have different statuses within Israeli society.

Shipler presents the nuances of the conflict so well that by the end of the book I could only arrive one conclusion: it’s complicated, it’s a mess, and I don’t know what ought to be done. There are no clear good guys and bad guys in this book. Jews may have the political power in their society, and so it is easy to conclude that Arabs are the only victims. On the other hand, Israeli Jews are also surrounded by hostile neighbors and are haunted by memories of their own victimhood in the Holocaust. What does Shipler himself think should be done? He doesn’t offer particular policy proposals, but rather points toward empathy:

Because I am a writer, and I write about what people think, I naturally believe that it helps to know the other side’s viewpoint, even if you don’t accept it. So in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the narrative of the other needs to be heard. Jews see the creation of Israel as a rebirth founded on historical justice. That does not mean that it was a rebirth for Palestinians. That they see it as al-Nakba, the catastrophe, doesn’t mean it was a catastrophe for Jews. But the two narratives must somehow be spliced together, not to endorse the other side’s story but to recognize it, to acknowledge it, to say, okay, yes, you had that experience. We had our experience. We honor your story. We honor your experience. You honor ours. That is the hardest task, much more difficult than drawing lines on a map. (682)

This is a long book at 700+ pages (200 or so more than the first edition), so I could only recommend it to committed readers with a bit of time on their hands. It’s not beach reading, unless you go to the beach to contemplate the tragedies of intractable cultural conflict (I know there are some of you out there). But it is a worthwhile read, and contains many wonderful stories and vignettes from various slices of society in Israel and the West Bank. Readers who have already decided that they are on one side or the other will more than likely not find it satisfying. However, those who, like myself, are newcomers to the conflict and are looking only to listen will find in this book a wonderfully thorough introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.