By Jim Miles
Violence in the Holy Land – Witnessing the Conflict in the Middle East. Ed. Robert Wolf. Free River Press, Lansing, Iowa. 2004.
The original concept for this work, as described by the editor Robert Wolf, is that of a writing workshop during which Israeli and Arab participants discuss aspects of writing technique at the same time having a dialogue about the issues involved. Wolf admits, “Up until the final workshop, few Arabs had participated,” with the result that several (the number is not given) titles from the Arab perspective were delivered after the workshop. While that would short change the dialogue portion of the workshop, the final product does have a balance of writings between Israeli and Arab.
But then one has to question “balance” as current media try to “balance” their stories with what the media consider to be equal representation from both sides of the story even if one side is fully dominant in all other contexts. Fortunately for this book, there is a balance of quantity as well as, for the most part, a balance of either reasoned response or honest emotional response on both sides. As a reviewer, I do not look for balance, I work as an advocate towards a certain objective – in this case, two groups being able to survive and prosper peacefully within the same geographic space.
For the editor, the purpose is to promote much needed dialogue between the two viewpoints. As a starting point, this volume works well, but it is not so much a dialogue as a series of statements from both sides of the conflict. Underneath it all is one of the essential questions of humanity – why cannot we live in peace?
For all that, this series of personal stories works, creating an effective image of two estranged people. One expresses the anguish of loving a land their families have lived on for many generations, and the suffering yet undeniable resilience of a people under occupation. The other expresses a different view, from the fear of living under the threat of terrorist suicide bombings, to the anguish of loving a land that is riven with violence, to the awareness that the military occupation and the denial of the “other” has corrupted the dream of a homeland. Is there a common theme? Yes, that of ordinary people not fully comprehending why the violence and why cannot there be peace.
Several points along the way are revealing and conducive towards further dialogue. One writer states “People make peace. The leaders will find any reason to continue the conquest only because of the fear of losing the helm.” She then asks “Is it at all possible to educate a whole people…so that positive behavior will emerge on both sides. Who has the courage to undertake this education?” Fortunately the answer to the question is that many have the courage to undertake the education, but part of the answer also involves those in power, the leaders who fear losing their own position in power.
There are times my advocacy over-rides my listening or empathy skills. Such an occurrence arose when reading the statement that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” This is a highly arguable statement, arguments of which I will not get into here as they are well expressed in other articles and by other writers. The writer does close with an interesting statement concerning “other Arab states” who “are terrified of what might arise out of Palestinians and Jews working together to create an oasis of power, sanity, and peace.” Apart from the ‘power’ aspect, an oasis of sanity and peace would be highly commendable. Again however, my advocacy recommends that other readers need to consider the overall context of that ‘power’ structure as it now exists, and the extent to which that ‘power’ also resides in U.S. support of Israeli actions and U.S. influence on other Arab governments.
My advocacy again interfered with my ‘empathic reading’ with another writer who stated, “the Palestinian Authority had made almost no progress in creating jobs in the territories….” This statement, while obviously reflecting an open personal expression, indicates a lack of understanding of the effects a military occupation can have on a people.
The democracy issue arose later in the work in a question “What will happen to America if the only democratic ally in the Middle East is annihilated?” The writer then continues about being “the oldest living race in existence today” a statement that would require genetic studies to determine its truth. The writer also invokes the Jewish history of oppression as a reason for creating a new state of Israel, taking that argument to its logical absurdity of why should people give back conquered lands, the U.S. has not done it with the Native Americans. The latter is the most disturbing as it does not address the idea that perhaps national and international laws are much more developed now than previously and need to be applied to ‘modern’ democratic societies; and just because someone else acts aggressively and violently against an indigenous population does not excuse anyone else from doing so.
Timelines are important for this book. Fortunately for the above author she has the ability to reflect on her current state of knowledge saying, “Still I hope that one fine day I’ll be able [to] look back on this piece, smack myself in the forehead, laugh and say to myself, “What was I thinking?”
Violence in the holy land was written during 2003, with a few side comments addressed to the new conflict in Iraq. Since then, the U.S. ‘roadmap’ has led nowhere, Israel has been involved in a war with Lebanon in 2006 and the current fully militarized attack on Gaza in 2008-2009. It would be highly instructive if these same people could re-address their writing, their previous thoughts, in a forum where dialogue – and education – was paramount and the writing process secondary.
Coffee and Tea
“They [the Zionists] conveniently forgot to mention our Semitic cousins, the Palestinians. There are two stories in this land called Israel,” writes an IDF volunteer. Violence in the holy land expresses those two voices well. The book ends on the idea of hope, expressed by a thirteen year old who understands the metaphor of drinking Bedouin coffee, “black, harsh and bitter”, symbolizing life, followed by “the sweetest tea one could imagine,” symbolizing hope.
Robert Wolf’s compilation of stories provides strong insights into the thinking of the two adversaries, both for the most part wishing not to be adversaries. A Volume Two would be appropriate at this time, a chance for the writers to really look back and reflect on their writing and to define what has transpired with their own education on the issues in the meantime. A fuller dialogue, as “Sometimes we like to pour a whole lot of sugar in our coffee.”
(To purchase the book or learn more, click here.)
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.