Bigger lessons from “Arab and Jew”…

One of my favorite discoveries on Facebook is the “Hide all from…” option.  It has allowed me to continue to enjoy updates from beloved family and friends without having to choose between “unfriending” them or being constantly upset by posts that offend me or question my patriotism/morality/intelligence/common sense/right to exist on the planet.  (Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating on the last one, though not by much…)  Here’s the thing:  I pride myself on being open-minded, and on recognizing that there is ALWAYS another side to a topic, which is why I don’t want to resort to cutting out of my life all the people who don’t agree with me on every issue.

What does this have to do with my latest reading, Arab and Jew:  Wounded Spirits In a Promised Land (Crown Publishing Group, 2015)?  Well, if ever there was a case of “us vs. them”, of a refusal to accept or even acknowledge another side to a situation, it’s the Arab-Israeli conflict.  I’ll quote author David K. Shipley from his epilogue, because I think he cuts to the heart of not only the book, but the universality of the issues:

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 it was a rebirth for Palestinians.  That they see it as al-Nakba, the catastrophe, doesn’t mean it was a catastrophe for the 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.

That it takes Shipley almost 700 pages to fully explain the experiences, beliefs, stereotypes, and grudges of the two sides speaks to the complexity of the situation, as well as to his fairness and unique ability to organize, clarify, and present labyrinthine information.  This book won a very deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1987 after it was first published because it is, frankly, remarkable.  The writing is engaging, the author’s voice is thoughtful and considered, and the numerous personalities upon which the narrative is based speak in their own authentic and unique ways.

I was a bit uncertain at first about the relevance or structure of a book re-issued after almost thirty years with updated footnotes and post-scripts, but my concerns were unfounded.  The text reads seamlessly, and the contrast of 1980’s attitudes to current ones only underscores the universality of the observations.  Shipley leaves no stone unturned in his effort to present a thoughtful and complete representation of the relationships and stereotypes between Arabs and Jews.  While there is some discussion of military and political actions and developments, most of this text looks at personal and individual experiences.  Movies, novels, television programs, textbooks, school curriculums, legal interactions, and cultural practices are all examined and interwoven into a complex tapestry that leaves the reader better able to understand the whole picture.

The result, though, does not leave the reader optimistic about an eventual resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  One friend of Shipley summed up the difference between the 1980’s Israel originally portrayed and the current one as “Everything is the same, just worse.” And as I read, I was constantly reflecting on what the situation tells us about the bigger picture of all human interactions.

Which takes me back to my original Facebook comparison, as well as to other books I have reviewed recently, such as Nonsense:  The Power of Not Knowing, by Jamie Holmes (who includes a discussion of a mixed experimental Arab and Jewish school in one of his chapters), or Travel As a Political Act, by Rick Steves (who devotes an entire chapter to “The Holy Land”). We humans seem to have a deep need for an “other”, and the temptation to view ourselves as “victims” of that “other” is intense.  Over and over in Shipley’s narrative we hear about how both sides of the Arab-Jew divide view themselves as “victims” of the “other”.  We humans also seem to have a requirement for concrete, black and white answers and a unique cognitive ability to reject any information that contradicts our conclusions, so that considerations of the viewpoints of the “other” become unacceptable.  I see this “victimhood” and rejection of the “other” in our current political dialogue, and it saddens me.  But it also encourages me to take a stand personally as someone who will continue my relationships with those friends and family members who may hold “other” views.  I don’t have to accept those opinions, and I have the right to not view a shared post that belittles or disparages me,  but if I can stretch a hand across the divide and try to listen to their viewpoints when they are sincerely and thoughtfully expressed, then perhaps I can make a small contribution towards avoiding the kind of polarization that leads to segregation, marginalization, suicide bombings, and Holocausts.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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