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BOOK REVIEW:

Violence in the holy land Begs for a Sequel to Show what Contributors Have Learned

Reviewed by Jim Miles
6 February 2009
Violence in the holy land—Witnessing the Conflict in the Middle East
Edited by Robert Wolf
Free River Press, Lansing, Iowa. 2004

Peace is difficult to achieve, even if both sides want it, so long as their leaders want to hold onto their power.
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 while 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 shortchange 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 the current media try to “balance” their stories with what they consider to be equal representation from both sides of the story, even if one side is fully dominant in all other contexts. Fortunately, in 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, towards two groups being able to survive and prosper peacefully within the same geographic space.

Peace

For the editor of this book, the purpose is to promote much-needed dialogue between the two viewpoints. As a starting point, this premise works well, but the book 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?

It serves little purpose to try to justify recent behavior with ancient examples. National and international laws are much more developed now than previously, and need to be applied to ‘modern’ democratic societies.

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 that power.

Democracy

My advocacy sometimes overrides 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; I will not get into the arguments here, as they are well expressed in other articles and by other writers. The writer who made that statement in this book closes with an interesting thought 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, but 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 Israel's actions and in 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 the question, “What will happen to America if the only democratic ally in the Middle East is annihilated?” The writer then continues on about Jews 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 being oppressed as a reason for creating a new state of Israel, taking that argument to its logical absurdity: Why should people give back conquered lands?, noting that the U.S. has not done that with the Native Americans. The latter thought is all the more disturbing because 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. Just because someone else has acted aggressively and violently against an indigenous population does not excuse anyone else who does so.

Time

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 conflict in Iraq. Since then, the U.S. ‘roadmap’ to peace between Israelis and Palestinians has led nowhere, and Israel has been involved in a war with Lebanon in 2006 and with the recent fully militarized attack on Gaza in 2008-2009.

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 13-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, and would offer 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.”


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.



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This story was published on February 6, 2009.