David Shipler, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in the Promised Land (New York: Times Books, 1986).

Reading this massive 556-page book by David Shipler, the New York Times correspondent in Jerusalem from 1979-1984, is dizzyingly similar to reading 200 Times feature stories in a row. Shipler’s compendium of profiles, interviews and reflections on Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs is structured in the main as a series of miniature stories, linked by Shipler’s own reflections and analysis, both overt and tacit.

Shipler’s project is to “examine the attitudes, images and stereotypes that Arabs and Jews have of one another, the roots of their aversions, and complex interactions between them in the small territory where they live together under Israeli rule.” The “roots of their aversions” thrusts the book’s focus also into the realm of history and politics, realms which are not easily comprehended through profile and anecdote, which is essentially the methodology of the book.

The method makes the book immensely readable. Shipler has a feel for place (especially Jerusalem) and often a rapport with his subjects. He is interested in a variety of topics: people’s jokes, intermarriage (he presents an interesting profile of Juliano Mer, the son of Saliba Khamis, a leading Arab communist, and Arna Mer, a Jew from a socialist family originating in Rumania), epithets in the lady’s restroom in Hebrew University (in a row, “Arabs, dogs, donkeys, horses, cats, mice”). He has a good eye for incongruous detail: surveying the apartment of Alexander Finkelshtein, a leader in the movement to keep Jewish Upper Nazareth “pure and free of dirty Arabs,” Shipler writes:

The bathroom stinks. A bookshelf holds a jumble of dusty rocks and fossils; on the walls hang snakeskins and a bandolier of bullets. Dirty dishes fill the sink of the grimy kitchen, which seems to spill into the living room, for it is in the living room where, inexplicably, the Finkelshteins keep their refrigerator.

An advantage of Shipler’s method, if successful, is that it can mirror the layers of reality Shipler seeks to comprehend as well as restore the human dimension missing at least in American misunderstanding of the Middle East and its people. Palestinian teachers, sheikhs, businessmen and schoolchildren mingle in Shipler’s pages with Israeli settlers, rabbis, philosophers, soldiers, and teenagers. There are few professional politicians, although Israeli figures like Rafael Eitan and Yuval Ne’man contribute a few chilling moments. The problem of the method, however, is pastiche, and Shipler wavers toward pastiche. History is also presented in this form: massacres of Palestinians at Dayr Yasin, Kafr Qasim and Qibya are given as vignettes of brutality and are contrasted with what Shipler terms “synthetic Israeli history.”

The major part of the book is on “images”: the violent, craven Arab/Jew, the primitive, exotic Arab, the alien, superior Jew. He includes chapters on sexuality, class, and segregation, although again his anecdotes are more interesting than his analysis. He begins his discussion of “Segregation and Class” with one of the few jokes that, according to his criterion, “deflated an absurdity and poked fun at a revered legacy with the required touch of fine, disturbing pleasure.” The joke is this: a venerated founder of a well-known Israeli kibbutz is standing with his small grandson, looking out over the prosperous settlement. “See that road,” the old man says proudly to the boy. “I built it. See that house? I built it. See that field? I plowed it.” “Oh Grandpa,” the boy says, “did you used to be an Arab?”

Shipler augments his interviews with Israeli and Palestinian with an array of polls, press and quotes from Israeli and Arab textbooks and literature. Yet it is his portrait of Israelis — and to be sure their attitudes toward Arabs — that is the most convincing and multi-dimensional, perhaps because Shipler’s relation to Israeli society was more intimate and reflective. Palestinian society — though not some of the individuals Shipler portrays — remains largely alien. Indeed, on a (very) few occasions, Shipler mirrors the stereotyping that he condemns. Musing on the lack of “Jewish agony” and “philosophic search for morality” in Palestinians living under Israeli rule, he briskly affirms that “disagreements among them are often resolved by assassination, a practice that tends to discourage public breast-beating.”

Aside from this unexpectedly crude assertion, Shipler’s search for “agony” — by which he means painful introspection — is central to his own set of values, along with pluralism, tolerance and humanism. It would be hard to quarrel with these values: Shipler, however, informs his own inquiry into Israeli and Palestinian society with this moral framework (and a very American version of the same) without either recognizing or evaluating it. He is a humane, tolerant man in search of others like himself. It is a familiar stance among many of his fellow Western liberal foreign correspondents and sets clear, if unacknowledged, limits to their understanding.

One of the few times Shipler allows his own emotions and reactions to surface is when he and a Swedish journalist visit Ansar prison and interview Salih Ta‘amri, the charismatic head of the Ansar prisoners’ committee. Cordelia, the Swedish journalist, is a survivor of Auschwitz, a fact which adds fuel to Shipler’s rage at Ta‘amri’s comparison of Ansar to Auschwitz, and of the Palestinian experience to the Holocaust. “Tell him, Cordelia,” he urges in his mind. “Tell him who you are. Roll up your sleeve. Show him the number.” He adds: “I ached for her to do it, to throw it in his complacent face. Tell him. Educate him. Let’s see how he confronts truth.” Suddenly, the author who is probing the multi-dimensional “truths” of a complex situation becomes reductive, and the American journalist, who has been in neither Auschwitz or Ansar, is measuring the experience of the latter by the “truth” of the former. Yet Shipler clearly feels his own reaction is genuine and universal, while Ta‘amri’s is contrived and partisan. Cordelia, for her part, later tells Shipler why she didn’t reveal her past to Ta‘amri: “It wouldn’t have been fair. He was behind bars and I was free.”

Despite a wealth of well-presented information on Israeli racism toward Palestinians, Shipler has a strong aversion to what he calls “propaganda.” It is a word along with “indoctrinated” used most often to describe Palestinians — interestingly enough, almost exclusively Palestinians from refugee camps. Their militancy, even among children, clearly alarms Shipler. In his reflection on Dahaysha refugee camp, he entirely collapses the spectrum of Palestinian politics to a kind of consolidated fanaticism: “I came to feel that the end result was pretty much the same, whether the force of fanaticism was religious or secular. In the cauldrons of political extremism, such as the Dheisheh refugee camp, young Palestinians were bombarded with a barrage of conflicting symbols: the crescent and the star, the hammer and sickle, the faces of mullahs and PLO leaders and Communists.” Perhaps not merely propaganda and fanaticism are repellent to Shipler, but politics itself.

Shipler ends his book with the “dream” of Jewish-Arab understanding and reconciliation, which he embodies in Neve Shalom, a Jewish-Arab kibbutz near Latrun which runs encounter groups for Jewish and Arab teenagers. Neve Shalom is a well-meaning anti-racist experiment. It is, by press accounts at least, personally enriching for its participants, but it is surely a slightly forlorn model for peace. Shipler, Candide fashion, tries to convince Israeli friends that the model of Neve Shalom can be applied to the occupied territories. He finds no other fellow optimists, and the only example of current positive Jewish-Arab cooperation in the occupied territories he cites is a “joint soccer team.” Nonetheless, he mines every lode. He reveals, for example, that King Hussein was born in Hadassah Hospital. This juicy tidbit seems (alas) to be apocryphal, but in any case it is hardly a firm basis for coexistence.

Given his preoccupations, it is interesting that Shipler does not discuss the numerous efforts at political cooperation, including coordinated action against the occupation, undertaken between Israeli peace activists and Palestinians in the occupied territories, efforts that peaked during Shipler’s term in Jerusalem. This terrain apparently does not engage Shipler — perhaps because it is based on joint politics rather than the elusive common humanity Shipler is seeking.

How to cite this article:

Marilyn Johnson "Shipler, Arab and Jew," Middle East Report 146 (May/June 1987).

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