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Issue Date:  November 23, 2007

An inspiring tale of friendship and of peace


Like any obedient 13-year-old Long Island Jewish boy in the late 1970s, Jeffrey Goldberg agreed to have his bar mitzvah. His, though, would not be the conventional one of a moment of piety followed by a party glitzed by high cost and low taste. Instead, with his parents, who were teachers, union members and political progressives, he went to Jerusalem. There at the Western Wall, the most sacred real estate in Judaism, Jeffrey carried the Torah and said his prayers.

“By the time we came home,” Jeffrey Goldberg recalled, “I burned with love for Israel. I began this mystic pilgrimage a speck of a Jew, but I emerged utterly different, invested with a mission much larger than myself.” Seven years later, after dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he had a one-way ticket back to the Promised Land. The mission would take twists he never imagined at the Wall.

In Prisoners: A Muslim and Jew Across the Middle East Divide, Jeffrey Goldberg displays rare kinds of courage -- the moral courage of self-questioning and of looking beyond preconceptions and the physical courage of exposing himself to raw violence.

In 1990 he joined the Israeli army and found himself a part of the military police guarding some 6,000 Palestinian inmates -- from bomb makers to rock throwers -- crammed in the Ketziot prison in a scrubland two miles from the Egyptian border. The young American Jew, now an Israeli solider about to be flooded with on-the-scene knowledge of what previously had been abstractions about the Israeli-Palestinian wars, found the prison to be “bereft of kindness.” It was “an island of small-mindedness and cruelty in a brown sea of sand.”

The hatred between the Jews and Arabs in Ketziot -- the guards and the guarded -- was visceral and visual. To his credit, and perhaps for his salvation, Goldberg steered around it all by forming a friendship with a Gazan prisoner named Rafiq Hijazi. With little in common, which is how enduring relationships often begin if openness is given a chance, the two would become co-educators: teaching each other about their respective tribes and the encrusted fears and follies that drove each side to be spillers of blood.

If true knowledge is knowing that you don’t know much until you know how much you don’t know, Jeffrey Goldberg and Rafiq Hijazi began instructing each other on the lessons of trust. Despite speaking to each other through the prison’s barbed wire, they bonded intellectually, and perhaps naturally because both were bookish. “If I could make him my friend,” Goldberg writes, “we would together, in some small but consequential way, defy the wicked logic of hate and war, that we, together, would stand as a rebuke to the grotesque idea that our problem was without a solution.”

The pair did become friends, not blood brothers but closer to soul brothers in a joining of interests that would last.

Move now to the present. After his year of soldiering, Jeffrey Goldberg returned home and settled in Washington. He became a writer, a gifted one who wrote for The New Yorker for 10 years before joining The Atlantic this past summer. Rafiq Hijazi, released from Ketziot after a short stretch, came to the United States to study at American University in Washington. He earned a Ph.D. and is now a professor at a university in al-Ain in Abu Dhabi, a sheikhdom in the United Arab Emirates.

For several years the men lost contact with each other, unaware that they lived only blocks apart in the Washington neighborhood of American University Park. They eventually caught up in the Middle East, first in Palestinian Gaza and then Abu Dhabi. “If Rafiq and I could allow friendship to triumph over anger,” Goldberg concludes his story, “then it wasn’t impossible to believe that the rest of Isaac’s children, and the rest of Ishmael’s children, could stop their long and dismal war.”

I don’t know how many synagogues and mosques have bookstores on their premises, but if they do it would help if the rabbis and imams urged the faithful to buy copies of Prisoners after services. Especially ones where the preaching was about peace.

Colman McCarthy teaches peace studies at several colleges and high schools in the Washington area.

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2007

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