Arab And Jew: Wounded Spirits In A Promised Land: Revised And Updated, by David K. Shipler
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/BDWY Books in exchange for an honest review.]
Although this book is written with an excellent prose style, having won a Pulitzer Prize when it was first published in the mid-1980’s from an author known for his general left wing views when it comes to race and class in the United States of America, it is a difficult book to read. This is true for at least a couple of reasons. For one, the book is exceedingly long, about 700 pages. For another, the book is full of biases and clear ideological commitments that are somewhat shifting and that make it a difficult book to appreciate. The author, to his credit, has a tightrope to walk that he tries his best to manage, in seeking to present the Arab-Israeli conflict as fairly as possible without equating the two sides completely in moral terms, given that on the Arab side so-called moderates are often terrorists who show little self-criticism about the behavior of the PLO or other terrorist groups, while to support Israel is a task that earns one little credit outside of Jewish and conservative American audiences, and though this author seeks to be fair to Jews, he has little reason to be particularly interested in appealing to conservative audiences, as this book makes abundantly clear.
In terms of its content, the book consists mainly of mostly lengthy chapters, divided into three parts, that contain mostly material written in the 1980’s with closing parts of the chapter updated to reflect conditions in 2014 or so. It’s not a pretty picture. The first section, Aversion, discusses war, nationalisms, terrorism, and religious absolutism, and paints a picture of two peoples who appear to be committed to brutal and unending conflict despite being neighbors in a small country with little room for either to feel safe. The second section, Images, discusses various stereotypes, of the violent craven Arab and Jew, the primitive, exotic Arab and the alien, superior Jew, and tackles issues of segregation and class, sexual fears and fantasies, mirrors of Semitism , and issues of the Holocaust. The third part, Interaction, examines the mingling of cultures, issues of relations with the Arab Bedouin, the ubiquity of secret police, Arab citizens, mixed marriages, and the dream of peaceful coexistence, with an epilogue about the problem of climbing over the wall. Together these chapters contain a great deal of repetition, clear examples of bias on the part of the author, mostly in his desire to demonize right-leaning elements in Israeli and American society, including the Church of God, and a lot of personal stories gained over what appears to be frequent travels in the area.
What is the worth of a book like this? On the one hand, the author has immense ambitions in encouraging cross-cultural communication between Jews and Arabs, and in getting both sides to recognize the difficulties the others have faced, most notably the horrors of the Holocaust that many Muslims still deny ever happened as well as the so-called catastrophe of Arab losses of land in what is now Israel thanks to the intransigence of Muslim nations whose attacks on Israel at the birth of the nation were so spectacularly unsuccessful that they cost Arabs an immense amount of territory and set the context for continuing Israeli victory against their Arab enemies. The author, though, is no optimist, and the book as a whole gives little credence for optimism, as the author well recognizes. Likewise, the author’s own biases, both in attempting to create a false equilibrium between Israeli and Arab, and in refusing to recognizing the legitimacy of a biblicist mindset, or of traditional mindsets in general, keep this book from being as successful as it could have been because the author’s own editorializing gets in the way of understanding the Middle East over and over again. Likewise, the fact that the author downplays the level of anti-Semitism faced by Jews in the United States throughout our history, which is dealt with by hand-waving that says that Jews do not feel like outsiders in the United States, or have faced any discrimination at all, gives the book a dishonest edge by seeking to downplay the realities Jews have faced, so as to paint their behavior in Israel as more oppressive than it would be seen as with an honest and balanced view, if such a thing is possible. This book is a testament to the intent of the author to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it ultimately leaves the reader with the unpleasant and unpalatable feeling of the author’s interest in matters of sexuality, his political biases, and a lot of wasted ink and paper that could have been more productively spent had the author not been so stridently mistaken.
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