My brother the quarryman

By Arnold Wesker

Arnold Wesker salutes Daniel Gavron's attempts to look impartially at the problems of the Middle East in The Other Side of Despair

Saturday May 29, 2004
The Guardian

This seemed to me an important book when I read it; post-Madrid and post-Sheik Yassin, it is an urgent book to read. As Daniel Gavron writes: "Although it is the bombs and bullets that capture the headlines, numerous examples exist of friendly cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians."

The Other Side of Despair: Jews and Arabs in the Promised Land
by Daniel Gavron
224pp, Rowman & Littlefield, 17.95

We are desperately hungry to know about them. This book is a kind of Jewish Via Dolorosa. David Hare spent a few weeks in Israel and interviewed a motley collection of Jews and Palestinians. Gavron, London born, has lived for 43 years in Israel, where he has worked as a journalist, written five books of non-fiction and two novels about life in Israel and its history, and was a founding member of the team that established the Palestine-Israel Journal. In his hugely intelligent and originally structured book he has interviewed and drawn portraits of 16 remarkable Palestinians and Jews. His conclusions are startling.

The late Professor Talmon of the Hebrew University once gave a lecture attempting to explain how the sociological and political development of the previous centuries led up to the Nazi holocaust. In it he used a very interesting phrase: "Release from awe and respect".

European civilisation, he argued, had gradually evolved a state of mind in which "the group" was considered the instrument for either good or evil. There were no individuals, there were only groups. Attempting to evaluate the virtues and failings of each individual took too much time. It was simpler, cosier, to declare that "the group" was at fault. For some it was "the bourgeoisie" that was the instrument of suffering, while the working class was the instrument of change for the better.

To the Protestants it was Catholics who caused the world's ills; for the Catholics the Protestants were to blame. Such thinking, Talmon argued, led to a release from that awe and respect which the individual could command. The group was too nebulous to require it, whereas the individual face forced us to have awe and respect. Confronting him or her made judgment a complex affair; it was easier to judge a group, which conveniently had no individual human face - no eyes to look into, no individual life to care about, no conscience to question.

The delight, optimism and sheer relief of Gavron's book is that it draws our perception away from the group - "the Arabs", "the Jews", "the Palestinians" - and focuses our attention on individuals. Instantly our hearts warm, and instead of our phobias about groups, our intelligence comes into play, we have awe and respect. And against a historical background, how well he's knitted their reported and actual speech, and how vivid and attractive they emerge, offering fresh pictures of Israeli/Palestinian life.

It is true that suffering exists on both sides. Gavron is not afraid to spell it out. "Although the Palestinians have suffered far more than the Israelis, both sides have been harmed. There has been enormous damage to the Israeli economy; the Palestinian economy has been all but destroyed; the continuous disruption of both societies has resulted in irreparable harm to both national psyches."

To Gavron the basic problem is simple: "Two peoples lay claim to the same piece of real estate. Somehow it has to be shared, and the complications emerge in working out how ... Israelis and Palestinians live among each other, entwined in a deadly, unbreakable embrace ... There is no right or wrong here - simply different angles of vision."

In this clearly assembled, imaginatively researched selection of interviews Gavron offers those different angles of vision, many of which were, to me at least, unknown. How many are aware, for example, that Palestinians produced most of the world's Arabic computer software? How many know that in 1948 David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, "smashed the main Jewish dissident organisation, the Irgun Zvai Leumi"? - unlike the Palestinians' President Arafat, who refuses to disband the Arab dissident organisation Hamas.

His interviews begin with personalities from the past, such as Nasser Eddin Nashashibi, a Palestinian Arab of the old school and a member of one of the two most influential families in Palestine, the other being the Husseinis. Between them they owned urban real estate, olive and citrus groves, farms and businesses, and were fierce rivals. On his first meeting with Gavron in 1987, Nashashibi boomed out: "Good morning Mr Gavron. What a bloody mess! I don't know what the hell is going to happen, do you?" Although he's one of "yesterday's men", despite living through distress, disappointments and failed attempts to reconcile his people with the Jews, he is still able to declare: "My dear sir, it is nonsense to talk of unsolvable problems. Every problem has a solution. Reason can solve everything. But bombs, rockets and bullets have no place any more."

Such reasoning is echoed by another Palestinian, Tariq Essawi, who observes: "Whatever happens in this country, you are going to be here tomorrow morning, and so am I." What makes this rational observation poignant is that Essawi is one of two bereaved parents interviewed by Gavron. The other is an Israeli, Yitzhak Frankenthal. Both lost their sons. Essawi has a nephew who is planning to study law at the Hebrew University. That's an image few conjure up at the mention of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict - a Palestinian going to an Israeli college to study law.

Gavron's book is full of such fresh images: Lova Eliav, an Israeli pioneer and long-standing member of the Labour party who was once in line to take over the leadership, lost his position and prospects, and shocked his comrades, when he proposed the idea of a confederation of Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and even laid out a practical programme for joint exploration of resources; Adi Eilat, an Israeli refusenik who decided it was not soldiers who kill mothers and children that are to blame - they are merely frightened, jumpy young men in an abnormal battlefield. "It is the situation we have to change."

Samir Huleileh is the marketing and export manager of Nassar Jerusalem Stone, the largest quarry and stone-processing factory in the Middle East. Gavron records that: "It buys 40% of its raw materials from Israel, sells a third of its products to Israel, and exports to 32 countries via Israeli ports." Another fresh image, of life continuing through trade. An Israeli businessman says of Huleileh: "These guys are amazing. With all the curfews and closures, they keep operating. If there are only four available hours in a day, they will use them to the full. It's a pleasure to do business with them."

And what is one to make of Menahem Froman, a rabbi and passionate Zionist on intimate terms with both Ariel Sharon and Arafat, as well as with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, now Lord Carey? Froman thinks that the Jews should give up the conventional concept of national sovereignty and favours both an Israeli state and a Palestinian Arab state in all of Palestine. Jerusalem, he maintains, is too big for either Israel or Palestine. It can be the religious and cultural capital of the world.

The conclusion that Gavron reaches from listening to these diverse, reasonable and imaginative voices (13 men, three women) is that the Israelis and Palestinians have proved not only that they can live side by side but have declared that they want to live side by side; there is no other way. Most of them think it should be in two separate states. Gavron thinks otherwise. He believes - and this is what is startling - that they should live side by side in a single state, to be called Jerusalem.

"The borders are already irrelevant," states Gavron in his final paragraph. "I am suggesting that Israeli and the Palestinian territories can be merged into a dynamic, multi-ethnic, culturally rich nation with new forms of co-existence between its different constituents ... We must repudiate our phobias and prejudices and make a quantum jump ... vaulting beyond despair." The Jewish, Palestinian and Christian voices within his book reaffirm a humane sanity of which we are all desperately in need.


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The Other Side of Despair - A book by Daniel Gavron

The State of Jerusalem

About Daniel Gavron

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