Prisoners-A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide by Jeffrey Goldberg


reviewed by Marc Schulman

Jeffrey Goldberg's the Prisoners is a personal memoir that describes Goldberg's journey from Long Island New York to the Ketziot prison in Israel's Negev where he served as a guard. In the second half of the book he searches, in the years that follow, for a thread of hope that permanent peace is possible between the Israelis and Palestinians. In the course of his service at Ketziot, Goldberg is forced to come to grips with the reality of how self-destructive any occupation can be. At the same time we see how deep the hatred that most of the prisoners held for Israel and Jews. Much of the rest of the book is framed by his attempt to turn the acquaintance he made in prison, a Palestinian from Gaza by the name of Rafiq, into a true friendship. Rafiq, who was a statistician but also one of the leaders of the prisoners, goes on to receive a PhD in statistics in Washington; by the end of the book Rafiq is living in the UAE as a Professor. The book ends with Goldberg and Rafiq after many years of tribulation determining that they have a true friendship. Goldberg considers this a major triumph and ends the book with a hint of optimism. Previous reviews of the book have tended to pounce on that small piece of good news to determine that the book is truly optimistic in nature.

I, however, found the book one of the most pessimistic that I have read. Goldberg left Israel after finishing his service in the army and has devoted his time to trying to better understand the conflict as well as attempting to locate Muslims who are willing to accept Israel's existence. That search was largely in vain. Along the way he learned how anti-Semitic fundamental Muslims are. On his travels to Pakistan, Goldberg asks the Pakistani terrorist leader why Bin Laden's fatwa, which the terrorist leader had signed, was against crusaders and Jews; his response was that Jews are from the devil. Goldberg spent time in the famous fundamental madras Haqqania. When he arrived he was told that the Muslims do not have problems with Christians, only with Jews. When he told them he was Jewish, in keeping with the Muslim tradition of hospitality, he was welcomed to study. During the studies he heard much about the inferiority of the Jews and the need for Jihad. He asked one of the leading teachers-if, according to Islam, Jews were twice cursed by God-he answered, Yes the first curse has already befallen your impious people. It happened in ancient times when the Babylonians destroyed your cities and enslaved your ancestors. The curse is coming he said. He finishes saying Allah in his magnificence will wipe the stain of Israel from the clean face of the earth; this is the promise of Islam. Goldberg ran into A.Q Khan who is the father of the Pakistani bomb and the one who spread the technology to other countries. Khan, Goldberg was surprised to hear, considered it important that Pakistan have the bomb not to confront India, but rather for the Muslims to have something to confront crusader Israel with. In Cairo he met with the film producer of a mini series called the Matzah of Zion. He asked the producer if understood that the series was anti-Semitic and he was told, How can the truth be anti-Semitic?

When Goldberg met the moderate Sareb Erekat soon after the failure of the Camp David summit, Erekat stated, I have never seen any proof that there was Jewish temple on Haram al ÐSharif. The Haram must be Muslim in its entirety.

Goldberg attended the funeral of a 16-year-old Palestinian who was shot during the second Intifadah by Israelis. At the graveside Marahan Bargouti (who is considered to be very moderate) spoke and referenced the Jews of Khaybar as those who were slaughtered by Muhammad's army when they would not accept Islam. When Goldberg ask Bargouti why he referenced the story Bargouti answered, It's a Jewish story.
Goldberg then asked: Are you fighting against settlements or are you fighting against Jews?
We're fighting to Free Palestine Barghouti stated.
Didn't you once tell me that peace was irrevocable? Goldberg asked
Bargouti answered, It all depended on the Israelis, I know what your going to say Barak offered 90 percent of this, 70 percent of that, I don't care; we can't take less than 100 percent.
If you get it will you put an end the conflict? asked Goldberg.
Bargouti laughed and said, Then we could talk about bigger things.

Goldberg attended a Hamas initiation ceremony for the youth in Gaza. There he heard the young recruits being told that the moral consequences of existence on earth were unbearably burdensome for true Muslims and that only the grave provided absolution, that God would never forgive them if they do not kill the Jews. It is clear that most of this book was completed before the Hamas was elected; Goldberg spent time with Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who was one of the leaders of Hamas. Hamas, more than any other group, has transformed the dispute that existed between Arabs and Israelis to one between Muslims and Jews. In Rantisi's world there is nothing called Israeli but rather there is umma which represents lightness, and the Jews who are darkness. Rantisi states that the Quran says that Jews are behind violence and wars everywhere. Rantisi told Goldberg that the Jews will lose because they crave life, but a true Muslim loves death. On the day of the interview an acquaintance of the Goldberg's was killed in the suicide bombing at the Mt Scopus campus of Hebrew University. Goldberg's comment as he reflected on meeting with Rantisi was that The humiliation of the checkpoints did not cause Marla Bennetts death. She was killed by the followers of Moloch; the pagan god whose bible demands the lives of Jerusalem's children. Rantisi was assassinated by the Israelis soon after.

Goldberg's short update at the end of the book is pessimistic. He refers to Ehud Olmerts as someone who may be more inclined to compromise the Sharon but less equipped as he is a mere politician and not one of Israel's founders. He states that the removal of every last settlement in return for peace would be a bargain but even that would not satisfy the Hamas. He briefly touches on the true existential threat from a nuclear Iran stating the Iran's president seems to be possessed with the spirit of Berlin in 1938 and that it was not wise to take his threats to eradicate Israel as mere threats. He recounts toward the very end a conversation he had in Teheran with Ramdan Shallah, the leader of the Islamic Jihad, who stated that his friends among Iran's Mullahs wished more than anything to bring about the eradication of Israel; We shall show the Jews a black day and we will not stop until we're finished.

Goldberg's main storyline is supposed to be about a Muslim and a Jew across the Middle East. What makes this book a must read is how the book displays just how deep that divide really is.

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