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Book Review


Shipler, David K., Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land (Penguin Books 2002). 531 pp, $17.00.

     The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the most well-known in the world and yet - even for the most informed - it is perhaps the least understood.  Students may be eager to learn about this topic but teachers may find themselves unprepared to present information and lead discussions in a balanced, historically accurate way.  Herein lies the challenge for teachers and students seeking an unbiased understanding of an inherently biased conflict. 1
     David Shipler's book, Arab and Jew:  Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land presents this conflict through the eyes and voices of the people who are directly involved. Shipler focuses on Israeli-Palestinian relations as part of a broader Arab-Jewish conflict.  Although 'Arab and Jew' often defines the conflict, 'Arab' does not exclusively refer to Palestinians (a national identity) or Muslims (a religious identity), while 'Jew' does not refer exclusively to Israelis (a national identity).   The distinction, however, is not always clear even to those directly involved.  For example, the "tensions between Palestinians and other Arabs are scarcely noticed in the Israeli ideology of nationalism, which tends to lump Palestinians into the larger Arab world" (47).  In terms of religious identity, the conflict entangles Chrisitians, Muslims, Druze, and Jews among others that envelop a multitude of political, economic, and social affiliations (435).  To make sense of this, Shipler presents not merely societies in conflict, but rather human societies struggling to find a way to live together. 2
     Arab and Jew presents stories from multiple perspectives woven together to elucidate those similarities and differences at the core of conflict.  The book is divided into three sections within which Shipler examines Arab-Jewish relations.   The first section of the book (Chapters 1-4), delves into the issues of "war, nationalism, terrorism, and religious absolutism."   Through these themes, Shipler emphasizes the region's history since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, especially since the Second World War.  According to Shipler, the conflicts of the Middle East have evolved from their roots within post-colonial global issues, such as imperialism and self-determination, on the heels of an era of revolutions. 3
     In the second part (Chapters 5-12) of the book, Shipler explores the images and stereotypes that each side holds about the other.   To illustrate these, he uses the contrasting "Primitive, Exotic Arab" and the "Alien, Superior Jew." Images found in high school textbooks are offered as the predominant means used to perpetuate stereotypes.  For example, "on the maps in the new Palestinian textbooks, Israel does not exist.   Neither its name nor its boundaries are shown" (63).   In both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks and classrooms, history is often distorted or colored by emotion so that young students "grow up knowing what they are expected to think and to say, and they are conditioned to express a commitment without thought" (38).  Shipler introduces us, for example, to a young woman who began to "look back on the origins of her attitudes about Arabs.  She traced them partly to the Hebrew school she attended once a week in the United States.  'I think that mostly the way I absorbed information about Arabs was lack of information,' she said. 'That is, the whole story about Israel was told as if Arabs didn't exist at all…So, a very liberal background on the one hand and a lot of misinformation and lack of information on the other hand'"(475).  And yet, anywhere in the world, a classroom is certainly not the only place where history is learned.   As such, for the Palestinians it is not only that "words in textbooks and newspapers were unimportant, but that passions in the street were inflamed by the daily indignities of living under occupation"  (529). 4
     In the final part (Chapters 13-18) of the book, Shipler proves the power of human interaction.    Here Shipler provides examples of direct efforts between Arabs and Jews in the region to interact peacefully in contrast to the negative interactions most prevalently displayed in the media.  At the beginning of Chapter 18, for example, Shipler reports on an encounter at an interfaith community called Neve Shalom that was created "to demonstrate harmony across the barriers of distrust" (458).   Here he reports on a groups of "Arab and Jewish high-school students, most in eleventh and twelfth grades, [who]…spend four days together in workshops and conversations in an effort to reach across the great divide" (459). 5
      Shipler illustrates how young people can begin to understand the idea of perspective.   In 2001, returning to a school where almost none of the students had been optimistic about the Israeli-Palestinian situation in 1993, Shipler finds hope:

At the outset of the peace process eight years before, I told them, another group of seniors in this school had….declared themselves the sole victims, failing to recognize the vicitimization of the other side.   Now, even at the twilight of that prospect for peace, and amid the severe bloodshed, the acute disappointment, the bestial images of Arabs as non-human, this new group held a consensus that Arabs as well as Jews had been victims of this long struggle.   Why the change?….'This is the education that we're getting," explained Sivan.  'We're being taught about all kinds of things we did to them, that they have rights, that they're human beings…We must understand that in their eyes we are the conquerors.'  (522)

      To look closely at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we find that it is not just about Israel and Palestine.  It is also one of many large, complex political and religious conflicts that can be re-examined in terms of the human dimension that fuels it.  Israelis and Palestinians have converged upon this tiny, contested piece of land from across the globe.  To illustrate this important aspect of the conflict, Shipler describes the people who observe Israel's Day of Rememberence on Mount Herzl.  "They or their fathers have come to this place from Poland and Yemen, Morocco and Greece, Argentina and Belgium, India and the United States---scholars with soft hands, farmers with hard hands, wealthy and poor, men who pray and men who don't, mothers and fathers and brothers and sons and sisters and wives and friends of those who lie in the graves.  All of Israel is here, every piece of the mosaic" (6). 7
      Despite its daunting length, Arab and Jew is full of moving, gripping tales that tend to draw in teachers and high school students alike.  It is informative and well-written.  Shipler captures the human dimension of this conflict exquisitely.  Excerpts from the book might serve as the basis for discussing point-of-view, while entire chapters (or even the entire book as an extended reading assignment) would certainly be appropriate for more advanced students.  Frequent references to the experiences of high school students would especially appeal to teenage readers and shed light on the significance of perspective. Teachers seeking background information would certainly benefit from investing time in this book and its unique approach to the presentation of this conflict. 8
      Shipler claims that "Americans had not previously realized how deeply entangled they were in the religious and nationalist clashes of the Middle East"  (xiv).   In a post-September 11 world, however, his book invites and empowers us to understand more.  In the end, Arab and Jew challenges our understanding of the region and the conflict in the context of global history ­ regardless of the perspective with which we read. 9
Allison Freedman
High School for Legal Studies
(New York City public schools)

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