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Across the Great Divide

Jeffrey Goldberg goes the distance from an insecure boyhood on Long Island to the muscularity of military policehood in Israel

Sara Ivry
October 17, 2006

When New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Goldberg took his first trip to Israel at age 13, he was thrilled by the sight of Jews with guns. It was a far cry from his much-maligned existence in a predominantly Irish Long Island neighborhood.

He returned to Israel at age 20 to make aliyah, and soon suited up in army togs, headed to the desert, and stood guard over incarcerated Palestinians during the first Intifada.

In Prisoners, Goldberg revisits that time, examines his effort to befriend one of his jailed charges, and explains the evolution of his ideology toward the Jewish homeland. He talks to Nextbook about all of this—and about identifying with Queen Esther.

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From Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide:

For me, the wonder was modern Israel, the greatest wonders being Jews with guns, and not just .22s, but Uzis and M-16s and bigger guns than these, grenade-spitting guns, great barking machine guns. On a bus tour across the Galilee, we drove in the wake of a tank transport, a mammoth truck carrying a deadly Jewish tank. A Jewish tank! And Jewish armored personnel carriers! It was a miracle. Enough of thinking and suffering! Let’s do some shooting!

Ordinary sights were euphoriants: the cops, all Jewish; soldiers, everywhere—Jewish, swaggering, cool, impervious to abashment. Mean Jews, tough Jews, big Jews, and no gelded, Diaspora Jews in sight, except on my tour bus.

A Jewish fire truck! A fire truck with a Star of David, stenciled right on the side. Would wonders never cease? We visited Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz just north of the Erez checkpoint, the entrance to Gaza. At Yad Mordechai, in 1948, the Jews held off Egyptian tanks for six days, armed only with Bren guns and Molotov cocktails. The men of Yad Mordechai did not cringe; they fought like lions, they fought like the man for whom their kibbutz was named, Mordechai Anielewicz, who led the Jewish Combat Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto. My head was spinning. Outside Rachel’s Tomb, in Bethlehem, I took a photo of a soldier; I kept that photo in my desk drawer and looked at it every night, telling myself that one day I would be this soldier.

By the time we came home, 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, larger, certainly, than the quotidian and occasionally terrifying life of a Long Island Jewish boy. Israel was my main chance: For nineteen hundred years, since the final Roman obliteration of Israel (they even changed its name to Palestine, in order to erase from the world’s memory its existence), the Jews were chased across the earth. But in 1948, just seventeen years before I was born, the Jews reentered history, building a country out of the cinders of the Holocaust. How could I miss out on this drama?

My parents didn’t discourage my zeal. I was given a paperback copy of Exodus, the Leon Uris novel that served as the script notes for my dream life. I identified, body and soul, with the hero of Exodus, Ari Ben Canaan, a Hebrew (not, somehow, Jewish) warrior, brave and cold-eyed, who defended Jewish honor and whose existence itself seemed vengeance enough for the Holocaust. He was smarter than his British foes (not merely cleverer, which would be the trait of a Diaspora Jew). He was smarter, surely, than the Arabs who threatened to suffocate his new country, and he was handsome in a quite obviously non-Jewish way. The freeborn Jew Ben Canaan was very nearly an Übermensch. Uris meant him to serve as an antidote to the prevailing self-image of the post-Holocaust Diaspora Jew, the chin-stroking, self-doubting, smothered-in-mother-love Jewish male. Uris captured in writing my ruthless feelings about American Jews. The principal American character in Exodus, Kitty Fremont, a nurse giving aid to Holocaust survivors, voices anti-Jewish feelings that Uris suggests hides in the hearts of America’s Christian majority. Fremont, this “girl next door,” in Uris’s words—he wrote that she “was one of those great American traditions like Mom’s apple pie, hot dogs, and the Brooklyn Dodgers”—notes that there is “something different about Jews. They aren’t like us.” But in Ari Ben Canaan, whom she beds (and whose performance, it barely needs to be said, is satisfactorily virile), Kitty finds her “kind of people,” that is to say, Jews who, if you didn’t know better, might very well be Christian.

By my early teenage years, I was what you could reasonably call an obsessive reader, and Ben Canaan was one of many Jews I came across. I didn’t, in general, like what I read: I fell acutely in love with The Great Gatsby, but the presence of the “small, flat-nosed Jew,” the great corrupter of the American dream, Meyer Wolfsheim, discomfited me. I could almost feel the grease come off the page when Wolfsheim appeared. It didn’t strike me that Fitzgerald could be a Jew-hater; it struck me that maybe the portrait was true. And then there was Robert Cohn, in The Sun Also Rises, the archetypal unmanned Hemingway man, a boxer (he took up boxing to defend himself against anti-Semites) who is nevertheless a cowering, quivering mess, pathetically in need of inclusion, his desperation for acceptance alienating the (Christian) men he hoped to befriend—plus, he cries, and can’t hold his liquor. Thank God I hadn’t yet reached for T. S. Eliot, because my spirit would have been crushed by Eliot’s portrait of Bleistein, the “Chicago Semite Viennese,” and Sir Ferdinand Klein.

No, Ari Ben Canaan was the Jew for me.

My vision of Israel, as well, conformed to Uris’s. In his Israel, sloth, corruption, lust and ennui, the imperfections of man, are held in abeyance by the superior power of will, belief, and total commitment. No one even littered in Leon Uris’s Israel. Nor did they litter in mine. All they did was the selfless, righteous thing.

Excerpt from Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide by Jeffrey Goldberg. © 2006 by Jeffrey Goldberg. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf Publishers.

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Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter @saraivry.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.