By Ben Ehrenreich. Penguin Press, 2016. 448 pages. $28/hardcover; $14.99/eBook.
After his famous “Angel of Death” speech opposing the Crimean War of the 1850s, British Quaker parliamentarian John Bright was told by Benjamin Disraeli that he would give anything to be able to give a speech like that. Bright is said to have responded, “You could have … if you’d been honest.”
I feel the same way about Ben Ehrenreich’s first-person account of a little more than a year spent living in the occupied West Bank. Aside from books by Philip Gulley and Haven Kimmel that describe Quaker life in rural and small town Indiana, I’ve not encountered writing that elicits from me a knowing “Yup; yup; exactly. That’s my experience” on every page. Indeed, I’ve walked the streets of Hebron and Ramallah and witnessed the same things Ehrenreich did. I’ve encountered the tear gas and skunk water of demonstrations in Nabi Saleh and Bil’in as he did. I, too, was there during the military incursions of Israel’s Operation Brother’s Keeper in 2014.
But I couldn’t write this book, much as I wish I could. Why? For one, I don’t possess Ehrenreich’s writing ability, a skill that can take the depressing facts of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and turn them into a page-turner. More importantly, though, I have always erred on the side of “caution” in my public writing about 46 years living and traveling in Palestine–Israel. Those same 46 years coincided with my teaching at schools that begged for such caution—“balance”—in the parlance of institutions that fear the blowback that comes inevitably from any perceived favor given a Palestinian narrative.
Ehrenreich admits in his introduction that “I do not aspire in these pages to objectivity. I don’t believe it to be a virtue, or even a possibility.… Insistence on objectivity is always … ‘directed against’ someone.” Or as Jean Zaru, clerk of Ramallah Friends Meeting, often says (citing Bishop Desmond Tutu), “To ask for ‘balance’ in a situation of oppressor and oppressed is already to take the side of the oppressor.”
This is the virtue of the book. It is an unvarnished look at the situation in Palestine–Israel through the direct experience of an investigative journalist who can convey the impact of an asymmetrical conflict with gut-wrenching clarity. One feels the impact of sniper bullets on innocent children—and the impact of the complicity of the cover-up that follows. One feels the depressing reality of a Palestinian Authority complicit in its own humiliation at the hands of its occupier.
Chapter by chapter, with “interludes” to help break the spell of a growing gloom, Ehrenreich shares with the reader the emotions and actions of the villagers, soldiers, settlers, activists, and politicians with whom he has intimate contact. He goes further: he investigates claims with meticulous research, detailing fact and fiction—and the “spin” given them. Remarkably, he doesn’t just tally the growing casualty lists of the conflict, but gives names to those too often cited in the media as just another statistic. And then he visits their families.
Part of the “dishonesty” of too much of my own reporting on the situation in Palestine–Israel is that I emphasize the “hope that is our resistance” which can still be heard from those still working for a just peace. Not that people don’t say that, but it is a hollow hope, one which has only a tenuous grasp on reality. Ehrenreich is too good a journalist to hold out such false hope. Rather, as he writes about the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir, threatened by demolition orders because of their proximity to an illegal Israeli settlement, “Flashpoints of extremist settler violence … represented one pole. Umm al-Kheir was another, with little drama but the steady curtailment of possibility, the gradual amputation of each and every condition of an entire way of life, the long and hard push into a deeper nothingness that with each passing month became more complete and irrevocable.”
Israeli soldiers in the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence tell us on our tours of the segregated city of Hebron, with streets made “sterile” of Palestinians, that Hebron is a microcosm of the whole occupation apparatus. So is Umm al-Kheir—valiant attempts at “existence is our resistance” in the face of a threat of irrevocable nothingness.
Ben Ehrenreich’s book offers no false hope. It is too honest. And it is precisely because of this that it is an essential book for anyone who wants to understand the reality of Palestine–Israel—anyone who does not want to learn too late that “the angel of death is abroad in the land; one may almost hear the beating of its wings.”