Friendship in Time of Conflict

goldsborobooks.com

Let me tell you a story. A story about friendship, a story about war and peace, a story about a book. I’ll start with the friendship: When I arrived here in Sacramento almost twenty-four years ago, right away I got involved with a small group of people from different backgrounds (but mostly Jews), who called their group ‘The Middle East Peace Project,’ and who were dedicated on educating the public at large about all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more so even, on spreading the word that peace was possible to achieve.

Among the group activists was a Palestinian named Akef Shihabi, who was a mild-mannered, middle-aged man, educated and very pleasant to be around. We struck friendship soon after I joined the group, I visited his house and he mine, and though his family was expelled from East-Jerusalem in 1948; and though my parents arrived to then the British Mandate of Palestine in 1946, refugees and survivals of the Holocaust, we not only fast became friends, but on behalf of our group we began appearing together around the city and county, universities, congregations, Jewish and Christians and Muslims, where we shared our different experiences but common belief in the possibility of peace.

At some point we drifted apart, due to life’s other obligations, necessities, and misfortunes. Also, due to my realization that at some point we were just treading water, and had exhausted all the open venues in this area. Still, on occasions I would think of him. None more so than nowadays, when for the last three weeks I was consumed by a new book—’Apeirogon,’ by Colum McCann—which was published last month to great acclaim and much interest. So much so that one book reviewer I’ve read, in ‘The Guardian’ of London, concluded by saying that if ever a book can bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is the book.

I was immediately intrigued: Can a book bring peace? Not only that: At the center of the book—the author is calling it a novel, yet it’s really a novel in name only since it’s mostly a nonfiction, biographical, historical book using real people, real names, and real incidents—are an Israeli and a Palestinian, from Jerusalem and Jericho, who both lost young daughters to the conflict. They form an everlasting friendship, first through an organization called ‘The Parents Circle,’ and then through an organization called ’Combatants for Peace.’ Both organizations are also real and active presently.

At the core of the book is the story of these two men. How their daughters were killed—the Palestinian man, Bassam, ten-year old daughter, Abir, was shot in the back of her head by a rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier riding in a Jeep, just as she came out of a small shop on a break from school, a candy in her hand; the Israeli man, Rami, his daughter Smadar, only fourteen, was walking with her two best friends on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem when three suicide bombers exploded themselves one afternoon. The book tells their stories, their families’ and daughters’ stories, how they deal with the constant grief and loss, how they became friends and active in peace and reconciliation efforts, appearing and lecturing together not only in Israel-Palestine, but in Europe and America.

This ancient conflict, they believe, won’t end until we talk. (A side bumper-sticker on Rami’s motorbike says just that in Hebrew : (זה לא ייגמר עד שנדבר. And the book indeed talk. And talk for long about them and about other things. It’s all those other things, unrelated to their friendship, peace activities and personal stories that obscure and dull the effect of the book somewhat. They hold our attention, the two men; their stories original and painful enough for the book to sustain interest and emotional resonance throughout. The author though, it seems, wanted to write the “ultimate” book about the Middle East at large, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. Which takes away from the impact at the core of his book.

Nonetheless, it’s an admirable effort. But can it bring peace? No, it cannot. Still, it’s an important book. And it’s important not only because it shows the historical depth, and current magnitude of the conflict—as other books had done already (not to mention the Bible)—but also because it gives voice to the possibility of friendship in time of conflict. The possibility of shared experiences and shared humanity and efforts working, united, for the common good. And it makes clear that peace is possible to attain.

Therefore, in conclusion, I suggest that anyone who’s connected to this conflict in any way, to the ‘land of milk and honey’ and to its people, whether closely or remotely, would surely find this book of great interest. As Rami thinks to himself when he first joins ‘The Parents Circle’—an organization of bereaved parents from both sides—“It is not a decree of faith that we should live forever with a sword in our hands.” And equally so Bassam (who experienced seven years of humiliation and torture in an Israeli prison) thinks that “The only revenge is making peace.” So ultimately, and persuasively, their story renews the hope that someday in the future, sooner rather than later, driven by the people more than by their leaders, a peaceful resolution to this endless war would be found.

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