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To publish a book about Palestinian lives in the West Bank is to take part in a fiercely contested debate, whether you like it or not. It’s a debate that’s become a dialogue of the deaf, and it can seem too complicated and unpleasant to pay too much attention to. I didn’t come to this book out of some sense of advocacy, in particular, nor frankly would I have wanted to: there are enough shrilly partisan books out there, for the most part preaching to the choir. But what I did and do feel, stubbornly, is that nothing human should be alien to us, and that if a great journalist, which is to say a great observer and listener, someone with a great head and heart, really goes there and stays there, then we ought to pay attention. And Ben Ehrenreich is a great journalist. The contact high from his talent is exhilarating.
He’s also very brave. Show us the extreme challenges of life in a public housing project in the South Bronx, or in a Mumbai slum, and it’s all good; you get roses thrown at your feet. But the West Bank is under Israeli military occupation, of course, and has been for a very long time, and so if you write a clear and honest human account of life for ordinary Palestinians, then you can be accused of being “anti-Israel” , or worse, and you find yourself under assault, or at least greeted with uncomfortable silence. In fact, Ben Ehrenreich is no more anti-Israel than someone writing about life in Northern Ireland under British occupation was by definition anti-English. If you bring to light stories that depict inhumane situations, and thereby create pressure to improve them, are you “anti” the country in which the inhumane situations exist or “pro” that country?
Anyway, I am making this book sound shrill itself, which is precisely what it is not. Under the spell of the storytelling, we find ourselves in the shoes of a group of wonderfully vivid and disparate characters, united by the struggle to live decent lives. What I think was most shocking to me was how openly the enemies of the Palestinian presence in the West Bank – the far right-wing Israeli settlers – admit to having an eliminationism agenda: their stated goal is to drive all Palestinians out of the West Bank and take it over completely – ethnic cleansing on the installment plan. And their means of achieving that is to make life unbearable for the Palestinians.
Ben Ehrenreich is a powerful witness to all this; he spent several years in the West Bank, all told, and came to know these communities intimately. There’s sadness and heartbreak in this book, but there’s also laughter and affirmation. But there’s no escaping the fact that this shows us a situation that has become very extreme, even almost unimaginable, and so I think however uncomfortable it makes us, it’s worth our whole-hearted support. This isn’t a dogged or prescriptive polemic, it is a work of art; by immersing us in these lives, these stories, it places us as readers right on the horns of the dilemma. There’s no easy way out, for anyone, but the more we bring this world into our consciousness, the more human we will be – and the more honest we will be with each other about the consequences of our own inaction.
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