It was in early 2000 that I started to seriously consider writing a book about my experiences in the Ketziot prison camp, but I had a very different book in mind at the time. I thought then—and do now—that Ketziot would be an interesting angle of approach for a reader perplexed by the Middle East. But at the time, I thought that such a book would be mainly of historical interest. We were still in the period of the Oslo peace process, and the Israelis and Palestinians were working their way to a summit meeting at Camp David, and to what I assumed would be an orderly close to their hundred-year war. I tend toward preternatural hopefulness about the big things (I worry mainly about manageable problems), and so I thought that a permanent peace would take hold before I could ever finish writing Prisoners. This would have been an excellent development for humankind, but it also would have obviated much of the need for my book. After all, Prisoners is motivated by a single question: Is it possible for these two tribes to reach a meaningful reconciliation? The summit at Camp David, I thought, was going to answer that question, and answer it in the affirmative.
I was wrong, of course. There is no peace between the two peoples today, and there is scant hope for peace in the near future. A couple of years after I decided to write this book, I went to visit Leon Uris, the author of "Exodus." Uris, who died in 2003, held some fairly antique views about Arabs—and Jews, for that matter but Exodus was an important part of my early Zionist education. In the course of lunch, I told him I believed that, even then, in 2002, while the Second Palestinian Uprising was raging, peace wasn't terribly far off. Uris gave me a skeptical look, and told me this story: In the early 1950s, he went to Israel, then in its infancy, to conduct the research for "Exodus." He took quite a bit of time, which made his editor nervous. "I would get telegrams from New York that said, `Hurry up with the book, because if they sign a peace treaty, no one's going to care anymore," Uris told me.
This was fifty years ago, and a peace treaty still seems far off. But I don't think it's an impossibility. I know too many Israelis and Palestinians who still dream of compromise to think that peace will never come. I am not some sort of Semitic Pollyanna. I know well the difficulties of coming to an agreement, particularly with Israel's theological foes (it is one thing to make peace with secular Palestinians, who would divide the land and, with any luck, be done with it; it is another to try to make peace with people who believe that God is telling them to destroy Israel). But on my last trip to Gaza, in August of 2006, I met many people who spent most of their waking hours shielding their children from the siren song of the suicide bomber. These people want to live, and to live in quiet and peace.
When I set out to write "Prisoners," I also had another point I wanted to make, a point about the idea of a "Promised Land." Growing up in America, I believed that the Jewish Promised Land was Israel; when I got to Israel, I realized that America, too, was a kind of Promised Land for the Jews. Both are flawed promised lands: Israel is a place that is safe for Judaism, but not for Jews. America is safe for Jews, but it is not particularly safe for Judaism. It is precisely America's openness that makes total assimilation possible, which is why there are fewer Jews in America today than there were fifty years ago. Prisoners is an exploration of these core issues of Jewish identity.
My book is realistic, I think, but not unhopeful on the subject of the Jewish future. I believe that we may yet reach the Promised Land, in the fullest meaning of the term. And I believe that even the Palestinians might one day reach their own Promised Land, as well.