Q: You grew up on Long Island—a storybook Jewish childhood. OK, maybe not storybook. Tell us a little about that, and about your move to Israel. Why did you go? More importantly, what prompted you to join the Israeli Army once you got there?
A: My childhood, generally speaking, was a storybook childhood, except for the stories that were written by bloodthirsty Cossacks. I grew up in a place with few Jews and quite a number of thuggish white boys who, for some reason or other, didn't like Jews, and made me feel their dislike. Their fists forced me to learn how to defend myself, and once I did that, they left me alone. But this early experience with schoolyard anti-Semitism helped me see the downside of being a minority, and this understanding helped propel me to Israel, a place where Jews make up a majority, and where Jews can take charge of their own lives. I went to Israel with the intention of joining the army. I was Mr. Gung-ho. I had two reasons. One was to be tough, to learn in some sort of definitive way how to protect myself, and my people. The other reason was ideological. I believed that Jews have an obligation to Israel, to help build it and protect it. When I was a teenager, and well into my twenties, I absolutely burned with ideological fervor. This is not to say that now I am a cynic; I still believe in Israel and its mission, but I also see its flaws, and the flaws in my own thinking. I still believe that the Jewish fist has its place, of course, but I also understand it to be no panacea.
Q: First impressions of the Army? Some of the people you met? Have you kept up with any of them?
A: The Israeli Army is an enormous, unfeeling institution whose officers didn't particularly care that I was burning with zeal to "help" them. I was surprised at the level of cynicism I experienced while in the army. I was a dew-eyed ideologue, of course, so I was bound to be disappointed. I was in the army during the first Palestinian Uprising, and the army then—and now, to some extent—was more of a police force. I wanted to join the army of the Six-Day War and of the Raid on Entebbe, and instead I found an organization that was enforcing an occupation policy I disagreed with in some important ways. I did make friends, of course, with some of the soldiers—and I also made some enduring enemies, as well. My best friend out of the army was a guy like me—an American Jew named Jack Ross who didn't quite know what he was getting into. Jack and I are still close, and he's an important figure in my book.
Q: How does an Israeli soldier develop a friendship with a Palestinian prisoner? Did you get a little heat from your Israeli friends about spending time with Rafiq?
A: I decided early in my service at the giant Israeli prison at which I was posted, Ketziot, that I would talk to our Palestinian prisoners, mostly out of curiosity—there are not a whole lot of Palestinians on Long Island—but also, in a strange kind of liberal, guilt-ridden way, because I thought it was possible to be friends with them. It wasn't really allowed—conversations between prisoners and guards were severely circumscribed. But I did it anyway. I figured out, correctly, that I was speaking with the future leaders of Palestine. I wasn't kidding myself—I didn't think we would end up around a campfire singing "Blowin' in the Wind," or "We Shall Overcome," but I thought it was possible to see each other as humans. Rafiq, the prisoner I spent the most time with, was sort of like me, I thought—a bookish kind of guy who had some ironic distance from the essential absurdities of prison life. He was also the sort of person who could at least understand the reasoning of his enemy. This is an important quality, obviously.
Q: Where is Rafiq now? Has he read the book? What was his response?
A: Rafiq is teaching at a university in the United Arab Emirates. He got his Ph.D. a couple of years ago from American University, which is near my house, so we saw a lot of each other in America. He hasn't read the book yet, but he will soon, I hope. We've certainly spent a lot of time talking about the things I wrote in the book, and I eagerly—and with some trepidation—await his reaction. He won't agree with much of what I've written, I think, but I hope he sees it as an honest recounting of our friendship.
Q: Do you see the divide between Muslims and Jews as one that is rooted in religion or culture?
A: That's a big question. For many years, it was rooted in politics, more than anything else: Two tribes warring over the same piece of land. It wasn't unlike a dozen different disputes around the world. Lately, though, the conflict has taken on a more theological tinge. Muslim fundamentalists, in particular, have an interest in recasting the conflict as one between Islam and Judaism, because, from their reading of the Quran, the Jews are a kind of cosmological enemy of Islam. What this means on a practical level is that peace becomes something more out of reach—it's one thing to make a political compromise over a real estate issue, but there can be no compromise when it comes to the dictates of God.
Q: What effect has your experience at Ketziot had on your work as a journalist?
A: It's had a couple of effects. One is practical: I met a great many Palestinians in the prison, and, today, when I travel around the West Bank and Gaza, some of these ex-prisoners are in positions to help me with my work. Who could have imagined that? The other effect is bigger, but less concrete: I believe I have a fairly good understanding of Palestinian motivations—and of Israeli motivations, as well—because I saw the conflict in its rawest form, from all the way inside. That's what you get in this book: Completely raw, unadulterated, sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful truths that sit at the core of this conflict. I think the experience also serves to remind me that this conflict isn't faceless—it's not an abstract fight to me, something to be argued over at a think-tank—but a real war with real, tragic consequences for people I care about, on both sides of the line.
Q: In 2003 you won a National Magazine Award for your work at The New Yorker. How is the experience of writing a book different?
A: It's been harder, I think. I had to put myself on every page of this book, and it's not the easiest thing in the world to do, to expose even the most jagged edges of your life for all the world to see. I had to force myself to be honest, even when honesty wasn't terribly self-flattering. The other difference is that it was more dangerous to write this book. I won the prize you mentioned for my writing on Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group, and while that was a dangerous assignment, it wasn't like researching this book. This is not to say that it's safe for a guy with my last name to travel around Afghanistan, or to go hunting for Hezbollah operatives in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. But at least in those cases, I was operating as a reporter. When I was doing the research for my book, I had to go into Palestinian refugee camps and more-or-less announce, "Here I am, your enemy, the one who kept you in prison, and, once you get over that, I have a few questions for you." But every single ex-prisoner of mine has treated me with respect.
Q: Through your family, and experience at camp, you grew up with Zionist values. But over the past four decades, Zionism has taken on all sorts of negative connotations, especially in liberal circles in this country. Would you still call yourself a Zionist? Have you had to defend your beliefs to anyone you didn't expect here in the States?
A: It's a shame that Zionism has taken on such negative connotations. In part, this is the fault of Israel, but only in part. There are a whole lot of people in the Middle East who don't believe that the Jewish people deserve a country of their own, and they've spent decades now trying to win the world to their side.
I suppose I do think of myself as a Zionist, of the left-wing variety. In a funny sort of way, I'm a double-Zionist. I believe that the lands of the Bible should be home to two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, not just one. I think each tribe in this conflict has a legitimate claim to the land.
My experience is that Americans are generally sympathetic to Israel, even if some liberally-inclined people—and I count myself in this group—think that, for instance, Israel's settlement policy in the West Bank and Gaza has been morally and strategically disastrous. But Americans intuitively understand Israel's story—after all, America was founded by religious dissidents who had been driven out of Europe by intolerance and hatred. A pretty similar story to that of Israel. And many American Christians, and not just of the evangelical sort, grew up on the Bible, and so not only do they know the place names—Bethlehem, Nazareth, etc.—but they know that these places are intrinsically Jewish.
Q: In the book you discuss feeling like an American in Israel and a Jew in America. Has this feeling changed at all over the years?
A: All my life I wanted to be Israeli. Then I went to Israel, and found myself longing for America. Today, I would say this: I have great affection for Israel, I'm deeply concerned about Israel, but I'm an American, through and through. It took me moving six thousand miles away to make me realize that. My great discovery has been that America is also a sort of Promised Land; it is the one country in the history of the world that has truly accepted Jews as equals.
I love the idea of America, and I love being American.
Q: Who do you see as the audience for your book and what is the message you would like readers to come away with?
A: I think—and I say this with all false modesty—that this book is meant for anyone who is perplexed by the Middle East, and by tribalism and by the rise of religious fundamentalism. I hope that, through my own story, and that of Rafiq, I will explain to all sorts of readers why the Middle East is such a vexing and troubling place. You don't have to be a Middle East expert to read my book. Quite the opposite—the only thing you need is curiosity about why the world is the way it is. I don't want to oversell this book, but I do think it might guide people through the thickets of the Middle East—and they might be entertained in the process. The message of my book, I think, is that it is not impossible—it is terribly difficult, but not impossible—to build a friendship with your enemy. Rafiq said it best: if a million people in the Middle East could have the sort of friendship we have created—a tenuous, fraught friendship, but a friendship nonetheless—than the Middle East might become a better place.
Q: Your book is full of hope. Has that hope diminished in light of recent developments in the middle east?
A: I'm careful in my book not to be Pollyannish. The problems of the Middle East are nearly insoluble. And it is true, of course, that recent events—the war between Hezbollah and Israel being just one of them—make the chance of peace even more difficult to imagine. But as the saying goes, the only constant in the Middle East is sudden and dramatic change. So anything can happen. Besides, the opposite of hope is death, and so the only thing we can do is hope.
Q: How do you see the Middle East/Israeli-Palestinian conflict playing out, short and long term?
A: I don't see much happiness on the horizon. It will take a great deal of effort, and the softening of many hearts, to even bring the warring parties back to where they were in 2000, when President Clinton was trying to broker a peace deal. On the long-term question, anything is possible. I think that Islam will have to change a bit for true reconciliation to take place—in other words, the Muslim world's leading clerics will have to find a way to convince their followers that Israel's existence is not offensive to God. This is hard stuff, but religions are like people; they have the capability of change. Right now, I don't have much hope at all for the short-term, even for the medium-term. But, like I say in the book, despair is a sin, so I don't despair.