Our member Robert Katz writes:
This book is a memoir covering the ten years (1979 to 1989) that Friedman spent as a New York Times correspondent in the Middle East. This was his first assignment for the Times, and during this period, he won 2 Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the region.
He arrived in Beirut in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. The Central government collapsed, and the city was under the control of various militias: Maronite (Christian), Druse (Muslim), Shiia (Muslim), Sunni (Muslim), and Phalangists (Christian), each militia controlling and fighting to increase their territory. Violence was sporadic and strangely expected.
“…you never knew whether the car that you were about to walk past, lean on, or park behind was going to burst into a fireball…”.
“I came to think of Beirut as a huge abyss, the darkest corner of human behavior, an urban jungle where not even the laws of the jungle applied”.
As he relates his experiences, Friedman explains the intertwined loyalties – tribal, regional, and secular, that have historically become a part of the people of the area. He believes that we must take these into account when dealing with them. Our traditional Western tools, protocols, and approaches have not been successful.
He discusses Yasir Arafat, his history as a leader, his motivations, appeal to Palestinians, and possible future. (Arafat was still alive at the time of the book’s publication).
In 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, and Friedman covered it extensively. He shows why he believes that both the war and subsequent occupation were poorly conceived and executed, and this led to Israel’s ignominious withdrawal.
The suicide bombings of the US Embassy in April, and Marine Headquarters in October of 1983. The lack of planning and misreading of the attitudes towards Americans, offer further examples of the West’s misunderstanding of the people of the region.
In 1984 he left Beirut to become Bureau Chief in Jerusalem, breaking a long standing Times “policy” of not assigning a Jew to Jerusalem.
In this portion of the book, Friedman mulls over his role as an American Jew, especially in the light of many Israeli attitudes and policies which he disapproves of. He discusses Israel’s political paralysis, in part caused by the political control of the religious right, and part by the attitude of Israel reliving history, rather than creating history. He is deeply disturbed by the Haredim and Gush Emonim and their insistence that all the land of ancient Israel, from the Mediterranean to the the Jordan River, be a part of the modern state.
He asks “Whose Country Is This?” and “What Kind of Country Do We Want?”
What was Israel to be? ”A nation of Jews living in all the land of Israel, but not democratic? A democratic nation living in all the land of Israel, but not Jewish? Or a Jewish and democratic nation, but not in all the land of Israel?”
He states that both major political parties have avoided making the choice.
I have read this book twice, once this spring and again when the recent Gaza violence broke out. Reading it with the recent backround brought me new insights, and underscored the validity of Friedman’s analysis and recommendations. I highly recommend this book.
Friedman was on the Charley Rose Show this summer, and was asked what he would add to, or update in the book. Friedman answered solemnly “Nothing”.