by Sarah McGregor-Wood
Journalists sent on hostile environment courses are advised that the best way to survive a kidnap attempt is to make your captor empathize with you, to engage with them on a personal, humanizing level. Michael Emery, a journalist and the driving force behind Tears in the Holy Land, has taken this idea and applied it to Israel/Palestine, publishing an intensely “human” history of the conflict. Tears in the Holy Land is a collection of oral histories, all of them tragedies, recorded and edited by American Deanna Armbruster, (who took over the project following Michael Emery’s death). In his introduction, Emery states, “This is an emotional book. I want you to share my experience, as intimately as possible, by imagining the scenes described in the text.” While this book is far from a definitive source of reference, reliant as it is on the fickleness of human memory, it is an interesting adjunct to the academic and analytical tomes that study the conflict.
The stories, narrated by Israelis and Palestinians from all backgrounds and walks of life, are preceded by a comprehensive guide to the history of the region, and a chronology that underlines the complete contrast between the experiences of two nations confined in such a small geographical space.
Hanna Amoni’s account of her time as a member of the Israeli Underground, “A Country Too Small”, is one of the more unusual stories in the collection. She recounts her time with the Lehi from the 1940s to the 1970s and hers is perhaps the least conciliatory voice; “To say you have to divide this small country is ridiculous. It is too close to the Arabs.” Throughout the book there is an interesting juxtaposition of stories: The harsh beside the humble, the hurt and the oppressed. Following Amoni’s account comes former Red Cross worker Speer Munayer’s narrative of how the Israeli Army occupied his native town of Lydda in 1948 and left the inhabitants without food or water for days. In contrast to these comes “A Soldier’s Stand”, army reservist Yousi Khen’s narration of his refusal to take a Palestinian hostage and use him to check caves for armed fighters. Despite threats from his commanding officers that he would be punished, he is not. “For political reasons I was not put on trial. Officially, the Israeli government never uses hostages.”
While the chapters are grouped under different headings - from “Historical Accounts”, through to “Voices for Peace and Reconciliation” - similar threads run through the book as a whole. A number of the Israeli contributors have lost family members to the violence; “Norma”, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, loses her aunt in an attack at a checkpoint in 1969. Ofara Rapuer, a second generation Israeli, loses her mother in 1972 when she is killed by three Japanese terrorists opening fire in Tel Aviv airport. Suzanne, a religious Jew, narrowly misses being caught in a suicide bombing. Daniella Kitain’s son Tom is killed while doing his military service. Marlyn Butchins, an immigrant from South Africa loses her mother and sister in a suicide attack in Tel Aviv in 1996. Each of these speakers finishes their account by calling for peace, not revenge. Butchins gives a joint account with her husband Larry, who concludes, “The payoff must be to prevent those of evil intent from getting away with what they are trying to do. The peace process has to go forward... The ultimate betrayal would be to let those who are against the peace process actually have their way. On both sides.”
The accounts from the Palestinian side tell of arbitrary imprisonment, beatings by soldiers and wasted lives lived in fear and frustration. Ahmad Muhammad, a field worker for Palestinian human rights organization Al Haq, narrates the differing lengths of time he and his male family members have spent in administrative detention, each time having been arrested for no reason. Raed Hanna Andoni, a writer on Palestinian Sesame Street tells of soldiers playing bingo with his and other Palestinian’s ID card numbers, arresting men if their number is a “bingo”.
Cheryl Rubenberg, an associate professor of political science at Florida International University, is one of the rare cross-over tales: A Jewish woman in a Palestinian environment. She writes of her experiences living in Gaza from 1989 to 1990 and the friendship she formed with a family there. Her sorrow at leaving these people is matched by her relief at escaping the endless curfews, one of which saw her confined to her living quarters for 40 days.
The lack of a precise narrative thread and the mixed placement of the stories beside one another allows the reader to meander through the collection. Whichever angle the reader approaches it from, the one concrete conclusion to be drawn from the various stories is the amount of damage done to both sides by the conflict. Throughout, the sentiments of loss and victimhood expressed by both sides are overwhelmingly similar.
While the introduction makes it clear these are oral accounts collated by the editors after lengthy research, the desire to remain true to the transcripts of their taped conversations makes for occasionally awkward reading and, at times, incorrect grammar or awkward syntax detract from the strength of the narrative. This is particularly the case early on in the book. Albert Hazboun’s account of being persecuted by fellow Arabs for helping Jews, is full of idiomatic inconsistencies, but is a powerful emotional testament, nonetheless. This idea of raw self expression was Emery’s stated aim: He wanted to touch people personally, ignoring the outwardly political to let ordinary people tell their extraordinary tales. The one truth that any reader can garner from this collection is that, more so than in many other places in the world, the people of Israel/Palestine have remarkable stories to tell.
The last section of the book is an increasingly coherent call for peace. Emery’s own contribution to the collection is arguably one of the most important, drawing on his experiences as a reporter for United Press International in the Occupied Territories. He describes a trip to Gaza and the appalling treatment he receives from the IDF and settlers there, then recounts the irony of soldiers he passed calling on him to; “Be fair to Israel”. As Emery says, ‘We didn’t meet a single journalist who could be classified as “unfair to Israel”, but we met a number who were disgusted by the excessive force, irritated by the petty censorship rules and worried what Israel was doing to itself in the long run.” As an external observer, he offers a summary of what makes the conflict go round and keeps its flame shining bright in both camps, “It is clear that the Israelis will not break the Palestinian spirit, even with more force, just as it is clear that Arabs cannot weaken Israeli determination to be as secure as possible.”