I used to joke that covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had given me what I called “narrative whiplash.” I’d emerge from an interview with an Israeli Jew who gave me their perspective on the latest event or controversy, thinking, “Ahh, sounds right.” And then I would hear the opposite take from a Palestinian, and think they had it right, too.
Lis Harris recounts a version of this in her new book, “In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family,” expressed a century ago by Sir Ronald Storrs, who served as military governor of British-controlled Palestine from 1917 to 1926. An exasperated Storrs once declared, “Two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the synagogue, while after an extensive course in Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.”
Although there is no lack of books out there trying to unpack the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, works that offer dual narratives are rare. Even more rare are thoroughly researched, historical-minded forays like this one that also examine the personal toll taken on those living this conflict. So Harris’ decision to present those narratives together, from the point of view of two families who share the same city but have experienced the country’s history in vastly different ways, makes for a welcome addition to the literature. It took her 10 years to report and write. (Among her past publications is the 1985 “Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family.”) The task Harris, a self-described liberal, American Jew who grew up with only vague impressions of Israel as a land of sun-bronzed kibbutzniks, put before herself in her new work is nothing short of ambitious. This is especially the case because, as she notes from the outset, she speaks neither Hebrew nor Arabic and was not familiar with the places she’d be visiting during her reporting, which also takes her beyond Jerusalem, into other parts of Israel and the West Bank.
Harris uses her writing talents and seemingly inexhaustible energy crisscrossing Israel and the West Bank and interviewing various family members, while delving deeply into main plot points in the drama that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She writes, “I hope to register the conflict’s effect on the lives of successive generations on each side, the people who are the cogs of history, and who, after all, reflect its impasses and long for the peace that would push past them.”
Her main focus is on the families of two women: Niveen Abuleil, a Palestinian speech pathologist who lives in East Jerusalem, first in French Hill and later in Shoafat, and Ruth HaCohen, a musicologist who resides in the Greek Colony in west Jerusalem. Both families have known the trauma of being uprooted — Abuleil’s family were once wealthy farmers and landowners, who, displaced from the village of Lifta on the outskirts of Jerusalem, found refuge in the city itself on a parcel of land they had already owned; while HaCohen’s mother grew up in Munich, a granddaughter of the city’s chief rabbi, before fleeing with her family to what was then British Mandate Palestine. Ruth’s family is on the liberal side politically. Niveen’s family seems more focused on getting by economically and enduring the political situation than in engaging with it. And perhaps because of their histories, members of both families see education as essential for survival, with most members of the second and third generation having higher degrees.
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Although the women are our entry points into the families, Harris recounts the stories of their grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses and in Ruth’s case — her adult children and stepchildren.
Meeting the Family
We meet first with Ruth HaCohen and her family — the Pinczowers and the Ezrahis. HaCohen, a professor at Hebrew University, was married to Yaron Ezrahi, one of Israel’s preeminent public intellectuals, a political scientist who specialized in analyzing Israeli democracy. Ezrahi died last winter, shortly before the book went to press, but there is an entire chapter — one of my favorites — devoted to Harris’ conversations with him.
The book is at its best when, true to its mission, it interlaces historical events with real-life moments — even prosaic ones, such as the scene at Ruth and Yaron’s home when they and other family members are fully fixed upon viewing the television news. She writes: “Each time the family watched the news I was impressed by the heavy silence in the room, the total attention those sitting around the TV gave to the screen, and the intense discussions that followed and continued over the next days.”
Ruth was born in 1955 to Polish parents — Esther, her mother, came here as a refugee before World War II, while her father, Eliezar, was an earlier arrival. He was so transfixed by the Zionist dream he was living out that he rarely dwelled on the physical and emotional hardships of having come here alone. But he was a man of peace, according to his description in the book, and amid the euphoric atmosphere in Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War, he sat his four children down with a map and said the areas conquered by Israel would have to be given up for the sake of peace.
Ruth Pinczower grew up in Jerusalem attending the religious youth movement Bnei Akiva — she loved the hikes and the trips and the camaraderie of it all. Harris describes the uniquely Israeli brand of youth movements as a “matrix for the country’s cradle-to-grave ethos, implacable in its focus on the Zionist project and encouragement of groupthink.”
But just after the Six-Day War, Harris tell us, when Ruth was about 12, she found herself feeling alienated by the message of messianism and redemption voiced by some of her friends. She was not the only one hearing that messianic message — one of her brothers also remembers hearing it in Bnei Akiva.
Ruth recalls going on a trip for young people to see the newly conquered Golan Heights. She recalled how from the bus window she saw abandoned Syrian villages, their front doors left open, household objects “strewn about.”
“Nobody explained the meaning of what we saw,” said Ruth. The group did not get out of the bus, “but I saw very clearly and it was a sort of dissonance.”
Harris interviews Ruth’s two brothers, both of whom served in the first Lebanon war, an arguably devastating military adventure that some call Israel’s first war of choice, launched in 1982 in large part as an initiative of Ariel Sharon, who was at the time Israel’s defense minister. Rami and Yehuda Pinczower both describe feeling lied to by Sharon and other politicians at the time — and the seeds of a growing sense of dread and distrust.
There’s an interesting account from Rami, the older of the two, who, together with a group of fellow soldier-activists against the war, met with two Likud Knesset members, one of whom, Moshe Katsav, went on to become president (and later a convicted rapist), and Ehud Olmert, who went on to become prime minister (and was later convicted on corruption charges). Both seemed uninterested in hearing out the soldiers’ concerns.
Flight from Lifta
When Harris meets with the Abuleils at the family home in French Hill, a neighborhood established by Israel in Arab East Jerusalem post-1967 that has in recent years become a “mixed” Arab and Jewish quarter, their backstories tumble out over carefully prepared and abundant spreads of food.
We learn that the family came from what was once the Palestinian village of Lifta, on the northern edge of Jerusalem. They speak with a blend of resignation and bitterness about the loss of most of their land holdings to Israel during the Six-Day War, when the country annexed East Jerusalem.
Previously the family had managed to hold on to most of their land — including the piece of land they moved to in French Hill during what Israel calls the War of Independence and Palestinians refer to in Arabic as the catastrophe — the Nakba. It was in 1948 that the Abuleils, along with 700,000 other Palestinians, became refugees, who either fled or were expelled from their homes — some to other parts of what would become the State of Israel, and many others to refugee camps scattered around the region that their descendants still live in. Among the many topics Harris covers in the book as she tries to unpack the reasons for what she refers to as “Israel’s right-wing drift,” is the Knesset’s passage in 2011 of the “Nakba Law,” which authorizes the finance minister to reduce state funding or support to a public institution if it holds an activity that rejects the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state,” or commemorates “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the state was established as a day of mourning.”
In a reminder of what was lost for the residents of Lifta, Harris notes that the village’s far-flung lands are said to have included sections that border the Knesset and the grounds of Jerusalem’s central bus station, and parts of Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.
Looking back at 1948, Niveen’s father Abdallah described to the author how the absence of a Palestinian leadership at the time meant that the people were largely left to fend for themselves. Many of the elite had fled as hostilities broke out, and others were killed in the fighting. “We had nobody to ask about what was happening,” said Abdallah, “and as much as anything else, that frightened us.”
Harris describes the potholed, largely neglected landscape of contemporary East Jerusalem, with its overcrowded classrooms, piles of trash and absent sidewalks. The family’s challenges are the same as those of so many of their counterparts, including a nearly decade-long quest to build a home — a process slowed both by financial constraints and, as Harris observes, by “the government [making] the process of building permit acquisition next to impossible.” She writes that although Palestinians make up some 40 percent of the city’s population, they received only seven to 10 percent of the permits between 2010 and 2015. Until their current home was built, the extended family of 11 was crammed into a two-room home. One Palestinian friend told Harris not to romanticize the way families live together in the city, noting that, “You think it’s about family togetherness. It’s not. It’s about economics.”
Privacy can be hard to come by. Harris describes her attempts to interview Niveen in a quiet spot in the house, but those plans are upended by the cheerful intrusions of her young nephews. Her reaction to a recent tire slashing of Palestinian-owned cars in the neighborhood — presumably by Jews — is one of resignation: She is not surprised. She tells Harris that in the decades her family has lived in French Hill, they have never felt welcome among any of their Jewish neighbors, who make up the vast majority of the quarter’s residents. Abdallah has made it clear in his comments that in their family the message passed down was clear: a good education was their best tool for getting ahead amid the “harsh circumstances” of their lives.
By the time that Harris ends her reporting for the book, in around 2017, Niveen, who is described as “young” when we meet her, though a year for her birth is not mentioned, has married, become a mother and moved a little to the north to the neighborhood of Shuafat. Nearby there is a refugee camp with the same name. Although it is considered one of Arab Jerusalem’s more affluent quarters, it too is bleak and trash-strewn, compared to neighborhoods in Jewish west Jerusalem. By this time she has become religious, a shift she attributes to surviving what she describes as several close calls with death, including being shot at by an Israeli soldier but emerging only lightly injured, and seeing the bus she had been rushing to board explode at the hands of a Palestinian suicide bomber.
The power of the stories Harris tells of the two families is that they do succeed in speaking to the larger upheavals taking place around them — starting with the saga that accompanies Israel’s birth and the Palestinians’ Nakba — the massive influx of Jewish refugees (like Ruth’s mother’s family) and the mass displacement of Palestinians (like Niveen’s family).
Amid this huge shift in populations, there was little time for thought or reflection in real time for those living through it, Harris writes, noting the statistics on Palestinian refugees and for so many, their ongoing displacement and some of the violent expulsions conducted by Jewish militias. She describes the upheaval from the point of view of Esther, Ruth’s mother, noting, “In the midst of war she knew none of this, and neither she nor anyone she knew were thinking about much else but how to recover from their own displacement and survive.”
Bolstering the personal stories is the almost encyclopedic level of detail Harris supplies in providing history and context, drawing from expert interviews and quotes from books she has read to help guide her in writing this sweeping story.
Meeting so many family members is intriguing. And learning of the personal impact the conflict had at key moments in its trajectory is both the greatest achievement of the book and — at times — its main weakness. Harris simply covers so much ground, including sections in which she steps back to provide extensive historical detail to the stories we are hearing, that sometimes it feels like the “story” part of the story — a narrative arc itself to go with these dual narratives — gets lost.
Towards the book’s end, it can feel like subjects and interviews were thrown together a bit kitchen-sink style. And I think a more helpful closure could have been a meeting between the two families.
And while I enjoyed mini-chapters devoted to her “Travels with Fuad” — her trusty taxi driver-turned-friend and local cultural and political whisperer — these sections also took me out of the flow of the rest of the book.
Because of its scope, focus on dual narrative and the historical context, I can see “In Jerusalem” becoming a good title to include on college syllabi for courses that address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or conflicts at large.
And even for seasoned Middle East hands, it’s a refreshing and important book that reminds us of the impact this seemingly intractable conflict — and its history — has had and continues to have on everyday lives. The Abuleils and Pinczowers of course cannot represent all Israeli and Palestinian families. But getting to know three generations of a family, and their backstories, helps us all come closer to understanding who shares this land and the urgent need to find a way out of the shared trauma of ongoing conflict that no one would ever wish on yet another generation. And yet it keeps getting passed down with an air of resignation and exhaustion — viewed almost like a family curse no one can imagine might finally be broken.
Dina Kraft is a staff writer at Haaretz English Edition and host of “The Branch,” a podcast about relationships between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel and Israelis and Palestinians.