Media Analysis

Lis Harris wanted to understand How Israel had gone this way

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Last fall Lis Harris published an excellent new book on the conflict, In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family. Based on years of interviews with two families, the book explores the roots of the conflict in personal, psychological and historical terms. The account is imbued by love for its subjects, but it is also plain that one side has the power. Harris is a professor at Columbia University and a former staff writer at The New Yorker, and her book is evidence of the awakening that is taking place in U.S. mainstream culture about Palestinian human rights violations. I interviewed Harris in late December in New York.

Q. Why did you write this book?

Lis Harris: I grew up with liberal Jews. And though I know lots of Jews aren’t liberal, I couldn’t understand how Israelis could be treating Palestinians the way they did and be Jews. It really didn’t accord with my sense of who Jews are. I understand that’s a stereotype. There is no, “Jews are.” There is no, Anything is. But to some extent they are going against what I believe the core beliefs of Judaism are in their behavior toward Palestinians, and I wanted to know, How they got there.

Aren’t values of tolerance human values and not special to Jews?

I don’t think any kind of nobility is limited to any kind of people. That’s the straight rational answer. But it’s the grandmother factor; my grandmother was snobbish about Jews. Yiddishe kopf, Jewish head. There it was: I inherited certain ideas and I could not understand how Jews whatever they were were behaving that way. Every Jew I grew up with would say that’s wrong.

I didn’t understand how it could go that way. So many people said, It’s the occupation. I am an original-sin believer. I don’t believe the problem was started in ‘67 or ‘48 but from the beginning in the Not thinking of the people who were there and what you were doing to them, and what their rights were. It wasn’t always necessarily malign. But it was arrogant.

Some people say, If the old guys just died or disappeared, then the younger Israelis would be better. I no longer believe that because of how they vote in the elections. I was disabused pretty early on of that idea. I think a lot of the problem has to do with what Yaron [Ezrahi] said about ontological victimhood. If you will not yield that idea, then the idea that you are the victimizer is not possible because you’re the victim. And I think this goes so deep. You can’t have a political discussion practically anywhere in Israel without somebody saying, Oh, you’re leaving out the aggression against us. This is a war.

My mother’s Israeli  friend said, People have always wanted to kill Jews.

A lot of people have wanted to kill Jews, yes. Antisemitism is real. But it’s one thing to go from antisemitism to, for example, the argument in that Bari Weiss book, that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. That is absurd.

When did this book begin for you?

Cover of In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family
Cover of In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family

I am always surprised at my own ignorance about things I thought I knew something about. This was one of those subjects. I was a writer in residence at Wesleyan in Connecticut in 1979. Walid Khalidi was giving a talk about what had happened to the villages in Palestine, and I went to it. And he brought out this map of all the villages that had been blown away, and the map was littered with these dots, and I realized in a visual way that I had been entirely ignorant of the level of this, and that I had bought my stupid childhood version of the wonderful kibbutz– the jolly guys in short sleeve shirts and lots of hair in the orchards, and smiling ladies with peasant blouses– and I realized how crude my version of this was. I realized I had the thinnest grip on what transpired with the Palestinians.

Your mental archives are so crowded; and my idea of this was reduced to a really pitifully small dimension, and I know that when you go to a place immediately you know much more than you ever did within a very short time, because you have to test these clichés that you have– cliché may be too strong—but reduced versions of things. And so I was very interested in all the people.

This book took you a long time.

This was a slowly evolving interest, starting with Walid’s lecture and I began reading slowly. Then the government got to be so ugly. And then increasingly in terms of human rights issues, became so appalling to me that I wanted to get a grip on– I keep returning to this idea of, How could Jews behave this way? It might seem primitive, but that’s what I thought.

I don’t think of myself as a journalist, though the world does. I’m a writer. My brother Philip Shabecoff was a correspondent for The New York Times, and he’d go off in the morning and go get a story and at 5:00 he’d file it. Finished! Myself, I don’t know what I think, usually. It takes me a long time to decide what I think.

People say, well, how come you didn’t interview Netanyahu? I know about Netanyahu. What I don’t know is about the people I wrote about, how this impinged on people’s lives. A lot of my friends hate every Israeli, or they think they must all be like Netanyahu. And this is an absurdity. I mean, are we like Trump?

Your non-Jewish friends?

The non-Jews hate Israelis less than Jews. In my experience– because they’re not implicated.

That raises the issue of the extent to which the American Jewish community feels alienated by Israel.

A lot of people that I know are alienated by Israel, sure.

And when Bari Weiss says that, yes, there are a lot of Jews who are alienated from Israel in America, those are Jews who have a weaker and less deep Jewish identity– is that a fair charge?

I don’t think it is fair charge. Again, what is a Jewish identity? If it’s a religious identity, then I can’t disagree with her. I think I’m very Jewish. I’m not religious. I’m angry at Israel. I love the Israeli family I wrote about. They represented a wide range of belief. You’d have to say that Yaron, I’m so sorry he died at the end, he might have called himself a Zionist, though he objected to labels altogether.

But in the 2006 war, he and his wife wrote a letter taking on Noam Chomsky. It shows how difficult it is to be in that society in any form of dissidence.

It is, except that I think the discussion level is so much broader in Israel than here, where it tends to be reduced to, You’re for them or against them. There are people who are angry, there are people who are admiring of the government. If you read the paper every day, which I did–I read Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post— they’re arguing about this just like a big family argument. Here it’s much more– everyone’s walking on eggs all the time, or they’re accusational.

The obvious charge against your book is you chose a left wing family on the Jewish side. The daughter is in Ta’ayush. The parents were in Peace Now. How representative is this group of people of Israeli Jewish society?

The factors in my own thinking were– A, I could not stand to be with very hard right people for the length of time I knew this book would take. I wouldn’t be comfortable in such a household because I interviewed lots of people who were very conservative and were willing to do it and I realized I just couldn’t be around them all that much. B, Nobody is representative of the actual labels.

But the rightwingers are more representative of Israeli society, no? 

I’m not a poll taker. I’m interested in representing the views of such people, which I hope I did. But I’m much more interested in interesting views of what happened to that society. I thought [the Pinczower/Ezrahi family] could articulate very well some of the things I had huge questions about. When did this start? When did it go into high gear? How did it actually impinge on your life?

One of the things that is great about the book is you bring across the degree of trauma—


You say both people are traumatized, and in that Jewish family, there’s a lot of trauma.

Of course. On the other hand, I hope I brought out in Yaron’s family that the history isn’t entirely of shame and treating people badly. Yaron is very proud of his grandfather, who helped establish the Hebrew language in Israel. I hadn’t ever encountered anything like that before I met Yaron. Lots of things about this family were new to me. The grandmother in the Israeli family, Esther Pinczower– she was a religious person who was left wing. And there are lots of people like that.

She’s in her 90s and then died.

Yes, she was a deep thinker. I’ve never heard anybody say what she said about internalizing the German shaming of her.

Tell the story. 

She was talking about how her parents sent her to this totally Nazified school in Germany [in 1935]. And they wouldn’t talk about these things, you know, so she had kept it to herself. And one of the things that had happened, she said, unbeknownst to her, was that she looked at people and looked to see if they had blue eyes, and to see if they were European, and she realized that she was looking at them like a Nazi had looked at her because she has brown eyes and brown hair and she hated that this had almost gone into her blood circulation and bones. And she said she fought it and she understood what it was, but it made her feel very sad to see how effective they had been, which she never thought had been the case. “They were outside.” All the things that she, as a young religious girl, had been taught were outside had of course not been outside. They had been internalized by everybody, and they all reacted differently to it.

The book purports to be even-handed, but it’s not. The way you encapsulate history, for instance– it’s a beautiful job, you did a lot of work on it, and you’re an accomplished writer, and you convey these important moments in a very economical fashion. But I feel like it goes to show, This conflict is not that complicated.

Almost all the reviews have described the book as evenhanded. They use this word. It is not evenhanded. I agree with you. Absolutely not. I think I’m evenhanded about my affection for the people because I just adored every human and I couldn’t help that. However, I don’t think my job really is to show what the majority of people think, embodied in the people I write about. I think you can, as a novelist does, enlighten the dark side or the light side or anything by what people say, by their remembering things, by what you write in the very history.

People always say to me, Oh, they met each other, the [Israeli and Palestinian] families knew each other, right? Because in their version, the Netflix version, they encounter each other. No. That’s not what I’m doing there. I feel that the structure has to be as Round as possible about the subject. It doesn’t matter if one family is progressive and the other family is also somewhat progressive.

Niveen Abuleil’s family. Photograph by Thomas Struth. For the book “In Jerusalem,” by Lis Harris.

Where did you grow up?

The Bronx.

What did your family think of Israel?

Nobody ever talked about the Palestinians in my liberal household. People talked about the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust and we had some relatives who had suffered and everybody was very happy that there was a place for them to go to and very relieved, and cheering them on. My family’s attitude to their Jewish heritage was, That was the home team. And Israelis are a protected species because they suffered so much because of the Holocaust. Israelis more than us, because they have so many survivors.

What did you want to be when you got out of college?

I didn’t know what I wanted. I wrote a lot of poetry. I was in a daze to tell you the truth. A lot of my friends were writers and a lot of my friends were painters. When I got to The New Yorker— I was hired because I had good French and Janet Flanner, who wrote the Genet column, she was getting old and she was making mistakes and my job as a fact checker was to follow in her footsteps– and many people said to me, you’re a writer and I wasn’t a writer. I was a bad poet. But how I got my job at the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson– I was in the unfortunate position of checking his diaries from World War 1, and he had a French soldiers’ marching song wrong, and I had the thankless task of telling Edmund Wilson, who had bested Nabokov in an argument about which was the better Pushkin translation– I had to correct him. He said, “No, no, you must be wrong.” Basically, “I’m Edmund Wilson, you’re Lis Harris, I must be right.” I found the music and I sang both versions to him in his office. Mine was right, it was totally clear. He thought I was a great genius. And he said, “Why don’t you tell Mr. Shawn [William Shawn, former editor of the New Yorker] that you write?” He kind of put me under his wing in a certain way. He said, just keep writing for other places and Mr. Shawn won’t like that and he’ll ask you to write for us, and that happened. I wrote for the Times and The Village Voice.

How’s your singing?

Terrible. I love to sing but I’m not a good singer. My next life I will have red hair, understand math and have a good voice.

Back to the book– you write about Israeli rudeness.

Well, I wrote about it in a funny way, about the not making room for you in the aisles in the supermarkets. I think rudeness is the benign aspect of not thinking about the other people, which takes on a malign aspect, and I think they’re on the spectrum of the same thing.

Remind me the incident in the book.

When you go through these very narrow aisles and people are like clumped together and you say, Sliha, excuse me, they don’t budge. They don’t look at you. Nothing happens. And at first I thought it was like, That moment. Then I realized it’s that way everywhere. It’s what you’re calling rudeness. At movie theaters there’s this huge clump and the doors open, and everybody goes in, all at once. There’s no politesse involved.

What about in Ramallah or in Palestine? Is there any difference?

Yes, there is. But again, who did I encounter? Mostly the intellectuals. I mean, I didn’t hang out in the West Bank all the time. I was living in West Jerusalem. But I do think what I just said is true, that Rude is here [left hand], hostile and deadly is here [right hand], and they’re on the spectrum of the same thing. And it’s partly acculturation. There are a lot of very cultivated people there. But there are people who make up the society who are not.

Ruth HaCohen’s daughter is an anti Zionist? 

She said she isn’t– Talya [Ezrahi]. But after the Second World War, who was not a Zionist? In the sense of, Oh, these poor people, let them go there. Even the Hasidim who hate the idea that you couldn’t have Israel without the Messiah either– even they shut up about that for a while. Because it’s not a viable position, right? Where are they going to go? Uganda? They don’t want them.

This word Zionist comes up all the time and I realize I don’t have the same reaction to it that a lot of people do. On the one hand, it’s a code word for treating Palestinians badly and being nakedly aggressive. On the other hand, I think of Yaron. I never said to him, are you a Zionist? And I think he wouldn’t have wanted to answer it. Even though he marched in every march and was a Peace Now Guy, and was passionate about this subject in every way that’s admirable. Still, I think he wouldn’t dissociate himself from the word Zionist. So that made me also think, I don’t use the word so much. You know, it’s just that– it means something.

That’s not the kind of writer you are. You’re not a polemicist.

I am not.

They have a child who married a non-Jew. And  that’s an unusual choice in Israel isn’t it?

Not in this generation. Again, I’m not a poll taker, but I kept running into it. Who was that– I can’t remember his name now? I have repressed it. A very conservative writer, he’s married to a non Jew. He wrote a diary of an ex fanatic. He was at Shalem.

Yossi Klein Halevi.

Yes. He’s married to a gentile. She converted probably.

Tell us about Rasmea Odeh. You tell the story with such sympathy and depth. 

Because the pain was so present in bringing it up with her family.

Rasmea Odeh is related to the Palestinian family you wrote about?

Yes. She was the sister of the mother, Zaineb Abuleil, who I write about throughout the book. And the aunt of Niveen [Abuleil], who is the central Palestinian person. In the era of bombings in the late 60’s, there was a bombing in the supermarket. They rounded up a whole lot of people. Rasema was tortured very severely, which the U.N. documented and a British paper also documented. I couldn’t write about all the torture. I knew all about it; I wrote about a little. It was anything horrible you know about torture– that happened to her. It was a nightmare. She still wasn’t going to confess. To this day she says she didn’t do the bombing. It was complicated, because a lot of people who liked her thought she probably did the bombing, but she denied it, and I believed her mostly. They brought her father into the room at a certain point in the torture, and they told him to make love to her. And she was stripped naked. Impossible. Impossible. And he fainted and she saw that they were going to torture him.

And so she said, I’ll confess, whatever. She was in prison for 10 years because although she recanted her confession, she was in prison. She was released in a prisoner trade off. She came to America. She made a whole new life.

She became a Palestinian-American leader at the AAAN in Chicago [Arab American Action Network]. She is very admired. I have a daughter-in-law who’s a union organizer in Chicago who for years admired her. The [Abuleil] family never mentioned her. A, because I think, just circling the wagons, they didn’t want trouble. They don’t want to remind anybody about their relationship to her. Also, because their views are different than my views; I mean, I don’t believe in the violence– OK, great. I said this to Rashid Khalidi and I said, I’m having problems with this because I look at the Rasmea chapter and I look at the people who are doing violent things–  and he said, well, doesn’t the slave always want to chop up his master?

And I said, Yes, it’s fine for me to be against violence, but nobody is threatening my children. If anyone threatened my children– violence, no problem! No problem! Turn the other cheek? Not me! So all these things are very complicated. Only the brother-in-law would talk to me about Rasmea. A guy I liked, great guy, Khaled [Masalha].

It’s not for shame they don’t talk about it–

I think it’s political. They fear. When I went to find the families at the very beginning of this story, many more Palestinian people did not want to be written about. The younger ones were sure if they were frank with you, they would could get jailed or hurt.

Then at a certain point Rasmea had been here 13 years and received all kinds of honors and prizes as a human rights person. They discovered that she had lied on her immigration documents, that she had said she hadn’t been in prison. She maintained, and so did a woman who was an expert in this field, that it was post-traumatic stress. On the document where it said, Have you ever been in jail? She thought it meant in America.

The trial was a sham. She was not allowed to bring up torture. She was not allowed to bring in post-traumatic stress. The expert in this field was not allowed to testify. An appeals court threw it out, and she was going to begin all over again. But by then, Trump had come in. Now they want her out of the country because she is a “terrorist.” It wasn’t an immigration problem, now it’s a terrorism problem, and she and her lawyers thought they can’t win this. And she had to leave the country. She had to leave her life, is what she had to do. And she doesn’t want to talk about it. At least not to me.

What about Rasmea’s education. Early on, she’s subject to a double standard in terms of girls getting an education in Palestine?

Well, I hope you noticed that in the time of her mother, two percent of Palestinian women were literate. And now it’s 98 percent. Of all the women in the Middle East, they are the most literate. Just what the father in this family [Abdallah Abuleil] said to me, It’s a losing game for us here, there’s no way we can keep our heads above water unless we modernize and get educated and our children go out as professionals. If they don’t do that, they will sink or go to jail or get killed or worse. There the cost of not having status– the cost of not having a good job, will often be you’re so angry and so upset you’re going to start throwing something at someone and you’ll get shot, you’ll die. He knew that very well. But then at the very end of the Rasmea chapter, I mentioned that there was this film in which her friend, who she was a colleague of, said that she had–  there was a video, very fuzzy. I don’t know if it was fake. I believe it was probably fake, but I don’t know. But many people said to me, Oh, well, that video was there from her friend, the friend is proudly saying she did do that. How can you believe it? And it did put some doubt in my head. But anyway, as I point out there, we’re going into very murky moral waters here because– the Stern Gang, all those people became leaders of the country. They were certainly terrorists.

Tell us about the main character in your book, Niveen, who was injured or came close to dying three times, once after being shot.

The three occasions were the following. She’s a formerly young woman. This has gone on so long! The first was during the second intifada. She was taking a class at Bir Zeit University. She got out of a car and it seemed like she was shot. Something came at her, she said it was like pellets. “And I thought maybe it was a rubber bullet.” She didn’t know what it was. She didn’t know why anyone had shot her. She was just a student coming for class. The soldier who shot her just walked away, didn’t approach her or anything. It was just blind, violent hostility and she couldn’t explain it.

The second time was the thing that I wrote about where she’s actually on time for the checkpoint, but the Qalandiyah checkpoint, but they won’t let her through. And it sounded like somebody was shot. There was a sound of a shot. She was– in the rain, in the dark– she didn’t know where she was. And she was rescued, as it were, by a car that came by and took these people who weren’t allowed through the checkpoint because they were supposedly late for the curfew.

And the third time it’s almost like a biblical story, really. She was going to her bus and someone asked her for directions. And she didn’t want to stop to do it. But she is a kind person and she stopped and the bus blew up. And for her that said, Somebody is watching me.

It just reminded me that if you’re a Palestinian, you’re leading a life where you’re extremely vulnerable all the time.

Yes. But as this Palestinian architect said to me, even if you’re a well-to-do Palestinian, you won’t let your kids in a bus because you’re scared of buses. Then you’re driving behind the bus. But you think the bus is going to explode. What good is it to be in your car, it’s going to explode. Nobody feels safe there. In fact, the Israelis don’t feel safe.

Tell us the story about being in Hebron and you are targeted by a man on a roof. 

Well, the photographer who took these pictures [in the book], Thomas Struth, he was there with his wife who is a former student of mine who is a writer, and he said Lis, you have to go to Hebron. I didn’t want to go to Hebron because I had read so much about it and everything I read made me crazy and it just seemed so miserable. I didn’t need to see it. Of course, that was wrong. And so we went there, and we were walking along the street, which was not where the Israelis go, an Arab street, and an Arab man was with us. We’re walking along and this guy all in black with the black hat is pointing a rifle straight at us. My poor ex-student grabs my arms. Why is he doing that? What answer could I give her? I have no idea. It’s just the ambient hostility and aggression that’s ready to kill somebody or shoot somebody, especially in Hebron. He identified us with this man with a bushy mustache [who was guiding us]. That’s the only thing I can think of– up on the roof! Of this man’s former school!

Hebron is the eye of the nigtmare. And then he followed us with that gun. First, we were frozen in place. And then we turned a corner and he went along the roof and followed us along with us and kept us in his sights. And honestly, I mean, I don’t know why he did that. I don’t know why he didn’t shoot us. I don’t know why he– I don’t know anything about it. Except it was frightening.

But that’s the kind of frightening Palestinians experience every day. That’s what Niveen was talking to me about. You are the object, but what have you done? You have done nothing but be who you are. I mean, there we were, right?

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Excellent article!! Regarding Ms. Harris’s reference to Professor Walid Khalidi, an expert on the Nakba, it’s important to know what took place in Palestine between late 1947 and early 1949 as described by eye-witness Nathan Chofshi, a Jewish immigrant from Russia. He arrived in Palestine in 1908 in the same group as Polish born David Ben-Gurion, (real name, David Gruen): “…we old Jewish settlers in Palestine who witnessed the flight know how and in what… Read more »

“It wasn’t always necessarily malign. But it was arrogant.”

But arrogance in the face of human misery is malign, very much so.

I wonder how arrogant or illiberal Israel would be if it had to pay for itself? For its own military?

“How could Jews behave this way?” I bring this up as an example of how the media is slowly coming around to understanding the situation: Has anyone seen the new Netflix series “Messiah”? The basic premise is that a new Messiah has arisen, but this time he’s Palestinian and Israel is playing the role of Rome – I think it’s well done and powerful, and it might be an example of how the story is… Read more »

That’s the way the matzoh crumbles, sometimes…