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In Jerusalem, by Lis Harris.

June 18, 2019

In Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family, by Lis Harris.   Beacon Press, September 17, 2019.  FORTHCOMING

4 stars

A balanced account by a moderate Jewish woman of her interviews with both Jewish and Arab families in Jerusalem about their extended families faced in the long conflicts between their communities.

Lis Harris is a respected American journalist, for 25 years a staff writer on The New Yorker magazine, in addition to contributing to other national publications. She now teaches writing at Columbia University.  She describes herself as a secular Jew and has written several books about her religious tradition. She knew about the Jewish experiences during and after World War II and how Israelis have treated Arabs. For her the question was how actual people on both sides had experienced the tension and violence of migration and settlement of Jews in Palestine.  She spent over ten years interviewing and coming to know various members of two extended families, one Jewish and one Arab, and researching her new book.

Harris is not interested in the official positions of leaders or in writing yet another polemic about the conflict.  Instead she wants to explore what it has felt like to live with the dangers and trauma on both sides.  She is a careful and fair witness, always respectful of her subjects on both sides.  She never belittles their sufferings or viewpoints or takes sides.  At the same time, she constantly keeps their stories in the context of how much more actual destruction has been caused by the Israelis.  It is terrifying for enemies to blow up a nearby shop, but in terms of people killed and displaced Arabs far outnumber Jewish residents.  Arabs have been displaced and continue to live under severely restricted circumstances.  Part of the explanation that Harris suggests is that some ordinary Jewish people were simply too wrapped up in their own pain and fear to be concerned about the actions against Arab residents by their government and their fellow citizens.  I don’t find that a strong explanation, but I appreciated Harris’s ability to describe how people live through generations of warfare.

In Jerusalem is a big and impressive book which attempts to interweave a great deal of material.  Harris follows her two families at the same time she provides enough of the larger history of battles and invasions for readers unfamiliar with the region.  The breadth of vision sometimes makes the book difficult to read.  None the less, I admire what she has undertaken.

I encourage others to read this book.

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