Palestine/Israel – A Change in Attitude and a Short Book Review

Almost two years ago, I wrote on this site what I thought would be my final post about the conflict in the not-so-holy land.  I had said what I’d wanted to say about this conflict, over and over again.  Thus I summarized as succinctly as I could the major arguments for my long-held criticisms of Israel as THE rogue state in the region and as the oppressive Goliath now strangling a Palestinian David.  And I gave my sources for this criticism which I am absolutely sure is not anti-Semitic, but very much anti-Israel or at least against the brutal reigning political consensus in Israel.

Nothing has changed those convictions, though today I’d add the Saudi tyranny as THE other rogue state in the region. Of course, Trump’s support for Israel has only made the situation worse, and I fear that Biden will not do much better since he has been typical of US politicians supporting Israel, just less outrageous than Trump.  Indeed, the news as I write tells of Netanyahu authorizing even more expansion of “settlements” on Palestinian land.  Thus more land robbery, resulting in more Israeli violence, and further expansion of its apartheid regime.  And little response from US pols who are presently preoccupied elsewhere, though they’d probably not condemn this expansion of apartheid in any case.

Yet several things have led me to again try to articulate my sense of the tragedies and modest hopes for that land.  To articulate a change in attitude and feeling.

Some time back, as I was reading morning Psalms, something finally clicked, even though I’d read and prayed these words so many times.  A constant refrain throughout the Psalms is praise for Jerusalem as the city of God’s peace, one of the most physical incarnations of God’s covenantal love for human beings.  And a similar refrain involving prayer for Jerusalem.  Prophets calling Jerusalem to repentance and rebirth.  Psalmists imploring God for mercy on Jerusalem.     

I had so long been angered at that city and nation, what one historian has accurately called a “nest of vipers” from ancient times to the present, that I had forgotten, probably never appreciated, this biblical sense shared by Jews and Christians (and I think by Muslims in their way), that Israel, Judah, Zion, Jerusalem…whatever the many names…was a precious place, meant to be a place of peace and praise, and also of the weeping and wailing which so often is the only way to peace.

So I started, with my morning Psalms, to pray for Jerusalem’s peace.  For the present Jerusalem, the present Israel, that it may re-find itself as a place for peace radiating around the globe. 

I don’t believe there are actually “holy” cities, or perhaps I think all cities and villages and towns can be “holy” simply by being wonderfully ordinary and human – made in the image of God, warts and wounds and all.   In other words, when I now pray for “peace upon Jerusalem,” for a restoration of what the Psalms and the Prophets hoped, I do mean the actual Jerusalem/Israel, but I pray for that blessing on all other cities as well.  I pray for every little “place” where the lion actually does or might lie down with the lamb, that such places will not be destroyed but will gradually spread their light through the world.

So that’s the first “thing” that happened to jolt me out of an angry fixation on the bad guys and gals in Israel and in Palestine who remain trapped by an illusory yet violent nationalism.

Next has been my growing conviction, articulated often in these pages, that the only way forward for all of us human beings is through difficult dialogue.  That conviction goes back to Martin Buber but has grown during my study of Pope Francis’ writings.  Indeed, I mention in a recent post on dialogue that one place where dialogue is much needed today is in the Middle East, especially in Palestine/Israel. 

Then, thirdly, I’m reading a new book by the Irish author, Colum McCann, several of whose previous novels I’d much appreciated.  The book is Apeirogon, A Novel (Random, 2020).  It is mainly about dialogue, growing out of a story of the lived dialog between two fathers who’d had innocent and very young daughters murdered by opposing terrorists. One is an Israeli, the other a Palestinian. Both are mature and intelligent men who have fought for their side of the conflict and then suffered this terrible loss.  It is about their meeting and and their gradually becoming missionaries of dialogue among similarly aggrieved parents throughout Israel and Palestine.  And beyond.

It is by far the most compelling book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a good number) about the terrible reality of the Israeli “occupation” of Palestine.  About the fundamental necessity of ending that occupation (through a two-state solution or in some other way).  And most fundamentally about dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis and Christians as the only way forward to peace.

It is a long and strangely organized book, but it also has helped to move me away from my prior angers (though not from prior criticisms) and has opened for me at least some hope. I urge you to take the time to read this magnificent book and hopefully be moved as I was.

OK, that’s it. 

Unless you want some comments about the book’s almost magical style and range and integrity.  If so, read on.

I have not read many reviews, but this is the third of McCann’s book’s I’ve read.  The others were Let The Great World Spin (2009) and TransAtlantic (2013). I suspect some might call them post-modern novels.  They are novels because much is fictional or, better,  fictionalized versions of interviews and other printed records and video recordings.  Yet they represent a break from the traditional form of the novel.  They not only use the now common technique of flashback or jumping back and forward in the story’s time sequence. Sometimes jumping centuries back and forth.  But McCann’s novels, especially this new one, also jump back and forth from contemporary people and events to historical reports — about biological evolution, about man’s constant violence to other men and to nature, about the Holocaust, the Crusades, and Middle Eastern history – and to texts from the Quran and the Bible, from Sufi wisdom sayings and poetry and philosophical asides.

Such “jazzy” writing could be dismissed as mere intellectual sensationalism, but for McCann it isn’t that.  Rather, through such “jumping” the story gradually develops – there are no chapters, just numbered paragraphs, some just a line or two, some running for several pages, one or two simply left empty – adding up to exactly 1000 numbered paragraphs on 457 pages. His title, Apeirogon, he finally tells us after 80 pages and 180 paragraphs, means a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.  The word countably, he then insists, is utterly central to the meaning of the shape of an apeirogon (think “octagon” infinitely extended yet countable).  Go figure.  I’m guessin’ it means that the shape of the story is very, very complex and many sided.

Yet it is an ordered or integrated whole.  Each of the many different parts, the historical and religious and scientific “notes,” contribute to the more central and usually longer passages which focus on these two men’s lives and thoughts.  They contribute by enlarging the perspectives or lenses through which we see and begin to understand more deeply the contemporary reality of the lives of these men and their call for dialogue between enemies. 

My mentor Lynch has written an important book about the nature of any good, honest work of drama or fiction – and about the many ways that contemporary writing (and cinema and TV) regularly fail to live up to the standards for such good writing.  That still-in-print book is Christ and Apollo (1960).  It was preceded by a shorter and simpler work about The Image Industries (1959) which presents similar criticisms about popular cinema and television.

The relevant point here is that a good work of drama (again, literary or popular) grows “analogously”.  That’s one of those terribly academic words, but its quite right.  It means that a good work of dramatic art (or storytelling) is not built around a constant repetition of the same ideas and feelings in each scene or episode.  Rather each element of the composition stands on its own – is different from the other scenes and episodes – yet simultaneously contributes to the larger effect of the whole. 

And so it is with McCann’s writing, again especially in this new book.  All the elements – the historical and scientific and religious passages (even seemingly irrelevant sections on the migratory patterns of birds across the Middle East) – all provide background and an enlargement of meaning for the central story of these two fathers.

‘Nuff.  If you want more about Lynch’s ideas on literature read Chapter 4, “Apollo – The Dramatic Imagination,” of my book about Lynch.

Better still, read McCann’s new book.

And let us all pray (or hope in some way if you do not pray) and also work for “peace on Jerusalem.”

5 thoughts on “Palestine/Israel – A Change in Attitude and a Short Book Review

  1. Nice work, John. At this point I don’t know if I will get to McCann’s book, but it sounds not only interesting but provocative of a different way of imagining the situation. I think your reactions as you describe them do powerfully illustrate the radical role of imagination al la Lynch (and all the things you say about it). It seems to me that this also highlights some aspects of the ambiguities in our use in our uses of the words “nation” and “state” that emerge from Colin Woodard’s “American Nations.” “Nation” (birth-land) is in important ways more fundamental than “state.” Unlike the former, the latter is an artifact, a construction as the Preamble to the United States Constitution demonstrates (or the UK or the British Commonwealth, the European Union or the United Nations or the Commonwealth of Kentucky, let alone the (Holy) Roman Empire). Confusions and conflations and conflicts abound (as they long have) in the ways people imagine what these things mean and how they are positioned in them, as recent events in the also Capitol reveal. What kinds of re-imaginings might help us unravel some of the massively intractable challenges that face a globalized and globalizing planetary condition? How do we learn and teach how to do that? It looks like simply taking “sides” is insufficient. Randy

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  2. Thanks, John, for referencing Apeirogon. It is an engaging book. Entering into the lives and deaths of the young girls involves us personally in their innocence and ruined possibilities. The relationship of the girls’ fathers in the commonality of their daughters’ humanity and meaningless deaths is what invites reflection on our own attitude toward violence as a means of obtaining our goal. I found the same thing in Patrick Keefe’s “Say Nothing” about “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland. There is a special contact that reflection on good novel writing brings us. I found this true in Brian Moore’s “Black Robe” where Jesuit missionary Fr. John Laforgue has to come to terms with the undoubted goodness of an Algonquin chief. This impacted Laforgue’s theology of baptism and salvation. It was an awakening for the Jesuit! Presently I’m rereading Wouk’s “War and Remembrance” and I’m finding a new horror at the extermination camps. I’ve seen numerous films and photos of the camps and they’re powerful, yes. But reading a good novel has a unique impact: I stop and think: “How could we do this to each other.” I also delighted in the ambiance McCann evoked through metaphors of birds nets and dessert survival, etc. Apeirogon is a book worth reading by every Palestinian and Jew. .Indeed each of us.

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      1. Rhett, in addition to my previous “Amen,” I want to add that your broader understanding of the way good fiction helps us reflect on our own lives is right on. Lynch constantly blamed many of our artists and writers for their ideological and artistic fixations. Fortunately, as you suggest with the different works you reference, there are also many artists can and do help us to grow as thoughtful human beings.

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