On Friday I completed the book If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State by Rabbi Daniel Gordis. The premise of the book is it's about Gordis' experience living in America, deciding to move to Israel, and living in Israel during the Camp David summit and subsequently the Second Intifada. Politics are discussed a decent amount, but it's mostly about Gordis and his family's experience living in Jerusalem during one of the most tumultuous time in Israel's history.
The main feeling you get (or at least I got) from reading this book is sadness, which should be no surprise from the title. Gordis discusses in the beginning of the book the feelings of great joy felt by Israelis during the Camp David accords, the feeling that peace was finally about to come. But the majority of the book is devoted to the feeling after Arafat walked away from the summit and what happened afterward. Gordis talks about how betrayed the Israelis felt after that failure, as they believed they have given everything they possibly could (including, it was rumored, East Jerusalem) and the Palestinians still rejected it. During the violence that followed, the Israelis in general and Gordis in particular felt torn between a violent anger after such tragic murders as the Sbarro and Dolpharium bombings and a despairing hopelessness from the belief that fighting back will only escalate the conflict.
One of Gordis' main points after this history has been recounted in his belief that the Palestinians and their supporters are not in fact fighting for their rights and their own state, but the destruction of Israel and the creation of Palestine in it's place. This belief is caused by, in my reading, three things. The first is the refusal of Arafat to make peace even after he was offered what Gordis' felt everything the Palestinians could ever want. The second is an encounter Gordis and his students had with Israeli Arab MKs, who told them that they were just waiting for Israel to be destroyed because the Middle East is Muslim land and this land would be Muslim again. The third is a similar experience to the second, a conversation that Gordis had with a Israeli Arab student, a seventeen year old girl. She told Gordis that while she believes Israel is a good place for her to live, many of her fellow classmates felt the way the Arab MKs did. Even the Arabs living in Israel, who the Israelis have done very little to in the way of personal offenses, still think Israel should be destroyed. What hope could we have that the Palestinians are viable peace partners?
This sense of hopelessness is something that stays with you after reading this book, which has made me want to read Gordis' other book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. One of the problems with If a Place Can Make You Cry is that it's very dated. The last year written about is 2002. Life in Israel, and especially Jerusalem, is very different now than it was back then. I feel I can be confident saying that even though I have not lived in Israel the way Gordis has. Maybe it's time for a sequel?
Beyond the political stuff, Gordis does an excellent job describing the personal experience of Israelis during the Second Intifada. He talks about the sense of impeding dread, the fear after a bombing that someone you know was in it, the worry that his kids are turning into the kind of soldiers he sees on the news abusing Palestinians. Of course, you don't see the Palestinian experience during that time, which was no doubt equally traumatic, so don't read this book for a balanced look at the I/P conflict. But for his own experiences, motivations, and family dynamics, Gordis' account is very interesting, compelling, and easy to read.
To sum up, If a Place Can Make You Cry is a compelling, but depressing, personal narrative of one of the darkest times in Israel's history. It gives you a look at the "real" Israel, the one beyond the headlines, the one made up of many different people with their own fears, concerns and dreams. I recommend this book to anyone interested in this conflict, it will give you a new perspective no matter who you are.