Saturday, July 30, 2016

THE WAY TO THE SPRING by Ben Ehrenreich ✮✮✮✮✮

As I write this review, there are only ten others on Amazon for this book: eight five star reviews and two one star reviews. Obviously, this book about Palestinians in the occupied West Bank is a very polarizing one. In writing this review I have two goals. First, I wish to debunk a few commonly held misconceptions that often make Americans who know nothing about the Middle East automatically side with Israel. Second, I wish to review the book based solely on the strengths or weaknesses of its research and writing.
Before I write anything else let me say that I personally do not fall in either the Zionist camp nor that of the Palestinians. I have been a serious student of the Middle East for more than two decades, and the one lesson I have learned in all my reading is that there is no single right or wrong side. Each side has committed atrocities for which they should be answerable. Conversely, each side has many conscientious citizens who, seeing what their own leaders and other members of their society are doing, are outraged. Neither do I believe that all Palestinians embrace the resistance movement that is described in this book. There are Palestinians who do not want to resist, wanting only to live as peacefully as possible--even if that means under Israeli control. There are also Palestinians who believe that only a much more aggressive, more violent form of resistance will result in a free Palestine. But those are not the stories that Ben Ehrenreich set out to tell. I have tried to review this book based on the stated goals of the author in his introduction.

I have divided my review into parts, in case some readers want or need a full historical backstory, just want the basics that pertain to the book, or simply want my review of the book as a researched piece of writing. I have clearly divided the parts of my review so readers can read as much or as little as they choose.

*****If you want all the historical backstory, begin here*****

Let's spend a little bit talking about Israel's creation. Many Americans assume, quite incorrectly, that it was the Holocaust that led to the formation of a country for the Jews. Jews had been fleeing increasing persecution in Europe since the Middle Ages, and many of them went to the land that was the ancient Kingdom of Israel, but land that had been in other's hands since the Babylonians invaded in 586 B.C., with the exception of a period of about a hundred years when the Hasmonean Dynasty was in control. So you might say that the Jews were there first, prior to the Babylonian invasion, and you would be correct. However, the ruling of the area then passed through two hundred years Persian rule, two hundred years of Hellenistic rule, and more than four hundred years of Roman rule. After the Romans, the Byzantines ruled the area for two hundred fifty years, followed by the Caliphates--the introduction of Islamic rule into the area. As you can clearly see, while the Jews might have been there first, rights to the land were turned over many times as empires came and went. During these turbulent times many Jews left and made their homes in Europe, while a very diverse group of other people moved in.

Which brings us back to the Middle Ages when, fleeing both persecution and bouts of the Plague, many Jews began to stream back into their ancient lands. This influx increased greatly during the Ottoman rule of the region, which lasted from the early 1500s until 1920. The Ottoman rulers were very tolerant of people of many faiths. Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in comparative peace, with the conflicts that did happen being chiefly between the Muslims and the Christian sects. Several times the Ottomans briefly lost control of their territories and there was talk of creating a Jewish state: Napoleon had an independent Jewish nation in the plans in 1799, before he was ousted, and the Egyptians had similar notions in 1838, before they too lost the lands back to the Ottomans. By the 1890s, the Jews were the majority population in the city of Jerusalem, but they comprised less than 10% of the population of the area that would become Israel. 

Zionism as we know it became a movement in the mid-1800s, but it sprang not from Western Europe, where Jews were finally gaining a measure of acceptance, but from Eastern Europe, in the Russian Empire, where persecution was increasing. In 1870, Jews began settling in the area that would become Israel. The first serious talk of an internationally recognized Jewish state began in 1896. From our vantage point in history, World War I is a bit of an ironic time for the Jews--they supported the Germans against the Russians, because it was in Russia that they had suffered the worst persecution.

At the closing of World War I, Britain had driven the Turks out of the area and the British foreign minister proposed a land for the Israelites. This became known as the Balfour Declaration and became part of the British Mandate of Palestine. This mandate was approved by the League of Nations in 1923. By 1928, half a million Jews had moved to the mandated lands, and as the Nazi threat became apparent in the early 1930s, by 1938, almost a million Jews had settled in the area. The ending of World War II saw Britain's powers greatly reduced, and they were unable to control both the influx of Jews pouring into Arab lands and the Arabs who revolted against them. The United Kingdom decided to turn the whole issue over to the newly formed United Nations and let them decide the issue. In 1947, the UN mandated a plan for the partition of Palestine.

As I hope this whole history makes clear, the waters are very muddy as to who has the rights to this land. Yes, the Jews were there first, but century upon century of other peopleís invasions have left this small area of land populated with a very diverse group of ethnic and religious peoples. That is why the issue is such a difficult one. This land is home to many people, not just the Jews, who have been a minority for a very, very long time.

*****If you want just the basic backstory, begin here*****

In addition to the thought that the idea of Israel didn't arise until it became a response to the Holocaust, another misconception that many Americans have is that the land was clearly partitioned into two separate countries: Israel for the Jews and Palestine for the Arabs. That alone would have caused upheaval, with parties from both sides needing to relocate to their allotted side of the boundary lines. The reality is nowhere near that simple. Israel was created and given international status as an independent nation. Palestinians were given occupied territory. I won't go into all the wars that have happened over the years involving Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, which have resulted in a near constant flux of occupations by various entities, but will skip right to how things stand today.

The long and short of it is that while there is an Israel, there is no Palestine. Sections of Israel were partitioned off, with Gaza on the west, governed primarily by Hamas, but with some areas controlled by Israel, and the West Bank in the east, nominally under the control of Fatah affiliated Palestinian Authority. There are only Palestinian territories, which are not recognized as an independent nation state, and which are largely governed by Israel. What idiot thought that was a peace inducing idea, I have no idea. 

Further complicating Americans' understanding, for those who do realize that there is no Palestinian nation, is the misconception that Israel just governs a "no man's land" sort of buffer area between Israel and Gaza and the West Bank. Again, the truth is far more complex and ridiculous, for two reasons. On the West Bank, there is such a demarcation, known as the Green Line, which acts as a border, but which has been manipulated by Israel, who has built a wall, a separation barrier, ensuring that their largest settlements, though built on land internationally recognized as Palestinian, fall on the western, Israeli, side of the wall. Google "West Bank green line" and find an image that shows the original boundary and where the wall is today. You will clearly see the land grab for yourself. 

In addition to the border not being respected, imagine, if you can, a map of the West Bank covered in spots like a leopard, with two colored shadings on the spots and a single background color. That is what the West Bank, and to a lesser extent, Gaza, look like. I urge you to Google images using "West Bank areas A B C" as your search. If you have never seen the image before, I think you will be shocked and understand why there are so many problems. The three colors represent how the occupied territories are governed. Area A regions are totally under the control of the Palestinian Authority and make up about 18% of the West Bank. There are no Israeli settlements in these areas. In Area B the Palestinians have civil control, but both the Israelis and the Palestinians have charge of security. This area is about 22% of the West Bank and has no Israeli settlements. Area C, which is 60% of the Palestinian Territories, is under total control, both civil and security, of Israel. It doesnít take a political scientist to know that this is just bound to be a recipe for disaster.

****If you want just the nuts and bolts about the book, start here****

In his introduction, Ehrenreich says, "Telling the stories that I am telling, choosing certain stories and not others, means taking a side. This is unavoidable, and only a sin to those standing on the other side." He wrote this book because he felt that there was a preponderance of narratives written from the other side and that "The exclusion of discomforting and inconvenient narratives sets the world off balance. It makes it false." He wanted to explore the commitment to resistance, even when the cause appears hopeless, the drive to "decline to consent to one's own eradication." He does not pretend to write an unbiased telling, in fact, his sole purpose is to tell the side people often don't want to hear. You know right from the outset what you are going to read, and if you are not willing to approach with at least some measure of an open mind, I would advise you to not read any further.

Ben Ehrenreich lived in the West Bank off and on for an extended period of time, during which he met the people of Nabi Saleh, who had become famous for their resistance against the nearby Israeli settlers and the Israeli soldiers who protected them. Armed with nothing more than rocks, the villagers argued their right to access their spring, from which they had been cut off by the settlement. The story of Nabi Saleh and her people, primarily with the surname Tamimi, makes up the core of the book. Ehrenreich also covers the Palestinians in the city of Hebron, who deal with a crazy series of barricades and checkpoints that make just getting to work every day an exercise in humiliation and frustration, including whole streets they cannot even walk down. A small section of the book tells the story of a group of Bedouin nomads whose grazing lands have been shrunk time and again as the settlement near them grows.

Throughout the book, Ehrenreich tells stories to illustrate the difficulty of being a Palestinian on land that is supposed to be yours, but where you cannot so much as install a toilet without permission from the Israeli occupiers. While Israel has total control of their own territory, the Palestinians have very little control of theirs and have watched Israel encroach upon lands recognized internationally as Palestinian time and again while the world does nothing. In addition to the land grab, Palestinians who are arrested, often on very flimsy or completely fabricated charges, are tried in Israeli courts, where 99.76 % of them are found guilty and imprisoned. Justice in the West Bank is not decided by the rule of law--which is often bent to accommodate Israeli desires--but by fear of the past when resistance wasn't just about throwing rocks and shouting.

Which leads us to another misconception that is had by many: that most Palestinian nationalists are violent radicals. There was a time, during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, when this was true. Many of the Palestinians who had been proponents of peaceful resistance to encroaching Israeli settlements decided their methods were not working and were swayed by members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an off-shoot of Fatah, who encouraged terrorist methods. For a brief period, many Palestinians embraced this horrifically violent form of resistance and forever etched members of the Palestinian resistance as suicide bombers in the minds of Americans. One of the main Palestinians followed in the book, Bassim Tamimi, acknowledges that following Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was the biggest mistake made by the Palestinians in their resistance movement, because it caused the demonstrators in the West Bank to become forever identified as violent terrorists, which they ceased to be as the Intifada drew to a close.

Less fresh in American memories is the Jewish Underground, which was active twenty years earlier, who also committed bombings against Palestinian targets, among them a grade school. For almost every story on one side of this conflict there is a similar story of the other. The end of the Second Intifada came about largely because the vast majority of the Palestinians realized that only a bloodbath would come from such methods. However, simple sit-ins were no longer accepted as enough, and the Palestinians began throwing rocks against the Israeli soldiers decked out in riot gear and armed with tear gas grenade launchers and guns that fire rubber coated bullets.

As Ehrenreich tells of the Palestinian struggle, he backs his stories up with citation after citation of verifiable sources. Given the fact that his book was bound to elicit strong response, especially from those in the Zionist camp, he made sure to not only support his statements, but to do so with sources that are internationally recognized as creditable. In addition to international journalists, he includes the work of Israeli journalists who see the dark side of how their government is treating the Palestinians and enforcing the settlements on Palestinian land. One might argue that a source such as Haaretz news agency is rather on the left-wing of Israeli politics. That is true, but it nevertheless shows that not all Israelis agree with their government's actions with regard to the Occupied Territories of the West Bank. Other sources include various organizations that investigate human rights violations, both legal and extra-judicial. Some of these are based in Israel, such as the highly respected B'Tselem, which the Israeli court system uses for assistance when investigating cases from the Occupied Territories.

I cannot understand the vehemence behind the negative reviews for Ben Ehrenreich's book. Yes, he clearly tells the story as he sees it and as is held up by his research, both first-hand and via archival writings, but he also shows plenty of places where the Palestinians are clearly in the wrong. His goal is not necessarily to convert people to the side of the Palestinians but to show people that the picture they may be getting on the evening news is not always accurate--that just as he chooses the stories to tell in his book, so too do the major American news outlets.

The Palestinians deserve to have their story told and Ehrenreich has done it with vivid writing and thoroughly supported documentation of the situation. At one point, when talking about an Israeli right-wing activist whom he actually found himself admiring, Ehrenreich describes her in a way that I think perfectly describes people on both sides of the conflict: "Anat Cohen had the courage to believe in something with the fullness of her being and no calculus to guide her save her own bottomless rage and inherited fear and awe-drenched narrowness of her faith." There is not one side to this story and all readers would be well-served to read this book and gain some understanding of the other side to your news broadcast.

Friday, July 29, 2016


I was hoping to find a book that dealt solely with the differences in the political climate in Cuba since Raul officially took over control from his brother, Fidel, in 2008. My library didn’t have anything, so I read this book as an alternate choice. The book traces the lives of Cubans during the waning years of Fidel’s rule, the temporary transfer of power to Raul in 2006, and finally, since Raul’s assumption of power in his own right in 2008. Julia Cooke focuses on specific “everyman” Cubans and how the policies of those three political eras affected everyday life.

This is one of those books that I really wanted to love but just cannot give a glowing review. For one thing, the subtitle, “Life in the New Cuba,” is hugely misleading. The vast majority of the book deals with Cuba in the waning years of Fidel’s rule, with many journeys into the 1990s and even further back. It is only in the last twenty or so pages of the book that changes that have come about as a result of Raul Castro taking over as president are discussed. There was just not enough balance of information between the old regime and the new to really give a sense of how life is changing. It just felt like a very rushed wrap-up.

Aside from the book not quite living up to my expectations, there was a good deal of merit here. The author has lived in Cuba for extended periods of time since 2003 and so has built long-term relationships with the families she writes about and is able to follow their lives through all the political changes. While she clearly cares about the country and its people, she is still able to write honestly about both the policies of the government and the motivations and honesty of the people.

There were a couple of mechanical issues that really hampered my enjoyment of the book. Chief among them is the number of misplaced modifiers that occur. For instance: “…a photo of a man with a guitar named Juan Manuel, signed to China la más Bella, hung on the wall…” Is the man or the guitar named Juan Manuel? These happened very frequently and drove me nuts. The second issue I had was the prose itself. The author is so obviously trying for lyrical phrasing, but unfortunately the reader is often left with simple ideas that are twisted into such dense prose that it takes rereading several times for comprehension. In the end I decided that Julia Cooke is just not a writer whose style I enjoy. 

For someone who is very interested in Cuba and likes books that trace everyday lives of citizens through many years, I think you would gain something from reading this book. For others, I would weigh the issues I mention here to decide where your interests lie.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A VOYAGE TO VIRGINIA IN 1609: Two Narratives: "True Reportory" by William Strachey and "Discovery of the Bermudas" by Silvester Jourdain ✮✮✮✮

Many people know about the floundering Jamestown Colony in Virginia in the early 1600s, but most have never heard of the side trip that one vessel, the Sea Venture, which along with eight other ships was sento bring aid to the struggling community, took on her way there. This book is a primary source narrative using the writings of two of that ship’s passengers, telling of the time they spent separated from the rest of their fleet and their subsequent sojourn on the island of Bermuda.

Until the Sea Venture was shipwrecked on the treacherous rocky shoals surrounding the island, no long-term colonists had settled there. The islands were known to pirates and other mariners, but Bermuda was known as the Devil’s Island because successful navigation into her bays was virtually impossible and so many ships foundered trying.

Although the devil was still at play with the fate of the Sea Venture, Bermuda was a huge blessing for the passengers of the ship, who had been swept into a hurricane, separated from their fleet, and only hours before had consigned their souls to God after almost four days of continuous bailing and attempting to stop their ship’s leaks. Exhausted, the passengers had closed the hatch and waited for the deep blue to claim them. One passenger had stayed above, and it was he who called out the land sighting and guided the battered ship as far in as he could before the ship ran aground.

William Strachey’s narrative is the longer of the two and much richer in both detail and language. Silvester Jourdain’s narrative has the feel of a letter written to sum things up for its recipient; its linguistic style is far simpler than Strachey’s, but gives some pertinent details lacking in his writings. In this version, spelling and punctuation have been modernized, but the syntax is retained. If you are not accustomed to reading documents from this era, it might take a bit to get used to the style. There are extensive superscripted notes, with explanations printed at the end of each chapter, helping to explain terminology that is unfamiliar to modern readers and give extra information.

In addition to the two narratives there are also two sections at the beginning of the book giving a little back story and telling how the narratives came into our modern era. Of particular interest to many, and indeed the reason why many people read it, is the fact that Strachey’s narrative is believed to have been William Shakespeare’s inspiration for his play The Tempest. It is also interesting to note that John Rolfe, who would later assure his place in history through marriage to Pocahontas, was one of the passengers.

From vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of Bermuda, through the trials and infighting that the shipwrecked passengers endured, to their eventual reunion with their fellow Englishmen in Virginia (not a spoiler, as you know their fate from the book’s introduction), these two narratives are an excellent first hand accounting of this unique voyage.