November 15, 2018

Episode 99 – Spotlight Israel

Never underestimate the task of a journalist. In the maelstrom of political commentary which seems to pull every news outlet into its powerful grip, it’s probably pretty difficult to swim against the newsfeed and remain true to, well, truth. Especially in today’s endless stream of information.

Many English speakers in Israel, and around the world, turn to the Times of Israel for honest reporting on the Middle East. Reading through their articles, you get a sense that the Times of Israel is not looking to please any specific readership.

Despite their relative youth, The Times also has an impressive record of investigative journalism including the piece known as “The Wolves of Tel Aviv” written by Simona Weinglass (who was a guest on the podcast). The expose and Weinglass’ journalism are widely accredited for playing the central role in taking down the fraudulent Binary Options industry in Israel.

David Horovitz, the founding editor of the Times of Israel, began his career in 1983 at the Jerusalem Post where he eventually became editor-in-chief. After leaving the Post in 2011, Horovitz launched the Times on Israel in 2012 and has since grown the website to a reach of 3.5 million readers a month. Horovitz has also authored several books including Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism and A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel.

We’re thrilled to have David Horovitz on the podcast today to speak about Israel, Journalism and free speech.

Times of IsraelDavid Horovitz’s articles, his Facebook and Twitter

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Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback’s Rosh Hashanah sermon: We Need Each Other

Maybe it’s because she grew up in a very small Jewish community – El Dorado, Kansas was home to about ten Jewish families. Maybe it was because of her deep love for Jewish values, traditions and teachings. Whatever inspired it, my mother absolutely delighted in discovering that the perfect stranger with whom she was sitting on the airplane or whom she happened to begin speaking with in the museum or concert hall at intermission was, like her, a Jew.

If one of her kids was nearby, she’d shoot us a knowing look and stage-whisper, “He’s JEWISH.” Sometimes it was obvious. A star of David around the neck. A hamsa. Maybe it was the name – David Shapiro was an easy one. Rochel Leah Rabinowitz – a no brainer. Shmuel Cohen – a gimmee. But mom could also find the Jewish Maureen O’Malley, too.

Then it was time for some Jewish geography. Before you knew it, mom had found a connection. Maybe through an acquaintance, a distant cousin – some Rabbi we knew in common.

When I entered Rabbinical school, it got worse. Here’s how it played out:

  • Step one: Identify the Jew.
  • Step two: Chat up the Jew.
  • Step three: Discover some type of personal connection to the Jew.
  • Step four: Seize the opportunity to announce proudly to her new best friend that her son is studying to be a rabbi.

Once on a family vacation, as we sat down for our first dinner, a member of the staff approached me and said, “I hear you’re a rabbi – would you be willing to help us light the Chanukah candles tomorrow night in the lobby? Your mom said you’d love to!”

I don’t want you to think that her ability to identify and connect with Jews was flawless – sometimes her “Jew-dar” was off. Once, on a phone call with mom when I was in college, I mentioned that I was going to a Bruce Springsteen concert with some friends. “You know he’s a self hating Jew, don’t you?” She said. “I mean, he never talks about his Jewish identity, he’s not raising his kids as Jews – he hasn’t ever performed in Israel.”

“Mom,” I noted. “We’ve talked about this before. Bruce Springsteen is not, I repeat, NOT a self hating Jew. Do you know why that is, mom? It’s ‘cuz he’s NOT A JEW AT ALL. Yes, his name ends in ‘Steen’ and he’s from Jersey but HE’S NOT A JEW.”

There was a pause.

“Still,” she said, “he could be more supportive.”

My parents taught us that we were part of a community, a People – Members of a Tribe. They were devoted to our synagogue. Mom was president of the Temple sisterhood, an active lifelong learner, forever volunteering for things like the outreach committee, the book drive, and taskforces of all types. Dad was honored to be named the volunteer of the decade at our local Jewish Community Center.

For us kids, attending religious school through Confirmation was a requirement. Mom insisted that we all try Jewish summer camp and youth group. We loved it so much that we went back year after year.

And my parents walked the walk with their tzedakah dollars as well supporting the Temple, our local Federation, and a host of Israel related activities.

Their example, the way they modeled the importance of being part of Jewish community, shaped me in the most profound ways, leading me ultimately to the rabbinate, to devoting my professional life to Jewish community, education, and values. It’s what inspired me to move to Israel to study and that’s there I met my wife, the mother of our three daughters – by far the best outcome of all.

My life has meaning and purpose because of these experiences. I have a deeper sense of my small role in the cosmos because of it. Being part of this tribe, this people Israel, has helped me to feel a sense of connection in a time of increasing alienation and division. And – most importantly – it is through my community that the values of our People have been transmitted to me: a way of life that points us towards justice and righteousness and inspires us to make ourselves and the world better.

This sense of connection to a people with a shared history, destiny and set of values provides us with what the great sociologist, Peter Berger, calls a “plausibility structure.” A system of meaning which helps us to make sense of our world and understand our place in it.

But for so many people today, not just Jews, the “plausibility structure” of community itself is being undermined in profound ways.

Marc Dunkelman, a professor at Brown University, writes about this in his recent book, “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.”

Dunkelman describes what he calls “middle-ring” relationships. These involve people who are not family or close friends but not as distant as mere acquaintances. Over the past few decades, these middle-ring relationships have all but disappeared in America and as a result, people feel less and less connected to their neighbors, their towns, and, even more broadly, their country. An additional consequence of this alienation is a narrowing of our world-views.

Dunkelman notes that middle-ring relationships are best “suited to pierce our much-bemoaned filter bubbles” – the increasingly precise way we get our news and are exposed to the ideas of others through the various feeds, tightly controlled by ever-monetized algorithms, that limit the ideas, people and – ultimately – experiences to which we are exposed.

Before the deterioration of these “middle-ring” relationships, “a left-wing academic might talk with a conservative banker while in line at Blockbuster — if that’s how we still rented movies. An activist could explain the benefits of paid leave to a skeptical businesswoman on the sidelines of the P.T.A. meeting — if that were how we spent our Tuesday nights. Experiments that compel ordinary people to discuss a fraught topic face-to-face have illustrated that those conversations quite frequently lead participants to think differently. But without middle-ring relationships, those sorts of thoughtful, substantive interactions have become all too rare.”

And, sadly, tragically even, our ability to connect deeply with what was once not a “middle-ring” relationship but rather a kin/familial relationship, namely, to Jewish community, has also been compromised.

Locally, nationally, and internationally, our Jewish community has become more fragmented and divided politically, ethnically, and religiously. Right versus Left. Ashkenazi versus Sephardi. Orthodox versus Reform.

And, more globally, there has been a most unfortunate distancing between the two major centers of Jewish life today: Israel and America. This past summer, divisions between Israel and the Diaspora surfaced in deeply troubling ways. The Kotel controversy and the debate over a new conversion bill in the Knesset, inspired headlines in Jewish newspapers including this one that should send chills down our spines: “Netanyahu to Millions of Jews – we don’t really want you.” The author of that piece, David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, argued that the Prime Minister’s decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise plan that had been labored over for more than three years was a “blow to the heart and soul of world Jewry.”

And just a few weeks ago, in the middle of the month of Elul – our countdown to repentance – the chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jerusalem said publicly that Reform Jews are worse than Holocaust deniers.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Rabbi, don’t be so naive! Isn’t this how it has always been?”

Indeed, my own grandfather used to tell me about how the German Jews in Omaha used to look down on the Shtetl Jews – my family – who had immigrated more recently from Poland.

And what about the old adage, “two Jews, three opinions”? This one is beautifully illustrated by the joke about the Jew who is shipwrecked on a desert island. The crew of a passing ship notices his campfire and comes to his aid. When the captain of the ship comes ashore, the Jew thanks him profusely and offers him a tour of his little island. He shows him the fire pit where he cooks his food, the hammock where he sleeps, and the little synagogue he built so he could offer his prayers to God. On the way back to the ship, the captain notices a second synagogue. The captain is confused. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks, “why on earth did you go to the trouble to build two synagogues!?!? You are the only Jew on this island!” “Vell,” replies the Jew, “da first shul, dat’s where I go to daven! Dis shul? I would never set foot in dis shul!”

It’s funny. And it’s awful. And it’s a rather apt metaphor for human life on this planet today – or where we might be headed.

Each of us all alone on our own little islands. Like the two couples I saw the other night out for the dinner – all four of them on their smartphones, not talking to one another, not even looking at each other.

All alone on our islands – one Jew with two synagogues, or, even worse, one Jew actively choosing to absent himself from every synagogue, from the community itself. Each one of us an island – experiencing the world, filtering our news and our friends and the values we embrace, all on our own.

And here is why this conversation is so urgent, why it matters so much, right now: Communities transmit values and a sense that, whatever the challenge, we can confront it more successfully together.

Think about the extraordinary images we’ve seen over the past few weeks of the devastation caused by hurricanes and earthquakes. Neighbors rescuing neighbors right along side professionally trained first-responders.

Friends – now, as ever, we need each other. Whatever our differences, the challenges we’re facing confront us all. Climate change, North Korean nukes, stagnant wages, social disruptions, a worldwide refugee crisis – no one is immune. Gay, straight, transgender – whether we were born in this country, immigrated here with all the proper papers, or came as an infant in the arms of a parent dreaming of a better life – we are all in this together. Only through a shared commitment to our best values will we be able to survive, to thrive, to hope for and realize a brighter tomorrow for ourselves, our children, and our world.

So the challenge is bigger and the sense of urgency is more pronounced but here’s the good news: the solution hasn’t really changed at all. It’s ultimately a matter of choice. We have a simple decision to make: Are the privileges and benefits of communal membership generally and, more particularly for us as Jews as members of this tribe, this People, worth the efforts required? If we conclude that they are, then it’s all about commitment.

And, make no mistake, it’s always been a matter of choice. In Talmudic times, there was a robust competition amongst the Jewish, Christian, and Pagan communities for the hearts and minds of the masses. The rabbis – two thousand years ago – had to make a case for Jewish community.

First, they laid out the obligations the community has toward the People. In short, the community had to provide for the physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs of everyone – no small task. Soup-kitchens for the poor; funding, and matchmakers, to make sure that orphans could marry; assistance for widows; burial societies and cemeteries for life’s end. Schools for learning. Synagogues for worship. Emissaries to represent the interests of the community to the Gentile authorities. The community would provide everything. (Sanhedrin 17b)

But the relationship must be reciprocal. The individual has obligations to the community as well.

Here’s how the Midrash puts it: “The person who asks, ‘Why should I trouble myself for the community? What’s in it for me to involve myself in their problems? Why should I care about what they say? I’m fine all by myself!” This person, says the Midrash, “מַחֲרִיב אֶת הָעוֹלָם – destroys the world. (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 2:2)

An example of Rabbinic exaggeration? Perhaps. Destroying the world might be putting it a bit too strongly.

And yet, and yet. The one who thinks, “I’ll just worry about myself and my needs alone,” doesn’t this way of thinking, ultimately, lead not merely to the disintegration of one’s local community but to the disintegration of society, of civilization itself?

And here’s what makes affiliation in Jewish community in particular and the energy we expend to strengthen it more than a provincial, self-centered act. Communal affiliation is generative. The act of connecting more deeply to our particular community, leads us to a deeper sense of obligation to and concern for the broader community. Our affiliation with and affection for members of our tribe does not have to lead us to being “tribal” in a parochial, narrow, xenophobic fashion. In fact, our tribal tradition wants our particular, personal experience to be a doorway to a more expansive sense of connection and responsibility for others who, while not MOTs, are part of our broader, human family.

As the great theologian and scholar, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, argues, “our particular religious vision is also profoundly and inseparably universal.” Our People’s master narrative of our slave ancestors being redeemed at the Shores of the Red Sea, leads us to understand in a personal and profound way, the universal value of liberation and national dignity for all people.

In a time when our nation is so deeply divided and so much in need of healing, our commitment to Jewish community and the values it upholds can help us to be better Americans for, as Jews, we have always cared for more than just “our own.” As the great sage Hillel put it 2000 years ago:

״וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי?״

״If we are only for ourselves, what are we?”

For our Rabbis, the “case” for community is existential: without it, the whole world is destroyed. We depend upon community for our very survival – physical and spiritual as well for communities transmit values.

And our spirits, our souls, need the core values of our tradition especially right now.

In the face of hatred and violence, neo-Nazis and klansmen marching in our streets, our tradition reminds us (Lev 19:17):

לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ

Hatred is a sin.

In the face of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia – our tradition reminds us that God created humanity through a common ancestor for the sake of peace –

מִפְּנֵי שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת

so that no man or woman could ever say: אַבָּא גָּדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ! My father is better than yours! (Sanhedrin 37a)

We are all children of the same loving God. We are all connected.

In a time of “alternative facts” – our tradition reminds us that there is such a thing as truth and that, indeed, the integrity of the world depends on it.

In a time in our country when disagreements about our deeply held beliefs increasingly move from what should be vigorous, healthy debates to scenes of chaos and violence, our tradition reminds us that, no matter how hard, our job is to “seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:15)

בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרָדְפֵֽהוּ

I could go on all day – but I won’t.

But do indulge me just one more: In a time of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, our tradition teaches us that “the whole world is a very narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to be afraid!” In the face of the very real and frightening challenges of our lives, our tradition reminds us never to lose hope, never to give in to our fears. And being part of a community helps us to cross the bridge despite those fears.

In my own experience, the gifts I receive from being part of this community, this People Israel, far outweigh what is required of me. I get so much more than I give.

And I know this is true for so many of you here today. You’ve told me story after story about how – right here, maybe in our parenting center – you met the closest friends who have supported you throughout your life. You’ve told me about how, right here – maybe at Torah study or as a regular in Shabbat services – you’ve found meaning and strength through life’s most challenging times. You’ve told me about how our clergy have been there for your family through simchas as well as through life’s tsuris. You’ve shared how you’ve found a deeper sense of purpose as a volunteer in one of our Tikkun Olam programs.

You’ve told me – again and again – that you have received more than you’ve given.

We’re lucky – so lucky – to be part of a vibrant, established Jewish community. My mom and her family had to drive to Wichita from El Dorado to attend Shabbat services. Now, truth be told, it’s only 40 miles which took them less time than it does to get to Stephen Wise from Santa Monica on a Friday evening but still, still – it took some effort. She could hardly imagine, as a young woman, a Jewish community like ours numbering in the hundreds of thousands, boasting synagogues and day-schools and Jewish institutions of all shapes and sizes. She couldn’t imagine a shul with a pool.

My mom grew up in a town that didn’t have any Jewish institutions and barely enough Jews to make a minyan. It’s probably why she was always searching, always on the look-out for other MOTs, Members of the Tribe.

It’s part of what inspired her to give so much time and energy to her community. But I know that – ultimately – she received as much or more as she contributed.

When she died, much too young, hundreds and hundreds of members of our community were there to honor her and to support us, to carry us in our grief.

This is the commitment, this is the support, this is the sense of belonging and meaning and purpose that we all need. And it’s what our our nation and our world needs right now, too.

To get there – we’ll all need to step up. It’s hard, I know. We’re busy – pulled in a thousand directions. But it’s important. So in this New Year of 5778, let’s all commit to doing more for each other.

I’m not going to ask you to devote yourself 24 X 6 to the Temple – although you’re welcome to do so. But what if we could each commit to doing one additional act of kindness every month for our community? It might be attending a shiva minyan or showing up to pack lunches for homeless folks in our city. Maybe it’s reaching out and bringing a friend to a class or a service. Maybe it’s helping to raise funds for a special project that will bring more meaning and hope into our world. Maybe it’s volunteering to serve on a committee or help with a program. Whatever it is, let’s commit ourselves to doing more to strengthening our tribe, our community and in so doing, we’ll strengthen our city, our nation, and our world.

Friends – we need each other. Desperately. Joyfully. Eternally.

 

Terror is not evenhanded

There are certain things I read that upset me but also put me right to sleep. One of them is any official statement that is mind-numbingly safe and politically correct. 

I came across an example last week from the Hillel at UC Irvine, regarding the precarious situation in Israel. Now, you would think that a statement from a Jewish organization would express some outrage at the horror of being stabbed in the back just because you’re Jewish, or at least show some empathy for an Israeli population in fear of walking the streets. 

A simple, “nothing justifies these kind of violent attacks against Jews or the lies and incitement behind these attacks” would have sufficed.

Instead, all we got was sleep-inducing mush. 

“Jewish and Arab civilians in the region have been subject to a sharp escalation of killings and violent encounters,” the statement reads. And what’s the explanation for this violence? Well, what do you know, it’s the “extremist incitement on both sides of the conflict.”

[READ: RESPONSE–THE MOTIVES BEHIND THE STATEMENT]

Now there’s a magic phrase that is guaranteed to keep you out of trouble — “on both sides of the conflict.” I guess as long as you appear evenhanded, no one can accuse you of being biased. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of attacks have been initiated by Arabs against Jews.

Sometimes I wonder whether the primary goal of these mushy statements is simply to avoid offending anyone — especially gentiles. After all, since Jews are so often accused of being tribal, how wonderful it would be to show the world that, even when Jews are directly targeted, they can still be universal.

But I think there’s yet another reason for this obsession with evenhandedness: It makes us feel civilized. It reaffirms the pleasant narrative that all societies and cultures are basically the same and morally equivalent. There’s good and bad everywhere — the real fight is between the extremists on all sides.

We need this cozy narrative because it gives us hope. It helps us sleep better at night. 

The problem is that when we’re confronted by ugly facts that intrude on that narrative, we tend to get defensive and cling even more closely to it. 

We’re seeing this drama play out right now with the “knife war” against Israel. It’s clear that the vast preponderance of evil acts connected to this current wave of violence — attacks on civilians, incitement to terror, lies about Israel’s intentions, lies about Israel’s responses, teaching of Jew-hatred, glorifying of terrorists, burning of a Jewish holy site, etc. —is coming from the Arab side. This is fact, not propaganda.

Trying to turn these facts into an evenhanded narrative is not just insulting to one’s intelligence, it lets evil off the hook. When we’re evenhanded about violence that is not evenhanded, when we confuse acts of aggression with acts of self-defense, when we pretend that everyone is equally guilty and equally responsible, we suck the air out of accountability.

When the media harps on Israeli mistakes just to appear evenhanded, all it does is camouflage the simple fact that the Arab sector is clearly responsible for this latest wave of terror.

It’s a fact that Palestinian leaders lied about Israel taking over and defiling the Temple Mount and “executing” a young Arab attacker, and have consistently denied any Jewish connection to Jerusalem. These explosive lies have triggered vicious attacks against Jews. There’s nothing evenhanded about that. As if that weren't bad enough, by not holding Palestinian leaders accountable for this incitement, we continue a longtime pattern that has strangled any hope for peace.

You can’t plant seeds of peace on a field of lies. For decades, we have failed to confront the biggest lie of all: the Palestinian narrative that Jews are land thieves who have no connection to the Holy Land and have no right to their own state, regardless of where the borders are drawn.

Even a prominent commentator who consistently rails against Israel’s disputed occupation of the West Bank, Jeffrey Goldberg, recently acknowledged in The Atlantic magazine what he says may be “the actual root cause of the Middle East conflict: the unwillingness of many Muslim Palestinians to accept the notion that Jews are a people who are indigenous to the land Palestinians believe to be exclusively their own.”

This latest wave of violence is yet another expression of the Palestinian rejection of the Zionist idea. As David Horovitz explained in Times of Israel, this is not the latest uprising against the occupation, it’s the latest uprising against Israel: “In bloody, unmistakable capital letters, the perpetrators of this new round of evil mayhem proclaim to Israelis: We don’t want to live alongside you. We want to kill you and force you out of here.”

So, when we agonize over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the many obstacles to peace, let’s not overlook the fraudulent Palestinian narrative that Zionism itself is a fraud. If I want to make peace with you, what bigger obstacle is there than the fact that you don’t think I should exist? That I have no right to any of this land?

This narrative is not just anti-peace, it’s pro-violence. Palestinian leaders who use lies to foster hatred and resentment are directly responsible for the poisoned atmosphere and violence these lies have spawned. 

Ignoring this truth and trying to appear evenhanded doesn’t just put readers to sleep. It wakes up the killers.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

An Examined Life During the Intifada

For the epigraph of his new book, Israeli journalist David Horovitz chooses two quotes. One is: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; those who love you shall prosper. Peace be within your walls" (Psalm 122). It is followed by the words on a refrigerator magnet sold in Orlando, Fla. — also a prayer these days: "1. Get up. 2. Survive. 3. Go to bed."

"Still Life With Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism" (Knopf) is a portrait of the "grisly lottery" of life in Israel. Amid shootings, exploding buses and bombings of public places, many are killed and no one is untouched.

This wasn’t exactly the book Horovitz, editor of The Jerusalem Report and a frequent commentator for the BBC, CNN and NPR, set out to write. He was preparing some revisions for his 2000 book, "A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of Life in Israel," when he realized that minor revisions wouldn’t work — that the world had changed.

The earlier book was published at a time of optimism in Israel, now superseded by the conflict. So instead of updating, he found himself writing an entirely new book focusing on the second intifada, covering the period from the Camp David Summit in the summer of 2000 to the re-election of Ariel Sharon in January 2003.

"I wanted to describe what life has become, to correct what have been wide misconceptions about the conflict held by some reasonable-minded people," Horovitz said.

The book is powerful because of the author’s vantage point. Horovitz, 41, is a journalist committed to living in Israel, not a foreign correspondent passing through en route to another assignment. He writes as a husband and father of three young children, concerned for their daily safety and for the world they’ll inherit.

While he doesn’t veil his own opinions, he also tries to see things as the other side might. He admitted, "The more you live in this reality, the more you understand the various voices, the more you realize how little you know for sure."

He said that the book offers a bleak view. It’s a book that will make readers cry. But even bleak or grim or sad isn’t without hope, and Horovitz still expressed his longings for peace encased in a veneer, even if thin, of optimism.

He remains a believer in the decency and humanity of ordinary people, although the last few years have made him immediately conscious of the "evil that men are prepared to do, and especially the threat posed by the death cult that is extremist Islam."

In his previous book, Horovitz struggled with the decision of whether to stay in Israel or, with his American-born wife and children, move elsewhere, where daily life wouldn’t be full of possible deathtraps at every turn. But they’re still in Jerusalem.

He writes of the "incomparable pleasure of living in one’s homeland, the invigoration of a common purpose among similarly energized people."

A fine writer, Horovitz has an eye for the telling anecdote and perfect metaphor, as he teases out the truths of a still-unfolding situation. The book is a mix of personal stories about his friends and family — the reader sees his wife shielding the eyes of their children as they drive past the site of a recent bombing on the way to school — and historical and political analysis.

In a particularly poignant chapter, he tells the story of Yussuf, a 36-year-old Palestinian "bookkeeper by training and plumber by default" who has spent much of his life in the El-Arub refugee camp near Hebron. The two sit for hours in a cafe in the "no-man’s land" between Israel and the West Bank talking passionately.

Horovitz describes Yussuf as "strikingly self-aware and unmistakably smart," and they trade competing narratives. The mutual friend who introduces them says that under other circumstances, Yussuf might have been an academic, but as Horovitz writes, "His real life got in the way."

Yussuf was arrested during the first intifada, (he says he was "in the wrong place at the wrong time") and has since found work whenever he could — working one month out of the 13 prior to their meeting — and trying to support his wife and four children, parents and a brother and his family.

Horovitz writes that their conversation goes in circles. "The Israeli and the Arab, the Jew and the Muslim, two protagonists professing moderation and desire for reconciliation, each convinced that his own leadership was trying to achieve it, and that it was the other side that failed. It is a dialogue of the mutually disillusioned."

He said, "I think he’s completely wrong, but boy, did he have a good argument."

The story of Yoni Jesner, a 19-year-old from Scotland studying at an Israeli yeshiva before beginning medical school in London and who was killed in a 2002 suicide bombing, brackets the book. Jesner’s dream had been to move to Israel to work as a doctor and save lives. Instead, he is buried in Jerusalem, and one of his kidneys was transplanted into the body of a 7-year-old Arab girl.

Jesner’s story resonates for Horovitz, who had moved to Israel from England 20 years ago, at about the same age and with similar energy and idealism. Horovitz interviews Jesner’s brother, Ari, and he also seeks out the family of Yasmin Abu Ramila, the kidney recipient, to complete a kind of circle.

Ari Jesner, a lawyer in London, explains that his family, although they live abroad, considers Israel their home, and that donating his brother’s organs was "the most fitting tribute to him to help someone." He blames neither God nor fate nor Islam, but the murderous human beings who assembled the device and dispatched an emissary to blow himself up.

Horovitz also visits with Yasmin’s grandfather, who lives in Kafr Akab, beyond the Kalandiya roadblock, at once close and far to Horovitz’s home in Jerusalem. In response to the journalist’s questions, the grandfather, whose own grandfather was born in Hebron, expresses huge gratitude and speaks of the possibility of peace.

When Horovitz meets Yasmin, who is doing well, he tries to press her mother, Dina — who, as the grandfather cautions Horovitz, has had a fourth-grade education and a very hard life — to answer his wide-ranging questions about violence and peace and her dreams for her children. He elicits only shrugs and the briefest of answers, and a gentle chide from the grandfather for asking such questions.

The scene isn’t the kind of closed circle that Horovitz had in mind, but he succeeds in presenting real people with empathy in this case of death and life at the heart of the conflict.

Horovitz is critical of the international media for misrepresenting Israelis, and he also thinks the Israeli government should be doing a much better job in dealing with the press and international public opinion. While he points out that Israel has made many mistakes, he levels most criticism at Yasser Arafat for the failure of the peace talks, for promoting violence and misleading his people.

He muses about how things might have been different were Israelis and Palestinians blessed with a Nelson Mandela, rather than Arafat. "I refuse to believe that Palestinian mothers are essentially different from Jewish and Christian mothers. I refuse to believe that their faith obliges them to regard murder and bloody, premature death as the finest ambition for their child," he writes.

"After 9/11 and month and month of bomber after bomber, I didn’t know that to be as true as surely as I once did. Yet I have to believe that it is true, because otherwise we Jews have no future in this bitter, vicious Middle East without killing and being killed, forever through the ages. And few good people elsewhere have much to look forward to, either."