Most of us try to avoid people who’d like to wipe us out. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg goes right up to them and introduces himself. In his new book, Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide, he writes about an unusual friendship that he struck up when he was a guard in the Israeli Army with a devout prisoner named Rafiq. Goldberg talked with Boris Kachka.
You started writing this before the Oslo process broke down in 2000. You must have been planning quite a different book.
I actually thought that I was racing against time—that when the book came out everybody would say, “Sure it’s possible to make peace; we already have it.” The second intifada was profoundly depressing for me, and I did lay it aside for a while.
But that seems to have made your friendship with Rafiq more interesting.
My relationship with him deteriorated after 9/11. He became more radicalized, and I moved at least from the left to the center.
Have things gotten any better in the region since?
I have a very low threshold of hope, but I was just there in August, and I came away feeling somewhat optimistic that there are still plenty of Palestinians looking for a solution in this world as opposed to a divinely inspired one, which is something that scares me terribly.
Scarier than staying in a Pakistani madrassa and declaring yourself a Jew? How did you manage that?
I used it as a way of leveraging a better conversation. They’re repulsed by Judaism, but they’re also very curious.
Did you become more cautious after Daniel Pearl’s murder?
I was in northern Iraq when my wife told me by satellite phone. This was before the war. I said a line that she’ll never let me forget: “Don’t worry, that was Pakistan. I’m in Iraq; it’s completely different.” But sure, in a way, it was the end of innocence.
After living in Israel in the nineties, you left disillusioned. Why?
I grew up venerating the Freedom Riders, not Bull Connor, and I didn’t want to carry a nightstick. But you can’t hold a country to the standard of perfection that I held Israel to. It’s a real place with real people.
Doesn’t your history with Israel make you a less-than-objective observer of Palestinians?
The advantage of being a magazine writer is that I have to be fair but not balanced. That said, the most criticism I’ve ever gotten was for a harsh look at the settlement movement.
You were also criticized for writing in The New Yorker of alleged contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
Is that part of the interview? Okay, fine, if you really want to go into it, the specific allegations I raised have never been definitively addressed by the 9/11 Commission. Of course, I was wrong, as was nearly everybody else, about the WMD question.
How do you think Rafiq will feel about the book?
I don’t want this to be another test of our relationship. At times, I’ve used him as a stand-in for the Palestinian people. He’s a broad-shouldered guy, but he can’t sustain that.
Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide