Like many American Jews, Lis Harris, long-time staff writer at the New Yorker and current professor in the School of Arts and Writing at Columbia University, struggled to reconcile her liberal values with her Zionism, largerly because of Israel’s relationship to its Palestinian citizens and neighbors. Growing up in the mid-twentieth century she knew little about Israel, and what little she did know she felt was “distinctly one-sided.” As she learned more she felt tangentially involved by the ways Palestinians were treated, and yearned to understand how everyday people have navigated these realities. It is from those questions that In Jerusalem was born.
Part historical narrative, part journalistic interviews, and part personal reflection, In Jerusalem feels reminiscent of Amos Oz’s In the Land of Israel and David Shipler’s Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. The book’s vignette style is both a strength and a challenge. The history unfolds in pieces, some surface-level, and some with more depth. Someone less familiar with the conflict might struggle to place these segmented historical discussions into their broader context and chronology.
In Jerusalem’s strengths are in the stories of Harris’s personal relationships with members of two families, one Israeli and one Palestinian. The three dominating friendships are with Ruth HaCohen, a professor of musicology at Hebrew University; Niveen Abuleil, a speech pathologist; and her driver, Fuad. Harris’s desire to understand their experiences, and those of their family members, shines through in each interaction. Rooted in her own experiences as an American Jew growing up soon after the Holocaust, there’s a focus on how her new friends survived trauma and continue to triumph over the adversities, discriminations, and injustices of their circumstances.
The narrative is shaped by Harris’s opening examination of her own emotional struggles to reconcile what she came to learn about Israel and its policies with her interpretation of Rabbi Hillel’s famous, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” She views Israel as an occupying force in the West Bank.
If someone is looking to better understand the personal experiences of a few families over the generations, and how they came to understand the challenges of their past and ongoing political conflict, In Jerusalem is a great fit. As Harris acknowledges, there is no such thing as a “typical family,” so the text needs to be read for what it is — the reflections and thoughts of the author as she interacted with two distinct families and of her as she sees them. It’s a unique slice of a complex story, artfully told by a thoughtful, compassionate, and inquisitive writer.
Joy Getnick, PhD, is the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Rochester. She is the author of the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning Beyond Borders: The History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, has taught history at area colleges, and previously worked in the JCC world and as the director of a teen Israel travel summer program.