In Jerusalem: Three Gen­er­a­tions of an Israeli Fam­i­ly and a Pales­tin­ian Family

  • Review
By – December 9, 2019

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 Jerusalems 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.

Discussion Questions