Ambivalence: Adventures In Israel and Palestine

The title refers to the author's feelings toward his religion and, by extension, toward the state of Israel

Book Review

Ambivalence: Adventures In Israel and Palestine

by Jonathan Garfinkel
W.W. Norton & Co., 358 pp., $25.95

For Jonathan Garfinkel, a thirtysomething, somewhat observant Jewish writer living in Montreal, life is filled with ambivalence, particularly in regard to his religion and, by extension, to the state of Israel. Like many religious Jews living in the diaspora, he attended a Zionist primary school that taught a particular view of Israel's creation, fight for independence, and ongoing struggle with its Arab neighbors. Through a Palestinian woman he meets, Garfinkel learns of a house in Israel shared by both a Jew and an Arab who live together peacefully. Thinking it would make a good subject for a play, he ventures for the first time to the Middle East in search of the house and its occupants. He arrives to a rude awakening when the idealist images and history lessons from his childhood abruptly clash with the complex reality on the ground.

Talking with everyday folks, Jew and Arab alike, Garfinkel finds a stunning inability of each to empathize with the other. He meets with Orthodox Jewish friends for Passover who want nothing to do with the Arabs and could care less for their plight. Likewise, he speaks with Palestinians in the West Bank whose frustration with the "occupation" has led them to advocate violence. He is distressed to learn of Israeli policies that have obliterated Palestinian history. Everywhere he turns, his preconceptions are upended. "This country is not right and left having a discussion. ... It's a thousand different opinions screaming at once," he exasperates.

Garfinkel does find faint rays of hope – one in a small, isolated, 30-year-old community of both Palestinians and Jews. Another is in the amazing story of the house that brought him to the Middle East initially. But even that tale is far more complicated than he anticipated. Despite the anguish he encounters on both sides, Garfinkel lightens his adventures with a wry sense of humor as he encounters an amazing array of characters and questions his faith all along the way. Speaking of faith, he finds many Jews who feel the need to separate religion and government before substantive progress can occur. There's much food for thought here, and anyone who expects a solution to the horrendous and intractable quagmire anytime soon will find this engrossing memoir to be quite sobering.

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