David K. Shipler felt not unlike Rip Van Winkle, the fictional Revolutionary War-era character who falls asleep for 20 years, when he returned to Jerusalem in November 2014 to do reporting for an updated and revised edition of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land,” published last year.
The book, originally published in 1986, dealt with the day-to-day relationships between Jews and Arabs living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and the images and stereotypes they have of each other. It was the first to train this type of lens on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, certainly for an American audience.
Even 30 years later, “Arab and Jew” is still considered by many to be one of the best books written in English about Israelis and Palestinians.
Shipler, who served as The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief from 1979 to 1984, had not been back to Israel or the West Bank and Gaza since 2001.
With his return coinciding with a wave of post-Gaza war Palestinian terrorism, he discovered that some things had changed, but much had remained the same — or rather, worsened — in terms of prospects for peace.
With his signature long beard, Shipler (who is a distant cousin by marriage to this reporter), physically resembles the fictional Van Winkle.
In fact, it was Shipler’s beard that got him into situations that made him realize just how quickly people in the region today make prejudicial, and even dangerous, assumptions about one another.
The American Shipler, who is neither Arab nor Jew (he’s a self-professed “fallen Protestant”), recounted in a post on his blog “The Shipler Report” that on a single day during his 2014 visit, he was misidentified as both a Jewish settler and a member of the Islamic State terror group owing to his copious facial hair.
“Teenagers outside the Qalandiya refugee camp, where my Palestinian interpreter and I were waiting for a camp official we were to meet, stared at me, and one said, ‘There’s a settler. Let’s kidnap him.’ When my interpreter translated, I laughed, but he was streetwise enough not to think it was such a joke, and we walked quickly away,” he wrote.
‘There’s a settler. Let’s kidnap him’
A few hours later, on the road to Jerusalem, Shipler encountered a group of young Palestinians in their teens and twenties who were getting ready to stone Israeli troops walking on a hill not far away. The journalist thought about talking to them, but they were too riled up.
One boy spotted Shipler and yelled, “Daesh!” using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“Although Daesh is considered a derogatory term, perhaps I could have played along and used my supposed authority to advise the young men not to waste their lives hurling stones at Israelis. For half an hour later, as we continued toward Jerusalem, a couple of ambulances sped by the other way, toward the spot of what we had seen as the approaching confrontation,” Shipler wrote.
With the new edition of “Arab and Jew” published in 2015, Shipler reflected in an interview with The Times of Israel on what it was like to be back in Jerusalem. No longer the “village” he remembers from his years living here, it is now a much expanded city — complete with a tall wall separating it from the West Bank, built as a defense against Second Intifada suicide bombers.
‘Israelis are seen only as colonialists. There is no recognition of Jewish history in the Land of Israel, of the Holocaust, and the real reasons for the creation of Israel’
(Shipler also visited Jerusalem in the early stages of the Second Intifada to work on an earlier updated edition of the book, which came out in 2002. At that time, he kept his usual beard, but even then he was concerned about his safety. He purposely draped a camera around his neck and gawked at the sights to make himself appear as much as possible like a first-time tourist as he walked around the Old City.)
“I wanted to get a sense of how the interactions and stereotypes had changed. I wanted to know whether there were new dynamics. I knew that all the elements of the conflict (religion, as an example) that were already in place in the early 1980s were still there, and I wanted to see how they were weighted differently now,” he said.
The most blatant change he found was the way in which Palestinians he spoke to interpreted history differently from how they did three decades ago.
“Land for peace seemed like a possible and legitimate idea back then. Most Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza I talked to went back in history to 1967. They wanted to turn the clock back by an Israeli withdrawal from the territories conquered in the Six Day War,” Shipler said.
“But in speaking to people now, I understood that the time frame has become 1948 for the Palestinians. It’s always been about historical grievances and a clash of national narratives, but there are now more severe distortions of history, especially on the Palestinian side. Now Israelis are seen only as colonialists. There is no recognition of Jewish history in the Land of Israel, of the Holocaust, and the real reasons for the creation of Israel,” he continued.
Shipler also noticed that three decades later, there is less — if any — daylight between individual Palestinians’ expressed opinions and the official line of the Palestinian leadership.
‘Three decades later, there is less — if any — daylight between individual Palestinians’ expressed opinions and the official line of the Palestinian leadership’
“The conversations I had with Palestinians this time were more militant and less nuanced than in the early ’80s,” he said.
Shipler found the opinions of the Israeli Jews he spoke with to be more variegated, and in particular he met some high school juniors and seniors who seemed genuinely curious and eager to learn the Palestinian narrative.
This is not to say that he didn’t perceive radicalism and a hardening of right-wing positions on the Jewish side too.
“There’s been some brutality and nastiness that has come with the expansion of the [Jewish] settlements [in the West Bank]. Both sides are radicalizing each other. Each side is reacting to extremism on the other side. These are the people who know how to push the right buttons to provoke the other side,” he said.
One of the most interesting updated sections of “Arab and Jew” is about Shipler’s visits to Jewish Israeli and Palestinian high schools at three different points in time. In 2014, he spoke to a sampling of students, including ones at schools in Jerusalem and Ramallah that he previously visited just after the original Oslo Accords had been signed in 1993, and during the Second Intifada in 2001.
‘I had always believed that a key to reconciliation would be each side’s ability to recognize that it had victimized the other’
“I had always believed that a key to reconciliation would be each side’s ability to recognize that it had victimized the other. Both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews had practically celebrated their own victimhood without acknowledging the others’. So on each occasion I asked these young Israelis and Palestinians, ‘Who is the victim?'” he wrote.
In 1993, a large majority of the Jewish kids interviewed saw themselves as the victims and did not recognize the Palestinians as victims. Most of the Palestinian teenagers automatically responded that they were the victims, but a few gave more nuanced responses.
“There were deaths on both sides. The victims were the casualties…Both sides have the right to live…The Israelis are scared; they feel that their lives are in danger. They’re wrong, but nobody should have to live in fear, nobody should live feeling that they walk in the streets with fear,” said a student named Minsar.
In 2001, almost all the Jewish students said there were victims on both sides, and half the Palestinians students said the same.
Fast forward to 2014, and the Jewish students were all over the place with their answers. Some said only Jews were the victims, and others said “everybody.”
Yeshiva students in the West bank settlement of Kfar Etzion applied their analytical skills to answering the question. One said that there were victims on both sides. Another said neither side was the victim, and that the ongoing conflict is being perpetuated by both sides. “Maybe we’re forced to do it to them,” he said. A third student identified the Palestinians as the victims, but not of Israel. They were victims of their leaders, lack of independence and low socioeconomic status. “We are not to be blamed,” he claimed.
‘The process of reconciliation between the two peoples has to come from the top’
In Ramallah, all the students interviewed said the Palestinians — and only the Palestinians — were the victims. Gone were the more nuanced answers of yesteryear.
And to punctuate the despair, one Palestinian girl added, “The next generation also.”
Despite Shipler’s emphasis on everyday people in his book, he believes that you can’t cut political leadership out of the equation for bringing about a peace agreement. In his opinion, the process of reconciliation between the two peoples has to come from the top.
“Leadership is important in this conflict. It’s a necessary but not sufficient component,” he noted.
He regrets that Ariel Sharon, whom Shipler spoke with at length in person (both on and off the record ) a number of times, is no longer alive and on the political scene. Shipler characterized Sharon as military pragmatist and an opportunist, who, as “brutal and vicious” as he was, withdrew from Gaza because “he wanted to be remembered as opening the door to peace.”
Shipler has always said that only prophets and fools make predictions about the Middle East
Regardless of the fact that the Gaza disengagement radicalized Israel because of Hamas’s subsequent takeover of the Strip, Shipler contended that another conservative Israeli prime minister with imagination who wanted to go down well in history could reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
“The same applies to the Palestinian leadership,” he said, while noting that to date the Palestinian leadership has never tried to move the Palestinian public toward a different way of thinking.
Shipler has always said that only prophets and fools make predictions about the Middle East, but he ventured to augur that peace was unlikely to happen in the near future.
“But you can never know because sometimes uncontrollable forces come into play and outstrip imagination,” he added with cautious optimism.
The veteran journalist, who retired from The New York Times in 1988, has had a second career writing well-received books on civil liberties, freedom of speech, race relations and the working poor. He can’t turn back time, but if today he again were the age he was when he reported from Jerusalem and he were offered the job, he’d gladly take it.
“I’d absolutely say yes. It’s a fascinating place. The conflict is deeply engaging emotionally and intellectually,” he said.
‘There are new challenges for US correspondents. Safety was never really an issue for me’
When asked whether he would be concerned about any possible influence of the BDS movement (and increased villainization of Israel in general) on how his articles would be received, he said absolutely not.
“I don’t care what the world wants to hear about Israel. It doesn’t and has never affected what I do as a reporter. My job is to give as complete a picture as I can,” he asserted.
There is one thing he said would be different if he were reporting from Israel today.
“There are new challenges for US correspondents. Safety was never really an issue for me. I almost never felt unsafe in the 1980s. Now the tension is higher and it’s much more difficult to get stories in the West Bank, and especially in Gaza,” he said.
And of course, there’s Shipler’s beard. He’s already discovered that it would be more of a problem than it used to be.