February 2011

Colleen Mondor

Past Perfect

It's Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street: A Jerusalem Memoir by Emma Williams

Sometimes I feel like I can't stand the thought of reading another book about the Middle East. It’s the relentless despair that permeates every one of these titles, even the most political ones, that gets to me. Whether they're blaming one side or the other, everyone seems incapable of seeing any way out of this seemingly endless conflict. It’s the ultimate dilemma; it’s just bad, and nobody seems to be able to stop the badness.

I swear, I don’t know how Hillary Clinton can do her job when you consider how insane most of it is.

So I approached Emma Williams’s memoir of modern life in Israel with a healthy dose of skepticism. Part of why I was even willing to pick up It’s Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street is because the author is American, and it was work (she is married to a UN official) that brought her family to the region, not religion. I thought she likely had the best chance for a clear-eyed view of everyday Israeli and Palestinian life and would be able to convey it to me, a jaded American reader, better than most. So I gave her a shot -- and while I can’t say the reading came easy (on more than one occasion I had to repeat passages out lout to my husband so there could be someone to share my frustration and disbelief), I did leave this book with a much greater understanding of just how bad the situation is. I also now understand a bit how something like the Hundred Years' War could last as long as it did. People get used to war’s craziness, plain and simple. And though Williams found many people who are actively trying to change their part of their world she mostly found those who have gotten used to living in a way that the rest of us could not tolerate let alone understand. The title is nothing poetic -- because of roadblocks and checkpoints, it literally is easier for some people (read: Palestinians) to reach heaven than the end of the street and that is apparently just fine for a lot of other people. And while we might not understand how that reality could exist, realizing that they do is half the battle when it comes to wrapping your head around how peace can still be so far away among otherwise perfectly civilized people.

Williams, her husband, and their three children (a fourth is born in Bethlehem) left New York in 2000 and lived in Jaffa, a village in Jerusalem’s Palestinian area, for the next three years. Here is how she describes what she found there:

The "situation": that’s what those on the ground call it. On the face of it, the situation is straightforward. It’s a conflict between two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, over land: the Holy Land. In reality, it’s a maelstrom, a tragedy of our times, a shameful failure of the modern world. And it looks so different from other there, on the ground, that the view from New York verges dangerously on fantasy.

Her pointed reference to how differently things are on the ground in Jerusalem versus New York City is significant as so much of the support for each side comes from far away -- especially the United States for Israel. One has to wonder just what would happen if the whole world bailed on the “situation” and forced the Palestinians and Israelis to deal with it on their own. Of course that couldn’t happen -- and never has -- but it's an important point. Everyone who thinks they have a dog in this fight doesn’t really know what they're talking about unless they've lived there, and once you live there, everything you think you know changes.

Upon arrival, Williams and her husband quickly went about immersing themselves in local life. He is busy with the UN, but as a doctor she seeks out work in her field, and they enroll their children in a French school attended by many other international and Israeli children. They make friends on both sides of the conflict and they do not hesitate to reach out to others. In this way she discovers what daily life has become for many different families, as in the case of one married 33-year-old man, who was born in Jerusalem but is classified by the authorities as a “West Banker” and thus unable to live in Jerusalem. He and his wife both work for al-Qud University but do not live together, even though they have a child. “Ghassan” lives with relatives on the West Bank side of the Wall. He explains his frustration:

“It’s the control that’s the worst. Israel controls every aspect of my life: where I can and cannot go, when, whether or not I can get to work, what roads I can use, even whether or not I can leave my house. They will not let me build on the land that remains to me -- the settlers have taken the rest. With their wall and their permits they want to cut me off from my family, my friends and my city. And my wife.”

If his wife chooses to live with him in the West Bank then she, who is also Palestinian but classified as a Jerusalem resident (along with their toddler son), gives up her right to ever live in Jerusalem again. Ghassan, who is a computer engineer, has lost hope. “There’s nothing we can do. What is the point of anything, even demonstrating? It does no good at all.”

This exchange occurs at the very beginning of the book as Williams is just beginning to discover the impact the Wall and the countless checkpoints have on her new life. Ghassan is the friend of a friend, but his story will become achingly familiar as she waits in checkpoints to visit Bethlehem, or drives Palestinian friends who will have a better chance of navigating the checkpoints if they are in the car with her, a foreigner with UN papers. She feels for his frustration, but then later, when a suicide bomber kills himself just outside the gates of her children’s school she instinctively finds herself embracing notions of security and protection over all else. Because she can leave, though, her vision of the two sides remains clearer, giving her a picture of Israelis and Palestinians that is shared by other foreigners she meets.

The language of and culture of victimhood was everywhere, debilitating. “Don’t you see how like each other they are?” asked one of the more jaded commentators that night at the journalists’ favorite haunt, the American Colony bar. “Both sides convinced they’re victims, both adamant that the other give way, both obsessively determined not to look beaten even if it means continuing the bloodshed instead.”

There are so many observations of daily life and absurdity in Heaven that I found myself marking every page, turning down corners, reaching for Post-It notes, and jotting down stars and arrows. It became impossible to track what was most important for a book review, and what was simply unbelievable. But as much as Williams concentrates on the human side of Israeli and Palestinian life, she is close enough to the political situation to note how controlled it is by extremists on either side, something she notes Israeli journalists were also discovering. She also became aware how significant reportage is in this ongoing story, how the sudden bursts of violence against Israelis are always big news, whereas the action against Palestinians, “too grinding, too chronic to be covered equally,” is easily overlooked. And while Williams never makes judgments, declaring one side right or wrong, she can not help but conclude that the sides are far from equal, and the situation is skewed so that one side could never win, no matter how many rockets they might launch or suicide bombers might be dispatched.

The irony that the Jewish people have essentially locked up one entire group of people is not lost on Williams, and the fact that the Israelis themselves don’t know how to change their current system mystifies her as much as it does them. Mostly though, any thought she had to effecting positive change while in the country is lost as the violence spirals out of control, the rhetoric escalates and her husband is sent to another part of the world by the UN. Williams packs up the children and says goodbye to new friends each of whom, for all that they love their land, is somewhat wistful at the peace she will be finding as soon as she leaves; a peace most of them have never and will never know.

I thought of the hundreds of dead whose lives are cut short, and the maimed whose lives are ruined and all the Israelis and Palestinians living in fear, even the general at the top. Everyone trapped, wondering how to get out of the situation. The reality for so many: that, as the journalist said, “it’s easier to reach heaven then the end of the street.”

And the why? The layers of complication and interpretation, and the flow of hate and love in this land, and a vengeful God sitting somewhere in the middle and Peter’s question, how to get out, unanswered, and the block on doing anything to sort it out because -- well, just because.

But it doesn’t help to get angry. I understand much more having read Williams's book -- but I don’t think anyone can really ever understand “the why” of this conflict. She makes clear that it simply is, and as long as so many have so much more invested in keeping the conflict going then stopping it, it will continue. If nothing else, I now see the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a cautionary tale for the rest of the world for how conflicts quickly become intractable.

It’s Easier to Reach Heaven Than the End of the Street: A Jerusalem Memoir by Emma Williams
Olive Branch Press
ISBN: 1566567890
384 Pages