Taking the Temperature of the Arab-Israeli Crisis

This review appears in the November 2011 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota and Manatee Counties).

This Burning Land, by Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin. John Wiley & Sons. 336 pages. $25.95.

Though this book is written by two journalists, it is not journalism. Whatever measures of objectivity Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin achieved in their work for the New York Times and Fox News respectively would seem to be irrelevant to judging their present effort. This Burning Land, though no doubt based on notes that fed their dispatches, is ultimately memoir. As such it is accumulates the recollections, insights, and feelings of two people with similar jobs, in this case a husband and wife working independently of one another, who were assigned to cover the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

Ms. Griffin’s Introduction and Afterword frames 33 well-focused, brief vignettes. Most of those chapters are by Mr. Myre. Sometimes a single chapter shares both voices and both perspectives. Overall, the book benefits from the interweaving of perspectives. Even though their views are rarely in contradiction or even contrast, the personalities and sensibilities of the two writers interact beneficially. 

Already seasoned war zone correspondents when they accepted their assignments and made a home in Israel, Myre and Griffin spent almost eight years exploring the politics and personalities of the conflict. They made many close friends, both Israelis and Palestinians, from many walks of life. The contacts that they developed and their long, deep exposure to the dynamics of the region give their remembrances and judgments specificity, authority, and resonance.

This Burning Land embraces the story of their journalistic enterprises and the story of building a home and raising children within a crossfire. Readers vicariously accompany Myre or Griffin on assignment in Gaza or a West Bank town, as once again fighting has broken out (again) or is about to. One or another of our reporters is on the streets or alleys with his or her life at risk. The danger is real and the skillful descriptions only enhance it.

On other assignments, they follow leads to interview ordinary people who have stories to tell of loss, frustration, and determination. These people have views on the likelihood of accomplishing their aims of simply surviving, of helping to create a peaceful home or homeland for their children, and of reclaiming ownership of their destiny. The journalists tell stories, as well, of engagements with community leaders, businessmen, Fatah operatives, Israeli soldiers, and West Bank professionals.

They capture the ambitions and hatreds and illusions that make peace seem not only illusive, but even impossible. Locked in adversarial positions, Israelis and Palestinians, over time, have found fewer and fewer issues about which that can agree or even negotiate in an attempt to agree.

This Burning Land also provides startling insights into the news business of which Myre and Griffin members. We learn about their relationships with their supervisors and the other professionals on their support teams. Remarkably, we see how these parents raise their young children, taking turns on assignment. A very unusual domestic life unfolds, one in which the normal issues of family interact with the nightmare environment of proximate war.

Toward the end of the book, the authors sum up their insights. They underscore several consequential realities. Among these is the fact that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have a consensus view about how to move forward. With Palestinians “wedded to armed struggle” and Israel addicted to building settlements, there seems to be little hope for a meaningful breakthrough. The enhanced status of Hamas has changed the game in that it has “veto power over any peace plan.” 

Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin have made it very easy to be sympathetic with individuals whose personal experiences of living within the caldron they tell so well. At the same time, they make it almost impossible to be sympathetic to those rival political entities that shape history by rewriting it or by limiting the vision and opportunity of those whom they supposedly represent.

This Burning Land lives gloriously in its vividness, its passionate eloquence, and its ardent commitment to revealing the known, little-known, and unknown truths of this tormented region.

Note: the authors are appearing at the Lakes Regional Library (15290 Bass Rd., Fort Myers) on Tuesday, December 6 from 7-9pm. This event is a segment of the Jewish Book Fair (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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