As a military policeman in the infamous Israeli Ketziot prison, Jeffrey Goldberg develops an uneasy friendship with a Palestinian prisoner, Rafiq Hijazi. One day, Goldberg asks Rafiq how he would react if they saw one another on the street in five years' time. Would Rafiq kill him? "Look, it wouldn't be personal," is his elliptical response, whose meaning is all too plain.
It's not what Goldberg wants to hear. He resolves to look for Rafiq when he is a free man, pose the question again and get the answer he wants. His mission provides the narrative drive of this remarkable, perceptive and darkly humorous book. It is a deeply human, candid exploration of the two conflicting nationalist claims at the heart of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
One of Goldberg's great achievements in Prisoners is his self-portrait of the making of a modern, post-Holocaust Zionist. Now Washington correspondent of the New Yorker, Goldberg grew up in the suburbia of Malverne, Long Island, in the 1970s, in a non-observant Jewish family. His youthful obsession with Israel answers a teenage sense of alienation. It is an obsession fed by the Holocaust. As a bookish young boy, he is traumatised by reading about the mass murder of European Jewry. After his first visit to Israel, he devours Zionist literature as if he were a persecuted Jew in early 20th-century eastern Europe, looking for a way out.
But Goldberg's love affair with Zionism is punctured by reality. He sets off for Israel at the age of 20 and ends up as a military policeman at Ketziot - the biggest prison in the Middle East. A desert hell-hole holding more than 5,000 pris oners, it was hastily constructed to house the leaders and foot soldiers of the first intifada. But rather than stifling Palestinian nationalism, Ketziot became a finishing school for the next generation of activists.
There are wonderfully unexpected moments in Goldberg's revelatory account: the Palestinian prisoner who speaks Yiddish and greets him every morning with "Nu vas macht ein Yid?" ("How's it going?") and the Palestinians who study the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin's The Revolt as a textbook of political struggle. There are also hideous moments of barbarism - the rape of young inmates by fellow prisoners, the murder of collaborators, the tear-gassing of Palestinians by Israeli guards. As Gold berg does his best to maintain his humanity amid this brutality, the other guards label him a yafei nefesh (bleeding heart), but he never loses his faith with Zionism. Instead, he tries to find a way towards a future of accommodation. His conversations with Rafiq are part of this. Both intellectuals, they find a certain comfort in each other's company. For Goldberg, Rafiq becomes a symbol of a larger possible reconciliation.
When Goldberg returns to Israel as a journalist many years later, he goes searching for Rafiq in Gaza. He is keenly aware of the narcissism of this potentially dangerous quest, describing Rafiq as "a blank slate on to which I wrote my fondest wishes". Above all, he wants Rafiq to understand him - and the right for Israel to exist. "I wanted to make sure I could still have it all: my parochialism, my universalism, a clean conscience and a friendship with my enemy."
Although he is horrified by the treatment of Palestinians in Ketziot, he is not as interested in understanding them as he is in getting them to understand him - and Zionism. Part of the brilliance of this complex, beautifully written book is Goldberg's self-awareness - he mocks his own priggishness and self-righteousness throughout. On the plane to Israel, a Jerusalem émigré is shocked to discover the young American's mission. "How big is your asshole?" he asks him. "[The army] are going to fuck you!" Yet while he offers his youthful self up as entertainment, Goldberg's sense of Jewish identity remains rooted in a dangerously romantic, nationalistic narrative. "I am still susceptible to the demands of blood and tribe," he admits.
Goldberg never really gets the answer he wants from Rafiq. Their relationship is always edgy: this is not a buddy story in which enemies forget their differences. Rafiq turns out to be a talented scholar, who miraculously finds a way out of the slums of Gaza to an academic career in America and the Gulf. In Washington, he becomes increasingly alienated from American culture and grows more devoutly Muslim - to Goldberg's frustration. Neither is sure they can ever call each other a friend, but it is only by confronting this very intransigence that a resolution to the wider conflict can ever be found.
At the end of the book, Goldberg and Rafiq find a way of acknowledging each side's claim to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif (one of the greatest stumbling blocks of the conflict). Reconciliation, it seems, may come not through giving up ownership but through finding a way to acknowledge a joint possession. It is a profound and valuable conclusion to a hugely enjoyable book.
Jo Glanville is editor of Index on Censorship