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4.6 out of 5 stars
From Beirut to Jerusalem: One Man's Middle Eastern Odyssey
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on 1 August 2005
I didn't know anything about the Israel/Palestine conflict before reading this book. It is a place that has been in conflict for so long. I knew there were disputes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as there have been since I was old enough to take interest in the news. However, I didn't understand the history of this region.
The author is a journalist who spent time reporting in both Beirut and Jerusalem in the late 70's and the 80's. He is a Jewish American and is therefore sometimes accused of bias. I have an open mind on the topic and personally didn't detect any bias. Interestingly he has been accused on occasions of bias towards the Palestians as well!
The book covers the history of Israel and Palestine and also explains a little about the civil war that took place in the Lebanon. It looks at the views of both the Israelis and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and the rationale for the actions taken by both of them. The author also discusses how strange it was to see people going about their ordinary way of life amid bombing and gunfire. He talks at about the interesting people he met while living in the Middle East and how their lives have been impacted by the conflict.
Thomas Friedman has a wonderful way of writing which makes this book very easy to read and absorb. It is interesting, educational and in many places very amusing.
As it is not a recent book, it only covers events up to the early 90s. However I think it is a great introduction to the subject.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 August 2012
... to raise that question using the much discredited phrase from Fox News. As many people know, Thomas Friedman is a long-time reporter, and now a columnist for the New York Times. This is his first book, published in 1989, based on his experiences living in both Beirut and Jerusalem during the `80's, as the aforementioned NYT reporter. I first read the book not long after publication, and was suitably impressed, with both the "balance," as well as the wealth of information that I had not previously read. Friedman is Jewish, and in the prelude to this book says that, in high school, "I was insufferable." Insufferable in regards to his fanatical pro-Israel stance. As he states, concerning his mother's response to some of his actions: "Is this really necessary?" So, it is all the more remarkable that I do think this book represents a fair report on one of humankind's more intractable political problems today.

Friedman and his wife first went to the Middle East in 1979, and for the next decade lived in the two cities that form the title to this book, splitting their time fairly evenly. As seems to be true of every 10 year period in the Middle East, it was tumultuous. "And all the news just repeats itself" is a line from a John Prine song, truer today than when he wrote it. Friedman has a chapter on the massacre in Hama, Syria, by the forces of the current ruler's father, which killed somewhere around 20,000 civilians. This was in 1982! And his account seemed to provide the first fair discussion of it. I was in Hama in 1989, and the "ghosts still talked, admittedly, sotte voce . Lebanon has always been one of the most complex cases in the area, and Friedman seems to select the perfect epigram for his chapter, from a fellow NYT correspondent: "There is no truth in Beirut, only versions." Friedman was there when Israel invaded Lebanon in '82, and presents a rather scathing indictment of their actions, particularly their denial of responsibility for the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanon Christians in the camps of Sabra and Shatilla. Specifically, Friedman says that Israeli General Amos Yaron knew through his Lebanese liaison officer of the plan to kill the Palestinians, and refused to halt the operation. Friedman had clearly moved a long way from "insufferable." He has a knack for coining phrases that convey the essence of the matter, and the chapter on America's own intervention into Lebanon is entitled "Betty Crocker in Dante's inferno." He faithfully reports that American naval authorities felt they had the right and obligation to use their cruisers and destroyers to casually shell Lebanese villages. The why oh why is never dwelt upon enough.

In 1984 he moves to Jerusalem, and it is at least as complex as the various versions of Lebanon, though the US media rarely presents that picture. Friedman can be scathing in his observations. Consider: In terms of the exemption the "ultra-Orthodox" Jews have from military service, he says: "I began to understand what an Israeli friend of mine meant when he said, `It is a lot easier to pray for the ingathering of the exiles than it is to live with them.'" Or: "When the racist Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane used to call for transferring all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan, he would always conclude his proposal by looking his Israeli audiences in the eye and declaring, `Remember, I say what you think.' There is a little bit of Kahane in every Israeli." Friedman depicts the intense conflict between the secular and religious Israelis, and I thought his epigraph to the entire section, a quote from the French poet, Paul Valery, was pitch-perfect: "The existence of neighbors is the only guarantee a nation has against perpetual civil war."

I've been dismayed by Friedman's trajectory since he wrote this book. He has been a constant cheer-leader for the glories of "globalization," lent his prestige to the so-called war on terror, and all the wonderful transformations that American power could make in the Middle East, and has actually recently written a column, NOT tongue in cheek, about how all Americans would have to be above average now. I also liked a lot of the earlier work of Christopher Hitchens, including The Trial of Henry Kissinger and Letters to a Young Contrarian. Both seemed to lose their way in later life: the cause is always one of the "usual suspects." The ombudsman for the New York Times reported, a few years back, that Friedman was a "brand unto himself", and commanded speaker fees of $75,000 per appearance. Alas, all that money seems to have dulled the acuity of his vision.

For this book though, as with those of the younger Hitchens, it merits 5-stars.
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on 19 December 2006
Coming from the Middle-East, I tend to be a bit sarcastic about Americans writing about Israelis and Arabs... Let's face it, they tend to not know what they are talking about.

Thomas Friedman is a different kind of Americans. He is a combination that doesn't happen so often. American Jew, fluent in Arabic, studied the Middle-East, and most importantly, lived in it long enough to know what he is writing about. I have lived between Syria and Lebanon almost all my life, and what I appreciate most about this book are the details Friedman can see in the lives of ordinary people there, and the understanding he demonstrates in the way they think. That is beside the historical accuracy and simplicity in which he puts his account.

It is one of the books everyone with interest in the Middle-East should read, alongside Robert Fisk's books...

Read it, and you will learn something
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on 25 August 2004
I had this book on my "to read" list for about a year, and then it sat on my shelf for five months after buying it before I finally got around to reading it. Now that I have finished the book I have to wonder what took me so long. The book is exceptional. From Beirut to Jerusalem is the story of Thomas Friedman and his analysis of the Palestine/Israel conflict. Friedman is a three time Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and this book presents and even handed and fair look at both the Palestinians and the Israelis. The book is broken up into three sections: Beirut, Jerusalem, and Washington.
Beirut is the story of the Palestinians. When Friedman was a young reporter, he was assigned a beat in Beirut (the newspaper made a point to assign a Jewish reporter to cover Beirut). Friedman does a good job showing exactly how the PLO came to power and the importance (and the flaw) of Yasir Arafat in the Palestinian movement. Despite being Jewish himself, Friedman does not present much of a bias against the Palestinians in his reporting. Friedman shows how there truly is no central authority for the Palestinians and how amazing it is the Arafat was able to unify the PLO into any sort of centralized body. The one thing that surprised me was how the Palestinians (and Beirut as a whole) was essential tribal politics. Beirut was an example of what can go right in having a disparate group of Christians, Jews, and Muslims live together in a Middle Eastern city. Beirut also ended up being a disaster of what can go wrong: everything. When push came to shove, the different groups split apart, formed militias and held fast to tribal lines. It was in Beirut that the PLO found a temporary home (at least until Israel pushed north).
Jerusalem is the story of the Jews. We all know the story of how after World War II the Jews were given a state in the Middle East and it was on their traditional homeland of Israel. This displaced the Arabs (Palestinians) that were living on the land at the time. Friedman discusses the Utopian vision that Israel is because of the religious context for the Jews. The interesting thing is that Israel was very nearly formed as a secular state for the diaspora Jews, and it was only the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews that initially held onto their religion (rather than their culture). American Jews viewed Israel truly as the Promised Land, and the Christian world saw Israel through the tinted glasses of the Old Testament. Surrounded on all sides by Arabs who do not want the Jews in Israel, the nation has never truly been at peace and it is in this section of the book that Friedman shows just how difficult peace in the region is.
Washington is the end of the book and Friedman ties several things together. There was a very clear progression from Beirut to Jerusalem as Friedman was transferred over to Jerusalem, but at the same time I felt that Friedman presented enough material that I could begin to understand the context of Jerusalem. Thomas Friedman presents his thoughts on how diplomacy could possibly work for the Israelis and the Palestinians (using the Egypt/Israel peace as a model), and also further explains just how complex the relationships are in the Middle East. We get to see the attempts of the United States to broker peace deals, and how these succeeded and failed, and in some cases, why. Friedman discusses the role the United States does play, and perhaps should play in the region (at least as it affects Israel and Palestine).
This is an absolutely fascinating book. Obviously, this should be used as a primer on the subject and if one feels interested, should lead into further research into the region, but this was a very informative and interesting book and while I was confused at times by the complexity of the situation and shocked at the enormity of the problem, I also felt that I read a valuable book on the region. I thought this was an excellent book and it should belong on any "must read" list for books on the Middle East.
-Joe Sherry
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on 27 October 2008
I first read this in the early 1990s,and then later in the 1990s visited both Syria and Lebanon,and found this a good read to carry round on long bus rides.Note-I have transported this book safely across the Turkish,Syrian,Lebanese and Jordanian borders without any trouble.
Friedman has lived widely in the Middle East(he mentions Egypt,Lebabnon and Israel)and speaks both Hebrew and Arabic,as well as having a master's in Middle East history.He writes well and fluently,and his experiences are fascinating-being one of the first outsiders to enter Sabra and Shatilla in 1982,being a visitor to Hama,Syria after Assad crushed an uprising there in 1982 with maybe 20 000 dead.
I feel that Friedman has tried to be impartial and accurate,but,as a US journalist,it's difficult not to be pro-Israel;otherwise you may well be unemployed in the near future.One story in the book is that,during the siege of Beirut in summer 1982,he protested against the editing of his reports with such force as to almost get himself dismissed.I'd say he is pro-Israeli about 60% of the time-an amazing feat for a US journalist.If you haven't got the energy for academic works,this is well worthwhile.
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on 21 May 2000
A great achievement - this is indeed a good starting point and Friedman is at his best when he relates the horror of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres of Palestinians in Lebanon. But there is a sense that he is trying to distil the Arab-Israeli conflict into easy nuggets for the reader - one needs to go much further than this. However he is refreshingly open about his own misconceptions and what he learnt from living in the region. Edward Said has a perceptive review of this book in his 'Politics of Dispossession'. For more depth on the Lebanon side, go to Robert Fisk's 'Pity the Nation'
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on 13 April 1999
This is a brilliant synopsis of events in Lebanon and Israel - gripping, readable and concise. Highly recommended
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on 22 July 2014
A must read
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on 24 November 2003
The book has some interesting points. He basically points out some of the reality of what has been happening in the Middle East for decades . However, I really don't think that anything written in this book will really change the situation here. I feel sorry and ashamed for the amount of unbelievable injustice that my government (Israel) has shown in this region of the world (even worldwide to be honest!). Pretty vivid book.
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on 3 November 2005
This is a great invaluable book for someone who knows very little about the Middle East - Mr Friedman walks you through his experiences of a complex and confusing place. The one thing I took from this was that the Muslim world is at war with itself more than Christianity. I was totally unaware that Syria is ruled by a minority sect called Alawites who simply raze areas to the ground where there is resistance. One wonders all the time if there will ever be democracy in the Middle East.
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