November 5, 2010
Alternate narrative of home
After 30 years of covering Israel and the Middle East as a senior news correspondent for NBC, Martin Fletcher decided to embark on a journey by foot along the coast of Israel, writing about the conversations and experiences he had along the way. He published his account in Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), about which he will talk at a Cherie Smith JCCGV Jewish Book Festival pre-event at the Norman Rothstein Theatre Nov. 9.
Though the book mainly features reflections on his experiences with the Israelis, Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and others he meets, Fletcher takes care to ground each of his stops in the area’s history, and each stop has its own chapter and theme.
About his inspiration for the walk, Fletcher wrote in an interview with his publisher, “Look, almost every book about Israel today is either about Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and the peace process or ‘following in the footsteps of Jesus.’ This book is different. It’s a very personal, anecdotal look at
Israel from an entirely different perspective. Most news coverage and books about Israel concern events to the east of the Green Line, Israel’s border with the West Bank – the fighting, the settlers, the occupation, east Jerusalem. The only time you hear about the coast is when there’s a bomb or rockets. Yet 70 percent of Israel’s population, Arabs and Jews, live peacefully in the coastal plain – you rarely hear about them. So, by walking along the coast, meeting the people, strolling through the towns, you get a completely fresh view of Israelis, a much more accurate one.... I still write about the conflict, and the book is far from a whitewash; but I hope it’s a much truer portrait than is usually shown.”
Of his choice to walk the route, Fletcher continued, “I love to walk and see things slowly, and fully. In my day job as NBC News foreign correspondent, it’s the opposite – an insane rush. After all, this is the most interesting hundred miles of coast in the world – think of the events of the Bible, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Crusaders, Saladin, the Turks, Napoleon and today’s Israel – crazy how much goes on here when you think Israel’s coast is only the length of Long Island. I wanted time to reflect and see if I could come up with a fuller understanding of Israel that I miss as a news reporter.”
Several of the people Fletcher met along the way were Israeli Arabs. “What stood out for me,” he wrote, “was that even those Israeli Arabs who feel close to Israel share one thought with others more hostile: something will happen. One day, something will happen, and
Israel will cease to exist. Almost to a person that’s what they said to me. Frankly, that was the single biggest surprise of my walk. It is simply not true to believe that by raising the general standard of living, reaching a so-called ‘economic peace,’ matters will truly change. They won’t. Even many Israeli Arabs with a relatively high standard of living want the Jews out. So any solution must provide for total security for everyone in the region.”
Fletcher’s people skills are evident. He gets people at their most natural and seems to makes few, if any, attempts to clean up his subjects’ prejudiced views, hopes, fears, dreams or resentments, though he does note the tendency of his subjects to talk around, rather than to, the issues at stake. With each side developing the habit of pathologizing the other, Fletcher had a great deal of sober animus to weed through in his encounters and the “truth” that some of his subjects – and many of us abroad – are looking for, Fletcher said, will likely remain illusive.
“There is a truth,” he told the Independent, “but we’ll never know it. So we have to focus on what joins us, not what divides us. Of course, that is rarely the case. And each side thinks its story is the real story. So yes, we do need to interrupt the narratives. But we can’t. Nobody listens. What we need to do is start afresh – say these are today’s realities, let’s work from there. That’s tough though when both sides, Jews and Muslims, say God gave them the land. Who are we to change that?”
Fletcher is adamant that peace will continue to elude the region as long as there are other conflicts brewing and exploding. “Peace in the Mideast is a misnomer,” he proposed. “Solving Israel’s problem with the Palestinians will certainly be a major contribution, but there are plenty of other critical Mideast issues, [for example] Sunni-Shiite hatred, which is more deeply rooted than anti-Zionism or antisemitism; Iran and Iraq fought a bitter eight-year war with no reference to Israel; Iraq invaded Kuwait; etc., etc. Israel is just a part of it, but it gets most attention because it’s the Jews!”
In the introduction to his book, Fletcher affirms Israel’s right to exist “because so many in Europe and elsewhere are beginning to question that right to exist, even though they don’t ask the same thing about North Korea or Zimbabwe,” he told the Independent. “It’s important to be very clear and state openly – Israel is a great place, it has the same rights as any other nation and, yes, it has terrible problems that must be solved urgently – like five dozen other countries.”
In the promotional interview with his publisher, Fletcher stressed: “I want people to understand that Israel gets a raw deal. That Israel is a much nicer place than the country they hear about.... [T]he reason I wrote the book is that I believe the view of Israel in the media is too narrow. So many people phoned me to ask whether it was safe to visit Israel. Then a week after arriving, they’d call and say, ‘Wow! This is such a great place. I had no idea!’ That’s what I wanted to write about: that great place about which people have no idea. And I hope that leads to a greater, truer understanding of the country, which will in turn lead to support for a more realistic solution.”
However, Fletcher doesn’t believe that peace will come anytime soon to the region. “Not for a very long time and we must get used to that. It’s good to pursue peace because, in the absence of hope, there is war. They’ve had a war a decade. But realistically, neither side is anywhere close to making the compromises necessary for peace. And as both countries become more extreme, partly due to the high birthrate among the extremist elements of the populations, the chances for a negotiated peace are receding, not growing. This raises the question whether a peace imposed from outside is more likely. But the world has a lousy record when it comes to imposing agreements on reluctant parties.”
About the recent Time magazine article questioning whether Israelis care anymore about peace, Fletcher said, “I think the criticism of the Time article was wildly over the top. The article could have been better presented, but its message was accurate – Israelis aren’t obsessed with peace anymore, they’re just as interested in their lifestyle. I think that’s an excellent thing. The more normally Israel behaves, the less the world will focus exclusively on the conflict. But, of course, saying they want to make money is like a red rag to the bull. On the other hand, it’s accurate. Who doesn’t want to make money? It’s a sign of normality.”
To this point, Fletcher queries in Walking Israel: “I wondered which was closer to the true nature of life in Israel – lazing on the beach with a book or running to the bomb shelter with a baby? And if it’s a bit of both, then truly, this place must drive you crazy – like a serial bungee jumper guessing when the rope will break.”
Readers of Walking Israel will be treated to a counter-narrative to the often stifling portrait of the peoples of the region.
“Actually, along the walk, I followed the route taken by the troops of Alexander the Great, the Crusaders and Napoleon, and also relate to biblical events, as well as modern times, so I think that travelers, history buffs, students of modern politics and international affairs, as well as anybody interested in Israel, will find this a different, more positive approach to the country. But, mostly, this is a book about modern Israel, seen from a fresh perspective and, I believe, a truer picture of the place.”
Fletcher originally got into the news business after realizing that he wanted someone to finance his itchy feet. “I wanted someone to pay for my travel around the world, and NBC sent me. And what a stroke of luck that was,” he said. Still on contract with NBC, Fletcher said he plans to “write more books [and] run a marathon.”