Late in “A Street Divided: Stories From Jerusalem’s Alley of God,” an Israeli bridge builder’s wife attempts to explain her tortured world: “There is such a culture gap. It’s not like making peace between the Irish and the British.”
The Irish-British peace, such as it is, cost 700 years of bloodshed. So what to think of Israel and Palestine?
There are no happily-ever-afters in “A Street Divided.” It mirrors the world it walks, where centuries of mistrust and passion override the bold promise of enlightened coexistence. Not that it lacks romance. In many ways, it is a love story.
As a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, author Dion Nissenbaum lived on Assael Street, an ancient shepherd’s path that once separated Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and today symbolizes the divide between Israel and Palestine, Jew and Arab, hope and hopelessness.
He forged friendships along all edges of this divide and found an intimate frame for a confounding narrative of nations. Assael, the length of three football fields, ribbons through a valley that vibrates with history. Politicians drew an arbitrary line here to create Israel following World War II. Barbed wire separated neighbors for two decades. When the wire came down, sharper barriers of religion, culture, history and suspicion rose up. Assael is, geographically and metaphorically, a dead end.
Stories from this frayed pocket of the world are never simple. I yearn for a detailed map and player program. So, too, with “A Street Divided,” which at times struggles to keep events and characters clear. But Nissenbaum is a confident guide. His book reads like an epic multigenerational family saga, tracing the interlocking lives of a handful of neighbors whose relationships grow more strained with time. While their stories are mostly set in the recent past, Nissenbaum threads in historic events and characters that have shaped, reshaped and failed to shape a functional Israel. He zeros in on the centuries-old question: Why?
He offers no easy answers and no sure heroes. Well-meaning Westerners are reduced to frustration, fear and anger. There are glimpses of hope: Children play together on the streets; women trade hummus and bread; teens form an integrated peace choir. For all their efforts, they remain mired in a past that defies a different future.
Nissenbaum acknowledges the “suspicion of bias” that will greet his book. He was raised in a mostly nonreligious household with Passover meals celebrated at one grandmother’s and Easter egg hunts at the other’s. He married a Pakistani-American doctor and embraced Islam. He writes as a clear-eyed, open-minded journalist. Yet in his telling, the state of Israel comes across as the alpha. Palestinians — outspent, outgunned and outallied — resort to futile violence to defend their shaky status.
I am no expert on the conflict that tortures the Middle East. I greet its news with equal parts impatience and dread. But I have wandered some of the world’s most confusing and conflicted streets. I welcome Nissenbaum’s walk through the Alley of God as one that deepens my understanding and awareness, if not my hope.
Jacqui Banaszynski is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who teaches at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and coaches writers around the world.