When Emma Williams, her husband and their three children move from New York City to Jerusalem, they are thrown headlong into what she terms “the situation”. “The situation” is ostensibly a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians over land. However on the ground, Williams discovers that, “[I]t’s a maelstrom, a tragedy of our times, a shameful failure of the modern world. And it looks so different from over there… that the view from New York verges on dangerous fantasy”.
Reading Williams’ memoir is a chance to pull ourselves out of this fantasy. Whatever your view on this conflict, something about her memoir will shake your moorings.
Williams arrives one month before the Second Intifada erupts in September 2000; she departs on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Throughout these tumultuous times, Williams chronicles the affect of “the situation” on her family. She describes their fear — fear that a decision to go to the store could be a fateful one, fear for the whereabouts of friends and family whenever a bomb goes off, the constant effort to ameliorate the fear of family and friends overseas.
Then, there is guilt — the guilt of knowing that you, with your foreign passport, can leave the country and pass through checkpoints with ease, when others are trapped. Of course, the Williams’ must also deal with politics. Every family decision unwittingly becomes a political statement — where she and her husband decide to live, where they send their children to school, the choice of a hospital to deliver her fourth child.
In addition to telling her own story, Williams seeks out Israelis and Palestinians with different perspectives, and she listens to them and questions and listens some more. Her book is filled with the insights of political leaders, settlers, mothers, fathers, health workers, aid workers, journalists and activists, just to name a few. From one Palestinian comes the book’s title: “It is easier to reach heaven than the end of the street” — a telling statement about the restrictions placed on Palestinians’ freedom of movement.
Williams’ book was originally published in the UK in 2006. This new US edition is updated with an epilogue and a foreword by Brian Urquhart, a former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations. Many reviews from 2006 highlight Williams’ proportionality, even-handedness and lack of bias. I agree. She has sympathy for Israelis who fear suicide attacks and feel that their government’s security policies make them less safe. She also has compassion for Palestinians who go about their lives as best they can despite checkpoints, curfews, and military crackdowns.
Williams is not without opinions, however. A doctor by training, she continually expresses outrage at how Israeli checkpoints create barriers for Palestinians seeking medical care and how hospitals and ambulances in Palestinians areas are targeted by the Israeli Defense Forces. She tells moving stories of pregnant Palestinian women who can’t reach the hospital to give birth, some of whom die from complications. Although Williams’ book is much more, it can be read a powerful call to action for ensuring that Palestinians have access to health care.
Oftentimes, news from this part of the world can seem repetitive — violence, attempts at agreement, violence again. This repetitiveness can make us numb to the tragedy unfolding everyday. Williams succeeds in putting a very human face on “the situation”. It is a human face that you will not easily forget.