From Beirut to Jerusalem
is a 1990 memoir by news correspondent and war journalist Thomas L. Friedman. It tracks his journey from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, to Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine and Israel, reflecting on the perils and distortions of truth that he encountered while trying to relay truthful information about the two states to the world. Despite popular portrayals of the Israel-Lebanese conflict, which depict both states as sparring over fundamental incompatibilities and endless historic contentions, Friedman argues that both capital cities are very similar, and their citizens are essentially alike in their desires to have good and safe lives. The memoir won the 1989 National Book Award for a nonfiction work, and was named one of The New York Times Book Review
’s “Best Books.”
The memoir covers Friedman’s stints in Lebanon from 1979 to 1984, and his subsequent move to Israel until 1988. Friedman, a Jew from Minnesota, risked his safety to document the strife of these two countries. From the beginning, he was committed to obtaining hard evidence about a conflict that was too often, he believed, portrayed as primitive and tribal. At the same time, he acknowledges that his hopes for the future are rooted in American and Jewish optimism and therefore seem, at times, incompatible with Middle Eastern affairs.
Friedman begins his memoir by stating his thesis that the citizens of Jerusalem and Beirut are going through uncannily similar crises of identity. To illustrate the subtlety of some parts of this crisis, he recalls a specific memory of traveling between the Israeli cities of Haifa and Jerusalem and passing a sign warning travelers of strong crosswinds. The warning struck him as bizarre, considering that countless Israelis were dying each day of aerial strikes. Throughout the rest of the memoir, Friedman returns to crosswinds as a metaphor
for the intense ideological crossfire between the two nations. Throughout his period of coverage, he is challenged to believe that the crosswinds will ever die down, struggling to imagine a balanced alignment of power, values, and geographical boundaries.
Friedman traces Israeli-Lebanese conflict to the end of World War I, which fundamentally transformed geopolitics in the Middle East. After the Turkish Ottoman Empire imploded, France effectively gained control of the land now known as Lebanon and Syria. A few years later, the nation of Maronite Christians convinced the French to declare a Lebanese state and arranged for it to be primarily governed by the Maronites. To facilitate economic health, the Maronite Christians ceded certain areas, including the capital, Beirut, to Druse and Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims. The Shi’ites and Sunnis, who preferred to remain in Syria, resented that the Lebanese defined the boundaries of their land without consulting them.
Friedman finds his journalistic position in the Middle East unique: lacking any academic training in journalism, he is the first Jewish person to report on the state of Lebanon. When he reached Lebanon, he was surprised that the people there treated him respectfully. The Arab people came to respect him for his objective reporting style, and his willingness to take in their feedback. Though he is treated well enough as an individual, Friedman is no more immune to the ongoing war between Lebanon and Israel than anyone else. Almost immediately upon arrival, his apartment building is destroyed by a bomb. He soon begins to cover media corruption in Beirut. Since there is no stable government to confirm or deny information, the delivery of news is at the mercy of various self-interested powers.
When Friedman is reassigned to Jerusalem, he hopes for Israel to seem similar to the one he visited in high school, while he lived in various small Jewish communities called kibbutzim. He is disheartened to see that the new Israel is highly Americanized. Friedman observes that Israel has transformed due to its reliance on America for political advantage in defending its territory, and laments that it has suffered a huge cultural loss. He also loses some of his previous sense of solidarity with Israel after observing the violent crimes of Israel against Palestine during Palestine’s intifada, or uprising, against Israel in 1987.
Friedman spent about a decade traversing the Middle East, seeking to objectively understand the various forces that led to its seemingly endless strife. In the end, he realized that the political crosswinds in the region were far more complicated than he ever could have imagined as a Jewish American outsider from politically remote Minnesota. In an epilogue, Friedman outlines a possible solution for Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He advocates a “grocer-diplomat” model of peacemaking based in the socioeconomic norms of trade bargaining in the Middle East, which both Israelis and Palestinians understand and use. This model would proactively reward agreements and treaties, and punish stubborn refusals to form them. As part of the strategy, he argues that political leaders must be held immediately accountable for their decisions, at the potential cost of their own lives. Only then, Friedman argues, might Israelis and Palestinians develop sensible and harmonious ways of interacting with each other.