Thomas L. Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, drove from Beirut to Jerusalem on the morning of June 1, 1984. Five years later, this Jewish journalist from Minnesota skillfully blended anecdote, analysis, and autobiography to author one of the decade’s most arresting books about contemporary politics in the Middle East. Winner of the 1989 National Book Award for nonfiction, From Beirut to Jerusalem was also chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the year’s Best Books.
Reporting the news from dangerous places—he covered Lebanon from 1979 to 1984, Israel from 1984 to 1988—the author risked life and limb to make this book possible. Utterly realistic about the strife in Lebanon and Israel, which seems as intractable as it is tribal, Friedman still manages to draw—some will say unrealistically—on his American optimism and Jewish idealism to glimpse hope in circumstances too well suited to produce despair.
As Friedman went south from Beirut to Jerusalem on that June morning, his eye caught a highway sign somewhere between Haifa and Tel Aviv. BEWARE OF CROSSWINDS, its Hebrew said. Only hours before he had been in Lebanon—”where people are dying like flies” —and at first Friedman thought it incongruous to be in a country “where they warn you about the wind.” Soon enough he found this warning suggested an apt political diagnosis, one not identical for Israel and Lebanon but still relevant for both.
“The people in Beirut and Jerusalem,” argues Friedman, “were going through remarkably similar identity crises.” That proposition is arguable, but it is one of Friedman’s basic points, and thus he underscores how those crises have emerged from crosswinds distinctive to the Middle East. Indeed, he contends, the region’s gusts of ancient memory, passion, and feud can be so strong as to make it almost unthinkable that there can be a unifying, lasting, and just response to the fundamental questions that since the late 1960’s Lebanon and Israel have had to ask anew, much though they might like to avoid facing them squarely: “What kind of state do we want to have—with what boundaries, what system of power sharing, and what values?”
Inside Lebanon answers to those questions abound. Therein lies the tragic dilemma. The answers are those of tribe, faction or party, this religious persuasion or that one. Each tends to insist on its own way. Most will kill to get it. As the self- destruction of Beirut so painfully testifies, the results have been ruinous. Friedman shows how the end of World War I brought fateful changes to the Middle East. The collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire left France in control of the area that is now Syria and Lebanon. In 1920, Maronite Christians persuaded the French to establish a Lebanese state. It would be politically dominated by Maronite Christians, but to be economically viable, the new Lebanese state also had to include areas, Beirut among them, dominated by Druse and Muslims—Shi’ite and Sunni. Not consulted in this process, the Shi’ites and Sunnis both resented its outcome because they preferred ties to Syria.
In 1943, however, an agreement—the National Pact—was reached. Under its provisions Lebanon would officially be an Arab country, independent of France, but with political power-sharing that maintained Christian predominance. While Lebanon’s Prime Minister would always be a Sunni Muslim and its Speaker of the Parliament always a Shi’ite, the nation’s President would be a Maronite and the Parliament would have a 6:5 Christian-to-Muslim ratio.
This complex formula worked for a while, so much so that Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the Middle East and Beirut was compared to Paris, but these cosmopolitan, multicultural patterns of prosperity gave way to deadly conflicts as Lebanon’s demography shifted. By the early 1970’s, Lebanon’s burgeoning Muslim population had shrunk the Christian percentage from half to one-third. The Muslims called for political reform; the Maronites resisted. Soon militias formed on all sides, and civil war was under way. It would be complicated and intensified as the crosswinds of another major conflict in the Middle East—this one between Palestinian Arabs and Jews—blew into Lebanon and eventually lashed Beirut.
Aligned with Syria and Jordan, Egypt prepared militarily in 1967 to make good its threat to destroy Israel. The Jewish state responded with a preemptive strike that left Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Syria’s Golan Heights, and Jordan’s West Bank under Israeli occupation. Related to the Israeli victory was the fact that southern Lebanon, and parts of Beirut as well, increasingly became districts for Palestinian refugees and also for Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrilla activity directed at Israel. Mostly Muslims, Yasir Arafat and the PLO were welcomed by the Lebanese Muslims and Druse, who not only identified with the Palestinian cause but also believed that the PLO could help them pressure the Maronite Christians. This alliance gave Lebanese Christians and Israelis a common cause, namely, to crack down on the PLO. That crackdown led to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June, 1982. It also led to the Christian Phalangist massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, while those camps were surrounded by Israeli forces.
Friedman’s narrative of this history is fascinating and compelling. Even more so is the analysis that accompanies it. He is at his best, for example, when probing the violence that turned Lebanon into a shell-shocked stalemate and green-lined Beirut into what Friedman calls “a huge abyss, the darkest corner of human behavior, an urban jungle where not even the law of the jungle applied.”
Instead of the law of the jungle, Hama Rules applied in Beirut. Friedman coined that term,...
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