From Beirut to Jerusalem

  • Author: Thomas L. Friedman
  • Published: 1989

If you’re only familiar with Tom Friedman as the New York Times columnist you can be forgiven for occasionally poking fun at him. While often times his columns are insightful, cogent and worthwhile, they can just as often be obvious, simplistic and amorphous. There’s not a lot of romance in them. His tone is usually one of earnest caution, earnest optimism, or earnest earnestness. His decades-long pleas for an “Arab Mandela”, his child-like wonder at the rise of globalization, and his frequent calls for more “common sense” are all well worn themes. While his heart is always in the right place, he can be justifiably accused of periodically using too many words to say too little. 

It was with this mindset that I embarked on what is known as his greatest literary achievement, From Beirut to Jerusalem, his non-fiction account of his 10 years in Lebanon and Israel as NYT’s foreign correspondent. The book debuted in 1989 to widespread acclaim, and Friedman has penned afterwords for newer editions in 1994, and 2012. It’s a tour-de-force. Suffice to say, after the first few chapters I was sheepishly recalling the many times I felt intellectually superior to his columns. This is a man who has lived, breathed and almost died (more than once) covering some of the most dangerous regions and conflicts on Earth. Beneath his benign and vanilla exterior is a steely set of nerves that I never knew existed. Tom Friedman, it turns out, is a bit of a badass. Snicker at your own risk. 

Friedman was born in Minneapolis to a “typical middle-class American Jewish family.” As a young boy he attended Hebrew School, but avoided the synagogue after his Bar-Mitzvah. He describes himself as “three-day-a-year” Jew, twice on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and once on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). However, it was a 1968 family trip to Israel, on the heels of Israel’s dramatic victory in the Six-Day-War, that changed Friedman’s life forever.

I was only fifteen years old at the time and just waking up to the world,” Friedman writes. So captivated was he by the Israeli way of life, its history, its conflicts, and the walled old city of Jerusalem, that his enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge for all things Israeli became insatiable. “High school for me, I am now embarrassed to say, was one big celebration of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day-War.” Friedman recalls. He became “insufferable”. School projects on the Israeli military, summers abroad in the Israeli countryside, and courses in Arabic all quickly followed. “I went from being a nebbish whose dream was to one day become a professional golfer to being an Israel expert-in-training.

While studying in England he began his career in journalism by writing small op-ed pieces for the Des Moines Register. This led to a stint with United Press International, where he found an opening in their Beirut bureau. The previous correspondent had called it quits after a bullet had nicked his ear, fired by a man who was robbing a jewelry store. “With a lump in my throat and a knot in my gut, I jumped at the opportunity.” Friedman writes. Thus began his odyssey through the bazaars, bars, backstreets, front lines, private estates, embassies and government buildings across Lebanon and Israel. It remains an astonishing journey.

Friedman sets up his time in Beirut perfectly. “Lebanon was once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, a land of mountains, money, and many cultures, all of which somehow miraculously managed to live together in harmony. At least that was the picture-postcard view. It was not the Lebanon that greeted Anne and me in June 1979. We came to a country that had been in the grip of a civil war since 1975. Our first evening at the Beirut Commodore Hotel I remember lying awake listening to a shootout right down the street. It was the first time I had ever heard a gun fired in my life.” 

Soon thereafter Friedman accepted a job at the Times, and returned to Lebanon on the cusp of some of the regions most significant events in history. “For the next twenty-six months,” he writes, “I reported on the Hama massacre, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, the evacuation of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) from Beirut, the arrival of the U.S. Marine peacekeeping force, the suicide bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut and the Marine headquarters, the departure of the Marines from Lebanon, and the ongoing fighting in the Lebanese civil war that accompanied all these momentous events.”

The eyes of the world seemed to be on Lebanon precisely when Friedman was given his assignment there. He became the eyes, ears and conscience for the masses during these dangerous, grisly events, and he writes of them with a clarity of description and heart that is unforgettable. There’s the time he was sitting in traffic, and witnessed a man being kidnapped - dragged out of his vehicles front door. “The man was struggling and kicking with all his might, a look of sheer terror in his eyes.” There’s the story he heard from an Israeli officer, who spoke of Druse soldiers beheading their own fallen comrades in the field so they could show the butchered bodies to their own people, blame their enemies for the carnage, and stir support to a fever pitch. Then there’s his stone-silent visit to the Syrian city of Hama after a widespread government massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Where are all the houses that once stood here?” Friedman asked an old man from his taxi . “You are driving on them.” replied the old man. “But then where are all the people who used to live here?” “You are probably driving on some of them too.”

Many of these stories are like a punch in the gut. They run from the darkly humorous to the devastatingly tragic. His rounds of golf in the midst of war bring an ironic smile - and his interviews with a diminished and grumbling Yasser Arafat after he’s chased out of Beirut are dark comedy gold. “We are in exile from exile.” remarked one of his aides. But it’s the loss of life that always jars the reader back to reality - and there’s plenty. There’s the night his apartment building was fire bombed - killing the daughters of his colleague who had agreed to watch the place and shoo away squatters. There's the day a suicide bomber drove a Mercedes Benz truck “filled with 12,000 pounds of dynamite into the Marines’ four-story Beirut Battalion Landing Team headquarters just after dawn.” The blast killed 241 American servicemen, who had been sent by President Reagan as a peacekeeping force. It also came on the heels of a bombing at the American embassy which claimed over sixty lives. The Americans, Friedman contends, had turned into “just another Lebanese militia” according to Beirutis, due to their unwavering support of Lebanese president Amin Gemayel. “President Gemayel, instead of using the Marines as a crutch to rebuild his country, began to use them as a club to beat his Muslim opponents.” We had gone into Lebanon to provide security, and had been dragged down into tribal war. Sound familiar?

In 1984 Friedman packed up his golf clubs and took a series of taxis for the six hour journey from Beirut to Jerusalem, where he would reside for several years covering the Israeli Palestinian conflict. His succinct and objective dissection of the root causes of the schism, and the heavy toll the region continues to pay by refusing to end it - were like a breath of fresh air to read. He weaves personal anecdotes and stories in and out of historical events with the grace and ease of a master craftsmen. For someone struggling to understand the intractable nature of this decades old conflict, his breakdown is a Godsend. 

To sketch it out - Friedman returns to 1947 - and lays out the three objectives Zionist Jews had in mind when creating their country: “They wanted to create a Jewish state, a democratic state, and a state that would be located in the historical homeland of the Jewish people - the land of Israel - which technically included all of Palestine from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and even some areas beyond, in what is today Jordan.” According to Friedman - the Jews will never be fully able to have all three of these objectives. A compromise must be made with the Palestinians in regard to land claims. If the Israelis refuse to compromise on this aspect, they would have to “conquer” the Palestinians outright, thus revoking their rights, and transforming their government into a totalitarian state. If an effective compromise is reached - they will be able to continue to identify as a Jewish democracy, beholden to admirable principles and law. The question of what type of country Israel wishes to be, has been punted for the last 65 years. Friedman covers the ups and downs in captivating detail while miraculously avoiding overkill or bias. 

There is plenty of blame to heaped upon both sides for the delay in resolution, and Friedman does his best to lay out the motivations and logic behind the continued paralysis. The Haredim (ultra orthodox religious Jews) and Hamas (the Gaza Strip’s militant government) both receive well deserved tongue lashings for obstructing constructive dialogue. As a reader you feel afresh the failure of the Oslo Peace Accords, the assassination of Israeli statesman Yitzhak Rabin, the simmering rage of rock throwers during the Palestinian Intifadas. The tribal hatreds and violence of these ancient feuds can take ones breathe away. But Friedman, a man with every reason to become a cynic, refuses to give into despair. “I am more sober now,” he writes in his afterword, “but ‘cynical’ is not in my vocabulary, and despite all the obstacles, I still have not lost hope that Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs will find a way to live together in harmony and realize their full potential to contribute to their societies in constructive ways. My innate optimism has been tested by this journey from Beirut to Jerusalem, but not broken.” 

Cheers to Tom Friedman. An intrepid writer, historian and truth seeker who plunged into the lion’s den, but managed to return with his morality, wits and candor still intact. His columns don’t seem so funny to me anymore. In fact, we need many more like him.