Book Talk: In Jerusalem

Featured image: The cover of Lis Harris’ recently published book.

By McKenna Christmas

In late September,  Columbia University literary non-fiction professor Lis Harris introduced her recent publication In Jerusalem, which chronicles ten years and three generations of two families: the Abuleils (Palestinians who live  in the West Bank) and the Pinczowers/Ezrahi (Jews who live in Israel). Drawn to the subject because of her own Jewish faith, the author conducted her research for this book through extensive travel, including visiting and interviewing the families during spring and winter breaks. 

The author began the event by reading aloud a passage that described a beautiful night she spent camping under a desert sky reflecting on the shared historical significance of the land. This peaceful imagery was quickly juxtaposed by the ongoing territorial dispute between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The establishment of the state of Israel resulted in forced resettlement of Palestinian people over five decades ago. The stories of the two families demonstrate how the political tensions we see on the news directly impact everyday life and upbringing. For the Palestinian family, this meant stories passed down from generation to generation about the home in Lifta (a city in east Jerusalem) they were forced to flee in 1948. As a result of their forced resettlement, the family was faced with the harsh reality of daily checkpoints. The Israeli Jerusalem school system, for example, forced the daughter to cross the Qalandia checkpoint four times a week just to get to her job as a speech therapist at a school.  She was subject to strict security checks. The checkpoint was known for mistreating Palestinians and many people would drive miles out of their way to avoid it

Professor Lis Harris introduces herself to the audience at the Slifka Center before beginning her book reading.

The politics of the territorial dispute also impact many Israeli families. For example, young people were encouraged —in an effort to increase nationalism— to visit the Golan Heights on government sponsored trips. One of the Israeli daughters described seeing abandoned houses with doors wide open, beds unmade, and household items strewn about: “Nobody explained the meaning of what we saw…so it looked as if the people had left yesterday. We didn’t get out […] but I saw very clearly, and it was a sort of dissonance.”

In addition to documenting the effects on families’ daily lives, Harris provided the historical context of the conflict, but with a fresh perspective highlighting moderate viewpoints often overlooked. One such story recounted a memory immediately after the 1967 war when the father of the Pinczowers/Ezrahi family sat down with his daughters, opened up a map, and stated: “Of course we must give the lands back. It’s the only way we’ll have peace.”  Underscoring this sentiment were the unheeded warnings from one of the government’s legal advisors that settlements on Palestinian lands were against international law. Harris defied stereotypical advocacy by powerfully delivering the words of Israeli journalist and author Amos Elon: “We have a moral obligation because the road to Israel’s independence was paved on the backs of these [displaced] people, and they paid with their bodies, their property, and their future.” In response to the  outcome of the Israeli government’s secret cabinet meeting in June 1967 that decided the fate of the land, Harris stated: “Land for Peace was the oft-proclaimed desire of those who yearned for an end to the conflict, and if there was ever a moment for it to happen this was it. But it didn’t.”

Transitioning from this history, Harris pointed out current tragedies rarely mentioned by the news, such as mortality rates along the border crossings. Between 2000 and 2007, thirty-five infants and five mothers died at checkpoints. In towns, trenches and other barriers pose as an obstacle to the elderly and sick. Harris explained that  people are delayed by the lengthy security protocol and cannot get the urgent help they need in time.

Overall, in just the span of an hour reading only from a few excerpts, Harris successfully conveyed that the divide between the Israeli and Palestinian people is not just a physical border, but rather a great weight upon the shoulders of many on both sides of the conflict for generations. As quoted by Harris: 

“At the checkpoint nothing moves. Along with the sense of entrapment, the feelings of aggravation and tension escalate you are stuck going nowhere life feels like a traffic jam. You can’t steer your car and you can’t steer your life.”- Ali Qleibo in the local publication This Week in Palestine

Today, Israel is dealing with unprecedented election uncertainty between the current right-wing power, Likud, and the centrist coalition Blue and White. Regarding the election, Harris stated that she was not surprised and not necessarily hopeful for the future. 

McKenna Christmas is a first year in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact her at