When extremists have been shouting — and sometimes shooting — at each other for generations, the center is a hard position to hold. Each side has its own version of history, which begins with its own people minding their own business and being horribly victimized by the other side. Each side has its own framing of law and justice and human rights, in which it has always been right and the other side has always been wrong. Even the horrible things that are undeniable — the killing of innocents, the torture of helpless prisoners — were only done to prevent (or in reprisal for) something worse perpetrated by the other side.
Sami al Jundi believes that people need to tell each other their personal stories, and that when they do, they will empathize with each other and start trying to find common solutions. That’s what he does in The Hour of Sunlight. Al Jundi is a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, and a secularized Muslim. His story is hard to pigeon-hole or stereotype, and that is the strength of his book. It made me wonder how many other stories of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians don’t fit into any of the standard molds.
Sami was a boy when Israel conquered East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. He grew up with family stories of leaving Deir Yassin in 1948 after a massacre that some Israeli writers say never happened. He grew up with a resentment against Israel and a desire to strike back. When he was a teen-ager, his two best friends went to Syria for a few days of training, and came back determined to make bombs. They blew themselves up. One died, while Sami and the other boy were badly injured. Sami got some experience of Israeli interrogation techniques and a ten-year prison sentence.
Prison, oddly enough, is where al Jundi gets his education in politics, in history, and eventually in non-violence. The political-prisoner community had a strong sense of identity, a strong education program, and the most idealistic democratic process al Jundi ever runs into. After a few years, though, an influx of new prisoners from Gaza produces a new regime and a paranoid search for collaborators. This is the first of many disillusionments about his own people that al Jundi suffers.
A greater disillusionment happens after he is free, and the Oslo agreement seems to promise peace. Al Jundi’s initial euphoria dissolves from both directions: The Israelis continue to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem neighborhoods, and the Palestinian Authority replaces the indigenous semi-democratic Palestinian underground leadership with the corrupt authoritarianism of the newly-returned PLO exiles.
His idealism leads him to work with Seeds of Peace, a group (founded and largely funded by American Jews) that brings Israeli and Palestinian youths together in workshops in Maine, where they learn nonviolence and listen to each other’s experiences. Al Jundi tries to keep the “seeds” (as the youths are called) integrated after they return to Israel/Palestine, and several invite each other to speak at their high schools.
This too falls apart from both sides. The Israeli government is upset that Jewish seeds are becoming conscientious objectors to military service, and Palestinians accuse al Jundi of being a “normalizer” — someone who wants to defang Palestinian resistance without overcoming Israeli oppression. Eventually, he is dismissed because Seeds of Peace can no longer countenance employing someone with his criminal record.
If Hour of Sunlight followed formula, this setback would be the prelude to an even bigger victory. But, at least so far, it hasn’t been. Al Jundi retains his faith in peace-making, in non-violence, and in democracy. But how he will manifest these ideas in the future remains unclear.