Ground Level, Big Picture

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When Hillel Bardin GEE’74’s memoir, A Zionist Among Palestinians, arrived in the Gazette’s editorial offices, we couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it. The title was certainly intriguing, but Bardin was not a familiar name and his bio contained no impressive leadership roles. The book was published by a university press, not a commercial house, and while the writing was thoughtful and vivid, the material was dated, mostly dealing with decades-old events. There wasn’t much about it that signaled Newsworthy or Important, in other words.

But we couldn’t let go of it, either. As the conflict in Gaza flared last summer, Bardin’s tale of peacemaking based on personal contacts among private individuals seemed like a worthy message to highlight.

Then Trey Popp, our associate editor, proposed writing a separate feature article to provide context and bring the story, to a degree, up to the present. In “The Good Neighbor” he draws on interviews with Bardin, and those of his Israeli and Palestinian partners who were willing to talk, to trace how this ardent Zionist (then and now) came to reject the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians and peacefully oppose it—and how the passage of time and course of events have dimmed but not extinguished his hopes.

Accompanying the story is “The Bicycle and the Olive Trees.” This memoir-excerpt describes an initiative that was exceptionally meaningful to Bardin, and which demonstrated, he writes, “how much potential power lies in cooperative action by Arab and Jew” but also “how hard it is to fight the authorities, how powerful they are.”

The news from the region has of course been progressively bad since Bardin began his work in the late 1980s. One of the people Trey talked to lamented that social media like Facebook and Twitter—which might have provided an avenue for a peace movement to gain traction while there was still time—didn’t exist then.

If there is a bright spot in this story it is the fact that the approach Bardin and his partners pioneered has helped make cooperative efforts between Israelis and Palestinians—which were unheard of when they began—a common feature of the landscape, despite the worsening political situation.

It was senior editor Samuel Hughes who asked Christopher Allen LPS’13, a family friend, if he might be interested in writing a story for the Gazette. After graduating from Penn and completing a master’s degree program at a trio of leading European universities, Allen had traveled to eastern Ukraine to “get as close to the conflict” as possible. He was one of the first on the scene of the Malaysian Airlines plane crash, and having reported on it for the Telegraph, he had subsequently managed to attach himself to a Ukrainian militia unit battling Separatists near Donetsk.

In “With the Donbas Battalion,” Allen describes his experience in terms that are both up-to-the-minute and timeless. He has a sharp eye for the posturing of young men and the confusion and whip-sawing emotions of combat, and a subtle way with a phrase, too. “The women at the counter are expressionless as the men buy drinks and snacks for the upcoming battle. It feels like a perverted field trip,” he writes, neatly conjuring the provisional, not-quite-real atmosphere of the battle zone.

Moving from ground level to the big-picture view, Lauder Professor of Political Science Brendan O’Leary has, almost since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, been periodically sharing his thoughts on the region in our pages. A little more than a year ago, he talked about the civil war in Syria [“Gazetteer,” Sept|Oct 2013], and in this issue he focuses on the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the power vacuum in those two states, and its implications for Iraq’s future.

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