Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2017

A Land without Borders (2015), by Nir Baram, translated by Jessica Cohen

For most of my adult life, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a incomprehensible morass of claim and counter claim, with horrific violence committed by both sides.  It seems like an intractable conflict, destined never to be resolved.  But I once thought of the Northern Ireland conflict in the same way, and yet there is peace there now.  It may be an uneasy peace – especially in the aftermath of the last UK election – but the Good Friday Agreement has allowed a generation to grow up in peace and the longer it holds the more there is to lose by breaking it.  So it was in the spirit of tentative optimism that I tackled Nir Baram’s new book, A Land without Borders, my journey around East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Nir Baram is the author of one of the best books I read last year.  His novel Good People (2016, Text Publishing, first published in 2010, see my review), was an exploration of the reasons why otherwise good people in totalitarian regimes end up collaborating with evil.  At the 2016 Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival Baram said that it is known that 98% of people do collaborate, and fiction is a useful way of exploring the motivations of characters who represent that overwhelming majority.  Yet Baram has chosen not to use fiction for his new book, which steers a course through East Jerusalem and the West Bank: he has taken a journalistic approach and allowed the people he interviewed about the conflict to speak for themselves.  What is interesting is the way that nearly all of these intractable opponents find ways to justify their motivations, just as Baram’s fictional characters did. 

Baram is an Israeli citizen born in Jerusalem to a political family, so he’s not an indifferent spectator.  But what he has tried to do is to go behind the separation wall in Jerusalem, and into the contentious Jewish settlements on the West Bank, to listen to opposing points of view.  He interviews secular and orthodox believers on both sides, he talks to survivors of the war in Gaza, and he meets Palestinians who have spent half their lives in prison, using it as an opportunity to get an education and remembering it as a time when they actually had more autonomy in their lives.  He hears about the privatisation of kibbutzim and how that shapes political attitudes.  He sees pride in the accomplishments and courage of the settlers.

He goes into Ramallah where a little boy is gobsmacked by his presence:

On the street outside the building with the broken windows, the group that welcomed us in the morning gathers again.  We talk about recent events.  A little boy in a red Liverpool T-shirt walks past and hears us talking.  He stops.  ‘Inte  Yahudi?’ he asks with a strange glint in his eyes  ‘Are you Jewish?’ he repeats, his expression curious.  I nod.  He shakes his head in disbelief.  ‘He’s Jewish?’ he asks the crowd around us in Arabic.  One of the older Palestinians explains: the boy has never seen a Jew before.  ‘He’s always hearing about Jews, but you’re the first Jew he’s ever seen in his life.’ (p. 77-8)

He learns about the bizarre business of war tourism – which translates into what you and I see on the television news:

Everyone is awaiting the midnight hour, when the ceasefire will expire.  On one path we meet two young girls who immediately tell us about their media appearance in the weekend supplement of a major daily newspaper. ‘We were on the cover of 24 Hours!’ they boast, and insist that our photographer take their picture.  Everyone on this kibbutz is well aware of the role they play in the public eye.  Quite a few kids maintain portfolios of press clippings, and others have their media appearances filed away in their parents’ memories.  One mother hugs her little boy and rattles off his resume: ‘He was on channel 2 news, on New Evening and on a special show on the Children’s Channel before the music festival.’  The adults may not celebrate their own media appearances openly, but they also drop references.  One woman has a blog where she corresponds with a girl in Gaza, another was on CNN.  Nirim seems to comprise two entities: the kibbutz where ordinary people live while bombs fall around them, and at the same time its own self-conscious representation.  A sort of war tourism has evolved here.  I keep meeting members who want to show me mortar shrapnel damage that only they know about, on the walls of their homes, or even on trees. (p. 93)

However… my optimism has taken a bit of a battering with this book.  On both sides, there are implacable opinions, buttressed by history both ancient and modern, and sometimes, but not always, by religion as well.  Baram does talk to people on both sides of the divide who are interested in peace, but some of the young people just want to kill everyone on the other side, or have only a slightly less confronting view that their opponents should leave or be ejected.  But even among more reasonable people – on both sides – he sees that the Occupation has been ‘normalised’ and that the longer things stay as they are, the more the prospect of a two-state solution seems impossible.

Nevertheless, at ‘The Field’ – a place where Jews and Palestinians gather together to get to know each other – there is a passionate young proponent of a ‘shared life’ and an accommodation of The Other:

‘It’s a matter of yielding versus control, and those are two opposing and contradictory concepts.  […] We grew up with the slogan ‘the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel.’  But that is exactly what we have to yield, to let go of.  We have to stop the ‘ownership’ link.  Rabbi Froman always said this is the land of peace, it is God’s land.  It takes enormous effort to release one’s own consciousness, to recognise that we are not masters of the land or the owners of the land, but rather that we belong to the land.  And here the slogan is flipped.  ‘The people of Israel belong to the Land of Israel’, and the Palestinians also belong to the Land of Israel, to Palestine.’ (p.194)

Baram, however, has doubts… and who can blame him when there seems to be no appetite for such a solution?  He tells us that Israel’s moderate factions are wedded to the ‘two states for two peoples’ refrain, articulating

broad consent among the centre-left parties that a walled state – in effect the largest Jewish ghetto in the world – is the solution [they] should aspire to, and that a Palestinian state should exist alongside it, borders to be determined. Other models for Jewish-Palestinian life in Israel – models that do not sanctify separation but rather support a collaborative, dynamic life – do not receive serious debate. (p. 192)

Well, I don’t know.  I have read my way through the opposing arguments and all their variations, and I finish the book as I began it, feeling that it’s not appropriate for me to have an opinion, and having no appetite whatsoever for debating it.

PS In the interests of transparency I should acknowledge that I have friends, and relations by marriage, who are Jewish.  I have no idea what their opinions are about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we have never discussed it.

Update 20/7/17 Just in case you’re wondering if Nir Baram will be needing an interpreter when he appears at the Melbourne Writers Festival…  A Land without Borders was translated (very capably) by Jessica Cohen, but I heard Baram in conversation last year at the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival and he speaks English as well as you or I do.  So I assume this was translated just because he wrote it in his first language.

Author: Nir Baram
Title: A Land without Borders, my journey around East Jerusalem and the West Bank
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2017, first published in 2015
ISBN: 9781925355222
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank



  1. A thoughtful review! I have my own strong views about Israel and Palestine, and about Settlements in particular, but I respect your approach and I’ll keep them to myself.


  2. I won’t read it for my views are well embedded it seems. Unfortunately it’s a situation that continues to hold the world to ransom. That may seem simplistic but it’s the economy as some wit said a long time ago.


    • It will be a very good thing when the West becomes less dependent on oil. Then whatever decisions are made won’t be clouded by those particular economic imperatives. But the strategic value of some geographic locations isn’t ever going to go away…


  3. […] Gerard has learned his language in prison.  Like the Palestinian prisoners that I read about in Nir Baram’s A Land without Borders, the Indigenous prisoners of Taboo made profitable use of their time […]


  4. […] A Land without Borders, by Nir Baram, translated by Jessica Cohen […]


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