Book Review: Leon Uris, The Haj

This Leon Uris 1984 classic is worth reading (or re-reading) today in light of current events. It tells the story of an Arab family living in Palestine during the influx of Jewish settlers from Europe prior to World War II, the failure of the Arab nations to deal honestly with the refugees after the 1948 war, and the failure of the refugees to adjust to the new reality, leaving us where we are today, 67 years after Israeli independence, with the refugees still thinking their well-being depends on the destruction of Israel.

Uris interweaves the story of his Arab family with historical events and people, but not always successfully as he is stuck with how to end the book–a problem that has been noted by other reviewers. There is no happy ending, no bright light at the end of the tunnel. There is only the piling up of generations on a grave built of religious fanaticism, lies, and betrayal. The refugees have been betrayed by the leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and other Arab nations as well as by their own leaders–from Yasser Arafat to today’s Palestinian Authority officials.

Uris quotes a Jewish military leader at one point saying “I can forgive the Arabs for murdering our children. I cannot forgive the Arabs for forcing us to murder theirs.” That line, the origins of which may have come from Golda Meir, says it in a nutshell. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong about its patrimony.

The last thing the Jewish settlers wanted was war. Yes, they wanted independence, but not by removing the Arab population. Many settlers worked consciously during the early part of the 20th century to include their Arab neighbors in their communities, which resulted in freeing Arab peasants from feudal relationships with landowners who lived in Cairo and Damascus, but when violence prevailed as the Arab response to changes they were unprepared for, the Jews in Israel had to defend themselves.

The Haj is a novel, but novels get at truths in ways non-fiction cannot. This one exposes the foundation of attitudes many of us in the West cannot understand––why a mother would send her teenage son into battle knowing he will die at the same time that women are treated in Arab Muslim culture as chattel, why people kill those who disagree with them as Hamas kills “moderates,” and why leaders never go into battle themselves, but always send the weakest and least prepared.

In The Haj, the father sees the flaws of his fellow Arabs, but cannot persuade them to take a different course. Eventually he succumbs to the same irrationality. Let’s hope a leader emerges one day who has read The Haj and sees a different path.

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