If I kill you, it wouldnt be personal

Both Jeffrey Goldberg and the roomful of largely Jewish undergraduates have shared the experience: the often maddening dialogue sessions with

pro-Palestinians who won’t admit Israel has a right

to exist.

Still, Goldberg’s dialogues with Palestinians were a notch above those undertaken by the San Francisco State students staring back at him.

The Atlantic magazine writer recalled a passage cited in every review of his 2006 bestselling memoir, “Prisoners.” Goldberg spoke of the time he asked an inmate in the Ketziot prison camp — where Goldberg served as a guard during the first intifada — what would happen in five years time if the prisoner, by then a free man, saw Goldberg strolling down the street.

The inmate, Rafik Hijazi, had struck up a friendship with Goldberg, so his reticence to answer confounded the guard. Finally, Hijazi offered a telling half-answer: If he killed Goldberg, “it wouldn’t be personal.”

“That answer stuck with me any time I think it’s possible to lift ourselves up above the dictates of tribe,” Goldberg told the students in a largely impromptu question-and-answer session Feb. 11.

In his work for the Atlantic — and from 2000 to 2007 for the New Yorker — Goldberg has visited every bad neighborhood in the Middle East. He told the SFSU students about the second time he was kidnapped in the Gaza Strip. “Beards and guns,” he noted, “are not a good combination in Gaza.”

Yet for all his experience, he is still baffled by the same conundrum the nodding students have grappled with here in San Francisco. How can someone be warm and kind to the Jews they know but still, without an apparent contradictory feeling, profess a desire to wipe Israel off the map?

Americans “believe there’s a great overlap between personal and political feelings. We’ve seen it doesn’t have to be so. You can have a wonderful friendship with a Palestinian who loves you and would protect your life — personally. That part doesn’t affect his or her belief that there should be no Israel,” said Goldberg, who noted that he was released by his captors in Gaza both times thanks to the pleas of former prisoners he personally guarded.

“I know people who are involved in terrorism. I can’t say we’re friends, but we’ve been friendly. And I said, ‘You know, you blew up a bus in Jerusalem the other day. What if I had been on that bus?’ And they say, ‘That would have been terrible.’

“But I could have been on that bus,” he continued. “And knowing I had been on that bus, would you have dispatched the suicide bomber? He said, ‘Things happen.'”

Goldberg, whose campus appearance was sponsored by San Francisco Hillel, explored Israel’s history and offered his take on its past, present and future political gambits in a peripatetic lecture.

He noted that Ariel Sharon, whom he interviewed many times, “did not believe peace was possible. He did not believe the Muslim world would ever accept a Jewish state in their midst.”

As a result, Sharon felt compelled to act unilaterally when he pulled Israeli settlers out of Gaza — in effect giving the Palestinians something for nothing.

“If he were a different kind of prime minister, he’d have negotiated with the Palestinians and gotten them to give him something in exchange for doing this,” Goldberg said.

While Goldberg is pessimistic in the short term for peace and stability in the region, he still has hope for the far future. The eventual peace agreement won’t look so different from the one floated in 2000: East Jerusalem will serve as a Palestinian capital, refugees will — at least symbolically — return to Israel and many settlements will have to go.

“This has been rehashed 100 times. It’s just getting there that is impossible,” he said with a wry grin.

Getting there has been so difficult because, in the end, men like Goldberg and Hijazi will one day have to be neighbors.

Eight years after their chilling conversation, Goldberg and Hijazi did indeed bump into one

another. And no one was murdered.

“Because I never let anything alone, I said, ‘Remember when you said you’d kill me?’ And he said ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Well, here I am.'”

Hijazi told Goldberg that he had come to the realization that it was “worth me giving up a piece of my dream so my children can live in quiet. And killing you would just make things noisy again. If I kill you, it means someone has to come kill me. The cycle is never-ending. Therefore, I will not kill you.”

Goldberg let Hijazi’s words sink in for the SFSU

students for a few moments before speaking again. “So, I said, ‘Well, thank you very much.'”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.