Beyond the Green Line is Marc Goldberg’s account of his service in the IDF, during the latter phase of the Second Intifada. Goldberg, a native of London, served with an elite unit of the IDF’s Paratroopers’ Brigade. The book takes the reader through the author’s immigration to Israel, his enlistment in the paratroopers, and his various tours of duty in the West Bank.
The ‘Second Intifada’ (2000-4) was an armed insurgency, in contrast to its earlier namesake. From this point of view, ‘Beyond the Green Line’ belongs on the not insubstantial bookshelf of what might be called ‘memoirs of counter-insurgency’. There have been many such accounts written by British and American veterans of the ‘9-11 wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. Accounts of elite soldiering at the sharp end tend to cover a familiar list of subjects – the preparation and training, the boredom, the bonding, the experience of danger, the disillusionment from former naïve visions of the military experience, and so on.
‘Beyond the Green Line’ has all these. But what sets it apart is that the book is also an account of a young man inspired to take up arms in defence of a cause. In Goldberg’s case, the cause is Israel and Zionism, and in particular the notion of Israel as the answer to centuries of Jewish suffering. Jewish sovereignty and the IDF as a symbolic and practical answer to powerlessness are at the root of things here.
Goldberg, as he expresses it in the book ‘hated Britain,’ and was ‘a Jew in the United Kingdom who felt like an outcast.’ As a member of a Zionist youth movement in London, he learned about ‘my people, about the Holocaust, about Israel and the rebirth of a nation.’ These set him on the way to the IDF and its airborne units. This element places the author in somewhat different company from the writers of ‘conventional’ military memoirs. While the author served in a regular army, not a militia force, there is a clear connecting line between the motivating sentiments of his journey, and an earlier and later cohort of writer-soldiers who left the safety of their birth countries to take up arms in the service of an ideal.
‘Lone soldiers’ as volunteers such as Goldberg are known in Israel, are latter day evidence of the fact that Israel, though an established nation state for over half a century, has never quite moved beyond being a nationalist cause for many young Jews. The reason for this is two fold: firstly because Israel remains with enemies committed actively to its destruction, and secondly because while after a half century, Israel is mundane in its complexities and its solidity, it was brought into being to answer questions regarding the Jewish condition which remain unresolved.
There is a pathos to ‘Beyond the Green Line.’ It is at root the story of a loss of a young man’s illusions. Goldberg’s entry into the ‘Orev’ unit within the reconnaissance battalion of the Paratroopers’ Brigade is a notable achievement. For a new immigrant with barely passable Hebrew, as he describes himself, it is testimony to the fact that the author must surely have been an infantry soldier of exceptional commitment and aptitude.
The author, however, never quite finds his war. With a head full of youth movement ideology and hungry for action, he is instead pitched into the perplexing and complex task of crewing the latter stages of a largely successful counter-insurgency conducted in the midst of a hostile and occupied population. The main work of Goldberg’s unit as he describes it consists of hunting for wanted members of Palestinian armed groups, in order to apprehend them before they can embark on the terror operations against Israeli population centers which were a feature of the time. This involves tense interactions with the local populace (including a memorable scene in which the author is required to guard a group of British and American pro-Palestinian volunteers), and a great deal of chasing shadows.
The book does not contain scenes of intense combat, because this was not the nature of the author’s experience. Instead, we witness his disappointment with the sometime feebleness of his enemy (a senior member of a Palestinian organization fails to use his weapon when Goldberg’s unit discovers him, instead weeping and surrendering himself). There are some close encounters with mortality, vividly depicted. In particular, the description of an incident in Nablus when a member of his unit sets off a booby trap is powerfully described.
By the book’s end, the author has discovered the large gap between his pristine visions of soldiering in the cause of the revived Jewish sovereign state, and the somewhat more messy reality. Thoughts of emerging as ‘Moshe Dayan or Ariel Sharon, but better’ put aside, he returns to London, and to ambiguity (later, Goldberg lived in Israel as a civilian, before again returning to London, where he now lives).
‘Beyond the Green Line’ is a memorable and well-constructed invocation of a particular, important and not particularly well-documented moment in Israel’s strife-torn history. The literature on the Second Intifada is meager, in spite or perhaps because of the lasting trauma this campaign and its over 1000 Israeli fatalities inflicted on the country. Goldberg invokes the strangeness of the time well. The book is also an interesting focus on the role played by Israel in Diaspora Jewish identity, and what can happen when a member of such a community seeks to measure the Israel-idea of (in this case) North London Jewry against the complex and ambiguous reality.
It is also, finally, a worthwhile addition to the literature on the experience of counter-insurgency, and the particular phenomenon of Diaspora Jewish volunteers in the fighting units of the IDF. Goldberg and the other IDF lone soldiers from the west like him are part of the landscape of the post-2001 world, of the strife- torn Middle East of the early 21st century with its seemingly endless wars of political religion and ethnic turf. They should be located halfway between those westerners who volunteer with rebel militias such as the Kurdish YPG in Syria, and those who serve in the regular armed forces of their home countries. Marc Goldberg has done well to present his own story and in so doing, shine a light on this small but fascinating corner of the Middle East experience.