An Indispensable Book on Palestine/Israel

8 Feb

Responding to Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland by Pamela Olson (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press)


I realize that without knowing it, I have long waited for this book, although I could not have imagined its lyric magic in advance of reading. It is a triumph of what I would call ‘intelligent innocence,’ the great benefits of a clear mind, an open and warm heart, and a trustworthy moral compass that draws sharp lines between good and evil while remaining ever sensitive to the contradictory vagaries of lives and geographic destinies. Pamela Olson exhibits an endearing combination of humility and overall emotional composure that makes her engaged witnessing of the Palestinian ordeal so valuable for me as I believe and hope it will be for others.


Early on, she acknowledges her lack of background with refreshing honesty: “Green and wide-eyed, I wandered into the Holy Land, an empty vessel.” But don’t be fooled. Olson, who had recently graduated from Stanford, almost immediately dives deeply into the daily experience of Palestine and Palestinians, with luminous insight and a sensibility honed on an anvil of tenderness, truthfulness, and a readiness for adventure and romance. Upon crossing the border that separates Israel from the West Bank, enduring routine yet frightening difficulties at the checkpoint, she find herself in the Palestinian village of Jayyous, not far from the Palestinian city of Jenin. Her first surprise is the welcoming warmth of the villagers whose hospitality makes her feel almost as if she is on a homecoming visit to Stigler, the small town in eastern Oklahoma where she grew up. Almost at once Olson finds herself in the midst of a social circle in Jayyous that harvests olives during the day and sits together on porches in the evening puffing on a nargila (water pipe) and conversing about the world.


Olson’s authenticity pervades the book, whether it is a matter of adoring the cuisine or acknowledging her infatuation with a Palestinian young man who crosses her path. She learns to speak a bit of Arabic, reads up on the struggle, and stays alert. The style of the book is an enchanting mixture of personal journal, travelogue, political primer on the conflict, and coming of age memoir. She writes with clarity, humor, and self-scrutiny (in a tone of almost asking herself, ‘Who is this girl from rural Oklahoma who is experiencing this extraordinary encounter with people and the sad conditions of their lives?’).


As the title implies, it is primarily a book about Palestine and what occupation means for Palestinians trapped under Israeli military rule for more than 45 years, and how their extraordinary qualities of humane coping make Jayyous and Ramallah so inspirational for her.  It instills an intense longing to return and share the dangers and deprivations, which are more powerfully satisfying than the pleasures of ‘freedom.’ (I am reminded of a friend from Gaza, a leading human rights activist, whose family has been living in Cairo in recent years. He tells me that when he plans a vacation, his university age children who are studying abroad insist on going to Gaza rather than Paris or London.)


Yet the book is sensitive to the tragic experiences of both peoples. Through the whole of her experience, Olson remains open to her Israeli friend, Dan, as well as to a Christian appreciation of the Holy Land, not as a believer but as someone whose identity was formed in a religiously Christian community. Early on in the book, when she tells Dan how disturbed she is by the occupation, he reminds her of Israeli grief and distress. Dan’s words: “Last year there was a suicide bombing practically every week, it was… unbelievable. The mall we went to yesterday was bombed last year. Three weeks ago a suicide bomber killed twenty people in a restaurant in Haifa. Just innocent people having a meal.” Olson’s response is characteristically empathetic: “I sighed and looked out over the water. What I had seen in the West Bank was terrible, but there was another side to the story, after all. I tried to imagine the horror of people sitting around having a meal, and then all of a sudden—” But in the end it becomes clear that Israel’s human rights violations have, if anything, a negative impact on Israeli security.


One of the most moving chapters is a description of a visit by Olson’s mother and stepfather. She pressured them to come so that “they would never have to wonder whether I had exaggerated either the beauty or the horror.” Because this was her mother’s first trip outside of America, she saw what was to be seen with fresh eyes. This experience produced joy and wonder along with tearful reactions at checkpoints, such as: “Good Lord… How can this be happening over here and no one in America even knows or cares?” Is this not the question we should all have been asking for decades? During the visit, they also spend time touring the Christian sites in and around Jerusalem and the Galilee that are particularly meaningful to her religious mother.


The timeline of the book covers 2003-2005. But the essentials of the occupation emerge, especially the encroachment of the separation wall, the settlements, and checkpoints, and what it means for a Palestinian to live day by day under systematic violations of human rights that show no sign of ending in the foreseeable future. When Olson inserts information about history, Israeli and Palestinian politics, international law and elementary morality, she is accurate, concise, and perceptive. She also is honest enough not to suppress her emotional responses to some extreme situations.


In the end what gives the book its special value is the compelling credibility of her “love affair with a homeless homeland,” a sub-title that says it all! It is one thing to lament the suffering and humiliation of the Palestinians or to condemn the cruelty and harshness of the Israeli occupation. It is quite another to be able to observe these defining realities and yet see beyond to a proud and gracious people with a generous sense of humor who manage to live as vibrantly as possible even under almost unimaginable circumstances of oppression. It is this combination of feeling the Palestinian hurt while celebrating the warmth and genuineness of the Palestinian embrace that allows a reader to achieve what I had previously thought impossible without an immersion in the place itself. Olson is a twenty-first century example of how a reassuringly normal American woman might best visit the Arab world. She is intensely curious, with a gift for observation and dialogue and a sensibility that is not afraid of danger or to acknowledge shades of gray or to register her disappointments with others, and above all with herself. Her own evolution is also relevant, from a ‘Bible-centric’ youth in Oklahoma to a scientifically oriented skepticism to a wonderfully caring person who managed to have this incredible ‘love affair’ with occupied Palestine, amid the ruins. In her words, “I couldn’t imagine a better university of human nature.”


Obviously Pamela Olson is blessed with talent. A girl from rural Oklahoma who had to struggle to find the funds to attend college does not make it to the likes of Stanford very often, where she majors in physics and political science, nor does the typical graduate defer entering the job market and go about exploring the world to find out what it is like, and how best to live her life. It is thus not entirely surprising that after her experiences in Palestine, Olson returned to work for a ‘Defense Department think tank’ to try to understand why American foreign policy was so dysfunctional, and found it ‘educational but disillusioning.’ She lasted less than two years before deciding to write Fast Times in Palestine, her attempt to bring what she learned in Palestine directly to the American people.


I have the following daydream: If everyone in America could just sit down quietly and read this book, there would be such an upsurge of outrage and empathy that the climate of opinion on the Israel/Palestine conflict would finally change for the better—even in the polluted air that now prevails within the Beltway. At the very least, as many people as possible should read the book, and if your reaction is similar to mine, give a copy to friends and encourage them to spread the word. We in America should stop subsidizing and facilitating the systematic creation of ‘a homeless homeland.’ As a close friend in Jayyous named Rania tells Pamela, “Imagine if there was no occupation! Palestine would be like paradise.”


The book can be pre-ordered from Amazon. It will be available in mid-March.

I urge you to do so!


31 Responses to “An Indispensable Book on Palestine/Israel”

  1. david HICKS February 8, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    What an inspiring review . I am sold . Thank you Richard Falk for your beauty filled prose. I’d love to buy it & read it – and hand it around – except that ‘Amazon’ are giving me the usual run around [ wrong email address/password/post code/credit card number. ] And the UK BOOK DEPOSITORY have not heard of it . Sigh . Any suggestions ?
    Life can be pervasively unsatisfactory at times .
    But nowhere near as unsatisfactory as living under the brutal occupation of the Zionist Entity in Occupied Palestine ; decade after decade after decade after decade ….

    • Gene Schulman February 9, 2013 at 1:46 am #

      David, that’s why I never use Amazon. Their service sucks (should you pardon the expression). I would suggest you write directly to the publisher, or have your local book store do so, and pre-order it through them. That’s what I do from here in Switzerland.

      Your response to Richard’s review was spot on. Inspiring is the most appropriate word for it. I plan to order several copies through my local shop to have on hand as Easter gifts. (Easter falls at the end of March this year.)

      I am also forwarding this review to one and all in order to help fulfill Richard’s daydream.

  2. JM February 8, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    I’ll want to read this book. Thank you for the introduction.
    Next . . .
    Sorry to sound a depressing, and unrelated, note, but assuming the stat on the right side of this blog is correct I am astounded that there are only 677 followers of this blog! Although I’ve only commented 1-2 times before, I signed up for this blog’s email distribution days after it started and have been reading the blog ever since.
    I suppose duplication at ZNet, maybe Op-ed News and other places means there’s a vastly greater readership, but I wonder.
    Aside from Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein and two writers who I read at Counterpunch (I forget recall names, because they write infrequently, but one is a law prof. at I believe Univ. of Illinois who writes about int’l law and the Israel-Palestinian issue and the other is a philosopher who more or less writes on same), where else can one find real-time, well-written, astute and richly sourced analysis at the intersection of international law, international politics and the Middle East (mostly Israel-Palestine)? Plus there’s the bonus of deep knowledge of UN activities & int’l NGOs and the imprimatur of a Princeton Univ. professorship, which adds a certain cache.
    Because of the huge global interest in these three subject areas and the many like me who I assume crave intelligent commentary, combined with the miserable reporting of same in much of the mass media, I naively thought there would be great demand for the type of info. available at this blog. If someone had asked me before I had noticed the stat how many readers does R. Falk’s blog officially have I would have probably said “no doubt a few thousand at a minimum.”
    Maybe there’s a more positive gloss on this.
    Still, starting with 6 billion people in the world, then using the succeeding (some conservative) assumptions that half are adults, of which 1/100th are reasonably interested in intellectual commentary, of which 25% read English, of which 1/10th read regularly, of which a further 1/10th are specifically interested in the 3 subjects mentioned above, why isn’t this blog’s readership somewhere between the resulting figure of 7,500 and 677? Is the multiple of roughly 10 handled through ZNet and other websites

    • monalisa February 9, 2013 at 7:54 am #

      to JM:
      I think that with “followers” are those meant who get information by e-mail when a new essay has been written and put onto the blog by Prof. Falk.
      And it doesn’t mean that only a few are reading this blog.
      I am quite sure that a lot of people are reading this blog.


    • walker percy February 9, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

      I agree with you that it is very shocking that fewer people read (or at least subscribe) to Prof. Falk’s excellent blog. I often look at the comments left on sites like CNN and Time to see how readers of more heavily trafficked sites respond to various editorials and news items, especially those that detail the latest outrage from our Zionist friends. It is always surprising to see how many people buy into the hasbara. For example, comments on articles discussing the effect of pro-Israel donors on the Hagel confirmation hearings tend to run 50% of commenters dismissing charges of undue influence. If people can’t see through this brazen and clumsy attempt at character assassination, then its not that surprising that most people are either too ignorant or too deeply in denial to follow Falk. Besides, his posts are soooooo long, and full of long sentences, some of which include big words.

      Richard, thanks for the great review of Fast Times in Palestine, and congratulations, Pamela. I can’t wait to read it.

      • Richard Falk February 9, 2013 at 4:26 pm #


        I do not mean to be verbose and obscure, and I will try harder to be clear,
        and more concise. I appreciate such feedback.


      • walker percy February 9, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

        richard, you are neither verbose or obscure. Your prose is a cognitive workout and a pleasure to read at the same time. I aspire to write with such clarity, and read you as much for style as content.

  3. Marty Morrison February 8, 2013 at 11:25 pm #

    I’ve long been an admirer of Richard Falk – an inspired and dedicated journalist. David, perhaps a bookshop in Melbourne can order the book for you. Cheers, Marty Morrison

  4. monalisa February 9, 2013 at 4:17 am #

    Dear Richard,
    thank you for your wonderful review of Pamela Olson’s book.
    As soon as possible i will order it through my bookstore.
    Unfortunaetly in my country not many read English language books but as usually i will spread (give as gifts) as many as possible.

    Concerning books about Palestine and Israel I would too suggest to visit the website of
    Jonathan Cook, an independent British journalist living in Israel. He writes and reports very interesting facts.
    His website:
    and on his website are listed his books about Palestine and Israel.
    I personally found “Disappearing Palestine” and “Blood and Religion” very informative.

    Take care of yourself


    • Richard Falk February 9, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

      My dear monalisa:

      You are as angelic and perceptive as ever, and I am ever grateful for your presence
      in Graz, in cyberspace, and wherever else you choose to be!

      with warm greetings,


  5. P. Safiya Gabriel February 9, 2013 at 5:05 am #

    Thank you for such a beautiful and inspiring review. I just pre ordered two copies from Amazon.

  6. fasttimesinpalestine February 9, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    Thank you so much for this kind and beautiful review, Prof. Falk!

    I have had the same daydream since I sat down and started writing this book five years ago. I can’t tell you what it means to have someone like you sharing that hope and vision. But of course it would be meaningless without the everyday heroism of the Palestinians who inspire so many people just by being themselves.


    • Richard Falk February 9, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

      Let’s pray that just this once our daydreams come true!!


  7. deepaktripathi February 9, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    Young innocence is so honest and pure. It speaks from the depth of soul and reaches those who have a soul. Thank you, Richard, for bringing it to our notice, Must get it.

  8. pipistro February 9, 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Thank you, Richard, I just placed my order and hope it won’t take long to get the book.

    I quite agree with monalisa. I’m pretty sure that – apart from the number of subscribers – every post written on this blog origins an incomparable brouhaha among the hasbrats and all over the world. Nonetheless, it seems they have learnt to keep a low profile in order not to lead more and more people to read that Prof. Falk’s assessments are right, valuable and convincing.


  9. Patricia Ryan Madson February 9, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    Professor Falk, I read your fine review with a deep sense of gratitude that someone of your stature has recognized the miracle that this small book represents. Pamela was an undergraduate student of mine at Stanford. She was always a thoughtful, caring, creative young person. Her clear heart, as you astutely pointed out, is in great measure what makes this book important. It tells a human story which we as Americans desperately need to hear. Thank you for helping to promote this courageous work.
    Patricia Ryan Madson
    Stanford Emerita

    • Richard Falk February 9, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

      Professor Madson:

      Thanks for this encouraging and moving response to Pamela’s achievement. From the very first sentences in the book I felt that this was a voice I could trust and was worth trusting.


  10. Ms. Açelya Danoğlu February 9, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Your words and thoughts are lofty and inspiring to so many, as always been. All in the Ummah of Human Rights and the new world religion of searching pilgrims owe you for your special understanding.

    That is why I am so upset to see that you are again having your March report postponned by the UNHCR to July, as they did in 2010. You do not deserve that!!

    Wishing you Peace.


    • Richard Falk February 9, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

      This time the delay is my fault. The early UN deadline for translation purposes was too close to my Gaza visit. Thanks for your general encouragement.

      Warm greetings, Richard

  11. Ms. Açelya Danoğlu February 9, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    May Allah Protect you, Dr. Falk, and bestow you many years of happiness and continued couragousness in the working for Justice and Peace. My own small part is to defend you in the blogosphere from so many unwanton attacks, and that we shall continue every single day, as they keep coming you surely do know.

  12. Ms. Açelya Danoğlu February 9, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    It is sad, do you not, that UN doesn’t give you the time you need. You can write so many words in one day that they should know to trust you. Cannot the other languages wait until later? Anyway your oral words wherein I watch on Intranet Webcasting is placed into all official languages as you speak, and that should be sufficient. The palesitnian people should not have to suffer because of a technicalism deadline, and your reports and the media and blog impacting is a remedy that is very, very needed. I’m just saying that it’s your regular Presentations we are looking for always, and I feel it is wrong they don’t give you a permission to present and translate just a little bit later. Can we petition to an Officielle??

    • Cliff Agra February 9, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

      I have read many comments here but this is my first time to wad into the waters. I look forward to read Ms. Olson’s book: her work on Mondoweiss is very worthwhile. But I worry about Mr. Falk’s work being compormised by his extra curricular acitivites. The Palestinians need a full time defender. Especially as things seem to be worsening all the time.

  13. Kath February 10, 2013 at 4:10 am #

    I’ve ordered it; thank you for the overwhelming review.

  14. rehmat1 February 10, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    Dr. Falk – I bet deep down your heart you still believe the best book to understand the occupation of Palestine, is – Gilad Atzmon’s book “The Wandering Who: A study of Jewish Identity Politics”. You, even praised that book as a materpiece!

    • monalisa February 10, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

      to rehmat1:

      I think different authors have different starting points from where they develop their writings. Pamela Olson has the wonderful gift putting more emotionality into her writings. Her standpoint – as I understood – is that of an individual one.

      So I think to cmpare with different kinds of writings one cannot say what is better this because where more emotions are involved maybe more people will get more feelings for the case and as it stands more interest and more wanting to know about this subject could follow.

      And this is all in the interest to help and understand the extremely difficult situation of the Palestinian’s plight.


      • Cliff Agra February 10, 2013 at 12:56 pm #

        I worry that we are comparentilizing the scholars into gender roles. On the other hand, I think there is a discussion to be had whether the cause would be best served through an emotional or cerebral approach. Or cnt we not undertake both?

      • Richard Falk February 10, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

        As usual, monalisa, expresses my understanding very precisely, but I believe
        that Pamela Olson approach has the potentiality of reaching a very large number of people who have not thought hard about the conflict nor experienced the Palestinian reality directly and openly.

      • fasttimesinpalestine February 10, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

        Hi Cliff,

        Fast Times in Palestine is not *merely* emotional. But it does inject a strong human (and narrative) element into what can otherwise be a very forbidding topic. We’re all humans, and for better or worse, we are primed by evolution to respond to narratives much more than to facts.

        In this case, the facts are clearly on our side, but the narrative is almost entirely dominated (in the US especially) by the Israeli understanding of events. This is my attempt to level that playing field, while also providing accurate outlines of the historical, political, legal, and geographical realities that must be taken into account.

        It’s all wrapped up in one package that I hope can ramp the average American up “from zero to sixty” so they can engage with this topic from an empowered and educated perspective, from a framework other than the (largely mendacious) one currently dominant in this country.

        The notes I’ve received from readers that I cherish the most are variations on this one:

        “It is refreshing and eye opening to read so many positive stories about the people of Palestine. I realize now how little I knew about them, and am sorry to say that most of it was negative. Since reading this, I have been doing a lot of research and talking with friends and family about what I am learning about Palestine.”

  15. Gene Schulman February 11, 2013 at 7:44 am #

    Not to detract from the expected wonders of Pamela Olson’s book which I look forward to enjoying when it appears, may I make another suggestion for reading until then? Ramzy Baroud’s “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter” offers another view from a Palestinian journalist’s experience. It is a beautiful book in its own way.

    Thank you again, Richard.

  16. Ramón Martínez February 11, 2013 at 4:37 pm #

    Dear Mr Falk,

    I contact you through this comment because I failed in finding your contact email.

    My name is Ramón Martínez and I’m member of End Ecocide in Europe, a European Citizens Initiative that aims to get at least one million signatures from EU citizens to invite the European Commission to adopt legislation to prohibit, prevent and pre-empt Ecocide.

    I contact you because researching about Ecocide I could find your name as an important one linked to the draft of the International Convention on the Crime of Ecocide of 1973.

    It would be very interesting and a huge pleasure to be able to have a short conversation with you and count with your support for our cause.

    If interested, please contact me at and if you want to see more information about the initiative 🙂

    Thanks in advance,



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