Inside Story

Israel’s shifting moorings

Sara Dowse reviews two books that deal, in different ways, with the future of Israel

Sara Dowse 13 June 2013 2662 words

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid
By Shani Boianjiu | Hogarth | $24

Israel Has Moved
By Diana Pinto | Harvard University Press | $24.95

THESE days, any Israeli story can also be an Australian one. The case of Ben Zygier, the Australian Jew who migrated to Israel, took out Israeli citizenship and ended up working for Mossad, the Jewish state’s notorious overseas intelligence unit, puts this in high relief. Despite the fact that fighting in Syria is illegal for Muslim Australian citizens, Jewish Australians can volunteer with impunity for service in the Israel Defence Forces.

Yet there’s a deep reluctance to address such anomalies, for reasons that aren’t too hard to find. In the decades after the second world war, Australia had the highest per capita concentration of Holocaust survivors outside Israel. The Holocaust legitimised Zionism as had no other event in Jewish history, giving tragic credence to Herzl’s warning fifty years earlier about the lethal results of European anti-Semitism. In that light, to criticise Israeli policies or even to question the wisdom of opting for a Jewish-dominated state in the Middle East is tantamount to heresy in the mainstream Australian Jewish community. While claiming that all Jews ever wanted was to have a nation like any other, with its own respected legitimacy and undisputed territory, Israel and its supporters maintain that the Jewish state is special, that it is not bound by the laws that hold for other countries, and they defend this position with a combination of denial, indifference and that specifically Jewish sophistic argumentation that has its origins in the Talmudic tradition of pilpul.

Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the ongoing refusal to acknowledge that the rights of the Palestinian people – the majority in British Mandate Palestine – have been ruthlessly and cunningly abrogated. After the opening of archives on the 1948 war of independence, or what Palestinians remember as the Nakba, Israeli “New Historians” such as Ilan Pappé, Tom Segev and Benny Morris drew on the record to revise the official history. Yet almost as soon as the archives were opened they were closed again. Pappé, effectively in exile now at a British university, has been ostracised for his work on the expulsion of Palestinians, including those who were forced from their homes but were able to stay within the 1948 borders. Segev has moved further towards a binational narrative. Of the three, only Benny Morris has recanted, accepting that Jewish forces did commit atrocities but claiming they were justified.

It is perhaps in Israeli fiction that the existential complexities of the legacy of 1948 have been most sensitively dealt with. A caveat here: I can no more keep on top of the fiction than absorb the wealth of historical material. But there aren’t many recent novels I’ve come across (though I confess to a reliance on books written in English or translated) that haven’t exhibited concern for the Palestinians.

A case in point is Edeet Ravel’s 2003 Ten Thousand Lovers, the first in a trilogy that was completed in 2005. Born and raised on a kibbutz in the Galilee, Ravel divides her time between Israel and Canada, and writes in English from a Canadian perspective.

Lily, the narrator of Ten Thousand Lovers, is also half-Canadian, a student at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who hitchhikes on weekends to Tel Aviv. She’s picked up by Ami, a well-paid ex-actor who is immediately upfront about his job as an interrogator of war prisoners. Lily makes clear her uneasiness:

We should try a little harder to make peace. We should withdraw unilaterally from the territories for a start. It’s the least we can do. A Palestinian state would solve everything. It’s only fair.

As they get closer Ami reveals to Lily that it isn’t the army he belongs to but Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence agency, though the work has become increasingly difficult for him. “This is what we’ve decided,” he says, trying to justify it. “We’ve decided torture is OK. Detention is OK, war justifies everything. We’re doing this to survive, to avoid repeating our history.” Yet when he makes a crucial decision to reject that life, it’s a Palestinian friend who will play an important role in the novel’s resolution.

The most celebrated recent Israeli novel – and possibly the most celebrated of all time – is David Grossman’s Woman Flees Tidings, published in 2008 and published in English as To the End of the Land. Near the novel’s beginning, after a prologue set in the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel won what we call the occupied territories, the heroine, Ora, takes a taxi ride. It is now July 2000, the time of the Second Intifada, and the Israel Defence Forces are mobilising. Ora is accompanying her soldier son to the Gilboa region, where the forces are meeting. Their Palestinian taxi driver Sami, who has driven for the family for decades and is almost, in the way of these things, considered part of it, came without question when Ora called, but is quieter than usual. Fixated on what she feels is the certain loss of her son, Ora overlooks how Sami might feel about this journey. Israel is a tiny country for such overwhelming considerations, and a taxi ride from Tel Aviv to Gilboa is no great distance. But the road, a convoy now, is crowded, and no one, not even Ora, can fathom where it might actually lead.

Both these novels have Israeli Palestinian characters who are central to their themes yet remain somehow peripheral. Perhaps there’s a limit to how much Israeli Jews, even the most sympathetic, can afford to arrogate to themselves the sensibility of the “other.” It’s not that they may not comprehend it, though that is too often the case, but writers can be reluctant, even when empathy does exist, to usurp that sensibility for their own aesthetic purposes. Whatever the limitations, though, these fictions were an advance on much of what preceded them.

WE MIGHT expect that the latest fiction would move forward from that position. If we’re to read Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid for signs of this, though, we can only be disappointed. There are hardly any sympathetically portrayed Palestinians in this book. In fact, there are few sympathetically portrayed characters full stop, although their stories, perhaps for that very reason, do elicit compassion. They are narrated by each of the three protagonists: Lea, Yael and Avishag, born in 1983 – adolescents when we meet them, women in their twenties at the novel’s close. The subject of their stories is the rite of passage they share with all Israeli Jews, male and female, aside from the orthodox, after they graduate from secondary school. That is to say, their stints in the army.

It’s noteworthy too that the women come from Mizrahi or Sephardic backgrounds, the children of Jewish immigrants hailing from Middle Eastern countries, one step above Israeli Palestinians in the peculiar Israeli pecking order that has had the European Ashkenazim as its aristocracy. Only Lea, with a German-Jewish parent and “European looks,” has access to this privilege, pitifully played out on the high school playground where other girls clamber round her for acceptance. But Lea’s claims are compromised by her other, Moroccan parent, and consignment to this dusty ghetto-like village, dangerously close to the Lebanese border and peopled for the most part by Mizrahim and struggling single mothers. “A whole town of crazy bitches,” a teenage boy casually, cruelly, remarks. Avishag’s family has been shattered by the suicide of her older brother Dan. Yael, whose first-person voice opens the novel, has been in love with Dan, yet so much of the tragedy is buried under that special brand of toughness Israelis have cultivated since the earliest pioneer days and which, by the 2000s, has spread to every corner of society.

Everything is blanketed by the ubiquitous presence of war. Both Lea’s and Yael’s mothers work for companies making machine parts that one way or another end up in planes. Soon enough the girls are in boot camp, suffering the standard, sanctioned humiliations. Then they are given postings in the army proper.

For Yael it’s on Route 433, close to a Palestinian village, where she is a weapons instructor. Discovering that boys from the village have managed to steal her helmet, a colleague observes, “These boys are like rats… they’d steal the entire base if they could.” Next, the boys take the “closed military area” signs off the base fence, and then the bullets from target practice. Then they are shot at.

Apart from the ramped-up tensions with Israeli Palestinians, Israeli society has been increasingly separated from West Bank Palestinians ever since the building of the wall. Lea is sent to the military police, guarding the Hebron checkpoint, in a year when Israel “closed the sky” for other foreign workers and needed Palestinians for construction work again. “We needed them, but we were also a little afraid they’d kill us, or even worse, stay forever. These were both things the Palestinians were sometimes into doing. That’s why I existed.”

In both these instances, the girls’ interaction with Palestinians takes place through a military barricade; for neither of them is it possible, as it is in previous Israeli novels, to begin to know Palestinians as people. Palestinians, separated by the roads and the wall, are now entirely “other.” In Avishag’s case, down at the Egyptian border, Sudanese refugees appear as mere pixels on her green computer screen.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem in 1987 and is the youngest-ever recipient of the American National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award. That means she’s younger than her characters, though Yael, for one, appears to be at least partly autobiographical. As well as this first novel, released in the United States last September, she has published stories in the New Yorker and other US literary journals, making her something of a wunderkind, especially when the fact that she is writing in English rather than her native Hebrew is taken into account.

The reviews of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid have been mixed, the book frequently panned for the very reasons I like it. Its terse, colloquial prose, the irony, its shifting tenses and points of view all lend the novel a rhythm that overcomes the anomie to which her characters seem condemned. That many parts of the narrative betray their origins as stories might bother some but poses no problem for me. Yet I admit that my interest in this novel has as much to do with how it demonstrates what has happened to Israel over the years, especially since 1977 when Likud first came to power, as it does with my passion for literature.

SO WHAT has been happening? Diana Pinto’s Israel Has Moved charts these developments from the perspective of a sympathetic outsider. She describes herself as an intellectual historian and policy analyst, and comes across as a kind of Jewish-intellectual Eurocrat. Based in Paris, she’s been associated with London’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research and has spent many years studying the place of Jews in post–cold war Europe. Most pertinently for us, she relates how she told an Israeli friend that “I had never personally considered Zionism to be a valid life choice for me, that I criticised Israeli politics, but at the same time I could not conceive of a world without Israel.”

Pinto argues forcefully that Israel is thumbing its nose at its European benefactors and at this juncture is even prepared to ignore the United States. The reasons are manifold, but largely derive from the creeping Jewish settlement of Palestinian land since 1967, the changing demographics within the Jewish population, and the current engagement with the non-European world through Israel’s new emphasis on consumerism and developing and marketing its cybertechnology. In other words, like the rest of us, Israel is looking towards Asia, and especially China.

But Pinto delineates a paradox. As Israel looks ever outward, away from its European origins and the boiling Middle East tensions, its gaze is inward in a way it has never been before. Again, both the cause and expression of this – Israel’s “autism,” as Pinto calls it – are complex. The old Ashkenazi attachment to the land, manifest symbolically and materially in the kibbutz and its agricultural base, has all but disappeared, while the strident if often cynical militarism born from the need to protect the land has grown exponentially in size and power.

When the children and grandchildren of the generals who fought in Israel’s many wars are conscripted for their mandatory two years’ service they are not to be found on the frontline posts where Boianjiu’s characters serve, but in the elite branches of military command and civilian intelligence where Ben Zygier sought to make a name for himself. But, as Pinto tells it, Israel isn’t all that interested anymore in Diaspora Jews making our aliyahs. Our role is to remain where we are in order to better defend her, though Israel is making it harder than ever to do so, and many, like me, have given up pretending.

Yet this fascinating group of essays gripped me throughout. Pinto is skilled at plucking out details of everyday Israeli life and highlighting their significance – noting, for instance, the efflorescence of intricately decorated skullcaps (kippot) on more and more male Jewish heads, even those of secular Jews, or walking the streets of the Muslim quarter of old Jerusalem and seeing “young ultraorthodox women with their strollers coming out of houses that seem to contain no visible sign of previous Jewish life.” She writes of the roads that separate Jews from Palestinians, among them Route 433, where Boianjiu’s Lea is stationed, the route that “incarnates perfectly the schizophrenia of Israel’s history.”

Pinto’s text is crowded with intriguing symbols – the menorah, the Hill of Evil Counsel, the bubble, the tent. And if in one sense they are telling, and in another their very abundance can unmoor their separate meanings, the argument is clear. The Oslo Accords are dead; the “two-state solution” is merely the rhetoric of Western politicians. Israel is going its own way, global in its economic orientation while ever more insular in its politics, with the Palestinians ever more invisible in this evolving outlook.

Israel Has Moved is depressing and oddly futuristic in its outlook. “Israel’s old agronomy,” Pinto writes,

the one of much-heralded orange and avocado miracles, sang the praises of an ever deeper rooting in the nation’s soil, whereas the military values of the young state were all based on the notion of defendable terrestrial borders. The new technology instead is all about mobility and flexibility, with little, if any, anchoring in any soil or with any clear national identity. Can this change hearken back to the Middle Ages when the Jews, before their emancipation, incarnated these same values in the financial and commercial realm?

With the proliferating start-ups having global transnationals like Google as their clients, Pinto asks, “Does this strategic choice echo in its own way the old Jewish tradition of dialoguing with kings rather than their people?”

If this, indeed, is the future, it threatens to be as scary as the past. But the fact remains that the old agrarian Zionist solution has borne its own crop of bitter fruit. •