Assaf Gavron's New Novel Is No Little Outpost on the Prairie

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"Hagiva" ("The Hilltop" ), by Assaf Gavron. Sifrei Aliyat Hagag, 430 pages, NIS 98 (in Hebrew )

To capture the ethos of the so-called ideological settlers, who are identified with isolated outposts in the West Bank, the most appropriate literary genre is the Western. This population's story draws its inspiration primarily from America's Puritan pioneers who, according to their heroic self-awareness, were fulfilling a divine decree and spreading a cultural and theological civilization throughout an untamed, empty land. (Not surprisingly, American immigrants are playing a substantive role in constructing both the ethos in Judea and Samaria, and the human landscape of the settlements there.)

Under the inspiration of the ideological settlers, people involved in colonial-romantic projects - including those associated with the Zionist pioneering enterprise - have recognized this frontier as an arena for fulfillment of ambitions involving personal and communal tikkun (literally, repair ) and for attaining liberty, utopian realization and a moral response to a religious mission. Within this ethos, the distinction between friend and foe is rigid and institutionalized; the hermetically sealed belief in the justness of one's actions constitutes an exclusive moral imperative, and any trace of hesitancy or doubt is evidence of weakness or betrayal.

These characteristics gradually become decisive in the definition of both the limits of loyalty to one's nation and the perception of place; in addition, they serve as a metaphor for emotional and intimate dimensions of Israeli identity.

Nonetheless, the cultural institution known as "contemporary Israeli literature" is stymied by the reality in which it exists, and blurs the meaning of that reality within the public domain in this country. It uses shortcuts based on stereotypes that stem from its political and social awareness, in order to represent the figures of the "settlers," to evaluate their motives, and either to identify with or judge them.

The representation of the settlers has two poles. Literature written by authors (especially women ) who are themselves settlers mainly presents these people in a didactic manner, as standard or normative figures that share the same anxieties and longings, and the same capacity for love, as other Israelis, but that are also more ethical and more autonomous: in other words, as figures that prefer what they view as important in life (faith, the Land of Israel, solidarity and communal responsibility ) over the ephemeral (hedonistic impulses, a craving for immediate financial and sexual gratification ). At the other extreme, the settlers are represented in the literature as eccentrics - people who have lost their way or are in total despair, who have serious defects or make grave mistakes, and who find in settlement activity ideological compensation for emotional trauma. Such compensation explains their aggressive domination of their surroundings and the moral denial that drives them.

These are the two fantasies - or, perhaps, predictable caricatures - of the settlers in the imagination of most Israelis, who see them either as individuals on a mission to serve the nation or as irrational outlaws.

In the gap between these two images, there is an unsettled literary frontier. Assaf Gavron seeks to enter this frontier and build a house there - and this ambition is expressed in his new book, "The Hilltop" ("Hagiva" ), a novel that was partly written, as noted on the jacket, "in an isolated cabin in an outpost in the West Bank." The value of this novel is anthropological, driven by literary observation and romantic isolation, in primordial expanses. Nor is it surprising that Gavron, a novelist who has a reputation for dealing with contemporary Israeli reality, has penetrated this literary and geographic limbo.

Gavron's literary standing is fascinating because, although this is his seventh book, he is not widely known among local readers (and certainly not beyond the borders of Tel Aviv's literary scene ). Nonetheless, Gavron has attained a significant measure of success overseas - particularly in Europe - and is perceived by non-Israeli readers as a unique literary voice who acts as a mediator, describing the actions of Israeli society to foreign readers. Indeed, "The Hilltop," I am safely assuming, will enjoy a large measure of success among those readers. In the course of reading it, one sometimes gets the impression that it is intended to satisfy the needs of non-Israeli readers: to explain to them, on the one hand, the motives behind the frenetic political and moral character of settlement activity in the West Bank, and also, on the other, the institutional ambivalence toward said activity.

The action in the novel takes place in a settlement called Ma'aleh Hermesh C, which is a sort of pirate spinoff of the more solidly entrenched Ma'aleh Hermesh. The spinoff was established because Othniel Assis, the leader of the community and the all-powerful local sheriff, is involved in a dispute with his neighbors in the parent settlement, and because he wants more land for cultivating his organic crops, which are sold in prestigious restaurants in Tel Aviv and whose geographical origin is deliberately camouflaged.

Assis is joined by another family and three prefabricated structures; soon Israel Defense Forces soldiers are called in to protect the new outpost. Water pipes are laid, a generator is set up and a provisional road is paved. The new locale, part of which is located on Palestinian land and part on a protected nature reserve, is not granted approval by the authorities - but at the same time, it has received no eviction order.

Ma’aleh Hermesh C has suddenly come into existence and sent roots deep into the earth.

Born-again Jew

The new settlement attracts a number of characters. First of all, there is Gabriel, a born-again Jew who is repenting for past sins and seeks spiritual redemption for his soul. Then there is his brother Ronny, who came to this isolated spot to escape the wrath of his creditors, and who, after reaching the top of the heap in the world of capital investments in New York, has reached rock-bottom financially.

In the background are other residents, including Nir and Shaulit Rivlin and their children, all of whom are suffering because of the couple’s dismal marriage. There is also Neta Hirschson, who is in agony because of fertility problems and vents her rage on the soldiers, media and leftist demonstrators. Then there is Josh, the American who moved to Israel from Brooklyn after 9/11, to save the Jewish people.

A few prefabricated structures, a nursery school, a playground funded by an American donor by the name of Sheldon Memelstein − this is the outpost. The sole desire of its inhabitants is to continue flying under the radar of the authorities and of government agencies; to receive funding from those agencies without a lot of “unnecessary” questions being asked and without a lot of bureaucratic nose-poking; and to continue enjoying the protection of the IDF.

The residents are able to find a modus vivendi vis-a-vis the Israeli Civil Administration, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Housing and Construction, the regional council, the Shin Bet security service and the IDF, thanks to supportive public figures, smoke screens, half-truths and especially thanks to a situation where “the right hand has no idea what the left hand is doing.” Demarcation and eviction orders come and go like the seasons, in a fixed cyclical pattern, disappearing into oblivion with the help of a continuous flow of appeals to local and district courts and to the Supreme Court, as well as foot-dragging and diversionary tactics. The time for eviction will never arrive, Gavron writes: “It will be too hot or too cold, it will be snowing or raining, the security situation will be particularly sensitive, a no-confidence motion will be presented in the Knesset, the government will fall, the new government will be granted a period of grace, there will be a financial crisis, etc., until the demarcation or eviction order exceeds its expiry date.”

In the meantime, facts on the ground must be established and local laws must be created because “this is what is so great about the West Bank − there are no laws here and you can just invent whatever laws you need.”

But, when a report in The Washington Post describes how the money of American taxpayers is being used to break the law in the lawless West of the West Bank, local politicians begin to sweat. This boil, which is itching everyone, must be removed. However, the picture is too complicated and it is hard to understand it or rectify it. Strange alliances are forged between Palestinians, leftist groups and settlers over the issue of the location of the separation barrier; economic interests are thrust into conflict with political considerations; decisions of the courts are collapsing in the wake of incitement by the settlements’ Arab neighbors; the U.S. president is facing off with the Israeli deputy tourist minister − and it is simply impossible to know what is right and what is just, where the law begins and where shady business deals end.

The novel’s characters are imprisoned in this chaos as they try to function in the grotesque absurdity of life on this rocky hilltop and maneuver between the gray zone of their civil status and the intimate experiences of their lives.

Gavron has written a book that will not find favor in the eyes of either leftists or rightists. The reason is that he presents, side by side, the two familiar cliches used when depicting settlers and rapidly alternates between them: One moment the reader’s heart is full of empathy for the resolute characters who are renewing the ethos of settlement and collectivism in an isolated community surrounded by enemies and who pay a dear price for their efforts. The next moment the characters are presented as violent, traumatized figures that prefer to transfer responsibility for their fraught emotional state to various local politicians and authorities. Gavron uses these two cliches alternately, without adding to or augmenting them. He generates enmity between them and plays with them, like balls a juggler throws into the air. The game does not always proceed in accordance with rules: It is sometimes plagued by serious problems of comic or dramatic timing − problems that create a feeling of obscurity and repetition. The excessive focus on the previous lives of the brothers Gabi and Ronny belongs to another story and the novel would benefit from its omission.

“The Hilltop” is not a novel that is concerned with Israeli reality or with the settlers who dictate its moves. It plays with contradictory images that attempt to provide meaning and yet fight with one another for an exclusive place in Israeli awareness, as they split the country’s citizens into two rival camps. The confrontation between the two images − as is well known to readers of Hebrew literature − generates a chaotic, tense reality, fraught with violence and hatred. For foreign readers, this reality might be perceived as a comic, entertaining, a theater of the absurd. Gavron tends to “collaborate” with the second option, offering a distant, ironic and analytical perspective that plays with and between familiar cliches. That choice reflects the weakness of this novel, which displays no responsibility toward either its subject or object. However, this is also the work’s strength, because “The Hilltop” avoids didacticism and turns reality into a game between images, a game whose rules are so complex and vague that it is − and will remain − impossible to identify who the victor is.

A settler, 2012. The value of this novel by Assaf Gavron ‏is anthropological, driven by literary observation and romantic isolation.Credit: Pavel Wohlberg
Assaf GavronCredit: Dan Keinan

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