Romance Novel or History Book?

Whatever it is, I enjoyed Oren's new effort because it does not pretend to be more than it is: a fun late-summer read.

"Yamim adumim: sipur amiti al shtey ahavot umilchama achat" ("Red Days: A True Story of Two Loves and One War") by Ram Oren, Keshet, 283 pages, NIS 94

David Borochov was a friendly man: I used to run into him at the grocery store, and sometimes we would joke about the fact that the son of the socialist Zionist leader Dov Ber Borochov bought his morning rolls not on the proletarian street named after his father in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, but rather on the bourgeois Jabotinsky Street. I once asked Borochov about his sister, and he gave me a copy of a letter he had sent to Hannah Zemer, editor of (now-defunct Israeli Labor Party daily) Davar, protesting a cover story published in the newspaper's weekend supplement in 1986. The story, written by Yehuda Koren, was titled "The British Officer's Lover," and its focus was the romantic involvement of Shoshana Borochov and British officer Thomas Wilkin.

The article was nice enough, and the story was true; there was only one detail Borochov wanted to correct: His sister Shoshana was a blonde, not a redhead. The drawing on the magazine's cover left him beside himself with rage - he considered it "kitschy, saccharine, sentimental, ugly and horribly repulsive." It showed a couple sitting in a cafe, she in a low-cut dress, her head tipped back in passion, her eyes closed, her lips pursed and waiting for a kiss. Three red roses dripping blood were laid on the table alongside a pistol. "Good God," wrote Borochov, faithful member of the Mapai workers' party, in his letter to the editor: "How disgusting! How disgraceful! Is the editor of the weekly magazine a member of [the Revisionist party] Herut?"

He left a copy of his letter in my mailbox, adding only one request: "After examining my letter to Hannah Zemer, it would be best if you destroyed it. It is enough that I keep one copy."

The cover of Ram Oren's new book also features a gun. Instead of a drawing, however, there is an actual photograph of Shoshana Borochov, a pretty woman. This book owes its existence, among other things, to several people who did not destroy the letters they received. They reconstruct the story of the romance between Shoshana Borochov and Thomas Wilkin, as well as the love of Roni and Avraham ("Ya'ir") Stern, leader of Lehi, the pre-state underground militia.

Dissimilar but connected

The two stories are not similar. That of Borochov and Wilkin seems relatively simple: The two were about to get married, and everyone knew and did not make too much trouble for them, despite or perhaps because of the fact that Shoshana was the daughter of the great Ber Borochov. However, the romance between Ya'ir and Roni was tortured, almost sadomasochistic: One gets the impression that his determination to persevere in his terrorist activities, over the objections and pleas of his pregnant wife, was driven not only by nationalistic madness, but also, perhaps, by a desire to hurt her.

Borochov's love bespeaks rebellion, while Stern's expresses submission. Both romances bloom in Tel Aviv of the British Mandate days, and their heroes are political figures, one a man of the law, the other a terrorist leader. The connection between the two couples was formed, Oren argues, when one of Roni Stern's girlfriends went to Shoshana Borochov and asked her to appeal to her lover to leave Avraham Stern alone. Borochov tried and - not surprisingly - failed. Stern was arrested by British intelligence officers, and one of them - not Wilkin - shot and killed him. In retaliation, Lehi operatives killed Wilkin, creating the appearance of an internal link between the two women's tragedies.

As literary material, all this seems to me pretty flimsy, but then I do not read many novels. I am also not sure whether this book is a novel disguised as a history book, or a history book disguised as a novel. Either way, I enjoyed reading it - mainly because it does not pretend to be more than it is, a fun late-summer read. The cover features the names of two researchers, one of whom, Udi Rosen, has a Ph.D.; the other, Daniella Reich, has dealt with this topic in her research at the University of Haifa. On the cover credit is given to a series of historical archives, and the book ends with a bibliography and index, which is more than you can find in some scholarly books that are not disguised as novels. Therefore, I decided to read it as a history book.

Pretty soon I found myself slipping into the pesky habit of marking factual errors with a pencil. Conrad Schick was not a "British researcher," as the book claims, but a Swiss cuckoo-clock maker, who became an architect in Jerusalem. High Commissioner John Chancelor did not order a troop of mounted policemen to remove the partition that Jews had erected before the Western Wall to separate men and women, since he had yet to take office or to arrive in Palestine. Judah Leib Magnes did not lead the Brit Shalom organization and was not, in fact, even a member of it, despite his sympathy for its goals.

At this point I put the pencil down, not only because it spoiled the fun of reading, but because I hate the mistakes that people find in my own writing. I managed to hold myself back until page 270, what could I do: September 28, 1944, was not the day before Yom Kippur; it should be September 26. If so, perhaps what is told here did not actually happen on Yom Kippur. But these are the petty comments; they can be fixed in the next edition.

The book has some more essential problems. Oren the historian chose himself a subject better suited for a journalist: the main difference between the two is that the historian is interested in the ordinary, while the journalist is interested in the unusual. The British Mandate period does have a certain romantic allure about it, but the ordinary state of affairs was that the Jewish, British and Arab communities lived side by side, and boundary-crossing love affairs were rare. The journalist will be interested in that handful of cases that did occur, especially if they involved famous people: Ezer Weizmann's sister, S.Y. Agnon's niece and so on. Hannah Zemer was right to defend the publication of Yehuda Koren's story.

Oren's choice, too, is of course legitimate; as a historian, however, he misses a fascinating question: Why were love stories involving members of different communities so rare, and what can this tell us about the people who lived in Palestine in those years? This might teach us quite a bit about the roots of the dispute, right up to the establishment of the security fence.

The State of Israel owes its existence to Britain, but for Oren the British are the villains, as they were in old-fashioned popular adventure stories about the Mandate days. Thomas Wilkin, Shoshana Borochov's lover, is described as a sympathetic enough fellow. Ya'ir Stern comes across as a rather disturbed individual. But the general tendency of the book is to justify the terrorist actions of the pre-state Lehi and Etzel undergrounds. It describes with evident sympathy various terrorist actions, including the attack at the Rex Cinema in Jerusalem. The terrorists are depicted in fairly heroic terms. Stern's attempt to form an alliance with Nazi Germany likewise seems to Oren "a bold and original idea."

Yes, you could call it that. By the way, the man whom Stern's emissary met in Beirut, Otto Werner von Henting, was not Germany's ambassador to Lebanon, as the book claims. But there I go again. Why does that even matter?

Oren and his researchers apparently did a fine job, unearthing fascinating letters that until now have not been publicized. I say "apparently," because the author does not reveal to his readers where the letters he cites are located. No, he does not have to burden his readers with annoying scholarly references. However, a book intended for a wide readership might have had a particular contribution to make to the culture of historical writing and reading, if only it had not made do with assuring us mysteriously that this is a "true story." Here, too, lies the difference between a journalist and a historian: The latter need not preserve the anonymity of his sources.

This is especially true of a book that seems to contain revelations published for the first time. For example, I'm not sure I ever knew before that when World War II broke out, members of the Etzel militia went to work for British intelligence, stealing documents on its behalf from offices of the Mapai party. That's interesting. I wondered: Where did they get this? Writers of fiction can do whatever they want, but this book is not a work of fiction - a fact that the editors of the best-seller lists would do well to note.