Book Review

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman Turn Israel's Occupation Into a New Age Frenzy

The Hebrew translation of 'Kingdom of Olives and Ash' is totally unnecessary, failing to provide Israeli readers with any fresh insight

A Breaking the Silence tour in Hebron
ActiveStills

Books about the occupation arouse a sense of panic in me – sometimes even more so than the occupation itself. After all, an occupation without a historiography can end at any moment and be forgotten after a while, whereas historical documentation of the occupation has a far longer life expectancy than that of human beings. Nations and people can reconcile, even after decades, but history never solves disputes, it only records them, at most taking a stand. Books about the occupation also scare me because I know they’re liable to embarrass me, if not as an occupier then certainly as a reader.

The book before us – a Hebrew translation of “Kingdom of Olives and Ash,” edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, called “Fifty” in Hebrew – collects the stories, essays and impressions of 26 writers worldwide. And it seems its publication in English doesn’t hurt, and may even prove useful in certain cases.

This is an attempt to spread the news of the occupation abroad, to publicize the situation of the occupied Palestinian and the actions of the Israeli occupier.

To bring to distant, English-speaking readers the world over the small, personal stories of ordinary folk, crowded between fences and checkpoints, waiting in long lines for hours and days, living with daily existential threat, humiliation, abuse and destruction that have become routine.

That’s important. We don’t live alone in this world, and a human being is still a human being. And perhaps exposing parts of the insensitive occupation mechanism, even if the information is very basic, could even create some discomfort among the architects and supporters of the occupation when expressed in an international language.

But it’s too bad this book was translated in this form into Hebrew. Most of the selections are long and boring, and large parts seem to come straight from Wikipedia – not only in terms of content, but even regarding style and description.

In effect, this is a type of information booklet that tries to help us understand the meaning of “occupation,” but succeeds only in arousing banality and disgust.

The Israeli reader doesn’t need most of the information he gets on these pages. He knows much more himself – after all, the occupation is not only under his nose but it penetrates his nostrils, whether he likes it or not.

But this gap between Israeliness and the book’s foreign texts has a shaky literary foundation that begins even earlier, because what interests me about an Irish, Dutch, American, or Latin writer – or any writer who isn’t Israeli – is to learn about the customs and lifestyle of the writer’s place of birth and residence; to discover a new world from close up, through local eyes, and not to read what he has to say about the place where I live.

This is one of the main reasons for the efforts invested in translation, on whose wings we reach foreign cities, places and people, only to find ourselves, in effect. That’s also, if you ask me, the greatest criticism a person can have about his existence – the different ways of thinking and living of a foreign person or group.

And let’s suppose I’m capable of overcoming this literary difficulty and can allow myself to be receptive to the foreign perspective and criticism of my life and birthplace, through the literary qualities of the texts. After all, writers from all over the world have come together here to mark the 50th anniversary of the occupation.

But overcoming that difficulty doesn’t help. On the contrary, the situation here is even more difficult. Almost all the works in this collection expose the reader to the pathos, pity, self-righteousness, hand-wringing and other clichés that are inflated through the abhorrent text of the anarchist, activist or liberal left. Come on, leave us be, we already have Gideon Levy and Amira Hass.

Repressed colonialism

It seems the main complication encountered by the writers of this book – and the writers of many other books on the subject before them – is related to the way in which they talk about the occupation, the way they write about it, and the degree of depth and proximity of the testimony.

This question is firstly, but not only, a question of sociology, and it causes huge embarrassment to all sociological research, because it’s clear to everyone that we’ll never be able to accurately know and understand a social or personal situation, and we’ll never be able to write about it if we aren’t inside it ourselves; if we ourselves don’t become an actual part of it.

Micha Kirshner, "Huda Masood, Jabalya Refugee Camp," 1989.
Micha Kirshner

In that sense, the book before us, according to the thinking of Edward Said, is a quintessentially Orientalist activity. Even if it contains a different, more positive kind of imagination, it still reflects a repressed colonialism that is deeply embedded in the nature of the Western liberal humanist. Only the supremacy of this humanist enables him to examine the situation of the native seriously, with great compassion, and to define it.

I cannot, however, imagine a book written by Third World writers who travel to the United States and settle in, say, Berkeley, in order to describe the situation and social status of the writers who live there and the possibilities that are open or closed to them.

The great despair this collection provokes also stems from the fact that most of its stories and essays are so similar to one another and repetitive. The same places, the same checkpoints, the same fateful questions such as “What will be?” “Will it end?” and “Is it possible to live together?” (No, ladies and gentlemen, it’s impossible to live together – if it were possible, we would do so.)

Some of the texts are childish and sanctimonious, some were written as articles for a news agency and some would probably have been rejected if they were sent to some newspaper or other.

The writers here are all overly sentimental and the language is balanced and clean: With multipurpose spray cleaner in hand, they write about the dirt and conjure feelings of “I look out the window and it makes me sad” (most of the stories), along with feelings of “I have no other country, even if the ground is burning” (Mario Vargas Llosa and Arnon Grunberg – and they’re not the only ones).

The articles and stories are all wrapped in the legitimate worldview of Breaking the Silence, an organization that chose to expose the confessions of the Israeli war criminals and sinners who served as soldiers in the occupied territories, and also conceived the idea behind this book.

But even this organization suffers from the problem that affects the collection: Its breaking of the silence only has a certain power overseas, because here we’re all soldiers, or relatives of soldiers, or their friends or neighbors. We’re all familiar with stories about checkpoints, administrative detentions, hotheaded settlers and abusive soldiers – even if we didn’t all participate in the actual acts.

We have all been exposed, one way or another, to descriptions of handcuffs and a flannel cloth around the head covering the eyes. And don’t forget the days of reserve duty that citizens do here, if that concept still has any meaning.

Breaking the Silence is a dedicated organization devoted mainly to exposing the injustice and placing a mirror up to the face of Israeli society. Therefore, in my opinion, its activities will be effective if they take place abroad.

The pressure from there is much stronger and the thirst for this type of knowledge is great, even urgent. Of course, the organization has an educational and informational value in Israel, too, for those under the age of 18 – but that’s already hopeless in light of the Education Ministry’s policy of repression.

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman on a tour in Susya in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank
Oren Ziv / ActiveStills

In any case, “Fifty”/“Kingdom of Olives and Ash” is a New Agey gathering of writers from around the world who don’t really think differently from one another; a nice holiday gift for anyone who wants to decorate his bookshelf with the appearance of bourgeois left-wing schmaltz.

It contains nearly nothing interesting in a literary or ideological sense, certainly not for the Israeli readership. Besides, the connection that supporters and funders of this book draw between their literary activity and the future end of the occupation is entirely groundless – there is no connection between the two.

The youngest detainee

And yet, something positive came out of reading the collection: It helped me recall an anthology of occupation poetry, “Latzet!” (“Out!”), which was published in early 2009 during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. That anthology also contains the seemingly obligatory bad poems and clichés, but it also contains some very powerful poems that go straight to the gut, like the poem “Zephaniah is Why He Came” by Shimon Adaf, which begins with an enigmatic line of mourning: “And I in my mourning woke up yesterday morning and Zephaniah was on my lips.”

At the time, this collection, with the daring and anger it directed toward its readers, disturbed the peace of several supporters of wars and operations, as well as expressing considerable scorn and cynicism toward liberal Tel Aviv. Here’s one example: “Attention dog owners. Please! Please! Please! Please! Stop cleaning the dog shit from the sidewalk!” (Tomer Gardi). This collection actually managed to embarrass me, not only as an occupier but also as a writer who published several lost lines of poetry in it.

In reading the prosaic description by Waldman, which appears toward the end of “Fifty” and describes Palestinian children who conduct their lives in a routine of detentions, I was surprised by one strange fact that appeared at the beginning of the passage: That the youngest child ever arrested by the Israel Defense Forces, a boy from Hebron, was no older than 5 (from Waldman’s “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue”). More than it seems to me cruelty on the part of the Israeli army, it simply seems total idiocy to detain a child at such an age, no matter what he’s holding in his hand.

I was intrigued by one story by Taiye Selasi – maybe because of the naivete of the story, maybe because of my own innocence. It’s the only story in the collection that, rather than trying to explain to us what the occupation is, wants to tell a big love story that takes place under the canopy of the occupation. And perhaps it’s more a story of missed opportunity.

This story follows the relationship of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and his beloved Tamar Ben Ami, who is called “Rita” in his poems. That, in my opinion, is the most explosive story in the Israeli-Palestinian situation, an intermingling that could take place between us in the name of sacrifice, in the name of the only thing that can neutralize prejudice – a love story.

In her short story in “Love in the Time of Qalandiyah,” Selasi imagines Darwish writing about his Jewish lover, who is a soldier, stating that maybe she is ordering some people to raise their hands or to kneel on the ground. Or maybe she’s in charge of the investigation and torture of an Arab girl her age, as pretty as she once was.