An Acclaimed Israeli Novelist Calls for a Moral Revolution

Nir Baram, whose new novel, ‘At Night’s End,’ is his most personal work yet, talks about the death of his mother and the suicide of his best friend, and what he has learned from interviewing settlers and Palestinians

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Nir Baram.
Nir Baram.Credit: Meged Gozani
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

At the age of 42, Nir Baram has already achieved the status of a leading Israeli writer. He is exceptional in the breadth and complex structure of his novels, whose plots unfold in different time dimensions, are mediated by means of multiple narrators and address political, moral and social issues.

Baram’s new Hebrew-language novel, “Yekitzah” (English title: “At Night’s End”; Am Oved Publishers), is his first personal work of fiction. It was preceded by “The Remaker of Dreams” (2006), “Good People” (2010) and “World Shadow” (2013). With their panoplies of characters, diverse locales and range of periods, those three novels recall Russian novels or other classical works, though with the addition of Baram’s distinctive style, rife with descriptions and metaphors.

His previous works, which have been translated into a number of languages – “Good People” has appeared in English, and “World Shadow” will appear this year in an English translation – have gained Baram an international reputation. Of “The Remaker of Dreams,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote, “Quite possibly, Dostoevsky would write like this if he lived in Israel today.”

“Good People” – whose two protagonists, regular people, a German man and a Russian woman, live during the period of the Nazi regime in Germany and the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union – examines the question of how “good” people become collaborators with benighted regimes. In “World Shadow,” a monumental novel that employs three plot lines, leaps in time and different narrative techniques, the question is extended from the level of individuals to an examination of the dark apparatuses of the neoliberal and capitalist states of our time, with the focus on those who cooperate with the system and make possible the existence of the bureaucratic machinery from which they themselves suffer.

Baram is a political individual who often participates in discussions about current events on television in the thankless role of the “Tel Aviv leftist.” In the years between the two most recent novels, he conducted a comprehensive tour of the occupied territories and documented his conversations with Palestinians and settlers in “A Land Without Borders” (English edition, 2017), originally published in weekly installments in Haaretz and also made into an excellent documentary film.

The author’s lineage is well known. He is a scion of one of Jerusalem’s best-known families, which abounds with writers and left-wingers. Both his father, Uzi Baram, and his grandfather, Moshe Baram, were Labor Party cabinet ministers. Possibly because of his family roots, some people mistakenly perceive arrogance in him and interpret his permanent half-smile as a type of superciliousness.

We meet at the Tola’at Sfarim (Bookworm) bookstore adjacent to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. It’s the afternoon of a perfect spring day. From a distance, a familiar-looking person is heading our way, holding a leash attached a big dog. “It’s Bulli,” Baram tells me, referring to the noted author A.B. Yehoshua. We go over to him. “I read your new book,” he says to Baram. “It’s an impressive work. Slow, deep, precise, touching the nerve endings of emotion.”

Baram is a tall fellow, although a bit hunched like his father, and he has a trace of the family speech impediment that characterizes three of the brothers of the House of Baram: Uzi, Haim and Meni. At the same time, he speaks rapidly, articulately. In a family in which writing and rhetorical skills are in the genes, he’s the only one for whom no one ever held hopes that he would become a writer. “They say in my family that when I was just 8, I was already able to engage in political debates and had an understanding of politics. Maybe they expected me to become a politician,” he says now.

'With each of the novels I’ve written, I truly believed that I wouldn’t be able to finish it.'

Baram was a mischievous, uninhibited boy, who gave free rein to his imagination. “At Night’s End” describes heartrendingly, in the third person, a Jerusalem childhood very much like his own. In the first person, he relates his life as an adult, a writer, who finds himself in a hotel room in a foreign country at the conclusion of a literary festival, unable to decide whether to return to his life – his home, his wife, his son. The two central protagonists of the book are the writer, Yonatan, and his good friend, Yoel, his partner in the imagined world they created as children.

Baram dedicates the book to “Uri.” “Uri Basson was my best friend from the age of about 8, and a few years ago he committed suicide,” Baram says. “Actually, the whole episode of my childhood until the age of 8 in the book is written about a different friend, but I always considered Uri to be my best friend, and I had the best rapport with him. Like in the book, we invented kingdoms and armies and wars. We had a sort of psychic and political bond, in the sense that we deciphered the world together at a very young age.”

Uri, Baram adds, had extraordinary charm: “He was very much liked – people competed for his time. A few years ago, something happened to him whose catalyst isn’t clear. It started as a minor depression and became a major depression.”

Although the character of Yoel in the book is a literary construct of the real-life Uri, Baram cautions against treating the book as a memoir. “Eighty percent of the events in the book never happened, but their emotional underpinnings are accurate.”

What made you want to finally write a personal book?

“Between completing one book and starting a new one, there’s always a year or a year and a half in which I don’t write. After Uri committed suicide, my inability to write was extremely acute, and I realized that I needed to release it.”

Runt of the litter

The picture of childhood that the book evokes is one in which the parents serve only as a backdrop. It’s the world of a so-called society of children with laws of their own, set in the 1980s in the upscale Beit Hakerem neighborhood on the west side of Jerusalem, which remains the city’s most secular section, a mainly middle-class quarter that comports itself like a detached suburb. In the past, before a park and highway were built between the neighborhood and the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Beit Hakerem was adjoined by a large, deep wadi, rampant with untamed vegetation. It’s in that valley that most of the book’s childhood adventures take place.

Baram was born and raised in Beit Hakerem; he’s the runt of the litter. His two brothers are much older, so he spent most of his early years effectively as an only child; his moments of happiness and consolation were the annual visits of one brother, who’s 12 years older and lives in the United States.

The boy in the book is a constant disappointment to his mother, who remembers the period of paradise of his earlier childhood, when he was very close to her. Now he’s completely independent – a “latchkey kid,” who lets himself into his empty house after school and who shares nothing about his life with his mother. For his father, who’s hardly ever home, he feels fondness mingled with admiration.

In life, too, as in the book, did you feel that you were a disappointment to your mother?

'The Palestinians to whom I spoke all told me about the desire to return ‘home.’'

“Not really, but we weren’t as close as she wanted. I didn’t tell her anything, I was a very rebellious child, and to a certain degree I missed out on her. She also gave birth to me when she was older and wasn’t so strong anymore. My brothers were a lot closer to her. I remember them closeting themselves in a room with her in order to speak with her. They had a lot of formative moments with her. I was closer to my father. His world fascinated me more. In addition, my parents had their own world, the world of the adults. They were very close, they did many things together, and sometimes I felt that I was bothering them.”

The boy in the book has a rich world of his own. “I was a boy who invented all kinds of things and stories,” Baram recalls. “Let’s say, I would say I had been to places where I hadn’t been, I made up a girl I loved, whenever I was asked in school what we did during the holidays I would make up some lie. That was my way of coping with my inner demons.”

A thread of sadness runs through the adolescence of Yonatan, the book’s protagonist. Inexplicitly, like background noise, his years of growing up and the annals of the children around him are accompanied by his mother’s illness. Baram’s own mother, Ruthie, died when he was 19. She was ill with cancer throughout his high-school years. His father, a cabinet minister and one of the country’s most popular politicians at the time, cared for her devotedly and also traveled with her for treatments abroad.

When did you realize that your mother was going to die?

“It was definitely very late, maybe a month before she passed away. I knew she was sick, but somehow I constantly built up hope that she would get better. Even when the situation worsened, even when she would tell me about a turn for the worse, or when my father spoke to me about her illness, I made a point of not taking it in and of clinging to my imaginary hopes. And then, in the final month, when I already understood what was happening, it was too late to talk to her about a whole host of things. I learned most of the things [I know] about her only after her death. I spoke with people from the family – they were already a bit suspicious of me, because I started to write in that period. It’s a problem that writers, especially of my sort, have: Everything they see, hear or feel is potential material for a novel.”

What did you learn about her, for example?

“I learned that her father came to Port Said from Aden and then to Jerusalem. He had a shoe store in Jerusalem, which I used to visit as a boy. Not long ago, I met someone who told me that she used to go to the store, and that when I was there, at around the age of 10, I would write her love letters, which she still has. My grandfather was a ladies’ man, a Jerusalemite. At some point he moved to Haifa, and my grandmother apparently became depressed and became religious, into a kind of Shas type.”

Another thing Baram discovered only after his mother’s death was that she grew up poor. “On her mother’s side she came from the Siton family, a well-known and ancient, pure-Sephardi [descended directly from exiles from Spain] family in Jerusalem, but my mother’s family belonged to the poor branch. My mother spoke very highly of the Sitons, and at the same time also quite hated them. My mother and father met, I think, in the employment bureau where they both worked. Obviously there was a class disparity there. My mother was haunted her whole life by the fact that she hadn’t gone to university. She felt a little inferior because of that, even though she did very well in her job. She managed a cabinet minister’s office and was a very beloved person. People were always coming to consult with her. She read a great deal and was educated, but felt a great lack about university.”

Has your father read “At Night’s End”?

“Yes. It’s not easy to write a book in which your family appears, but he really liked the book. My father and I became close after my mother died. When she died, I entered a survival mode, of not collapsing, of going on. My father helped me a great deal, and afterward so did the writing. For me to write is also to live within the consciousness of someone else, and I always needed that in order to live, both when I was a boy making up imaginary worlds, and also now, as an adult who has quite a good life and a wife and a delightful boy of 3.”

'More than a peace deal, we need a process of deep and meaningful conciliation between us and the Palestinians.'

Whose consciousness did you inhabit when you wrote “At Night’s End”? Is it a novel of disillusionment?

“In a certain sense, yes. Uri’s death shocked me even more than the death of my mother, because when my mother died I had my father and I also had Uri.”

Did you feel guilt when Uri died? According to the book, you saw his deepening depression and heard him say that he would be dead by the summer.

“It’s not exactly guilt, though there is also guilt. We talked all the time, even when he went back to live at his parents’ house and had changed a great deal. I tried to do all kinds of things to help him but without success – a lot of people tried to help him. I feel his absence. He was the first person that I would tell everything to.”

When did you decide to become a writer?

“I started to write when I was 18. I wrote a short story called ‘The Black Time.’ This was in the period when my mother was already very sick. I read the story to my parents and they liked it. But I started to write genuinely after my mother died, in my 20s. I don’t want to talk about my first two books at all, and I also don’t recommend that anyone read them. In my childhood I would invented a story without writing, and then I started to write, but I always needed it. I also always had doubts: With each of the novels I’ve written, I truly believed that I wouldn’t be able to finish it, that it would crash. That’s a feeling that accompanies me and isn’t only connected to writing. It’s basic.”

Nir Baram with Uri Basson. Credit: Assaf Cohen

Do you think it’s a feeling that’s related to the death of your mother and of Uri?

“That, too. But it’s a feeling I’ve had since I can remember. Those deaths only confirmed it. At the same time, that doesn’t mean I’m pessimistic, it’s not a worldview that manages my life. I’m not one of those people who go around saying that everything is lost. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been hearing that everything is about to collapse, that the country is about to collapse, the world is about to collapse.”

And you don’t feel that, in the past few years, it’s becoming more and more so?

“No. Look, what very much helped me cope with the loss of Uri is the fact that three years ago I became the father of a son, Daniel. The birth of a child is the most wonderful thing imaginable, it’s an optimistic act. Naturally, it’s also a correction for my own childhood. I sometimes try to see the world through his eyes. His life and his parents’ life are very different from my childhood and from the way my mother and father were parents. The fact that I write from home is a great advantage, because there’s hardly a day on which I don’t see Daniel. At the same time, I feel a bit sorry for him, because he won’t have children’s company in the sense that I did. I am of course sensitive to every contact Daniel has with the outside world, with the children in nursery school. I wrote a few stories for him, which he liked very much.”

And you’re not worried about what kind of world you’ll leave him? The population explosion, hunger, ecological hazards and so forth?

“I’m more worried about which school he’ll go to and in what kind of Israeli society he’ll live in, and I’m active in this respect to the best of my ability.”

‘Moral revolution’

Baram began to undergo a political transformation about 10 years ago. He grew up in 1980s Jerusalem as a good left-wing kid. “Having been educated in the left-wing narrative, I believed that what needed a solution was the [problems of the] settlements and the settlers. I was brought up to believe that all our troubles started in 1967, with the occupation, and that until then, everything had been just fine. One year, ahead of Independence Day, Uri and I printed the inscription ‘1966’ on T-shirts, to convey the message that until 1966 everything was good.”

'I think it’s a good idea to divide this country, not with walls but through more flexible models.'

The book “A Land Without Borders” and the subsequent film based on it depict Baram’s shift of consciousness. “When I embarked on a comprehensive tour of the territories, I spoke with Palestinians and I spoke with settlers. The Palestinians to whom I spoke – not only those who live in appalling conditions in East Jerusalem, but also those who live in luxurious mansions in Ramallah – all told me about the desire to return ‘home.’” He also met many Palestinians at international festivals and conferences. “All the Palestinians I spoke with about 1967 were interested in the Nakba: They spoke about the trauma of the expulsion in 1948, about the desire to return to what they see as a homeland, which is very similar to the Jews’ desire to return to the land of their forebears.”

According to Baram, it’s time to stop pushing the old dream of the left, which says that if we only return territories and evacuate settlers, peace will break out here. In the film based on his book, Baram describes the settlers as “prophets who became kings.” Settlers of various types are portrayed: from a lawyer who’s planning to hang every Jew who sells land to an Arab, to people at the yeshiva in the settlement of Otniel, followers of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman, from Tekoa, who talk about life together of two peoples who have one God. Also appearing in the film are members of the Two States One Homeland movement, of which Baram is a leading activist, but which also has settlers as members, alongside Palestinians and left-wingers.

“For as far back as I can remember, I was hearing that the great powers would soon intervene, that the occupation is harmful to Israel,” Baram continues. “But what I discovered is that the occupation is actually strengthening Israel – though of course that doesn’t mean that I’m in favor of that strengthening or in favor of the occupation. But I do think that the left has to move away from the Tzipi Livni-style discussion – which says that we need to return territories because the occupation is harmful to the Jews – to a moral dialogue, according to which, by occupying another people and critically infringing their civil rights and their freedom, we are committing a great moral wrong.

“I believe that, more than a peace deal that will parachute down to us from the heavens or from international intervention, we need a process of deep and meaningful conciliation between us and the Palestinians, akin to what happened in South Africa. The story of 1948 has to do with the breaking apart of the Palestinian community, the breaking apart of families and the loss of a home. It’s impossible to talk about the conflict without reaching a solution here, too. That doesn’t mean that all the refugees will return, but the idea of the ‘Two States One Homeland’ [organization], which talks about recognition and compensation and also about a return of a certain kind, is the right direction. The movement also accepts the idea that the model of total separation is dead, that we will not live here in the biggest Jewish ghetto in the world, surrounded by walls. I think it’s a good idea to divide this country, not with walls but through more flexible models.”

That’s a very fine concept, but it’s unlikely that anyone in the government, or even in the left-wing parties, will adopt it.

“It has more of a chance than the idea of returning to the 1967 borders. It’s also a positive concept. One of the problems of the left is that they say mainly what they don’t want, things like ‘Just not Bibi,’ and don’t also propose a positive project. As I see it, a project like that starts with political cooperation between Jews and Arabs at all levels, from joint youth movements and schools, all the way to political parties. I believe in the establishment of a central Jewish-Arab party, which will normalize Jewish-Arab cooperation and present a fresh, new model of conciliation and a great vision for a different Israel – one that is not a ghetto in which Jews are supreme in everything, but a country that is a home for everyone.

“You can’t have a Jewish left and an Arab left and expect that not to play into the hands of the right. That’s exactly the right-wing model, which the left, for fear of not being too conciliatory, in effect accepted submissively. Even if it looks remote now, the future of the left lies there.”

Toward the end of the film “Land Without Borders,” Baram clashes with his father, who is one of the chief proponents of the vision that the son is rebelling against – a Labor Party dove whom 20 years ago, people urged to run for party leader against Ehud Barak, and afterward for the premiership.

“I actually pressured him to run,” his son admits. “He had a really good chance, because he came in first in the party’s primary. I told him then that it was his obligation to run, but he told me, ‘But I don’t want to win.’ My father is a politician of a different stripe, a politician who has a life of his own, who never wanted to be only a politician.”

In the film, Baram tells his father about his disillusionment with the peace vision of a return to the 1967 borders. His father accuses him of playing into the hands of the right, which always claims that there’s “no one to talk to.” The son replies that what’s most important is what is talked about.

“I understand the desire of the older generations to talk almost only about 1967. That made possible the notion that to be a Zionist and a left-wing peace advocate need not contradict the Palestinians’ national aspirations. But maybe it’s a little more complex, because for the Palestinians, Zionism was their catastrophe for most of the 20th century – it’s not only the Six-Day War that is their catastrophe. That doesn’t mean that conciliation is unattainable; it only means that conciliation is more complex and that we’ll have to confront also the question of 1948 and the Nakba and the solution to that.”

What chance do ideas like this have – of living alongside the Arabs – when the country is becoming more and more racist and the prime minister incites the Jews against the Arabs?

“There is no one I loathe more than Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu], but Bibi gets elected time and again, because the right-wing thesis he espouses has proved itself to his voters, at least for the time being. He showed that there is no connection between economic prosperity and the occupation, contrary to the thesis of the [Yitzhak] Rabin period. He refuted the idea that the occupation will lead to Israel’s isolation, as many had claimed since the 1980s. And most Israelis don’t feel that their personal security is less good than it was under previous prime ministers – maybe the opposite.

“Netanyahu is the most divisive and inflammatory prime minister we’ve had. His remark on Election Day about the Arabs being bused to the polling stations was more appropriate for a bully like [Rabbi Meir] Kahane or the Ku Klux Klan than for a person who represents Israel. It showed that he’s wanton and dangerous and always was. After he eliminated almost every possibility for a solution, what remains for him is to lead Israel into becoming an apartheid state, which will disintegrate the remaining foundations of democracy in Israel.

“But a large part of Israeli society will not accept a permanent situation of apartheid, and that’s something the right wing would do well to grasp. If the choice is between Ahed Tamimi [the Palestinian teen who recently was convicted of assaulting an Israeli soldier], or her aunt, Manal Tamimi, whom I interviewed in the film, and 1930s-style racists like [Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel] Smotrich, who call Tamimi a terrorist and want separation in hospitals between Jews and Arabs, then I, and in my opinion many others, too, will choose the Tamimis.

“In my view, Israel needs a moral revolution, which has as its base one simple principle: In every sphere, in every case, the Jew and the Arab must be equal. That is the main thing on which we must never compromise, though it is possible on specific issues.”

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