It was a particularly boiling-hot day recently in Hebron. The small group – five visiting Americans and Britons who had come to observe life in the city firsthand – was led by Yehuda Shaul, from the anti-occupation Breaking the Silence organization. Their appearance was apparently enough of a provocation to attract a group of settlers from the city, too. Anger and tension hung palpably in the air. The settlers were accompanied by soldiers to protect them from potential local assailants. At one point, the soldiers made the visitors’ Palestinian guide, Issa Amro, detach himself from the group and stand off to the side, alone. The restiveness and irritability reached a breaking point.
Two of the visitors, writers from America – Michael Chabon and his Israeli-born wife, Ayelet Waldman – decided to cool things down. Waldman went over to the soldiers to apologize, in Hebrew, in her and her husband’s name. “It was clear to me that our visit was a pain in their butt,” she says in her very blunt, very Israeli style. She had managed to say, “My husband and I are sorry about the mess,” when one of the soldiers approached her and whispered, “Tell him that I like his books.”
Surrealistic moments were not lacking in the couple’s visit to Israel a few weeks ago. Indeed, in all their visits here, they say, they have oscillated between unmitigated depression and soaring spirits, producing a somewhat bewildering effect from their perspective. But this latest visit, amid the project they have initiated in conjunction with Breaking the Silence, was a singular event. As part of the initiative, seven delegations of world-famous writers are being brought to Israel and the territories over the course of a year. Among the authors are the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, from Peru; the Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks; Irish writer Colm Toibin; and the American writer and publisher Dave Eggers – in addition to Chabon himself, one of the leading American writers of his generation, and Waldman, who is also an acclaimed author and an American media personage. Local representatives are also taking part, among them the Israeli writer Nir Baram and the Palestinian author and lawyer Raja Shehadeh.
Each participating writer is taken on a tour of a few days in the territories – to East Jerusalem, Susya in the south Hebron hills, and the cities of Hebron and Ramallah – and afterward chooses a subject or a person to focus on. The resulting essays will be edited by Chabon and Waldman and will be published exactly one year from now – to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the occupation it spawned. The collection is already slated for publication in Israel, the United States, Germany, Sweden, France, Brazil and elsewhere.
Even before one page of a single essay has been written, the reactions to it are a foregone conclusion, certainly in Israel. Dozens of comments appeared on the Haaretz website when the project was launched, most of them accusing the participating writers of biased prejudgment at best, or of anti-Semitism, or of being self-hating Jews of the sort who may one day contribute to sealing the country’s fate. The responses may be related in part to the involvement of Breaking the Silence – an organization that collects and publishes first-hand testimonies from Israel Defense Forces soldiers who have served in the territories – is frequently subjected to similar accusations in Israel. Maybe it’s just the declared intention to write about the occupation and those who live under it. In any event, Waldman and Chabon’s point of departure, certainly as they see it, is the exact opposite. From their point of view, their project constitutes an act of Zionism and is entirely committed to ensuring the future existence of Israel. And their external take on the state’s actions, on those who live here and do not act against the occupation, and on the country’s future if the occupation continues, is harrowing.
Waldman, 51, had been mulling the idea for the project in the two years since her last visit to Israel. Invited to take part in the biannual Jerusalem International Writers Festival, she had to think carefully about whether she wanted to go. She says she had never boycotted Israel but had avoided visiting, because of the occupation.
Though born in Israel, she moved to North America with her family in 1967, and grew up in Montreal and New Jersey. Before becoming a full-time writer, she’d been a criminal defense lawyer dealing mainly with issues of social justice, human rights and prison reform. “I couldn’t justify coming to enjoy myself in Israel when my life in the United States has so much to do with social justice,” she says. “On the other hand, I was so flattered to be invited [to the 2014 writers conference].”
To ease her conscience, she contacted Breaking the Silence and joined one of the NGO’s tours to Hebron. The delightful experience at the writers festival in Jerusalem – “I enjoyed every minute” – was suddenly overlaid with dark, intolerable hues.
“I thought I’d see a few miserable people, a few settlers, some pressure between them and the Palestinians,” she recalls now (speaking Hebrew). “But when I got to Hebron, I went into shock. Literally. Totally. I couldn’t believe it. To see a road on which I was allowed to travel because I am a Jew and hold an Israeli passport, and opposite me a person who lives there and whose family has lived there for generations but who is forbidden to set foot on that road – that was a shock to me. I returned brokenhearted and furious. That evening I said that I would never come back here again, that I couldn’t understand how people can stand to live here.”
Still, after the festival, Waldman went to Tel Aviv, as originally planned, and there her gut feeling became a genuine dilemma. At an hour’s distance, reality looked completely different. In other words, Waldman had herself a good time in Tel Aviv and felt completely at home.
“I wanted to come back for another visit immediately,” she gushes. “I wanted to be part of this Israel, I felt I belonged. And then I told myself that if I feel I belong, that I’m connected, that it’s my place, too – then the problem is mine, too. I can’t just go home and not think about it anymore. If I feel part of this, I also have to assume responsibility for changing the situation there.”
Burdened by thoughts (“What am I and who am I? I’m nothing. A 50-year-old woman from America. The ‘auntie’ from America. What can I do?”), she returned to her home in Berkeley, California. The idea began to jell. She and Chabon, a very well-known couple on the American literary scene, began to think about all the writers they know and about the cumulative reading public they could reach.
“Many of the writers we recruited are our friends, and they are all coming without an agenda,” Waldman says. “They have no opinion, they are not people who have been writing for years about the conflict. We wanted people who would be able to tell a story and are used to making use of their eyes, ears and heart to do that.”
Chabon: “Writers look around until something catches their interest, and they say, ‘Wait, I need to know more about that. How does that work?’ They would have the choice to focus on any aspect. Everyone gets the same four-day background tour, then you would say, ‘You know this is fascinating to me, I want to know more about this.’ Dave Eggers knew before he even got here that he wanted to go to Gaza, so they made that happen for him and he went to Gaza. Rachel Kushner already knew before she got here that she was interested in Shoafat, a refugee camp.”
What made them want to take part?
Chabon: “They wanted to know more. Many of them said, ‘I have been ignoring this and now this writer I know and respect is reaching out to me. This is the moment when I should say yes.’
Waldman: “I said to them, ‘I will not tell you what to write. I will not tell you what to think. You write what you want. I’m not going to edit you – maybe only for length.’ You know, newspapers and articles come and go, but if you love the work of Colm Toibin, say, maybe if Colm Toibin tells you a story, you’ll stop and you’ll listen and read it. People see ‘Israel-Palestine’ in the newspaper and they turn the page. I wanted to give people a chance to see, and also my experience was so profound because I don’t turn the page, I read all the articles – and even so, I didn’t know what was happening in these places.”
The problem is that Israelis themselves have no idea and don’t want to know what’s happening in their backyard.