The Power Couple of American Literature Wants to Save Israel From Itself

The dissonance generated by a visit to Hebron and a dinner in Tel Aviv jolted Israeli-born writer Ayelet Waldman. It also sparked the genesis of a project with her husband, writer Michael Chabon, and Breaking the Silence: enlisting world-famous writers to document life under occupation.

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Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon in Susya.
Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon in Susya.Credit: Oren Ziv, Activestills
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

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.”

Israeli author Nir Baram. Credit: Berenice Bautista, AP
Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.Credit: Fredrik Persson, AP

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.

Irish writer Colm Toibin.Credit: Reuters

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.

Chabon and Waldman see their project as an act of Zionism that is entirely committed to ensuring the future existence of Israel.

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.

Private road

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].”

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

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.”

Everyone knows someone who was on a bus, behind a bus, and the bus was exploded. The whole ideology of fear as a result of terrorism makes people not want to see the other side.

The problem is that Israelis themselves have no idea and don’t want to know what’s happening in their backyard.

Waldman: “When I tell Israelis, my family, my friends, ‘This is what’s happening in Hebron, this is what’s happening in Susya, this is what’s happening in Shoafat,' they don’t believe me. Because it is impossible to imagine that your country, your democratic country, is doing things like this. Plus there is so much anger. Everyone knows someone who was on a bus, behind a bus, and the bus was exploded. The whole ideology of fear as a result of terrorism makes people not want to see the other side. The Palestinians have been their own worst enemies in many ways, because even if you’re predisposed to care about human rights, it takes a hero of epic proportions to lose a child and then reach a hand across.”

The rest went more or less smoothly, notwithstanding the fact that it was, in Waldman’s words, a “logistical nightmare.” Recruiting the writers was the easy part, and it was even easier to sell the idea to American and Israeli publishers. Other publishing houses from around the world contacted the two organizers independently when the project was officially announced. But the next part is likely to be more difficult. What will happen to the book once it’s published? It’s clear from what Waldman and Chabon say that they have no illusions.

Filling in the gaps

The term “power couple” might well have been invented to describe Waldman and Chabon. Michael Chabon, 53, acquired instant literary fame when his M.A. supervisor in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine, sent his thesis – which was a novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” – to a literary agent without Chabon’s knowledge, resulting in an advance of $155,000, an unheard-of amount at the time for an unknown writer. The book, published in 1988, became Chabon’s first best seller. It was followed by literary benchmarks such as “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” for which Chabon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001, and a series of other successful works. They include “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (a detective novel set against the background of an alternative reality in which Israel did not survive the War of Independence and Jews were given a haven in Alaska); “The Final Solution” (a mystery novel in which an aged Sherlock Holmes solves a case during World War II); and “Gentlemen of the Road” (about two Jewish vagabonds in the Kingdom of the Khazars around the year 950). His next novel, “Moonglow,” which is scheduled for publication later this year, is also very much Jewish-oriented, Waldman says.

Waldman is Chabon’s second wife; the couple have four children together. Over the years she has returned to Israel repeatedly, made a failed attempt at immigration, including living on a kibbutz and working in the cowshed. After leaving Israel for good, she studied law at Harvard (Barack Obama was a member of her graduating class). Among other things, she then spent five years working as a public defender in a federal court. Subsequently, she decided to leave the legal profession in favor of writing. She has published seven mystery novels revolving around Judith Appelbaum, a sleuth and mother, and several other novels, the most recent of which, “Love & Treasure” (2014), is about the real-life Hungarian Gold Train, which was found by Allied troops after World War II, laden with property of Hungary’s Jews confiscated by the Nazis. She is currently working on a new novel and is also the author of numerous articles and essays.

In fact, the publishing event most associated with Waldman is related to her 2009 nonfiction work, “Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.” It grew out of a New York Times article in which she wrote that relations with one’s partner are more important than parent-child relationships. To which she added, drawing a tidal wave of outrage from self-righteous, appalled Americans, that she loves her husband more than her children.

Without getting into the hierarchy of affection that prevails in the Chabon-Waldman household, the natural rapport between the two makes it instantly apparent that their relationship is rock-solid. In the past, they related that they write in the same space and read each other’s works but are not inclined to collaborate. Now, they say smilingly, they write in separate rooms and are collaborating. “We collaborate on our individual projects in the sense that we both read the other one’s work, get help, get editing,” Chabon explains.

Two sides – or not

We meet in the conference room of Breaking the Silence. The NGO’s office, situated in a rundown building in south Tel Aviv, is guarded at all times. There is no sign to indicate the office’s location. When I asked two young men in another office in the building for directions, the reply from one of them was, “Breaking the Silence? I hope they’re in hell.”

Waldman and Chabon arrive, very tired, and take seats around the large table, on which every snack known to mankind seems to have been laid out for the guests. Waldman, whose unkempt mane of curls reflects her character and her gushing candor, is manifestly the chief speaker and in charge of the domestic humor. Chabon, more collected and less animated, tends to complete sentences and punch lines for her, such as have obviously become part of their standard repartee. The conversation itself fluctuates between rapid Hebrew and headlong English, punctuated with sweeping hand gestures, whether they’re talking about disheartening experiences at Susya or a pleasurable dinner with friends in Tel Aviv. That disparity between the two coexisting worlds demands clarification.

Palestinian laborers at the Tarqumiya crossing.Credit: Emil Salman

Was it important for you to have the writers see the Israeli angle, too?

Chabon: “They have seen the Israeli angle – that is the Israeli angle. We saw settlers,” he says sarcastically, “they were real nice. The checkpoints, where they arbitrarily stop people and get you out of your car for no particular reason – to me, that is the Israeli angle. You could talk to the settlers and they would say ‘God gave us this land,’ but that is not the other side of the story. The other side of the story is what’s happening at the checkpoints.”

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Congress, March 3, 2015.Credit: AP

Waldman: “A war has two sides, but the occupation doesn’t have two sides. There is occupier and there are the occupied, and this book will be about the people who are occupied. We saw plenty of settlers, and we spoke to them, even when we didn’t want to. The ones in Hebron especially were very, very aggressive. They surrounded us and they attacked [Yehuda Shaul, from Breaking the Silence]. We didn’t talk to the settlers in Susya. Why? Because that’s a false dichotomy. There’s a village whose homes were stolen and there are the thieves. I’m not interested in the thieves.

“Bibi Netanyahu has the biggest stage in the world. He spoke before a joint session of Congress in the United States – that is unheard of. You know who gets to do that? The president. Suddenly Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of this tiny country across the globe, gets to speak to a joint session of Congress. If the day comes when Bibi feels that his voice isn’t heard, like he doesn’t have enough of a spokesperson, he can come to me and I will write a book for him, an entire book. I promise to make his silenced words heard. But Nasser, the father of unfortunate children in Susya whose house has been demolished time and again – Nasser has no stage, he has no way to get people to listen to his story. So we will be his stage in the form of this book. We will tell his story.”

The checkpoints, where they arbitrarily stop people and get you out of your car for no particular reason – to me, that is the Israeli angle.

You’re here in the headquarters of Breaking the Silence, an organization that draws the anger of many Israelis, many of whom feel that any criticism should not be aired internationally. Turning to the international community is widely perceived as treasonous here.

Waldman: “You know, we always love to do that, as Jews.”

Chabon: “To make a shanda [Yiddish for ‘disgrace’] in the face of the goyim.”

Waldman: “You know what, at this point”

Chabon: “ the shanda is the occupation.”

Waldman: “My ideal reader is an Israeli in Tel Aviv who reads the book and says, ‘Okay, I will go to Hebron and see what this American is talking about.’ But I also think there is a place for international pressure – the Israeli government uses international pressure all the time. The Israeli government involves itself in the American elections, and a foreign government to try to influence the outcome of an American election is deeply problematic, and also bad for the Jews. You know, since we got here, we’ve been hearing that Breaking the Silence is a curse. What people don’t understand is that Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem [a local human rights group] are Israel’s best ambassadors in the international arena. Our weapon as Americans against anti-Semitism is these organizations. Why? Because they are proof of Israeli democracy.

“Netanyahu is hated everywhere in the world. It’s so easy to be anti-Semitic when he is the representative of Jewishness, Israeliness. But when I speak with someone who just can’t understand what is happening in this country, who sees images of dead children in Gaza and of destroyed houses, and accuses Israel of being a fascist state, I can tell him about Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. In the most cynical way in the world, I don’t understand why the Israeli government doesn’t use those organizations – because this is the proof of your democracy.”

‘Shanda’ sickness

Some will probably say that Waldman and Chabon really do suffer from the Jewish shanda sickness, only from the opposite direction, from being ashamed themselves at what the “goyim” will say about Jews in their country. What’s certain is that this is not the first time the two have spoken out in this spirit. In a past interview, Waldman explained that for Israel to go on being supported by American Jewry, it must be identified with civil and democratic values. The tone that already sounded determined has now become very blunt.

“Bibi is a charlatan, he’s a con man,” she says. “He has convinced this country that the Jews of America are on his side. I will tell you who is on his side in America: the crazy evangelical Christians, the worst of the worst. Seventy-five percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama. The American Jewish community is the single most liberal religious community in the United States. What just happened with AIPAC when Trump spoke and they stood on their feet – that I believe signals the death knell of AIPAC in the Jewish community. It might take five years, but they are finished. That’s why you saw them apologizing so fast, because the moment the Jews of America saw AIPAC standing on its feet and applauding Trump, that was the end. There’s this crazy dichotomy, where Israel takes $3.5 billion from the American government every year, and more money in donations, but it resists and resents the American influence. There’s a reason that every Jewish kid, no matter how rich his daddy is, gets a free trip to Israel ‘on the back’ of the Bronfman family. They’re worried that they are losing them, and the reason that is happening is the occupation.”

The occupation embarrasses the Jews of America?

Chabon: “It’s more than embarrassing: You’re ashamed.”

So, what you are doing now is out of a commitment to the Jewish people?

Chabon: “Yes, and to Israel.”

Waldman: “We are doing it out of love of Israel. This is our Zionism. We believe that Israel will not be able to continue to exist with the occupation. The occupation will be the death knell of the State of Israel; if it doesn’t end, I believe there will be no Israel. So why do care? I live in America, in a nice house – in fact, we have two houses, one in Berkeley and one in Maine – and our children don’t want to hear about Israel. One cares, because she’s a social activist and she wants to go and work in the territories against the occupation. The other ones are like – don’t talk to me about it. There’s no other reason for our initiative. The moment when I realized that I had to do something was not the tour in Hebron with Breaking the Silence. That broke my heart, but what did it for me was the dinner and the good time in Tel Aviv afterward.”

A tour organized by Breaking the Silence tour in the West Bank city of Hebron.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

This is what possibly infuriates Israelis about Breaking the Silence. Most of us live in a reality where it’s easy to repress that "minor" issue. We work, we can go out with friends in the evening and just forget what’s happening half an hour’s drive away.

Waldman: “That is our shame. Mississippi had the best barbecue in the world. In the 1950s, you could go down there with your friends and eat and drink and dance. The fact that all those black people have to live in shanties, they can’t drink from the water fountain, they can’t get jobs, they get thrown off their land – hey, let’s just not look at that.”

Here in Israel your hands are dirty, and if you are not actively fighting against the occupation, you are supporting the occupation. Period.

The comparison with pre-civil rights Mississippi leads Waldman to talk about the role of Jews as leaders of social initiatives that promote equal rights. Both of their parents raised them on the Jewish concept of tikkun olam: “repairing” and reforming the world. In the decidedly Jewish home in which Chabon grew up, where Yiddish was spoken, the message was “Jews are smarter” and “Jews are more ethical.” In the Chabon-Waldman home, attending synagogue, celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs properly, and observing Passover and Yom Kippur are real, living ideas – certainly from Chabon’s viewpoint, even when they lead to controversial engagement with developments in the Jewish state.

Waldman: “It’s really easy to fight for the rights of people when you’re not the one doing the oppressing. It’s very comfortable for me in the States to work on prisoners’ rights, to be an advocate, to be a criminal defense attorney, to write books about the terrible human rights violations in prisons. Because my hands are clean. I mean we can get complicated about how every white person in America to a certain extent has dirty hands, but that’s a very comfortable position. Here in Israel your hands are dirty, and if you are not actively fighting against the occupation, you are supporting the occupation. Period.”

Chabon: “Which means you are hurting Israel.”

Waldman: “To ignore the occupation is to participate in the demise of the State of Israel. It will not survive.”

Chabon: “When your friend has been drinking too much and you see him getting into his car, you’re supposed to stop him and take his keys away because you care about him.”

Do you really see a possible situation in which Israel ceases to exist?

Chabon: “Of course there’s a possibility – nothing lasts forever. Where’s apartheid now? Where’s the Soviet Union now? Where’s the British Empire now? Let’s hope it takes a long time for Israel, and that in the meantime the Palestinians have been granted the rights they’re entitled to, because if not, it’s not going to be all that long.”

Waldman: “As this generation of American Jews comes of age, Israel will lose the support of the American Jews, and when they lose the support of American Jews they’ll lose the support of the American government, because at some point it will be too costly – and then what?”

Cowsheds and cages

Waldman pauses for a moment and a conversation develops about experiences they had on the tour. Chabon mentions a Palestinian-American businessman from Ramallah, Sam Bahour, who is unable to live a normal life and develop various projects both because of Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement and because he suffers from diabetes. Waldman asks me if I’ve ever been to a checkpoint. I answer no. She continues: Have I ever worked in a cowshed? Again, no. She describes the very narrow cages, “almost like cattle chutes, barbed wire above and metal below,” that Palestinians have to go through at checkpoints while waiting for hours, which prevents access for a large person like the diabetic Ramallah businessman who would have to stand on his feet for hours and have no recourse if his blood sugar drops or if he has to use the restroom. She understands the reason for the security check, she says, and why it’s necessary to use metal detectors. What she doesn’t understand is why the checkpoints are structured as they are, on top of which anyone who wants to enter Israel illegally will find a way. “It’s the law-abiding citizens who are the ones being tortured at these checkpoints. That was one of the worst things I saw.”

Palestinians at the Qalandiyah checkpoint in 2012.Credit: Michal Fattal

I’m afraid that the people who will want to read the book are those who already know about all this.

Chabon: “Nobody knows. Nobody knows. Nobody knows. I didn’t know, and if I didn’t know – and I pay attention, I read the newspapers, I care about Israel, I’ve cared about Israel my whole life, but I didn’t know – nobody knows. Israelis don’t know.”

But Israelis always say: Why don’t you look at what the Turks are doing to the Kurds, at what’s going on in Syria?

Chabon: “You know what I say to that? That’s who you want to be compared to? Why aren’t we comparing you to Sweden, why aren’t we comparing you to Denmark? You yourself are creating this category, which includes North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Turkey, Congo and Israel. Is that the standard you aspire to?”

Waldman: “If I were a North Korean, I would be writing a book about North Korea, but I’m a Jew and I was born in Israel.”

Chabon: “And as Americans we are paying for this, not for North Korea. We are paying for this with our taxes to the tune of $3.5 billion a year, and that gives us the right.”

Still, many Israelis treat criticism by Jews who live elsewhere as unacceptable. First come and live here and share our burdens, they say.

Chabon: “But this is not about Israel and Palestine. It’s not about Zionism and the right of return. It’s not about the two-state solution or the one-state solution. It’s about human rights that are guaranteed. You know what that means, and you know what you would not accept for yourself in terms of treatment. And you know that means the right to decent housing, freedom of movement, access to water, the right to earn a livelihood for your family, education. You just need to say to yourself: Are Palestinians getting all these things? And the answer is obvious: They’re not getting any of them.

“It’s pretty obvious what needs to be done, and it doesn’t have anything to do with whether you have a right be here, if they have a right to be here, how are we both going to be here at the same time? All those questions that everyone is always talking about and fighting over – they’re irrelevant to this. This is about human rights, freedom, civil rights, civil liberties, all of those things. That’s what has to happen first, before anything else.”



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