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“I’ve actually read your books,” said one young soldier, recognizing the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
Other than that, fans were in short supply that day. Jewish settlers were dogging Chabon’s group, telling the participants that their guide was feeding them lies as he explained the restrictions on Palestinian life in the West Bank city. Indeed, the soldier who had read his novels was one of a group who had been following Chabon’s tour, presumably trying to keep the settlers’ confrontation from escalating. Chabon thanked the soldiers when one recognized him.
Chabon’s tour to the West Bank was led by Breaking the Silence, the controversial Israeli group that collects and distributes Israeli soldiers’ testimony about their service in the occupied territory. Chabon, along with his wife Ayelet Waldman, are two of the 24 leading novelists who will visit East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza over the next few months to research a book of essays marking 50 years of Israeli occupation. The couple will edit the book, which aims to illuminate what it’s like to live under Israeli military rule. Chabon’s essay will focus on Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American businessman who moved to Ramallah to build the Palestinian economy in the wake of the Oslo peace accords, only to watch the Israeli occupation deepen around him.
Chabon, who deals with Jewish themes in his work, addressed Israel obliquely in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” The novel takes place in Sitka, Alaska, the central city of a settlement of Jewish refugees from World War II. The state of Israel lasted just three months before it toppled in an alternate telling of the Arab-Israeli war. “Jerusalem is a city of blood and slogans painted on the wall, severed heads on telephone poles,” Chabon wrote. In Sitka, there is tension - but also positive relations - between the Jews and the indigenous population, a possible reference to real life Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.
Now, Chabon will address Israel’s darkest issues head on. His attention to the occupation, sparked by Waldman’s 2014 trip to Hebron, comes out of a place of deep concern for Israel. “I do love Israel. I do care about Israel,” he said. “To dehumanize others dehumanizes you. It is bad for Israel and if it ended it would be good for Israel.”
The Forward, which accompanied the authors’ Breaking the Silence tour for two days, sat down for an interview with Chabon at the group’s hotel in the stately Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Chabon was visibly jarred by what he had seen the day before in Hebron, calling the occupation “the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life.” He talked about the role of authors in addressing human rights issues, his childhood relationship to Israel and whether he is worried about alienating Jewish readers with his anti-occupation stance. (He’s not.)
Yesterday you went to Hebron, one of the most challenging places in the territories. What was that like?
As a Jew and someone who has felt connected both to Israel and also to the Old Testament narratives, it actually does mean something to me to be in Hebron, to be where supposedly Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah are all buried. From my point of view, to see that place being dishonored and made less sacred and less holy by the presence of this incredibly cruel and unjust machinery, some literal machinery and figurative machinery of oppression, it offends me. I wish I could simply have gone and had a chance to experience the history and the past and the narratives that shape me without this vituperative hateful layer of supposed holiness spoiling it, not just for me but I think in some ways for the world.
What was your relationship to Israel and Zionism growing up?
I felt deeply connected to legends and folklore and Jews generally. They are the central metaphors of my way of thinking about things, like the Tower of Babel or the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. In terms of Israel, I was four years old when the Six Day War happened. That is my first memory of Israel. First it was, “Oh my god, oh no” and it was terrible things happening and then it turned to incredible giddy jubilation and relief, but beyond relief, in hindsight it was almost gloating. Then in ’73, the Yom Kippur War brought a kind of dread, a prolonged version of the same thing. It was initial dread and anxiety followed by eventual relief, much less jubilation. There was a sense of “That was close.”
You went to Israel in 1992 as an adult when you had just started dating Ayelet Waldman. Did you travel there as a child too?
No. But my grandparents had come here and I remember them coming back and bringing me a hat from a kibbutz called Ayelet HaShahar. That was the first time I saw the word “Ayelet” in my life. When I met my Ayelet, I was like, “Oh the hat my grandparents brought me. The kibbutznik hat.”
The idea of the kibbutzim was important to my grandfather and my father. [The kibbutz project] was the only viable socialist thing that didn’t result in totalitarian excess and repression and so on. There was a political pride, too. It wasn’t just the quasi-militaristic or jingoistic, “Yeah, we showed them!” kind of thing. It was, “This is amazing what they are doing over there in many ways, making the desert bloom.” We were able to take pride in all of that.
There was no regard whatsoever for Palestine or Palestinians and they only came into my consciousness initially through terrorist incidents. It wasn’t until the invasion of Lebanon that some cracks started to appear for me and I started to have questions reading about the massacres in the refugee camps. I was like, wait, Israel? Is that what they are doing? And then there was a long, slow, heartbreaking process of continuing disillusion and dismay. But I was always [grasping] to this ultimately irrational idea that [Israel’s actions toward Palestinians] were justified or couldn’t be helped or were no worse than anything anyone else would have done under the same circumstances.
You said you had not dealt with the topic of occupation in your writing until now. You have a large Jewish readership. Are you concerned about alienating them?
I’m not so worried about that. All I’m really doing is going to try to see for myself. Once you see for yourself it is pretty obvious I think to any human being with a heart and a mind, it is pretty clear what to feel about it. It is the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life. I have seen bad things in my own country in America. There is plenty of horrifying injustice in the U.S. prison system, the “second Jim Crow” it is often called. Our drug laws in the United States are grotesquely unjust. I know to some degree what I am talking about. This is the worst thing I have ever seen, just purely in terms of injustice. If saying that is going to lose me readers, I don’t want those readers. They can go away and never come back.
What role do novelists have to play in changing the status quo in Israel and the Palestinian Territories?
What a creative writer, a fiction writer or a writer of creative non-fiction can bring is an overt point of view that doesn’t try to hide itself the way journalists are trained to be objective and conceal their biases and just “present the facts.” It is a strength to have a point of view, to implicitly or explicitly say to the reader: Here is where I am coming from and this is what I saw and this is what I thought of it and what I made of it and how it made me feel. It is all there on the page for the reader to accept or reject or connect to or not connect to, and it can be extremely powerful.
Without Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” there might not have been a Civil War fought to end slavery in the United States. It was a novel, more than anything else, more than preaching from the pulpits or the reports of travelers or whatever the equivalent of journalism would have been in that day, or first person slave narratives. Fiction invites the reader into the world of a novel in a way that no other kind of writing does. So you have got these people who are professional noticers, professional observers, professional connection-drawers, professional metaphor-crafters bringing all of those skills to bear to report on any aspect that they wish of their weeklong experience here.
As a Jewish writer who deals with Jewish topics, have you experienced this trip differently from some of the other writers on the tour?
The first day we were here they took us to Silwan, in the shadow of City of David [a national archaeological park managed by the Elad organization, which helps settlers move into Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem]. I’m hearing and seeing [Jewish settlers] illegally taking over houses and these [Palestinian] people are fighting for their neighborhood. Who does it turn out is one of the major sources of [support] for this whole City of David enterprise? The little blue boxes I put my pocket change in at Hebrew school every week growing up, the Jewish National Fund. That was in 1973 and the pennies I was putting in the boxes weren’t literally going to support the takeover of Silwan. It’s just I have that in my own personal history, not the history of my people, but in my own life I have a connection to something that does make me culpable. Not just through omission, not just through a lack of having taken any action or spoken up or said anything but actually through support of things that I didn’t know were being used in that way. It has given me a whole different viewpoint on the entire enterprise going all the way back to 1967 at least.
You are putting the finishing touches on your new book. Can you give us a peek into the subject matter?
It’s coming out in November. It has a lot of Jewish content. It is about an American Jewish family. In some ways there are definite echoes of “Kavalier & Clay” and the “Yiddish Policemen’s Union” and other books. It’s a novel disguised as a memoir of my grandfather, but it is not my grandfather. It is written as if it were a memoir by me. It is an attempt to explain an enigmatic advertisement I found in a copy of an issue of Esquire Magazine in 1958 for Chabon Scientific Company that sold a model rocket. This memoir is the fictional history behind that advertisement to explain it.