Author Jamaica Kincaid, a Jewish Convert, Knows Exactly What's Wrong With Israel

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Jamaica Kincaid in Tel Aviv, May 2017.
Jamaica Kincaid in Tel Aviv, May 2017. "Every human being should get up every day and realize that to be alive is a burden. And I suppose that’s what I like about being a Jew. It’s a burden."Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

As Jamaica Kincaid took to the stage at Tel Aviv University last week, she adjusted her fashionable large reading glasses. Like the other speakers, Kincaid began by thanking those who had chosen her as a Dan David laureate. Then she addressed her daughter and son, who were sitting in the audience. “I will speak briefly,” she said, as the audience applauded. She squinted and added cheekily, “I hope you aren’t applauding me because I promised to be brief.” Only a few moments had elapsed but already the audience was captivated by her.

Kincaid is a woman of many contradictions. With her plaited hair bundled into a hairnet and protected by a scarf, and, above all, with her soft voice and melodious British-Caribbean accent, you could easily make the mistake of assuming she has a moderate and gentle literary temperament. In her writing, though, Kincaid is anything but genteel.

Maybe that’s why she is one of the most respected and best-known Caribbean-American writers in the world today. In her imperial English – she stresses during the ceremony that it is not only her mother tongue but the only language she knows – she has managed to slash and burn, to express the life experience of a person whose identity was stolen by an imperialist occupier: a land, a culture and even a mother tongue.

When asked a few hours before the ceremony about the Knesset’s new nation-state bill, which aims to stop Arabic being an official language in Israel, Kincaid – who converted to Judaism many years ago and is on her fifth visit here – says she read about it but hoped it wasn’t true.

“I thought I was reading a fiction," she says. "Is it the trauma of 2,000 years of history, all of these laws, like the language law? It’s as though we want this moment of Israel’s triumph to be set in stone, to make time stop. But it doesn’t, it won’t, this won’t last. It’s interesting for me to see this incredible engagement with the past, but it’s a funny kind of nostalgia – to rebuild the Temple, or to do some crazy thing. You can’t make your past the present again, that’s not possible. If you are to rebuild the Temple, then what? It was a good thing for Jews to have a place, so that people don’t kill them all the time just because they feel like it. Yes, that’s a good thing, but then what? How do we live?”

Israel is having a hard time deciding what to do next.

“Well, that seems to be a problem here. What do you do next? And the solution seems to be a cultivation of some of the worst things that have been directed at Jews themselves. How does this end? I mean, people use words like apartheid and colonization – that’s not what’s happening here. Something is, but I don’t think we’ve found the right words for it. It’s something new that’s going on, and maybe when you are in something, you can’t find the right words. It’s like apartheid – it might be heading that way. That language bill was not a good sign. What made people think that was a thing to do? It’s madness.”

Kincaid, 68, was born on the island of Antigua, which only won its independence in 1981 after more than 300 years of British colonial rule. Her birth name was Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson; she explains that Potter, a very common name in Antigua, was given by an English plantation owner to his slaves – Kincaid’s ancestors. Many identities, contradictory and complementary, clash within Kincaid: She is a black woman who was “the only black person [my] children could look at when they were growing up in Vermont.”

Jamaica Kincaid in 2002. "People use words like apartheid and colonization – that’s not what’s happening here. Something is, but I don’t think we’ve found the right words for it."Credit: Effigie / Leemage / AFP

She herself grew up in a colonial reality, before being sent to the United States, alone, by her mother at age 17, to work and help support the family back home. She built a career for herself in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, and chose another minority identity for herself when she converted to Judaism.

She speaks about the alarm she feels when her son – a black man whose skin is “quite fair” – goes out alone or with friends, and about the fury and hurt she felt when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president last November. She had a bet that he would win, in light of the failure of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the fact that “Americans would rather a very dumb man than a smart woman. A very dumb white man,” she adds. “You know, just to think about it gives me the creeps. Maybe liberals everywhere have the same sickness, and the situation just gets worse and worse.”

In conversation, it is clear that Kincaid demands from herself and the world around her a starting point of constant doubt and wonder – traits, she says, that cause her to cling tightly to her own Jewishness. When I tell her many Israelis are amazed that a person would choose the Jewish religion of their own free will, since they see it as a historical burden, she narrows her eyes in concentration. “Yes, it’s a burden,” she admits. “It’s a burden to be a human being, and these are human beings. They seem to be the ones that really recognize that it’s a burden.

“I think one of the reasons this whole thing with the occupation and the territories is so alive is because most people do what Israelis do, just do it. They just do it! It’s not a conversation. You conquer the line, you drive the people off it, or you kill them. You know, you just do it. Then you move on. And maybe 100 years later, you have a little ceremony where you say, the head of state says, ‘I’m so sorry I did that.’ But you just do it. So yeah, it’s a burden,” she notes. “Every human being should get up every day and realize that to be alive is a burden. That’s a debate: Am I going to eat this; am I going to be cruel; am I going to be kind; who am I? And I suppose that’s what I like about being a Jew. It’s a burden.”

On the road to Bethlehem

Kincaid wrote for The New Yorker for about 20 years and published her first prose efforts there in 1976. Three years later, she married Allen Shawn – son of William Shawn, the magazine’s editor from 1952 to 1987 – with whom she has two children. The marriage ended in 2002 but Kincaid, who converted to Judaism after her children were born (“I was told I couldn’t be buried in the same cemetery because I wasn’t Jewish. So I thought, well, what if there really is an afterlife? Am I going to be writing letters to them from the place where I am – what if they got lost?”), has maintained a Jewish way of life, even serving for a while as president of her synagogue.

She changed her name after she began writing seriously, choosing “Jamaica” in homage to her Caribbean roots (in a previous Haaretz interview, she related that she had also played around with the names “Havana” and “Dominico”) and “Kincaid” because she loved the sound of it.

Kincaid is reluctant to talk about the Israeli occupation, and her perspective is more one of questioning than being critical. She talks about how she visited Bethlehem two days before our meeting, and the explanations she received from the Jewish cabbie who drove her about the origin of the garbage surrounding an Arab village (“the Arab mentality”) or about the necessity for the Jewish settlement that overlooks the fenced-in West Bank city.

“It’s so weird,” she says. “Israel in contemporary life is a bit like a mirror, a reflection of – well, maybe something I won’t say. One of the fascinating things – and I don’t say this as a judgment – is an observation I’ve made that Israel lives in the past. Everyone should engage with their past in some way, but this is something different from most societies. It’s engaged with the past as a way of finding a way to live in the present.

“But like so many societies, it engages in the worst parts of the past. So it engages with certain images in the Jewish past and events, with towers, with barbed wire. ... I just can’t imagine the psychological effect it has on society. If I were Israeli, this is what I would think: it engages with the past, often in a very negative way.” Kincaid adds that Israel is inflicting these negative images upon itself “to live in the present.”

Many people think the past is a justification for this.

“But that’s what’s so mirror-like about it. Here’s a wrong that was done to you”

Being the victim?

“Yes, but it’s not. [Israel is] a powerful society, it’s a powerful place. So that’s what I mean about the mirror. It’s a ‘victor country’ also living as a defeated country. It lives in both narratives. It’s as if it doesn’t know how to be a victor.

“It’s a fascinating place to be so engaged with the burden of life. Even if it’s a narrative. British people don’t even want to apologize for what they did to the Irish, who are next door. I don’t think they’re sorry they destroyed India. They’re trying to keep people out of England because they’re destroying English life, and they’ve never for one moment reflected on the number of lives they destroyed all over the world. One quarter of the world’s population was upended because of these people.”

I think Israeli readers connected to “A Small Place” (1988) and found it really disturbing because it talks about Antigua and the British, but it highlights their blind spot on many levels. The matter of language led me to think of Arab writers like Sayed Kashua and Ayman Sikseck, who write in Hebrew about their unique situation.

Kincaid lets out a long “Ahhhhh” of contemplation. “It’s an interesting thing for them. Because you know, you write to be read, and who reads them? Do the people who speak Arabic read the writing? Or is it addressed to the Hebrew audience? I mean, are they discussing a life they want a Hebrew-reading majority to understand?

“I suppose what surprises me is that Israel is the winning society, so I don’t expect it to be so self-examining. Usually winners don’t examine themselves at all, but in Israel [there is] constant questioning and constant examining, constantly stating why you are right. I had a couple of drivers, and in a very oblique way – oblique, that’s the word I’m looking for – [they] were defending what you call the occupation. Or someone very interesting last night called it ‘the territories.’ We didn’t get a chance to talk about it, but it was a very interesting word to use. ‘The territories.’ So who owns the territories? Just to say the territories means to say they’re yours. The person who is living in the territories doesn’t say, or doesn’t think of themselves as living in the territories. They have a name for it. I guess they have a name for where they live.

“I think Israel is the victim and the victor, which is very strange – I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything like this situation in all the reading I’ve done. The memory of victimhood – especially the last infliction of pain, the Holocaust – is horrific, it’s indelible. So it’s understandable, this feeling. It’s sort of an indoctrination. So you’re prepared for being the victim. It’s terrible and unfortunate; it has the effect of not just distorting the child as an adult, but it might make the actions of the Germans interesting. I’m just saying it’s a possibility. Like the outcome of what think you’re really doing is quite different from what it actually is. So teaching children all of that might have an outcome you don’t really desire. The reason to do that is to make a Jewish person aware of what has happened so that it”

Makes us grateful for what we have?

“Yes, and to justify doing something – but that might not be how it ends.”

Kincaid muses on the way conversations in Israel turn so quickly to addressing the political situation, and relates how just the previous evening she laughed when she met a group of Israeli writers. With a smile, she quotes A.B. Yehoshua who, she says, told her that in Israel, even a conversation about the weather will lead to the occupation. Yehoshua, by the way, was the second winner of the Dan David Prize for literature.

The prize, named after businessman and philanthropist Dan David, is awarded in three categories – past, present and future – and the winners in each category share a grant of $1 million. It is awarded annually to people of exceptional achievement and outstanding individuals in the sciences, society and the humanities. Past winners include Tony Blair, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Zubin Mehta, writers Margaret Atwood, and filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen.

Kincaid notes that she has been having many philosophical thoughts of late: “Really, I must be ending my life or something,” she smiles. “Someone asked me if I was proud to be a Jew and I didn’t answer it, but it made me think about pride. I don’t want to be proud of anything. Because if I’m proud of this, then the other people who are not the same thing I am, how do I regard them? That’s all. Just because I am a Jew doesn’t mean that I am separate from other people who are not Jews.”

Jews feel like they are part of the Chosen People.

“I’m from Reconstructionist Judaism – and they don’t believe in chosenness. And I think that will be something I wouldn’t accept in contemporary life, that I’m chosen out of other people. That doesn’t seem acceptable in the world in which I live.”

Do you have a special connection to Israel?

“I’m asked, but I don’t. I’m asked because I come all the time – well, not all the time, but I come, and I come with great happiness. And I love people here and I’ve never been able to join anything that was anti-Israel – even though I disagree with a lot of things – so I must have some special feeling about it. I don’t want to make some public declaration of it, because I don’t want to close myself off from other human beings. I don’t want to privilege – and this might have to do with my history with another kind of oppression – but I learned that I don’t want to privilege myself in any way with any group. I want to be an Israeli citizen, a human being in a place with people who share something I share, but not to the exclusion of others.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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