The complexity of life in Israel and Palestine consistently provides fodder for news headlines, but also sparks the imagination of writers who live there and, increasingly, those who don’t. These latest fiction and non-fiction offerings wade into everyday existence there in the hopes of better understanding it, and better explaining it to others. From a fictional Israeli-Palestinian love story to a thriller that raises awareness about the plight of Israel’s African migrants to a travelogue about the human cost of the occupation, the works on this list offer something for everyone, from the disillusioned Zionist to the banned-book fan to the lit-lover with a conscience.
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“A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank,” by Nir Baram
In his latest work, author and journalist Baram set out to gain a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by listening to the people who live it, day in, day out. Baram writes that, “the Israel I know is separated from the West Bank not only by checkpoints like Kalandia but also—and more significantly—by a cognitive barrier, which is growing higher all the time.” To overcome that barrier, Baram traveled, over a year and a half, around the West Bank and East Jerusalem—from Palestinian refugee camps and checkpoints to Israeli settlements and kibbutzim—and talked to Israelis and Palestinians of all stripes. The result is a deeply human portrait of a seemingly insoluble conflict, and of the toll it takes on people from both sides.
“Waking Lions,” by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
“He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man.” That opening line sets in motion Gundar-Goshen’s gripping novel, which centers on the aftermath of a deadly hit-and-run involving an Israeli doctor and an African migrant. The doctor flees the scene, but soon finds himself blackmailed by the victim’s wife. Gundar-Goshen, who has a master’s degree in clinical psychology, builds a suspenseful morality tale out of the stuff of contemporary Israel, where the haves and have-nots of society increasingly collide. Gideon Raff, the Emmy-award winning co-creator of “Homeland” is adapting the book into an American series for NBC set in Beverly Hills.
“All the Rivers,” by Dorit Rabinyan
Published in Israel as “Borderlife,” Rabinyan’s novel made waves in late 2015, when the country’s Education Ministry excluded it from the list of required reading for high school literature classes. Ministry officials claimed that the book—a romance between Liat, an Israeli woman, and Hilmi, a Palestinian man, who meet by chance in New York—threatened Jewish identity, and described Israeli soldiers as war criminals. Others have called the book an Israeli-Palestinian “Romeo and Juliet,” a forbidden love story that could only really stand a chance outside of the protagonists’ homeland. Watch Rabinyan read an excerpt from her novel here.
“No Country for Jewish Liberals,” by Larry Derfner
In this memoir, Derfner, a journalist and current copy editor for Haaretz, takes readers from his childhood home on what he calls “Holocaust Survivors Lane” in Los Angeles to his move to Israel in the mid-1980s before the intifada erupted to his “long, bumpy trek leftward on the Israeli-Palestinian political front.” It’s a clear-eyed exploration, told with plenty of wry humor, of how someone can remain devoted to a country whose politics and policies he abhors.
“Vision and Division in Israel: Forty Years of Activism Along the Seam,” by Sarah Kreimer
Kreimer, who moved to Israel in 1980 to spend two years as a volunteer at Interns for Peace, an organization aimed at advancing Jewish-Arab coexistence, shares her story of life as an activist—what it’s like to be on the ground for nearly four decades, working to increase cooperation between Israelis and their Arab neighbors. Her memoir describes the kind of story that’s all too rare these days, of how one individual has spent a good chunk of her life trying to make Israel a more inclusive country that embraces the other both socially and economically. Kreimer describes how she founded the non-profit Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development with the aim of leveling the playing field for the Arab sector and the Negev’s Bedouin community, and how she joined Ir Amim, the group that she says “aims to ease the path for the two peoples to reach agreements how to share and divide Jerusalem, its borders and holy places.” Kreimer’s story reminds readers that that path may not be easy, but it starts by simply being willing to interact and respect one another.
“This Is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature,” edited by Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton (out July 18)
This collection of essays, poems and sketches marks the tenth anniversary of the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which brings writers from around the world to cultural events in Palestine in an effort to strengthen artistic ties between Palestinians and their international peers. In entries ranging from one paragraph to a series of poems about Hebron, Bethlehem, the Allenby Crossing and Gaza to reflections on what it meant to them to be in Palestine, writers including Alice Walker, J.M. Coetzee, Claire Messud, Molly Crabapple, Teju Cole and others contemplate their time there, the occupation, violence and injustice they witnessed, and the power of words and images to foster hope and unity.
“Where the Line Is Drawn: A Tale of Crossings, Friendships, and Fifty Years of Occupation in Israel-Palestine,” by Raja Shehadeh
Palestinian writer, lawyer and human rights activist Shehadeh chronicled life under occupation in his book “Palestinian Walks,” and now he turns his attention to the idea of borders and crossings and the role they’ve played in his life over the past 50 years. In these vignettes, Shehadeh recounts his return to Jaffa, the city of his father, a lawyer who believed peace between Israelis and Palestinians was possible, and describes learning Hebrew in a Jerusalem ulpan. The predominant story here, though, is about Shehadeh’s decades-long friendship with a Canadian-born Israeli named Henry Abramovitch—and how their relationship has weathered (or at times, not) the dispute between their two peoples.
“Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation,” edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
The idea for this collection was spawned when author Ayelet Waldman, who was born in Jerusalem but grew estranged from Israel over the years, attended the Jerusalem International Writers’ Festival in 2014. While there, she toured Hebron with the NGO Breaking the Silence and spent time with writers and intellectuals in Tel Aviv—two dissonant experiences that opened her eyes to the occupation and the fact that most Israelis ignore its existence. Waldman and her husband, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon, issued a call to writers to come to what Waldman calls the “cow patty of the Mideast” and bear witness by telling stories. Their hope is that people who are fans of writers such as Dave Eggers, Geraldine Brooks, Anita Desai, Rachel Kushner, Colm Toibin, Mario Vargas Llosa and Chabon and Waldman themselves will pick up this collection and think about the conflict, perhaps for the first time. The project, Waldman said at a recent stop on the book tour, is also an effort to give the couple’s four kids, who have never been to Israel/Palestine and seem entirely uninterested, a “context to engage with it.” “To them, Israel is like the mean, abusive uncle whose house you don’t even want to go visit,” Chabon said. Proceeds from the sales will go to the NGOs Youth Against Settlements and Breaking the Silence, the latter of which critics have vilified for airing Israel’s dirty laundry about the occupation publicly and on international stages. As for that accusation, Chabon said, “You know what? You don’t like it? Do your laundry.”