“Losing Israel,” by Jasmine Donahaye, Seren, 160 pps, $20
In lamenting the loss of a unique way of life in his country, Welsh philosopher J.R. Jones once described it as “the experience of knowing, not that you are leaving your country, but that your country is leaving you, is ceasing to exist under your very feet, is being sucked away from you, as if by an insatiable, consuming wind.”
This sentiment guides author-poet Jasmine Donahaye’s words in her new memoir, “Losing Israel,” which is part autobiography, part history, part nature writing and part travelogue. Donahaye’s work is not merely another rehash on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but a unique look at one person’s relationship with Israel: She goes from being an uncritical Zionist to someone whose ties to Israel are blighted by her own family’s less-than-savory involvement in the Zionist enterprise.
Donahaye recounts how, during a telephone conversation with her mother – who was born in Mandatory Palestine – she discovered by chance that a scar her grandfather bears resulted from skirmishes with Arabs from local villages that had long since “disappeared.” Her voyage to find out what happened to these villages and their residents leads Donahaye to unearth an alternative story underlying her family’s kibbutz, Beit Hashita, and, in turn, to question many of her deeply held preconceptions about Israel.
Born to an English father who made aliyah to Israel, where he met her kibbutznik mother, Donahaye grew up in England. At 19, she moved to the United States before ending up in rural west Wales, a country where she lives now and with which she seemingly has no familial or organic connection. She explains how moving to Wales and engaging with its troubles “was a form of Zionism displaced, a love of Wales-as-Israel.”
As Israel increasingly disappointed her, through its past and current actions, “staining” her love for the country, Donahaye began to feel increasingly ashamed, so she embraced this small Celtic nation, since Wales, “itself disenfranchised, likes to ally itself with the disenfranchised elsewhere.” Thus, Donahaye learned the Welsh language, in which she also speaks and writes – and which some claim is derived from Hebrew, making her an even more unusual writer from a British-Jewish perspective.
The connection to Wales, as the above J.R. Jones quote makes clear, permeates not only this memoir, but also Donahaye’s previous writing. Prior to this book, Donahaye – who is a poet, writer and teacher of Creative Writing at Swansea University – wrote “The Greatest Need: The Creative Life and Troubled Times of Lily Tobias, A Welsh Jew” (2015) and “Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine” (2012). She has also penned a poetry collection titled “Self-Portrait as Ruth” (2009), a collection about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “written in defiance of all official versions of Israeli or Palestinian history.”
‘My sense of whom I was came undone’
Donahaye’s biography is tied up with hard-line communist kibbutz Beit Hashita, established in 1935, situated equidistantly between Afula and Beit She’an in northeastern Israel. Her mother was born in Afula in 1941 and grew up on the kibbutz, raised in the children’s house. Her parents met on that same kibbutz when her father arrived, guitar in tow, that very instrument viewed suspiciously as a tool of “dangerous Western capitalist influence.”
In exploring the history of this kibbutz in particular, and how it stands as a metonym for wider Israeli society, Donahaye discovers how, in order for Beit Hashita to be founded, it was necessary to dispossess and displace more than 200 peasant Arabs who lived and worked on the same land. This occurred twice – during the 1930s and again in 1948 – and her family played a part in it. This discovery left Donahaye, in her own words, “profoundly disorientated, my sense of whom I was came undone.” Ultimately, she concludes that Beit Hashita, an “idealistic community with an ideology of self-sufficiency and communist equality, of workers owning the means of production, of worker empowerment,” was founded on precisely the opposite of this ethos.
Despite her growing disillusionment, there is still one thing about Israel that retains its pull on Donahaye: its birds. Israel, we learn, is one of the world’s most important bird migration corridors. “More than 500 species follow this flight path between Africa and Europe, and in total some half a million birds pass through Eilat twice a year,” she writes. Donahaye certainly knows her birds; bird-watching is an activity and metaphor that pervades not only her entire book, but also her life. It is the lure of these very birds that keeps her coming back to Israel, time and again.
And Donahaye writes about them, at length and in detail. I am no ornithologist, or “twitcher” as bird-watchers are known, but her descriptions, like this one, soar:
“Everywhere we go, it is not family, or ruins, or human stories that make the strongest impression on me, but birds. Masada is a bird-of-prey migration, not a site of heroic Jewish resistance to Roman rule: short-toed eagle, spotted eagle, imperial eagle, honey buzzard The raptors rise on the thermals from the Negev and float past us at eye level. On the broken walls of Masada, there are lines of large dark birds with orange wing feathers and a haunting cry – Tristram’s grackles, spelled grakle in his [H.B. Tristram’s] ‘Fauna and Flora of Palestine.’ Beit Hashita, the kibbutz my mother is from, is Smyrna kingfishers and black-winged stilts with red legs, and hoopoes. Sinai is wheateaters, every species of wheateater, and griffon vultures circling, and perhaps a black vulture.”
Even birds can’t escape the conflict
Naturally, given the centrality of bird-watching to this book (there are even birds on the cover), it is only a matter of time before Donahaye compares people to birds. “It’s so tempting, so easy, to see birds here in human terms. It’s impossible not to think about the language with which bird behavior and belonging is described, and compare it to the truths and omissions in the description of variants of human belonging – ‘invasive’ or ‘indigenous,’ ‘migrant’ or ‘resident.’”
Birds, however, do not provide an escape from the conflict. Even an indigenous bird can be a victim of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A case in point is the naming of the orange-tufted or Palestine sunbird. In Hebrew, it is known as the tzofit; in Arabic, the ta’er al nedim al Filistini.
It is only a matter of time, then, before Donahaye compares birds, specifically, to Jews and Israelis. She writes:
“There’s something very Jewish about the crow family – or, to be more precise, something about them that fits ancient stereotypes about Jews: adaptable, clever, good at languages, and they too accumulate wealth, collecting anything shiny; they too suffer from a love of glitz and kitsch.”
On the surface, this comparison resembles a borderline anti-Semitic canard about Jews, money and vulgarity. This association between Jews and certain species of bird is deepened when she describes two striped hoopoes, Israel’s national bird:
“Hoopoes are dirty birds, somehow: they are unkosher, perhaps because they foul their nests, or are omnivores. Even so, they took precedence over the problematically named Palestine sunbird as the representative bird of Israel in the 60-year anniversary celebrations of 2008. They are cocky and vulgar, rejecting bourgeois manners and embracing peasant earthiness, like my old idea of kibbutzniks.”
Such comparisons, and accompanying descriptions, can surely be read in problematic terms, for it is Donahaye who, out of all the scores of species described in her book, has chosen to compare the Jews to crows (with their reputation for stealing) and to focus on the tref aspect of the hoopoes’ behavior: fouling their own nests.
Clearly, she sees similarities between the actions of Israeli Jews and the behavior of these two species of birds. One could extrapolate from these descriptions a larger point here about Donahaye and her ties to Judaism and Israel. But even without doing so, they certainly leave the reader with unanswered questions pointing at Donahaye’s unresolved feelings to Israel.
In spite of these looming questions, it is the lasting images of the numerous birds and bird-watching episodes that one takes away from “Losing Israel,” a fascinating and powerful book that provides a means to explore Israel’s contested history – but without resorting to large tomes. Writing this review in Wales myself, Donahaye’s book provides a timely link between these two small nations, which are connected in so many interesting ways.
Nathan Abrams is professor of film studies at Bangor University in Wales.