Assaf Gavron's 'The Hilltop' Excels at Unmasking Israel's Contradictions

New book weaves a convincing portrait of a settlement with a kind of narrative flair that will ring plausible to anyone with a passing knowledge of the country.

Moti Milrod

“The Hilltop: A Novel,” by Assaf Gavron (translated from the Hebrew by Steven Cohen), Scribner, 464 pages, $26

In April 1982, as part of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the desert town of Yamit, at the northeast corner of the Sinai Peninsula, was vacated and returned to Egyptian control. Its residents were apoplectic. In the months leading up to the Israeli withdrawal, Hanan Porat, a rightist member of Knesset and one of the founders of the religious settler movement, implored Israelis to fight the injunction and tried to reassure those still living in Sinai that the government would not go ahead with the planned evacuation. “I believe that the withdrawal will take place no more than I believe in the existence of ghosts,” he said.

Porat’s contradictory approach – counseling resistance to the town’s demolition at all cost, while at the same time denying that such demolition would take place to begin with – resurfaces in “The Hilltop,” Assaf Gavron’s sardonic and engaging new novel, which narrows in on one illegal West Bank settlement and its inhabitants in the weeks pending its forced evacuation by the Israel Defense Forces.

“In the beginning were the fields,” the novel begins. This biblical echo – with its substitution of “the fields” for the primordial “heaven and earth,” followed by a refrain in which one of the protagonists “saw that it was good” – is telling. Gavron quickly piles on the characters (so much so that the book comes replete with a cast list), but at the end of this sometimes-dizzying survey, a sole hero emerges: Ma’aleh Hermesh C, a windswept (fictional) outpost comprised of a smattering of trailers caught in perpetual bureaucratic limbo.

“The hodgepodge of laws and conflicting authorities,” one of the characters, a prying American journalist who writes a searing exposé about the site, remarks, “has allowed the Jewish settlers to create a kind of Wild West, where they behave like outlaw sheriffs.”

Leading the pack of “outlaw sheriffs” is Othniel Assis, an erstwhile bookkeeper who has traded in his day job for a plot of land on the settlement, where, these days, he grows arugula, asparagus, cherry tomatoes and six rambunctious children. Othniel is brazen and impassioned, a macher who has government ministers on his speed dial. He fumes about “bleeding-heart left-wingers” and reminisces fondly about “the stormy protests against the Oslo Accords, when he and his fellow demonstrators faced off against club-wielding police and water cannons.”

Gavron distinguishes between Othniel, and other ideological residents of the hilltop – such as Neta Hirschson, a fiery woman wearing an orange head scarf (the color that has come to symbolize settler opposition to government withdrawal plans), who makes a habit out of crashing Peace Now demonstrations shouting, “Lunatics! No one gives a shit about you!” – and accidental settlers like Nachum and Raya Gottlieb, for whom the outpost’s main draw seems to be the panoramic view it offers and the unmatched rent.

While the tone in some of these sections is satirical if not downright critical, it is balanced with a more nuanced account of two brothers, Gabi and Roni Kuper, ex-kibbutzniks who are reunited in Ma’aleh Hermesh after a long separation.

During their time apart Gabi, who now goes by the name of Gavriel Nehushtan, has grown religious; a one-time prodigal wanderer with an estranged wife and son, he now espouses the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and is referred to as a “true saint” by his deferential neighbors.

Roni, meanwhile, has managed to decamp to New York and make a killing on Wall Street before squandering his gains (and his job) by furtively shorting Apple stock for his firm. Having returned to Israel with nothing but the Hugo Boss suit on his back, he sees his brother’s outpost as merely a temporary shelter, a desolate place with spotty Internet connection at best. Although there are plenty of generalizations in these sections too (Roni, we are told, had a knack for “wheeling, dealing, and scheming Israeli-style”), as well as some lackluster prose (on a visit to his former kibbutz that is told in flashback, Gabi’s son is “happy” and is “having so much fun,” while his wife finds the place “stunningly beautiful” and they all “felt so at ease”), the brothers’ past is fleshed out and given weight; unlike some of their neighbors, who never seem to cease playing their designated role, we know how Gabi and Roni got to where they are.   

Organic olive oil

Shortly after he arrives, Roni happens upon an unlikely business opportunity. Amid yet another protest of Peace Now activists on the hilltop that he gravitates toward, a Palestinian farmer from a nearby village offers to sell him locally grown olive oil “dirt cheap.” Roni begins to hatch a plan: He will buy the olive oil in bulk, rebrand it as having come from a small organic grove, and sell it at a markup to boutique stores in Tel Aviv.

A shady collusion between a rogue settler and a Palestinian farmer? One that pivots on the foodie subculture of Tel Aviv? It’s the kind of narrative flair that may strike the uninitiated as more fantasy than realism, but it’s one that will ring plausible to anyone with a passing knowledge of the country and its politics. It’s in story lines like these that Gavron is at his best – injecting a dose of the absurd into the mundane, all the while hanging back with judgment, content with letting the reader draw her own conclusions.

This sense of authorial restraint doesn’t last very long, though. Framing some of these different plot lines are passages that consistently seek to explain the ambiguous administrative status of the outpost, paragraphs whose pedantry quickly begins to grate. Couldn’t we be spared, for example, a listing of all the measurements of a mobile unit or the exact definition of the “Clinton Administration’s Executive Order 12947”?
 
Gavron excels at unmasking the contradictions that characterize Israeli society (such as in a scene that has both the hilltop settlers and the peacenik camp protesting together, with weary solidarity, against the government’s planned construction of a leg of the separation fence in the area). Yet his narrative asides too often resemble a diligent novelist’s research notepad, not its fictionalized end product.

There is something effective in this zooming in on the minutiae – a show, perhaps, of Israel’s adherence to the letter of the law, but not its spirit. But this insistence, this repetition, also impedes the book, so that it suffers from a mild case of what the novelist William Gass termed “the uselessly precise fact,” the kind of overly detailed statements that mistake accumulation for heft.

Elsewhere, however, I was struck by the timeliness, even prescience, of “The Hilltop.” The novel was published in Hebrew in early 2013, more than a year before Israel’s latest operation in the Gaza Strip. The conflagration in Gaza came on the heels of the tragic kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers who had been hitchhiking in the Judean Hills. Consider, then, the eerie relevance of a flashback chapter that sees a teenaged Gabi, dressed in his brother’s military uniform, hitching a ride from three men in a pickup truck. When the three begin to conspire in Arabic, Gabi timidly asks that they drop him off. They refuse. “What do you want from me?” He pleads. “We want a soldier, a combat soldier,” comes their bone-chilling response.

Israel writ large

Any work of literature that concerns itself with the politics of a place more than with the inner mind of its people runs the risk of leaving the fabric of life largely untouched. We turn to novels because we yearn for unmediated access into the human condition, in all its complexity and conflict. We are interested in individuals, not types, in the particular rather than the archetypal. In short: We want to see creases. To read “The Hilltop” is to overlook the creases, and to reaffirm the sense that we are dealing not with the particular but with Israel writ large.
 
That is both an ambitious undertaking – rarely are segments of society like the settler movement afforded a novelistic treatment – as well as a boon. In the span of some 450 pages, we encounter religious tensions, an interracial love affair (frustratingly, this is portrayed from the outside), the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis, cyber terrorism, government spies, American billionaires, East Asian conglomerates, child abuse, marital abuse, divorce, and even the discovery of coins that may or may not have originated with the Bar Kochba revolt.

This everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach makes for great promotional copy (the book jacket describes the novel as grappling with the “most charged geo-political issues of our time”). Still, I couldn’t help wishing that Gavron – who is clearly a born storyteller, intelligent and imaginative – had dared keep his scope small and drilled a little deeper.

Take Othniel Assis. What is some of the inner turmoil experienced by a patriarch whose family faces eviction? Or Gavriel Nehushtan. Can a return to religious observance truly serve to atone one’s conscience, despite past sins? An entire novel can be wrung out of single questions such as these. Then again, that’s not the story that Gavron sets out to tell.
 
In a 2010 talk about the changing nature of the settler movement, Moshe Halbertal, an Israeli philosopher of Jewish thought, made a useful distinction between two sectors of Israeli society: the passive sector and the hyperactive sector. Religious settlers belong among the latter, he argued. The settlers see themselves as a self-chosen avant-garde, Halbertal said. One that claims, “The key to history is in my hands.”
 
Gavron is interested in the ways in which this “hyperactive” avant-garde imposes itself on the status quo and continuously seeks to legitimate its existence. His hilltop may be fictionalized, but it embodies, perhaps more than any journalistic or documentary attempt in recent years, the mechanisms by which extremism crosses over and adopts the bureaucratic language and signifiers of the officially sanctioned. In that, he has succeeded.

Fana Feng