Dressing 'Critical Zionism' in Thriller Garb

The protagonist of the 'The Chizzik Sagas' is the quintessential Israeli who through a chance event begins to question what he knew about Palestinians. Author Paul Usiskin hopes his book will help readers do the same.

Police investigator Dov Chizzik is the quintessential Israeli - or so says Paul Usiskin, the former chair of Peace Now U.K., and yes, a descendant of Russian-born Zionist leader, Menachem Ussishkin

Chizzik is a protagonist of "The Chizzik Sagas," a political thriller series penned by the 63-year-old, whose self-described "peculiar and indirect" relationship to the Hibbat Zion movement leader has undergone the scrutiny of a DNA test. "We don't know how the relationship worked, but we are all from same part of Russia," Usiskin says, adding that "there is a family resemblance."

Our Israeli hero Chizzik is a secular Jew living in the Tel Aviv bubble, who started out in life as a soldier, and "believes Palestinians should be seen, and not heard," Usiskin explains. But everything changes when his career is ruined by a sex scandal, and he gets a second chance - to review a ministerial report into the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs in riots of October 2000.

Born in the United Kingdom, Usiskin moved to Israel at 21, where he lived for ten years. He served as a soldier in the West Bank, and embarked on a multifaceted career with organizations including the Jewish National Fund, before working as a journalist and producer. In 1982, he returned with his wife and two sons to the U.K. to pursue his literary dream, an early version of the first "Chizzik Saga" in his suitcase. 

The experiences of producing a BBC documentary on the 1994 Goldstein massacre at the Cave of the Patriarchs, and filming sessions of the Geneva Accords secret negotiations made him want to work more actively for peace, however. After what he describes as a "peculiarly interesting career" in Jewish bodies, including an eight-year stint at the British Zionist Federation, he was elected as chair of Peace Now U.K., where he stayed for 10 years, until he left the post 18 months ago. 

Usiskin, who said he feels strongly connected to Israel,  hopes the books will give readers hungry for a nuanced, less pro-Israel stance than they might see in mainstream media - particularly in the U.S. - some insight into the country, even if it is "in thriller garb." Unlike his ancestor, the British-Israeli is a self-proclaimed "critical Zionist." He is outspoken when it comes to Israeli military policy and the occupation, and the thrillers are no different.   

"Them-Not Us," available on Amazon Kindle since December for $4,99,  tackles the realities faced by Arab citizens of Israel.

"An Incomplete Silence," due to come out in September, looks at the bitter personal politics of Israel's defense establishment. Its backdrop is the ongoing controversy of the Harpaz Affair, the murky feud between former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former IDF Chief of Staff Askhenazi over who would succeed the latter as chief of staff. A criminal investigation has now been opened against Ashkenazi in the wake of the 2010 scandal.   The third, "Evil in Return," takes place in the period between U.S. President Barack Obama's reelection and Israel's January elections. It deals with last year's Gaza war, and the changing nature of the military.

Today, writing and promoting his work is a full-time job for Usiskin. A fourth volume, set at the beginning of the twentieth century, stars Chizzik's grandfather, a refugee from Russia via the U.S. The forthcoming book broaches a simple question, Usiskin says. "If this is the Israel of 2013, how on earth did we get here?"

Yaron Kaminsky