The Jerusalem International Writers Festival has become a feature of the literary scene, as have the inevitable calls for invitees to boycott it in protest at Israeli policies.
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Previous biennial festivals have seen authors such as Tracy Chevalier and Tom Rob Smith, both in 2012, ignore calls from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement to snub the proceedings. It’s likely that some writers don’t accept the invitation to attend in the first place because they don’t need the trouble, and it’s assumed that sometimes those who pull out at the last minute do so in the wake of the pressure applied to them.
When British author and journalist Jake Wallis Simons received the now-regulation “open letter” from BDS activists earlier this spring pleading with him to pull out, he decided to hit back in a blog entry earlier this month for the Telegraph newspaper, where he is a features writer.
Simons, 35, is the author of four novels, including “The English German Girl,” about a Jewish girl from Germany who is saved from the Holocaust when she is brought to England in the Kindertransport. Simons will be participating in two festival sessions, on Wednesday and Thursday.
He says he is one of the few British writers willing to publicly state support for Israel, and his vigorous defense of the decision to attend the festival got much traction on social media.
“There is no justification for the boycott,” he told Haaretz in a telephone interview. “From a moral, ethical, political point of view I’m against it. Those behind the boycott movement just fundamentally believe there shouldn’t be a Jewish state. BDS isn’t about the settlements, or Israeli policy – just the idea that the Jews shouldn’t have a state at all.”
In September 2013, Simons wrote and produced “Meet the Settlers,” a 13,000-word, multimedia documentary posted on the Telegraph site, which told the stories of the disparate groups of settlers living in the West Bank.
But although he writes often on issues involving Israel-Palestine, Simons is coy when asked about his own personal views on the occupation.
“I don’t really like to give an opinion on the West Bank, and I don’t often write about it. It’s tricky. I tried to be objective and let the facts and people speak for themselves.”
The settlement boycott is, he says, “an interesting discussion.” For his part, he says, had he been invited to speak at Ariel University, in Samaria, in the West Bank, for example, he says that “on balance,” he would have gone.
Simons certainly feels under some pressure due to his pro-Israel views, believing British attitudes toward the State of Israel to be largely distorted.
“If I were to write on my blog, ‘I am a Zionist,’ it would provoke a huge amount of hatred. It’s taken to mean that I am a colonial occupier and a supporter of an apartheid state. The situation is so inflamed and so much attention is focused on the Israelis and the Palestinians – it’s such an emotive issue which has been blown out of all proportion.”
Born in London in 1978, Simons grew up in the north London Jewish heartland of Golders Green. He detailed his complicated relationship with Judaism and Zionism in an intensely personal 2010 piece in The Guardian, which, he says, he now regrets having written, not least because it begins with a description of how he and his classmates at his Orthodox Jewish school would debate which side they would support if Britain and Israel went to war. The consensus, he recalls, was that they would throw their lot in with Israel.
“It has dogged me ever since because it was so personal. Now whenever I write anything about the Middle East, people dig it up. It undermines everything.”
Simons’ background is unusual. His father is not Jewish, and until the age of five he led a completely secular existence. But when his father left, his mother turned more and more to Judaism, and Simons and his brother were enrolled in Orthodox schools and their lives became increasingly devout. His brother ended up serving in the Israel Defense Forces, whereas Simons went through a period in his late teens during which he rejected Judaism completely.
He says now that his first book, “The Exiled Times of a Tibetan Jew,” which followed the fortunes of a fictitious Tibetan-Jewish refugee community in London, was a way of reconnecting with his roots.
Published in 2005 to critical praise, the book embarrasses Simons to some extent now, with an “uncontrolled” narrative dominated by an overbearing central character – although, in retrospect, he says it had therapeutic value for him.
“For a few years, I had no connection to Judaism at all, so the Jewish theme was a way of reconnecting, a product of my repressed unconscious,” he laughs. “It was all very Jungian.”
By the time he came to write his next book, he felt reconciled enough to connect in a more nuanced fashion.
Thus, his 2011 novel, “The English German Girl,” centers on the story of the Kindertransport, the operation that brought some 10,000 Jewish children out of Nazi Germany, most of them to Britain, on the eve of World War II.
“I chose the Kindertransport as a way of talking about the Holocaust from a position not too close to the core of the suffering. Ironically, lesser suffering can actually move us more than the absolute horror of the camps, which is too overwhelming,” he explains.
The book was critically acclaimed, although Simons says modestly that he was lucky to catch the crest of a wave of books about Germany – including the re-released “Alone in Berlin,” the 1947 novel by Hans Fallada – that reflected increased interest in the subject.
Certainly in Israel, its Hebrew translation (called “The Girl from Berlin”) became a best seller and is still doing well.
Then followed an interlude when he flirted with thriller writing, producing “The Pure” in 2012, under the name Jake Simons. It follows the trials of Uzi, an ex-Mossad agent living alone in a London bedsit, who is recruited back into the world of espionage and intrigue.
It’s got Iranian nuclear secrets, motorbike chases, gunfights and a woman called Liberty who runs an international drug cartel. Thrilling stuff, which, he says, he wrote “as a bit of fun on the side,” inspired by sympathy for the character who became the book’s anti-hero, the dislocated, tortured Uzi.
Simons: “I was interested in the discrimination Israelis face in the UK and elsewhere abroad. You could be a peacenik Israeli who spends his weekends protesting in Palestinian villages, but British people still immediately raise an eyebrow at your nationality. I saw this particularly at Oxford University [from which he graduated with top honors in English]: Some Israeli students had a hard time there because of their nationality.”
“Jam,” his fourth and most recent book (Polygon publishers), is set in a traffic snarl-up on the UK’s iconic M25 London ring road motorway, using tales of the frustrated passengers trapped in gridlock to create a satire of modern Britain itself.
This, he admits, explores more of a domestic theme, “although everyone relates to being in a traffic jam.”
But Simons is about to return to his familiar territory of Jewish identity and historical narrative with a sequel to the “English German Girl,” this time set partly in 1930s Berlin and partly in Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
With a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old twins to support, it’s fear, he says, that keeps his output so prolific. And British publishing has been particularly receptive to books on Jewish history and culture in recent years, with a spate of critically acclaimed and commercially successful novels.
Notable among them have been Naomi Alderman’s 2006 multiple-award-winning “Disobedience”; 2010’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” by Edmund de Waal; the Man Booker-prize winning “The Finkler Question,” by Howard Jacobson, in 2010; and Francesca Segal’s 2012 novel “The Innocents.” Simon Schama’s nonfiction “History of the Jews,” which was accompanied by a five-part BBC program, has also done well,.
Simons sees this surge of interest as more to do with curiosity in the unseen intimacy of “the other,” rather than any particular preoccupation with Jews.
“The British public has an appetite for the secret life of communities, not necessarily the Jewish one. Zadie Smith and Monica Ali write about the Bangladeshi and other communities, which mirrors that fascination,” he says. “All these books have been marketed as ‘lifting the lid on a little-known community’ – it’s more about access than specifically the Jewish aspect.”