Suicide Bombings, Fear and Almost No Palestinians: The Second Intifada Transformed Israeli Literature

Literary heavyweights like A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman found different ways of representing the uprising – but very few offered a Palestinian voice in their terror-strewn narratives

David Green
David B. Green
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Clockwise from left: A burning car following an IDF strike in Gaza City in 2003, "To the End of the Land," "Pain," the scene of a Jerusalem suicide bombing in 2004, "Ode to Joy" and "CrocAttack!"
Clockwise from left: A burning car following an IDF strike in Gaza City in 2003, "To the End of the Land," "Pain," the scene of a Jerusalem suicide bombing in 2004, "Ode to Joy" and "CrocAttack!"Credit: EITAN ABRAMOVICH / AFP/Reuters
David Green
David B. Green

When the second intifada began in September 2000, A.B. Yehoshua was working on the novel he would call “The Liberated Bride.” An intricately plotted and richly detailed story, like all of Yehoshua’s books it has a well-meaning male protagonist whose obsessions and misapprehensions keep landing him in trouble.

In this case, the hero is Yochanan Rivlin, a lovable but slightly buffoonish professor of Middle Eastern studies who, during the course of the novel, attends the wedding of an Israeli-Arab graduate student at her Galilee village, and later crosses into the West Bank to attend a poetry festival in Ramallah.

However strained and unequal relations are between Jews and Arabs in the book, who take advantage of countless opportunities for mutual misunderstandings and slights, the very fact of these interactions makes it an optimistic tale that revels in the cultural and social diversity of a land that’s home to two peoples that have been so long at war.

Today, looking back two decades, Yehoshua recalls the bewilderment he felt as the second intifada ignited and then, rather than being quickly extinguished, exploded into an inferno of violence that even threatened briefly to turn into a full-fledged civil war between Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the border.

“I said to myself, O la la, what are you doing? There I was, writing a book about a festival of love poetry in Ramallah, while in Ramallah there was this terrible lynching,” he says, referring to the brutal murder of two Israeli soldiers by an angry Palestinian mob on October 12, 2000.

Yehoshua says that when he started writing “The Liberated Bride,” he was infused with the optimistic spirit of Oslo, the 1993 peace accords between Israel and the PLO that had been intended to end the state of war between the two peoples and lead to an eventual resolution of the issues dividing them.

“There I was writing a book full of hope, of relationships and also humor. And then along came the intifada.” Fearing that it would be “ridiculous” to publish such a book under those circumstances, Yehoshua says he considered putting the manuscript aside. Instead, though, he says he decided: “I will finish it, this kind of relationship will come again.’ Because I had confidence that what was achieved with the Oslo agreement, this cannot be destroyed.”

"The Liberated Bride," author A.B. Yehoshua and "A Woman in Jerusalem." Credit: Rafaela Fahn Schoffman/Mariner Books

Shell-shocked atmosphere

“The Liberated Bride” was published in Hebrew in 2001 (and in English two years later), and it was only with his next novel that Yehoshua produced his “intifada book.”

“A Woman in Jerusalem” (2004) is the story of the journey – both physical and emotional – of the personnel director of a large Jerusalem bakery to attend to the body of an employee who has been killed in a suicide bombing. Initially, the victim is unidentified and traced back to the bakery because of a pay slip found among her belongings.

Once the unnamed manager connects her body to her name, and discovers that she was a recent, lone immigrant from one of the former Soviet republics, he takes it upon himself – initially reluctantly, eventually with dedication and passion – to track down her family and return her body to them for a proper burial.

Yehoshua says he took his inspiration from a TV documentary whose creators undertook to establish the identity of a body of a suicide-bombing victim that lay unclaimed for weeks in the medical examiner’s office.

“What astonished me in the second intifada was [the phenomenon of] this anonymous death of victims. That there would be a bomb – in a bus, or a restaurant, or a mall – and among the victims, there were one or two who nobody could identify,” Yehoshua tells Haaretz. They could be tourists or new immigrants, but more often they were foreign workers.

“I remember a Chinese worker who was in the hospital morgue for a year until they could identify which village he came from in China. This gave me the idea to write ‘The Mission of the Human Resources Manager,” he explains, using the book’s original Hebrew title. He describes the change of attitude of his title character, in which he goes from saying “It’s not my business, it’s the state that has to take responsibility,” to throwing himself wholeheartedly into bringing Yulia Ragayev’s body to proper rest as “a kind of moral revolution, a moral conversion.”

Yehoshua successfully recreates the shell-shocked atmosphere of Israel during those years of fear and horror, when no one knew when another bomb would detonate and who would be its victims. As with the current situation, in which the country has been besieged by a pandemic, only someone who never ventured from home could be confident of remaining safe.

Yet, much as “A Woman in Jerusalem” is an intifada book, none of its characters are Palestinians, and there is little reference to Arab-Israeli politics or to the conflict. And when one looks at the small number of other works of Hebrew fiction that relate directly to that dark period, this turns out to be the rule, not the exception.

In her 2015 novel “Pain,” for instance, Zeruya Shalev presents the story of Iris, who, a decade after being severely wounded in a bus bombing that required a long process of recovery, begins suffering anew from debilitating pain.

Zeruya Shalev and the cover of her book "Pain."Credit: AP/Michel Euler / Other Press

The reappearance of the pain is sparked, she believes, by her husband’s thoughtless reminder that it’s the 10th anniversary of the attack. In a half-hearted attempt to find relief, Iris visits a local pain specialist who, though his family name has been shortened from Rosenfeld to Rosen, turns out to be Eitan, the boyfriend who decades earlier had killed her emotionally when he abruptly banished her from his life, immediately after the death of his mother. Never mind that Iris devoted herself completely to the care and support of both Eitan and his mother during the latter’s long illness; now that Miriam was gone, he offered her as an explanation for his ruthless decision to stop seeing Iris, “I want to live,” he tells her. “I want to forget this terrible year, and you’re part of it.”

Iris never really recovered from that loss. Now that their paths cross again, she learns that he too has always regretted his rejection of her, and that he would like to resume the relationship. Thinking that now, finally, real happiness may be within her grasp, instead of telling Eitan to go jump in the lake, Iris gives his proposition serious consideration.

She has never really loved her husband, is alienated from her two children, and no longer has the energy or attention for her demanding job as principal of a high school for the most difficult teens in Jerusalem. Only when she realizes that her adult daughter is in a serious crisis of her own does Iris come to a belated appreciation of her family.

Shalev herself was wounded when a bus blew up near her in Jerusalem one morning in January 2004; like Iris, she had just dropped off her child at school. Between that traumatic event and the publication of “Pain,” Shalev brought out another three books.

In an interview with Lily Meyer for National Public Radio last year, the author suggested that, while a suicide bombing is “a clear political scenario,” for Iris and her family, “it becomes personal. … Even under extreme national circumstances, Iris, her husband, and her children blame themselves rather than the suicide bomber, the prime minister or the Palestinians for what happened to Iris. Politics gets subsumed into the family dynamic and becomes an almost private event, like a birth or a wedding.”

‘Force of nature’

Like Iris in “Pain,” Yael in Shifra Horn’s “Ode to Joy” (2004) was also in a car behind a Jerusalem bus when a suicide bomber blew it up. The experience is also life-changing for Yael: Although she doesn’t suffer physical injury, she begins to question her assumptions about her life, her friendships and especially her marriage to an indifferent husband. In the case of the secular Yael, the romantic alternative she is offered comes in the person of Avshalom, an ultra-Orthodox man who lost his wife and a child in the same bus explosion.

Shifra Horn and the book cover of “Ode to Joy.”Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz / Piatkus Books

By taking up with Avshalom, Yael would be bridging the gap that divides the religious and secular in Jewish society, a symbolic healing of a split that threatens national unity. And to reconcile with her close friend Nehama, whose hard-core left-wing views have become increasingly difficult for Yael to bear, the two women agree not to talk about the conflict. Now, to the extent that Palestinians exist in Yael’s imagination, it is as the moral equivalent of Nazis.

According to literary critic Omri Herzog, “Ode to Joy” is “the story the Israeli public had to hear [at that time], one of a terror attack, and of turning inward and rehabilitation – not only of the physical kind, but also of the family unit, which comes out strengthened.”

Herzog, who teaches at Sapir College, Sderot, and is a frequent contributor to the Haaretz Hebrew books supplement, sees this as a common thread running through most of the literature that came out of the intifada. While the suicide attacks play a central role in almost all of the titles, they’re deprived of any political context, he says.

Instead, he explains, “The attacks are something of a force of nature. They have no explanation, there’s no story behind a bombing. It’s just a random event, a deus ex machina – like a plague or natural disaster. And the Israeli family has to contend with it.”

This, Herzog adds, “overlaps precisely with the conception of the political realm: that there’s no partner, that we can’t allow ourselves to relate to the Palestinians as subjects. They don’t have their own stories, they just have their monstrosity, their evil, their hatred, their violence. They are a one-dimensional image of a characteristic, not of a character.”

A notable exception to such books, which are not necessarily right-wing or left-wing but rather apolitical in their gaze, is Assaf Gavron’s 2006 novel “CrocAttack!” (published as “Almost Dead” in America in 2010). It’s the only one of the books covered here that attempts to give us the perspective of both a Palestinian and an Israeli, though in this case the Palestinian is a terror perpetrator while the Israeli is a terror victim. Although the book, which is satirical, in no way justifies terror, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see both protagonists as victims of a conflict that is much bigger than them, and which their people’s respective leaders are doing little to resolve.

"CrocAttack!" and author Assaf Gavron.Credit: Fourth Estate / Fana Feng

Gavron’s title character, Eitan “Croc” Enoch, is a freak whom fate allows to survive one suicide attack after another with barely a scratch. These are trials of the kind that would make any normal person contemplate the meaning of it all, but for Croc these repeated brushes with death don’t lead to much self-understanding or any sense of political urgency, although they do bring him a certain amount of national celebrity. He’s not unfeeling, but he’s so lacking in self-awareness that he hardly seems in control of his behavior.

His Palestinian counterpart, Fahmi, on the other hand, is overflowing with emotions – ranging from hatred and rage to love and a desire for intimacy -- and also political consciousness, all things that are lacking in Croc. Circumstances, however, which include a brother who’s a religious fanatic and minor terror chief, push Fahmi into becoming involved in a variety of attacks on Israelis.

When the book opens, Fahmi is lying in an intensive care unit in a Tel Aviv hospital, and though we know that he’s conscious and sentient (he’s the narrator), the medical staff and his visitors see no signs of this. His chapters consist of his telling his story, and thus revealing bit-by-bit what brought him to be in a condition suspended between life and death.

“CrocAttack!” also has a few side stories that are meant to add drama, but mainly what keeps us reading is the need to know the connection between Croc and Fahmi, and when and how they will meet.

Writing about the book in this paper at the time of its English publication, Shoshana Cordova noted that “CrocAttack!” had apparently fared better critically and commercially abroad, in translation, than it did at home. In fact, Cordova wrote that the book had sold a third the number of copies in Hebrew as the author’s earlier, best-selling novel “Moving.” She raised the possibility that Israelis just weren’t interested in a book that took us into the life and mind of the Palestinian enemy in a war that was widely perceived as existential in Israel.

National character

David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land” (2008) is not generally perceived as “intifada fiction,” even though it’s set in April 2002 as Israel launches Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. That’s when Ora accompanies her son Ofer to the jumping-off point for his unit, which has been called up for the impending offensive. It’s the same day as Ofer had been scheduled for release from the army, and mother and son had planned to hike the Israel Trail together in celebration. It’s only at his insistence that he’s headed into action instead.

Filled with deep anxiety over Ofer’s fate, Ora decides to proceed with the trek on her own. Not only is she too panic-stricken to wait for him at home, but part of her believes she can keep him alive by making herself unavailable to the army team that would be assigned to bring her the news if something were to happen to her son. To this end, she leaves her phone behind and asks everyone she meets along the way to avoid telling her anything about the news of the day.

"To the End of the Land" and author David Grossman.Credit: Reuters, Gonzalo Fuentes / Vintage

In the public memory, the book – called “A Woman in Flight from Tidings” in Hebrew – is often associated with 2006’s Second Lebanon War, in which Grossman’s son Uri fell. Although the author explained, in an afterword to the novel, that he had already written most of “To the End of the Land” by the time he lost his son, he also noted that his work on the book overlapped with Uri’s army service, and that during that period, “I had the feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him.”

In fact, Grossman’s book is about all of Israel’s wars, in the sense that the conflict has been a critical factor in the formation of the national character. The wars also serve as bookends for the action, which begins during the Six-Day War and ends with the second intifada, with the Yom Kippur War also serving as a key milepost. But “To the End of the Land” is all-encompassing, providing a deeply profound portrait of Israeli society in general, by way of a set of extraordinary characters, all of them linked to Ora – an Earth Mother with the sensitivity of a Geiger counter.

A small but essential episode involves Ora’s relationship with Sami, an Arab Israeli who has accompanied her and her family as a driver through much of its life. To say that the relationship is complicated is an understatement, but what, Grossman seems to be asking, is the alternative to a hesitant, sometimes painful pas de deux, with its endless opportunities for misunderstanding and hurt?

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Patricia Storace compared the relations between Ora and Sami to those of Scarlett O’Hara and the slave who drives her family’s horse-drawn coach (“’Uncle Peter is one of our family; drive on, Peter’”) in “Gone with the Wind.” But Sami is far from being an indentured servant, and Ora, though minimally politicized, believes in the fundamental equality of all the people living in the land, even as she desperately scrambles to keep her family alive and functioning.

Grossman’s book stands alone in suggesting, however faintly, that there is no alternative to coexistence. For him, the idea that “there is no partner” has never been on the table. Nonetheless, his principal focus in “To the End of the Land” is on the family – as is the case with most of the other books that were written in the intifada’s wake – in which the family, in Omri Herzog’s words, serves as “the cornerstone of the national existence.”

Herzog believes the second intifada “gave a liberating legitimacy to victimhood.” Victimhood, he laments, “is very comfortable – it relieves the need to look for solutions, or even to sketch a vision of a possible future.” It also saves one, he adds, from “having to have feelings of empathy or identification, and it frees you from curiosity, always.”

A year or so before Ofer heads into battle, when he was newly assigned to roadblock duty in Hebron, his mother begged him: “Don’t ever, ever shoot at them.”

“‘Then what am I supposed to?’ he asked with a smirk. ‘Just tell me what to do with them, Mom.’

“‘Scare them,’ she said cunningly, as though she were trying out a new theory of warfare. ‘Slap them, punch them, anything, just don’t shoot them!’” She asks Ofer to promise her that. He can’t, of course, and he won’t lie to her.

Ora may be unrealistic, naive, even deluded, but she refuses to surrender her humanity and her hope. If the gaze of most second intifada books is inward, in “To the End of the Land,” with all of its self-examination, the enemy never completely disappears from sight.

“The Liberated Bride” and “A Woman in Jerusalem” are by A.B. Yehoshua; “Pain” by Zeruya Shalev; “Ode to Joy” by Shifra Horn; “CrocAttack!” by Assaf Gavron; and “To the End of the Land” by David Grossman.

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