indicates related category

Cary Nelson on Occupation Anthology

920x920
By TTN

What follows is an abridged version of a richly detailed and nuanced review essay in the UK’s Fathom publication, by our TTN colleague, Prof. Cary Nelson:

Kingdom of Olives And Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, edited by [novelists] Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, is a new 400-page book released by Harper Perennial on 30 May in conjunction with the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence.  . . .  It gathers 26 essays by an international group of writers who recount their 2016 and earlier visits to the West Bank or, in one case, to Gaza.

Breaking the Silence invited these writers to come to Israel and write about what they saw and heard.  . . . What is distinctive about the book is that it personalises the Palestinian experience of the occupation. As these are accomplished writers, their essays are often eloquent and compelling.  . . .

Kingdom tells the stories of numerous Palestinians who struggle to achieve their ambitions while enduring constraints or humiliations imposed by Israeli authorities.   . . .

Unlike the often impersonal polemics produced by Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) advocates, these narratives do not depict helpless victims. The Palestinians whose stories are brought to life here are people with personal agency and distinctive voices. Although the book includes some of the pure polemics we see from the BDS movement, it is these individual portraits that are most memorable and will have the most effect.

With perhaps only one exception — Palestinian journalist and author Fida Jiryis’s first-person essay ‘Occupation’s Untold Story’ — the book is not anti-Zionist.  . . .

. . . This is a book designed to convince people that the occupation is unjust and intolerable, but it gives no practical suggestions about what can be done to change matters. It is not until the penultimate essay, Colum McCann’s ‘Two Stories, So Many Stories,’ that we get a hint about a starting point for making a difference. That chapter opens with Rami Elhanan’s story, offered in this case within quotation marks as a first-person account. Elhanan is a seventh-generation Israeli Jew whose daughter Smadar was killed by a suicide bomber in 1997. Years later he meets a Palestinian, Bassam Aramin, whose story is also presented as a first-person account. After joining a demonstration at age 12, Aramin sees an Arab boy shot who dies before his eyes. Driven by a need for revenge, he hurls an unexploded hand grenade at an Israeli jeep. It fails to explode, but a prison sentence follows anyway. Both men undergo a conversion to nonviolence and help create the group Combatants for Peace, itself the subject of the compelling 2016 documentary film Disturbing the Peace. [For more on Combatants for Peace and this film, click here and there.]

Even that, of course, is not a policy recommendation, but it does demonstrate the outreach, communication, and understanding that can be grounded in empathy.  . . .  The book’s valuable contribution is the empathy its portraits of Palestinians create and the intimacy readers feel as a result, . . .

It is not really until the McCann chapter that we get a portrait of an Israeli Jew, but one can accept that that is not the book’s central purpose. The risk with a project that generates empathy for Palestinians alone, however, without providing productive outlets for the anger and sense of injustice that accompanies that empathy, is that it will recruit people for basic opposition to the existence of the Jewish state rather than promote its reform.

That problem carries through into some of the book’s recurrent motifs. Many of the contributors clearly went on one of the group tours of Hebron that Breaking the Silence organises. I went on a private Breaking the Silence trip to Hebron in 2014, and I think no satisfactory understanding of the occupation is possible without doing so. Hebron is without doubt the occupation at its worst: five fragmented Jewish settlements totalling 850 people located at the heart of a Palestinian city of 200,000. Keeping the settlers safe, indeed keeping them alive, requires the presence of several hundred IDF soldiers. The Palestinians nearby are brutalised, their historic markets shuttered, their children subject to arbitrary limits on movement, and the Jews lead bleak lives of continuing anxiety as well. The dynamic is dehumanising for all parties. It disavows the very ‘possibility of commonality and coexistence’ (70), though, oddly enough, political protest that takes the form of an anti-normalisation programme will have the same effect.

Many of the contributors record their experiences of Hebron, including the notorious hostility of some of the settlers, so the book keeps circling back to the same terrain. Breaking the Silence argues that Hebron is paradigmatic, that it embodies the essence of the occupation, and in some ways it does, in that everything is arranged for the convenience of the settlers.  . . . But Hebron is also unique. The large settlement blocks near the Green Line are home to 75 per cent of the settlers and are laid out precisely to avoid the friction between Jews and Arabs that Hebron makes fundamental. Contrary to what German novelist Eva Menasse writes here, it is in the settlement blocs, rather than in Hebron, that ‘people aren’t even exactly aware that they’re living in a settlement’ (311).   . . .

As one would expect, several of the essays also make much of the security barrier, 90 per cent of which is a fence, not a wall. Those references build to novelist Helon Habila’s essay ‘The Separation Wall’. As architect Alon Cohen-Lifshitz tells him, ‘Walls can never solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem’ (305). That is perfectly true, but without the barrier terrorist violence would escalate, and it would be even more difficult to resume peace negotiations.  . . .

The long lines that people waiting to cross from the West Bank into Israel proper must endure are frustrating, humiliating, and abusive, but that is a solvable problem. Palestinians themselves asked for the collection of biometric data years ago so that they could pass through checkpoints without physical contact with Israeli soldiers.   . . .  Where the barrier unnecessarily divides Palestinian land, it should be rerouted. Nowhere does the book offer these practical solutions, instead opting for repeated protests about the wall. Meanwhile, the idea that the two-state solution could work without a physical barrier to block potential aggressors from both peoples is no better than a fantasy.

The book promotes potential confusion about the long lines at checkpoints by blurring the distinction between checkpoints internal to the West Bank and those incorporated into the security barrier.  . . .  There isn’t anything fundamentally arbitrary about the existence of a security barrier and the need to monitor passage through what amounts to a prototype international border. The unpredictable and often inexplicable temporary checkpoints internal to the West Bank are another matter,   . . .  And many internal West Bank checkpoints could be eliminated if Israel transferred some of the narrow corridors of Area C (under full Israeli control) to Palestinian control and thereby fused some of the fragmentary sections of Area A into contiguous Palestinian territory. Even transferring an additional 1 per cent from Area C to A could significantly reduce Palestinian frustration.

The essays that rail, specifically, about the checkpoints in the security barrier often indulge in humanistic protest rhetoric that simply sets aside the history of armed assaults, suicide bombings, and kidnappings that made the barrier necessary.

. . .  But there are other sections that offer us insights that are surprising and unforgettable. A notable example is writer, editor, and publisher Dave Eggers’s essay ‘Prison Visit’. The prison in question is the open air one named Gaza, which Eggers managed to visit in March 2016.  . . .

Egyptian and Israeli restrictions on travel from Gaza seriously limit the career options of those who want to leave. But meanwhile the day-to-day cultural repression, as Eggers demonstrates in detail, is ‘oppressive and random’ and comes from Hamas. ‘If Gaza is a prison,’ he concludes, ‘it’s a prison with three jailors: Israel, Egypt, and Hamas,’ (129) a perspective the international left has been entirely unwilling to acknowledge.  . . .

For many readers, novelist and photographer Taiye Selasi’s very thoughtful ‘Love in the Time of Qalandiya’ will be equally unexpected.  . . .

Selasi’s essay is among those in the book that expose yet another governing myth about Palestinians, that they all live in abject poverty. Anyone who spends time in Ramallah will meet Palestinians who are quite well off financially and thus not unqualified victims. Wealthy Palestinians are a minority; indeed in Ramallah there is a ‘massive chasm between its upper-class residents and occupied Palestine’s poor,’ (215) but the presence of ‘occupied Palestine’s moneyed class’ necessitates a more nuanced understanding of West Bank culture than the one that prevails among the international left.

All this contributes to the book’s more nuanced portrait of daily life in the West Bank and Gaza.  . . .

But the book’s pervasive condemnation of the occupation hangs over all. As Hlehel puts it, ‘The occupation is a machine: a complex, octopus-like regime that functions to exhaust those who are subject to it.’ Perhaps most fundamentally of all, it ‘deprives you of your humanity by depriving you of the ability to control time’ (19). The arbitrary imposition of temporary checkpoints within the West Bank layers daily life with incomprehensible frustrations. Chabon suggests ‘pointlessness was the point’ (52).  . . .

In his contribution to the book, South America novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa opens by recalling his history of defending Israel, ‘affirming that it was a pluralistic and democratic society, the only state in the Middle East where there was freedom of expression, freedom for political parties, and truly free elections’ (179). He remains opposed to academic boycotts: ‘It is absurd to penalise universities in Israel for the excesses of their government.’ (180) But he condemns the occupation and those ‘who are convinced that by perpetrating this injustice, they are carrying out a divine plan and will earn their place in Paradise’ (185).  . . .

Those who cannot tolerate talk about an ‘occupation’ will no doubt not see it that way. But Kingdom of Olives and Ash is a wakeup call to them nonetheless. The challenge now is to move beyond condemnation, to end the occupation, eliminate its corrosive impact on Israeli society, and restore the fundamentals of Israeli democracy.

For Prof. Nelson’s entire review, click here >

 

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply