Saturday, February 13, 2016

Native by Sayed Kashua

(Illustration: Ana Yael)
Native, the funny, tragic, illuminating new book by Sayed Kashua, was originally published in Hebrew as Ben Ha’aretz, a title that contains an untranslatable pun. Literally, it means “son of the land,” and coming from Kashua, an Arab Israeli who writes in Hebrew, it implies a claim to nativeness that carries a distinct political charge. At the same time, it can be read as meaning “son of Ha’aretz,” the Israeli newspaper, for which Kashua is a columnist; since the book is a collection of Kashua’s columns, the pun is fitting. On a deeper level, however, to be a son ofHa’aretz is also a political identity. The newspaper famously embodies a certain left-wing, secular Israeliness. Like the New York Times, it is cherished by its readers and despised by its right-wing opponents. For Kashua, being a son of Ha’aretz means wagering on the possibility of a liberal Israeli identity that has room for Jews and Palestinians equally.
But the arc traced by Native, as it follows developments in Israel between 2006 and 2014, is toward pessimism, even despair. Indeed, the book ends with Kashua leaving Israel, possibly for good, to take up a teaching job at a university in Illinois. (His expatriation was the subject of a profile in The New Yorker.) “Twenty-five years of writing in Hebrew, and nothing has changed,” he writes in the book’s final section. “Twenty-five years when I had few reasons to be optimistic but continued to believe that it was still possible, that one day this place in which both Jews and Arabs live together would be the one story where the story of the other is not denied. … Twenty-five years of writing and knowing bitter criticism from both sides, but last week I gave up.”
Could it have turned out otherwise? That is the question posed, either explicitly or just under the surface, in almost all of the columns in Native. Which is not to say that Kashua is a pundit: He seldom writes directly about elections or peace plans. On the contrary, his usual stance is more like Etgar Keret, or Dave Barry—he is a humorist, writing about the small change of everyday life in a spirit of amused resignation. He frequently strikes the pose of the sitcom dad, genially incompetent, bossed around by his much more capable wife. If he tries to start a conversation with a pretty girl at a bar, he’ll end up ripping the seat of his pants; if he sets out to assemble a simple shoe rack, he’ll end up having to hire a carpenter to do it.
Yet Kashua’s petty humiliations often turn out to have a political dimension, whether he wants them to or not. Indeed, the striking thing about Native for an American reader is how easily Kashua’s grievances can be transposed to an American context, by using a racial analogy. Though the geopolitical background is of course very different, it seems that an Israeli Arab faces many of the same ordeals as an African-American. Kashua tries to make a hotel reservation and is told there are no rooms available, only to see his Jewish colleague call the same hotel and get a room easily. He notices that trash piles up on the streets in Arab parts of Jerusalem, while Jewish neighborhoods get regular pick-ups. He sees a young Arab boy riding a bicycle who is accosted by a policeman sure he must have stolen it.
Most painfully, he sees how his children are subjected to the same kind of insults. At the pool, his shy son tries to befriend another boy, who asks him, “What language are you speaking?” When he replies “Arabic,” the boy—who is presumably Jewish—replies “Ichsa”: the Israeli version of “gross,” or “disgusting.” Yet even in this story, Kashua emphasizes the ambiguity of Arab-Jewish relationships. After all, the reason his son likes to go to the pool in the first place is because of his love for his swimming teacher, who is a Russian Jew.
The possibility of real intimacy between Arabs and Jews, combined with the fact of frequent hostility, breeds a kind of paranoia, from which Kashua wrings a dark comedy. In one column, he writes about how his many Ashkenazi friends don’t seem to visit him much anymore. Is it because they are all busy, or because he has stopped hosting barbecues, and they only ever liked him for his cooking? When his daughter comes home crying from school because she was not placed in the advanced class, is this because of her abilities or discrimination? Kashua finds a vein of humor in his own exaggerated reaction: Progressive education, he rants, is a conspiracy to keep Arab children from learning. “It’s preplanned, all the way back from Basel”—referring to the First Zionist Congress, back in 1897.
Sometimes the complicated dance between Arab and Jew turns into outright farce, as when Kashua hires a Jewish maid and then tries to conceal from her all evidence that he is really an Arab. When she finds some Arabic texts in his house, she whispers that his secret is safe with her: She knows that he really must be an undercover Shin Bet agent! Whether this episode really happened is open to question. Kashua acknowledges that his columns are part fiction, and sometimes he must heighten the facts to make a point or to get a laugh. What counts is his observation of the power dynamic at play: “When all is said and done, I wonder how many Arabs have been in a position to pay a Jew for work,” Kashua observes.
But then, few Arabs can be as intimately familiar with Jewish society as Kashua. Over the course of the book, we learn about his unusual upbringing. Born in 1975 in the Arab town of Tira, he attended a Jewish high school, fell in love with literature in Hebrew translation, and as an adult moved to a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem. A successful writer of fiction, journalism, and screenplays, he worked for state TV and film companies. In one column, he notes with a mixture of pride and embarrassment that he is included in a newspaper’s list of rich Israeli personalities—indeed, at the top of the list, though he claims it is only because he lied about his income.
For a minority to be so conspicuously successful in a majority culture brings its own kind of discomfort, which Kashua writes about candidly, if always humorously. He refuses to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, calling it Nakba Day instead. But then, he admits, he spends the whole day trying to get cable installed, instead of taking his children on an educational tour of Palestinian villages. In another column, about buying an apartment, he observes that “a mortgage is a Nakba.” Making jokes like this in Hebrew, for a Jewish readership, can be read as a kind of ingratiation. Kashua seems to be reassuring his readers that while he is anti-Zionist, he is not anti-Semitic, or violently angry, or dangerous.
On the contrary, his comedy is a kind of humanism, based on the principle that people all basically have the same weaknesses and foibles. In the rare columns where he addresses politics directly, he calls for a single state between the river and the sea, with equal citizenship for Jews and Arabs: “All the flags will be abolished. In official ceremonies and at sports competitions, white flags will be flown,” he prescribes. This is a fragile kind of liberalism, beautiful as an ideal but not very useful when it comes to actual politics. And as Kashua acknowledges toward the end of the book, it becomes less relevant as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes more polarized and intransigent.
One of Kashua’s most telling columns concerns a visit he paid to a police station. At first, we don’t know why is there, only that he is forced to wait and wait while Jewish visitors are attended to immediately. Then, when a policeman finally hears him out—after he pointedly mentions his connection with Ha’aretz—we learn that he is there to complain about a racist incident—someone has thrown eggs at his house. Now the policeman is all solicitude: “I want you to know that whoever did it is scum,” he says, and the reader begins to feel that perhaps some Jewish-Arab solidarity is possible despite it all. Then comes the ending: The TV in the station is playing a soccer match, and the fans of the winning team start chanting, “Death to the Arabs! Death to the Arabs!” The situation is so absurd, and so frightening, that all you can do is laugh—until, like Kashua, you can’t anymore.

The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart

Image result for The Crisis of Zionism
Engage as I am in a lifelong  struggle to keep my weight under control, I refuse to get on the scale after any occasion on which I know I’ve eaten way beyond what I should have. Which means I haven’t weighed myself for a week now.

Do I think by not looking down at those discouraging digits on the dial, I will eliminate the unwanted pounds brought on by latkes and doughnuts? Of course not, but it does allow me to avoid confronting truths that I prefer not to deal with.

For much the same reason, if I’d known what I was in for, I might never have opened Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. From what I’d heard about the book, I expected to be exasperated by a bleeding-heart liberal who really didn’t understand what was going on here, a quasi-supporter of Israel who, from the comfort of his cosseted life in America, had the audacity to lecture those of us whose lives are on the line about the need to risk our safety in the name of American liberalism that has little applicability in our neighborhood.

Instead, I found myself staring directly at what I had become in the eyes of others after long avoiding that proverbial good look in the mirror. Captivated by Beinart’s sobering account of the erosion of Israel’s ethical high ground, I was unable to avert my gaze from the unbecoming blemishes his writing exposed.

And while I don’t concur with everything he describes, I did find myself agreeing with much more of it than I am comfortable admitting. Even if Beinart’s narrative is infused with a degree of naivete, there can be no denying that it includes at least an equal measure of truth. And if he is overly forgiving of Palestinian culpability for things being as they are, his objective was not to influence Muslim behavior but to coax the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora to press more aggressively for peace and social justice. In doing so, he advocates eloquently for the sort of Israel of which I keep dreaming.

Ultimately, The Crisis of Zionism is a passionate plea that we abide by the principles of decency and democracy enshrined in our Declaration of Independence while aspiring to the noble moral standards bequeathed us by Theodor Herzl, who is quoted extensively. For all the brouhaha, Beinart is a champion of good old-fashioned Zionism, zealously concerned that Israel is moving steadily toward its demise as both a Jewish and a democratic state, an end he is afraid will come about less “because Arab armies invade the West Bank than because Israel permanently occupies it.”

Beinart wrote what he wrote not to harangue us, but to sound a wake-up call. His analysis is not that of a disinterested party who bears no accountability for what is going on here, but rather that of a member of the tribe who feels personally responsible for doing anything and everything he can to prevent us from continuing along a trajectory of self-destruction.

While exceedingly worried that we are nearing the point of irreversibility, he wrote what he wrote in the hope that collectively we might yet avoid our own undoing.

His is a message particularly pertinent in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense, the UN decision to grant Palestine non-member observer state status and our government’s response authorizing the planning of 3,000 new housing units in disputed territory.

With whatever weapon systems we have that might prevent missiles from landing in Israel, he writes, “they will be of no use on the day that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians march, non-violently, to demand the very ‘equality of social and political rights’ promised them in our Declaration of Independence.”

Metaphorically, that is pretty much what happened in New York last month. And he is concerned not only that our actions will lead to the unraveling of Israel’s delicate social fabric and its isolation in the world, but also that “if American Jewish leaders continue to defend the Israeli government at the expense of Israeli democracy, they may find their own children and grandchildren cheering these protesters on.”

His children, too. Beinart sends them to a Jewish day school, maintains a kosher home, frequents an Orthodox synagogue and, like Yehuda Halevi before him, lives in the utmost reaches of the West while his heart is in the East. But all of this will not be enough to keep the next generation bound to Israel, he argues, if we abandon the moral foundations of what it is that the Zionist movement set out to do.

“Jewish texts connect the Jewish right to sovereignty in the land of Israel to Jewish behavior in the land of Israel,” he insists, quoting from the innumerable biblical sources that say just that. If we teach our children that our tradition demands of us that we not oppress the stranger, forsake the poor or pervert justice, and they perceive that we are acting otherwise, then we should not be surprised if they abandon us and come to question the very idea of a Jewish state.

Nor should we be surprised if that Jewish state were to disintegrate. The last two times that happened, he reminds us, “our tradition insists that physical collapse was preceded by ethical collapse.”

STILL, THERE is one cardinal matter about which I take issue with Beinart, and that is his determination as to how to make things right: his call for a “Zionist” boycott of West Bank settlements.

Though he pointedly insists that sustained pro- Israel activity must be integral to any such campaign, the proposal must be rejected on a number of grounds, even by those sympathetic to his contention that the settlements are responsible for much that is wrong with Israel today.

1. With the exception of a number of illegal outposts, which, for the most part, have been removed over the years, the settlements were established lawfully.

It would be unfair to punish those who have been implementing the policy of democratically elected governments (including those on the Left), rather than seeking to effect a change in regime by effecting change in public sentiment.

2. I have railed against rabbis who instruct soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle settlements and who call upon their disciples to resist evacuation. But how different are the rabbis’ efforts to keep the settlements in place from Beinart’s call to action that he hopes will lead to their removal? Besides, I am afraid of the consequences. Civil disobedience is one thing; civil war is something else.

3. Even if I were able to make the case for boycotting the settlements, I am not prepared to risk legitimizing the contemptible international campaign that calls for a boycott of Israel as a whole and that seeks to delegitimize the very idea of a Jewish state. The line that Beinart draws between one sort of embargo and the other is far too fine and therefore unacceptably risky.

My rejection of Beinart’s prescription of how to heal that which ails Israeli society does not mean I reject his diagnosis of the disease. I merely argue for alternative treatment. Israelis have the ballot box, and with elections on the horizon the opportunity is immediate. For Diaspora Jews, there are numerous NGOs through which they might strive to influence Israeli policy.

The bottom line is this: One need not agree with the particulars of Beinart’s account of the failed peace process and his strategy for reviving it in order to take note of the broad strokes he paints in regard to what he says is “the central Jewish question of our age: the question of how to ethically wield power.” It is a question particularly pertinent during these days immediately following Hanukka.

In the reading of the prophets recited this past Shabbat, leadership engaged in rebuilding the Jewish homeland is enjoined not to forsake the path of righteousness in its pursuit of national revival. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” More easily preached than practiced, but nevertheless expressive of what we must strive to be as an antidote to what we might otherwise become. “Either our generation will help Israel reconcile its democratic and Zionist ideals,” Beinart writes, “or we will make our children choose between them.”

A people cannot be redeemed until it recognizes the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them, Martin Buber once observed. It is time we get on the scale and look down before the bulges we’d prefer to ignore (including the one expanding into E1) grow to proportions that make it impossible to read the numbers altogether.

Friday, February 12, 2016

‘The Photographer’s Wife,’ by Suzanne Joinson

Despite its title, Suzanne Joinson’s dreamlike second novel belongs not to ­Eleanora Rasul, the British wife of an Arab photographer, but to a complex, willful and sometimes off-putting woman named Prudence Ashton. First encountered in 1920 as a lonely 11-year-old trapped in the Holy Land by her father’s government job, Prue is allowed to wander the desert with her own Kodak. There she runs into Willie, the shellshocked aviator her father has hired to survey Jerusalem and help modernize the city — that is, to make it more like London, with tidy public parks and signs of Arab habitation removed.

Joinson, whose first novel, “A Lady ­Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar,” set her characters wandering through Central Asia, is again concerned with people looking for a guide, a map, some thread to lead them through the maze of their own lives. From one chance meeting come “spirals of confessions” among a large cast of finely drawn characters, all with nicely individual quirks and passions. Most lead to the adult Prue, who becomes an artist living in an English seaside village.

In Jerusalem, both Prue and Willie are fascinated with casually glamorous Eleanora, the great love of Willie’s youth, who scandalized the British expatriate community by marrying her Arab. Willie, of course, wants her for himself, but the Great War has left him with physical and psychological scars that make this very difficult. Prue more simply yearns to be like Eleanora, yet it’s that fierce love that proves most dangerous when her Arab tutor manipulates her into spying on the English, by saying it’s for Eleanora’s sake. Just how risky it is to love Eleanora will become clear after the passing years reveal the true reason for all those maps Prue’s fez-wearing ­father makes of the city, the darker purpose behind Prue’s lessons in code writing and the significance of marginal characters like the man called “Lofty” McLaughlin, who seems too crazy to be a threat.

Prue takes over narrating her own story in 1937, when she’s living with her young son in a derelict railway car parked in the small town of Shoreham. There her work as an artist involves broken statues rescued from Malta, deepening their flaws and boring spiral holes in the soft stone for a London art show. “I would like to make everything secret inside of me public so that there is nothing left in there, festering,” she declares. “That is art.” Prue seems to be a frank narrator, cataloging a trunkful of ragged finery, a fistfighting lover and a body kept bony on tea and toast. She thinks she’s doing well; even her hands have apparently lost their childhood nervous twitch. And then a man from her past reappears, amid rumors of another possible war. Prue realizes she has forgotten some secrets, secrets she and her son will now need to remember.

The novel’s political story line is subtly powerful, but perhaps the greatest reason to keep reading is to find out how the young Prue became this difficult, complicated woman — how she dropped her girlish crush and her camera in order to rework the sort of statues her father planned to destroy. Offhand comments inform us that she has been a model for Surrealist artists and has sneaked into classes at the Slade to learn her craft. She’s indifferent to her philandering ex-husband but adores their son. Though many of the patterns are open to easy interpretation — her father was a cheater, so she marries a cheater — a few of the holes in her story are filled rather late.

Amid some exquisite prose, elaborate and occasionally distracting systems of metaphor add to the novel’s oneiric ­quality, seeming to promise a psychological armature, another code to break. Whether described in the first person or the third, there’s a bird on almost every page, as well as birdlike airplanes and feathered hats. Images of spirals, ­staircases and mazes appear often, as do uneasy references to the passing of time. The images are ubiquitous — but how deeply should we read their meaning?

Perhaps not at all; perhaps we should merely observe. Early on, Willie follows Eleanora into a Jerusalem souk, and it was “like being led into a trap. . . . He was felled, again, by her particular, stalking beauty.” That selfsame sheer beauty stalks the empty spaces of this stubborn, lyrical novel.

By Suzanne Joinson
338 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.