In the upcoming Israeli election, the one thing most parties seem reluctant to discuss is the deadlocked peace process with the Palestinians and the whole painful, tangled and conflicted issue of relations between Jews and Palestinians. Israeli authors have no such qualms, as four recent works demonstrate.
The People of Forever are Not Afraid by newcomer Shani Boianjiu examines the lives of three young Israeli women who are drafted for compulsory military service and emerge from their experiences scarred, perhaps for life. It seems to stand as an indictment of a country which takes its youth -- who ought to be enjoying life, going to college, messing around and falling in and out of love -- and forces them to do traumatic and oppressive jobs guarding the borders and enforcing the occupation.
We meet Yael, Lea and Avishag in high school in their small village along the Lebanese border. Yael has a crush on Avishag's older brother, Dan, who has completed his service. But Dan, who can't seem to get his life together, blows his head off in a game of Russian roulette.
That sets the tone for a novel in which our three protagonists find themselves in one awful situation after another and increasingly, as the book goes on, disconnected from reality. The final verdict is expressed by one of Lea's boyfriends toward the end of the book. "Ron felt angry, sickened, at the city, at the country -- at whatever circumstances had made Lea cry like that. It wasn't right. It had never been right, this whole seventy-year-long war. He had never realized that before now."
Some of the incidents in the book have a grim, black humor to them. At one point, Lea finds herself commanding a checkpoint on a road closed to Palestinians. Three locals including one boy of 13 show up to demonstrate. They want their protest to make the newspapers so they beg Lea and her men to fire tear gas at them. She reads the manual carefully and then makes the men stand away so they won't be hurt. Next day, they ask for rubber bullets and again she obliges, taking exquisite care not to hurt anyone. There is a kind of unspoken agreement between the occupiers and the occupied -- they are both participants in the same dance. But the understandings always break down and someone always dies.
In that story, a man falls prey to violent, uncontrollable and irrational jealousy and imagines his wife is having an affair with a violinist on the basis of no actual evidence. In this version, a wealthy and successful Arab lawyer who practices in Jerusalem and seems to have it all -- he is accepted by Israeli society, drives a fancy car and has a pretty wife and two young kids. But we're quickly aware that not all is well in the marriage. He and his wife do not sleep together and their sex seems perfunctory. And the lawyer, whose name we never learn, seems obsessed with various status symbols, perpetually measuring his place in a society in which he never quite feels completely at home.
One day, he buys a second-hand copy of the Tolstoy book and a piece of paper falls out of it in his wife's handwriting. He immediately jumps to the conclusion she is having an affair.
We then meet a young Arab social worker who is looking after a paraplegic Jewish man called Yonatan. We learn his story and how, in a strange way, it intersects with the lives of the lawyer and his wife.
This is skillfully done, but what elevates this book is the unusual background. We learn about the relations between Arabs and Jews but also the different strati of Arab society -- the differences between those from the city and from villages, those from the Galilee and the area known as the Triangle -- the way Israeli Arabs disdain Palestinians from the West Bank, the treatment of those suspected of being collaborators with the Israelis. We learn about the inferiority complex some suffer from in relations with Jews, about the meaning of identity. We learn a lot about the concept of honor and the fragility of women's rights in this society.
Amos Oz is one of Israel's best-known authors. In Scenes From Village Life, he gives us a loosely-connected series of short stories that laments a world that has passed away. Set in the fictional village of Tel Ilan in the Hills of Menashe south and east of Haifa, the book seems to regret the passing of the "old Israel" built by the generations of socialist pioneers.
Each of the stories, and virtually all of the characters we meet, seem suffused by a mysterious melancholy. The village is lovely, with its old brick houses covered in flowering vines, its parks and farms -- but it is also decaying from within. At night, jackals in the surrounding hills yowl threateningly. Old people tread the streets living half in the present and half in the past. Middle-aged people long to escape but can't. Young people seek outlets for their loves and desires and find none. Meanwhile, cynical developers are anxious to get hold of these lovely buildings to tear them down and build new villas for the nouveau riche while visitors from the city throng the streets and alleys of the village on weekends, shopping in the new boutiques and snacking in the cafes that have sprung up to accommodate them.
Several stories seem to be meant to be understood allegorically. One long- retired political lion of the left is still reliving the internal disputes of the past of a socialist party that no longer even exists. He spends his day growling at his daughter while trying to stave off dementia and thinks he hears the sounds of digging in his cellar at night. Eventually he infects two other people living in the house with that same delusion. What does the digging and scratching signify? I suppose it's the slow hollowing out of the idealism that built the village in the first place.
This story, entitled "Digging," includes the only Arab in the book, a student who has rented a garden shack from the owner and who does handyman work and chores in exchange for rent (an image that's a bit too obvious maybe). The student, Adel, and the old man, have a telling exchange. Both Jews and Arabs are unhappy, the student tells the old man, but in different ways. "Our unhappiness is partly our fault and partly your fault. But your unhappiness comes from your soul."
In another story, "Singing," a group of middle-aged villagers meet, as Israelis do, to sing the old songs of the Zionist movement. They have titles like, "Laugh oh laugh at all my dreams," "Once upon a time there were two roses," and "Again the song is going forth, again our day is weeping." (All real songs, by the way). Someone interrupts the singing to announce an Israeli air raid against terrorists somewhere and the group bursts into political argument, before returning to the singing. The narrator of the story says, "We felt good sitting in a circle on a rainy, stormy night, singing old songs from the days when everything had seemed so clear and bright." Outside comes a rolling noise that could be thunder or perhaps it's the sound of the planes returning to base, but the singing momentarily drowns it out.
I have saved the best for last. David Grossman's To the End of the Land is a book that does full justice to the pain of being an Israeli -- and yet is universal in its appeal.
The three central characters are Ora and her two lovers, Avram and Ilan. The book begins during their feverish meeting as teenagers during the 1967 war but mostly it takes place in 1973 and in the present. Ora's younger son Ofer is about to complete his compulsory military service but suddenly, on his last day, he volunteers to sign up for an extra month so he can take part in a major military operation. Ora is certain he will die -- and she conceives the idea of hiking a trail from the north of Israel -- the 'end of the land' -- back to her home in Jerusalem. She has a mystical belief that if she is not home when the soldiers come to inform her of her son's death, he will not have died. As long as she keeps moving, he will be safe.
Has there ever been in literature a more poignant depiction of a mother's fear while her son goes to war?
Ora drags along on her trek an old friend and lover, Avram. First depicted as a brilliant, intellectual youth with literary ambitions, full of life and love of life, Avram has been a shell of himself for the past 30 years. He was captured by the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War and brutally tortured. Now, horribly traumatized, he is barely existing.
As Ora and Avram walk the trail, having the odd adventure along the way, Ora describes for her old friend the story of her son (who it turns out is also his son) from the time of his birth to the present. As a father, I found these descriptions amazingly poignant. What makes them almost unbearable is that the author's own beloved son was killed in the Second Lebanon War just as he was completing this book. The book was his attempt to keep his son safe. It failed.
Ora and Avram achieve a measure of healing as they walk through the beautiful mountains of Galilee. But it is always incomplete. We don't know whether Ofer lives or dies -- but as long as the perpetual war persists, someone's son will be dying. As Ora and Avram walk, they pass one memorial marker after another for Israel's fallen soldiers, the flower of its youth.
This book doesn't shy away from some of the uglier aspects of Israel. It describes Ora's very problematic relationship with an Arab taxi driver who is almost a friend -- and yet not a friend.
This book is full of human compassion. It is sometimes not easy to read. It describes a depth of love and longing that is almost palpable -- and is very powerful and painful, especially since we know about the author's own tragedy. It captures the Israeli dilemma. In many ways Avram is Israel -- brilliant, witty, intelligent, inventive -- and yet terribly psychically wounded by a war that never ends.