A Novelist Who Wrote His Way Into Peacemaking

By Marc Perelman

Published August 20, 2004, issue of August 20, 2004.
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For months, Marek Halter, the Polish-born best-selling author and longtime peace activist, has been trying to convince Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat to meet. Though, predictably, the two refused to meet face to face, they both agreed to do something else: Surprisingly, both leaders met with Halter.

The son of a printer and a Yiddish poet, Halter moved to Paris in the 1960s to study art, but soon he earned renown as a novelist and found himself becoming involved in Middle Eastern politics. In 1967, he founded the International Committee for a Negotiated Peace in the Middle East, which brought together activists and intellectuals and helped organize meetings between Palestinians and Israelis. Now he enjoys privileged access to top Israeli and Palestinian leaders and a window into the tangled web of Middle East politics.

“Arafat is a real problem because he is central,” Halter said in a recent interview with the Forward. “He told me that there are three major icons in the world — Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela and himself. And he’s right. When I told this to Sharon, he told me that icons belong to museums.”

Halter earned his fame in France with the publication, 20 years ago, of “The Book of Abraham,” a family saga stretching from the biblical era to the Warsaw Ghetto, from which he and his family escaped. The Bible also has provided the basis for a trilogy on biblical women — with the first one, “Sarah,” having been published in English translation earlier this year.

Indeed, he said, the Bible is often part of his discussions with Sharon.

For instance, when the Likud leader complained to Halter about the opposition of religious parties to his Gaza withdrawal plan, Halter sympathized and pointed out that he saw no religious grounding for their argument since, according to his interpretation, Gaza was never part of biblical Israel. Halter cited the story of Samson and Delilah, as well as the account of David finding a refuge from Saul’s persecution in Gaza, where he eventually assembled an army of Philistines.

“He liked my argument a lot,” Halter said, conceding that it was not the determining factor in Sharon’s decision to go ahead with the plan and fire hawkish ministers.

But the two do not always agree. For example, last month Halter phoned Sharon to tell him that his call for French Jews to move immediately to Israel represented an undue meddling in French domestic affairs and that no government could accept that, once again noting the key role of the Diaspora depicted in the Bible. But Sharon wouldn’t budge.

“He told me this was just the way he felt,” Halter said.

Still, Halter often has the ear of the prime minister, and has even been known to offer him some nonbiblical advice. In one of their recent conversations, Halter told Sharon that if he doesn’t want to talk to Yasser Arafat, he should try Marwan Barghouti, the young Fatah leader currently imprisoned in Israel because of his alleged role in directing terrorist attacks.

“I told him Barghouti could be like Ahmed Ben Bella for Algeria and Mandela for South Africa,” said Halter, referring to the Algerian and South African resistance leaders-turned-heads of state. While this might seem implausible, so was Sharon’s reply: “Maybe.”

“He told me ‘Lama lo’[Why not?],” Halter recalled. “Because he is a pragmatic man.”

The same might be said of Halter. While “The Book of Abraham” and other writings highlight his talents as an imaginative storyteller, Halter also writes with a purpose.

For his trilogy about biblical women —“Sarah,” “Tsippora” and “Lilah” are forthcoming — Halter said he wanted to give back the voices to the women who played a prominent role at the time of the events recounted in the Bible. He said their accomplishments were diminished in the biblical narratives because of the pervasive misogyny that existed when the Scriptures were written.

“I think that by offering a feminine retelling of the Bible, I give back to women their due and I help today’s women by providing them [with] references,” he said. For instance, Halter views the matriarch Sarah as a thoroughly modern woman who refuses to marry the man chosen by her father, asks her servant to bear a child for her and gives birth at an advanced age.

For Halter, stressing the prominent role of women in the world is not just a literary exercise, but a political necessity at a time when secular ideologies are receding and people flock back to churches, synagogues and mosques — especially mosques. This is why he has supported the emergence of grass-roots movements of Muslim women in France advocating more freedom and rights.

“The major secular ideologies are dead, and all that’s left is democracy,” he said. “But democracy is not an ideology, it is just a way of functioning and nobody will die for democracy. So this void is being occupied by religions, and I began asking myself what element could force religion to become part of democracy. And the only answer I have is women.”

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