The Trials of Zion
By Alan M. Dershowitz
Grand Central Publishing, 352 pages, $26.99
Alan Dershowitz dedicates “The Trials of Zion” to the memory of his mother, who, he tells us, “always encouraged and defended me. She would have liked this book.” A reader would have to possess a heart of stone not to appreciate such a combination of love and confidence before even arriving at page one. Indeed, for a book in which the Palestinian, Israeli and American heads of state die violently by the end of the prologue, Dershowitz’s third novel is remarkably imbued with these two virtues. And why wouldn’t it be? Its protagonist is Abe Ringel, a Jewish American trial attorney and Harvard law professor famous for exonerating criminal suspects most lawyers wouldn’t have the chutzpah to defend, i.e., he bears a striking resemblance to Claire Dershowitz’s estimable son.
Yes, I did refer, a couple of sentences back, to a Palestinian head of state. The novel begins in East Jerusalem, “sometime in the not-too-distant future,” shortly after Palestinian statehood has been ratified and moments before a peace treaty is to be signed by its president and Israel’s prime minister. Even before it is interrupted by a deadly explosion, the novel’s opening scene suggests that it would take far less than a terrorist bomb to disrupt the peace between these two old rivals. The U.S. president’s task in this charmingly comic tableau is to prevent a less violent but more insidious event from undermining regional stability: the planting of a kiss on the Israeli prime minister’s cheek by the Palestinian president.
The Machiavellian kiss attempt is the author’s lighthearted fictional way of telling us what headlines and history books say more soberly: that enmities in the Middle East are deep-rooted and all but intractable. Unsurprising though this message is, Dershowitz turns to the art of the novel to give it human coloration and make it entertaining.
Entertainment-wise, let us first address the plot, as befits an international espionage/legal thriller. Abe Ringel’s only daughter, Emma, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, is called to Israel by her classmate, Habash Ein, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, to work on the legal defense of the chief suspect in a bombing, Faisal Husseini. Husseini is a member of the Martyrs of Jihad, “a small offshoot of Hamas with close connections to Iranian religious figures.” Emma is then kidnapped by a Marxist Palestinian group, propelling Abe and his wife, Rendi, a former Mossad agent, to Jerusalem. For reasons I will not divulge, Abe is enlisted to defend first one and then another seemingly indefensible criminal in Israeli court. He, Rendi and their cohort must then race against the clock to unravel and foil another, potentially even more destructive bomb plot — or, to put it another way, the Dershowitzesque character must use his considerable talents to save the world. How can you not like this guy?
Along the way, cousins, kibbutzim, cat burglars, Christian evangelists, Secret Service agents, soldiers, priests, doctors, nurses and scholars are consulted, interrogated or otherwise invoked. So the book offers us a big cast of characters, representing a wide variety of factions and facets of the America-Israel-Palestine juggernaut. A novel — rather than a history or polemic — allows Dershowitz an intimate approach to his material. He enters the thoughts and feelings of characters on all sides of the relevant issues. He dwells, too, in the private, informal spaces where so much of life — be it personal or political — happens, and which novels are so well suited to depict. Living rooms, kitchens, cafés, and gardens are given more airtime than the corridors and chambers of official power.
So is Dershowitz as good a novelist as he is a defense attorney? Not quite. His characters, while vivid, lack the depth and nuance of people in the best spy and legal thrillers. He often depicts their feelings by telling you the abstract names for them: “She recoiled with revulsion,” or “She felt terribly guilty.” Their insights too often “click into place.” When they utter jokes or quips, the author makes sure we know it, by adding “he joked” or “he quipped” after the relevant line of dialogue. His expository paragraphs — of which there are many, especially toward the end — are often redundant and tend to be constructed more like arguments than stories.
But there are many satisfactions here, too. Chief among them are Abe’s bold maneuvers in the courtroom, through which we also learn a few fine points of Israeli law. And I found the author’s narrative gifts at their finest when his Arab and Jewish characters spin yarns from their intertwined centuries-long family histories. It is in these passages that Dershowitz’s humanism, optimism and pathos emerge with the greatest clarity and elegance. My mother, too, would like this book.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels “You Were Wrong,” “Jamestown” and “The Sleeping Father.”