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Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman Take On Israel — With Stories Of Occupation

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, two mainstays of the Jewish literary world who happen to be married to each other, have, in their novels, investigated much of the richness, strangeness and conflict of contemporary Jewish life. But there’s one glaringly large subject in that field that neither has previously taken on: Israel.

With “Kingdom of Olives and Ash,” a new anthology of essays about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank by writers including Dave Eggers, Geraldine Brooks and Madeleine Thien, that’s about to change.

Chabon and Waldman edited the anthology, a project that began when Waldman met with members of Breaking the Silence while in Israel for the 2014 Jerusalem International Writers’ Festival. Breaking the Silence, led by Yehuda Shaul, is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to ending the occupation; strikingly, it’s composed of former soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces who served in the occupied territories.

It has also faced questioning over its methods and motives, with critics objecting to its refusal to share evidence with the IDF, the fact that many of the soldiers whose testimonies it publishes choose to remain anonymous, and potential conflicts between its stated mission to inform Israeli citizens about life under the occupation and its significant foreign activities and funding. The organization’s supporters, in turn, have pointed to its rigorous standards for fact-checking, claimed that the IDF’s internal investigations structure rarely results in progress, and argued that by holding the IDF accountable, it is working to make the military stronger.

Meeting Shaul had a powerful effect on Waldman, who told the Forward she’d previously avoided engaging with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the introduction to “Kingdom of Olives and Ash,” she and Chabon write that it gave her, for the first time, “a clear, visceral understanding of just what occupation meant, of how it operated, and of the decades of Israeli strategic planning that had gone into creating the massive, often brutal, always dehumanizing military bureaucracy that oversees and controls it.”

She and Chabon decided to address her new insights in the medium they knew best: storytelling. They reached out to writers they respected, Jewish and otherwise, and arranged for weeklong tours of the West Bank with Breaking the Silence. (The couple did the same, and each of them have essays in their anthology.)

Responding to what they saw, the anthologized writers took on subjects ranging from activism in the Shuafat Refugee Camp, the only Palestinian refugee camp that falls under Israeli jurisdiction, to the world of Palestinian soccer.

Talya Zax: In the introduction to the book, you mention the breadth of the call for writers you put out to kick off this anthology. Can you tell me more about how you decided whom to reach out to?

Ayelet Waldman: We chose people we thought would be great storytellers. We also knew that we wanted to capture a kind of international geographic diversity. We reached out to writers in different languages; it was a little bit of fortune and a bit of actually seeking diversity.

Michael Chabon: We ended up with writers from every continent.

A W: It’s very easy for everybody to come up with a list of 25 great white men. What actually amazed us was how easy it was for us to come up with a completely diverse group of writers.

Madeleine Thien at the Qalandia checkpoint. Image by Oren Ziv/Active Stills

Did anyone who agreed to write give reasons for wanting to undertake the project that were surprising to you?

A W: When we asked Geraldine Brooks it was because we loved her writing. We had no idea that she’d actually been stationed in the area. And the same with Colm Tóibin. We had no idea until we got his essay that he’d interviewed [Yasser] Arafat.

The two of you visited the West Bank with five of the other authors who contributed to the anthology. While you were all there, did you exchange ideas about the pieces you were thinking of writing?

A W: Sometimes after dinner we’d all come back, and we’d kind of get in one another’s minds.

M C: We had these long car rides from one place to another, and Yehuda [Shaul] would take advantage of these long drives to give us classes in geography and history and political history, and to also point out features of the built landscape and natural landscape. There was a lot of discussion going on.

What anxieties did you have going into the project?

A W: At first I wasn’t sure that we would be physically safe, but that turned out to be a media-engendered fear. I was anxious [about] Michael [losing] the core of his audience. I cared less about my own, because I’m always much more overtly political than he is.

And what were your greatest aspirations?

M C: We were just hopeful that we would be able to draw the attention of people who hitherto either haven’t been paying attention or have stopped paying attention.

A W: I also felt like for the Palestinians we met, I wanted to be able to say “You aren’t alone. It may be cold comfort, but you are not alone.” Because one of the feelings in the West Bank and Gaza is of utter isolation.

In your introduction to the anthology, you refer to Palestine-Israel. Choosing the words by which to refer to that region is a charged matter. How did you settle on yours?

A W: I have come to believe that as the two-state solution becomes ever more impossible, both to imagine and to make real, that to call Palestine a country when it is a country under occupation, and to pretend that it has a kind of independence and control over its own destiny, is an act of denial. The region is a single region. When you think about the West Bank, for example, it makes more sense to think about it as a piece of Swiss cheese: Can you divide the holes from the rest of the cheese? It’s designed specifically to make division impossible.

I feel like the only fair way to describe that part of the world is to give value to both halves of its residents, to call it Israel-Palestine or Palestine-Israel, depending on where you are. The peace that I imagine at this point is a single democratic country. I don’t imagine I’m going to see it. But maybe my children and my children’s children will.

Helon Habila, Rachel Kushner and Michael Chabon Image by Oren Ziv/Active Stills

M C: I don’t think it’s possible to be completely neutral; whatever phraseology you choose, it’s liable to offend somebody. This seemed like not only the simplest and the most neutral, but like Ayelet said, ultimately the one that obliged us to participate least in the charade that Palestine is an independent country that’s in charge of its own destiny.

The most important thing is to go and see for oneself, and try to see without bias. I don’t really have any hope at all. I feel like hope is not really what’s needed right now. What’s needed right now is emergency rescue equipment. When a house is on fire, hope’s not going to put it out.

Breaking the Silence has been criticized for its tactics, most notably its decision to keep the sources of its testimonies anonymous, its refusal to share evidence with the IDF, and potential contradictions between its stated mission to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories” and its foreign presence and funding. Did you take those criticisms into account? Did you discuss those criticisms with the writers involved, the members of Breaking the Silence who served as your guides, or any critics of Breaking the Silence?

A W: Anonymity is critical to the witnesses’ safety. It allows them the freedom to be honest. I have no issue with it at all.

The financing issue is, frankly, bullshit. Do you donate to PEN? They support international writers. Do you donate to Planned Parenthood? They provide reproductive services to people in states in which you don’t live. Also, when’s the last time an Israeli nonprofit refused to accept American money? How many trees have little American Jewish children paid to plant?

Michael, your essay in the anthology, “Giant in a Cage,” focuses at length on the economics of the occupation. Can you tell me about your process of learning about those economics? What has most surprised you about them?

M C: Among the many lectures that we got in [Yehuda] Shaul’s course on Occupation 101 were a lot of lessons about the economics of occupation. From the Israeli perspective, from the Palestinian perspective, from the perspective of free trade and the exploitation of natural resources. Those lectures kind of gave me background that was helpful to me then.

Once I started talking to [Palestinian entrepreneur] Sam Bahour, it was easy for me to ask questions about what it’s like to try to start a telecom business, what it’s like to try and start a Western-style supermarket chain. They weren’t dry, academic B-school case study kind of things. It was all coming through this one man and his unique set of circumstances. And then in addition you have the whole immigration and passport saga, which is inextricably interlinked with his career as an entrepreneur and a businessman.

I knew almost nothing about the economics of occupation once I got there. I knew a little more when I was done. But now when I read news stories that have to do with these aspects of Israel’s control over the Palestinian economy, I feel I have a better grasp. And I can see the pro-Israel Western bias kind of leaking through in ways that I probably wouldn’t have noticed before.

Ayelet, your essay “Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue” focuses on the legal system to which Palestinians are subject, and its myriad differences from the separate system for Israeli Jews. What drove you to this subject? Has your thinking about it changed since you finished the piece?

A W: I was a criminal lawyer, I was a federal public defender, I’d done trials, I’d done hearings, and I was really interested to see how similar or different my experience was [compared with] what I was going to see in this military tribunal. I also had worked in situations where my clients didn’t speak the language, so I wanted to see how that translation compared.

What I saw — I put it in the article — but what I saw was really chilling, the perfunctory nature of these supposed trials. The idea is that you put this veneer of justice, of neutrality, on top of this system that is so completely unjust, as if to cover up the inherent injustices. As a lawyer who believes in the law and believes in the Constitution, I was offended by the way judicial trappings were used to cover up a kangaroo court.

The thing about the criminal justice system is, it is designed to achieve justice. It’s designed so that the right person is punished for the right offense. It’s not designed to protect victims, it’s designed to get to truth. And to take that system that has, I believe, such admirable goals and pervert it is offensive. It’s offensive to me when it happens in the American justice system, which is heavily weighed against defendants and particularly defendants of color, and it’s offensive to me in the American immigration law system, and it’s profoundly offensive to me in the Israeli military court system.

Both of you have written extensively about Jews and Jewish identity, often through your fiction. Did work on this anthology change your thinking about that identity? How?

M C: Well, not so much. My Jewish identity is about being an American Jew, an Ashkenazi Jew, the whole history of exile. Those loom much larger in my consciousness of my Jewish identity than Israel or the Israel-Palestine conflict, even though those are important parts of how I think about being Jewish, especially as what’s going on in Israel becomes more and more intolerable.

There is a part of my Jewish identity that’s about speaking up when you see injustice, so I went into [this project] with that sense of grounding. At the same time, I think that also comes through everything I love most and believe in most about America. It’s not uniquely my Jewish heritage that’s inviting me to do that. I was acting as a Jew and as an American and as someone who loves Israel and wants to see it continue and survive and thrive, and whose conscience demands that this fire be put out, and these people be saved.

A W: He just said it so perfectly, I don’t want to add to it.

M C: You have Israeli cred in a way that I don’t, if people want to dismiss me as a self-hating Jew and the arrogant American Jew.

A W: I was born in Jerusalem. My brother is one of the most highly decorated soldiers in Israel in military history. When American Jews like to claim that you’re just a self-hating Jew, my family history does provide a response to that.

M C: Your Israeli-ness, has that changed over the course of working on this project?

A W: I feel more Israeli. I had decided it was too horrible and I didn’t want to be involved in it at all. I had all but disengaged. And this brought me back in, so in a way I feel more Israeli than ever. There is nothing as pugnacious as a threatened Israeli, and I take pride in that.

Ayelet, early in May you tweeted in defiance of the increasingly strict border control within Israel. When the two of you return there in June, do you have plans to continue engaging with the occupation, either through your writing or otherwise?

A W: We’re going there because the book is coming out in Arabic and Hebrew. Maybe the book will simply will result in [Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Naftali] Bennett and everybody else realizing the horrible injustice of their ways, and we’ll have harmony forever, because that’s usually what happens when a literary anthology is published.


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