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Al-Naqba - The Catastrophe
By Barbara A. Goldscheider
As the title of her first novel, Israeli-American author Barbara A. Goldscheider chose Al Naqba, the Arabic term used to describe the uprooting of Palestinians in the wake of Israel's 1948 War of Independence. She did this not to highlight the Palestinians' humiliation in their defeat, but rather "to serve as a reminder that there are no winners in this horrific conflict shortly to enter its sixth decade of bloodshed, violence, and turmoil."
It is Goldscheider's contention that the "catastrophe does not belong exclusively to the Palestinian people. We, in Israel, have also endured a catastrophe in the irreplaceable loss of lives, [â€¦] in brutal acts of terrorism, which have shattered not only the lives of victims and their families, but also the very fabric of Israeli life."
Accepting this premise of a shared burden of catastrophe, readers can also appreciate Goldscheider's novel attempt to present the tragic events of the recent years of violence in a method that combines fictional and non-fictional approaches. At a time when movie audiences are streaming to theaters to see the first fictional depictions of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, readers of this novel are given a chance to learn of the tragic events of the intifada through the eyes of Goldscheider's characters.
However, if the catastrophe is indeed a shared experience, with Palestinians and Israelis suffering equally from the continued violence, one would expect a fictional account of the terrorism and counter-terrorism efforts during the painful years of 2000-2001 to present a balanced picture.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the author presents an interesting range of Israeli, Palestinian and American characters, the viewpoints expressed, including those voiced by Israelis, are markedly leftist in their orientation.
"Many analysts in Israel," one Israeli historian character states, "[â€¦] have come to the following conclusions: since 1967, when Israel became an occupation force, it set itself on a course of oppression and military conflict. [â€¦] The Palestinians are cornered, penned in ghettos, relying on an undying faith that if they only hold on with a tenaciousness to the land and to their homes, they will endure and the Israeli occupation will wither away by the decay that's eating away at the fabric of Israeli society."
Based on this argument, it is easy to understand why, as a result of Israel's forceful occupation of their homes, the Palestinians are left with no choice but to turn to terrorism. In this novel, one can almost sympathize when the central Palestinian character undergoes a swift transformation from being a doctorate student at Hebrew University into striking as the suicide bomber at Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant in August 2001, murdering 15 Israelis. Almost.
Are there no Israeli voices available to balance out these arguments? Somehow the Jewish connection to the holy sites of Jerusalem and Judaism's Biblical roots in Judea and Samaria are never mentioned. Israel's peace overtures to the Palestinian people? The refusal of Palestinian leaders to combat terrorism? These are issues the author must have missed in her research.
The Israelis in the novel are presented as weak individuals, eager to escape the country and pursue careers overseas. Not one of them is religiously identified; not one of them is willing to patriotically support Israel's case. The few pro-Israeli arguments, when spoken, are left to visitors from the United States.
The author's style of interweaving her fictional characters with the tragic events occurring in Israel at the time, and with her need to make sure that these one-side viewpoints are heard, leads all the main characters into a Jerusalem living room. All the leftist arguments are stated, one after another, and then a visiting Jewish American woman, who had studied at Hebrew University in the 1980s before returning to Israel to research a book on the psychological damages suffered by Israeli soldiers in the Yom Kippur War, asks, "What are the issues, then, that separate Israelis and Palestinians?" Like her, readers will conclude that the characters have failed to fairly state all of the outlying issues.
If Al Naqba's plot and characters were strong enough, readers could forgive the author for her excesses in using it as a vehicle to express her outlook on the ongoing conflict. Unfortunately, this is the sort of story where characters meet and without further ado end up either in bed together, or engaged in the soul-mate relationship they had secretly desired all along. After the plot keeps circling in for the inevitable climax at the Sbarro restaurant, in which two of the main characters are seriously injured, readers are spared the tragic aftermaths of their recoveries, which occur in a remarkably short three-paragraph time frame.
Goldscheider certainly had the background to write this book. She lived in Israel for 12 years until moving to Bangor, Maine, in the mid-1980s. She did three stints with Sarel, volunteering with the IDF on the Golan Heights and elsewhere. One is surprised, therefore, that someone so familiar with Israel could write that Ariel Sharon was serving as Minister of Defense under Ehud Barak when he strolled on the Temple Mount, igniting the riots of 2000. And it also surprises readers with knowledge of Israel to see the two main characters having lunch in Tel Aviv, embarking on an extensive tour of the Golan Heights including a visit to an army base, and then returning to Jerusalem for a visit to Ammunition Hill before dark - all in the short sunlight hours of a February afternoon.
If Goldscheider didn't bother to weed out these simple inaccuracies, readers will certainly doubt her presentation of lists of dates when Israeli diplomats purportedly rejected Egyptian offers of peace in the 1980s.
The novel ends on the fateful day in September, 2001, when airliners slam into the World Trade Center towers. It's quite obvious from this conclusion that the author believes Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is solely responsible for Muslim hatred toward the West, and toward the United States in particular.
Goldscheider can be applauded for tackling a difficult topic with a novel approach. However, she has failed to present a balanced portrait of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The writer, former editor in chief of Israel Insider, is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz.