Love and conflict resolution

Is the secret to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict embedded in the 1947-1948 period?

SOME OF the book’s main characters fall in love at Hadassah-University Medical Center (pictured in 2018) in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
SOME OF the book’s main characters fall in love at Hadassah-University Medical Center (pictured in 2018) in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Where the Desert Meets the Sea by the German TV and radio correspondent Werner Sonne carries a clear message: There is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “peaceful coexistence is achievable.” The novel that tries to prove this message was published in German 13 years ago and tells the story of the conflict at the time when Israel was born, in the years 1947-1948. It is now being published in English.
The main characters of the story are two women, a Jewish and an Arab one. The Jewish heroine, Judith Wertheimer, is a Holocaust survivor who reached the shores of Palestine about two years after she was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp. The Arab woman, is Hana Khalidy from the village of Deir Yasin near Jerusalem. Being the central figures of the novel, the reader could not but expect their presence at the unavoidable climaxes of the story, the alleged massacre that took place in Deir Yassin on April 9, 1947.
The Deir Yassin battle is one of many well-known events and topics representative of the history of the conflict in those days mentioned in the novel. Without introducing unnecessary spoilers into this review, we can inform the potential reader that he will encounter the story of illegal immigration to mandatory Palestine, the Battle of the Castel, Abd el Kader al Husseini, the Arab attack against the convoy to Mount Scopus, the attempt to break the siege of Jerusalem, etc. In fact, it is a novel that tells the story of the conflict during those days in detail, based mainly on historical literature and memoirs.
Most Israelis who grew up on Leon Uris’s Exodus, Menachem Talmi’s stories for the young, or the classic film Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer may not be in need of such a novel to acquaint themselves with the history of the war of 1948 and its origins, however, for a German or English reader interested in the riddle of the Arab-Israeli conflict it may serve as a kind of compendium. The reader will find this story told compactly, presented as the background for two love stories – one between the Palestinian nurse Hana and a Jewish physician, and another between the Holocaust survivor and a typical “sabra” (Israeli-born) fighter.
The author introduced also some German characters into the story: an SS officer who helps the Jews, a Wehrmacht officer who is on the Arab side, and some other figures that suggest yet another link between what is called in Israel “Shoah and tekuma,” Holocaust and resurrection. Being a historian, the writer of this review refrains from passing judgment on the literary aspects of the novel, but looks instead for the relevant clues to the author’s historiographic approach to the debate about this chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Focusing on Jerusalem, or more precisely on the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus on the one hand, and Deir Yassin on the other, helps the author to make his point, namely that the Arab and Jewish communities were not predestined to end up in war and mass-expulsion. He turns the Hadassah Hospital into the location in which both the Arab woman and her Jewish partner start their amorous relationship, and where this Arab woman and the Holocaust survivor exchange blood-transfusions on two occasions, as a symbolic sign of reconciliation amid the general turmoil.
The author, who is well-read about this historical chapter but seems to be a bit naive in retrospective, is following an approach suggested by the modern historians: Tom Segev in his book One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate, and Hillel Cohen in his book Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948.
In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Sonne explains why he chose to concentrate on Jerusalem and not, say, Haifa or Tel Aviv-Jaffa: “Jerusalem was at the heart of the conflict. Israel without Jerusalem – unthinkable. The third holiest site in Islam in the hands of the Jews – never!”
This may be the perspective from the point of view of an observer acquainted with the history since the 1967 Six Day War. But the period between 1948 and 1967, i.e. right after the novel ends, tells another story. The Israeli state accepted the western, new part of Jerusalem as its capital, and its claim to sovereignty remained untouched by the fact that the eastern part of the city was under Jordanian rule. What is more, the idea of Jerusalem as a city which might serve as a capital for both the Israeli and the Palestinian state underlies the peace talks at least since the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s. To a certain extent, the idea behind the author’s focus on Jerusalem seems to contradict the intention behind the whole novel: to show that there is a way out.