All-too-familiar territory

It's easy to cast settlers as villains.

Joan Leegant’s Wherever You Go starts off okay. The image of Yona, a manicured American woman disembarking in the dusty heat of a wind-swept wild wild West Bank settlement, come halfway across the world to seek reconciliation with her radical nationalist sister Dina, has potential. The politically charged atmosphere, memories of the steamy sexual liaison that set off the rift 10 years earlier again bubbling to the surface (was the elder sister driven into the reassuring arms of extremism after the younger stole her man?) – all these seem to suggest that the novel will be a study of sibling dynamics, with a leitmotif of local politics thrown in to thicken the plot, but nothing too heavy-handed.
Enter Greenglass, a young ba’al teshuva who made aliya from the US to escape an impossible family and a dark past involving an agonizing years-long affair with a drug addict, and is now racked with survivor guilt and tormented with soul-wrenching doubt as to his faith; and a lackluster American student, Aaron, who followed a girl to a semester-in-Israel program but, deep down, is also (surprise, surprise) running from his overbearing father and abandoning mother. With his romantic prospects fast fizzling out, the hapless Aaron is also summarily reeled in by religion’s lustrous allure, finding himself camping out at a radical Jewish outpost, under the magnetic sway of the unhinged but oh-so-mesmerizing Naftali, an extremist settler leader who’ll stop at nothing – save getting his own hands dirty – to see his nefarious ideology realized.
I won’t give it all away; suffice to say that relationships take a backseat to politics, and all three subplots ultimately converge in a fateful and highly implausible early-morning denouement. The too-neat resolution of the plot is not unexpected, though, considering the many similar principles governing the progressions of the characters.
All are running from dysfunctional families and unfulfilling love lives; all are led to Israel and Judaism almost by default, to find psychological solace in a new sense of belonging. And we’re left with a subtext according to which aliya and Orthodoxy are nothing but the first refuge of the damaged.
This disturbing message is further driven home when Leegant’s characters (excluding the even-minded Yona, who’s too normal to get messed up with religion, instead playing out her primal sin to perpetuity with a string of married lovers) are made to betray their beliefs to attain their modicum of salvation.
But Leegant’s bias comes out in more than just the two-dimensional portrayals of the extremist Dina and the depraved Naftali – his is a truly repulsive caricature – and is, at times, almost slanderous in its implications.
Take, for instance, the following description of Yona’s second visit to her sister’s settlement: “Two teenagers in long denim skirts and running shoes, giant backpacks hanging off their shoulders, came up to the van, talking in American English about another girl who wasn’t answering her phone. They smiled at Yona, slid off the packs. No More Disengagement! screamed the canvas in thick black marker. Refuse the population transfer! Orange cloth ribbons hung off the straps. Gaza. The outrage seethed still, nursed and kept alive by those salivating for a repeat in the West Bank – let the government dare even mention withdrawal – so they could fulfill their promises of a Jewish civil war.”
Suffice to say, the passage – and, by extension, the entire novel – besides being shot through with stereotype, is rife with fallacy, without which several fantastic plot twists would simply have been unsustainable. No one wants a Jewish civil war, perhaps least of all the settlers (in the buildup to the 2005 disengagement, talkback forums on Israeli news sites were full of calls for the use of lethal force against Gush Katif residents, while almost all those who were thrown out of their homes exhibited a remarkable, noble stoicism).
In this passage and in others like it, Leegant – who I prefer to think underresearched her subject matter rather than fell prey to the mouth-watering temptations of sensationalism – lashes out at one of the most hated, and misrepresented, communities in the world. After all, who’s going to notice?
The writer is the arts and entertainment editor of The Jerusalem Post.