#44 Dorit Rabinyan - The novelist who hit a nerve

Israel’s Education Ministry, headed by Naftali Bennett, targeted her novel in response to high school teachers who began including it on their lists of required reading.

Author Dorit Rabinyan holding her controversial book 'Borderlife.' (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Author Dorit Rabinyan holding her controversial book 'Borderlife.'
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
The dream of every writer is the hope that their words will strike a chord with a reader. Dorit Rabinyan’s latest novel, All The Rivers, did just that and then some.
The story revolves around two lovers, Israeli and Palestinian, who meet in New York city. It’s a tale of how two people can be born worlds apart even though they only lived a few miles away and it takes a random meeting on foreign soil for them to find their way to each other.
While it’s technically a fictional tale, Rabinyan based it on a real romance she had with Hassan Hourani, a Palestinian artist she met in New York in 2002. Hourani died tragically in a drowning incident while visiting Jaffa in 2003.
For a year and a half after its release in Hebrew, the book enjoyed positive reviews and won literary awards. But then suddenly a political tempest struck. Israel’s Education Ministry, headed by Naftali Bennett, targeted the novel in response to high school teachers who began including it on their lists of required reading. The ministry essentially banned it from the high school curriculum, charging that its message might “encourage intimate relationships between Jews and non-Jews.” The novel, it declared, “threatens to subvert our separate identity.”
A deluge of criticism ensued as domestic and international media outlets like CNN and The New York Times covered the political drama. The intensified scrutiny forced the ministry to backtrack slightly. In another statement it said, “The book wasn’t disqualified, but merely not included among the books studied.” Nonetheless, Bennett’s critics were not convinced. For them, his ministry had already engaged in censorship and had trampled basic democratic freedoms.
The whole episode caused Rabinyan considerable suffering, especially after Bennett called her “an enemy of the nation” on Israel TV Channel 2’s evening news. In the days that followed she lived in fear as menacing figures lurked outside of her building, including members of Lehava, a radical right-wing group opposed to personal relationships between Jews and non-Jews, especially Arabs. She also received numerous death threats via social media.
Despite these dark clouds and because of them, her book shattered sales records as Israelis rushed to bookstores in defiance of the ministry. Literary heavyweights like Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua and Meir Shalev expressed their solidarity with the author. And internationally, the book fared well, quickly becoming a bestseller and making its way into educational institutions throughout Europe, the Middle East and the United States.
Now that the dust surrounding that controversy has subsided, Rabinyan stands by her tale and what it represents about the current state of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
“Reality is complex and complexity is built into the characters; they carry the conflict and their ambivalence within,” she told The Jerusalem Report this year. “Even though they travel across oceans and meet in the land of opportunities, they still have their molded landscapes within them, which are shaped by their education and environment.”
Rabinyan explains that “this vista of complexity” is what motivated her to refashion a well-worn love story into something more elaborate about two identities: how they brush against each other, compare, complement and contradict each other.
“I am talking about the fear of having no barriers or boundaries,” she continues, which makes the book less of a love story than “a drawn-out resistance to love.”
She laments how that point was lost on the novel’s critics and said, ““By just acknowledging a dual perspective to everything, along with two justifications, you are considered a non-patriot in today’s Israel.”
Perhaps, above all else, the ruckus surrounding the book is a reflection of our society’s knee-jerk reaction when it comes to being exposed to something that contradicts our own world view. Rabinyan’s ability to ignite such a vociferous debate over her words indicates that the prolific writer has clout in and outside of the literary arena.