Essay: Give us good nonfiction books about Israel and the Jews

Make them unusual and one of a kind, unlike all these Palestinian narratives.

books 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
books 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the prelude to the recently published My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century by Adina Hoffman, the author notes that "no one has ever written a biography of a Palestinian writer before... Most Western readers have little if any experience of that culture and literature." Hoffman, founder of the Jerusalem publisher Ibis Editions, couldn't be more mistaken. The West is overflowing with an endless supply of obscure non-fictional Palestinian stories - and a corresponding lack of stories regarding the Jewish Israeli experience. Recent trends in non-fiction dealing with Israel and Jews tend to focus on one of three categories: books that defend Israel, such as Daniel Gordis's Saving Israel; Alan Dershowitz's Case for Israel; and Ya'acov Lozowick's Right to Exist. Then there are the books about Jewish lives in Arab countries, such as Lucette Lagnado's The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Andre Aciman's Out of Egypt and Marina Benjamin's Last Days in Babylon. (There is also Dalia Sofer's Septembers in Shiraz.) The last group deals with personal memoirs, the "conflict" and coexistence. These include Uri Avnery's 1948: A Soldier's Tale, Tom Segev's various books, works by Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim and Michael Oren, and such studies as Adam LeBor's City of Oranges and Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree, the latter now a movie. THE FIRST category comprises less emotional books from a fact-on-top-of-fact point of view. The second invariably tells of the luxury and greatness of Jewish life in Arab lands and, in the case of Babylon, paints a negative picture of the role of Zionism. Benjamin describes how the Palestinians "had drawn the short straw" in the 1947 UN partition plan and "the proposed Jewish state... contained nearly all the citrus land and 80 percent of the cereal land... The Israeli government was unsympathetic to the plight of the refugees [and] not content with their straightforward removal." Benjamin blames the existence of Israel for the breakdown of relations after the "wonderful interlude in which Jews were welcomed by the rest of Iraq's peoples." The last category of books, with the exception of those of Michael Oren and Benny Morris's recent writings, speak mostly negatively about the role of Zionism and Israel. The "coexistence" narratives inevitably involve a Jew "confronting" the past of Zionism, its "myths" and its "dark underbelly." Books about Palestinians, by contrast, work on a very different level. They involve the obscure, the poetic, the personal and the emotional. From Raja Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks to Suad Amiry's Sharon and My Mother-in-Law and My Happiness, they deal with individuals, the landscape and the personal. Autobiographies of Palestinians are also popular, such as Edward Said's Out of Place, Shehadeh's Strangers in the House, Karl Sabbagh's Palestine, Sari Nusseibeh's Once Upon a Country and Ghada Karmi's In Search of Fatima. The last of these claims to tell the "narrative... unusually, from the Palestinian side." Who are they kidding? THE problem extends itself to the realm of film. Israeli films that are famous abroad invariably deal almost exclusively with coexistence, Palestinians or the "conflict." Take, for instance Syrian Bride (2004), Free Zone (2005), The Band's Visit (2007) and Waltz with Bashir (2008). All involve a Palestinian or Arab theme as the catalyst. It gets even more ridiculous when one considers the recent film For My Father, about a Palestinian terrorist who dates a Tel Aviv Jewish girl before embarking on his mission. In this monstrous "coexistence" film - an "Israeli-German production" - the hateful murderer dates those he wants to kill, but Israeli director Dror Zahavi explains that the bomber "isn't motivated by hatred of Jews or wanting to destroy Israel." No, certainly not. Part of the problem, no doubt, surrounds the hunger of the international reading public for stories about the conflict. However, it seems as if no one is trying in the least to raise its expectations. Instead, like reality television, we cater to the lowest common denominator. The question should be, where is our Kite Runner? We are drowning in the conflict and the obscure. From Wendy Pearlman's Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada and Amira Hass's Drinking the Sea at Gaza, we can't escape the most minor stories of random Palestinians, second-rate politicians and poets. Two new books, one by Jimmy Carter and the other by Benny Morris, were recently published, once again promising plans that "will work" to end the situation. Israeli archeology is undermined as being based on a "nationalist myth" and the settlers are maligned for their "accidental empire" or for being "lords of the land." The binational heresy is rearing its head again and the Israel lobby shows no sign of going away. Israel needs books about itself, about its obscure and interesting characters and peoples. It needs its Israeli walks and books about obscure poets and the beach at Netanya. Give us good nonfiction books about Israel and the Jews. That truly will be unusual and one of a kind, unlike all these Palestinian narratives. The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and runs the Terra Incognita blog.