Jewish Journal

An interview with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman about confronting the Occupation

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Photo courtesy of ActiveStills

half-century ago, as a 17-year-old high school senior, I attended a rally in support of Israel at the Hollywood Bowl. At that moment, Israel was fighting for its life, and the anxious crowd did not yet know the war would be over in only six days. We could not even imagine that victory on the battlefield would change not only the shape of Israel but its identity and destiny, too.

Best-selling authors, and husband and wife, Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”) and Ayelet Waldman (“A Really Good Day,” “Love and Treasure”) — perhaps the most accomplished literary couple in contemporary American letters — have chosen the anniversary of the Six-Day War to call our attention to the darker aspects of Israel’s historic victory in “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation” (HarperPerennial).

The book is a project of Breaking the Silence, which describes itself as “an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

The authors will participate in a public conversation about “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” with Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR and Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence at 8 p.m. on June 5 at the Pico Union Project on Valencia Street. The event is co-sponsored by IKAR, the New Israel Fund and HarperPerennial. (Information and tickets for the event are available at olivesandashtour.nif.org.)

When Waldman attended the Jerusalem International Writers’ Festival in 2014, members of Breaking the Silence took her on a tour of Hebron.  The experience inspired her and Chabon to recruit some two dozen writers to visit the West Bank and Gaza and report on what they saw for what would become “Kingdom of Olives and Ash.” The contributors include Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron; publishing powerhouse Dave Eggers; Chabon’s fellow Pulitzer Prize winners Lorraine Adams and Geraldine Brooks; and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. In their essays, all of them serve as eyewitnesses to life on the ground in the territories that Israel has occupied since the Six-Day War, and their testimony shines a light on aspects of the daily conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that are mostly invisible in media coverage.

“Storytelling itself — bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered — has the power to engage the attention of people, like us, who had long since given up paying attention, or have simply given up,” Waldman and Chabon explain in their introduction to the anthology.

In advance of their upcoming appearance, I spoke with the authors by phone.

Jonathan Kirsch: You write about yourselves that “we didn’t want to write or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation, about intifadas and settlements, about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter, whose crimes more egregious, whose outrage more justified.”  What caused you to shun the subject for so long, and what attracted your attention now?

Ayelet Waldman: What caused us to shun the subject was the incessant cycle of oppression and violence, the refusal of Israel in particular to acquiesce to any meaningful peace process, the round after round of failed endeavors, and the seeming hopelessness of it all. We decided that, as people who believe in equal rights and the principles embodied in the United States Constitution, we couldn’t rationalize our moral values with the Israeli governmental policies. But it also seemed like we couldn’t do anything or change anything. And so we just turned our back so we wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. The change happened when I went to Hebron and saw the reality on the ground, which was infinitely worse than my worst imaginings. When I returned to Tel Aviv, I realized that I couldn’t turn my back on the injustices that were taking place an hour’s drive away.

JK: The 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War is the occasion for celebration in most Jewish circles. What has been the reaction to your book, which is decidedly not celebratory?

AW: Where you see the real rage is in the idea that, “This is my goddamn holiday — how dare you not let me celebrate it?” The Six-Day War was a moment when, yes, the Israeli army was victorious over other armies that sought to end the country, but it was also the beginning of this brutal occupation that has now lasted for 50 years. If there were no occupation, there would be no book. If there were no occupation, I might be dancing a horah in the streets of Tel Aviv.

JK: American Jews who hold dissenting opinions about Israeli policy sometimes feel awkward about expressing them out loud and especially in public on the grounds that our children are not the ones at risk. What makes you feel empowered and even obliged to speak out?

AW: It’s a convenient tool of oppressors to say: It’s not your business. On the most basic level, we are all taxpayers. Israel is the single largest beneficiary of American foreign aid. As long as $4 billion go to a government that is oppressing millions of people, we have the right to say no. On a higher level, we are humans, and as humans we have a right and a duty to speak up against oppression. And if Israel calls itself the homeland of the Jews, and we are Jews, we have the right to say: Not in my name.

JK: In your introduction to the book, you chose to refer to “Palestine-Israel” rather than Israel and Palestine. Did you discuss that choice of language?

AY: Endlessly, back and forth, back and forth. But we didn’t have a rule for the other writers who contributed to the book. Even the simplest thing — the word you use to identify a place — is such a fraught decision that we told the writers: You’re just going to have to figure it out for yourself.

Michael Chabon: Maybe we should just call it “Semite Land.”

JK: Do you see a constituency for a two-state solution?

AY: It has become very convenient for the government of Israel to pretend to support a two-state solution in order to prevent a full-scale international boycott. If Israel admitted that they have no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state, there would be no more travel to Europe for people with Israeli passports, no more diplomatic relations, and Israel would be cut off as a pariah state. The pretense is that Israel is willing to accept a two-state solution but the Palestinians are not.

MC: And while the Israel government is saying it, they are making it absolutely impossible.

JK: You quote an Israeli Defense Ministry official as saying, “We don’t do Gandhi very well.” The thought will occur to more than a few of your readers that the Palestinians don’t Gandhi very well, either. Do you see a solution to the problem that is created when Palestinians turn to violence as an act of protest and Israel responds with violence?

MC: Those who hurt other people are simultaneously hurting themselves, but that’s equally true of Israel. The attempt to combat the perceived or actual violence coming from Palestine is doing great harm to Israelis.

AW: I do think that the best way to combat a violent oppressor is controlled nonviolence. Suicide bombers give the Israeli government the cover it needs to continue to oppress. On the other hand, when people are traumatized and hopeless, the trauma and hopelessness leads to violent behavior.

JK: Michael, you write about how every experience in the West Bank is freighted with political meaning, even flushing a toilet, since water is scarce for the Palestinians and plentiful for Israelis. And you make the point that privation is as much a part of the occupation as checkpoints and barbed wire. Are you concerned that there is much talk about sovereignty but much less talk about poverty and scarcity when it comes to the plight of the Palestinians?

MC: That was my primary takeaway from my brief encounter with the occupation — the realization that what’s happening right now has ultimately nothing to do with the one-state solution, the two-state solution, the right of return and all of those other issues that everyone gets themselves entangled in. This is a humanitarian catastrophe. It is irrelevant whose fault it is. What’s relevant is how to put a stop to it immediately so the suffering comes to an end. The vast majority of people — children, families, ordinary people — are not terrorists; they are just trying to survive. It’s a burning house. When a house is on fire and people are trapped inside, you don’t stand around outside and argue about who started it. You put it out.

JK: Are you concerned that some politicians in Israel have called for the exclusion of writers and activists who criticize the policies of the current Israeli government?

MC: Ayelet actually tweeted an open challenge to [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi Netanyahu to try and keep her out.

AW: I gave him our flight number and arrival date to make it easy for them. We will wait and see. 


JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.