One of the reasons I like superhero movies is because it’s always obvious whom to root for.
Let’s take Wonder Woman, because she’s killing it at the box office, and she has the added cachet of minority status, which makes her even more appealing: It’s a no-brainer to cheer for the beautiful woman with superhuman strength and unassailable moral clarity over the treacherous Ares, God of War, who seeks the destruction of humankind.
Simple plots with uncomplicated characters work just fine in fiction. In nonfiction, not so much.
So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that two famous fiction writers, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, are failing to grasp the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The best-selling novelists, husband and wife, currently are on a press tour for a new book they edited, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation,” which, given the world-class pedigree of the contributors, would appear to be a marvelous book.
The problem is not the work itself but the way Waldman and Chabon are promoting it. In interviews, they have turned their brief tour of the West Bank into undeniable evidence that they’ve discovered the absolute truth of the conflict: It’s Israel’s fault. And they describe the situation in such shallow and simple terms, I half-wondered if “Kingdom” was a children’s book. (It’s not.)
The book is, in fact, a compilation of stories from assorted contributors, including Pulitzer Prize winners and a Nobel Laureate, that seeks to illuminate the lives of long-suffering Palestinians who have toiled under Israeli occupation for the last 50 years. It’s a noble endeavor. And the pair deserves credit for their good intentions. But the way these two seasoned storytellers are discussing their “findings” is so one-sided, bereft of nuance and oblivious to history, it made this pro-Palestinian American Jew cringe.
The story of the Waldman-Chabon book begins in 2014, when Waldman returned to Jerusalem, the place of her birth, after a long absence. “We couldn’t deal, like so many American Jews, with what it meant to go back,” she said last week during a live internet broadcast sponsored by the New Israel Fund. “We didn’t want to engage.”
But then Waldman was invited to attend the Jerusalem Writer’s Festival. Afterward, members of Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israel Defense Forces soldiers seeking to expose and end the occupation, offered to show her around Hebron. There, she saw the impact of Israel’s occupation for the first time — poverty, oppression, injustice. Then she went to Tel Aviv, where she “had an amazing time, [and] got drunk every night.” She decided to do something about this unfair contrast.
She returned home to Berkeley and suggested to her husband that they take up the Palestinian cause through a writing project. “I thought he wouldn’t want to alienate his Jewish audience,” she said, somehow unaware that a majority of American Jews support a two-state solution. “To his credit, without hesitation, he said instantly, ‘Of course, yes, we’ll do this.’ ”
In the spring of 2016, they brought 29 of the world’s most eminent writers to visit — exclusively — the West Bank, East Jerusalem and even Gaza, if they pleased. Afterward, Chabon declared to the Forward that Israeli military occupation is “the most grievous injustice I have seen in my life.”
He should get out more.
Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that two famous fiction writers, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, are failing to grasp the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It’s disappointing when you discover that your literary heroes sometimes are myopic and obtuse. That they would spend far more time immersing themselves in the lives of one of their characters than they spent zipping through one of the most complex regions in the world is perplexing. But that hasn’t stopped Waldman and Chabon from casting themselves as daring literati, shining a light in Israel’s dark corners.
“As soon as you start asking questions,” Chabon said, “everything comes back to this massive bureaucracy that … exists only to remind Palestinian people that they are utterly subject to Israeli power. And the way that power demonstrates itself most effectively, demoralizingly, is not by dropping bombs, bulldozing houses, it’s the everyday tiny indignities to which Palestinians are subjected: What it takes for a Palestinian who needs dialysis to get dialysis, what it takes a Palestinian businessman … to arrange a meeting. The way the rules get changed so whimsically, [it’s] so clear it’s being done on purpose to demoralize, to dehumanize.”
Not everything Chabon says is untrue. I trust he saw “indignities.” But he fails to mention the indignity of total Arab-Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state since the Balfour Declaration, in 1917, and at least half a dozen times since then. For someone who’d be short a few novels without Jewish history, how conveniently he chooses to ignore it.
For “Kingdom” Chabon wrote about Sam Bahour, a Palestinian businessman he admires for persevering despite the odds, for “building this glass palace while missile strikes are occurring all around him.” That Israel experiences much the same thing is an irony apparently lost on him.
The conflict that has mystified and humbled generations of experts and world leaders is, for these two writers, superhero simple: Palestinians, good; Israeli government, evil.
But this is what happens when serious writers engage in conflict tourism. And it is unworthy of their gifts. What a shame to marry such weighty voices to a shortsighted conclusion. It gives their experience, and their book, a gravitas it hasn’t earned.
“This conflict is not a morality play where one side is all right and the other is all wrong,” American diplomat Dennis Ross said when I reached him by phone. Ross has worked on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an envoy, expert and direct negotiator serving the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.
“When you demonize one side, you don’t make it easier for two sides to reconcile,” he said. “You make it harder.”