October 13, 2019

The All the Rivers exchange, part 3: On tribalism

Dorit Rabinyan was born in Kefar-Saba, Israel and wrote her first novel, Persian Brides, at age twenty one. An award-winning international bestseller translated into ten languages, Persian Brides established her as the voice of a new generation in Israel. Rabinyan won the Israeli Film Academy Award for best television drama of 1997 for Shuli’s Fiancé, and the Eshkol Prize for her second novel, Strand of a Thousand Pearls. She lives in Tel Aviv.

This exchange focuses on Rabinyan’s book All the Rivers (Random House, 2017), a controversial novel that tells the story of an affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. Parts one and two can be found here and here.


Dear Dorit,

Your previous response mentioned the “suffocating sack of multitude…” in a way that doesn’t quite clarify if you see such suffocation negatively or positively. You tend to use passive language: “We are programmed”, “We prove loyalty to our tribe by…”. Well, should we strive to change this? Should we attempt to escape this programmed tribal affiliation?

Of course, this question goes back to the core of your book, and also to the question raised by its Israeli opponents (many of them, it should be said, did not bother to read it first). Put simplistically: do you approve of interfaith, intertribal, and international romantic relations? Or maybe you surrender to a programmed culture that views such relations negatively?


Dear Shmuel,

I’ll answer your question in two parts, starting with the tribal affiliation question:

Not only am I not alienated from our tribal feelings as Israelis and Jews – in the love story between Liat and Hilmi I actually give expression to these forces. The forces that shape our desires and fears – and form the nature of the most personal decisions we do or don’t make – are, in fact, the subject at the heart of the novel: the books asks to what extent a person is nothing but the image of his native landscape or, if you like, the image of a conflict tearing his native land apart. Maybe it was the telescopic view from New York – this distance and estrangement that exile enables – through which the tribal code of Israeliness felt especially transparent and harsh while writing the book. This Jewish-Arab intimacy – which undermines the Jewish command to not mix with goyim and which runs again the Zionist command to remain separate in the Middle Eastern space – actually gives special validity to the strong pulse of our community’s isolationist DNA. These tribal forces are active in Hilmi as well, and at the moment of truth he does turn his back on Liat and show his loyalty to the Palestinan collective; but in Liat’s case it seems that the collective instinct ingrained in her is stronger than her free will and that this is due to deep historical education and heritage.

I think that the conclusion that arises from the novel is that the tribal feeling is almost a force of nature. Even when we think that we are free of it, that we are independent individuals, masters of our own destiny; even when we would like to believe that we have crossed oceans and escaped the land we were raised in and that we are far away from the group that programmed our identity and loyalty to fit its own needs; even then we will see how strong this pulse, for better and worse, beats in our subconscious. This goes for our excellent humanistic values as well as for our racist consciousness, stereotypes, and anxieties. Not only do I not think that the tribal instinct is bad – through Liat and Hilmi I reflect how natural, human, and organic to their national identity it is.  Moreover, I believe that the liberal ethos whose crisis the world is currently witnessing – with the rise of Trump, Brexit, etc’ – is a reaction to the contempt that liberalism has showed toward the deep need for, and the solace found in, tribalism. Human beings need boundaries like other animals need it: a framework that gives order to the place you belong to, that delineates your sense of home. Nationhood is not at all foul in my view;  it is the nationalists who use this deep feeling – and the need for acceptance, for self-definition – that give it a bad name.

Now to the question regarding my approval of intertribal relations:

My immediate response? Every man or woman need to do what seems right to them. You didn’t expect me to answer this question with a “yes, I’m in favor” or a “no, I’m against,” right? While there is a stinking political scandal linked to me and my novel, I’m still a writer and not a politician. What interests me is the world of the soul, the complexity, the emotional dilemma, the endless shades between the black and the white.

That being said, since we already mentioned the scandal, I’ll tell you something curious – In the early days of 2016, when Israeli public discourse was feverishly obsessed with Borderlife and with the reasons given by the pedagogical committee that banned it from the school curriculum, the news desk of the IDF radio [one of Israel’s largest radio stations] asked Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics  for data on the magnitude of the phenomenon of interfaith Jewish-Arab marriage. They wanted to examine the immediacy and severity of the “threat of assimilation” that my book –Which was accused of “encouraging teenagers to engage in romantic relations between Jews and non-Jews” and “threatening separate identity” (quotes from the notorious education ministry report) – was associated with. Do you have any guess what the number was? Well, in the last twenty years there was an annual average of 18 Jewish-Arab couples who registered to get married or to receive ‘known in public’ status. I think that this negligible number shows how utterly ridiculous the whole affair surrounding the banning of the book actually was. I believe that this statistic is enough to show us how far the tribal code ingrained in Liat’s soul – the isolationist mentality pre-programmed in her by the Israeli-Zionist education system – is from being threatened by any work of art. An Israeli-Palestinian love story – beautiful, gentle, and moving as it may be – and Hebrew literature in general cannot change the demographic balance between the Jordan river and the sea, and not even within the 67 borders.