Novel perspectives on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Courtesy of Joanna Eldredge Morrissey
Hannah Lillith Assadi’s debut novel, 'Sonora,' looks at a second-generation immigrant’s struggle to come to terms with herself and history. Ms. Assadi was born in the United States to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father.

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Efforts at valuable cultural exchange between Israelis and Palestinians have often hit a wall. Israel’s Education Ministry kept Dorit Rabinyan’s 2014 novel, “All the Rivers,” out of Israeli high schools, for example, because of its “controversial” subject matter: a love story between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman. Novelist Abbad Yahya was forced into exile amid death threats after his frank 2016 novel, “Crime in Ramallah,” was banned by the Palestinian Authority. But today, Millennial writers of Israeli and Palestinian heritage living in the United States are forging new perspectives on the conflict shaped by their adopted homeland. “Americanness and the characters’ connection to America makes it become this sort of neutral zone,” says Moriel Rothman-Zecher, Israeli-American author of the novel “Sadness Is a White Bird.” In the Holy Land, where names, language, and identity are always political and contested, this new wave of fiction has a better chance to offer a deeper understanding of connectedness, observers say, and to break traditional conventions in literature of cultural separation.

Why We Wrote This

In sorting through volatile cross-cultural relations, it helps to have familiarity with the dispute. But sometimes having a little distance can help, too.

Author Hannah Lillith Assadi revels in the contradictions of her identity: She was born in the United States to a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father. Her debut novel, “Sonora,” is a paean to the vexing process of how a second-generation immigrant struggles to come to terms with herself and history. 

Israeli-American novelist and poet Moriel Rothman-Zecher explores similar themes in “Sadness Is a White Bird,” revealing the agonizing internal struggle of an American-Israeli man who cannot balance his friendship with two Palestinians and his enrollment in the Israeli army. 

Both are examples of Millennial writers with Israeli and Palestinian heritage living in the US who are forging novel perspectives on the conflict.

Why We Wrote This

In sorting through volatile cross-cultural relations, it helps to have familiarity with the dispute. But sometimes having a little distance can help, too.

“Increasingly it’s people who have lived abroad, who have experienced other ways of being in the world, that are looking critically at their own societies,” says Ranen Omer-Sherman, the JHFE endowed chair in Judaic studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. 

Mr. Rothman-Zecher feels that in his novel “the identities are much more woven and complicated” than an easy division of Israelis and Palestinians.

“Americanness and the characters’ connection to America makes it become this sort of neutral zone, that shared space that transports the three of them far away,” he says.

As conflict continues between Israel and the Palestinian territories, cultural exchange – the solution many have lauded as a way to end the conflict – has also suffered. 

Israeli high school teachers were displeased after the Education Ministry decided not to allow Dorit Rabinyan’s 2014 novel, “All the Rivers,” to be taught in Israeli high schools. The novel follows a love affair between a Palestinian man and Israeli woman in New York City. 

Government censorship in the Palestinian territories is even more explicit. A recent report by Human Rights Watch documented the use of arbitrary arrest and torture of dissidents by Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The novelist Abbad Yahya was forced into exile after his 2016 novel, “Crime in Ramallah,” was banned by the Palestinian Authority. He received death threats for the novel’s frank depiction of sex and of political leaders.  

“If we’re talking about cultural work between Arabs and Jews today in Israel, this can be very rare,” says Janan Bsoul, research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking in Tel Aviv. “This whole interaction with Israelis has become limited and narrow.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Both Mahmoud Darwish and Yehuda Amichai, the most respected Palestinian and Israeli poets of their generation, respectively, read each other. But even Mr. Amichai, in a 1992 interview with The Paris Review, expressed a feeling that has only become stronger. “It’s quite difficult for poets to communicate with one another in a society that is politically torn apart...,” he said.

“Sonora” joins several other recent American-Palestinian novels such as Hala Alyan’s “Salt Houses” and Etaf Rum’s “A Woman Is No Man.” While the themes of memory, displacement, and identity figure prominently in all three of them, they tend to resist the political firebrand tone of earlier Palestinian writers like Darwish or Ghassan Kanafani, who were both explicitly tied to a nationalistic Palestinian literature.

“After the Arab Spring, no one looks at the author as representative of the country of Palestine or of the occupation. They might have their own values or their own ideology, and you judge literature based on that,” says Ms. Bsoul.

As Israeli writers leave the country as part of a larger brain drain and write about the occupation from different perspectives, many Palestinian writers, no longer tethered explicitly to a national literature, experience an unmooring. For writers experiencing exile, displacement, and voluntary diaspora, it can become easier to write about their homes and the conflicts embroiled in them, but also more poignant.

“I think with this feeling of porousness and borderlessness, I don’t feel entirely at home in either of the categories of American-Jewish writer or Israeli-Jewish writer,” says Rothman-Zecher. The title of Rothman-Zecher’s “Sadness” is from a poem by Mr. Darwish, and the book is peppered with Hebrew and Arabic transliteration.

In “Sonora,” the main protagonist is named Ahlam by her father, Yosef, but in the presence of others they refer to themselves as the more American-sounding Ariel and Joseph. 

America in this way no longer acts merely as a neutral space to host Israelis and Palestinians, who originally would have little chance at dialogue. It also changes the original culture, creating another with the pieces of the previous one.

“People leave things behind and then find it again,” says Ms. Assadi. “We can never leave home and never return to it.”

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