Canadian poet and playwright Jonathan Garfinkel had reason to be nervous. He sat in a Tel Aviv cafe the day after Israeli forces assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader and cofounder of Hamas. The city was on high alert, having already seen more than its share of horrifying suicide bombings.
All of a sudden, a crash rattled the coffee shop. Garfinkel jumped to the window. Ah, relief. Just a car accident.
He’d landed at Ben-Gurion Airport just a few weeks before the March 22, 2004, Gaza attack that killed Yassin. It was the height of the second intifada, relations between Palestinians and Israelis were as bad as they had ever been, and Garfinkel was searching for a story about cooperation – and to figure out for himself whether Jews and Arabs could live together in one disputed land.
The idea for the trip had come about when an Israeli theater company suggested he write a new play about modern Israel, the conflict, and the psyche of the Jewish state.
But there was a problem. Garfinkel had never been. For him, Israel was only an idea. It was the holy land, a place that played a defining role in his Toronto upbringing and Jewish education.
“Israel is a given,” he writes. “It was given to me. But I’d rather not think about it too much. I never choose to bring it up in conversation.... I admit it, I find Israel endlessly confusing.”
In “Ambivalence,” Garfinkel sets out to clear up some of that confusion. He had heard about an Arab and a Jew who shared a house in West Jerusalem. If he could find them, he thought, that would be his play, the perfect vehicle to tell a story of the potential for understanding.
Instead, he finds something else. And along the way he discovers the complex layers of Israeli society: the burnouts and kibbutzniks, the ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Israelis, and the nationalists and the reformers on both sides.
Garfinkel attended Toronto’s Bialik Hebrew Day School which, according to its own website, encourages the “identification with Zionism and an awareness of the principles of the Labour Zionist Movement.” And that planted in his mind an idealized view of the Jewish state – a narrative that largely ignored the Palestinians’ story line or the black marks in Israel’s relatively short but bloody history.
“We lived and breathed modern Hebrew, the almighty love of Israel,” he writes of those school years under the tutelage of his fervently Zionist teachers.
Garfinkel’s journey through Israel and the Palestinian territories is about reconciling the Israel of his imagination with the real country – that piece of earth in a constant state of conflict.
By the time of the Yassin assassination, Israel had already come unraveled for the 30-something writer.
It’s Garfinkel’s innocence and his willingness to ask dumb questions that make this journey compelling. Better books have been written on Israel and the Palestinians. If you are looking for a scholarly or analytical take, look elsewhere. This is often raw and unfiltered, scandalous and vulgar. And that’s part of what makes it rich and interesting and worth reading.
Garfinkel sees the country with a poet’s eye and weaves Israel’s many characters together with figures from his own past. The influence of his teachers from Bialik and their unflinching praise for Israel are hard to shake from his consciousness. Often his narration is dreamlike, evoking memories of that past even as present-day Israel unfolds before him.
After two months, Garfinkel leaves – less hopeful than when he arrived and more conflicted than ever. He writes a different play than the one he had imagined. Eventually, he goes back.
“To return is to yearn for something hopeful, not to give in to the despair I left with the last time,” he explains. “In the interim years I have not gone and dissed my Jewish faith (I can’t get rid of God). I cling to the belief that Judaism has some good to fulfill in the world. The ancient notion of the Jew acting as moral witness and priest is more and more relevant….”
After the years of exploration, of trying to rectify his faith with his skepticism, his love of Israel with his disdain for it, Garfinkel ends his memoir where he began it – mired in ambivalence.
Michael B. Farrell is the Monitor’s Mideast editor.