‘We need to see, not demonise our neighbour’
in 2002-2003 with expat Palestinian artist Hassan Hourani, whom she met during a sojourn in New York. She was from Tel Aviv, he from the West Bank, but over the few months they knew each other on the neutral territory of New York, they developed a close friendship. While on a return visit home in the summer of 2003, Hassan drowned in the sea off Jaffa.
She wrote him a heartfelt eulogy after his death, in which she reflected on their uncommon relationship. Their conversations about the Jewish-Palestinian conflict could result in arguments, but each forced the other to see the world through their eyes and, for Rabinyan, the experience was clearly unforgettable. He was an optimist who believed that a harmonious peace could be achieved in ‘‘a binational state, common to both peoples… Equal, free, without borders. For you, it was exciting, the expression of a wish; for me, it was a prophecy of doom that made me tremble.’’ Because, as she explains: ‘‘I do not want my nation to go on being an occupier, but neither do I want it to become a minority.’’ She does not make clear whether their attachment was romantic.
Rabinyan claims her novel is pure fiction, but the parallels with real life suggest otherwise. The book tells the story of the love affair between Liat, an Israeli translator in New York, and Hilmi, an expat Palestinian artist from the West Bank. It chronicles the repercussions of their complex, emotionally charged liaison and ends with Hilmi’s death in a drowning accident, like the one that ended Hourani’s life.
But the point isn’t whether or not the book is autobiographical. The point is that it was written and should be read and, what’s more, it should be taught in schools. Because stories like this need to be told if the two sides are ever to settle their differences and Israeli children need to absorb that message… as do Palestinian children.
According to Israeli law, couples can marry only in a religious court and only to partners of the same faith, so mixed-faith couples must marry abroad. Israel recognises civil marriages, even mixed-faith ones, as long as they took place elsewhere. For a democracy which values civil rights, it’s a convoluted take on the institution of marriage. Naturally, the intention is to discourage intermarriage, perceived as the route to Judaism’s slow dissolution.
The couple in Borderlife don’t get married. The mere fact of their intimacy is deemed threat enough
I have been so shaken by this, I just want a quiet life again
to Jewish long-term survival, in the eyes of more uncompromising Jews. In a less dogmatic way, perhaps, the same anxiety over intermarriage exists here in the UK. Some 300,000 Jews in a population of 65 million, with nothing to stop anyone marrying out, should they so wish. An understandable anxiety, you might think. But in a free country you can’t legislate in the realm of love and personal relationships, even in the face of existential concerns. All you can do is set out the attractions of remaining within the fold, and hope for the best. In any case, after five (highly challenging) millennia, the Jewish faith doesn’t look like disappearing any time soon, so perhaps there is no call for doomsaying.
Indeed, when she spoke to me by phone this week from her home in Tel Aviv, Rabinyan said the story told in
Borderlife was ultimately optimistic, because it showed how, through the power of love, two people from opposite sides of the divide could ‘‘drift into each other’s souls’’.
They could form an intimacy which didn’t threaten their own identities as Jew or Arab, ‘‘but allowed each to see the other person in detail, as whole human beings with their complexities and ambivalences’’. The book’s New York setting made it possible. On the home turf of the Middle East, she said, two people such as Liat and Hilmi wouldn’t have the chance to achieve their symbiosis. ‘‘We don’t see our neighbours, so we demonise them.’’
She said she didn’t write books that had ‘‘messages’’ and Border
life had no agenda. She wanted the story to be seen simply as literature. ‘‘But if young Israelis can get some comfort from seeing their realities reflected in it, if they are moved by the characters’ emotional journey and made to think twice about their own prejudices, that’s good enough for me.’’ And now, there is a sign that Borderlife may yet be taught in Israeli classrooms.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is set to investigate the banning decision, following a letter he received from lawyer Tal Hassin of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
Hassin asserted that the book’s disqualification “sent a chilling message to teachers not to dare deal with conflictual issues in class, and to authors not to address controversial issues in their works if they want to get on to the Education Ministry’s approved reading lists”.
Book-banning doesn’t do much for Israel’s image. And with the current wave of violence reaching new heights over the past three months (the death toll stands at 21 Israelis and 131 Palestinians), the country is in the global spotlight.
If for no other reason than the bad PR it generates, my bet is that
Borderlife will, before long, make its appearance in the classrooms, and Rabinyan’s prose will get the full scholastic treatment. She isn’t bothered either way. ‘‘I have been shaken by this whole experience,” she admitted, a little sadly. “I just want to go back to my quiet life.’’
Fury: Naftali Bennett