‘We need to see, not de­monise our neigh­bour’

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CON­TIN­UED FROM PAGE 37

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.’’

PHOTO: GETTY IMA GES

Fury: Naf­tali Ben­nett

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