As the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War celebrations and post mortems were gearing up last week, novelist Michael Chabon and his wife, Israeli-American novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman, came to Washington with this message:
Ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians does not have to wait for a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. And ending the occupation is in Israel’s best interest.
“1967 is a marker,” said Waldman, before they spoke to 400 people at Temple Sinai in Washington. “People who were alive only during the occupation are willing to criticize it.”
“They didn’t live through Israel’s mythic era,” said Chabon, a Washington native whose novels include “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” and “Moonglow.”
“We’re looking for a way to love Israel but not betray our fundamental principles of justice and democracy,” Waldman said.
The couple’s attempt to reach that balance is the reason behind their new book, “The Kingdom of Olives and Ash,” which Waldman and Chabon edited. Its subtitle, “Writers confront the occupation,” suggests a literary struggle to match the confrontation of Israel’s 50-year rule over the Palestinians.
Twenty-four writers took up Waldman and Chabon’s invitation to spend time in the West Bank and Gaza and tell the stories they found there. Some of the better-known writers include Geraldine Brooks, Colm Toibin, Dave Eggers and Maria Vargas Llosa. There are Israeli and Palestinian writers as well.
On stage at Temple Sinai, moderator Ted Koppel chided the couple. “Why wasn’t there more of a balance in the book?”
“That sets up a false expectation,” Chabon said, “that there can be balance on the occupation. If a house is on fire, and innocent people inside will die unless you do something, you don’t stand around arguing about who started the fire.”
Koppel wasn’t impressed with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist’s logic. “That’s a cheap analogy,” he said.
In 2014, Waldman had written with alarm about her visit to Hebron and Shuhada Street, once a main Palestinian market street in the West Bank city. Israeli authorities began sealing it off from its Palestinian residents after Israeli right-wing extremist Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994, and the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.
“If they want to enter their homes [on the street], they must do so through back doors, which in many cases involves clambering over rooftops,” she wrote in The Atlantic.
Her outrage is still fresh. “When there’s a human rights catastrophe, as a Jew, as a citizen of the world, I am entitled to say ‘no, and not in my name,’” she told Koppel.
At Temple Sinai, Waldman and Chabon were joined by Yehuda Shaul, founder of the Israeli veterans group Breaking the Silence, which publishes anonymous testimonies of alleged Israeli human rights abuses in the West Bank. Breaking the Silence co-sponsored the event with the New Israel Fund.
When Koppel pointed out that Israel needs someone to negotiate with and that the “Palestinians have not been a reliable partner,” Shaul responded.
“We don’t need a partner to evacuate settlements, just like we didn’t need a partner to build them. You’re mixing the two things, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the occupation,” Shaul told Koppel.
Raised in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank, Shaul performed most of his army service in the territory during the second intifada.
“A strong feeling that something was wrong brought me to where I am today,” he said.
After his service, Shaul founded Breaking the Silence in 2004. He met Waldman in 2014, and her visit to Hebron this year led to the “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” project. Its proceeds will go to Breaking the Silence and Youth Against Settlements.
“I believe the conflict has two sides, and so the two sides should sit down at the table and settle the conflict,” Shaul said. “But the occupation doesn’t have two sides. Why do the Palestinians have to negotiate the end of their occupation?”
Zahara Heckscher of Washington said she welcomed the discussion. “It’s hard for Jews who care about human rights to have space. The conversations are shut down,” she said. “I feel that this is sacred space.”
Matthew Simonson of Washington asked the speakers where they stood on BDS, the campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. “Is it acceptable?”
“I’ll be totally honest,” Chabon said. “I’m completely confused about it. I have not made up my mind.”
“It’s so refreshing to hear somebody express some ambiguity about Israel,” Simonson said.
Shaul’s response was not ambiguous. He said he opposes BDS. “The global BDS movement is not about the occupation; it’s about Israel.”
Bob Dorfman, of Silver Spring and Haifa, said that trying to end the occupation is akin to the work he did in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements. “Israel is important to me. My moral values are important to me, too,” he said.
As they waited for the program to begin, Chabon and Waldman said the Jewish community has largely been open to their message.
Said Waldman: “The American Jewish community is a progressive Jewish community. The Sheldon Adelsons are a very small number.”