Guns and drones can break our bones, but words can also hurt us.
–Reaction of a fictional Palestinian character to works of Risa Miller and Shani Boianjiu.
The recent controversy about Jewish-Israeli writer, Shani Boianjiu (see here, here, here and here), reminds me of an encounter I had nine years ago after reading a novel by the then-novice Jewish-American author Risa Miller. Miller’s book, like Boianjiu’s New Yorker short story, is set in the West Bank. Both works portray Palestinians negatively. And both are successful less on the literary merits than because they appeal to and have been supported by members of a Jewish-American subculture that is devoted to the promotion of the State of Israel.
When I first encountered the fiction of Risa Miller, my wife and I owned and operated a used book shop in Northampton, Massachusetts. We often bought advance reading copies from a professional reviewer who received dozens of such reading copies each month from publishers. That is how I happened to read Welcome to Heavenly Heights, a fictional account of the daily lives of a group of mostly Jewish-American settlers who are described on the back cover:
Faced with maintaining their religious rituals while under the fire of unexpected spontaneous violence, the Americans must create their own culture in a hostile society. Viewed through the pinhole of one ragged apartment building’s front door, Miller’s delicate prose evokes the families, friendships, loves, marriages, and sorrows that make up a completely unique American dream.
Heavenly Heights is more like an American-Israeli nightmare. It is a paean to continuing Jewish dispossession of the Palestinian people, who lurk in the background of this tale as a faceless, senseless, violent, malevolent threat to the American settlers’ charming and heartwarming spiritual quest.
The novel, whose author said it was non-political, actually explores a very real political conflict, albeit from a completely one-sided point of view. One of the recurring images in the book is the idea of rebuilding the Jewish temple in place of the present-day mosques atop the Temple Mount or Haram al Sharif. Another provocative allusion is in the form of a heroic character obviously patterned after the controversial American tycoon and settlement backer, Irving Moskowitz.
Heavenly Heights received mostly rave reviews, with very few writers even mentioning the fact that the political realities of the Israeli occupation had been either ignored or had been distorted. Now, the fiction of young, hip, pretty and very marketable Shani Boianjiu seems poised to meet the same enthusiastic uncritical reaction.
Note the similarities between Miller and Boianjiu’s entrances. Both writers are not without talent, and in the case of Boianjiu, she deserves commendation for the most impressive feat of writing fiction in a second language. Like Miller, she is being championed by a Jewish-American woman author who has already achieved considerable success. Miller received the patronage of Elinor Lipman, who if my memory is correct had taught Miller in a writing workshop. Boianjiu has been supported by the poet and novelist, Nicole Krauss. Both writers helped their proteges to win prestigious literary awards for novice authors. Miller won the PEN Discovery Award and Boianjiu the National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 prize (for which Krauss was her sponsor; and by the way, Krauss herself gained the attention of Philip Roth and Joseph Brodsky).
Miller’s novel was built from short stories that she had previously published, and according to pre-publication hype surrounding Boianjiu’s forthcoming novel, The People Of Forever Are Not Afraid, from which the New Yorker story was adapted, it was also created from stringing together previously-written short stories.
Finally, the works of both novelists are set in prototypical Israeli institutions of occupation in which they each once personally participated–the army and the settlement project.
Because I was appalled by the actions of Israeli settlers, I was appalled by Miller’s novel. One day I noticed that Miller was having a reading at the National Yiddish Book Center at nearby Hampshire College. I attempted to convince some local Israel/Palestine activists to read her book and accompany me to the event. Their uniformly dismissive response was telling me that “it is just fiction.” My reply that “Birth of a Nation” is also fiction made little impact on them.
Surprisingly few people showed up for Miller’s reading, maybe five or six as I recall. Miller’s patron Elinor Lipman who lived nearby, was among them. I wanted to ask the famous writer if she worried that her backing this objectionable and fanatical novel which glorified Israeli aggression and racist beliefs, might harm her career. I didn’t ask, and today I realize that she probably never considered that her publicly declared enthusiasm of Miller’s book could impact negatively on her oh-so-liberal image; and she would have been correct.
When the floor was opened to questions, I confronted Miller with some of the more politically-problematic segments of her work. She dismissed my queries calmly and with the apparent sincerity of a true believer, insisting that her characters were not like the “zealots of Gush Enumim,” but rather laudable Jewish-Americans who just want to live a peaceful, fulfilling, religious life — in their homeland. At this point I realized that the discussion was not about to tackle what I thought to be the most important aspects of the novel, so I started planning the best way of making an unobtrusive exit. Then something truly unexpected happened.
Apparently in order to enlarge the audience for Risa Miller, someone at the Book Center had recruited a group of about ten Jews, most well past retirement age, who were part of a Yiddish language class which was meeting that evening. Although the elderly students had joined the session after Miller’s reading, they quickly understood what her book was about, and were eager to join the conversation. Taking a cue from my remarks, but without addressing me personally, these Yiddish students professed a degree of identification with the author and support for the settler enterprise that was truly mind-boggling. I became dismayed as I tried to imagine how much their enthusiasm might have increased if these octogenarians had actually read Miller’s book.
It sounded as if the elderly Yiddish students had all made pilgrimages to the settlements. Some proudly talked about family members who were living there. Then, in contrast to my objections to Miller’s glorifying of the settlers of Hebron, two of the Yiddish students started a conversation about their wonderful actual encounters with those same “feisty” settlers. They started praising some of the Hebron settler leaders individually by name! Incredibly, many of the other students in this increasingly frightening class of jacked-up Jews began signaling their admiration for these heroes of occupation. It occurred to me that I might be witnessing a strange mustering of a small unit of the Yiddish Alter Cocker Army for the Liberation of Palestine that I never knew existed.
Into this cacophony of Yiddishkeit, bonhomie, and triumphalism, a gentleman who seemed to be the commander of this Jewish army of budding Yiddish speakers, drew attention to himself and said to no one in particular, “You know people could say that the settlers in Hebron are a bit more controversial than the others.” I got the impression he did not believe that, but thought that by making the statement he was showing his open-mindedness. Who knows, maybe this old codger was trying to impress the quite chic Elinor Lipman and thought the writer would be won by his insightful analysis.
The students’ vocal and persistent chatter about the settlement enterprise drew the focus away from Miller. She did not seem to mind. She was probably thinking about the long ride back to Boston where she had settled after unsuccessfully trying to establish permanent residence in some non-fictional Judean Heavenly Heights. She has written one other novel since that time (it also has an Israeli angle).
As I was walking toward the parking lot, a middle-aged woman whom I recognized from the reading came up to me and said she was Jewish, was alarmed by the militancy of the Yiddish students and disturbed by the point of view of Miller’s novel. That evening was my first realization that we Jews are not quite as liberal as we tell the world and ourselves that we are, especially when it comes to Israel.
The success of Risa Miller and Shani Boianjiu is very much a product of a Jewish-American subculture that has the power and will to glorify Israeli society and ignore its brutal decades-long occupation and discrimination against its Palestinian citizens. It is a power that makes criticism of these writers on moral, political or literary grounds all but impossible. And that is not fiction.