Pro-Israel literary subculture is poised to champion Shani Boianjiu, as it did Risa Miller

Book

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.   

Risa Miller
Risa Miller

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

But the most offensive passages, by far, are the deification of fanatical settlers in Hebron (al Khalil), who are described glowingly as “the ligature of the entire enterprise of Eretz Yisrael.”

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.

About Ira Glunts

Ira Glunts is a retired college librarian who lives in Madison, NY.
Posted in American Jewish Community, Israel Lobby, Israel/Palestine, Media

{ 20 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. seafoid says:

    Shani Bwhatever isn’t actually that good.
    Israeli culture has very little to offer the global market. There was Amos Oz and Ofra Haza and this


    And what else?

    I think far too much Israeli energy goes into fear and hatred. Not much left for creativity.

    7 million people can do WAY better.
    Iceland only has 400K – when is Israel going to produce a Bjork ?

  2. that was a really good read Ira. thank you.

  3. MRW says:

    When Netanyahu said these times are Germany circa 1938, he wasn’t far wrong, although his date should have been five years earlier.

    About the only people getting book contracts these days, and reviewed on Fresh Air, major newspapers and the like, are Jewish writers (and by Jewish reviewers).

    Hophmi, et al, can attack me for this being an anti-semitic remark, but I look at the numbers. Numbers and bios don’t lie. And if you think I’m alone in noticing this, you are sadly mistaken.

    • Danaa says:

      MRW, I agree with you – noticed the same trend. Also on Comedy Central, and on Books TV. My only quibble is with the “only Jews”. I’d modify to say “mostly Jews and Philo-Semite Friends”. You know, just to be precise.

      The picture in the non-fiction publishing world seems especially interesting. Since I have some ambitions here, me thinks I might just have to make an effort to remember where I’m from.

      • MRW says:

        Yes, Danaa, I would agree with your observation of my imprecision. I actually meant it as you wrote it. My sloppiness. Really.

        You and I seem to be the only ones ringing the bells of what is brewing in the hinterland. As a former New Yorker (half my life), I am stunned by how out-to-lunch NYCers and DCers are about the rest of the country. There’s a silent rage out here.

  4. ToivoS says:

    Ira, interesting anecdote with these two authors and the Yiddish students. In 1992 I became a real convert to the two state solution promoted by the Oslo process. I believed, that this was plan that overwhelming numbers of Jews both in the US and Israel supported. The only obstacle was the isolated fanatic settlers who were defying the majority. It was not until the failed Camp David talks in 1999 that I realized how wrong that was. Since then it has become increasingly clear that there was some kind of massive swindle going on then. Stories like these show how it is now completely OK to come out of the closet and support the WB land theft movement.

  5. Miura says:

    Another literary effort that received praise in industrial strength doses:

    SOME NOVELS are met by such a hurricane of hostile criticism that they sink out of sight. Only word of mouth, the contrary opinion running from reader to reader, can occasionally bring them to the surface again. To the End of the Land has the opposite problem. It arrived on a foaming wave of praise which, when they actually get down to its pages, will leave many readers puzzled. Normally an author can deflect blurb hyperbole with a wince. But this fanfare has been on a Hollywood Bowl scale that does Grossman, who has proved himself in the past to be a wise and talented writer, no favors at all.

    ‘To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.’ So wrote Nicole Krauss. Paul Auster ranked the book with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina: ‘wrenching, beautiful, unforgettable’. Grossman’s American publisher called it ‘one of the very greatest novels I shall have the privilege of publishing … When critics look back at the 21st century and list its 20 best novels, it will be on it.’ Several reviewers and interviewers have grabbed at the Tolstoy comparison: the vast scale, the humanity, the panorama of families in a land incessantly at war. Perhaps, they venture, this is the War and Peace of our own times.

    Above review elicited a Letter to the Editor:

    Reviewing David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, Neal Ascherson is right to be reminded of ‘those American war films, proclaimed to be ‘against Vietnam’, in which only the American victims are in focus’ (LRB, 3 February). Grossman’s novel–like most Israeli fictions about the conflict–is almost entirely preoccupied with Jewish suffering, its Arab characters never more than shadows that flit across the stage. What Ascherson misses is the thread that connects Grossman’s aesthetics and his politics. Grossman is, to be sure, concerned about what Israel has done to the Palestinians, but he’s far more concerned with what oppressing the Palestinians has done to Israel. The indifference to the inner lives of Palestinians and the emphasis on Jewish victimization in To the End of the Land reflect the pinched sympathies–and imaginative failures–of the Zionist consensus to which he belongs. This is a major reason why Grossman is so enormously popular in Israel, even on the right. Despite his opposition to the occupation, he remains a loyal soldier. As George Packer touchingly noted in his New Yorker profile, ‘even though he is alienated from Israel’s leadership, he still sends his children into the army.’ The fact that he continues to support a two-state solution ‘even though Arab militants killed his son’ (Packer again) has been turned into another reason to admire him: an example of his supreme generosity (never mind that these ‘Arab militants’ were defending their land against an Israeli invasion). Purportedly an anti-war novel, To the End of the Land breathes new literary life into the old cliché of Israel’s anguished soul.

  6. Denis says:

    “. . . increasingly frightening class of jacked-up Jews . . .” What a beautifully descriptive phrase — almost wasted by using it to refer to just this small gaggle of Yiddish students. Does it not aptly apply to the entire Zionist movement?

    Once before on MW I initiated a conversation questioning the value of fiction in life-and-death political issues such as I/P. That conversation was a complete disaster, which is an excellent reason for repeating it. I discovered that some fans of, and contributors to, MW embrace fiction wholeheartedly when it is used to make points they agree with, and I am thinking about a certain cartoon series in particular. It is when the “other side” employs fiction that the poop starts flying.

    I still stand on the position that there is no place for fiction in life-and-death politics. Sure, I know, I know . . . Uncle Tom’s Cabin ended slavery, yada yada. Never mind that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote UTC in Maine and never set foot on a plantation in her life. She was a lot less knowledgeable about slavery than Ms. Boianjiu is about life in the WB. However, my point is that knowledge is not a prerequisite for writing fiction, which is why it has no place in politics.

    And Ira raises Birth of a Nation (aka “The Clansman”) as another good example of fiction that had an impact. In fact, it did more than any other piece of propaganda to perpetuate Jim Crow and lynchings for generations. So I am not arguing that political or historical fiction cannot have a powerful effect. I am arguing that the only reason it does is b/c dolts read it and they are the ones most easily inflamed.

    Fiction is nothing more than some person who is too lazy to find or figure out the truth based on facts pouring out their imagination onto a page or screen in the hopes that some mass-retail venture will grab it and make them a million shekels . . . er, dollars.

    There is no reliable information content in fiction, which is why it’s called “fiction.” Ignore it. People who get their knickers all twisted by Boianjiu’s New Yorker short story don’t get it. Whatever is in that story is presented as fiction, regardless of whether or not it resembles real life events. Boianjiu’s reference to Harry Potter is bingo-on-the-nose right. All fiction is Harry Potter and Peter Pan.

    It is like Jon Stewart — whenever he is called out for botching facts, he always defends his stupidity by saying “It’s only comedy. I’m not a reporter.” So he skewers reporters for getting the facts wrong while using the “I never said it was true” BS as a defense of his own errors. It is precisely that ubiquitous argument that makes fiction dishonest in the context of politics.

    Those who mock, or ridicule, or curse Bioanjiu, only draw attention to her, and thereby guarantee that she’ll have more success, which is to say that she’ll get a nice, fat advance for her next piece on life in the WB. After all, the whole hasbara machine is run by an “increasingly frightening class of jacked-up Jews” — the editors, publishers, and producers, mostly in NYC. They delight in producing fiction — it’s cheap, you can’t rationally be called out because of factual inaccuracies, and a lot of idiots pay to read it or see it.

    I would say that all those people who refused to attend Risa Miller’s reading at Hampshire College had it right. Sometimes silence is the loudest protest.

    • ColinWright says:

      “…Uncle Tom’s Cabin ended slavery, yada yada. Never mind that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote UTC in Maine and never set foot on a plantation in her life…”

      My understanding is that she did once spend a weekend on a plantation in Kentucky.

      • Denis says:

        I believe that visit to a Ky plantation was staged or was another of the myths perpetuated post-UTC to try and cover for Stowe’s ignorance of her subject. She is also accused of later citing references that she could not have read prior to writing UTC. In short, she was a fake.

        But to be safe, I’ll accommodate your sharp eye and amend my assertion: Never mind that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote UTC in Maine and never set foot on a plantation prior to publishing UTC . . .

        The point remains unchanged, and it’s the same point you make: Fiction is an excellent medium for purveying lies.

        I disagree with your Rx: attack every lie in every piece of fiction. I certainly can’t agree that it is “incumbent” on anyone to do so. That is just taking the author’s bait and promoting the lies by turning them into a controversy.

        My Rx is to attack not individual statements in individual novels or movies, but the entire genre of political/historical fiction. Damned if it is incumbent on me to wade through every idiot novel or movie plot, pick out the lies, and then make a stink. It’s enough to say: “It’s fiction; ergo, it’s lies. Period. Why waste your time?”

        But you are right — we were all taken in by beautifully written fiction and movies when we were young. Young people and idiots always will be. Cartoons are even worse and have always been suspect for seeding young minds with propaganda — right back to the 1930′s. Today is no different.

        The solution as I see it is exposing the genre for what it is and ignoring individual works, or authors, or lies as not worthy of my time. Lord knows, there’s enough lies to deal with just in the non-fiction without pissing away valuable time fact-checking fiction.

        But having said that, I would also express my gratitude to those of you who feel an obligation to expose the “lies” in fiction. It’s just that when you expose the “lies”, the authors will inevitably — and correctly — hide behind the “it’s only fiction” defense. Keep pushing back against that argument, and all liars will eventually reduce their defense to the irreducible Clinton defense: It depends on what your definition of “is” is. Why bother?

    • ColinWright says:

      “…I still stand on the position that there is no place for fiction in life-and-death politics…”

      I disagree. First off, whether or not you think it should have a place, it does have a place, and if you refuse to challenge it, people will assume the account given, even if it is in fictional form, is essentially accurate.

      See Leon Uris and Exodus. I was one of probably several million literate pre-teens who were introduced to Israel by that book. Very, very effective. Indeed, probably more effective than non-fiction, since (a) well-written fiction is extremely appealing, and (b) few if any of the reviewers are going to fasten on factual errors when they consider the merits of a novel. I’ve noticed this repeatedly with films: some movie will retail what are in fact definite historical untruths, but since the reviewers are primarily concerned with the artistic merits of the film, they won’t call anyone on them. Among critically acclaimed films that get away with this, I will mention Battleship Potemkin, The Sorrow and the Pity, and The Battle of Algiers. I’m almost certain The Wind in the Barley is another one, but I forget the details, and that film’s such a turkey that I’m not about to watch it again — nor am I interested in reading more about ‘The Troubles.’

      Fiction is an excellent medium for purveying lies. It’s vastly superior to non-fiction. If you’re not going to crank it out yourself, it is incumbent on you to at least say something when the other side resorts to it.

  7. RE: “The recent controversy about Jewish-Israeli writer, Shani Boianjiu . . . 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. . .” ~ Ira Glunts

    SEE – “Israeli author: Israel is the most racist state in the ‘developed’ world”, By Revital Hovel, Haartez, 6/26/12

    [EXCERPTS] Israeli culture is no less toxic than fanatic Islam, and the country’s discriminatory attitude toward Mizrahi Jews and Arabs qualifies it for the title of “most racist state,” prominent Israeli author Sami Michael said on Monday. . .
    . . . The racism is encouraged by cabinet members and MKs, and fueled by increasing religious extremism in the country, he said.

    Michael also criticized the social inequalities in Israel and what he characterized as the failure of the left to adequately contend with these issues.
    “Israel is in danger unless its leadership understands it isn’t located in Europe’s tranquil north but in the Middle East’s seething center,” said Michael. “We may lose everything. Israel could be a transient construct, like the First and Second Temples.”
    Michael said Israeli children are trained to hate the other.
    “Israeli culture is no less poisoned than the fanatic Islamic factions,” he said.
    “From kindergarten to old age we feed our children hatred, suspicion and disgust toward the stranger and the other, and especially toward the Arabs,” he said.
    He called the occupation “disaster incarnate” for Israel.

    SOURCE – link to warincontext.org

    • P.S. “Israeli author: Israel is the most racist state in the ‘developed’ world” ~ from above

      ALSO SEE: “Academic claims Israeli school textbooks contain bias” ~ By Harriet Sherwood, guardian.co.uk, 8/07/11
      Nurit Peled-Elhanan of Hebrew University says textbooks depict Palestinians as ‘terrorists, refugees and primitive farmers’

      [EXCERPT] Nurit Peled-Elhanan, an Israeli academic, mother and political radical, summons up an image of rows of Jewish schoolchildren, bent over their books, learning about their neighbours, the Palestinians. But, she says, they are never referred to as Palestinians unless the context is terrorism.
      They are called Arabs. “The Arab with a camel, in an Ali Baba dress. They describe them as vile and deviant and criminal, people who don’t pay taxes, people who live off the state, people who don’t want to develop,” she says. “The only representation is as refugees, primitive farmers and terrorists. You never see a Palestinian child or doctor or teacher or engineer or modern farmer.”
      Peled-Elhanan, a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied the content of Israeli school books for the past five years, and her account, “Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education”, is to be published in the UK this month. She describes what she found as racism– but, more than that, a racism that prepares young Israelis for their compulsory military service. . .

      ENTIRE ARTICLE – link to guardian.co.uk

      VIDEO of interview with Peled-Elhanan (08:48) – link to youtube.com

    • lysias says:

      “We may lose everything. Israel could be a transient construct, like the First and Second Temples.”

      The Crusader States lasted a little less than 200 years.

      French Algeria lasted a little more than 130 years.

  8. Denis says:

    LD, thanks for the info-links on Peled-Elhanan. That Guardian article paints the picture of a saint — a woman who lost her daughter to a Palestinian suicide-bomber is now doing so much to stop Israeli apartheid.

    And she sure has this right: “Change, she says, will only come ‘when the Americans stop providing us with $1m a day to maintain this regime of occupation and racism and supremacy’ “. That, to me, is the most important message of all. Only Americans have the wherewithal to stop the corrosive effects of Israeli apartheid, and to avert some horrible nuclear blow-out in the ME.

    This wonderful woman is another example of how this conflict is bringing out the best of the best Jews and the worst of the worst ones, both in Israel and the US.

  9. Anybody remember the Oprah Book Club winning book about the Holocaust guy who was supposedly fed apples from the other side of the fence by his future wife?

    Oprah called it “the greatest love story we’ve ever told on this show.”

    Then he was busted for making the whole thing up.
    link to youtube.com
    Listen to him explain his mindset while he was leading us on.

    • ColinWright says:

      My immediate thought is how could someone survive on just apples?

      They’re not particularly nutritious. Some sugar, but that’s about it.

  10. ColinWright says:

    Anyway, if the Zionists promote Shani Boianjiu, they may just produce a gag reflex.

    Ever tried to keep eating something once it’s made you gag? It’s hard.

    I can’t see this being a big success for Israel, but I can see it doing them meaningful damage.

    • seafoid says:

      I would be interested to see the sales figures for Miller and Ms B. It boils down to getting the goys to prop up the ideology with their money. Literature as respectability. Another plank of support to go with Congress.

      From the Israeli PoV there are 2 narratives and only theirs is valid . This narrative needs writers and it needs singers. They have full spectrum dominance in Hebrew but unfortunately very few American Jews speak Hebrew so they have to bring the ideology over to English, a language with different mores. Things are discussed in English that are verboten in Hebrew. What sounds logical in Hebrew sounds awkward in English. Hence the need for the hasbara. Get it back to those mantras and repeat over and over. They are still in the circled wagons stage. Judaism doesn’t yet have a Nadine Gordimer.

      It’s another view of the Israel vs Zochrot issue. How do you render robust an ideology that is too weak to stand on its own?

      The problem with Zionism is it requires too much effort.

      And thus Ms B is just another turd polisher.

  11. evets says:

    ‘Things are discussed in English that are verboten in Hebrew.’

    Not sure that’s true, esp. within the Jewish community

    ‘Judaism doesn’t yet have a Nadine Gordimer.’

    Who happens to Jewish.