An Israeli novelist who is traveling to the United States at the behest of the Foreign Ministry repeatedly trashed the Benjamin Netanyahu government as nationalist demagogues in an appearance on Wednesday, with two officials of the Foreign Ministry in the audience.
Dorit Rabinyan described Netanyahu and his ministers as “this sorceress and his apprentices… Bennett, Regev, all these stupid apprentices.” And she said that Netanyahu’s backer Sheldon Adelson had “brainwashed” Israel.
Aviad Ivri, Israeli consul for cultural affairs, smiled frozenly during her remarks, and Rabinyan declared, “I can see your face!”
Rabinyan is in New York for a publicity tour that includes appearing at the PEN World Voices conference next week. Her third novel, titled All the Rivers in English, describes a love affair between a Palestinian and an Israeli and was the source of controversy in Israel 16 months ago when the Education Ministry took it off the national curriculum, saying that it would damage Jewish identity by promoting assimilation.
Rabinyan spoke at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on the Upper West Side on Wednesday and repeatedly flirted with creating “another scandal,” as she put it, even after two Foreign Ministry officials, Ivri and Mordehai Amihai-Bivas, Israel’s ambassador to the Caribbean, were introduced with enormous respect by the event moderator, and Ivri said, “It is our pleasure and our honor” to sponsor Rabinyan’s trip.
It struck me later that the Israeli government’s sponsorship of Rabinyan may be a sophisticated effort on its part to try to improve its dismal public relations by promoting a liberal critic. But Rabinyan’s comments seemed spontaneous and far less guarded than her public comments lately.
Rabinyan said the book’s message was that “the other” is equal to you, but that message was being fought by an Israeli government of “nationalists who have taken hostage of what we call Israel.”
I get furious when I am being reminded of all those accusations I had to suffer from the Minister of Education himself who had twisted fragments of my book on the 8 o clock news in front of the whole nation and blamed me as being the enemy of the nation, just by humanizing the other, just by redeeming the other from this suffocating sack of generalization that is being done by the government in the past two decades ever since the assassination of Rabin. Israeli democracy is being shaped by this sorceress and his apprentices. Mr Netanyahu and all this Bennett, Regev, all these stupid apprentices, they follow him and his demagogue rhetoric. And you know, your president, I think he was an apprentice of his as well. Because he has internalized so many of his methods. They have the same sponsor, as you well know. The one responsible for brainwashing Israelis’ minds is an American billionaire. Sheldon Adelson. He is nurturing Bibi’s regime…
Miri Regev is Netanyahu’s minister of culture; Naftali Bennett the minister of education. Sheldon Adelson gave a reported $25-$35 million to Donald Trump’s campaign last year.
Rabinyan said that the education committee that had barred her book from the curriculum was acting at the behest of Bennett, for whom she had choice words:
It was a committee that was very much wanting to please their master. Their master is a religious rightwing propaganda demagogue. I stop here with the adjectives because I go rude.
The main fault of the book in the eyes of the government is that it might encourage identification with Palestinians. She addressed Ivri:
This government, and you can pass it on, our prime minister had radicalized empathy to that extent that even feeling for the other, even considering the other to be worth being sorry for is considered nowadays in Israel to be a radical action. It’s an unbearable thought. I can see your face! Empathy is our cure– this is the only way we can get free out of this conflict.
In some respects it makes perfect sense for the Israeli government to be sponsoring Rabinyan. She says she is a proud Zionist, because Zionism liberated her parents from Iran and gave her freedoms that she would not have had living in Tehran. And she described her book, which came out in Israel in summer 2014, as a tool in Israel’s war on Gaza that summer. “Israelis in shelters were reading my book, between one siren and another, and thanking me in tears,” she said, in gratitude for the love story between an Israeli Jewish woman and a Palestinian man, set largely in New York.
But the “ultimate” satisfaction, she said, were pictures she saw of reservists going into Gaza with her book.
I saw some pictures of those soldiers taking the book in their hand and the gun in the other hand… and saying I carry this book and I read it between shifts, so I want to be reminded that I am not fighting against all Gazans, it’s us good guys against bad guys, I am fighting for Gazans themselves, for the good guys here as well.
I was so astonished. What can literature ask, more than have this reward, given from reality. It is an enormous act of morality to read literature when you serve in the army with a war going on, and one that is conflictual.
That was a seven-week war in which Israel killed over 1500 civilians, including 500 children, while six civilians in Israel were killed. Rabinyan made no mention of the massacre, which makes sense; the war was supported by 95 percent of Israelis, including those on the “left.”
Rabinyan showed much more empathy when she was asked why she wrote the book, and answered that she wrote it for her former lover, Hasan Hourani, a Palestinian artist from the West Bank who died in 2003 when he was allowed to go to the Mediterranean and drowned. She could only have met him in New York, she said.
I wrote it in order to carry the memory of Hasan Hourani, to whom the book is dedicated. A Palestinian artist– I met him here, very close to here, in 14th street and 6th Avenue… Our encounter was very passionate. We’re passionate people…
For his memory I wrote the book.. I addressed my writing to him. Describing him, telling him about him, with my Hebrew, that was my revolt. Bringing him back to life. Sending out my hand, both hands, and reaching out to pull him back, and to give him new life, literary life, flesh and blood, as much as literature can give, was a way to rescue not only his memory but his art. Because he was a very talented person, and he was in the midst of his breakthrough. So the time I knew him made me the witness of the last month of his life, so I felt I was nominated to be his narrator… He was my inspiration, he was my muse…I sometimes think that if it was otherwise, I was the heroine of his novel, he would have written about me… We had something that goes beyond something a man or a woman. We had a true friendship that was so valuable because of the correspondence with life and death back at home.
Thanks to James North.