KINGDOM OF OLIVES AND ASH
Writers Confront the Occupation
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
448 pp. HarperCollins. $16.99.
From 1992 to 2014, writers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon were hesitant to get involved in the question of Israel/Palestine. “We didn’t want to write or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine, about the nature and meaning of occupation,” they write in the introduction to their 2017 collection of essays, Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation. Everything changed for them in 2014. Waldman, who was born in Jerusalem, visited Israel in 2014 for the first time in 22 years. She went to Hebron on that trip, and her experience made her feel that she bore some responsibility for what Israel was doing in her name. After the 2014 visit, she and Chabon did think about it; they wrote about it, too, and invited others to, as well. “Storytelling itself–bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered,” they write, “has the power to engage the attention of people who, like us, have long since given up paying attention.”
The book consists of 26 essays by international writers, all invited by Waldman and Chabon to visit the occupied territories and to write about their experiences. To escort the writers around the areas, Waldman and Chabon worked with the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, an organization of former Israeli soldiers who have chronicled the injustices they saw while serving in the Israeli army,
Who gets to write about Israel/Palestine? Does someone who is visiting for the first time have the same currency as someone who’s made it their life’s work? Waldman and Chabon intentionally put the word out about the book project to a diverse bunch of writers, some of whom had never before visited Israel/Palestine. They were clear they weren’t looking for Middle East expertise; they wanted the writers to simply write about what they saw. The contributors wrote about water and checkpoints and sewage and children and shepherds and love. Mostly, they wrote about the occupation as an absurdity, seamlessly executed by its occupiers.
Several of the contributors admitted they had not thought about the conflict that much; others consider it their home. All writers were adept at chronicling what they saw, some better than others. I was skeptical when I began the book, and unsure what new insight an outsider could have. As I kept reading, however, the occupation looked all the more horrific when seen through fresh eyes. The combination of veterans and first-timers provides accessible entry points for anyone wanting to read about bearing witness. Because of the book’s ability to reach such a wide-ranging audience, Kingdom of Olives and Ash is a necessary contribution to the genre of books written on Israel/Palestine, and could change the way we talk about the conflict.
Ali Hlelel, who lives in Acre, a coastal city in northern Israel, writes about the occupation as a complex, churning machine. “At first glance, everything is legal,” he notes, “everything is vouched for.” Yet, as Hlelel notes, there is no making sense of the logic behind occupation, except to its occupier. “It does not count that you were here before the occupation and even before the establishment of Israel,” Hlehel observes, “what counts is that you have become outside the context.” The occupation is an engine that resembles an old clock with cogwheels, “each wheel turns and pushes the wheel interlocked with it to turn as well.” This occupation machine, Hlehel writes, is “so tightly wound, integrated, and coherent that it is hard to distinguish its beginning from its end.” Hlelel describes the effect of the occupation’s insanity on the day-to-day lives of its victims:
In Susiya, they are searching for water and wells. They dig wells and the army floods them. There is no life without water, and there is no life without a permit, and there is no permit unless you are part of the controlling settler body.
In Hlelel’s description of the occupation, the Palestinian shepherd has to make sure his sheep don’t stray. On one side is settler land; on another is a closed military zone. There is no logic, yet it all makes sense from the perspective of those who keep the machine running.
Chabon encounters the madness of the occupation while driving with Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour. Chabon and Bahour are stopped at a checkpoint on their way to get kanafeh in Nablus. The soldier won’t let them through, but Chabon and Bahour can see cars coming from the other direction, which means it is possible to pass through from the other way. They consider driving forty-five minutes out of their way to come at the same checkpoint from the other side just to make the point to the soldier that the checkpoint, like his role as occupier, is futile. “We could take this road to the Ramallah road, then backtrack to that other road a little way, and then come back to where the kanafeh is from that end?” Chabon asks. Bahour tells Chabon that he has gone out of his way before just to point out to the soldiers how futile their service really is. The occupation is full of pointlessness and waiting. Permits to travel are given one day, denied the next, for no reason. “At its purest,” Chabon reminds us, “power is fundamentally arbitrary.”
Emily Raboteau writes about the cruel nonsense of life under occupation in Susiya, a village she visits in the South Hebron Hills. This was Raboteau’s second time going to Israel, her first time going into the West Bank. Raboteau reports that Palestinians have to pay for the water that is already theirs. Azzam Nawaja, a shepherd, tells her that the water he “must buy from Israel comes from within the West Bank.” The Western Aquifer Basin provides underground water in Israel and Palestine, but has been under Israel’s control since 1967. The UN reported that Israel takes 94 percent of the water, which leaves the Palestinians 6 percent. Palestinians pay five times for water than what Israel pays. “We offered to pay for it, even though it’s ours,” Azzam says. “They have all the water and electricity they want, even though it’s they who are illegal.”
The idea that Israeli law justifies the occupation is reminiscent of the Jim Crow South and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he writes about the lunacy of what is deemed legal and illegal. “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal,’” King writes. “It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” It was also once illegal to teach Blacks to read and write in the U.S. At the public high school where I teach, we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline that many of our students of color experience–the increased scrutiny they face with the criminal justice system due to structural racism–and we try to disrupt this pattern.
Kingdom of Olives and Ash asks how we might disrupt the occupation that forces Palestinians in Gaza to be born into a prison. In one of the best essays I’ve read about Gaza, Dave Eggers, who visits Gaza for the first time, explores what daily life looks like in this prison-like occupation. “Everything here adheres to a logic all its own,” Eggers writes. Even the notion of celebration under occupation is illogical:
So Gaza is a prison, and about 1.8 million people live inside this prison. They live in Gaza City, a bustling and cosmopolitan seaside city of more than half a million souls, and they live on farms and grow asparagus and almonds and cucumbers, and they go about life the best they can. There are nine universities and colleges. There are thirty-two hospitals. There are malls and galleries. There is Internet access, and wealthier people have cable television. The quality of water is substandard for some and terrible for others, and the electricity is not reliable; all but the elite can count on no more than eight hours a day. There are good restaurants. There are dinner parties, weddings, celebrations, births, parties by the seaside. But it is a prison.
Despite the restrictions the people of Gaza face, they try to live as normal a life as possible and navigate the best they can towards some semblance of progress.
Israel has often manipulated the fact that Palestinians are trying to live normal lives to claim their situation isn’t that bad. A Jerusalem Report magazine cover in 1995 showed children in Gaza playing at a park. The kids were smiling, laughing, climbing a jungle gym. The story mentioned new fancy restaurants that had recently opened in Gaza. It was an effort to show that life under occupation wasn’t that bad for Palestinians, or that there was no occupation. Of course Palestinians would try to live as close to a normal life as they could, despite the fact that they still live in a prison. But it seemed like the Jerusalem Report was trying to portray the situation in Gaza as a good one–that Palestinian lives seemed as easy as Israeli lives.
The Khaldi twins, two sisters who live in Gaza, have been making videos to teach the outside world about life in Gaza. Some videos have been about various neighborhoods in Gaza, new restaurants, an internet cafe, and a local artist. But unlike the Jerusalem Report, which made it seem like the people of Gaza had it better than they claimed, the Khaldi twins make their videos about their attempts to live a normal life. They’re the creators of their art. They are deciding how to represent themselves, as Palestinians, rather than being used as propaganda on an Israeli magazine cover that is preoccupied with branding its image.
Eggers writes in great detail about the three distinct jailers of Gaza: Israel, Egypt, and Hamas. He tells the story of a man who had his identity card taken away by Hamas, and then was subsequently asked by Hamas for his ID wherever he went. He had no card to present to them when they asked because they had taken it. It drove him mad. He set himself on fire in front of a hospital. The insanity of the occupation becomes too much for those stuck in the cogwheels of its system.
The occupation machine demands the IDF soldiers be young enough to follow orders and enjoy the power they are given. Just nineteen or twenty, they’re “scarcely filling out their fatigues,” as Eggers writes. These are the gatekeepers of the checkpoints, the guarders of Gaza, charged with the task of giving orders that exist for no reason except to degrade and dehumanize Palestinians. These soldiers are losing their humanity, Eggers argues, as they enforce these demeaning laws. They have become less human in their role as occupier.
Eggers’s observations about the IDF show how relevant Aime Cesaire’s classic work on this subject is. Discourse on Colonialism, published in 1955, shows us the consequences of colonialism on the colonizer and the colonized:
A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a sick civilization. A civilization that plays fast and loose with its principles is a dying civilization.
Taken as a whole, the essays in Kingdom of Olives and Ash demonstrate that Israel is playing fast and loose. The fear the state projects–its fear, too, of the changing discourse in the U.S.–is evidence of its impending erosion. “No one colonizes innocently,” Cesaire asserts. “A civilization which justifies colonization–and therefore force–is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased.” Just as the U.S. was founded upon and set up to maintain white supremacy, so too, does Israel require that the occupation continue. Keeping Palestinians down has become an integral part of Israel’s existence; the occupation machine is set up to keep feeding itself. In the meantime, the people of Gaza are stuck. Eggers writes, “They have no options but to ask permission and to wait.”
Mario Vargas Llosa’s essay can serve as a good entry point for Zionists who read the anthology. Vargas Llosa, who has been to Israel often, feels that Israel’s biggest problem is the settlements. This argument resembles the liberal Zionist party line that thinks the settlers are the colonizers. Non-Zionists who feel Israel hasn’t colonized just the Palestinian territories, but, in fact, believe that all of Israel is indigenous Palestinian land, might find Vargas Llosa’s essay limiting. He’s opposed to the academic boycott and feels that it threatens Israel, as do many liberal Zionists. He refers to David Grossman and Amoz Oz as writers “who sign manifestos and demand that human and civil rights violations stop.” Grossman and Oz are “tireless defenders of dialogue and peace with the Palestinians.” It’s true, Grossman and Oz are vocal about their protests, but similar to white liberalism in the U.S., their outrage can at times seem condescending towards those who have less power.
Yitzhak Laor’s 2009 book, The Myths of Liberal Zionism, criticizes liberal Zionist writers like Oz. Laor believes liberal Zionism is patronizing towards Palestinians. Laor asserts, “there is no other writer of Israeli prose who utilizes the arsenal of colonial stereotypes as much as Amoz Oz.” Oz “talks about the natives as if he were a social worker talking about children,” Laor writes. Some of my white colleagues talk about our students of color in a similar way, and see themselves as heroes, saving our at-risk students. In this dynamic, the focus becomes the savior, and not the students, who are viewed as deficient and reliant on the savior. Some Israelis consider Oz and Grossman traitors because they protest and speak out in defense of Palestinians, while others further to the left feel that they won’t move past their liberal Zionism to live in true equality with the Palestinians. Vargas Llosa’s essay is an important one, especially for readers who want to read about the occupation, but who are, like Vargas Llosa, opposed to BDS, critical of the settlements, but support Israel’s right to exist.
Lars Saabye Christensen’s essay appears, at first, to suffer from Israeli exceptionalism. “In the sixties, Israel was a role model,” he writes, adding that, “Israel has good reasons, better than most countries, to be on the alert,” referring to long queues at checkpoints. Israel “has created a democracy, an army, science, a language, literature,” he continues. “Israel has managed this despite the hostility of the neighboring countries, despite terror.” But as Christensen travels through the West Bank, he shifts his thinking:
But is it nevertheless possible to say that Israel has become reckless? I think it is possible. Israel forgot about the resentment of the loser. Israel forgot the bitter memories of the Palestinians. Instead, Israel reminds them of their loss every single day. No one remembers better than the loser.
Going to the West Bank, meeting with Palestinians, and observing violent settler behavior has a profound impact on Christensen. Once he’s learned that settlers throw garbage and pour urine onto the Palestinians, who have installed wire netting and plastic to protect themselves, he states, “If you want to lose your faith, just go to Hebron.” Christensen’s essay makes clear how vital it is for people to visit the West Bank themselves and see what’s happening. For those who can’t make the trip, Kingdom of Olives and Ash gets you close.
As effective as the book is, some essays by those not as familiar with the conflict seem limited and misguided. Jacqueline Woodson’s essay, for instance, describes Palestinian life with what feels like an outsider’s gaze that borders on Orientalizing:
There is a quiet loveliness to the people of Palestine. Before you can remove your sandals and step into their homes, there is the offering of tea, the shy bowed heads of both the women and men, followed by the warm smiles often reflecting the tortured teeth of poverty.
This passage objectifies Palestinians as though they walk on air. Of course, Palestinians, like everyone else, want to live normal, full lives with dignity and want what everyone else wants. To portray them as unreal and one-dimensional takes away from what life is really like for them under occupation.
Raboteau’s essay, mentioned earlier, describes the water crisis in Palestine really well, but parts of her essay, too, fall prey to Orientalizing. Raboteau notes the “blowing of the saffron-hued wind,” and describes her guide, Ahmed, who, noticing Raboteau is dehydrated, “pulled out a peach, seemingly from thin air, and told me to eat.” Ahmed is described here as a wise, all-knowing sage. But Ahmed is also a complex and normal human being, and to depict him otherwise takes away from this complexity.
Despite the occasional essay lacking historical perspective, most essays in the book confront rather than avoid life under occupation in Palestine. Rachel Kushner tells the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint she is not Jewish so as not to conflate Judaism and Zionism. Waldman writes about Issa Amro, the community organizer in Hebron, whose commitment to nonviolence is so fierce, he “can convince a young person to put down her gun or blade and resist with tools learned from the example of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and yes indeed, from Gandhi.” Whenever they can, young Palestinians in Hebron listen to Amro talk with them “about the power of his alternative path.”
Taiye Selasi’s essay is about forbidden love, and is one of the most moving essays in the book. She tells the story of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s national poet, who had a long-time Israeli lover, Tamar Ben Ami, known only as “Rita,” whose identity remained secret for forty years. Such relationships remain a threat to Israel. The right-wing organization, LEHAVA (an acronym for Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land), publicly opposes intermarriages and organizes anti-assimilation protests. Selasi learns that while some romances between Palestinians and Israelis exist, most feel that it’s too dangerous:
Through a combination of formal policy, cultural production, and violent intimidation, the state has succeeded in racializing love–the most egregious act of dehumanization possible…Though there are many Israelis who do uphold the humanity of their Arab neighbors, the danger associated with loving them succeeds in obscuring the singularity of love itself.
But love does endure, Selasi learns, despite the attempts to keep people apart. “It is here, on the southwestern outskirts of Ramallah,” she writes, “with the sun setting over Jerusalem, that I begin an inquiry, quite unintended, into Palestinian-Israeli love.” Love does exist between Jews and Palestinians, but is amidst the backdrop of a “haunted, hardened landscape.”
Chabon and Waldman’s anthology is an experiment in storytelling and bearing witness. As the ongoing occupation becomes more dire, perhaps we should think about how we write and talk about Israel/Palestine. Maybe we need to start doing it differently. Kingdom of Olives and Ash connects the personal and the political; here, the private can become public. The more people read–and go see for themselves–and learn about the occupation, the better.
I told my mother–a lifelong Zionist with whom I’ve experienced lots of conflicts about Israel/Palestine–that I was writing this review. As a liberal Zionist, she won’t seek out books about the occupation, but she will read personal stories. I’ve been throwing facts in her face about Israel/Palestine for years and it hasn’t helped. I need a new strategy. Maybe narrative is one way. If we want people to change their hearts and minds, to dig deep and shift their feelings about the mythology of Israel, we might just start with a story. When I told her that some of her favorite authors wrote essays in this anthology, she said she’d like to read the book. I’ll give her my copy now that I’m done.