Telling Stories of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
As a journalist, I am drawn to stories that delve into dual narratives and the impact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has on ordinary lives (something I was fortunate to explore as host of Hadassah’s The Branch podcast). But these themes are not readily found in literature.
Two first-time novelists have taken on this mission, albeit with very different approaches, in their recently published books: City of a Thousand Gates by Rebecca Sacks (Harper) and Hope Valley (Bedazzled Ink) by Haviva Ner-David.
Ner-David, an American-born rabbi who lives with her family on a kibbutz in the Galilee, draws her inspiration from discussions in the Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups she’s attended over the years. In Hope Valley, she describes the intersecting stories of two Galilean women, both 51, both artists living with illness and navigating familial and collective trauma. Tikvah, who has multiple sclerosis, is a Jewish Israeli who resides on moshav Sapir; Rabia, also known as Ruby, is an Israeli Palestinian whose work is known worldwide. She has returned to Israel and her childhood village after years abroad to be treated for cancer. The two meet by chance in 2000 on the eve of the Second Intifada, in the valley between their respective homes.
Tikvah, whose name means hope, is the child of Holocaust survivors. She grew up in New York and made aliyah immediately after high school. Despite having lived in Israel for decades, she is unaware of Palestinian history, including that the 1948 War of Independence and its aftereffects are known as the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” by Palestinians who mourn the war as the beginning of their own exile and displacement.
Ruby teaches her new friend that her moshav was built on what was once an Arab village, demolished after the 1948 war, and that the valley where the two meet has a name.
“Maybe not an official one, on your people’s maps, but all of the Arab villagers around here know it,” Ruby tells Tikvah. “Hope Valley. Marjat Amal. And my village up on the hill across from your moshav, Bir al-Demue—that is on your maps so I assume you know what that means.” (Tikvah doesn’t.)
“Well, it means Well of Tears. There’s an historic well in the village where women would come to cry, their tears mixing with the water in the well. Hopes and tears. Appropriate, considering the history of the area.”
Curiosity and growing discomfort with her own lack of knowledge awakens Tikvah’s interest in the history and present-day experiences of her Arab neighbors.
Ruby, meanwhile, initially resentful of all Jewish Israelis and on a mission to recover her late father’s 1948-era diary, which was hidden in a stone wall in Tikvah’s home, undergoes her own evolution through her connection to Tikvah.
Coincidences and intersecting storylines multiply at a dizzying pace as the book hurtles toward an ending that reinforces how much the two women ultimately have in common, while not underplaying the power dynamics at play.
In City of a Thousand Gates, Sacks explores the impact of power dynamics on intersecting lives by telling the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian story through a sweeping ensemble cast of characters. There are Jewish settler families; American Jews of various political and religious stripes who now live in Israel; Palestinian academics, business owners and workers living in East Jerusalem or the West Bank; Israeli and Palestinian soccer players, soldiers and students.
Checkpoints, too, are almost a character themselves in the novel, places experienced differently by the young Israeli soldiers guarding them and the Palestinians trying to pass through to get to work and studies. Palestinian characters like Hamid, a university student who sneaks into Tel Aviv to work illegally for an Israeli air conditioning installer in order to pay his tuition, or Samar, a professor at Bethlehem University, are the ones whose time is lost waiting in long lines. They fear spooking the nervous troops even as those soldiers—like Ori, a blue-eyed combat soldier struggling with his religious beliefs—are also on edge, wondering what dangers might lurk among the Palestinians they confront every day.
These myriad characters each have their own take on tragic incidents, such as a pair of terror attacks that claim the lives of two 14-year-olds—one a Jewish girl stabbed in her bed in a West Bank settlement, the other a Palestinian boy jumped outside a mall by a mob of Jewish teenagers bent on revenge. These tragedies are borrowed from real-life events of the summer of 2014. In June of that year, three Jewish teenage boys—Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach—were abducted and murdered by a Hamas cell in the West Bank. In early July, 14-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir was beaten and burned to death by Jewish extremists. The violence was among the events that led to Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas.
Sacks is a gifted writer who does an excellent job of keeping the tension alive. Like the Israeli-Palestinian reality, the plot gives the characters something to share: dread of when the next incident will happen and the uncertainty of its aftermath.
Hope Valley and City of a Thousand Gates shine brightest in their humanizing of Jews and Palestinians. The novels capture the vast divide between these two groups—a tragedy in itself—despite their close physical proximity.
Both writers get credit for taking on richly researched dual and multiple narratives in a conflict mired in the admonition to “take a side.” They challenge readers to go inside the minds and hearts of all the characters as they process trauma, flashes of insight and, sometimes, even hope.
Dina Kraft is The Christian Science Monitor’s Israel correspondent and co-host of Groundwork, a new podcast about Israeli and Palestinian peace and social justice activism.