On the West bank: A New Israeli novel


First published in the Times Literary Supplement (Jan. 2, 2015)

Among many obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the settlements established on the West Bank since 1967 seem peculiarly intractable. Part of their purpose was to create “facts on the ground” to inhibit the formation of a Palestinian state. Still, when Israel gave up the Jewish settlements in Sinai in 1982 and again in Gaza in 2005, the settlers appeared to have their backs to the wall. Instead, their influence over Israel’s politics, including the current governing coalition, has never been greater. Though many were drawn by economic incentives, others fit the more swaggering mold of gun-toting ideological zealots, motivated by biblically-rooted religion or nationalism. This is the stereotype that Assaf Gavron sets out to complicate in his new novel, The Hilltop.

Though the issues raised are grave, Assaf Gavron’s tack is surprisingly light-hearted, humorous, satirical. A previous book, Almost Dead, was a slashing, sometimes surreal comic novel about terrorism, including suicide bombing, told alternately in the first person from a Jewish and an Arab point of view. The Hilltop is a more conventional but also more ambitious work, a distanced overview, meticulously realistic, centering on everyday life in one corner of the territories. The setting is Ma’aleh Hermesh C, an improvised outpost of a handful of families on the fringe of an established settlement. It can’t be found on any map – hence can’t be evacuated – because officially it was evacuated years ago. It squats on land whose legal status is absurdly ambiguous. In a page out of Catch-22, it doesn’t exist though its residents are back, living under the protection of the Israeli army.

To Israel’s defense minister it’s become an annoyance, especially after a serendipitous press report draws the attention of the American government, even the president. The aggrieved defense minister feels “he went there to support them, and they spat on him. In any normal country,” he thinks, “ the outpost would have been dismantled and they would have been thrown in jail.” These settlers, though religious, are hardly extremists or militant fundamentalists. They’re hard-working, mostly well-meaning, with little patience for the “lefties” who challenge them. One of the founders, the genial Othniel Assis, simply knows how to play the bureaucratic game, exploiting loopholes and pulling strings whenever the outpost is threatened.

For some, the appeal of the territories is like that of the Wild West. Roni Kupper, whose recent past is clouded in mystery, returns from America to hole up in the outpost with his brother Gabi, who also has been through unspoken troubles. At loose ends, Roni hatches up a scheme to buy artisanal olive oil from a nearby Palestinian farmer and market it to Tel Aviv yuppies. Roni is secular and entrepreneurial while his brother, a loner, has become devoutly religious. Orphaned at a young age, raised by adoptive parents in a kibbutz in the north, they implicitly represent the two divergent wings of Israeli society, both cut off from the rugged, state-building generation of early socialist Zionists. To Roni, who has failed elsewhere, the territories offer a clean slate where he might start afresh. “There are no rules, you can make them up as you go along. It’s so cheap here, it’s another country.” By this point he has burned his bridges, first in Tel Aviv, where he’d opened a string of bars, then in the United States. There, escaping Israel’s “shallow waters of provincialism,” he’d had an improbably swift rise as an investment banker and Wall Street broker, only to be undone by his increasingly desperate financial maneuvers and brought down by the crash of 2008.

For his little brother, “the somewhat detached, somewhat impressionable, somewhat searching Gabi,” the outpost is also a refuge, a hideaway, but it has also given meaning to his restless life. We learn his story, like Roni’s, only in a long Faulknerian flashback. As in a layered tale like Faulkner’s Light in August, though without the same emotional urgency, we make sense of Gavron’s shrouded characters only long after we first encounter them. The boys’ parents, we discover, died in an absurd road accident, killed under fire, not by a stray shell but in a collision with a cow frightened by the shell. Since then Gabi’s life has been punctuated by episodes of violent rage, undermining his place in the kibbutz and propelling him as a teenager to act out and run away. These angry outbreaks cut short his army service and help wreck his marriage, after he becomes abusive to his young son. Almost by chance he gravitates toward religious observance, finding satisfying work and community, even renewed love, in this haphazard setting. Amid the makeshift trailers he begins building a small cabin of his own – itself a miniature outpost – on the nearby hilltop, and this proves therapeutic for him, balm to a restless soul.

To his more skeptical brother, who will eventually decamp for the secular world of Tel Aviv, the settlement feels too much like the kibbutz on which they grew up, “a hole at the end of the world, a small idealistic society, shut off and holier-than-thou.” This linkage to the kibbutz is the settlers’ great pride; they see themselves as rightful heirs to the chalutzim, the early Zionist pioneers who first settled the land. The novel neither endorses nor rejects this claim, centering instead on these two brothers whose lives have come unraveled, one of whom finds peace in the settlement while the other abandons it. The Hilltop has been acclaimed as a political novel, grounded in two years of research in the West Bank, yet its politics are hard to fathom. In interviews Gavron makes clear that he stands with the Tel Aviv secularists and questions the settlement project. Instead he uses fiction to explore the human reality of the settlers’ lives.

Like his contemporary, Etgar Keret, Gavron represents a distinctly new generation in Israeli writing. Though it sometimes echoes the wry, ironic tone of Amos Oz, Gavron’s novel, directed at a wide audience, eschews the symbolic freight and biblical intertexture of so much earlier Israeli fiction. Steeped in contemporary references, his work is not shadowed by the Holocaust or the ‘48 War of Independence. Born to immigrants from the UK in 1968, at home in English, he has retranslated books like Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Salinger’s short stories into Hebrew, along with the fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander. He feels completely at home in the vernacular and, thanks to a fluent, idiomatic translation by Steven Cohen, The Hilltop reads more like an American novel than a translation. Here people will “let you off the hook,” know how to “score the best weed,” or feel “stressed out.” We’re told that “Gabi lost it sometimes” when his young son “learned exactly which buttons to push to anger his father.” These are not simply verbal turns but reflect the book’s transnational flavor, especially as some of the backstory of both brothers evokes the Israeli diaspora in America. While the brothers’ earlier lives are not always convincing, Gavron fills them in with concrete, closely observed detail. He can tell you what it feels like to land for the first time in a bustling American airport and walk the mean streets of New York. Riding the subway for the first time, Gabi’s impressions take on an almost preternatural vividness.

“He swayed to the metallic rattling over bridges and underground. . . . One hand remained firmly attached to the bag, his eyes fixed constantly on a new target: huge billboards, stretches of tenement housing as far as the eye could see, two black men in baggy clothes, endless graffiti. . . . A chubby and unattractive girl with a blank expression, headphones from a music player wrapped around her head, which was wet at the top. Orange and yellow seats emptying and filling. Doors sliding to open and close. An intercom system that scrambled the words. A hot and stifling small, and different, everything was so different.”

All this is exotic to a young traveler from a small country but, as elsewhere, Gavron’s storytelling gift comes through less in the dramatic turns of a plot than in the more modest interstices of the ordinary, the quotidian.

Gavron surrounds the brothers with a cast of secondary characters as ample as in any Russian novel. Structured as a mosaic of small chapters and multiple viewpoints, the book allows the reader to identify with these diverse, affable, pragmatic settlers; in doing so The Hilltop inevitably lays out a case for them. It satirizes the legal shenanigans and official hypocrisy that empower the settlers, the army that shields them, the American millionaires who support them, but we see the world only from the settlers’ perspective. Except for a few rock-throwing incidents, they live in peace with their Arab neighbors, even join them in opposing a wall of separation, yet – unlike in Almost Dead – the Palestinian voice is never heard.

This built-in advocacy, nowhere explicit, perhaps even unintentional, comes through in the book’s unexpectedly soft conclusion, where it takes on the aura of a timeless fairy tale. Until then, almost the only violent confrontations have occurred in the video games played by a settler’s teenage son, aggressive behavior he comes to regret. In the real world an order finally comes through once again for the army to clear the outpost. At the same time, a drunken group of Purim revelers have gone down in costume on a friendly visit to the nearby Arab village, only to be met by stones, threats, and comical misunderstanding. This encounter draws the attention of the military, so that the outpost itself survives out of a moment’s distraction, the very inattention that has allowed it to slip through the cracks till now. Though not exactly credible, this is in one sense realistic – the status of these settlements is at once illegal and immutable – and it fits the benign logic of the novel, as if nothing very terrible could ever happen here. We finally learn which settlers once torched some of the Arabs’ age-old olive trees, but even such a heinous deed has no consequences. The forgiving spirit of humor, the license of carnival, the humanizing empathy of fiction, has relaxed political judgment and we are left with the workaday ways that ordinary people muddle through.