Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon are writers who are married to each other and also happen to be luminaries of Jewish-American literature. Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” a story about two Jewish teenage boys enthralled with the world of comic books. Waldman addressed the Holocaust and featured characters who were survivors in her powerful novel, “Love & Treasure.”
But as Waldman recently shared in an email exchange with JewishBoston, she and Chabon were “eager to reengage with Israel and Palestine” in their work. Toward that end, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which began 50 years ago this week as a result of Israel’s surprising victory in the Six-Day War, was very much on their minds. To both highlight the occupation as well as to attempt to contribute to an overall knowledge of the region, over the past three years the two writers solicited essays on the subject from 24 contributors. The result is a long, intense anthology called “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation.”
The anthology, said Waldman, came directly from two parallel experiences she had in Israel. In the country for the 2014 Jerusalem International Book Fair, Waldman accepted Yehuda Shaul’s invitation to tour Hebron with him. Shaul is the founder of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israel Defense Forces veterans who have served in the territories since the start of the Second Intifada. The group’s mission is “to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. We endeavor to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life. Our work aims to bring an end to the occupation.”
Of her time with Shaul, Waldman said: “I spent a day in Hebron, the site of horrifying and offensive settler violence. I saw ‘Death to Arabs’ spray-painted inside a Palestinian kindergarten. I saw streets in a Palestinian village on which Palestinians were forbidden to tread, streets on which the owners of homes had to scramble over rooftops because their front doors were welded shut. I was astonished and aghast.”
Breaking the Silence, however, has its critics. The Forward recently reported the group “has also faced questioning over its methods and motives, with critics objecting to its refusal to share evidence with the IDF, the fact that many of the soldiers whose testimonies it publishes choose to remain anonymous, and potential conflicts between its stated mission to inform Israeli citizens about life under the occupation and its significant foreign activities and funding.”
Breaking the Silence is one of the sponsors of the “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” national book tour. The tour stopped in Boston last week at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline for an event underwritten by New Israel Fund. J Street and Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton also joined as supporters. Two of the anthology’s contributors, Geraldine Brooks and Colum McCann, joined Rabbi Eric Gurvis of Temple Shalom of Newton for a discussion of their contributions to the anthology, as well as the 50-year history of Israel’s occupation in the territories.
Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, was the Mideast correspondent for The Wall Street Journal at the outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987. For her essay, she highlighted what she described as a “poignant case” that Leah Tsemel, an Israeli lawyer who has spent her legal career defending Palestinians in Israel’s courts, had taken on. Tsemel was representing a 13-year-old Palestinian boy and his 15-year-old cousin. The latter stabbed an Israeli boy who survived the attack. The 13-year-old, who was not directly involved in the crime, was also convicted of attempted murder. Brooks said her essay was about the devastation of both the Palestinian and Israeli families involved in the episode. “Devastation is not only the theme of my essay, but the theme of the anthology,” she said. “Occupation is devastating to the occupied and the occupier.”
Irish-born novelist McCann profiled Rami Elhanan, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian resident of Beit Jala, for the anthology. The two men met in the Beit Jala office of The Parents Circle Families Forum, a group comprising both Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to non-combatant violence in the territories and in Israel.
Elhanan’s 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, was buying school supplies on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem in 1997 when three Palestinian suicide bombers struck; she was among their victims. Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot and killed 10 years later in 2007 by an Israeli border policeman using rubber bullets. Of his essay, McCann simply said: “I wanted to harness the power of story, so I gave these men the opportunity to voice their story. I leave the interpretation of [their situation] up to the reader.”
The influence of storytelling dovetails with Waldman and Chabon’s straightforward goal of publishing “Kingdom of Olives and Ash.” As Waldman asserted: “We wanted to show people what occupation means. The project [of publishing this anthology] is one small effort among many. We each have to pull our own brick out of the wall of injustice. Once enough bricks are gone, the edifice will crumble.”