“Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation” is not an easy read for anyone who loves Israel. And that’s why Berkeley writers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon organized and edited it — not because they are anti-Israel, they say, but because they want American Jews in particular to think deeply about an uncomfortable topic: Israel’s 50-year occupation of the West Bank and its impact on the Palestinians who live there.
Released just before the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, “Kingdom” is a collection of essays by Waldman, Chabon and 24 writers they invited to visit the West Bank over the course of 2016 to put pen to paper about what they experienced.
The Berkeley couple, along with a few fellow essayists, will speak about the book on Sunday, June 4 in Berkeley and Wednesday, June 7 in San Francisco. New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch will moderate both talks.
Some of the 24 invited writers had never been to Israel before; others live there. Some, like Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, Irish writer Colm Toibin and the Bay Area’s Dave Eggers, are well known. Others are not. Their essays are, for the most part, beautifully crafted and, to this reader, disturbing, for they describe lives that are circumscribed at every turn, filled with frustration, hopelessness and anger.
The book’s opening essay, Brooks’ “The Dovekeeper,” is a punch to the gut. It tells the true story of two Palestinian boys, ages 13 and 15, who decide one day to grab kitchen knives and go out to stab Jews. The horror of that day and its aftermath, and the author’s attempt to understand why it happened, is recounted in spare but precise prose. The boys’ East Jerusalem bedrooms are described, as is the incredible TV footage of the actual attack and the cries of the Israeli mother trying to save her young son’s life after he is stabbed.
This is one of the few essays to show the occupation’s effect on Israeli Jews. Most of the others focus almost exclusively on the Palestinian experience. That is by design.
“Some people say the book isn’t balanced,” said Waldman. “But this is a book about the occupation. We wanted to include different perspectives, but we were looking for insights into the occupation.”
The impetus for the book came from Waldman’s trip to Israel in 2014, to attend a writers’ conference. Neither Waldman, who was born in Israel, nor Chabon had been there since a visit they took in 1992 shortly after they met. For the next 22 years, the famously liberal couple “didn’t want to write or even think, in any kind of sustained way, about Israel and Palestine … about whose claims were more valid, whose suffering more bitter,” they write in the book’s introduction.
But on her 2014 visit, Waldman had a wonderful time in Tel Aviv, falling in love with the city and its people. She also met activists from Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who speak out against the occupation. They took her to Hebron, where she met with Palestinians, including leaders of the nonviolent anti-occupation group Youth Against Settlements. (All proceeds from sales of this book will go to the two organizations.)
The duality of those experiences hit her hard. If she felt so at home in Israel, if she felt it was her country, then, as she put it, she had to bear some responsibility for “the crimes and injustices perpetrated in the name of that home.” She and Chabon decided to harness the power of storytelling and solicit writers from around the world to engage in this difficult, complicated conversation.
The essays by Palestinian writers are the hardest on Israel. Fida Jiryis, born in an Arab village in the Galilee and now living in Ramallah, writes of the Negev and Galilee as “areas of Palestine that were attacked by Jewish militias in 1948 and subsequently became Israel,” without a word as to why those Jewish soldiers might have taken up arms at the time. But then we read how her mother died in an Israeli bombing of Beirut, and how she suffers covert and open discrimination from Israeli Jews on a daily basis — from shopping for clothes in a Haifa mall to sharing chitchat with co-workers in Karmiel.
In one of the book’s most telling lines, Jiryis writes, “As Palestinians — on whichever side of the Green Line we live — we spend every minute of our lives … paying for the fact that we are not Jewish.”
Said Waldman: “It’s important to understand the pain and not sugarcoat it,” adding that she and Chabon edited the essays very lightly. “Remember, these are [Palestinians] who are willing to participate in a book organized by Israelis.”
Added Chabon: “As difficult as it may be to read these essays, it’s nothing compared to standing on the street in Hebron, or in the [West Bank] village of Susiya. It’s a pale echo of what you see when you are there.”
The couple is touring with the book, speaking in New York, Washington, D.C., Boston and elsewhere, in addition to their Bay Area appearances. Chabon said the reception they’ve received from synagogues and JCCs has been “gratifying and telling, reflecting the opinion of most American Jews, that Israel is not perfect.”
For Waldman, working on this book was a moral imperative.
“The experience I had in Hebron could easily have made me say, ‘I’m never coming back here.’ But Tel Aviv is one of my favorite places. That’s why we did this book — the love I have for that city can’t exist without my taking a stand. If I’m going to love it that much, and in order for my children to know I’m Israeli, I have to do this.”
Chabon and Waldman will speak at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, June 4 at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley and 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 7 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St. Their tour is sponsored by the New Israel Fund.