Dorit Rabinyan has both fans and detractors, as would any contemporary author who dares to examine Israel’s central political conflict through the lens of an Israeli-Palestinian love story. Her 2015 novel, “All the Rivers,” which explores a relationship between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man who meet in New York City, worried Israel’s Ministry of Education to the extent that officials excluded it from the list of acceptable works of literature for the high school curriculum.
Sales of the book surged, apparently in response to the “ban,” and in 2016 it was named a Haaretz Book of the Year and awarded Israel’s prestigious Bernstein Prize for literature, for writers 50 and younger.
The Israeli novelist, who can now add the descriptor “best-selling” to her title, drew a roomful of curious listeners in San Francisco on Nov. 3 when invited to speak by the nonprofit group JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa), which raises awareness about Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in the diaspora. Jimena partnered with the national organization One Table, which provided food for the event.
Rabinyan, 45, comes from a family of Iranian Jews and is part of the liberal Tel Aviv intelligentsia that embraces the multitude of cultures, both Jewish and Arab, that contribute to the texture of Israeli life. Her familiarity with the Persian and Arab cultures contributes to her refusal to go along with the demonization of all Arabs that is an increasingly strong current in Israeli politics, she told the audience of around 25.
The insecurity of the Ministry regarding her novel’s suitability for young Israelis “came from the fact that my Palestinian character, Hilmi, is so convincing,” she suggested. “Palestinian readers have said Hilmi was relatable, authentic, and — God forbid! — lovable! … And my Israeli character, Liat, was drawn to him and acknowledged his humanity and above all, their commonness. I suggest that would be the heart of the issue: how much the identities of the Israeli and the Palestinian do brush each other.”
San Francisco was the last stop on a three-and-half-week U.S. tour (including a visit to Stanford the previous day), and the normally vibrant Rabinyan was eager to get back to her “real life,” where she could “be in the same place daily.”
In that life, Rabinyan is not only the author of three novels to date, but a poet, screenwriter and “fixer” for theatrical and television scripts. She began her life as a published novelist at age 25 with the publication of “Persian Brides” (1995), a fever dream of a book drawn from the tales of her Iranian grandmother. She followed with the 1999 publication of “A Strand of a Thousand Pearls,” also about love, marriage and desire among Azizyan girls. Both novels were international best-sellers and translated into multiple languages.
Her third title, published as “Gader Haya” in Israel in 2014 (the translated version is “All the Rivers) holds the meaning of a living borderline, both a botanical hedge and the porous borders within the human psyche. It was inspired by a close friendship Rabinyan developed with the Palestinian artist Hasan Hourani, who died in 2003, although the novel is not a memoir.
Commended as relevant and important in Israeli literary circles, the ministry of education’s deciding committee nonetheless excluded the book “because it might be dangerous to the Jewish identity of the young readers and encourage them to get romantically involved with the non-Jewish residents of the country … which will eventually lead to an impact of assimilation,” Rabinyan said, paraphrasing the official statement.
“Controversy would be an understatement for what I was going through. It was a scandal,” she said wearily.
“But Israel is still a democracy and still running on the fuel of liberalism, in the sense that freedom of speech is still alive and kicking. And we have enough Israelis who found the exclusion of the book to be a civil cause — good reason for them to march into bookshops and buy numerous copies.”
“All the Rivers” was the first Israeli novel to have been excluded for these reasons, even though two earlier Israeli-Palestinian love stories, “The Lover” by A.B. Yehoshua, and “A Trumpet in the Wadi” by Sami Michael, were not banned.
Why was her book different, the audience wanted to know?
“My book was treated differently,” she responded, “because Israel has become different.”
She cited the increasing interference of the Ministry of Culture in the Israeli art world, changes in the conduct of the Supreme Court and Justice system, and other shifts.
The book and the ensuing controversy throw light on the changes that have occurred in Israel over the seven years it took her to complete the book, she said, “changes so extreme that in the beginning of writing it I never thought that I would be dipping my hands in the fire. I am not provocative for the sake of it. As a writer, I look for the intimate, for what is personally meaningful.”
Rabinyan’s San Francisco audience was respectful and generally accepting of her positions, which she noted has not always been her experience at all the U.S. campuses where she has spoken.
“I loved hearing Dorit speak,” said Aitan Mizrahi, a member of the JIMENA’s young professional board. “I found her comments to be enlightening, brave, honest, and thoughtful. I appreciated how no subject was off-limits; she had the courage to share personal stories and politics.”
Rabinyan returns to Israel now to begin work on a new novel that may examine, from the viewpoint of her characters, demographic shifts in Israeli society and the growth of religious and ideological extremism on both sides.
Intimate? You bet.
“The project of literature is to explore the question of ‘who am I’,” she concluded. “I am the sum of the people I know. This is my only experience.”