As a debut novelist, the process of publishing a book is an exhilarating, disorienting and at times a white-knuckle experience. There are so many details in proofing and production when I want to be thinking about the issues of the book.
My novel, Odessa, Odessa, follows an orthodox Jewish family’s flight from persecution in the Russian Empire and butchery of Jews in the Pale of Settlement. Over generations we see the family go forward from their settlement in a tenement in Brighton Beach, then in a working-class suburb in New Jersey, and finally in a successful, middle-class professional life in Los Angeles. Roberta, the granddaughter of those first-generation folks, has compulsively but fruitlessly searched the ancestry archives to learn more about her family’s beginnings in Odessa. Then she receives an unexpected letter—from an unknown Israeli relative who believes his grandfather might be her grandfather’s estranged older brother, Shimshon. Confusion? You gotta read my book!
While I was proofreading Chapter 16, entitled “The Camp,” about Roberta’s visit to an East Jerusalem Palestinian refugee camp, I looked up at my television and saw news flashes on the screen about Israeli troops firing across its borders, wounding hundreds and killing at least nine Palestinians, including a well-known journalist covering the protest.
True to form, justifications proliferated with the U.N. Human Rights office claiming that Israel used excessive force against the protesters and the Israeli military insisting they fired only at the instigators.
As a non-observant, cultural Jew, I have struggled over the years with the Palestinian-Israeli issue. The chapter “The Camp” reflects that struggle, revealed in Roberta’s visit to Shua’fat Refugee Camp, accompanied by her Israeli cousin Reuben, and his Palestinian friend Da’oud. Roberta, seated in the backseat of Da’oud’s car, views “the road into the camp that opens onto an uncared-for square. The unpaved roads of the camp, the lack of sidewalks, the noise, the garbage and waste that is strewn everywhere distress her. A foul stench pervades the air, most likely, Da’oud explains, from the exposed sewage.”
After Da’oud raises the topic of family violence in the camp, Roberta points out that violence against women occurs in the United States, as well. Da’oud insists that it is a major issue in the camp and offers a justification: “You’ve got to understand that Palestinian men feel so helpless about their situation, having no future, this is all they’ve known so they take out their frustrations on the women and children.”
They speak of the nearby settlements built on Palestinian land as Da’oud claims this violates the of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Reuben suggests that there are divergent opinions. My own ambivalent perspective is voiced as the three drive silently, and somewhat sullenly, back to Roberta’s hotel following the visit.
“Roberta thinks about Palestinian terrorism and their despotic leaders; she thinks about the aborted peace efforts, and then her mind turns to the Jewish ghettoes in Europe, the Settlement of Pale…and her family’s history and wonders how this differs from that.” She thinks about “groups of people isolated in ghettoes because of their religion, or the blacks living in their ghetto because of the color of their skin, or so many others because of their political affiliation or ethnicity, or sexual identity.”
Just as I do, she wonders “whether one must always avenge history by repeating the trauma to a group further down the pecking order.” Is this to maintain the illusion of superiority? Or to deny our helplessness? Must we always resort to violence? What does it serve?
I am reminded of the words of the political theorist Hannah Arendt, who wrote, “Violence does not promote causes, it promotes neither History nor Revolution, but it can indeed serve to dramatize grievances and to bring them to public attention.” Think Algiers! Think Cambodia! Think South Africa! Think Rwanda! Think Syria! Think of the victims. Who will stand up for them and say, “Enough is enough!”