LETTER TO THE EDITOR
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Professor Moughrabi’s polemic about my book Broken Bridge has a lot in it that I can agree with.
I agree that in the States, and in Britain, there is deplorable ignorance about events in Israel/Palestine since l948 and, especially seriously, because the occupied territories are constantly in the news, about the conquest by Israel of the West Bank, Gaza and Golan in 1967. For this reason I’m glad that the two books I wrote for young readers about the Six Day War of ’67 and its aftermath 25 years on, are still being read (recently reissued in Britain by Barn Owl Books – Puffin/Penguin have let them go out of print).
I agree, too, that there aren’t enough books for young readers that give the Palestinian side. It’s a pity that more books by Palestinians don’t get published. But I can recommend one written by my friend Elizabeth Laird, called A Little Piece of Ground. Set in Ramallah during (I would guess) the very time that Professor Moughrabi’s son experienced the reinvasion of the West Bank by the Israeli army, it’s a fine book for young readers giving a pro-Palestinian picture. Its many virtues, however, hardly include even a nod towards the Israeli viewpoint. Unlike my efforts to show Palestinian suffering, and sympathy for it among my Jewish characters, Ms Laird shows only glimpses of cruel Israeli soldiers. The Professor would love it.
But to Broken Bridge. In 1992 there was a spate of stabbings of civilians in occupied East Jerusalem. Many Jerusalemites were fleeing to coastal towns out of fear of these random attacks (reversing the route of the Tel-Avivians who had fled to Jerusalem when the Iraqi Scuds were flying coastward the year before.) I decided to base my sequel (which was commissioned by a Penguin children’s editor, Jane Nissen) around such a murder, its background and results, and to end it on a note of hope (sadly unfulfilled) with the then-recent Israeli election, which brought to power Itzhak Rabin, regarded as a moderate and a peace-maker, after 15 years of aggressive quasi-religious right-wing rule under two ex-terrorist Israeli prime ministers.
I hoped to give, not a completely balanced picture – I recognise no obligation in a novel about an Israeli family, set in Israel, to give both sides equal prominence – but a fair picture that would fulfil Jane Nissen’s brief: “Tell what has happened in the Middle East, Israel and the occupied territories, the kibbutz, and Lesley’s family, in the 25 years since the Six Day War.”
No easy task. And I would do it differently today, after another 15 years involving a second intifada, religious fanaticism on both sides, a Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, expanding Israeli settlement on conquered territory, more Israeli military repression and destruction, and several actual wars. Errors, oppression, cruelty, death and misery for all. And no peace in sight.
I spent most of the sixties in an Israeli kibbutz where I gave birth to three little ‘sabras’. This cute word we once used for native-born Israelis has, I notice, been dropped, as it has ceased to be true, if it ever was. But I find it hard to blame most Israelis for being, not ‘prickly outside and sweet within’, but rather, tough and ruthless right through, because they have never known what it is to feel really safe – the Arabs have never let up on them, including pre-state and before the Occupation. The Occupation and the settlers (with whom I have absolutely no sympathy – incidentally, I did mention that Gilo was built on Arab land) have made everything twenty times worse than before, but it was never a picnic, living in Israel with the threat of invasion from north, east and south forever hanging over us.
To quote from another book of mine, it’s hard to be humane when you’re scared. Nevertheless, our kibbutz movement fought the ‘military government’ that restricted the movement of Israeli Arab citizens. Not good enough – I agree, but at the time it seemed we were trying, despite frequent cross-border raids from Jordan and Egypt, and daily shelling of kibbutzim from the Golan Heights, to work for better relations with our Arab neighbours.
These may be excuses, because my sympathies have shifted in the last 15 years. I am now less sympathetic towards Israel and more towards the Palestinians. My most recent visits to the West Bank were in November 2005 and December 2006 when I experienced something of what the Palestinians have to put up with, for instance trying to travel around their own country. My efforts to experience the Palestinian plight have not, so far, involved sitting under bombardment, or having my home raided, trashed and destroyed. By the same token, since 1967 (when I almost gave birth in a slit-trench as the Syrian planes went over) I haven’t experienced rocket attacks from across the border or been afraid to send my kids to school or get on a bus.
The professor complains that the toughening-up technique I described for Palestinian freedom-fighters/terrorists is a propaganda myth. This may be true; I’ve forgotten my source. But surely in a society not only notoriously uncaring about their animals, currently involved in the illicit trade of body-parts of threatened species to fund their terrorist activities, not even to mention where some parents urge their young sons and daughters to become human bombs for Allah and honour them when they do, the biting-off of a few chickens’ heads is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
But to more important cavils. I’d like to dispute the Professor’s claim that my ‘anti-hero’, Mustapha, is ‘nebulous, distant and threatening’. I really believe that I got inside Mustapha’s head, and that it wasn’t that of a two-dimensional villain. I consciously sought to involve the reader on his side. Mustapha is a terrorist but I’ve shown him (in both books – in One More River he is a 14 year old boy) to be a rounded character, with very good reasons to oppose Israel and fight for his people.
In Chapter 12, Mustapha in Prison, I give a good deal of background and explain as fully as possible why he does what he does. He has been picked up as a young boy (in the seventies), interrogated and tortured before he has actually taken part in any actions. I describe the war of ’91 when Saddam sent the Scud missiles over and how the Palestinians reacted and how hard the Israelis punished them. I’ve described (as well as I then could – I have more experience now, and also things have got much worse) how bad it is to live under occupation and what it does in the way of pushing the occupied into violence and brutalising the occupiers. This last comes across very clearly in the person of Yoni, still haunted by his actions during the first intifada.
I wanted to involve my young readers as they follow Mustapha’s attempts to return to his village across the Jordan, and if they were not moved when he lies bleeding to death within sight of home and safety, it’s not because I didn’t try hard to engage their sympathies for this young man caught up in this wretched situation. Nebulous? Distant? No, really! It’s not a fair criticism, and only goes to show how partisan readers ignore the bits that their prejudging eyes don’t want to see because they want only their own side to be shown.
Apart from a sympathetic approach to most of my Arab characters, I’ve given several of my Jewish characters sympathy for the Arabs who are their sworn and unrelenting enemies. To quote only the most fervent of them to Nat, the family’s grandfather, I gave whole scenes of passionate anti-Occupation protest, including an effort to excuse the murder of his own grandson. I put forward just this one excerpt in my defence.
Nat is addressing a group of kibbutz high school seniors who will soon be voting for the first time. “If we don’t get this lot out, we can kiss all possibility of a peace settlement goodbye! They can’t face the problems of peace! It’s so much easier to keep the hatred and mistrust going, to demonize the other side, to refuse to understand that the Palestinians have a case and need a state of their own. The only thing that will ever make it change is if we put ourselves in their shoes and try to recognize their humanity.”
“You can still say that? After what’s happened?”
“Yes, yes, yes!….My dream is to build [the bridge] again, to have our people and theirs crossing it both ways. It’s the only way we can be secure, the only way we can survive!”
“I’d feel more secure building a nuclear bomb!” called a voice from the back.
[…. Nat exploded…] ”Be ashamed, you young fool, what are you saying?… In destroying them we destroy ourselves! They are like us, no worse, no better!”
“They are worse than us! We don’t go stabbing their children in the streets!”
“We shoot them instead! Does that make us morally superior?….What would you do, you, you, each of you, if they’d been on our backs for 25 years? Would you be sitting quiet or would you be out there throwing rocks? You, who talk about nuclear bombs, you call yourself superior?”
I rest my case for the book. But I must take issue with the Professor about the lack of real debate in Israel. One of the most remarkable things about Israel is the freedom to dissent, even in time of war and in the face of terror and of the perpetual underlying fear which has driven America, and to some extent Britain, into a freedom-suppressing frenzy of war-fever against an enemy – militant Islam – that really is ‘nebulous and menacing.’ In Israel there are scores of groupings large and small who disapprove loudly and passionately of the Occupation, and campaign tirelessly against it. Anyone who reads Ha’aretz, the liberal daily. in its English edition, or Uri Avnery’s bulletins, can hardly deny that dissent in Israel is in robust health despite all that has happened.
It’s in much better health than in any Arab country that Professor Moughrabi cares to name.
Lynne Reid Banks 2007
Fouad Moughrabi writes…
I am saddened that Ms Banks chooses to reflexively resurrect old shibboleths about valiant Israelis besieged by warring Arabs who ‘have never let up on them’. According to her, the Professor (myself) would love anyone who criticizes Israel which, she reminds him, is after all the only true democracy in the Middle East.
Although she praises Elizabeth Laird’s book as a story about Palestinian children caught in an infernal situation, she nonetheless suggests that Laird should, at the very least, include ‘a nod towards the Israeli point of view’. I fail to understand how Palestinian children whose only daily contact with Israelis, as Deborah Ellis’s book shows (discussed in BfK No. 165), is limited to soldiers who come to kill and destroy should somehow be reminded of the work of peaceniks like Uri Avnery.
I think we are now way beyond this kind of simplistic propaganda calculus as world public opinion is more fully aware of the real nature of the conflict. I am therefore reassured that Ms Banks has finally joined the rest of the world in seeing Israel’s behaviour in a much clearer light than ever before and becoming more aware of the plight of the Palestinian people under occupation.
However, she still has a long way to go on this journey of discovery. Getting into a Palestinian’s head is still quite difficult for her as is clear from her inability to read my article as anything but a ‘polemic’.
I shall restate my main point which is simply this: a well intentioned American seventh grade teacher who lacks basic historical knowledge of context and who is subject to a one-sided media frame is likely to mediate Banks’ novel to her students only as reinforcement of existing negative anti-Arab stereotypes. Put more clearly, either we educate for co-existence or we reinforce existing stereotypes and thus perpetuate the conflict.
We need to get over the tendency to score cheap points and, instead, try to find new ways to act in order to reverse the slide into barbarism that threatens to engulf the Middle East and for that matter the rest of the world into a new era of perpetual war.