Matti Friedman is a journalist in Jerusalem and the author, most recently, of “Pumpkinflowers.”
Last year, the American novelists Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman and Dave Eggers led a group of writers to “bear witness” to the crisis in Iraq, confronting the fate of that country during and since the American occupation — the hundreds of thousands of dead, the vanished minorities, the chaos spreading across the region. The resulting anthology adds up to a piercing, introspective look at what it means to be American in the 21st century.
I’m kidding! Reporting on Iraq is bothersome, and so is introspection. Instead, they came to “bear witness” to the crisis in the West Bank and Gaza, where thousands of reporters, nongovernmental organization staffers, activists and diplomats hover around a conflict with a death toll last year that was about a third of the homicide number in Baltimore. It’s the kind of Mideast conflagration where writers can sally forth in an air-conditioned bus, safely observe the natives for a few hours and make it back to a nice hotel for drinks.
The resulting anthology, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation,” includes essays by American and international authors such as Eggers, Mario Vargas Llosa, Colum McCann and Colm Toibin — an impressive list — with a few locals thrown in. The visitors were shown around by anti-occupation activists and wrote up their experiences. Edited by Chabon and Waldman, the 26 essays here constitute a chorus of condemnation of Israel.
Chabon, for example, interviews a Palestinian American businessman about life in the West Bank — the byzantine permit system, the 1,001 humiliations of undemocratic rule. Another essay looks at a village of impoverished shepherds, Susiya, in the shadow of an Israeli settlement. Geraldine Brooks describes a stabbing in Jerusalem. We meet children detained by troops, people made to wait at checkpoints and others scarred in different ways by the military occupation that began here after the 1967 war.
I’ve seen the West Bank from many angles over more than two decades in Israel, as a soldier at checkpoints and as a reporter passing through them with Palestinians, and I know the injustices of the situation are real and worth attention from knowledgeable observers. What we get here, though, is a peculiar product. The visiting writers aren’t experts — most seem to have been here for only a few days, and some appear quite lost.
Chabon and Waldman tell us on the very first page of a visit to Israel in 1992, which they remember vividly as a time of optimism, when the “Oslo accords were fresh and untested.” But their memory must be playing tricks, because the Oslo accords happened in the fall of 1993. Chabon and Waldman, who live in Berkeley, Calif., are accomplished writers, but the reader needs a few words about what they’re up to here. Do they have special expertise to offer? Israel is probably the biggest international news story over the past 50 years, so is there a reason they decided the world needs to know more about it and not, say, Kandahar, Guantanamo, Congo or Baltimore?
The essays vary in tone and quality, but experienced journalists covering the Israel/Palestine story will recognize the usual impressions of reporters fresh from the airport. Cute Palestinian kids touched my hair! Beautiful tea glasses! I saw a gun! I lost my luggage, and that seems symbolic! Arabs do hip-hop! The soldiers are so young and rude! The writers interview the same people who are always interviewed in the West Bank, thinking it’s all new, and believe what they’re told. Chabon, for example, waxes sarcastic that in the West Bank you can spend months in administrative detention if you forget your ID card at home. But that isn’t true.
Everything is described with a gravitas suggesting that the writers haven’t spent much time outside the world’s safer corners. Eggers devotes two whole pages to an incident on the Gaza border, where one Israeli guard said he couldn’t pass and then a different one came and let him through. Dave, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re okay.
We aren’t told, curiously, who paid for this project. But we learn that it was organized by a group called Breaking the Silence, one of many NGOs funded by Europeans and Americans to critique Israeli policy. These particular activists’ line is that they’re “Israeli veterans,” which Israelis know not to take seriously — we have a compulsory draft, and most Israelis are veterans. But it impresses foreigners. The hosts’ choreography becomes evident the more you read, because the writers keep going back to the same street in Hebron, the same village near the same settlement, the same checkpoint activist. They avoid Palestinian extremists and average Israelis, so it looks like all Palestinians are reasonable and all Israelis aren’t.
We get comparisons to American racism and to South African racism, learn that Israelis don’t use water cannons because they’re “not cruel enough,” and hear Zionism described as “a settler ideology with prominent colonial features under the cover of the Torah narrative.” We learn from Vargas Llosa that a small number of Israeli Jews are “righteous,” which he thinks is an old feature of Jewish life. The rest of us, apparently, are “blinded by propaganda, passion, or ignorance.” Jews reading this might wonder how they became characters in a morality play by Vargas Llosa, but we needn’t worry — his criticism is “an act of love.”
I know space in these projects is limited, especially with all the love that needs to fit, but the Syrian catastrophe unfolding a 90-minute drive from the West Bank could have used a few more words — half a million people are dead, and millions of others have been displaced. Does this affect the thinking of the Israelis and Palestinians next door? Are Israeli decisions influenced by the bloody outcomes of power vacuums in Sinai, Iraq and Libya? What will replace the occupation? In Gaza, it was Hamas — will it be Hamas in the West Bank? If Israel’s police leave East Jerusalem, could the city become Aleppo? These are some of the big questions of 2017.
But the writers here aren’t addressing them, which raises another question: What is this book about?
What it’s really about is the writers. Most of the essays aren’t journalism but a kind of selfie in which the author poses in front of the symbolic moral issue of the time: Here I am at an Israeli checkpoint! Here I am with a shepherd! That’s why the very first page of the book finds Chabon and Waldman talking not about the occupation, but about Chabon and Waldman. After a while I felt trapped in a wordy kind of Kardashian Instagram feed, without the self-awareness.
Whatever this anthology set out to be, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” is an unintentional group portrait of a certain set of intellectuals. Would they like a curated trip to a foreign country? Sign them up! Do they think a few days is enough to pass judgment on the participants in a century-old conflict? They do! These people are taken somewhere, and they go. Someone points, and they look. They can be trusted not to ask who’s pointing, who’s with them on the bus or who’s paying for the gas.
Once upon a time, in a different America, Mark Twain left on a steamer for a tour of the Holy Land. He had grumpy opinions about foreigners but didn’t spare the people with him on board: the pompous, the addled, the hypocrites. He immortalized them in 1869 as “The Innocents Abroad.” Twain would never have joined anyone’s chorus, and we can only imagine what he would have done with the people on this tour — their easily manipulated attention, their blind spots, their belief that they aren’t flawed observers of life but a kind of global morality police. But there was no Twain on this bus.
Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman
Harper Perennial. 434 pp. Paperback, $16.99