LONDON – Visiting the West Bank, British author William Sutcliffe was shocked by how different Israel’s security barrier looked, depending from which side it was viewed.
In built-up areas in the Palestinian territories, Sutcliffe found it a constant and imposing presence, “eight meters of concrete, twice as high as the Berlin Wall.” Driving on Israeli roads, “you never see it. You have to be really looking for it.” Some sections had landbanks in front of them, making them appear just half their real height, and were painted or fronted by trees.
“It is set up to allow you to continue in a state of complete denial.”
The barrier’s effect on the Israeli psyche is the subject of Sutcliffe’s new novel, “The Wall.” While so far it has been reviewed, mostly positively, by the major British papers, it is yet to be covered by the Jewish press – and Sutcliffe, who is himself Jewish, is nervous about how it is going to be received.
His main thesis is that the wall allows Israelis on both sides of the Green Line to ignore the Palestinians unless they are a security threat, and remain completely, and wilfully, oblivious to the effect of the occupation on their daily lives.
“There are practical military reasons behind [the wall],” he acknowledges, “but it has also turned into a psychological wall. It signifies a cultural shift, in terms of wanting to make [the Palestinian] people invisible, wanting to make their problems invisible, and also maybe a way of dealing with a certain amount of guilt associated with the way the Palestinians have been treated.”
Strictly speaking, the novel could be set anywhere – it never uses the words ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine’ – but it is clearly meant to take place in a fictional West Bank settlement, whose name, Amarias, is an anagram of “Samaria.”
Playing soccer with a friend, 13-year-old Joshua accidentally discovers a tunnel under the security fence and crawls through it, conscious that he is otherwise unlikely to see the other side until his military service. Once there, he is given shelter by a young Arab girl, to whom he becomes attached. The encounter sets Joshua on a collision course with his aggressive step-father and passive mother, with whom he already has a strained relationship, with tragic results.
Like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” which can be read both as a critique of Stalinism and as a simple farmyard tale about how power corrupts, Sutcliffe hopes that his “modern fable” works on two levels. Teenage readers, who are the official target audience, can read it as a coming-of-age story or as a book about the importance of thinking for oneself. Adults, meanwhile, can read it through the lens of modern Middle East politics.
With the book’s central gimmick, the tunnel, the book builds on a classic trope of children’s literature, the passage to another world. But while in other works such as the Narnia and Harry Potter series the heroes move from real life to a magical world, in “The Wall” Joshua “discovers a portal to reality,” says Sutcliffe.
It is the settlers who are living in a fantasy, the fantasy that the other side can be completely ignored
In his scheme, it is the settlers who are living in a fantasy, the fantasy that the other side can be completely ignored. As Joshua says in the opening, “even though they’re living right next door, it feels like they aren’t really there. Actually, that’s not right. You know they’re there, because The Wall and the checkpoints and the soldiers who are all over the place are a constant reminder, but it’s as if they are almost invisible.”
In many cases, says Sutcliffe, who spent time in three settlements while researching the book, Arab villages exist “within sight” of Israeli settlements, “but it’s another world.”
This attitude is not just Israeli, he emphasizes – which is one reason why he avoided conclusively identifying the setting. He sees the wall as a symbol of the division between “haves” and “have-nots” globally, comparing the “sense of privilege” and segregation in the settlements to the rich parts of Los Angeles.
“You see all the white people driving to and from their big houses, then Mexicans coming in and out on trucks to do their gardens and be their nannies,” he says. “You don’t see many Palestinians driving in and out of settlements, you see the odd one or two as building workers. There is a real sense of comfort and just right there, on [a nearby] hilltop, there’s a completely different world.
“In South Africa, staying with my grandparents as a child, it was again the same. You’re in a comfortable house, and in the backyard there’s the servants’ quarters. As a kid it was like it didn’t exist but afterwards you think back: the guy who brought me my food, where was he living? And you vaguely remember the concrete hut.
“There’s a mindset you get into, living like that. When you’re in it, it’s very easy to be blind to it.”
Sutcliffe is ‘resistant’ to the question of how he feels about Israel in general, saying he would be unable to define how he feels about Britain either
Many readers, particularly on the right, may question Sutcliffe’s motivation in writing the novel. He is “resistant” to the question of how he feels about Israel in general, saying he would be unable to define how he feels about Britain either.
“I am dead against all the policies of the Likud party, but that doesn’t mean I hate Israel, just as opposing the Iraq war doesn’t make me anti-British.”
And unlike many activists on the left, he does not have any pat answers about the conflict.
“I have no idea what to do with the wall,” he says. “The whole question of what’s the solution – if that’s the only question posed, it’s a good reason for doing nothing because there is no answer. The right question is, ‘this is where we are, what would a good first step be?’”
A useful way of thinking of Sutcliffe might be as the British poster boy for Peter Beinart’s theory about American Jewry. In his 2012 book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” the American journalist famously argued that young American Jews were becoming increasingly alienated from Israel, partially because Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians clashed with their liberal values. This seems to be the case for Sutcliffe.
Beinart suggested that they were equally turned off by the American Jewish establishment, which was “obsessed” with presenting Jews and Israelis as victims. Several times during the interview, Sutcliffe expressed his distaste for what he sees as the exaggerated emphasis the Jewish media and main Jewish organizations place on anti-Semitism, and for the tendency to view Jewish history as a series of “leaps from pogrom to pogrom,” ignoring periods of prosperity.
He defines his own Judaism as “cultural.” Sutcliffe, who recently moved to Scotland with his wife, the novelist Maggie O’Farrell and their three children, was born in 1971 in London to a British father and South African mother, and was educated in a top private school, Haberdashers’ Aske’s, in the same year as comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. His close friends were, and remain, largely Jewish and for a decade he played soccer in the Jewish Maccabi League.
After completing a degree at the University of Cambridge, he quickly gained a reputation as one of Britain’s leading young writers, with a particular knack for humor. Although his books were all geared at adults, coming-of-age was a constant theme, with “New Boy” (1996) focusing on school life, “Are You Experienced?” (1997) – which has been translated into Hebrew – on high school graduates on a gap year in India, and “The Love Hexagon” (2000) on singles who find it hard to commit. “Whatever Makes You Happy” (2008) concerned immature men and their interfering mothers.
Growing up in a secular home, he says he was “more or less neutral towards Israel.” He visited for the first time in his 20s, and had, he says, “the experience most Diaspora Jews have when they go. You go to Yad Vashem, and I travelled to Jordan briefly, and thought that ‘we the Jews built this wonderful country out of nothing, look what they did…’ You come away feeling a sense of pride.”
At the same time, there was “a certain uneasiness,” especially due to his South African family background.
“I stayed in east Jerusalem and the gulf between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Israelis struck a chord with me,” he says. “I recognized something of South Africa in that – these two very separate communities with different degrees of privilege.
“I wasn’t a Zionist but I wasn’t an anti-Zionist either,” he adds. “I became aware of the positive and negative side of Israel at once.”
‘I became aware of the positive and negative side of Israel at once’
The idea for “The Wall” came about after a reunion with a university friend, who had become religious and gone to live in Israel. Sutcliffe was fascinated – and horrified – that someone with a Cambridge education could believe the scriptures were literally true, and began contemplating a novel about people with a fundamentalist mindset. His first draft was not overtly about the West Bank, but then he was asked to participate in PalFest, the Palestinian Festival of Literature, which brings influential literary figures to the Palestinian territories to teach workshops and perform.
Sutcliffe says he was “really shocked” by the reality of life on the West Bank, particularly for non-political people “just trying to live their lives.”
“Living as I’ve done, it never occurred to me what freedom is,” he says. “When you can always go where you want to go, no matter how much you’ve read about it, to actually see the concrete wall at the end of a street with a soldier and a gun saying, ‘no, you can’t go this way,’ and the checkpoints, and the walls within walls, and the roads you can’t use – obstructions to freedom of movement crisscrossing the area – for the first time it got me emotionally rather than just intellectually. I felt a terrible wave of responsibility to write a book about it.”
A parallel visit to Israeli settlements failed to move him. In the novel, Amarias is depicted as character-less, cold and clinical – “a huge lie” — while the Arab town beyond the wall is “bursting with something I can’t quite put my finger on,” says Joshua, “a feeling of bustle and life which seems like the very essence of what the quiet, clean, just-built streets of Amarias lack.”
Sutcliffe stands by the description, saying that the settlements he visited felt sterile, international in their architecture and palm trees.
The residents seemed like nice people, but were very PR-minded.
“At the beginning the story was always about how they were not hurting anyone, our land is legally bought, we are on very good terms with our neighbors, I volunteer for Magen David Adom and go in anywhere and help anyone,” he says. “If you dig, I found that they’d talk in quite racist terms if you probe them on their political beliefs. It’s a very ‘us and them’ attitude, a culture of blame – whatever happened, ‘they started it.’”
‘It would have been very easy to have written a book that would have gone down well with the “I hate Israel brigade,” but that’s not what I wanted to do at all’
While the Arabs he met were “very angry at what the Israelis did,” he says they never spoke about “the Jews,” although he allows that perhaps they were “just being polite.”
Sutcliffe ducks the question of whether they too have a responsibility to look beyond the wall and consider the humanity of the other side, saying that the Palestinians do interface with Israelis often, but only the military.
However, he is adamant that he was careful to be fair to the settlers, not simplifying their motives or demonizing them. The main Israeli characters represent three “key mindsets.” Joshua, who lost his father to violence, is the “good conscience of Israel, the original left-wing which wants to be decent and do the right thing.” His mother, who moved to Amarias after remarrying, is the “pragmatist” who ends up in a settlement for non-ideological reasons. His stepfather Liev, meanwhile, resents Joshua’s presence and seeks to control him, and also physically harms an olive grove belonging to a Palestinian family.
He “represents the bad conscience,” says Sutcliffe. “There is no attempt to empathize with the Palestinians.”
Sutcliffe visibly gulps at the suggestion that the dysfunctional Israeli family, and therefore Israelis in general, come across as far less sympathetic than the close, warm Arabs. He considers them balanced because Joshua, the main character, is a hero.
He adds that with the exception of the tunnel, he was extremely careful with his facts, and did not exaggerate the reality on the ground, because he knew that he would have to defend the work to other Jews.
“It would have been very easy to have written a book that would have gone down well with the ‘I hate Israel brigade,’ but that’s not what I wanted to do at all,” he says. “It was very important to me the book has Jewish readers. I want the Jews to read it and think about it, just think about what’s really happening. If you want to support [the wall], support it, if you want to be against it, be against it. But I don’t think it’s right to just ignore it, to pretend it isn’t happening.”