Writer Ayelet Waldman admits she has a complicated relationship with Israel, her country of birth, as well as with her Jewish identity.
Her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, has been more cryptic with regard to his own feelings about the Jewish state. In his 2007 novel “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” a work of counterfactual fiction, he imagined the difficult and bizarre consequences of Jewish life in Sitka, a godforsaken Alaskan outpost temporarily given to the Jews after the establishment of the state of Israel didn’t work out.
It has nothing to do with the present state of Israel, or the complicated politics that have rendered Israel’s present political situation.
Now the married pair of Berkeley, California-based writers are publicizing their latest project, editing a book of essays by prominent international authors about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
The group of writers, which includes Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, Dave Eggers, Geraldine Brooks, Lars Saabye Christensen, Hari Kunzru, Taiye Selasi, Jacqueline Woodson, along with local writers Ala Hlehel, Assaf Gavron, Raja Shehadeh and Nir Baram, will write their pieces following week-long visits to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The book, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation — Israel took control of the West Bank from the Jordanians following the Six Day War, a defensive struggle fought against Jordan and other Arab countries in 1967 — will be published in June 2017 in Hebrew by Books in the Attic and in English by Harper Collins.
Waldman and Chabon were not available for interviews, and instead sent a statement by email.
The essays will allow readers “to understand the situation in Palestine-Israel in a new way, through human narrative rather than the litany of grim destruction we see on the news,” they wrote.
The building of Israeli communities on land in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights has been contentious since 1967, when Israel won control of the lands.
At the time, the government wanted to solidify its geographic position by creating civilian communities that would solidify Israel’s borders. Within time, the international community and many Israelis thought of the settlements as illegal, and pointed to their presence and expansion as an obstacle to the peace process with the Palestinians.
Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron wrote about life on an illegal Israeli settlement in his award-winning novel, “The Hilltop.” He spent two years living off and on in Tekoa Dalet, an illegal outpost in the Judean Hills.
Currently living in San Diego, where he is teaching at San Diego State University, Gavron said that Waldman first emailed him last March about the essay project.
“I said yes immediately,” said Gavron. “It’s an important issue. It’s probably one of the most important problems we have as a state, as a society. As a writer, you always want to do things for issues that you believe in. I haven’t done much, but I can do this.”
He called it “a tough assignment.”
Gavron, who has spent nearly two years in California but is returning to Israel in May, said he saw some obstacles to the project but thought the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.
He listed the project’s framework, which includes week-long visits to tour and meet people in the territories, as well as the fact that the authors are “serious writers” and the Israeli publisher is a veteran Israeli who will carefully edit the texts, as advantages in crafting the essays.
“They also made sure to have a group of locals,” said Gavron. “We’ve lived the conflict for all our lives, so no one can claim this is just a group of outsiders.”
He’s looking forward to hearing the opinions of outside observers of the conflict.
“We haven’t been able to do a great job at solving it ourselves, so let’s hear what other people have to say,” he said. “And maybe then we can also give readers an opportunity to learn.”
“You have to be careful,” added Gavron. “The book is obviously quite clear about its politics and I’m on that side of the politics but I know it’s used sometimes by people who take it too far, and I don’t want to go there. You have to be alert and sensitive and it’s not easy to write.”
According to Waldman and Chabon’s statement, the project was organized by Breaking the Silence, a controversial Israeli organization of soldiers and former soldiers who speak out about abuses they witnessed in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, along with Waldman, Chabon and Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa.
Throughout 2016, delegations of authors will travel in the region to learn about life in the Palestinian territories. They will visit cities and villages in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and meet with activists and community organizers, legal scholars and artists.
The first delegation will arrive at the end of February and will include Arab screenwriter, playwright, and short story writer Ala Hlehel, who was born in the Galilee; British Indian author Hari Kunzru; British-Irish writer Eimear McBride; and London-born photographer, novelist and playwright Taiye Selasi, who is of Nigerian and Ghanian descent.
Waldman and Chabon wrote that there is a long literary tradition of standing witness to the human cost of historical events, as Waldman did when she was editor of “Inside This Place Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons.”
Waldman was interviewed by The Times of Israel when she visited Israel, her country of birth, in 2014, her first trip there in 22 years. Her parents moved to Canada when she was two, and Waldman visited frequently during high school and college. But, she said, having defined Zionism solely through living in Israel, she found herself at a severe loss as a young adult once she decided not to live here.
According to the couple’s joint statement, the two visited Israel together in 1992 during the “period of giddy optimism around the time of the Oslo Accords.” They then found themselves stymied by the “violence of the rhetoric on both sides” and stayed away from the region for many years.
Waldman traveled to Israel for the International Writer’s Festival in May 2014 and met members of Breaking the Silence during the trip.