RIDGEFIELD, Connecticut — Thirty-four pages into “Promised Land” one character turns to another and says, “I’m building the country, Peter is defending it.” If Martin Fletcher’s newest novel could be distilled into one sentence, this would be it.
The first of a planned trilogy, “Promised Land” tells the story of Israel’s early years through brothers Peter and Arie Nesher, and Tamara, the Egyptian-Jewish refugee whom they both love.
The novel opens in March 1937 in Munich, Germany as Peter’s parents prepare to send him to the United States to live with a family in Ohio.
After serving in the United States Army during World War II, Peter moves to Israel, joins the Mossad and eventually becomes a top agent. Meanwhile, his brother Arie, having survived Auschwitz, also makes his way to Israel where he reunites with Peter and becomes a business tycoon.
Part love triangle, part political history, part love letter to Israel, Fletcher’s novel takes readers from the days when Neve Tzedek was just a mishmash of houses, and telephones were virtually nonexistent. Readers bear witness to the 1956 Suez Crisis, the opening of new highways, the end of food rationing, and the 1967 Six Day War.
“The reason I wrote the book was I wanted people to think ‘Wow, this is a great place worth supporting, with all of its faults,’” Fletcher said over coffee in a small café in the quaint Connecticut town of Ridgefield.
Fletcher is intimate with Israel. He first spent a summer on a kibbutz in the late 1960s, cutting and hauling bananas. He returned in 1973 for NBC and a year later met his wife, who was in the army at the time. She was hitchhiking and he stopped to give her a ride.
He returned in 1982 and spent the next 26 years as NBC’s correspondent in Israel, 15 of them as bureau chief living in Tel Aviv. Though he retired from NBC in 2010, Fletcher continues to work on contract as a special correspondent.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The main part of the book takes readers from 1950-1967, a period you’ve referred to as a golden time. Why do you think the end of the Six Day War was a watershed moment — for Israel and for the world’s perception of Israel?
Two things happened at that point. 1967 was a great victory for Israel. Everyone admired the plucky little country that defeated all the Arabs in six days. It also ushered in a period of hubris in Israel. From ’67 to ’73, the country had the belief that “We can’t lose, we can’t be defeated.” And yet, that victory kicked off the settler movement, which in the beginning was very mild and didn’t count for much, but quite quickly, gathered steam.
So you had this contradictory situation: On the one hand Israel was loved and admired by everybody while at the same time the seeds of destruction in terms of its own image were planted.
You spent a decade going back and forth to Israel until 1982, when you went back to live in Tel Aviv. Talk about how that influenced your depiction of Tel Aviv.
I wanted to make Tel Aviv a character in the book; I wanted you to see the place developing. Two things strike me now about the city in those early years — the food and the horrific architecture.
When I was there in ’73 living at number 224 Dizengoff, I remember — apart from the falafel stands in the market, which were great — there was one Italian restaurant and over on Ben Yehuda Street a Romanian restaurant. Today there is everything. It is extraordinary.
As for architecture, in the early years all you saw were these really ugly buildings with air conditioner units sticking out like warts on a face and all these balconies that were closed off with scruffy, broken blinds. They were real eyesores.
Then Tel Aviv became a heritage city and was renovated. Suddenly you have all these walking tours through Tel Aviv to admire the architecture. They’ve done a fantastic job of combining the old and the new.
There are so many little details in your book, from rabbis debating whether pigs can be raised in Israel to what it’s like to ride in an Israeli taxicab. Tell us a little about the research needed to make this work of fiction feel true.
Today you don’t need anything more that Google and YouTube if you’re writing fiction. If you want to write about the back streets of Budapest all you’ve go to do is go to Google and zoom in to the back streets of Budapest. So far I’ve never done that. I like to go to places. I also went through old archives and did a lot of interviews with old timers.
The danger in writing about Israel, especially for a largely Jewish audience, is they know a lot about the subject — better than I do. They’ve read “Exodus,” they’ve read all the other major books about Israel and so the danger is they’ll say “Oh I know that, why am I reading this?”
So I wanted to deal with events that were not well known. Like the whole Otto Skorzeny story and the dilemma at the time, is it moral and legitimate for Israel, a Jewish country, to use ex-Nazis? Or should Israel accept reparations from Germany?
Have you had people in your talks get upset with the idea of OS or the way it recruited agents?
No, they listen with great interest. I think the reason they listen with interest as opposed to getting upset is because of my background as a journalist. In my writing it is important for me to do my research and get it right and I always emphasize that in my talks. So they can’t go back and say, “Oh that’s wrong.” Because it’s not.
They can certainly have a debate about whether Israel did the right or wrong thing, but that actually hasn’t come up yet.
I was intrigued by the character of Moshe; he’s the Cassandra figure of the novel. He talks about the West Bank and Gaza, and he talks about the difficulties some have in integrating.
He was as you say, the Cassandra figure. He’s the voice of reason from a person you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be the voice of reason. You know how they always say show don’t tell? Moshe fulfilled that role. I liked him; he was a struggling smart guy. I liked the fact that as a professor of Arabic classical literature and language, when he was looking for a job in Israel, he wanted to teach Arabic in the schools and they said, “What are you talking about? We don’t want Arabic here. We want to teach Hebrew here.”
I was also struck what Moshe said about Ben-Gurion, “He calls concentration camp survivors ‘human dust.’”
In those early years, during the period of “Promised Land” many survivors were disdained. It was this hidden, guilty secret — the lambs to the slaughter thing.
It was only with the Eichmann trial in ’61 that in Israel it became an open subject, which was part of the reason they had a public trial. And then for the first time people related to the Holocaust survivors.
In the book Arie is a troubled person who can’t think about what happened to him. When he finally meets the son of the guy he’s killed, that’s when he’s finally able to talk about it. That part where Tamar is listening through the window to their conversation, was the first time she learned about what happened to him — even now for me that was a very emotional way of describing it. The idea [for the scene] came to me from research I did for the book “Walking Israel.” Someone I interviewed said to me the most chilling thing I ever heard. He was a prisoner of war in Syria. I asked him what that was like. He said, “After Auschwitz, it was like a sanatorium.”
Switching to non-fiction — talk about the way news coverage of Israel has changed over the decades. What does the press get right, and what does it get wrong? Do you agree there is bias against Israel?
Anybody who says the news is biased, on any subject, what they’re really saying is, “The news is not saying what I want to hear.”
There are, however, some very practical issues. [When I worked for NBC] we were always criticized for too much coverage of Israel. People would say, “Why do you concentrate on this tiny country?” Today it’s, “Why aren’t you covering more about Israel? Why aren’t you covering the fire balloons coming from Gaza?”
When I was bureau chief in Tel Aviv we had 17 people. Today we have two staff people. Part of the issue is cutbacks and part of it is lack of interest in the area. There is much less interest in Israel than there was — there is really a sort of yawn factor involved.
The other issue is media, especially network television, mostly cares about conflict. We basically report on the exclamation points of the news. And so the coverage you read or see about Israel is mostly about conflict. That then becomes a question of which side can tell you the story most easily. It’s much easier to say, “They’re killing us,” than it is to say “They’re killing us because.” So the Israeli argument just gets lost. It’s much harder to tell the Israeli story.