Jewish-Palestinian author embodies conflicting identities

Claire Hajaj’s autobiographical novel is inspired by the marriage of her British Jewish mom and Jaffa-born Muslim dad

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Author Claire Hajaj (photo credit: Leanne Kinsella)
Author Claire Hajaj (photo credit: Leanne Kinsella)

In this time of escalated conflict between Hamas and Israel, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict preoccupies many people. For Claire Hajaj, the struggle between the two peoples is something she carries in her genes.

Hajaj, the author of the new autobiographical novel “Ishmael’s Oranges,” is both Jewish and Palestinian, a rare combination even in a globalized world where hyphenated identities are commonplace. It is a mixture that has left her feeling doubly enriched — and doubly bereft.

The novel is the Beirut-based author’s first attempt at fiction and is more than loosely based on her experiences growing up with a British Jewish mother and a Muslim Palestinian father from Jaffa. In “Ishmael’s Oranges,” it is Salim and Jude who fall for one another during 1967’s Summer of Love. In real life, it was Hajaj’s father Mahmoud and mother Deanne who met that year and ended up marrying.

It was not a case of happily ever after: The couple made of go of it, had three children along the way, but ultimately divorced 25 years later.

“My family fought an uphill battle,” Hajaj, 40, tells The Times of Israel. “Their families accepted their marriage, but their broader communities were suspicious of us. Politics became a cloud that hung over our heads, and it grew worse and worse as I got older.”

Claire Hajaj's parents, Deanne and Mahmoud, in Nazareth on their honeymoon, 1969. (Courtesy)
Claire Hajaj’s parents, Deanne and Mahmoud, in Nazareth on their honeymoon, 1969. (Courtesy)

Ironically, Hajaj’s mother, Deanne Shapero, who ended up marrying a Palestinian, was born the day the State of Israel was declared. She grew up in a tight-knit, observant Jewish family and community in Newcastle, where her grandparents got off the boat from Eastern Europe, apparently mistakenly thinking they had arrived in America.

The grandparents owned a clothing shop, and had 14 children.

“There were eleven girls and three boys. The girls were all redheads and quite beautiful. Young Jewish men looking for wives would come up from London to date them,” Hajaj says.

Mahmoud Hajaj was born in Jaffa, where his family remained throughout Israel’s War of Independence. “It was only after 1948 that his family lost their home and orange groves because of legal and tax issues,” Hajaj says.

While the author’s father, who had attended a Christian school, left Israel for the UK in his late teens to make a new life for himself, many of his relatives have remained in the country and live in Nazareth and Haifa.

A year after Hajaj was born in London, the family relocated to Kuwait, where her father had landed a job as an accountant for a big American company. A year later, a son was born, and another daughter came along 11 years after that.

The family had a difficult time in Kuwait.

“I hated it and my mother was afraid. We had to hide who we were, and we faced risks,” Hajaj says.

“In Kuwait they publicly despised the Jews and privately were suspicious of the Palestinians. There was a climate of rage when it came to coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Claire Hajaj (left), her mother, father, and younger brother in Kuwait, 1980. (Courtesy)
Claire Hajaj (left), her mother, father, and younger brother in Kuwait, 1980. (Courtesy)

Despite the family’s return 10 years later to the UK and Hajaj’s parent’s “brave attempt to rewrite tribal hatred,” as she writes in a recent piece for Newsweek, the marriage fell apart.

The author’s parents may have split up, but she continues to wrestle with what it means to be concurrently Jewish and Palestinian.

“Neither of my parents were keen on my believing in God, but they each very much wanted me to identify with their own heritage and cultural values,” Hajaj says. “My mum wanted me to know about being Jewish and my dad wanted me to be Palestinian and identify with Palestinian aspirations.”

As she was growing up, Hajaj, not wanting to disappoint either of her parents, felt bereft about not fitting in with a particular clan.

“I loved the rituals, but I hated the rancor,” she says.

‘I loved the rituals, but I hated the rancor’

“I felt very Jewish when I was among Palestinians and very Palestinian when I was among Jews. I could flip back and forth between identities and arguments just like flipping back and forth between TV channels.”

As an adult, Hajaj has worked as a journalist and for the United Nations in Pakistan, Nigeria, Burma, Indonesia, Jordan and Iraq (she moved to Lebanon a year ago because of her New Zealander husband’s work with the UN).

Even all these years later, she still feels just as confused and conflicted about being both Jewish and Palestinian.

“I have never really taken a side. There is no point, because I would not be accepted as either one,” she says.

Although she feels similarly to how she did as a child, she now focuses on the “painfully similar” narratives and aspirations of her two heritages, rather than on their differences.

She doesn’t believe she has the tools to bring her four-year-old daughter up as either Palestinian or Jewish, but she plans on exposing her to both backgrounds.

Claire Hajaj's first novel, 'Ishmael's Oranges,' was recently published. (Courtesy)
Claire Hajaj’s first novel, ‘Ishmael’s Oranges,’ was recently published. (Courtesy)

“One of the reasons I decided to write ‘Ishmael’s Oranges’ now was because I want my daughter to know who she is,” Hajaj says.

She was also spurred on to write the novel after speaking with some of her elderly relatives on both sides of the family and realizing that their stories would not be preserved if she did not write them down.

“By writing their stories, I wanted to humanize the two sides to each other,” she says.

The timing of the publication of her novel is not lost on Hajaj. She has been to Israel several times and is naturally well attuned to both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on the current situation.

“These viewpoints are as impenetrable as the Iron Domes air defense system. Since the deadly and heart-rending blitz against Gaza began, most Israelis, Palestinians and the watching world have taken shelter under one or the other, blasting away any counter-message that threatens their viewpoint,” she writes in Newsweek.

“I know this gladiatorial narrative only too well, because I’ve heard it every day of my childhood.”

She desires de-escalation.

“I wish there were a pause button between instinct and action,” she says. “It’s the hardliners who are fighting. Most of the people just want peace.”

Hajaj would like to see both sides, both of the peoples to whom she belongs, overcome their blinding pain so they can see the suffering of the other.

“We can do better than this,” she says.

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