Silence is an Occupation all Its Own
Speaking with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman about Israel and Palestine
Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon didn’t want to edit Kingdom of Olives and Ash (Harper Perennial); they felt compelled to. Confronting the Israeli Occupation of Palestine and refusing the oppressive culture of silence they witnessed in Israel—among many citizens and certainly within the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)—will help, they believe, inch the Occupation towards an end.
Silence is an occupation all its own: an occupation by the dominant and deeply flawed Israeli narrative. But refusing to see the nuance can turn any discussion into a blunt instrument. The culture of silence—maliciously encouraged by the Israeli government—is supported by many people out of fear. To be Jewish is to navigate millennia of trauma: we’ve been a diaspora nation for so long; if Israel crumbles, then the diaspora begins once again. But the occupation is going much too far, clinging to the land to such an extent that many Israelis refuse to recognize that we have stripped Palestinians of theirs—or resort to racist thinking to explain why this is justified.
Like Waldman and Chabon, I condemn the Israeli government in no uncertain terms for its continued obfuscation of the horrors of the occupation. I would like to remember also that the Israeli citizenry is made up of many people who do not want to know this truth because they fear their own horrors, so recently put behind them. In Kingdom of Olives and Ash, the moments of solidarity between Palestinians and Israelis who are working towards peace and an end to the Occupation shine through as rays of hope: a million raised fists, one pair at a time.
Ilana Masad: How did this book come into being?
Ayelet Waldman: Well, it all started when I went to the Jerusalem Book Festival put on by Mishkanot Sha’amim a number of years ago, in 2014. I also had the opportunity to go with Avner Gavaryahu of Breaking the Silence to Hebron. When I came home, I said to Michael, we have to do something. The 50th
Michael Chabon: We felt that, well, we know a lot of writers, and there are a lot more writers we don’t know that we can probably reach out to. We had two requirements. One was to try to get as much diversity as we could, of every kind, and second, that they be writers who are deeply respected, if not revered, in the language and the culture they are coming out of—or even, ideally, beyond that.
AW: We weren’t looking for political writers, but for writers who could tell a really good story. Storytellers are observant; they watch and they listen and they come with open minds.
MC: After that it was really just a matter of emails.
AW: The logistics of the project itself were pretty challenging because we had to bring these people from all over the world to the West Bank and Gaza, which was incredibly difficult and costly. And then we had to plan an experience for them while they were there, and that’s what Breaking the Silence did so admirably. They did a preliminary course in the geography, the history, the situation, and then on top of that, each writer told us what they were interested in specifically, so we arranged for them to have the kind of experiences they wanted to write about.
MC: Some writers knew right away what they wanted to do. For example, Dave Eggers just immediately said “I want to go to Gaza.” And Asaf Gavron wanted to write about soccer; that was his thing.
AW: I knew going in—I have a background as a lawyer, and I’ve always been interested in the military court system—that I wanted to write about that.
MC: Right. But most of us didn’t know, I think, because most of us were really ignorant. As much as we thought we might know, it turned out we didn’t know that much at all. It was really a matter of seeing things once you got there, suddenly having your attention drawn to the checkpoint at Qalandia or the barrier fence. One writer got really interested in walls and fences, and other people took an interest in individual people that we met. That’s what happened in my case. We met this Palestinian-American businessman named Sam Bahour in Ramallah, and I just got intrigued by him. So some of us picked our subjects along the way.
IM: How was the trip ultimately financed?
AW: We got an advance from HarperCollins, a really nice sizeable advance, and that went to defray the cost of the trips, and then Breaking the Silence also paid. Nobody’s getting paid: none of the editors, none of the writers—the proceeds of the book will first go to repaying Breaking the Silence for their significant financial outlay, and then anything after that will be divided between Breaking the Silence and Youth Against Settlements.
IM: You write in the introduction that “storytelling itself—bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered—has the power to engage the attention of people […] who have long since given up paying attention, or have simply given up.” Can you expand on this? How is storytelling accomplishing this?
AW: I had this experience editing a book for Voice of Witness, Dave Eggers’ project that uses oral history to illuminate different human rights crises around the world, about people in women’s prisons in the United States. It illuminated the issue for readers who’d never before thought—and never would have thought—about women’s prisons. It also provided this remarkable, empowering experience for the women who were the narrators of the book. It was very, very difficult [for them] to tell their story, and the stories were often really traumatic, but they expressed how having told the story helped them get through the days. It gave them a sense of agency in a system that tries so hard to deny them agency. So I saw firsthand the power of participating in that kind of project, as an editor, as a reader, as a narrator, and so I wanted to bring that experience to what I was feeling about Palestine. The Voice of Witness project has done Palestine Speaks, which is a first-person narrative of people in Palestine which I also really recommend.
[Storytelling] is helpful for the storyteller, and it’s helpful for the person who reads [the story]. All of these writers—their gift is to tell a story in a way that makes you care. When you read Geraldine Brooks’ work, when you read one of her novels, you care so much about people who don’t even exist. So the idea was that we might be able to use some of these storytellers to make you care about people who do exist.
MC: And also, these are people who are trained to observe, who are just kind of inclined by nature to observe. Of course that’s what journalists do as well, and journalists can be incredibly sharp, keen-eyed observers. But the kind of stories that journalists are both encouraged and permitted to tell in general—but especially in the case of the situation in Israel-Palestine—are limited. One thing we were hoping to accomplish by inviting writers like these was that they might notice things, or shape their stories around things, that journalists would not necessarily notice, or if they did notice, wouldn’t be able to fit within the framework of the typical reported story, which unfortunately for the most part tends to focus on the so-called cycle-of-violence: who did what to whom, and who retaliated how. Writers tend to wander into corners where there’s not an obvious news story going on.
“Seeing things with fresh eyes is both a moral imperative, and it is one of the powers of literature—it gets us to do that.”
IM: Many of the essays in this book engage with the importance of language. Some of the authors describe the region as Israel-Palestine, while others refer to it as Israel and the occupied territories. Why did you make the choice, as editors, to not solidify a single term for the region throughout the book?
AW: I’m so glad you noticed that. Naming, in all cases, but definitely in the case of Israel and Palestine, is not just symbolic. It also creates facts on the ground.
MC: Language is so fraught. There’s no consensus as to how these regions should be referred to, and the way that you do refer to them is a kind of flag that you fly–
AW: –about how you feel and what you think. So it was very important to us not to dictate that to the writers in the project, because that would be imposing a set of restrictions and definitions that we didn’t feel it was our place to impose. It was part of allowing them the freedom to define and imagine for themselves. We simply used the words that they wrote.
MC: And we’re certainly not going to impose a political nomenclature that may reflect what we think is the proper designation. I mean, we wanted to try to avoid the most overtly inflammatory kinds of rhetoric. But that wasn’t even necessary. There wasn’t a whole lot of chauvinism being exhibited in the pieces that came in.
And [language] is something that is directly addressed within some of the essays themselves—the kind of fraught nature of what to call places and people. The best way to handle this kind of stuff is to talk about it and not try to avoid the subject, while at the same time not trying to to leave room for difference, to leave room for discussion.
IM: Because I grew up in Israel, I spoke to some friends back home about this book and this project, and I was reminded of my own and others’ discomfort and impatience with bringing outsiders into this fraught situation. Can you explain your decision to do so?
AW: That was something we did very, very consciously. I think that’s one of the ways that Israel has maintained a status quo. So when Israel says You can’t comment on this because you’re not here, or You can’t comment on this because you’re not Israeli, that’s a way of maintaining the culture of silence and violence. But when we took a bunch of Israeli journalists to Hebron with us, many of them had never been there—they had never been to Hebron!
MC: And these are people who are called upon to report on the situation.
“When Israel says You can’t comment on this because you’re not here, or You can’t comment on this because you’re not Israeli, that’s a way of maintaining the culture of silence and violence.”
AW: Right, and they’d never been to this festering wound, arguably the most festering of the many wounds of the occupation. That kind of fragmentation and isolation is, I think, a weapon of occupation itself.
MC: Absolutely, it’s a tool.
AW: We do, of course, have Palestinian writers, and we have an Israeli writer—we actually had planned to have more, but there were a couple writers who just couldn’t make the deadline. And not only was I born in Israel, but my father was in the Palmach, he founded a kibbutz, and my older brother was seriously injured in the Battle of the Chinese Farm in the Yom Kippur War. So I personally reject any instruction not to interfere. I have a familial and a personal investment that I feel allows me to comment. But I think even as a citizen of the world you have an investment that allows you to comment.
Israelis—most, even left-wing—hate the specter of South Africa and hate to hear the word “apartheid.” But I was part of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the United States. And what ended Apartheid was the refusal of the rest of the world to stop commenting and stop looking and stop speaking and stop protesting. I think that as citizens of the world, we have not only a right but an obligation to call out injustice when we see it. This doesn’t mean we focus on one injustice and not another. Michael and I work on many issues in the United States—I work on criminal justice issues, and we support politicians who we believe will bring about a more just and a more egalitarian society.
MC: And we work with first amendment issues here in the United States.
AW: Right, so we do our best to take care of our own backyard too. But that doesn’t mean that we feel like you can turn a blind eye to the injustice in the rest of the world or that anybody has the right to say don’t look at us, don’t look at us, just focus on the Congo.
MC: And also frankly, as Jews, I actually feel that we have more than a simple right to comment on what’s going on in Israel—I feel like we’re obliged.
AW: Especially as Americans, when Israel is the single largest recipient of our foreign aid. Every American citizen has a right and an obligation to comment on where that money goes.
MC: Right, and the thing is there would be no occupation without American financial support. The other thing, too, is that the prohibition, that attempt to silence any kind of commentary by “outsiders,” is a version writ large of something that happens with domestic violence. There was a time when, if a man was battering his spouse in his own home, that was his business, and you as a neighbor or anyone else, a so-called outsider, had no right to intervene—which is clearly wrong, and it’s now understood that we have a responsibility to intervene. To respect the prohibition on commentary by outsiders is to enable the violence.
AW: But I’ll tell you what. The minute Israel stops taking American funds, and the minute Netanyahu stops showing up to speak before joint sessions of the congress, I’ll shut up.
IM: So just to make sure I understand: you didn’t solely use Israeli and Palestinian writers because you were very specifically making the point that the outsider has the right to comment on this?
MC: Not just a right. The people who are living there, on both sides, can only see what they can see—or in the case of many, if not most, Israelis, they don’t see what they don’t want to see. A writer like Helon [Habila], who’s from Nigeria, was a stranger in a strange land. By his own admission, this was all something he was really turning his attention to for the first time and seeing for the first time. That point of view—when it has the opportunity to gather facts and information and to learn, to study the geography and the geopolitics—can provide insight. It can see things that people who are used to looking at it, or are so sick of looking at it that they don’t look at it anymore, or who have been successfully had their gazes averted by government policies designed to get people to stop looking at things, can’t see. Seeing things with fresh eyes is both a moral imperative, and it is one of the powers of literature—it gets us to do that. And so it’s not just that someone from Canada or the Netherlands has a right to come and see and speak and comment, but also there’s a power that they can bring to bear that someone who is more inured to the situation may lack.
IM: I think that many feel the international community has often been beneficial to the oppressors, not to the oppressed. In Arnon Grunberg’s essay he wrote: “Am I moral witness? Not nearly enough. I feel in fact more like a sightseer at the scene of a disaster than a moral witness. A distasteful feeling.” He was the only writer who really commented on this aspect. From a very cynical standpoint, I worry that people, possibly Israelis, will read this book and think, well this is just trauma porn.
AW: The Israelis who are looking at it and saying trauma porn—I call bullshit. Because what they’re saying is Don’t look! Don’t look at what we’re doing! Don’t look at the trauma we’re inflicting! It’s porn for you to look at the trauma we’re inflicting. But also don’t forget that Grunberg’s sister is settler, so of course he’s having that conversation in a way that others might not, because they don’t have the same immediate familiar connection to the process of settlement, to the project of personally taking the land of other people in a way that violates international law. We included him in part because he has that connection and can really explore that feeling.
MC: And creating this distinction between a witness and a sightseer is another way of attempting to circumscribe or prevent testimony.
AW: You’re a sightseer, but I’m not going to bother with being a witness—that’s literally what every Israeli who doesn’t go to Hebron, who doesn’t go to Susya, who doesn’t go to these places, is saying. Look at what the incredible courageous young people of Breaking the Silence have experienced—right? And why have they experienced this vicious, vicious series of attacks? Because you can’t accuse them of sightseeing. What they’re saying is: These are the crimes that I personally have committed at the behest of my government in order to perpetuate this violent system of oppression.
MC: If you keep redefining everything in the most prejudicial way so that any American Jew who has anything to say that is critical of the policy of the Israeli government is a self-hating Jew, and any American or other person from another nationality who is not Jewish who has anything to say that’s critical of Israeli government policy is an anti-Semite, and anyone who goes to the occupied territories and sees with his or her own eyes what’s happening there is a sightseer, and anything they write is trauma porn—ultimately what you’re doing is using all these pejorative and negative appellations to ensure that you don’t have to hear anything critical, that you don’t have to read anything critical, that you don’t have to see or know anything critical.
“As Jews, I actually feel that we have more than a simple right to comment on what’s going on in Israel—I feel like we’re obliged.”
AW: And that you can keep abusing people freely.
MC: These writers were not on vacation. They went because there seemed to be this terrible calamity, this humanitarian crisis occurring, and it’s very difficult to get a sense of what’s really happening, it’s impossible, in fact, to get a sense of what’s really happening unless you go and see it with your own eyes. We didn’t all move to Ramallah and take up residence there and live there for the next ten years of our lives in order to gain some greater authenticity or knowledge, although obviously that would happen if we were to do that—but the alternative can’t be, well, then let’s not bother to go, and let’s not bother to see or write anything.
IM: Who is the ideal audience for this book? Who are you trying to reach?
MC: I mean, I think we’re talking about Bibi and Bennet, right, honey? That’s who we’re hoping reads it.
AW: Yeah, we’re assuming they’re going to be reading it with a highlighter.
No, the dream audiences are the audiences of all of these writers. This is one of the reasons we picked these writers; each one of them has a very large audience. We’re hoping that the audiences of these writers, who otherwise might not want to think about the situation in Israel and Palestine, will perhaps for the first time look at the issue because of their love of the work of the individual writers.
IM: What kind of real world change do you feel we can hope for?
AW: I keep getting back to Apartheid. Maintaining the system of Apartheid became untenable, and the reason it became untenable was because the white supremacist nation of South Africa and its white supremacist government was called to account by the rest of the world. We want the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to end, and we think that one of the ways that will happen is if the oppressive, racist government and the violent occupying force—and I include in that violent, occupying force all of the many settlers—are called to account by the world at large. And especially by their largest supporter, the United States. I don’t think this book is going to do it but everybody does what they can. One raised fist does little, but a million raised fists—those can change the world.