Conventional wisdom suggests Israelis and Palestinians are bitter enemies: two sides mired in a century-long conflict marked by violence, hatred and an unbounded reservoir of brutality, each side armed with a solemn confidence in its own victimhood. A more nuanced approach suggests a certain weary familiarity between them: They are, as the Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti memorably put it, “intimate enemies,” entwined in a shared history from which both dream of escape. To take it one step further, let us imagine that the tortured relationship of the two peoples is a kind of marriage: an unhappy one, to say the least, but a marriage nevertheless, a lasting bond whose hated entanglements remain too strong for either side to break.
As a generalization about the conflict, the marriage metaphor is, to be sure, a platitude. Just about every Israeli and American commentator–from Ehud Barak and Amos Oz to Thomas Friedman and Bill Clinton–has reached for it at some point, usually to plead the necessity of “a divorce,” however painful. (The analogy is employed less frequently by Palestinians, who are more apt to invoke the image of an abusive husband or an arranged marriage.) But while the idea is unquestionably a crude one, its implications are seldom explored. Like any marriage, this one–watched more obsessively than perhaps any conflict in human history–remains largely inscrutable to those of us on the outside. While attempts to depict the lived experience of Israelis and Palestinians litter our bookshops and fill the newspapers, only a precious few register the intricacy of the connective threads, the interdependency fostered by decades of uncomfortable (and unwanted) coexistence.
From Juval Portugali, an Israeli geographer, we get this more elegant image, on loan from Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It is the city of Valdrada, built at the edge of a lake in which the city is perfectly and entirely mirrored by another, such that “nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror.” The two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, are much more than castaways cursed to inhabit a cramped desert for all of eternity: They are, like two people joined by marriage, enfolded in each other, hopelessly conjoined, so that the actions of each send ripples through the water of the other. “The two Valdradas,” Calvino concludes, “live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.” As Portugali remarks, the experience of being “mirrored” by Palestinians is among the “dominant experiences in being an Israeli.”
A.B. Yehoshua, who was an Israeli before there was an Israel–he was born in Jerusalem in 1936–has, over the course of seven novels, said a lot about the experience of being an Israeli, and somewhat less about the vexed relations between his people and their Palestinian mirrors. But he has obsessively, from his first novel The Lover to his most recent, The Liberated Bride, considered the theme of marriage: the love that binds two people and creates them anew. There is a marriage at the heart of all but one of Yehoshua’s novels, and it is never static, always collapsing or beginning anew: His lovers are forever coming together, struggling, betraying their vows or falling apart.
Begun in 1998, in the midst of the Oslo period, and finished just after the outbreak of the second intifada, The Liberated Bride is a nervous book, thick with anxiety over the unmasterable past and the uncertain future. After two novels–Open Heart and A Journey to the End of the Millennium–in which the politics of the present scarcely figure, The Liberated Bride announces from its first pages its grounding in the tension of the collapsing Pax Oslo. At a wedding in Mansura, an Arab village high in the Galilee, Yochanan Rivlin can hear “the distant boom of an artillery shell fired across the border in Lebanon,” the aural premonition of coming disaster. The novel opens with Rivlin, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Haifa–where Yehoshua teaches literature–at the wedding of Samaher, his “annoyingly ambitious” MA student. The wedding is unbearable to Rivlin, who is haunted by the painful and unexplained collapse of his son Ofer’s marriage to Galya, the daughter of a Jerusalem hotelier, five years earlier.
Rivlin, a historian, is enslaved by his obsession with the past, searching endlessly there for evidence to explain Ofer’s present misery. He trolls for clues to the breakup of Ofer and Galya, herself newly remarried and pregnant, and returns time and again, often on the flimsiest of pretenses, to the family’s hotel in Talpiyot–visits that he tries in vain to hide from his own wife, Hagit, a stern district court judge with no tolerance for her husband’s interminable meddling. Interrogating Galya, her sister Tehila, and even Fu’ad, the Arab maitre d’ and family confidant, Rivlin tries fruitlessly to unearth the mystery that is revealed to the reader by the middle of the novel: Not long after their wedding, eager to play his part in the management of the hotel, Ofer, in search of some blueprints to begin an expansion of the building, forces his way into a basement office where he discovers his naked father-in-law in repose, reading the newspaper, while his older daughter Tehila lies sleeping beside him. When Ofer tells Galya, she insists he recant his “fantasy” and breaks up their marriage, driving Ofer from Israel to Paris, where he takes restaurant classes and works as a night security guard at the Jewish Agency.
But while we know the cause of the catastrophe, Rivlin never learns, and he is haunted by the unexplained past right until the end, prevented from completing his own work: a long-delayed study of Algerian national identity in the 1940s and ’50s that, he hopes, will reveal why Algeria plunged into a catastrophic civil war in the 1990s. “I’ve lost my concentration. And the [Algerian] Arabs have driven me to despair,” he complains, with “the terrible carnage going on there now.” “There had to have been signs, early warnings, by which a serious scholar looking unflinchingly at the present could unlock the past,” he thinks to himself, mulling over the Algerian civil war with the same vocabulary he applies to his son’s broken marriage.
In his search for the roots of the Algerian disaster–“Early Warnings of the Horror of the Disintegration of National Identity,” he calls one paper–Rivlin is led by his mentor, the eminent Jerusalem Orientalist Carlo Tedeschi, to the papers of Yosef Suissa, a promising young academic who had been studying the popular literature of North Africa in the 1940s until his death in a suicide bombing. “He was a first-rate scholar who burned the midnight oil to understand the Arab mind,” Carlo’s wife, Hannah (herself a translator of pre-Islamic poetry), laments. “Not that that stopped them from snuffing him out one fine day.” (“Those aren’t the same Arabs,” Rivlin, ever the decent liberal, protests lamely.)
Tedeschi, an elderly hypochondriac frequently hospitalized by his doting younger wife (“She loves him to be sick,” Rivlin observes), pushes the skeptical Rivlin to examine the old stories for hidden signs of Arab society’s latent illness: “We have to look for the hidden symptoms of impending disorder even before it breaks out….We need a blood test to detect the antibodies that signal the malignancy…in one little gland, before it invades the entire body.”
Suissa’s papers are passed off to the newly married Samaher, who has postponed the completion of her degree for more than a year because of various imagined maladies: a “sick” grandmother, an imaginary pregnancy and then a long and unexplained depression. Under pressure from Samaher’s mother, herself a onetime student of Rivlin’s, to concoct some independent project that will confer a degree on her daughter, Rivlin gives her Suissa’s collection of North African poems and fiction to translate. This project, too, drags on for months, during which time Rivlin is delivered occasional updates–which take the form of requests for further delay–by Samaher’s cousin Rashid, who is stricken with hopeless love for his just-married cousin, and captive to his devotion to her.
Rivlin’s willing entanglement with the young Arabs deepens as Samaher’s delays mount. While his wife is out of the country on business, he puts up little resistance when Rashid tries to take him to Mansura, where the bedridden Samaher recites the promised translations aloud. Rashid, who makes a living shuttling Arab day laborers to their jobs in Jewish cities in his minibus, soon becomes Rivlin’s personal driver. He ferries the Orientalist back and forth to the Galilee, into and out of the West Bank, and from Haifa to Jerusalem, hopeful that his dutiful service will obtain Samaher her final grade, and perhaps that the eminent professor–several of whose former students are now in the employ of the Shin Bet, Israel’s feared internal security service–will be able to help Rashid’s sister, who lost her Israeli passport when she married a West Bank Palestinian, return to the country.
The professor–like Yehoshua, the “scion of an ancient Jerusalem family” who moved to Haifa–is the evident center of the novel. And his incessant probing of the past, in search of answers to problems he cannot comprehend, which pushes him to cross boundaries both familial and national, is its engine. He is “still tortured by our separation,” Ofer writes to Galya: “He’s a historian who has to understand everything” because he is “consumed by doubt about himself.” But this endless searching takes its toll, and before long his son and wife alike are furious. “You think you can call up ghosts and control them,” Ofer scolds him, in a call from Paris. “When will you realize there are things that you don’t have to understand…. You’re always poking at things. Well, poke at your Arabs, not at me.” Hagit castigates him in similar terms: “We’re not putty in your hands to be twisted and molded for your pathetic investigations.”
As we follow Rivlin to faculty meetings, weddings, the airport, the shopping mall, orchestra performances, Yehoshua renders a rich human portrait of the man in all his neuroses. But in the end, after Samaher gets her grade and Galya, before giving birth, finally forgives Ofer, Rivlin is no closer to understanding the cause of their divorce or the roots of Algeria’s troubles. His son may be liberated from the past–“I’m morally a free man,” Ofer declaims with relief–but Rivlin is not.
Consumed with the past and adrift in the present, Rivlin is the latest iteration of a recurring Yehoshua hero whose prototype may be found in the unnamed protagonist of an early story, “Facing the Forests,” written in 1962. Alienated from his fellow students and his studies alike, he takes a job for the summer as a fire lookout, guarding the proud emblem of Israeli rebirth from unexpected conflagration. He hopes to find the solitude required to begin a long-delayed study of the Crusades, “certain that there is some dark issue buried within the subject,” from which he can “bring some startling scientific theory back from the forests.”
When he arrives, however, he is distracted from his historical labors by the forest itself, and by a mute old Arab–his tongue cut out in the war–who maintains the lookout station. He watches the forest intently, keen to discover the smallest spark, convinced on more than one occasion he has seen the start of a blaze that never materializes. He watches the hikers who visit the forest–comparing them to a “procession of Crusaders”–and, “impelled by his duty to warn them,” polices their small campfires. His relations deepen with the elderly Arab, who tries to tell the lookout “that this is his house and that there used to be a village here as well and that they have simply hidden it all…. his wives have been murdered here.” In the end, the Arab sets the forest afire while the lookout turns a blind eye, watching with barely concealed satisfaction; the next morning, “the ruined village appears before his eyes; born anew.”
“Facing the Forests” and Yehoshua’s other early stories, collected in English in The Continuing Silence of a Poet, established him, alongside Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld, as a leading voice of what Israelis call the “generation of the State,” a group of writers who came of age after the 1948 war, amid the relative security of the newly established country. Mounting a literary challenge to the prevailing collectivist orthodoxy of the “generation of the War of Independence,” they ushered in a new wave of Israeli modernism, putting the individual–often alienated from the Labor Zionist consensus–at the heart of their fiction, exploring an emerging tension between humanism and Israeli nationalism. By the early 1970s, however, that consensus had begun to splinter, and Yehoshua’s long-awaited first novel, The Lover, published in 1977, twenty years after his first stories appeared, finds an echo of this unraveling in the form of a Haifa family fraying at its seams.
The Lover revolves around Adam, a stoic auto mechanic consumed by his search for his wife’s new lover Gabriel, a Parisian exile who returns to Israel to claim his dying grandmother’s inheritance and then disappears in the chaotic first days of the 1973 war. The Lover, a kind of Hebrew As I Lay Dying–complete with six alternating narrators and an elderly woman, Gabriel’s grandmother, on her deathbed–unfolds in a dreamy haze before and after the war, as the nation makes its uneasy reckoning with the sudden disaster. “It came upon us as a complete surprise,” Adam intones in the novel’s first pages. “Again and again I read the confused accounts of what happened, trying to get to the bottom of the chaos that ruled them.” As his family falls apart–his wife with her lover, his daughter expelled from her school–Adam sleepwalks through his days.
Adam, we come to understand, is unable to recover from the blow to his marriage delivered by the death of their first son in a traffic accident: “We couldn’t bring the boy back,” he thinks. “We really should have parted.” He is drawn to the lover out of a kind of devotion to his wife–“someone who would fall in love with her for my sake too,” to give her the desire that he has lost. But soon the lover is missing as well, and Adam, adrift in the shambles of his disintegrating marriage, takes to the highways of the troubled country in a trancelike search for Gabriel.
In A Late Divorce, the searcher is Yehuda, a grandfather with three grown children in Israel, who returns from America to obtain a long-overdue divorce so that he can have a child with a younger woman in the States. Over the course of nine days leading up to Passover, each of them narrated by a different member of the extended family–think The Sound and the Fury here–Yehuda struggles to get his wife, Naomi, who has been in an institution since an incident in which she tried to stab him, to consent to his terms of divorce. Like a man stumbling blindly into his own past, the strength of whose bonds he does not recognize, Yehuda’s visit sows disorder throughout the family–in a recurring theme for Yehoshua, he is, like Gabriel in The Lover, a disruptive guest from the diaspora.
In Yehoshua’s first two novels, the decay of family relations mirrors a growing despondency among the nation as a whole; what he calls the “gradual crumbling of the center of national values and cultural experience,” in the wake of the occupation, the 1973 military debacle and the decline of the Labor establishment, finds its echo in his use of multiple monologues. The coarsening of Israeli society is exemplified by Yehuda’s brash son-in-law Kedmi, whose monologue is a spleen-filled rant of Archie Bunkerish hate, full of invective for Sephardic Jews and Arabs–“darkies,” he calls them–and anyone who gets in his way: “honk honk your head off you fucking Volvo you just wait till my son crosses the street you bitch.” “This whole country,” the married male lover of Yehuda’s son Tsvi laments, “is too much for me.”
While Yehuda seeks liberation from his past–embodied in the scar Naomi has left on his chest, which he eagerly displays to anyone who will look–his son Asa, another historian, looks there in desperation for answers to the present:
To take some distant period and discuss it in trivial terms–to find a neglected document or manuscript that has yet to be written about and blow up its significance–to burrow through old newspapers in search of unknown facts about some second-rate statesman who lived in a forgotten age–let that be for the rest of them. But I would find the cryptograph, the secret code…. Not to prevent [mistakes] but to inoculate against them…. To isolate the meaning, the secret code of the past, and distill from it a serum that can be injected into human beings to prepare them for the coming catastrophe.
In all of Yehoshua’s fiction, the past is an oppressive weight, and the search, in the end, consumes the putative searchers, who melt down under the impossible pressure. Adam, in The Lover, is drawn inexorably to a friend of his 14-year-old daughter, forcing himself on her; Asa, the historian, finds himself humiliated by a cheap prostitute in an abandoned shop adjacent to a seedy bus station; and Yehuda, come to Israel to set himself free, meets his death in a bizarre accident at his wife’s mental hospital, after he has returned in secret to steal from her the deed to their home, which he signed away to obtain his divorce.
Even those who are hardly conscious of the past–like Gavriel Mani, a middle-aged Jerusalem judge and one of six generations of Manis in Mr. Mani, Yehoshua’s sprawling fourth novel–find themselves captive to it. It is the pressure of the past that leads Gavriel to contemplate suicide on a nightly basis in 1982, following the death of his mother: “He couldn’t control this impulse he had to do away with himself every evening, because he had no reason for doing it…he only thought that he did, and even that thought wasn’t his own but came from someone or somewhere else.”
But that past is Yehoshua’s concern. In Mr. Mani, a constructivist epic in reverse, he himself takes up the feverish search through history, ranging backward in time over a century and a half by way of five long conversations–each about a different Mr. Mani–in present-day Israel, 1944 Crete, 1918 Jerusalem, 1899 Poland, and 1848 Athens. Tracing the long arc of the Mani clan through murder, suicide, incest, banishment and much else besides, Yehoshua looks backward to explore the unconscious baggage the past stows with the present, charting the echoes that pass from father to son to grandson across the generations, searching through the destructive tendencies of Manis past to find the hidden source of Gavriel’s urge for self-immolation. Setting the conversations at five crossroads in Jewish history–the revolutions of 1848, the Third Zionist Congress, the Balfour Declaration, the Holocaust, the Lebanon War–he takes up the mission Asa sets out in A Late Divorce: to uncover the secret code of the past, to seek lessons from what he calls the “failure of Jewish history.” “I wanted to understand two things,” Yehoshua says, “what are the conflicts that threaten to destroy us and whether there is a way out…. To do psychoanalysis on a national level, and to try to see why we are in such a confusion now by understanding some of the elements of the past.”
For Yehoshua, the failure of Jewish history–“I see the Holocaust as mainly our failure,” he says–can be traced to a defect in the Jewish conception of identity, that is, the “partial identity” of Jews in the diaspora, awkwardly poised between nationhood and religion. This is the history Mr. Mani explores, the permutations of Jewish identity as the Manis pass into and out of Jerusalem. From Crete in 1944, a young German paratrooper tells of Efrayim Mani, who has “canceled” his Jewish identity. In Athens in 1848, Avraham Mani describes the strange ideas of his deceased son Yosef, intoxicated with the notion that the Arab residents of Palestine are Jews who have forgotten their Jewishness. In Jerusalem, 1918, a British military lawyer relates the tale of Joseph Mani, who traveled to local Arab villages, where, brandishing a copy of the newly signed Balfour Declaration, he admonished the locals, in Arabic, “Awake, before it is too late and the world is changed beyond recognition! Get ye an identity, and be quick!”
The long journey of the Manis marks Yehoshua’s first sustained engagement with his own Sephardic roots, a development he ties to the death, in 1982, of his own father, an Orientalist and historian of Sephardic culture in Jerusalem. While the 1970s saw an attempt by militant Sephardic activists and intellectuals to articulate a Sephardic identity that had been deliberately repressed in the compulsive assimilation of Arab Jews who arrived in Ashkenazi-dominated Israel in the 1950s and ’60s, Yehoshua vehemently resisted any Sephardic affiliation. His own Israeli identity was settled long beforehand, and the immigration, he attests, only sharpened his identification with the majority. “I fit in to Israel,” he says, “like a French peasant to France.”
Yehoshua’s contempt for the diaspora is present in nearly all his novels, and it is a frequent subject in his nonfiction as well; he has called it “a disease” and “immoral,” a “neurotic solution.” While The Lover and A Late Divorce are set in motion by the return of a meddling diasporite, in The Liberated Bride Yehoshua gives us a lively caricature of Rivlin’s sister-in-law Ofra and her husband Yo’el, who breeze through the country for a few days once or twice a year, all the while piously declaring their love for the homeland. “I’ll still be Israeli,” Yo’el solemnly vows, to Yehoshua’s clear disgust, “even when there’s no more Israel.”
The question of Israel’s future–the shape of the state and identity of its citizens–has always haunted Yehoshua’s work, and it looms especially large in The Liberated Bride. Identity, with which he is so evidently concerned, finds itself in Israel at the mercy of geography, and the question of where to draw the lines, or to build the walls, is at root one of demography rather than territory: who can remain inside and who will be outside. Borders and boundaries–and their violation–structure the narrative of The Liberated Bride: Ofer’s eagerness to penetrate the inner circle of the hotel, which leads him to discover the incestuous relationship of his father- and sister-in-law, is the original sin that sets the book in motion. Rivlin’s reckless disregard for personal and national boundaries in his own search carries the story from there.
Obsessed with sickness and its diagnosis, The Liberated Bride gives us Carlo Tedeschi’s hypochondria, Samaher’s imagined illness and a terminal ailment Rivlin invents for himself to rouse the sympathy of Galya and her family. The book’s panoply of professional Orientalists, meanwhile, are preoccupied with divining the mysteries of the “Arab soul,” and the maladies said to lie within; Ephraim Akri, one of Rivlin’s colleagues, repeatedly expounds a Bernard Lewis-style “theory of Arab failure” (he is even summoned to an American conference on Edward Said’s Orientalism to counter the influence of Said’s disciples, who are said to be “terrorizing the academic community”).
Though it would be unfair to characterize The Liberated Bride as fundamentally an “Orientalist” novel, that spirit permeates it nevertheless. Like Tedeschi’s wife, who needs the sickness of her partner, Rivlin, with his “long-craved intimacy with the Arabs,” displays a complicated attachment to their afflictions. Indeed, as Rivlin testifies after Tedeschi’s death, it was his anxiety over “our inability to understand the Arab mind” that gave rise to his hypochondria. The diagnosis of Israeli society, meanwhile, is left to others: It is telling that Professor Rivlin focuses on Algeria at the expense of the situation under his nose. (“When will you write something about us?” the Palestinians in Mansura inquire.) For the French in Algeria faced then a situation not unlike the Israelis today: forced to choose between withdrawal from Algeria and the integration of Algerians into France. In the end, of course, they got both.
“We have hooked our circulatory system to that of the Palestinians,” Yehoshua said with great concern in a recent interview, and The Liberated Bride suggests that the solution to the spreading sickness is quarantine. Separation, between lovers and nations, is the road to liberation. But The Liberated Bride is, above all, an anxious book, and its plea for separation–between Ofer and Galya, Carlo and Hannah, Rashid and Samaher–cannot conceal a creeping unease about the efficacy of these liberations. It is a pitch-perfect evocation of the anxiety of liberal Israelis, and returns compulsively to a deeper and more troubling issue unlikely to be resolved by even the highest “security” wall: the identity and future of Israel’s more than 1 million Palestinian citizens. The book’s Arab characters, after all, are themselves Israeli citizens. They have a hybrid identity; Fu’ad, the hotel’s maitre d’, is an “Israeli Arab, who was not yet a Jew and no longer a true son of the desert.” And this partial identity, like that of the Jews in the diaspora–“they are becoming our Jews,” Yehoshua says of the Palestinians–cannot but represent an existential threat to Yehoshua’s conception of Zionism, which is meant to redeem the catastrophe of the diaspora through a muscular and distinct definition of Israeliness and the separation of Jews from non-Jews.
Since the publication of his first stories nine years after the founding of the state, Yehoshua has sought to represent and articulate a vision of a consolidated but complex Israeli identity that might free his people from the traps of history. The rich depictions of the Israeli everyday found in A Late Divorce and Five Seasons accomplish this just as beautifully as the explicit interrogation to which he subjects the past in his masterpiece, Mr. Mani. But yesterday’s traps are not necessarily today’s, and while Yehoshua has soldiered on, history has refused to stand still; his ardor for a complete identity exists today in stark isolation from the scrambled Levantine reality. The failed policies of the last quarter-century–chief among them the settlement enterprise and its accompanying “separation” wall–have made separation less rather than more likely. With each year, each settlement, each suicide bombing and each “targeted killing,” the mirrored peoples are entangled further in their bloody mise en abyme; the solutions to the past may be no help for the problems of the future.