Marketed as a chronicle of the friendship between Ruth Dayan, the first wife of Israel’s iconoclastic war hero Moshe Dayan, and Raymonda Tawil, a Palestinian leader in her own right who ended up becoming Arafat’s mother-in-law, An Improbable Friendship does not deliver. Given its highly personable introduction, involving Skype sessions with these two feisty older women — Ruth in Tel Aviv and Raymonda in Malta — the reader wonders how they became and remained friends. That question, however, is never answered.
Instead, the book is a dual biography. The reader is put on a high-speed train through the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, looking mainly out the window of the Palestinian side. The early days when Jews and Arabs lived together in British Mandate Palestine is painted in idyllic colors; once Israeli independence is declared and won, Israel is portrayed as a mighty state oppressing its Arab inhabitants and never considered a fledgling state defending its right to exist against neighbors bent on its destruction.
The two protagonists do not meet in person until the middle of the book, and even after that they seldom appear together. Except for the introduction and a few missives, the reader is not provided any insight into this friendship. Proud, ferocious and enigmatic characters populate the book — the most colorful and most interesting of them is Raymonda’s mother Christmas, whose fateful choices would have warranted deeper examination and characterization. In fact, Christmas deserves a biography of her own.
A strictly personal lens is probably the only one that could shed new and refreshing light on this over-reported conflict. An Improbable Friendship could have been an intensely personal book about a remarkable friendship; instead it is a run-through of Peace Now and old-school PLO predictability.
Annette Gendler’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, Kveller, Bella Grace, and Artful Blogging, among others. She served as the 2014 – 2015 writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. Born in New Jersey, she grew up in Munich, Germany, and now lives in Chicago where she teaches memoir writing.