An Improb­a­ble Friend­ship: The Remark­able Lives of Israeli Ruth Dayan and Pales­tin­ian Raymonda

By – May 19, 2015

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.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Antho­ny David

  • Ruth’s desire as a young girl was to leave her mid­dle-class home in Jerusalem and live on a social­ist kib­butz. What does it say about her that she was will­ing to give up on city lux­u­ries in order to build the land”? Can you imag­ine a son or a daugh­ter doing the same? How would you have react­ed had you been her par­ents Rachel or Zvi?

  • Why was Moshe, born on a kib­butz, called a Jew­ish Bedouin”? Do you think he was in love with Ruth when they got mar­ried? Do you think he mar­ried her in part to escape from farm life?

  • Dis­cussed ways the aris­to­crat­ic priv­i­lege enjoyed by Habib Hawa, Raymonda’s father, clashed with his wife’s sense of Amer­i­can inde­pen­dence and free­dom. Do you relate to Christmas’s deci­sion to divorce him, even though it was a taboo at the time?

  • Israelis call the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 War of Inde­pen­dence,” while for Pales­tini­ans it was the Nak­ba,” or Cat­a­stro­phe.” Chap­ter 7 describes how Raymonda’s fam­i­ly lost their lands and homes because of the war, while in Chap­ter 8 Ruth fol­lowed Moshe around Haifa tak­ing inven­to­ry of aban­doned Arab prop­er­ty. Take the point of view of Ray­mon­da dur­ing the siege of Haifa, and tell the group how you felt. Now, imag­ine being Ruth in Haifa, hav­ing buried friends and fam­i­ly and now wit­ness­ing an emp­ty city. Like Ruth, would you have felt guilty for tak­ing Arab property?

  • In addi­tion to being the patri­arch of the Dayan fam­i­ly, in the 1950s Chief of Staff Dayan was respon­si­ble for the secu­ri­ty of the State of Israel. How did his pow­er and respon­si­bil­i­ty influ­ence his role as patri­arch? Was Moshe’s phi­lan­der­ing excus­able giv­en the pres­sures of his job? Do you think Moshe was ego­tis­ti­cal? Should peo­ple with pow­er be judged by dif­fer­ent stan­dards than others?

  • Ruth sac­ri­ficed much to sup­port Moshe. Should she have left him ear­li­er because of his affairs? Was she a vic­tim of her love for him? How do you sup­port some­one if it means sac­ri­fic­ing so much of your­self? How would you feel if you were the spouse of an unfaith­ful part­ner with great pow­er and responsibility?

  • On page 49 Ray­mon­da vis­its Dvo­ra, her best friend whose fam­i­ly was liv­ing in the house that once belonged to Raymonda’s aunt. How would you have felt if you were Ray­mon­da, walk­ing to her aunt’s for­mer house and press­ing the bell? How would you have react­ed to Dvora’s moth­er, a sur­vivor of the Holo­caust? How did Raymonda’s abil­i­ty to empathize with Dvo­ra influ­ence her atti­tudes about Israel?

  • Describe Raymonda’s com­plex iden­ti­ty at the age of 17 just before she left Israel for Jor­dan. Now con­sid­er Ray­mon­da two years lat­er in Jor­dan. How did her child­hood rela­tion­ship with Jew­ish friends impact her adult life in a con­ser­v­a­tive Arab country?

  • When asked why she divorced Moshe, Ruth said she was able to trav­el to Gaza any time she pleased. In your opin­ion, why did she choose to end the mar­riage when she did? How did meet­ing Ray­mon­da impact her deci­sion? When read­ing Chap­ter 32, were you root­ing for Ruth or Ray­mon­da? Or for both?

  • What qual­i­ties did Ray­mon­da pos­sess that endeared her to Ruth? Were these qual­i­ties ini­tial­ly absent in Ruth and, if so, how did she grow as a result of their friendship?

  • Though reach­ing out to Israelis was dan­ger­ous for Ray­mon­da, she nev­er hes­i­tat­ed. How did the mis­sion she received from Father Michel in Chap­ter 15 influ­ence this?

  • As an activist Ray­mon­da refused to con­demn the PLO’s use of vio­lence. Do you see a moral par­al­lel in Ruth’s refusal to crit­i­cize open­ly the Israeli mil­i­tary? What are the differences?

  • Through­out the 1970s and 80s, Raymonda’s hus­band Daoud tried to rein her in because of the dan­gers her activism posed to the fam­i­ly. Take the point of view of Daoud. How would you try to pre­vent a loved one from poten­tial­ly per­ilous activism? How do you bal­ance pru­dence and fam­i­ly respon­si­bil­i­ty with the desire for justice?

  • Ray­mon­da speaks through­out the book of a return” to Haifa. She advo­cates a sin­gle demo­c­ra­t­ic state. Why do you think that is? Is it because of her admi­ra­tion for Israeli fem­i­nists? What would you say to a Pales­tin­ian want­i­ng cit­i­zen­ship and equal rights in a sin­gle state with Israeli Jews?

  • The book fol­lows the sto­ries of two women’s lives through the his­to­ry of the mod­ern Mid­dle East. As a read­er what have you gained by see­ing the Israeli- Pales­tin­ian con­flict through the view­points of these two women? What do their per­spec­tives bring to the his­to­ry of the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict? Are you now more or less hope­ful in a res­o­lu­tion to the conflict?