Sculp­ture: Study for Obses­sion by Auguste Rodin, ca 1896

At an inter­na­tion­al gath­er­ing of Jew­ish writ­ers and trans­la­tors held in 1998, the Israeli play­wright Yehoshua Sobol declared, Our mis­sion as Jews is to open our­selves up and devel­op a dia­logue with oth­er cul­tures. Cul­tures, like peo­ple, oscil­late between the erot­ic and the neu­rot­ic.” He went on to explain that, in this par­a­digm, neu­rot­ic” sug­gests a soci­ety that is inward-look­ing, pho­bic, and closed; where­as erot­ic” indi­cates a porous com­mu­ni­ty, one con­fi­dent enough to be recep­tive to dif­fer­ent peo­ple and cul­tures. Erot­ic cul­tures are inter­est­ed in inter­course and exchange, in liv­ing meta­bol­i­cal­ly, in the exchange of the spir­i­tu­al and the mate­r­i­al … the quin­tes­sence of Jew­ish cul­ture is eroti­cism — a live­ly con­tact with others.”

Sobol’s con­fi­dence in the capac­i­ty of Jew­ish­ness to thrive most when inter­act­ing close­ly with oth­er cul­tures is vibrant­ly reflect­ed in the Israel-cen­tered works of a new lit­er­ary gen­er­a­tion. Three bound­ary-trans­gress­ing nov­els pub­lished this past year explore the seduc­tive promise as well as the bit­ter lim­its of coex­is­tence between Jews and Arabs: The Dia­mond Set­ter and The Part­ing Gift by, respec­tive­ly, the award-win­ning authors Moshe Sakal and Evan Fal­l­en­berg; and Sad­ness Is a White Bird, a debut by Moriel Roth­man-Zech­er. The com­mon ground doesn’t end there, as each book also fea­tures queer char­ac­ters whose mar­gin­al­iza­tion seems to stir them to chal­lenge con­tentious social and polit­i­cal boundaries.

In these works, the spir­it of Sobol’s trope of erot­ic cul­ture” has lit­er­al as well as sym­bol­ic force. And yet each writer ulti­mate­ly pays heed to the real­i­ty that abstract ideals like Sobel’s are often hard to ful­fill in the Mid­dle East — where col­lec­tive loy­al­ties, mem­o­ry, and one’s her­itage can only bend so far before reach­ing the break­ing point. How does one bridge the gulf between being enrap­tured by an allur­ing oth­er,” and the reluc­tance to lose one’s root­ed­ness in com­mu­ni­ty and identity?

Jew­ish Israeli writ­ers have long explored the fig­ure of the Arab in moral­ly imag­i­na­tive and polit­i­cal­ly unspar­ing ways. Only a few books, how­ev­er, have fea­tured roman­tic rela­tion­ships that span the Jew­ish – Arab divide, such as A. B. Yehoshua s 1977 clas­sic The Lover, Sami Michael’s 1987 A Trum­pet In the Wadi, and Dorit Rabinyan’s 2014 All the Rivers. So what has changed? In the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate, such por­tray­als are some­times con­strued as too trans­gres­sive for the pub­lic good. (The Lover, about the rela­tion­ship between an Arab boy and a Jew­ish girl, was once required read­ing in Israeli schools — a sce­nario that is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine had it been pub­lished today.) Indeed, Rabinyan’s All the Rivers, which depicts the rela­tion­ship between a Pales­tin­ian man and an Israeli woman, was recent­ly banned from the school cur­ricu­lum by the Israeli Min­sit­ry of Edu­ca­tion — a move that nat­u­ral­ly led to soar­ing sales.

Despite (per­haps because of) recent nation­al­ist crack­downs on free speech and cul­tur­al expres­sion, the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish Israeli writ­ers seems more intent than ever on imag­in­ing what lies beyond sep­a­ratist bound­aries and iden­ti­ties, and what it might mean for peo­ple in Israel to enter into inter­re­li­gious relationships.

Moshe Sakal’s The Dia­mond Set­ter is an inter­gen­er­a­tional epic of two fam­i­lies, one Jew­ish and one Arab, linked by a leg­endary blue dia­mond — the Sabakh.” In sto­ry­lines that span from 1930s Dam­as­cus to con­tem­po­rary Tel Aviv and Jaf­fa, Sakal intro­duces a diverse cast of Jew­ish and Arab char­ac­ters whose expe­ri­ences open a win­dow to the broad­er Mid­dle East. Dis­place­ments of Jews and Arabs are deft­ly jux­ta­posed: in the vio­lence of 1948 – 49, an Arab cou­ple los­es their Jaf­fa home and flees to Dam­as­cus, while a Jew­ish cou­ple escap­ing per­se­cu­tion in Dam­as­cus strug­gles to cre­ate a new life in Tel Aviv. Two polyamorous tri­ads (one in the Lev­ant of the 1940s, the oth­er in Jaf­fa and Tel Aviv in 2011), are chal­lenged by unyield­ing social and polit­i­cal realities.

Not long after World War II, Lay­la (a Pales­tin­ian who lives in Jaf­fa) meets Rafael and his wife, Adela (both from Dam­as­cus) while vaca­tion­ing in Lebanon. The Jew­ish cou­ple becomes enam­ored with the beau­ti­ful young Lay­la, and soon begins a long-term affair with her. In these char­ac­ters’ scenes, Sakal illu­mi­nates the allur­ing cos­mopoli­tanism that often pre­vailed before the estab­lish­ment of the state of Israel. Inter­est­ing­ly, this lost world also made a pro­found impres­sion on Yehoshua Sobol. In Writ­ing for the Jew­ish Future,” he recalls a soci­ety of peo­ple talk­ing a whole cock­tail of lan­guages. I dis­cov­ered peo­ple talk­ing Yid­dish and Hebrew, Ger­man and Ruman­ian [sic], Russ­ian and Pol­ish. We had Arab neigh­bors who used to come and sell veg­eta­bles, and they would speak Ara­bic— but they would also speak a kind of bro­ken Yid­dish with my grand­moth­er or with my moth­er in order to sell their merchandise.”

But even as Sakal, too, cel­e­brates this past era in The Dia­mond Set­ter, he acknowl­edges its lim­i­ta­tions: although Rafael and Adela both have deep feel­ings for Lay­la, Lay­la is nev­er ful­ly inte­grat­ed into their rela­tion­ship, and the social mores of the time dic­tate that they keep their involve­ment with her a secret. The affair even­tu­al­ly ends dur­ing the vio­lence and tur­moil of 1948. The last time the three meet, Adela gives the dia­mond to Lay­la for safekeeping.

The dif­fi­cul­ties encoun­tered by the novel’s present-day love tri­ad are no less poignant. In 2011, the dia­mond has passed down to Layla’s grand­son Fareed, a young Syr­i­an who man­ages to cross the Israeli bor­der and trav­el to Tel Aviv by bus. There, he down­loads Grindr, the gay cruis­ing app, which leads him to Honi, an Israeli sol­dier — as well as Honi’s boyfriend, Tom. In present-day Tel Aviv, the objec­tion to a Jew­ish couple’s involve­ment with a Mus­lim man is more polit­i­cal than social; Honi’s sis­ter casu­al­ly asks after both Tom and Fareed, demon­strat­ing that the uncon­ven­tion­al con­fig­u­ra­tion of their rela­tion­ship is not as shock­ing now as it would have been to Rafael and Adela’s con­tem­po­raries. But in spite of the gid­dy sense of lib­er­a­tion he finds in these rela­tion­ships, and the vibran­cy of Jaf­fa and Tel Aviv, Fareed feels fat­ed to remain Israel’s oth­er (“[T]here’s noth­ing Israelis fear more than an unarmed Arab. But here I am: An Arab armed only with pen and paper. And that real­ly is a dan­ger­ous thing. Far more dan­ger­ous than a gun”) and decides he must return to Dam­as­cus. In a farewell let­ter to Tom and Honi, he describes his dread that Israeli secu­ri­ty forces may be clos­ing in on him even as he writes. Although the utopi­an pas­sions of his char­ac­ters are nev­er ful­ly actu­al­ized in the nov­el, Sakal’s por­tray­al of non­bi­na­ry human sex­u­al­i­ty and a not-so-dis­tant Mid­dle East in which Jews and Arabs close­ly inter­act­ed as equals, give the read­er some hope that these ideals might one day be realized.

In con­trast to Sakal’s well-inten­tioned char­ac­ters, the name­less Amer­i­can-born nar­ra­tor of Evan Fallenberg’s The Part­ing Gift is a dan­ger­ous­ly per­sua­sive sociopath. The nov­el is framed as a let­ter to the narrator’s friend from col­lege; at least ini­tial­ly, read­ers are like­ly to find them­selves con­vinced by his ver­sion of events.

[T]here’s noth­ing Israelis fear more than an unarmed Arab. But here I am: An Arab armed only with pen and paper. And that real­ly is a dan­ger­ous thing. Far more dan­ger­ous than a gun.”

While on an excur­sion to a sea­side agri­cul­tur­al vil­lage, the nar­ra­tor has a chance encounter with Uzi, a rugged spice mer­chant, which leads to a tem­pes­tu­ous love affair. The more he sees of Uzi’s set­tled domes­tic life, the more the nar­ra­tor seems bent on infil­trat­ing every aspect of it. Soon he has embarked on a qui­et strug­gle to influ­ence and ulti­mate­ly con­trol Uzi’s busi­ness and fam­i­ly affairs. Ignor­ing the mis­giv­ings of his ex-wife, Uzi is delight­ed by the new love in his life and the narrator’s intense ded­i­ca­tion to his well­be­ing. All goes well — until Uzi decides to take in a young Arab named Ibrahim as his appren­tice. The nar­ra­tor imme­di­ate­ly sus­pects that Uzi is attract­ed to Ibrahim. Tor­ment­ed by the pos­si­bil­i­ty of Uzi’s unfaith­ful­ness, he begins to unrav­el. (Whether the narrator’s rag­ing jeal­ousy has any basis in fact remains a teas­ing ques­tion for the reader.)

Though a recent arrival to Israel, the nar­ra­tor quick­ly grasps the sit­u­a­tion of the country’s minor­i­ty cit­i­zens as well as those liv­ing in the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries. To his cred­it, he is a good lis­ten­er and learns from the Arab work­ers about their dai­ly humil­i­a­tions of cur­fews and check­points, and the dis­pro­por­tion­ate pover­ty in Israeli Arab com­mu­ni­ties (he admits their lives have a Sisyphean qual­i­ty”). Like the Jew­ish char­ac­ters in The Dia­mond Set­ter, the nar­ra­tor has a sex­u­al rela­tion­ship with an Arab while uphold­ing a pub­lic” front through his domes­tic rela­tion­ship with a Jew­ish man. Yet, though the phys­i­cal attrac­tion is strong, he (unlike Sakal’s char­ac­ters) nev­er feels a true sense of kin­ship, love, or mutu­al­i­ty with an Arab char­ac­ter; at no time do we see him strive to over­come the rigid demar­ca­tion of we/​them.

At one point, this anti­hero caus­ti­cal­ly describes Ibrahim as a pack ani­mal, a mule, stur­dy and blank-faced, with lim­it­less time and zero ambi­tion.” Even after enjoy­ing sex with anoth­er employ­ee of Uzi’s, Ziad, the nar­ra­tor only fleet­ing­ly enter­tains the notion— before dis­miss­ing it entire­ly — that an Arab and a Jew might ever be true equals (an atti­tude undoubt­ed­ly due in part to the fact that he pays the man for sex). There are moments when the nar­ra­tor seems self-con­scious about his new role as an Israeli cit­i­zen and real­izes that his con­ver­sa­tions with Ziad pro­vide a win­dow into a cul­ture I knew noth­ing about. On the oth­er hand, star­ing through that win­dow was painful and ugly. The Pales­tini­ans were not my prob­lem … but still, they were everyone’s prob­lem.” But while he is capa­ble of sym­pa­thet­ic obser­va­tions about the less for­tu­nate, he is ulti­mate­ly con­tent to remain detached, and he exploits the Arab work­ers’ vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties quite ruth­less­ly in his elab­o­rate revenge scheme. The Part­ing Gift offers bru­tal insights into how easy it is to cross the divide from love to some­thing much more dan­ger­ous, while also deliv­er­ing sober­ing glimpses of the strat­i­fi­ca­tion of Israeli society.

The Part­ing Gift offers bru­tal insights into how easy it is to cross the divide from love to some­thing much more dan­ger­ous, while also deliv­er­ing sober­ing glimpses of the strat­i­fi­ca­tion of Israeli society.

Con­sid­er­ing these nov­els about encoun­ters between Arabs and Jews, nowhere is iden­ti­ty con­fu­sion more appar­ent than in Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s Sad­ness Is a White Bird. This com­ing-of-age sto­ry is nar­rat­ed by Jonathan, a young man who has recent­ly returned to Israel after years of liv­ing in the Unit­ed States. Jonathan is now prepar­ing to serve in the Israeli army. Sum­mers at Zion­ist camps and aware­ness of his family’s Holo­caust his­to­ry have primed him to embrace an uncom­pli­cat­ed blue-white patri­o­tism based on duty and con­for­mi­ty. As a new arrival, Jonathan’s social sphere is lim­it­ed to his Jew­ish high school friends — until he meets Nim­reen and Laith, a twin sis­ter and broth­er who are Pales­tin­ian Israelis. Jonathan and the twins become close friends, argu­ing good-humored­ly about pol­i­tics and the absur­di­ties of iden­ti­ty,” smok­ing pot, and tak­ing week­end trips togeth­er. The twins intro­duce Jonathan to the work of the Pales­tin­ian nation­al poet Mah­moud Dar­wish, whose writ­ing Jonathan finds deeply mov­ing. Jonathan devel­ops roman­tic feel­ings for both Nim­reen and Laith, and for a time, the three form their own peace­able bina­tion­al state — until each of the char­ac­ters begins to con­front the stark impli­ca­tions of Jonathan’s impend­ing IDF service.

Even as he begins to appre­ci­ate an alter­na­tive ver­sion to Zion­ist his­to­ry and accept the twins’ sense of out­rage over Israel’s treat­ment of the Arab minor­i­ty and the Pales­tini­ans in the West Bank, Jonathan feels the need to defend the state that shel­tered the rem­nants of his fam­i­ly after the Holo­caust. Strug­gling to shore up his waver­ing sense of pur­pose, he under­takes a pil­grim­age to Saloni­ca, where his grand­fa­ther (a tough Pal­mach vet­er­an) lived before World War II. Dur­ing his inter­lude there, Jonathan has a brief affair with a young Jew­ish man, and even indulges in a fan­ta­sy that the youth shares the name of the boyfriend of his grandfather’s broth­er, exter­mi­nat­ed in Auschwitz. Back in Israel, he also dates a female Jew­ish class­mate. Jonathan seems to feel that mak­ing roman­tic con­nec­tions with oth­er Jews will some­how dis­pel his grow­ing ambiva­lence. Yet what is often most strik­ing about Sad­ness Is a White Bird is just how con­flict­ed Jonathan remains, how dif­fi­cult it is for him to weave the com­pet­ing strands of loy­al­ty to his own peo­ple and love for oth­ers into a cohe­sive tapestry.

Asked about his character’s refusal to be trapped by either bina­ry sex­u­al­i­ty or by choos­ing one peo­ple over anoth­er, Roth­man-Zech­er says that Jonathan’s rel­a­tive flu­id­i­ty — nation­al­ly, lin­guis­ti­cal­ly, and sex­u­al­ly — is an impor­tant part of his indi­vid­u­al­i­ty.” At the same time, the author per­ceives this as a source of dan­ger [that] pro­vides him with a pow­er­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty for self-delu­sion … [his] nar­ra­tive through­out much of the sto­ry is that as long as he remains flu­id and open— friends with Israelis and Pales­tini­ans, speak­ing Ara­bic and Hebrew, in love with Arab women and Jew­ish men, and Jew­ish women and Arab men, he can remain large­ly side­less, and can ignore the ways in which side­less­ness’ does not exist in Israel-Pales­tine (or, prob­a­bly, any­where in the world).” Resist­ing facile polemics, Roth­man-Zech­er ulti­mate­ly asks read­ers to reach their own con­clu­sions about Jonathan’s quest for side­less­ness”; whether or not his roman­tic and polit­i­cal yearn­ings imper­il his iden­ti­ty, and whether those yearn­ings will always be as impos­si­ble as they are now.

They also encour­age the read­er to achieve a greater sense of empa­thy — a more expan­sive under­stand­ing of just how much the other’s trau­mat­ic his­to­ry often resem­bles our own.

Indeed, sim­i­lar ques­tions are implic­it­ly raised in each of these nov­els. The Dia­mond Set­ter, The Part­ing Gift, and Sad­ness Is a White Bird are all dis­tin­guished by pro­tag­o­nists strug­gling with mul­ti­ple attrac­tions and deep con­nec­tions — libid­i­nal and oth­er­wise — that dare read­ers to think beyond the dehu­man­iz­ing entrap­ments of trib­al­ist bor­ders. While they demon­strate that the bina­ry Sobol draws between the erot­ic” and neu­rot­ic” is not eas­i­ly over­come, they also encour­age the read­er to achieve a greater sense of empa­thy — a more expan­sive under­stand­ing of just how much the other’s trau­mat­ic his­to­ry often resem­bles our own. As Dorit Rabinyan once declared, art and lit­er­a­ture are about a mag­i­cal appeal to iden­ti­ty and empa­thy. How an iden­ti­ty in lit­er­a­ture is trans­ferred into your own iden­ti­ty so that you care for a fic­tion­al stranger so that you get into his skin and wear his gaze. [This] is … an anti­dote to the armory we are request­ed to put on. This shield of igno­rance and indif­fer­ence and apathy.”

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.