Israeli-American novelist laments Gaza deaths, sees hope in resistance

Moriel Rothman-Zecher sees his characters in this week's Gaza unrest.

May 22, 2018, 2:20 AM

"Shattered in an unsurprised way.”

That’s the reaction of Arabic-speaking Israeli-American author Moriel Rothman-Zecher to the paroxysm of violence along the Gaza border this past week, in which Israeli forces killed dozens of Palestinians amid a mass protest largely against the controversial U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem.

Shattered, because of the deaths -- the Palestinian Health Ministry pegs the toll at 60 at least -- but unsurprised, as this recent violence must feel to Rothman-Zecher as though it erupted right from the pages of his just-released novel, Sadness is a White Bird.

Rothman-Zecher says he sees his characters in the recent clashes: the Israeli soldier who narrates the book in a wild plea, the Palestinian friend to whom the agony is addressed.

“I’ve thought a lot about the individuals who are on both sides of these pictures,” Rothman-Zecher told ABC News, “trying at all points to remember the enormity of every life lost, the enormity of every life taken, both for the families of those who were murdered -- I will actually use that word in some of these cases -- and also the individuals who were sent to shoot and who shot and who took these lives in the context of maintaining a pretty brutal and unjustifiable system.”

Sadness follows Jonathan/Yonatan, a border-bouncing young Jew who shares some biographical details with the author -- Israeli-American upbringing, facility in Arabic, Palestinian relationships -- with a crucial distinction: Yonatan (the Israeli version of his name) eventually joins the Israel Defense Forces, while Rothman-Zecher was jailed for refusing to enlist.

That protest he largely credits to his slightly-advanced age at the time. (He wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in 2015 about becoming a refusenik.)

Rothman-Zecher was in his early twenties when the IDF conscripted him, having first gone to America to study at Middlebury College, where he learned Arabic and encountered Palestinian poetry while conflagrations in Gaza raged continents away. The distance and multiplying viewpoints complicated his thoughts on the conflict, and his expected role in it.

PHOTO: Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Jonathan, meanwhile, is a wider-eyed near-adult returning to Israel in hopes of transforming into a pugilistic Jewish warrior like his grandfather, who evaded the Holocaust by fleeing to the disputed land and serving in the Palmach, the IDF’s elite precursor. The grandfather recalls figures like Moshe Dayan, legends in the still-nascent state for their gritty prowess, and forms the book's walking reminder of the value of Israel to a people so recently faced with extermination.

Despite his friendships and erotic awakenings with a pair of Palestinian peers (the protagonist is as heedless of sexual boundaries as he is of national ones), Yonatan eventually finds himself shouldering a firearm amid a demonstration in the West Bank. The novel’s climax challenges whether even the most cherished of connections forged across the Israeli-Palestinian divide can survive the institutionalized militarization of the ceaseless conflict.

Why Palestinians throw stones: A reporter's notebook

Palestinian photographer's personal account of the violence in Gaza

Israel’s actions earlier last week earned it global condemnation, though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF have maintained that Hamas spurred violence against Israel under the cover of the protests, "using explosives, guns, molotov cocktails, and even arson kites to breach the security fence." The Trump administration enthusiastically backed Israel's response and blamed Hamas for the bloodshed.

Rothman-Zecher, who now lives in Ohio, credits his fortunate few years abroad for sparing him the fate of those soldiers deployed into the middle of this toxic yet somehow rote debate.

“It’s very easy to imagine myself in the shoes of these soldiers,” he said.

“It was very, very easy for me to imagine how, with a few slight tweaks to my own biography, I would have of course enlisted, and if I’d enlisted … I almost certainly would have been sent to maintain the occupation in West Bank, or perhaps to go into Gaza during one of the few recent wars, or perhaps been stationed on the border and asked to shoot at these protesters.”

For Rothman-Zecher the lionization of the IDF, which he at one point suggested might be Israel’s “golden calf,” has further warped the conflict, rendering Palestinians less enemies than props on which the vaunted military is forced to lean for its perpetuation.

PHOTO: A Palestinian youth tends to a fallen woman affected by tear gas during clashes with Israeli forces east of Gaza City on May 15, 2018.
A Palestinian youth tends to a fallen woman affected by tear gas during clashes with Israeli forces east of Gaza City on May 15, 2018.
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

The IDF “pulls everything around its orbit,” the author said. “From the time you’re little, you’re being pushed into the system, framed to do your duty and fight for your country. It’s beautiful, and it’s compelling, and it’s exciting -- and decontextualized.

“When I was 17 years old and living in Israel and talking with high school friends [about the military], what we never talked about was Palestinians,” he recalled. “It wasn’t that our discourse as high-schoolers was some rabid fascistic idea of crushing the enemy. Discourse about the army was framed as apolitical … Everyone was going to serve in army -- and we didn’t know what that meant."

“I didn’t really know what the occupation meant, I didn’t really know what solders’ roles were in maintaining the occupation in Gaza, and that’s not an accident,” he continued.

“There was so little fostering of curiosity, and I don’t think that’s an accident. I don’t think one can hold a deep curiosity of Palestinian life and simultaneously follow whatever orders one might be given, whether that’s a house raid, or an arrest, or opening fire at protesters, or demolishing part of a village.”

That violence, Rothman-Zecher argued, is no aberration: it’s necessitated by the inequities of power.

"This is an inherently immoral situation, in which we have two groups of people living in the same swath of land with permanently unequal rights," he said. "And in order to maintain that, there is a pretty constant level of violence that needs to be done."

“If it were possible for there to be a moral occupation, maybe Israel would do it, but it’s an impossible counterfactual.”

“I don’t think it’s at a point of no return," he said. "I don’t believe in points of no return so much. I do think clinging to old models for solving the situation should probably be discontinued. The early 1990s version of a two-state solution as formulated by the Oslo Accords, that’s been tried and failed again and again by various American leaderships, should be put to rest, probably should have put to rest a long time ago.”

PHOTO: Palestinian demonstrators run from tear gas fired by Israeli troops during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City May 14, 2018.
Palestinian demonstrators run from tear gas fired by Israeli troops during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City May 14, 2018.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters

But Rothman-Zecher does hope resistance might nudge progress, whether it be a decision not to serve, as he made, or simply a last-second refusal to pull a trigger on protesters, as he wished possible by some of the soldiers on the front lines of the recent unrest.

“There is this dream here that this would be the type of circumstance that would lead to some sort of large-scale, or at least medium-scale disobedience,” he said, “folks refusing this order, refusing to shoot in these circumstances because it is unjust, because it is unfair … But we don’t see that, and I think that’s partly connected to the radical separation that exists.”

Can literature can bridge that separation? Rothman-Zecher wasn't optimistic -- at least not at first.

“I didn’t write this novel necessarily with any hope in mind,” he said, before quickly doubting that claim. “Although I’m not sure that that’s true … Writing is a hopeful endeavor. Putting words to page about these stories…and still hoping that -- nothing as grandiose as saying that they’ll change the politics, or change the situation, or end the occupation, but maybe that they’ll still make their way into people’s hearts.”

For proof, look no further than “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies,” Palestinian author Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, a line from which lends the novel its title.

The poem is told from the viewpoint of Palestinian man who detests what he sees as a monstrous occupation, yet who nonetheless writes an Israeli soldier as fully, thickly human, “as a person who dreams.”

This act of empathy was profound for Rothman-Zecher; it made him map the depths of Palestinians’ sorrow and anger, and realize those depths as demanding a response from Israel that doesn’t involve guns and patrols and dozens dead in a day.

“That’s what I think literature can do: It can slide underneath this barbed wire fence of the arguments that we have constructed around us.

“Suddenly,” he said, amid a war zone, “you have yourself face-to-face with a poem.”