“A Day in the Life of Abed Salama” After October 7th

Nathan Thrall on his new book and the escalating repression of pro-Palestine speech.

Mari Cohen
December 19, 2023

The Israeli separation wall dividing Shuafat refugee camp—which borders the Palestinian town of Anata—from Jerusalem.

Ilia Yefimovich/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

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On October 4th, I met the writer Nathan Thrall for coffee in Brooklyn. That night, he would kick off the tour for his new nonfiction book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, alongside Salama, the story’s Palestinian protagonist. Like Thrall’s 2021 New York Review of Books article of the same title, his meticulously reported book recounts the day in 2012 when Salama’s five-year-old son, Milad, was killed alongside five other kindergartners and a teacher when a semi-trailer hit their school bus on a road in the West Bank. Thrall details how the deadly crash resulted directly from the architecture of occupation, which confines Palestinians to dangerous roads and often to under-regulated schools. The book digs into the individual lives of the people caught up in the accident—not only Salama, but also other bereaved parents and eyewitnesses—examining the way their histories have been shaped by the broader structures of injustice in Israel/Palestine. In addition to the book, Thrall and I talked about the class on Israeli apartheid that he taught at Bard College earlier this year, and about the major backlash it engendered—including from the Israeli consulate, which unsuccessfully lobbied Bard to cancel the course.

Three days after our conversation, Hamas attacked the south of Israel, leaving more than 1,100 people dead, and Israel began its ongoing assault on Gaza, which has so far killed more than 19,600 Palestinians, and which experts have described as a genocide. Israeli violence also increased in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, leading Salama—who lives in the West Bank town of Anata, on the outskirts of Jerusalem—to leave the book tour to rejoin his family in mid-October. In early November, his wife’s cousin’s son was killed by Israeli soldiers in a raid in the West Bank; his sister-in-law has lost two family members to an airstrike in Gaza.

In the US and Europe, meanwhile, a new climate of anti-Palestinian repression has taken shape, and some of Thrall’s tour stops—including a scheduled appearance at a congressional breakfast and a planned talk at the Manhattan synagogue B’nai Jeshurun—have been among the many Palestine-related events canceled. I followed up with Thrall at the end of October to talk about the connections between the story in his book and the ongoing violence in Gaza, and about how the crackdown on pro-Palestine speech might affect those trying to teach about Israeli apartheid. The following transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity, draws from both of our conversations.

Mari Cohen: Why did you decide to center a book around the crash that killed Milad Salama?

Nathan Thrall: All of Palestine heard about this crash and was in mourning over it. I didn’t realize until later that the parents and the children involved lived so close to me—just two miles from my apartment in Jerusalem. I would drive by the wall [the “separation barrier” between Israel and the West Bank] that encloses their community, Anata, on a weekly basis, and I really did not give it a second thought. Afterward, I found it very hard to drive by the wall without thinking about the people inside and the radically different life they lived in the same city.

Half of Anata is officially annexed within the sovereign state of Israel and half is not, but it’s all equally neglected—a stark illustration that what matters is not the legal status of the territory, but whether it’s Palestinians or Jews who live there. The town of Anata itself has undergone virtually every single form of Israeli land appropriation. Parts of it have been turned into an Israeli military base; parts are settlements; parts are outposts [unauthorized settlements]. Parts of it, like the neighborhood of Dahiyat al-Salaam, are annexed to Israel; and parts of it are Area C [West Bank land controlled by Israel under the Oslo Accords], where you see frequent home demolitions and the rejection of Palestinian building permits. Anata contains the story of Jerusalem, the story of the West Bank, and the story of the settlements all in one place.

That is why, much as the book is about Anata and the day of the crash, it’s also about the broader story of Israel/Palestine, explored through the lens of this single event. The personal and family histories of those involved offer windows into events like the Nakba, for example, or in Abed’s case, the First Intifada, in which he participated directly, organizing with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

MC: I noticed that the book is very committed to just telling the story and including all its details, rather than trying to slot them into the larger structure of an argument.

NT: That’s one of the key ways in which the book is different from the NYRB article. That article was a work of argumentation and historical analysis, but the book is really a work of narrative that lets the facts speak for themselves. The whole point of the book is that I didn’t feel that all the analytical writing I’d been doing for the preceding decade had made much of an impact. I felt like I had a better shot at changing people’s minds by immersing them in the lived experience of characters.

MC: Given that approach, do you worry about whether people will recognize the argument you’re trying to make?

NT: I was interviewed by someone who asked if [by telling the story of the settlement Adam, which was founded by poor Mizrahi Jews], I was trying to make the settlement movement look sympathetic. I have also heard the concern that by exposing Palestinian infighting [during the First Intifada], or by talking about the difficulties of being a woman in Palestinian society, my work could become fodder for a right that wants to demonize Palestinians. But if the whole idea of the book is to immerse readers in reality, you can’t do that by airbrushing certain parts of it. My ambition when I started this project was to present everybody as a fully three-dimensional human being rather than simply as a diabolical settler or a saintly Palestinian.

MC: How does Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza affect how readers should think about the book?

NT: The driving force behind the book was the fact that people only pay attention to Israel/Palestine when there is something like a war in Gaza going on, and the whole world calls for a restoration of calm. But what is the “calm” they’re calling for? It’s the calm that is described in this book—a situation of daily violence and oppression, a reality in which Jews and Palestinians live totally separate and grossly unequal lives. This is the calm that existed before the war in Gaza, and will exist after.

Politically, there are many connections between the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and Anata. Israel takes the same approach to both populations. In densely populated Palestinian areas, Israel’s aim is always segregation. The goal is to wall them off and to limit their residents’ freedom of movement. Some Palestinians refer to Israel’s cordoning off of West Bank areas like Anata as an effort to extend the “Gaza model”—the fence, the sequestration, the checkpoints, the permit system that restricts Palestinians’ ability to travel. On the other hand, where Palestinian land is sparsely populated, Israel’s intention is to expand the settlement enterprise. We see that approach in what is called Area C, the more than 60% of the West Bank that was placed under Israeli control by the Oslo Accords. These two strategies go hand-in-hand, confining Palestinians in smaller and smaller areas while expanding Jewish settlements on any available land.

MC: What’s life like in Anata right now for Abed Salama and his family?

NT: Right after the attack on October 7th, Israel shut down the enclave, which has roughly 130,000 residents and only two exits. One exit goes towards Jerusalem, and only people with blue Jerusalem IDs can go through. The other exit, at the other end of the enclave, allows green ID holders like Abed as well as blue ID holders to pass into the rest of the West Bank. With just a few soldiers to shut down a couple of exits, Israel can enclose an entire community. More recently, they have eased restrictions and started to let people in and out. But much of the work to which people would normally commute has dried up. Nearly every family in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, depends on higher paying jobs in Israel and the settlements, but most of those employers are not letting Palestinians come to work. Some Palestinian employers are also telling their employees not to come in because of the surge in violence and killings in the West Bank. Abed’s son Adam’s employer told him not to come to work, for example, because there’s too much settler violence on the road for him to drive from Anata to his job in Ramallah. As a result, families in the West Bank are really suffering economically.

MC: This past spring, you taught a class in Bard College’s human rights department called “Apartheid in Israel-Palestine.” When Israel-advocacy organizations caught wind of the course, they attempted to pressure Bard into canceling it. One donor even left the board of trustees in protest, leaving the status of his $2.5 million pledge up in the air. What was it like to find yourself at the center of that kind of campaign?

NT: When Bard said they wanted me to teach the apartheid class, I really pushed them on whether they were ready to deal with the possible objections. They responded that I was unlikely to face any issue at Bard, which was a friendly campus for progressive views on Israel/Palestine. And in fact, there was no internal blowback from students or fellow faculty. It was all from outside, and it only began after the class had already started, when Omar Shakir [Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch] posted a screenshot of the course description on Twitter. Then the storm started. [Right-wing website] Stopantisemitism.org named me the “Antisemite of the Week.” The Daily Caller published something. The local paper published criticism from the local Jewish Federation. There was a letter-writing campaign that flooded the inbox of the Bard president.

Despite the fact that it was a pain, I’m glad the course received the publicity. There’s not much use in setting a precedent that nobody knows about. The Anti-Defamation League and other pro-Israel groups wanted to make an example out of my class to prevent courses on apartheid in Israel/Palestine from mushrooming all over the United States. But that proliferation is precisely what I want. I want people to know that this happened, and that they can teach the class, too.

MC: Do you have any advice for someone who would want to teach a class like this elsewhere?

NT: I think that most schools would’ve caved to the pressure. They would have canceled the class—or changed the professor, changed the title, changed the syllabus, brought in a second teacher as balance. These are all things that various groups were asking for, and Bard did not do any of them. That makes it hard to give advice to faculty who know that their administration will throw them under the bus. Also, it’s one thing for an American Jew to be listed on Stopantisemitism.org as “Antisemite of the Week.” It’s another thing for an Arab American or Palestinian American faculty member to be listed on that website, and to be subjected to that kind of a campaign. As a result, I do think that Jewish American faculty have a special obligation to be at the forefront of pushing these kinds of classes forward, because they are immunized to a much greater degree.

After October 7th, I think that doing so will be much harder. The same groups that tried and failed to shut down my class are empowered right now, and they are making people afraid. I know of multiple media outlets that are holding reviews of my book because the pieces express sympathy for Palestinians living under occupation—even though they also express empathy for Jews living in this unjust system. It’s a time of extreme intolerance. People are caving to groups that they would have stood up to before.

This article has been corrected to clarify the status of Dahiyat al-Salaam, which is a neighborhood of Anata that was annexed by Israel and falls within municipal Jerusalem. 

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.