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Shabbat Reading List 12/22

Every Friday, Jewish Currents staff, board members, and other supporters send you a selection of books, articles from other publications we’ve been reading, and sometimes films and TV shows. We spend a lot of time developing and promoting our own work, but we want to offer you a look at what else is on our minds.

Since October 7th, we have shifted the focus of our recommendations to illuminate the unfolding horror in Israel/Palestine. As we head into a short winter break, we are sharing some older recommendations—spanning from lyrical fiction to pioneering scholarship—that have tragically proven as relevant as ever.

If you’re interested in buying any of our recommended books, whenever possible our links below go to Bookshop, a new alternative to the monopolistic corporate behemoth that is Amazon. Purchases made on Bookshop directly support independent bookstores. Jewish Currents maintains our own homepage with Bookshop, and if you buy through there or through the links below we get a 10% commission, so you’ll be supporting our operations too.

Cynthia Friedman (managing director): I read Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, over the course of last month. It is a gorgeous novel, tracing the lineage of one family through the eyes of different members, across a smattering of ages—ranging from a preteen girl of 11 to a matriarch at 75. The character who opens the novel was a young mother when she and her family were displaced from Jaffa to Nablus during the Nakba; we first meet her over a decade later as she prepares for her daughter’s wedding. The story travels on from there, unfurling further generations and geographical upheavals.

I was traveling with a friend when I began reading it, and I kept saying to her, “this is so devastating.” But two aspects of Alyan’s writing soften the experience of following along with the family’s intermittent tragedies and hardships: the poetry of her prose and the rich inner lives of the characters. I fell in love with several of them, and they linger. We move in time from mosques and outdoor courtyards in the 1960s to malls and apartments in the 2010s, and what remains constant is the presence of war and how life continues, in its miracles and mundanity, despite.

Alex Kane (senior reporter): The American Jewish establishment’s rhetoric about Hamas—which they view as an antisemitic terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction— does absolutely nothing to further understanding of what Hamas is or the social context from which they emerged. To understand the Islamist group, I recommend turning to Tareq Baconi’s 2018 book Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. The book is a deeply researched chronicle of Hamas’s rise from Islamist social movement to a pioneer of armed resistance against Israel and manager of a Gaza under blockade. Well written, concise, and informed by a political commitment to justice and freedom for all, Hamas Contained provides an antidote to the American Jewish establishment’s hysterical renderings of Hamas and returns the group to the realm of politics, showing how Hamas is caught between the desire to hold on to power in Gaza and the necessity of being seen as a resistance movement. As more than two million Palestinians in Gaza continue to suffer from a devastating Israeli blockade that has only entrenched Hamas’s rule while further dividing the West Bank and Gaza from each other, these are critically important dynamics to understand. Baconi’s work is one of the best ways to start getting a grasp on the complicated entanglement of Hamas and Israel, and what it means for Gaza.

Claire Schwartz (poetry editor): At the shul I grew up attending, kids collected coins in small blue tins that clinked when you shook them at someone, which you could do to say “pay attention to me” or “I have a crush on you,” and then somehow these coins became trees in a place I was taught to call Israel. I liked to imagine my great-aunt in Jerusalem finding shade under the tree my coins had grown. It was magic—at once map and key that conjured my family and told me how to look for us.

The first thing I wanted to recommend to read right now was nothing, because aren’t Israeli campaigns of ethnic cleansing and Palestinian freedom struggles plainly evident? Surely it’s not the time for study, but for action. Still, “that things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe,” as Walter Benjamin put it, and so I wanted to recommend Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, where I learned that my coin-turned-tree was not in fact a private magic but part of a colonizing campaign organized by the Jewish National Fund, a program “undertaken to prevent Palestinian planting, and to maintain land reserves for new settlements or for the future expansion of existing ones.” What felt like a spell that summoned my family was actually the rehearsal of a colonial affiliation that prescribed them. I thrilled at the smooth blue box in my hands, and my kin were the “we” placed by this displacement.

As the already horrific violence against Palestinians horribly mounts, the text that really has a hold on me is Christina Sharpe’s essay “Lose Your Kin,” published in The New Inquiry in 2016. Sharpe moves from Saidiya Hartman’s assertation that “slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship” to elaborate ways that white kinships comprise primary modes of persistence for the relational structures forged from chattel slavery’s social blueprints. To exorcise that ghost from the machine, Sharpe writes: “One must be willing to say this is abhorrent. One must be willing to be more than uncomfortable. One must be willing to be on the outside. One must refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin.” The imperatives Sharpe sets forth resonate across imperial disfigurations.

In the past few days, these familial reparations made “on the bodies cast out as not kin” have proliferated. Synagogues and other Jewish institutions, mainstream media, cousins, colleagues equivocate or proffer vague bothsidesisms, as though there are not right now millions of Palestinians hemmed in by settler borders as they are targeted by state violence, as though there aren’t millions more who have been made multigenerational refugees, as though the US isn’t funding this settler colonial occupation with $3.8 billion a year. The writer and scholar Sophia Azeb tweeted: “+ if you’re ‘anti-Zionist’ but never utter the words ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinian’ in your public musings, instead centering your own contentious relation to the Israeli settler colonial project, then you’re not yet an anti-Zionist. you have WORK to do.” Kinship makes the hyphen elastic, so that what is framed as opposition can take place without severance. Kinship keeps some circling the question of Zionism rather than wholly joining with Palestinian freedom struggles.

This bad family magic spells a violent and absurd equivalence between fears of Israelis in Tel Aviv and fears of Palestinians in Gaza. It insists the Shoah into conversation whenever mentions of the occupation of Palestinian comes up. This is what kin does. It brings us back to each other—even when our return cuts a path through other people’s lives. “What is the calculation by which one arrives at this cruel expendability,” the poet Dionne Brand asks. And Christina Sharpe’s essay helps me to answer: family. If our kinships are sutured with euphemisms that accommodate our complicities in brutality, then they are brutal. Until the “we” forged around violence is wrenched open to point toward other horizons, the ghost of settler colonial occupation will be a ghost in our machine.

Mari Cohen (associate editor): For those seeking an introduction to the fundamentals of anti-Zionist thinking in the name of Palestinian liberation, The Question of Palestine by Edward Said remains indispensable. Said’s prose is characteristically beautiful and sharp, and his deeply researched analysis of racist and colonial attitudes in the writings of Israel’s founders is key for understanding Zionist history. Reading this book involves confronting the bleak fact that so much of it remains relevant today, over 40 years after its 1978 publication.