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The Uncivil Servant: A Novel that Has Raised Hackles in Israel

Mitchell Abidor
May 23, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan. Random House, 2017, 264 pages.

DORIT RABINYAN’S All the Rivers comes to us heavy with a back story that forces us to read this moving novel in a way we never would have under normal circumstances.

It recounts the doomed love of Liat, an Israeli studying translation in New York, and Hilmi, a Palestinian artist living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. They fall for each other almost immediately after meeting, but they know -- particularly Liat knows -- that when, in six months, her visa expires and she returns to Israel, it will be all over. She knows that her family would never accept her having a Palestinian lover, and she could never brave her family’s displeasure.

They love, they argue over their common but not shared country, and they separate, Liat returning to Tel Aviv, Hilmi to Ramallah. The story has a tragic end, one only partially tied to the situation of the Palestinian people. There is nothing here that in the normal course of events would make All the Rivers a cause célèbre. But in today’s Israel, obsessed with racial, religious, and political purity, All the Rivers has raised hackles.

According to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, “Intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threaten to subvert our distinct identity,” and as a result the book has been banned from being taught in high schools. Bennett’s ministry made the case that they needed to protect Israeli youth: “The story is based on a romantic motif of a forbidden/secret and impossible love. Adolescent youth tend to romanticize and don’t have, in many cases, the systematic point of view that includes considerations about preserving the identity of the nation and the significance of assimilation.” The identity of Israel is apparently founded on keeping Arabs out of Jewish beds. How fragile a thing it is, and how clearly and odiously racist.

In Israel it is possible, after all, to teach a novel like S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khiza, which deals with the expulsion of Arab villagers during the Naqba -- but there remains a zone that is strictly verboten: miscegenation.

As in almost every case when governments involve themselves in literary criticism, the Israeli government clearly never really read the novel (many of its harshest critics have admitted to this), or were so incensed by the mere notion that a Jewish woman could soil herself by laying with the enemy that they failed to see that the story is anything but propaganda for race-mixing.

LIAT IS HERSELF all too well aware of this obsession, recalling a time in a jitney in Tel Aviv when she heard on the bus’s radio an announcement from the organization Sister’s Hand, a group whose aim is the saving of Jewish women who are “married off to Arab men who kidnap them and take them to their villages, drugged and beaten . . . ” Echoing similar sentiments once expressed in the American South, a fellow passenger says, “These animals! For them to nail a Jewish woman is a big deal.” The sexual fear of the Other is as absolute in Israel as it was in the South and in Hitler’s Germany.

Though Liat obviously doesn’t share these sentiments, she is nevertheless ruled by her fear of their omnipresence in Israel. It is no accident that the love affair takes place in New York, not Tel Aviv: Liat and Hilmi are free to live and love as they will far from their home, but their home and its discords is always with them. Her greatest fear is that her parents will learn of her affair.

Though the lovers feel they have a “shared destiny,” that destiny is based on landscape, on climate: “That similarity between us . . . must be what they mean when they say that man is imprinted by his native landscape.” Having grown up in a dry land, they are both concerned with conserving water and recall similar sensual delights from their native land: For Hilmi, it’s “the yellow scent of chrysanthemums which for him was the smell of spring,” while Liat speaks of “the tall grass I used to walk through, the fuzzy, sticky burrs, and the dandelion fluff.”

Yet historically, their differences are irreducible. Liat can ask when Hilmi’s family “moved away” from its original village, at which Hilmi can only laugh. Expulsion is not what comes immediately to Liat’s mind. She is an Israeli and Hilmi Palestinian: Independence Day for the one is Naqba Day for the other.

Even so, that Liat is of the left is clear, and it is made so in several clumsy passages. “I wondered whether Hilmi, in the men’s room on the other side of the wall, was also reading the word in the little door lock -- Occupied -- and thinking about the occupation.” Or, when Hilmi loses his keys, and Liat reflects “the quick glance I gave him was enough to convince me that he was troubled at the moment by more pressing questions than the right of return.” Liat -- and Rabinyan -- are simply over-compensating here.

When Liat meets Hilmi’s visiting brother and a group of friends, an argument ensues, the inevitable one in which the Palestinian speaks up for his rights and the Israeli, feeling attacked in hers, retreats into her side’s defenses. After the argument, which is the longest set piece in All the Rivers, Liat observes, “at the moment of truth he came down on the side of his true primary identity. He abandoned me and stood by his brothers. When the time came, he became one of them. Just as I had.”

THIS IS WHERE the Ministry of Education’s decision is revealed in all its awfulness. Rabinyan’s portrayal of an affair does not mean that loving a Palestinian means abandoning Israel politically. In All the Rivers, each partner firmly defends his people’s turf. What is truly frightening to Israel’s rightwing movement is the mere fact of sex between a Jew and an Arab. And there is something else, something perhaps equally frightening, which Rabinyan wrote of after the scandal broke out: “Far away in New York, Liat and Hilmi, an artist and a student, discover their affinities and their shared fate. Theirs is a complicated love story. But it is suffused with our responsibility to see the other, to be able to recognize ourselves in them. Above all, it rests on the hope that whether we want to or not, whether we shut our eyes or plug our ears, whether we drag our feet or stomp our legs, we will sooner or later admit that we -- us and them -- sail on the same boat.”

All the Rivers is not a great novel, but it is a profoundly humanizing novel that sees the failings and frailties of the man and the woman, the Israeli and the Palestinian. This is what is anathema in the eyes of the Israeli government and its supporters: All the Rivers attempts to remedy their blindness to the reality of those on the other side.

For this, Dorit Rabinyan could not be forgiven.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.