Palestine: the prize, the novel and The Promise

The Israel-Palestine quandary has been churning around in my head lately (when does it not?). First there was Ian McEwan’s decision to accept the Jerusalem Prize for literature, a decision for which he was heavily criticised in a letter to the Guardian from a group called British Writers in Support of Palestine, including John Berger, and urged to boycott the award ‘a cruel joke and a propaganda tool for the Israeli state’, adding: ‘the Jerusalem book fair… is organised by the … municipality, a key institution of the Israeli state and a major instrument in the illegal colonisation of East Jerusalem’.

Then there was McEwan’s acceptance speech which, in part at least, comprised an eloquent attack on ‘continued evictions and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, the process of the right of return granted to Jews but not to Arabs, the so-called facts on the ground of hardening concrete over the future, over future generations of Palestinian and Israeli children who will inherit the conflict and find it even more difficult to resolve than it is today’ and called for an end to settlements and encroachments on Palestinian land.

Though his words were powerful, I still thought he should have stayed away. In a subsequent letter to the Guardian, a number of British, Israeli and Palestinian signatories from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement wrote:

After rejecting the Palestinian call to boycott the state-sponsored Jerusalem Prize, Ian McEwan has massaged his conscience by demonstrating against home demolitions in East Jerusalem, criticising Israel in his acceptance speech, and donating his prize money to an Israeli-Palestinian peace group. Should his detractors …now ‘eat their words’? We think not. Had McEwan refused the prize, protested in Jerusalem at his own expense, and attacked not Israel’s “nihilism” but its colonialist zeal, his own words of condemnation would have had integrity and bite.

As it is, McEwan has given Mayor Nir Barkat a golden platform for his outrageous views. Jerusalem is not a city where all may “express themselves in a free way”. Activists are arrested and deported, while racist internal laws allow the municipality to flout the Geneva convention by creating illegal settlements – a policy designed to prevent East Jerusalem from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state. To criticise these settlements while accepting the laurels of those who build them appears rank hypocrisy.

A contrast to McEwan’s stance is provided by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who today explains in The Guardian why he decided not to perform in Tel Aviv in 2006:

The Palestinian advocates of a boycott asked that I visit the occupied Palestinian territory to see the wall for myself before I made up my mind. I agreed. Under the protection of the United Nations I visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw that day. The wall is an appalling edifice to behold. It is policed by young Israeli soldiers who treated me, a casual observer from another world, with disdainful aggression. […]

Sadly, in the intervening years the Israeli government has made no attempt to implement legislation that would grant rights to Israeli Arabs equal to those enjoyed by Israeli Jews, and the wall has grown, inexorably, illegally annexing more and more of the West Bank.

In my view, the abhorrent and draconian control that Israel wields over the besieged Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), coupled with its denial of the rights of refugees to return to their homes in Israel, demands that fair-minded people around the world support the Palestinians in their civil, nonviolent resistance.

Where governments refuse to act people must, with whatever peaceful means are at their disposal. For me this means declaring an intention to stand in solidarity, not only with the people of Palestine but also with the many thousands of Israelis who disagree with their government’s policies, by joining the campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.

The questions of Palestine, the Nakba, and the Wall were also central to the major four-part drama, The Promise, which screened on Channel 4 last month.  In terms of drama, it was noteworthy for the striking central performance by Claire Foy as Erin, a sulky, sullen teenager who (rather implausibly) decides to accept the invitation of her best friend Eliza, an English girl with joint Israeli citizenship, to accompany her to Israel during her gap year and stay with her well-off family when she is called up to do national service. Erin carries with her a diary kept by her grandfather  when he served with British forces in Europe and in Palestine during the 1940s.

Reading it, Erin discovers that her grand­father, served both at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and in Palestine in the tense months before Israel declared itself a state in 1948, when the occupying British army was subject to a sustained terrorist campaign by Zionist groups. With this dramatic device, the writer and director of  The Promise, Peter Kosminsky, was able to juxtapose issues in the present with the Mandate period and trace the connections – expressed symbolically by the key that Erin finds in her father’s diary.  For her, the key is a mystery which she slowly unravels. It’s a symbol of the Palestinian refugees’ dispossession, still, 63 years later, the subject of continuing conflict and negotiation.

The Promise made full use of Dickensian-style coincidences and secrets, but in the concluding episode coincidence stretched credulity to breaking point. There were unlikely geographical leaps from Jerusalem to Haifa to Hebron and Gaza, whose only rationale appeared to be to incorporate every significant aspect of the conflict into the story. Most extraordinarily, Erin’s grandfather and a young Arab boy were depicted walking in broad daylight like a pair of sightseers around Deir Yassin where 107 Arabs were slaughtered by the Irgun on the eve of Israel’s creation, as the massacre unfolded. (It was, in fact largely conducted between midnight and daylight.)

But for all these faults,The Promise was still an exceptional drama. The two central performances by Claire Foy and Christian Cooke – playing her grandfather as a young man – were compelling. The cinematography brilliantly captured the sense of Palestinian streets during the Mandate and of the various facets of Israel today – from the dazzling houses of Caesarea, the country’s richest city where Eliza’s family lives, to the twisting streets of the occupied territories and the looming Wall. Above all, it was surely important that a drama that grappled with a crucial and unresolved issue of history – and Britain’s forgotten involvement – should be screened on prime-time TV.

In his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, Ian McEwan spoke of his recent discovery of a novel by S Yizhar – Khirbet Khizeh, published in 1949:

the luminous account of the clearing of an Arab village during the ’48 war, and of a protest that never quite leaves the throat of its narrator as the houses are demolished and the villagers driven from their land. It is a tribute to an open society that this novella was for many years required reading for Israeli schoolchildren.

Well, I had not heard of that novel, but was intrigued to know more.  Now, in today’s Guardian Review, I learn that the book is published in English this month by Granta.   The short novel was written in 1949 and tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land during the 1948 war that immediately followed the founding of the Israeli state: the war of independence for Israelis, the nakba or catastrophe for Palestinians.

Near the beginning of Khirbet Khizeh, the narrator describes the danger for a soldier of thinking about the actions on which you are engaged: ‘we knew that when the thoughts came, troubles began; better not to start thinking’. In her Guardian article Jacqueline Rose calls Khirbet Khizeh ‘a tribute to the power of critical thought to register the injustices of history’.  She writes:

Yizhar Smilansky, author of Khirbet Khizeh

Khirbet Khizeh tells the story of the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their home and land during the 1948 war that immediately followed the founding of the Israeli state: the war of independence or liberation, as it is referred to in Israel; for the Palestinians, the nakba or catastrophe. By the end of it, 750,000 Palestinians had become refugees. This story, this moment, is, to say the least, still controversial. In July 2009, Israel’s education ministry announced that the term nakba, introduced two years previously into Palestinian-Israeli textbooks, was to be removed on the grounds that its use was tantamount to spreading propaganda against Israel. In May last year, a law was passed – widely termed the “Nakba Law” – that withdraws government funding from any group judged to be “acting against the principles of the country”, which includes the commemoration of the nakba. The law effectively criminalises the right of the Palestinian people to remember.

So the book really was, as McEwan said, an Israeli school textbook – but not any more.  I shall have to read it.

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