The Arab-Israeli conflict has existed since Israel became a state in 1948. As outsiders, we can only imagine what it feels like to live under the shadow of violence. As outsiders, we sometimes see only the violence and remove our gaze from other cleavages that exist in Israeli society. The works of contemporary Israeli writers like David Grossman and Orly Castel-Bloom give us a glimpse beneath the bloodshed.
In 2008, David Grossman wrote a marvelous book, To The End Of The Land. The mother of an Israeli soldier, desperate to avoid receiving a message of her son’s injury or death, backpacks to the end of the land. The novel may have occurred in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but its theme is universal: a mother’s need to escape potentially unbearable news about her child. In The Smile Of The Lamb (1983), Grossman tackles a more narrow theme: the destructive impact of occupation despite the best intentions. The Smile Of the Lamb takes place just after the Six-Day War. Uri is married to Shosh. He is stationed in the occupied territories under the command of Katzman. Both Shosh and Katzman are drawn to Uri because his sense of justice and inherent empathy ground them– although Shosh attacks Uri for his “malignant optimism” and for bearing the “smile of the lamb.” Katzman is a Holocaust survivor who spent his childhood hidden in a pit. The experience has eroded his sense of empathy although he is committed to handling his military governorship with justice. As for Shosh, she still feels the sting of a childhood betrayal by her parents and is drowning in her own cynicism. She counsels delinquent boys, one of whom has recently committed suicide. As events unpeel, we learn that Shosh has contributed to this death.
Uri accepts Katzman’s invitation to join his command, hopeful that occupation can be accomplished with justice. He’s soon repelled by the collective punishments, body searches, curfews, midnight interrogations, destruction of property, and by one particularly petty and cruel act of retaliation. Uri feels compelled by Khilmi, a Palestinian storyteller, who is at best unbalanced. He watches as Khilmi burns his identification card in protest: “the huwiya is a kind of receipt the Arabs get to prove their existence. To prove they’re real. But it’s more than that, it’s a paper-thin line between our military laws and regulations and a kick in the balls.” Uri wants to tear himself from the “wheels of injustice,” uninterested in both sides’ claims of being right, and allows himself to be taken hostage by Khilmi . Katzman, for his part, cannot so easily escape the wheels. When reasoning with an Arab mayor about the destruction of homes belonging to the families of two terrorists, he compares the encounter to “two rooks facing each other across an empty chessboard, with only one move possible. They could never catch up with each other.” Katzman can find no resolution: “He didn’t hate the Arabs he lived with side by side. He didn’t love them either. He didn’t want to go on occupying their territories, but an independent Palestinian state, fueled only by its hatred for Israel, was pretty frightening.” Nonetheless, Katzman wants to conduct a humane military governorship. He enlists Uri to be his conscience. Let’s just say, it does not work out. As for The Smile Of the Lamb, it’s not on the same level as To the End of The Land. It has many strong moments, but too often the heavy stream of consciousness descends into incoherence.
One minor theme in The Smile of the Lamb is how Uri’s Sephardic heritage puts him at a seeming disadvantage when dealing with Katzman and Shosh who come from Ashkenazi backgrounds. Grossman never fully explores this ethic division. Not so in Orly Castel-Bloom’s Human Parts (2003). Human Parts has a dual meaning. It refers to the ordinary Israelis trying to go about their lives as the intifada rages, and it also refers to the post-bombing remains. For all that, Human Parts approaches its subject with humor. It’s as if Voltaire bonded with T.C. Boyle. Castel-Bloom describes an Israel under siege and not just by terrorists. The climate has gone haywire and snow and sub-zero temperatures are brand-new afflictions along with a “Saudi flu.” In one memorable passage, Castel-Bloom sums up the miserable state of affairs:
Taxi drivers, who had their fingers on the pulse of the nation, told their passengers that the government policy of restraint towards the Palestinian Authority was to blame for everything. It was the policy of restraint that had led to the sharp deterioration in the population’s immune systems, so that whoever didn’t die of suicide bombs or car bombs died of the Saudi flu.
The flu also affected the inhabitants of the Palestinian Authority, and there, too, many people died.
Sometimes the illness and the severe cold brought fighters on both sides to their knees, and created the illusion of a cease-fire.
Castel-Bloom satirizes the lives of six ordinary Israelis whose lives are intertwined, like Crash transplanted to the Middle East. She mocks ethnic hierarchies. Russian, Ethiopian and Sephardic Jews look up to native Israelis on the top rung. These divisions are joined by class fractures. One character, Kati, cleans steps in apartment buildings; her poverty is so extreme that it earns her fifteen minutes of fame on a television show. Liat, meanwhile, counts her properties to battle insomnia like someone else would count sheep. Tasaro, the Ethiopian girlfriend of Liat’s brother Adir, snares the spot of lottery girl on television, while Adir’s previous girlfriend Iris struggles to find money for a new washing machine. Religious division is given a shout-out, as Kati thinks about pretending that she is religious to receive help from religious charities. Terrorism touches everything. After Liat succumbs to Saudi flu, Adir thinks about how much easier it would be to write her eulogy had she been a terror victim. Castel-Bloom even comments about the protocol radio stations have adopted, musical programming changing based upon the number of that day’s casualties. Human Parts is definitely more than the sum of its parts and worth the read.