In Assaf Gavron’s novel “The Hilltop“, an illegal settlement in the West Bank is home to Jewish settlers safe from the threat of evacuation thanks to a “hodgepodge of laws and conflicting authorities.”
The settlement is called Maale Hermesh C, an extension of Maale Hermesh A and Maale Hermesh B which doesn’t appear on official maps. Considered by the government to be illegal, and a thorn in Israel’s relations with the United States, the outpost has so far escaped evacuation because the required resources in the defense establishment are occupied elsewhere.
This hilltop outpost has attracted a handful of colorful, very believable characters. Bearded veteran Othniel Assis has established a vegetable farm that may, or may not be situated on privately owned Palestinian land. Gavriel Nehustan and Roni Kupper, orphaned brothers who grew up on a kibbutz, have arrived at the outpost for completely different reasons – one has experienced a religious awakening and the other has become penniless after pursuing a career in Tel Aviv nightlife and New York finance. There are women settlers as well, including right-wing patriot Neta Hirschson and Russian-born math teacher Jenia Freud.
The outpost’s residents raise families, celebrate the Jewish holidays, bring baked goods to the Israeli soldiers who guard their homes, remodel part of their kindergarten to be used as a synagogue, fall in love, and protest the occasional visit of Israeli politicians. In short, they live normal lives in what can be best described as an absurd, off-the-map place to live.
This kind of life doesn’t appeal to everyone; some families arrive only to end up searching for more established communities in the heart of Israel. Others consider themselves pioneers, yet even they occasionally voice longings for the necessities of life which have not made their way to their hilltop home. “Give me a grocery store,” laments one resident. “Give me a bus into town. Give me a kindergarten and a preschool and a school.” The lack of air conditioners and hot water, and even electricity when the outpost’s generator breaks down, are challenges faced on a daily basis.
Located near Maale Hermesh C is the Palestinian village of Kharmish. When the Israeli government moves to build the security fence between the two communities, an act that will encroach on both the outpost and the Palestinians’ olive tree orchards, settlers and their Palestinian neighbors find themselves jointly protesting the IDF bulldozers, the strangest of bedfellows in a very strange, surreal reality.
There are no easy outcomes in this novel, but such is the reality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Incidents described in the book could easily be sprouting from today’s newspaper headlines; the advantage of reading about them in a work of fiction is that the talented author can include Biblical rhythms, satire, humor, compassion, and even wisdom in the descriptions of those involved – settlers, soldiers, and Palestinians alike.
The Hilltop is a fascinating read, a balanced portrayal of an often despised group of Israelis. Gavron, one of Israel’s leading literary talents, successfully humanizes a charged, political situation, giving voice to all sides without polemics or bias. The story with all of its facets and subplots, is truly enjoyable, making one wonder what will happen next in the wild, wild West Bank after the novel ends.
The Hilltop (Scribner, October 2014) has been described by Time Out Tel Aviv as “the great Israeli novel”. Published now in English with a seamless, expert translation by Steven Cohen, the book has been praised by a star-studded list of literary talents including Khaled Hosseini, Colum McCann, Reza Aslan, Etgar Keret, and Amos Oz.
Assaf Gavron, born in 1968, is the author of five novels, a collection of short stories, and a non-fiction collection of falafel joint reviews. The Hilltop was awarded the Bernstein Prize for original Hebrew language novel. Gavron is also a highly regarded English-to-Hebrew translator, as well as the singer and main songwriter of the cult pop group The Foot and the Mouth.