Steven Frank
Steven Frank

Celebrity Jewish Writers and Israel

Recently, the world commemorated the fifty-year anniversary of Israel’s astonishing victory in the Six Day War, which broke out on June 5, 1967. In the spring of 1967, the Arab world once again – – as it did on Israel’s founding in 1948 – – surrounded Israel intent on driving the Jews into the sea. Israel survived, as it did in 1948 (and again in the Arab’s surprise attack on Yom Kippur, 1973), in a swift six day war.

Instead of celebrating Israel’s miraculous victory, American Jewish literary superstars, Michael Chabon and his wife Ayelet Waldman, chose instead to edit and publish “Kingdom of Olives and Ashes, a “collection of essays by celebrated international writers bear[ing] witness to the human cost of fifty years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza” (from the back cover). The book, published by Harper Collins, was released on May 30, 2017, followed by an extensive book tour by the celebrity couple.

The book grew out of a tour of West Bank villages which Chabon and his wife (along with other writers featured in the book) joined under the auspices of an organization hostile to the Israeli government. Following the tour (which did not visit Israel proper or its settlements in the West Bank area of Judea and Samaria), Chabon was quoted in the Forward newspaper as saying: “This is the worst thing I have ever seen, just purely in terms of injustice. If saying that is going to lose me readers, I don’t want those readers. They can go away and never come back.”

In the anthology, Chabon contributes a piece about Palestinian businessman Sam Bahour who complains that the Israeli authorities have stymied his entrepreneurial efforts in the West Bank. Bahour was born in Youngstown, Ohio, is of Palestinian descent and immigrated to the West Bank following the Oslo accords in the 1990’s. Bahour earned his MBA from Tel Aviv University’s prestigious Kellogg–Recanati Executive MBA program.

Chabon does not note that Bahour is an ardent critic of the existence of the State of Israel who has proclaimed that “Israel [is] a settler, colonial, apartheid movement clinging to a racialist, exclusivist ideology. [The Palestinians] were correct to [reject Israel] at the outset of this conflict [1948].” Nor does Chabon bother to mention that Bahour is affiliated with an organization that opposes the Palestinian Authority’s negotiations with Israel. For all the criticism Bahour directs toward the Israel authorities in Chabon’s article, neither he nor Chabon explain why he does not direct his fury at the authoritarian and corrupt Palestinian Authority which last year could not account for 2.7 billion dollars of foreign aid that had gone “missing.”

Waldman, who has long lashed out at the American system of criminal sentencing, does the same in her own contribution to the anthology, examining the Israeli military justice system. Another piece was contributed by writer Rachel Kushner. Kurshner withdrew from participating in the gala following PEN nominations in March 2015, where PEN American Center gave its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, whose staff had been murdered by Islamists in Paris three months before. Salman Rushdie criticized Kushner and her fellow protesters as “fellow travelers” of “fanatical Islam.”

Kushner’s article describes abhorrent conditions in the Shuafat Refuge camp located in the largely Arab section of East Jerusalem. Kushner describes the camp as “the most dangerous place in Jerusalem, a crucible of crime, jihad and trash fires.” Kushner, however, fails to point out that no one is forcing the residents of the camp to reside there and that they are free to leave and live elsewhere in the West Bank or anywhere else whenever they choose. She does note in passing that Israel has little control over the camp, which is run by the United Nation’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees.

A New York Times review of the Chabon/Waldman anthology called it “fairly superficial, full of unearned authority and exhibitionist empathy.”

Among the book’s failings is the lack of any context for the Israeli “occupation.” Chabon fails to mention that on numerous occasions the Palestinians have rejected proposals that would have resulted in their own independent state living in peace along side Israel. These include the 1948 United Nations’ partition plan, and, more recently, Israel’s offers of an independent state comprising over 95% of the “occupied” territories, including East Jerusalem, in 2000 and 2008.

Nor do the authors mention the Arabs’ rejection of Israel’s peace offer to return the conquered Arab territories, including the West Bank, proposed immediately after the Six Day War, which, of course, would have erased the “fifty years of occupation” that the book laments.

Chabon and Waldman have been called “the power couple of American Jewish literature.” Chabon is the son of an assimilated Jewish family who grew up in the progressive planned community of Columbia, Maryland outside Washington, D.C. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. He went on to become a Pulitzer Prize winning author with such works as “Wonder Boys” and “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.”

Ayelet Waldman, Chabon’s second wife, was born in Jerusalem and then immigrated to Montreal and from there to Rhode Island and New Jersey. She is also a writer (having authored the “Mommy Track Mysteries,” among other works), although of less renown than her award-winning husband. She is mostly known for her articles about motherhood (controversially once saying in a New York Times essay that “I love my husband more than I love my children”). She has written and spoken frequently about parenting while having a mental illness. Chabon and Waldman live with their four children in a classic Craftsman home in Berkeley, California.

Chabon and Waldman have struggled to find a place for Judaism in their daily lives. Chabon opined in an interview that “we were trying to force these structures of Judaism into a sort of progressive spiritually meaningful rubric, when it’s like a joke.” Waldman found Yom Kippur in synagogue “boring” acknowledging that “sometimes it was very moving,” but preferring that “if it was shorter, you know, if the services had been an hour.”

A recent PEW study demonstrated that, due to intermarriage and assimilation, American Jews’ ties to Judaism and Israel are in rapid decline with one in five Jews describing themselves as having no religion. Chabon and Waldman both claim to be atheists. The manner in which they have raised their own children confirms the PEW study.

Says Waldman in an interview with YNET News: “My kids * * * wouldn’t bat an eyelash if Israel was just shut down and everybody deported to North Dakota. Each of them has said to me, ‘Hey, that would have been a better solution.’” “From my point of view,” Waldman adds,“it should have been Berlin. Those are the people who murdered us. We are city people. Jews are urban in our souls. They should have just given us Berlin. Can you imagine? A wonderful Jewish city state.”

While Waldman has long been an outspoken critic of Israel, Chabon has only recently come out of the closet. In fact, in considering whether to get involved in editing a book about the Israeli “occupation,” Waldman admitted in an interview with the Forward: “I was anxious [about] Michael [losing] the core of his audience.”

A legitimate concern. Much of Chabon’s work has a background of diaspora Yiddishkeit. The “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” tells the tale of two Jewish cousins who create a wildly popular series of comic books in the early 1940s. The “Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” winner of the prestigious Hugo award, imagines an alternate history in which Israel collapsed in 1948 and European Jews settled in Alaska. His latest novel, “Moonglow” which has been called “one of Chabon’s most Jewish books,” recounts the colorful life of Chabon’s grandfather, on his deathbed, including his troubled boyhood in the Jewish slums of prewar South Philadelphia,

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a “Jewish writer” exploiting his diaspora background for profit while at the same time criticizing Israel for policies with which he or she disagrees. It’s a free country.

However, it is troubling when such a writer coyly hides his disdain for the Jewish State while making a nice living off riffs on Jewish traditions. Knowing about Chabon’s animosity towards Israel puts a whole different spin on his popular “Yiddish Policeman’s Union.” One realizes that Chabon in fact applauded the collapse of the nascent Israeli state in 1948 as depicted in his novel. And, it becomes clearer that his narrative of native Alaskans being displaced by Yiddish speaking colonists is nothing but a crude metaphor for the Palestinian Israeli conflict, in Chabon’s eyes.

As noted above, Chabon has expressly stated to those of his readers who find his views on Israel offensive: “I don’t want those readers. They can go away and never come back.”

That’s the plan, Michael…

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Steve Frank recently retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the United States Department of Justice. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, the Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post, among other major publications.

About the Author
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish News Syndicate and Moment magazine.