The year is 2000, the setting, Galilee, where two women meet by chance. One is Tikvah, an American who has made her life on Moshav Sapir; the other is Ruby, a Palestinian artist who has returned to her village, Bir al-Demue. At the outset, they seemed destined to be enemies, especially since the old stone house where Tikvah and her husband Alon now live once belonged to Ruby’s father. But expectations are swiftly upended in this debut novel, Hope Valley (Bink Books).
Author and Rabbi Haviva Ner-David (whose story Blame appeared in the Fall, 2016 issue) talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she views this age-old conflict and her passionate commitment to ending it.
YZM: The story takes place more than 20 years ago, and yet it seems so fresh, so relevant. Can you talk about that?
HND: I wish I could say that this conflict is all in the past, but it’s not. As I saw smoke and heard shots, explosions and sirens last week, at the beginning of the current crisis, I felt like I was living inside my novel. It was eerie. But that is a big theme in the novel: that history will repeat itself if we do not do the deep healing that needs to happen in order to stop that cycle. There is the backstory in 1948 and the front story in 2000, and there are clear parallels in both stories that become apparent to the reader parallels that are playing out again today, as I speak. Rioting, racist hate crimes, pointing fingers at the “other”, violent approaches to solving conflict instead of addressing the actual root of the differences on both “sides.” I personally do not see myself on a “side,” but rather in the camp of those — Palestinian and Jewish — who are active in the kind of healing work to which I am referring.
I have been involved for years in the work of building deep and lasting relationships with my Palestinian neighbors here in Galilee. There are various levels to this. I am involved in a narrative sharing group here in my area, where we get together once a month to listen in non-judgment to one another’s narratives around the conflict. It is not a dialogue group, but rather, it is about practicing sacred listening. The idea is not to debate or argue politics, but rather to hear narratives different from our own and acknowledge each other’s pain and story, and to know that we can hold all of these truths together without one having to be right and the other wrong. Paraphrasing one character in the book: You can say you’re sorry without taking all of the blame.
I am also part of a group of priests, rabbis and imams who get together monthly to study, and also in the community around my younger children’s Hand-in-Hand school. There are a network of these bilingual (Arabic-Hebrew) multicultural interfaith schools around Israel, and the movement is growing. Schools in Israel are highly segregated. There are Arabic speaking schools and Hebrew speaking schools, religious schools and secular schools, Christian/Muslim schools and Jewish schools. The Hand in Hand schools are revolutionary in their approach to finding a way for children to learn together so that they get to know one another from an early age and are less likely to demonize the “other”. Also, through learning one another’s language, they can communicate, which makes a huge difference in building bridges.
These are just some of the groups and communities with which I am involved. There are others. And there are also individual friendships I have developed over the years that are not just superficial ones, but are relationships in which we can speak openly about our pain and feelings. This is so important. And that is the kind of friendship I was portraying in the novel.
But this is a more advanced level of connection that some people in Israeli society are still so far from. The first step is simply to go into the villages for basic services, like shopping and medical services. When I first moved up north from Jerusalem, I was surprised at how Jews avoided going into closer-by Palestinian-Israeli villages for errands and instead went the extra fifteen minutes to further away Jewish towns. Don’t misunderstand me. In Jerusalem, life is even more segregated. But it was easier to justify it because it was truly more convenient not to go to a Palestinian village or to East Jerusalem for these things. But here, at least on my kibbutz, Hannaton, we are surrounded on all sides by Palestinian-Israeli vllages. Some of Bedouin, some are Falache villages. It is truly more convenient to go there for basic services than anywhere else, yet I found when I moved here, that people went where they felt more comfortable rather than where it was more convenient. And there was also fear involved. But we will never feel more comfortable or overcome our fear if we don’t make the effort to cross that barrier.
Then, after that, there is the deeper healing that needs to happen that I described above. I am heartened to see the outpouring of anti-violence rallies happening now in Israel. Joint rallies of Palestinian and Jewish Israelis. But that is not enough. It is only a bandaid on a festering wound. We must look at what caused this upheaval. There is so much resentment, fear and denial on both “sides”. As a Jew, I can do my part by listening to the Palestinian narrative, acknowledging its truth and the pain Jews have caused to Palestinians. I am not afraid to use the word Nakba, the Arabic word, which means catastrophe, and is the word Palestinians use to name their tragic 1948 narrative. That history is in the novel. Both the 2000 and 1948 stories are the result of this listening, and also of much research, not only about the Nakba, but also about the Shoah, the Jewish catastrophe. I am not equating the two. As Tikvah in the novel says: There is not need to fight over who suffered more. But I am recognizing both as catastrophic events for their respective peoples.
We need to acknowledge one another’s narratives and pain. If we don’t, history will repeat itself even after this current crisis. That is clearly a message in the book. The story in 2000 is meant to be a tikkun, a corrective, on the tragic story in 1948. Without spoiling the ending, I can say that the book is a hopeful one, because it presents a vision of the kind of healing that can happen through true connection between human beings, even if they are on different sides of the fence (a metaphor used throughout the book, as it is Ruby’s cutting of the fence that separates her village from Tikvah’s moshav, and Tikvah’s daring to go through that hole in the fence — following the lead of her dog, Cane — that leads to their meeting and eventual friendship.
YZM: Both characters Ruby and Tikvah are dealing with illness; how does this unite them?
HND: Yes, Tikvah lives with multiple sclerosis and Ruby is in an advanced stage of lung cancer. The inspiration for the book actually came from an encounter I had one day while walking my dog in the valley that separates my kibbutz from the Bedouin village on the other side. I met Hussein, a shepherd I often meet while walking in the valley, but this time his wife was with him. I had not met her before. She was foraging. Hussein introduced us, and we started talking. She asked how old I was, and I told her, and she started crying. She told me her daughter had been my age when she died of breast cancer. As I walked home, I began to think about how if I had met her daughter, we could have become friends. And we could have bonded over our common experience of living with illness, since I live with a genetic degenerative neuromuscular disease. And that was the original spark that put the idea of the novel and the friendship into my head.
We see this often in Israeli society. In hospitals and medical clinics, people tend to get past their societally constructed differences, because they are stripped down to their basic humanity — which is our common morbidity and mortality. There is no escaping it.
There is a scene in the novel where the women are sitting together at the edge of the forest after foraging. That is when Tikvah reveals to Ruby that she has MS. Until then she had not trusted her enough to open up to her. Ruby’s cancer was more obvious because she was bald from the chemo and therefore wears a headscarf, which, at first, Tikvah assumed was for religious reasons. But Ruby is not a practicing religious Muslim. She spent years in India in an ashram, and in other places around the world, before returning to her childhood village for cancer treatments. In the scene I am describing, the muezzin sounds, and Ruby feels moved to prostrate herself. She relays to Tikvah the Buddhist teaching of letting go into the flow of life to prevent suffering. The two women prostrate themselves together, hand in hand, and that is a very strong bonding moment for them. Together, they surrender to the flow of life in a Muslim (or Jewish, on Yom Kippur) prostration posture, which is healing for both of them.
There are other scenes, too, which I will not give away, but, yes, the theme of bonding through a shared experience with illness and facing death, was one I wanted to explore in the novel.
YZM: Tikvah’s daughter falls in love with an Arab—reality or fantasy?
HND: Reality. My oldest daughter is partnered with a man who was raised Muslim in Jaffa. He identifies as Atheist, but his cultural roots and very strongly in Muslim Jaffa. And they are not the only mixed couple I know. They live in Haifa, which is a good place to live if you are a mixed couple, because it is a city which is fairly successfully mixed. There were riots there this past week, but people claim they were from people who came from the outside. Who knows? But the morning after the night of rioting, we went to have brunch with my daughter and her partner in the Shook, and we ate at a restaurant owned by a mixed gay couple. The Arab partner’s mother is the chef. And that is just one example.
Mixed couples and mixed breeds are a recurring motif in the novel. There are various mixed couples in the novel, and there is Cane, the dog, who is a mixed breed. I won’t give away any more than that.
YZM: You point out similarities in Hebrew and Arabic—how does this further the idea of coexistence rather than conflict between the two cultures?
HND: First of all, Jews learning Arabic is so important and such a key to how we can connect. Our languages are similar, because we are so connected. We can see this not only in the language, but also in the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic religions. This is also a big theme in the novel. If you look at the book’s cover, you see the three Abrahamic religious symbols resting peacefully in the valley. And there is the Tree of Hope, which, legend has it, is an ancient olive tree planted by Joseph, Jesus’ Jewish father, which has three trunks whose branches form a canopy above the mixed couples who sit beneath it.
But back to Arabic: There is a growing movement among Hebrew speaking Israelis to learn Arabic. And this is a great sign. In general, there is a growing movement of people who want to live together in peace and create what is called a shared society. The increase in learning Arabic is one manifestation of this, as is the growing number of Hand in Hand schools and so many other shared society organizations, groups and efforts. That is why, I think, in this round of escalation of the conflict, there was an outpouring of desire to stand together against the violence. And that, I hope, will be part of the tikkun, the corrective, that needs to happen here.
There is also backlash, which is apparent from the way the elections have been going here. Israel is very divided politically and ideologically. But I do believe the shared society movement is growing, even if it is quieter than the portion of society who is not yet there.
YZM: This book presents a very optimistic picture of Israeli-Arab relations; do you still believe in that possibility?
HND: I do. Or at least I choose to believe in it. I admit that I had my moments of doubt these past two weeks, but that was more when I looked at the general conflict and possible political solutions. But I am not a politician or a political leader. I am a rabbi and a writer. My pulpit is the mikveh, my pen and my spiritual companionship work. I deal with the spirit and the heart, and with narrative and images, and with ceremony and ritual. I am a visionary, not a realist.
I do believe in the ability for us to all get along and share this land in peace. And I do truly believe that the answer lies in acknowledging one another’s humanity, pain and narratives. I think once we do that, the rest will follow. If there is a will, a desire, to make peace, we will find a way. But the work must be done, one human, one soul, at a time. It’s hard work to heal the collective trauma that lies beneath the surface of this conflict.
That is why the book is told from both women’s points of view. This story cannot be told from only one point of view. It is much too complicated than that. The book is balanced, I think. Both women have growing to do at the beginning of the book. There was a clear story I wanted to tell of a Jewish woman who moves to Israel out of a Zionist ideology but who wakes up to the Palestinian narrative as — through her daughter and through Ruby — she opens her eyes to what is around her. I wanted to explore what that feels like, to discover you were only told a piece of the story, and then to have to decide what to do about that — whether to take responsibility or not.
Early on in the book, the reader and the two women discover that TIkvah is living in the house where Ruby’s father, Jamal, grew up and left his diary. Ruby befriends Tikvah at first to get to the diary, but slowly, a true friendship forms. Tikvah does some research of her own and discovers some of the history of Jamal’s village. She had not realized a village had existed on the land where her moshav now stands and that it was destroyed in 1948. There is more she discovers about that tragic story as well, but I will not reveal it here. The point is that Tikvah has to decide what to do with this new knowledge she has gained. Will she take responsibility for what she knows? Will it change her life at all? And how will it affect how she acts moving forward? And Ruby has to learn to trust Tikvah, forgive and also take responsibility for her own people’s culpability in 1948 and in their current situation. I am told the book is a balanced and accurate portrayal of life here, which I think is so important now, when people are making sweeping statements based on a simplistic and ignorant view of the complicated situation.
When I was having one of my crisis moments this past two weeks I called a Palestinian friend who lives in one of the villages upon which the fictional village of Yakut al-Jalil (Jamal’s village) was based. Her family left in 1948 and was not allowed back in. She ended up meeting her husband in Portugal, married him and came back here to live. He is an Israeli citizen, but she is not. They have two children with twins on the way any day now, but she has yet to be granted Israeli citizenship. This pains me so much. There is so much work to be done, and she has certainly suffered because of the status quo. Yet, when I called her one day when I was having a crisis of hope, she told me she had just read the novel and how moved she was by how i wrote from Ruby’s point of view. She said that it is only until we can see things from one another’s point of view that we will be able to live together in peace. I told her I was starting to lose hope in this vision. She told me to hold onto that vision, that I must hold on to that vision, that that is my role now — to hold onto and spread that vision.
What she said reminded me of a quote from Etty Hillesum’s diary. This friend’s life and outlook was changed by Etty’s diary. It had a huge impact on her. Etty died in Auschwitz at age 29, but she writes over and over again of her faith in humanity and of a better future. This one quote came to mind: “There is only one way of preparing for the new age, by living it even now in our hearts…”
YZM: You’ve had a very interesting path; can you tell us about your background and how it got you to where you are now?
HND: I grew up Orthodox Jewish (and Zionist) in New York. I went to Jewish day schools and camps, where I was taught the Zionist narrative but not the Palestinian one. I was very involved in Orthodox feminism for years. I was even the first woman to publicly receive Orthodox ordination, at the same time that I earned my doctorate on the topic of mikveh at Bar Ilan University. But at some point, I realized I was no longer Orthodox, and I decided to call myself a post-denominational rabbi. When we moved to Hannaton eleven years ago, after living in Jerusalem for thirteen years, I founded Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul, which is the only mikveh in Israel that is open to all to immerse how and when they choose. We even welcome people who do not self-identify as Jewish (and of course those who do self-identify even if others don’t acknowledge their status).
During those years, I wrote two memoirs: Life on the Fringes and Chanah’s Voice.
In the summer of 2014, during what Israel calls Operation Protective Edge, I had a religious crisis. This was a moment in history much like the one we are experiencing now, and I felt despair at seeing people fighting over religious and national differences. So I decided to study in an interfaith seminary, to get some perspective and see if there were places of connection and commonality upon which we could focus, instead of the differences. This was a transformative four years for me, and I came out with interfaith ordination and certification in spiritual direction and dreamwork, all of which I incorporate now into my mikveh work, but I also opened a spiritual companionship practice, which is thriving. Mostly via Zoom with people around the world.
But those studies also informed my peace work in a big way. I see it as spiritual work, finding what connects us rather than what divides us, and believing that each individual has a unique and equally valid path to the Divine.