In Controversial Israeli and Palestinian Novels, Searching for Empathy

Among my Jewish family and friends and even at moments within myself, I noticed, after October 7, a shutting down of empathy for Palestinians. Empathy was a peacetime luxury, I was told. There is an emotional capacity for pain and suffering, and that of our “own” people filled it. In mid-October, The New York Times interviewed the Israeli Jewish novelist Dorit Rabinyan. Rushing between hospitals and hotels where survivors of the Hamas attack were taking refuge, Rabinyan said she had “no room left in her heart for the suffering of Palestinian civilians.”

Rabinyan’s response would be unsurprising—it couldn’t have been more typical—except that Rabinyan practically became the Israeli Jewish spokesperson for Palestinian empathy after the publication of her novel All the Rivers (2014/2017). The book had caused national controversy: its defenders wanted mass production, a place on the Israeli high school curriculum; its opponents argued its values were contrary to those of the state. Politicians insulted each other in the name of the book on social media. Soon, the controversy was covered globally, and the flurry of attention caused the inevitable: the book became a big seller, and its author became an ambassador for the idea that art and literature are a magical gateway to understanding the “Other.”

Loosely autobiographical, All the Rivers tells of Liat, a left-wing Israeli Jew from the Tel Aviv “bubble,” who spends a year in New York and falls in love with Hilmi, a Palestinian Muslim from Ramallah in the Occupied West Bank. Himli is kind (almost too kind!) and sensitive—a beautiful soul. He meets a tragic end, written as both mere accident and the inevitable fate of those under occupation. We can think of the book as a general call to develop empathy for the Palestinians, but, arguably, it is aimed at liberal Jews, people like my family, my friends, me. Liat is no Kahanist, does not view Palestinians as the sworn, irredeemable enemy, and Rabinyan focuses on her perspective. Through Liat, we see Hilmi’s eyes widen in response to her offhanded mention of living near the Mediterranean, his brow “climb[ing] even higher” when she brags about diving in the Red Sea. If, like Liat, the reader conflated the two Palestinian states—“You guys have a sea in Gaza,” says Liat—we are taught the reality of the separation of the West Bank from Gaza: “He laughed wearily. ‘The sea in Gaza?’ Then he enumerated all the ways the IDF made it difficult to get from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip: the permits, the months of waiting.”

But well before October 7, when empathy was exposed as a luxury, Rabinyan’s novel already marked the limits of empathy, particularly literary empathy. The novel’s Hebrew title, Gader Haya, Border Life, is telling. No end of listening to each other, no amount of affection, love, belief in one another can overcome the border between Liat and Himli (symbolized late in the novel in the construction of the concrete barrier between the West Bank and Israel). No one can fully see the world through the eyes of another. Even when readers encounter full chapters told as though from Hilmi’s point of view, Rabinyan slips in a quiet reminder that they are not (“And in the morning, he tells me, he steps out onto the porch with his first cup of coffee…”). Sometimes, this frustrated me. Why, I wondered, is Hilmi barely given a voice? A generous reading would be that Rabinyan is refraining from being overly didactic, for instance suggesting it’s enough for readers to get that there are indignities ranging from harassment to violence in “the ways the IDF made it difficult.” A less generous reading would be that she couldn’t, herself, grasp the experience. Fiction can take many leaps, and can demand readers take them too. But seemingly restricted by her own lived experience—or an unwillingness in the age of identity politics to cross certain lines—Rabinyan is strongest when depicting the emotional world of Liat, an Israeli Jewish woman like her author.

Of course, Palestinians need not be spoken for. They can speak for themselves and have the same capacity for their own pain as we do for ours. Reading Rabinyan describing her too-full heart in the wake of October 7, I wondered about the limits of writing “the other.”

As it happens, soon after the war began, a Palestinian author found herself in the midst of a media frenzy, not unlike Rabinyan, for portraying sympathetically rendered Palestinians—and describing the repercussions of the Israeli occupation. I might never have heard of Minor Detail by Adania Shibli (2017/2020) had Shibli not been set to receive the “LiBeraturpreis” at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, only to have newspapers denounce her portrayal of Israel(is) and the Book Fair postponed her events, declaring their intention of amplifying Jewish and Israeli voices. As with Rabinyan, a desire to silence book and author backfired: critics condemned the cancellation, authors signed an open letter, and publisher Fitzcarraldo made the e-book version free, leading to thousands of downloads.

Minor Detail recounts a historical event, and though the source is not named in the novel, it is easy to find; it comes from a 2003 exposé published by Aviv Lavie and Moshe Gorali in the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz. In the first half of Shibli’s book, the narrative sticks closely to the exposé, describing soldiers securing the southern border in August 1949, five months after Israel’s war of independence. In the second half, a 21st-century Palestinian woman reads the journalistic account of a “minor detail” that happened during that mission: the rape and murder of a young girl. She sets off to investigate the story in a mirror-image journey, where dog barks, camels, gunshots echoing in the desert sand are all markers on the way towards another tragic ending.

The novella begins with a taut third- person narration of the actions of an Israeli officer. The soldier shoots Bedouins, washes his face and armpits, observes the night sky, has dinner with his platoon, goes to bed, becomes ill after a bug bite. There is a desert party, a Zionist pep talk, the rape and execution of a girl. The man’s ablutions are Shibli’s invention. The key incidents are not; these events are recorded in Haaretz. The soldier reads, as South African writer J. M. Coetzee calls him in his blurb of the book, as a “psychopath.” And maybe he is one; certainly, he is a rapist and murderer. “When his feet landed at the base of the slope,” Shibli writes, “he headed towards the vegetation, penetrating the branches, which quickly yielded to reveal a band of Arabs standing motionless by the spring. His eyes met their wide eyes, and the eyes of the startled camels, which hopped up and trotted a few steps away the moment the dog let out a howl. Then came the sound of heavy gunfire.” It is perhaps this portrayal of heartlessness, (or maybe psychopathy) that came under fire in the days after October 7.

Actually, it is the flatness of the soldier that strikes me; notice that even the (startled) camels and (howling) dog show greater humanity than the unnamed Israeli soldier, whose eyes (unmodified) meet the (wide) eyes of Arabs. If Rabinyan romanticizes and silences her Palestinian “Other,” Shibli turns her “Other” into cardboard, perhaps because she can’t access him, perhaps because he’s a pawn in a war machine. The contrast with the second half of the novella is especially acute; there, Shibli employs first-person prose to tell the story and register the emotional states (deep anxiety, fear, loneliness) of a Palestinian woman. Like Rabinyan, Shibli reveals either the failure of imagination or a fear of speaking for the “Other.”

Challenging, too, is the author’s cherry- picking of history. It doesn’t require a visit to the IDF archives to discover the aftermath of the “horrific atrocity,” as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion described the event in an August 1949 entry of his diary; the same Haaretz article supplies the information. The day following the murder, the company commander visited the camp to conduct an investigation. He located the body and collected the girl’s belongings. A gynecologist came to examine the girl’s corpse. Due to decomposition, there were no conclusive findings. Nonetheless, most of the soldiers at the base were arrested and imprisoned. One was convicted and given fifteen years in jail. Another, five. Eighteen more officers were given prison sentences.

That the crimes were investigated, the criminals arrested, and sentences given and served means that rape and murder were not sanctioned. No one would argue they didn’t happen; no one would argue they weren’t reprehensible; but, crucially, they didn’t happen within the law. To fellow Palestinian writer Isabella Ham- mad, Shibli’s selectivity is acceptable, even commendable, symbolizing a bigger historical injustice. But will my Jewish family and friends, those who might benefit most from a sympathetic novel about Palestinians, feel the same way?

Of course, a fiction writer is not obligated to recount every detail from an article, tell history as it has been told. She can embellish, fill in, highlight, and yes, even omit. We can’t demand that writers tell the stories we want to read, channel the voices we want to hear, limn a precise history (why turn to fiction?) or evenly written characters.

We need to be open. I learned a lot from both of these novels—about how Israelis see the world, and how Palestinians do. Neither novel allows for total empathy with their Palestinian characters (can any novel? About anyone?), but why criticize fiction for what it can’t/doesn’t/won’t do? On the contrary: these novels are a call to keep reading, gathering more perspectives, and remembering there are more and other stories, especially those in which Palestinian characters don’t meet a symbolic end, but live to tell their own tales.

Karen E. H. Skinazi, Associate Professor of Literature and Culture at the University of Bristol (UK), is writing a book on Jewish and Muslim women’s literature.