Since your first book, "Ten Thousand Lovers," came out, you've become pretty well-known in Canada. What is your audience elsewhere like?
In the U.S. the novel seems to be attracting interest in the Jewish community. Most of the fan letters I get are from Jews. "Ten Thousand Lovers" is the first book of a trilogy, so by the time the third one comes out in 2005, I hope I'll have had more widespread exposure.
You've lived in Canada for most of your life, yet you seem to have a great understanding of contemporary life in Israel. How much time have you spent there?
I'm an Israeli by birth. I was born on a kibbutz [a communal living farm in Israel], and the first seven years of my life were spent in Israel. I was born in 1955 and the atmosphere in those days was very intense. The people involved in the kibbutz project are still very committed, but in the pioneer environment on the kibbutz there was a passionate atmosphere of nationalism and commitment to the project of Israel, intense excitement about this new project of a homeland. Those first seven years really shaped me. Then I went back to Israel in the 70s to study. I lived in Israel for another five years, getting my bachelor's and master's degrees at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Were you in the army?
No, I had a deferral. When my deferral was up and I was called in, I quickly got married so that I wouldn't have to serve.
Did you not want to serve for political reasons?
There was no refusal movement at the time, so decisions in that area ended up being personal. Decisions not to serve had to do with lack of faith in the government, with not being convinced that the government was making the right military decisions. Without that conviction, I would not have lasted more than two weeks in the army. Today, if I were in that situation, it would be a much more loaded question for me, a more specific statement against occupation.
I know you're very involved in peace activism now. Is that because of your background? Or because the situation in Israel has changed since you grew up?
I don't think the situation has changed--certainly not since the 70s when I was living there--in any way that would cause me to more active. My feelings when I was there in the 70s were exactly what they are now, so my political views haven't changed. But I wasn't active back then. I've become active now for many reasons-for one, my daughter is 17 now, so I have more time to devote to other things.
There is a very obvious and direct connection between my early years on the kibbutz and my political views now. The kibbutz itself was founded on the remains of what was an Arab village by the same name- a very old village called Sasa. The name was found to be quite ancient, so the Israeli authorities decided to keep the name, because it went so far back in history. On one hand, the kibbutz project in Sasa was in itself very problematic from the point of view of displacing Palestinians. But we were taught values there that have remained with me all my life: always seek justice and seek answers and try to understand power situations--who is oppressed and who is oppressing--and to defend the oppressed. This was a Marxist kibbutz so that is the way we were taught to look at things. Many of my fellow activists have a similar background.
Have any Jewish readers been upset by the politics in your books?
That's an interesting question because my expectations were very different from what has actually happened. When the book was published, I thought there might be negative reactions from the Jewish community. The exact opposite has happened. When I think now about the reasons for that, I'd have to say it's probably because I wrote my book with an enormous amount of love and compassion, and not with anger. I don't feel anger. I think that the deeper you go into the conflict, the less you're inclined to feel angry because you see too much suffering and you start understanding the human dimension of the tragedy and how complex it is. I didn't start off writing "Ten Thousand Lovers" with any kind of message in mind, but when I come to it now as a reader, I see it as a plea for a process of questioning.
Is to ask questions?
To ask questions, and to be very open to discovering different layers of the conflict. You know, it takes a bit of courage to lift the stone and see what's under it, but there's just too much at stake and too many people are dying for us not to take that route. Anyone can say, "I'm the good guy, you're the bad guy, I'm the victim, you're the aggressor," but where do you go from there? Both sides are saying these things, so what do you get with that approach? Conflict. And I think the only thing you can do is to stop saying that you know and to start saying that you don't know and that you want to know and you want to understand, and to try and see what can be done and not just to shut the door.
In "Look for Me" it seems apparent that politics and the personal are intertwined in daily life in Israel. Is that always the case? Was that true for you when you lived there?
Oh, yes. It's the case all the time for everyone there. Certainly from as far back as the 70s, and I'm sure before that as well. When "Ten Thousand Lovers" came out, some readers were surprised that lovers and other people would talk to each other so much about politics. These readers are just not familiar with what it's like to live in a war zone, in a situation where a political conflict affects your life in the most detailed and personal way--how you feel about sending your children to school and where you're going to do your shopping. Everything is affected by the situation.
In "Look for Me," you sense that even more, that the characters try to have a casual conversation about something else, something other than politics. But somehow, the conflict always ends up being part of the conversation. That's partly, of course, because my narrator is involved in going to demonstrations and she takes photographs of the conflict. So as soon as people find that out about her, they make political comments. But it's interesting in Israel how people can just move so easily from one topic to another and politics can just come into any conversation and leave any conversation very smoothly. It's almost not separate from other topics. It permeates life, and that's one of the things I was trying to show in the book.
Your characters seem to be on all sides of the issue, and yet they are still friends.
Yes. In the Diaspora, differences of opinion possibly create more personal conflict than they do in Israel. There is more acceptance of different viewpoints, especially these days because so many people have themselves moved from one side to the other politically. They see themselves as having been on many parts of the spectrum and so they might say, "Oh, I used to think the way you do" and they understand the other side.
I do feel accepted for my views there. When I went to Israel for the first time as an activist, I was nervous about talking about where I was going and what I was doing. I'd had experiences in Montreal with hostility to anyone who appears to be criticizing Israeli policies. But in Israel, I've never once had a feeling of hostility directed at me personally. Numerous people who are on the right have said to me, "I'm proud of you, I'm proud of what you're doing." It can be a bit ironic. Sometimes they say, "See what Israel brings out in people? Look how we do care about the Palestinians and we are making some efforts and people like you are going there to help."
I had one very interesting experience with a young taxi driver. He was quite far on the right, and he was driving me to a Palestinian town very close to the border. He said, "Oh, you've got to see this town. I mean, these towns are beautiful, they're marvelous. As soon as you get there, ask them to show you around." I heard all the nostalgia in his voice and how he longed to go to this town and walk around. He had the most positive feelings about the fact that I was going to this town to protest against the [separation] wall. He himself thought the wall was a good idea, but he liked that I was going to protest.
Well the communities are very separate. Even within Israel, Israeli Arabs and Jewish Israelis do not hang out together very much. There is social segregation, and some of it is legally sanctioned. It would be very uncommon, inside Israel, for a Jew and an Arab to be dating, for example. In terms of contact between Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the territories, there really is, sadly, very little contact. As a matter of fact, right now Israelis aren't allowed to go to the occupied territories, unless they live in a settlement there. I know of only four Jewish Israelis who live either part-time or full-time in the territories. It's a very exceptional thing to do. [The journalist] Amira Hass has an apartment in Ramallah because she has to stay there to do her reporting, and I think also to make a point. The Palestinians would have very mixed feelings about a Jewish Israeli coming into their midst. And certainly at the time that my character goes there, which is right in the middle of the first intifada, it would have been very unlikely for any Jewish Israeli to decide to live in Gaza.
I had some early readers of the novel question whether he could last even one day there, as a former soldier, coming into Gaza. So it would be very unusual to have a situation like that. I'm not sure that it would be kept a secret from Dana, but it's not inconceivable that they wouldn't want to tell her - since Daniel would be viewed as a security risk.
I can understand that. I finished the book feeling very angry towards Daniel. It just didn't make sense to me that he would hide the woman he loved for so long, even after I read his point of view. I wonder if you carry some of that anger as well toward your character?
No, I understood him completely. I was at a restaurant once in the 70s, and I saw a man who had been very badly burned during the October war. I think seeing him was partly what gave birth to this novel. I can understand the desire to leave everybody you know. It's a very traumatic thing to undergo and people around you respond to you in a certain way. That's not to say there aren't people who cope very well. There is an important journalist in Israel who was a burn victim and it hasn't affected his life as far as I can tell. I'm sure he feels very integrated and accepted. But it's not an easy thing for some people. I suppose there is something very cruel about the way Daniel deserts Dana and doesn't even tell her where he' going. The second really important theme here is one of trust. Who do you trust and how do you trust people? Daniel does have difficulty trusting people. I think he just doesn't trust Dana enough to know that she would love him and she would want him after his accident.
But I understand the anger as well. In a way, it is just such a waste. This is what I feel about the whole conflict, that it is a waste, that there is such great potential for getting along. I say this after seeing Palestinian-Israeli meetings and having interactions with Palestinians in the territories and just seeing the personalities of the people involved... I am a member of the Checkpoint Watch Women's Group, and at the checkpoints I see a lot of interaction between soldiers and the Palestinian population. Despite the tension of the situation and the enormous suffering that I see, I also sense that there is real potential for getting along. In some parts of the world there are traditional enemies, and you can see that there are cultural issues and they're probably never going to get along very well, whether or not they solve their political problems. But I don't feel that in Israel at all. Both sides are quite Middle-Eastern and we have a lot in common.
I love this one story--it happened quite a few years ago. Some soldiers were just patrolling in the territories--I can't remember exactly where it was--and they saw some kids playing soccer in a yard and they just put down their weapons and joined in the soccer game and played together with the kids. And I think that's what almost everyone really wants.. unfortunately it's not everyone. But I think that's what the majority of people really want. They want to be able to play soccer together, they want to live ordinary lives, they want to have peace, because when there's peace, your personal life is easier and when there's war, you suffer. I believe the majority of people want the conflict to be solved.
The problem is with people who are more violent in their approach. They're more visible, and they do great damage. It's amazing how much damage one violent person can do. We see that with Baruch Goldstein, or with suicide bombers. We see it with aggressive leaders as well. We need leaders who work on building trust, not on destroying it.
You talked a little bit before about how you've been embraced by Jewish circles. I wonder if you consider yourself a Jewish writer as well as an Israeli writer?
I did a Ph.D. in Jewish studies, because I was very interested in ancient, biblical and rabbinic texts. I see myself foremost as a secular Israeli, but in terms of my personal development, Jewish culture has definitely shaped me and is definitely a part of who I am. I am extremely attached, like many Hebrew speaking writers, to the language of the Bible. It's so poetic, and it draws writers because it's magical.
My primary identity in terms of nationality is Israeli. In Israel, the secular population often takes its Jewish-ness much more for granted.