The Jewish-Arab love story that threatened Israel’s national identity

‘All the Rivers,’ the latest book by Dorit Rabinyan, generated international headlines when it was banned from Israel’s high school curriculum for depicting a Jewish-Arab romance. On the occasion of its publication in English, +972 Magazine speaks with the author about the ban and its fallout, and about traversing boundaries.

Dorit Rabinyan. (Isaac Shokal)
Dorit Rabinyan. (Isaac Shokal)

In December 2015, Israel’s Education Ministry banned Dorit Rabinyan’s third novel, “All the Rivers,” from the high school literature curriculum on the grounds that it encouraged assimilation via the tale of a Jewish-Arab romance. If that was the reason, the ministry need not have bothered: The autobiographically-inspired relationship between a young Jewish Israeli woman, who is similar to Rabinyan, and a charismatic Palestinian artist is doomed all on its own.

Almost from the moment the protagonist, Liat, meets the irrepressible Hilmi on a blustery late fall evening in New York, voices are swirling in her head. They alternate between “what are you doing?” and “this cannot happen,” and they never totally go away. The book is a chronicle of the passion and sorrow of the impossible relationship through the ages.

At the request of numerous teachers, Haaretz reported at the time, a professional pedagogic committee recommended including the book in the high school curriculum based on its literary and thematic merits. But Education Ministry officials rejected it and the far-right Education Minister Naftali Bennett backed the decision. I suspect Bennett had not yet read the book; if he had, he might have realized that his master stroke did not suppress Rabinyan’s view of the prospects for a relationship between an Israeli and a Palestinian, but rather echoed it. Ironically, but predictably, the attention made her book a bestseller.

It also turned Rabinyan into a target. In an interview with +972 Magazine prior to the release of the English translation (published by Random House Hardcover & eBook), she described how Bennett’s public statements were a dog whistle to followers of right-wing thugs.

“[On social media] they wished me all manner of curses, rape and death, all kinds of death…There were phone calls in the middle of the night from people cursing me.” She avoided her phone for days that passed in a fog. She was spat on. “Spitting on the streets is sort of a symbol. They said, ‘you’re not worth the soles of IDF boots’… they were devotees of their shepherd, sheep who got the sign from their leader.”

After the ministry had justified its decision by railing against miscegenation, Bennett then told Israeli media that the book was unfit because it compared the IDF to Hamas, and depicted Israeli soldiers as “sadistic.”

Supporting assimilation, threatening identity?

It’s true that the book is a story of love. Rabinyan parts the deep tissues of the heart to expose two sensitive, creative people, and look inside.

And as a love story, the tension of Liat and Hilmi’s new, vulnerable relationship could belong to anyone of two differing identities — which is, well, everyone.

“I described an intimate fear of the power of love. It’s very universal,” said Rabinyan.

“We have a deep fear of the symbiosis of romance, we live on the border of the integration of those two identities. The moment [Liat] is colored by the colors of [Hilmi] she is afraid of being swallowed up by love. And [Hilmi’s] Arab-ness meets the DNA of her Jewishness. What is assimilation?” Rabinyan asks, eyes flashing. “It’s an idiom of two liquids being mixed together, like you mix together cake ingredients,” and she gestures as if tasting or swallowing.

Or perhaps it’s like mixing colors – you start with the vivid blue of Hilmi’s paintings, and end up with mud.

If the story is about the primal compulsion to give ourselves over to another, while fleeing the consuming fire of love, maybe politics isn’t actually the point. In fact, politics may be just a metaphor for the universal confusion of integration and divisions between individuals.

“During six years of writing I collected words, and hitbolelut (assimilation in Hebrew) was there too, with integration and mixture, and the opposites, separation and individualization and division and walls and fences… But I meant in one-to-one individual relations. And suddenly I ran into the report from the Education Ministry, and they put it in ethnic, Jewish-Arab terms.”

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett at a Knesset plenum session to vote on the formalization law, Jerusalem, February 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Home party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose ministry banned ‘All the Rivers’ from a high school reading list. Jerusalem, February 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Her point is only partly convincing. Can there ever be such a clear distinction between our ethnic identity in a conflict and our individual selves? I found myself wondering if Liat and Hilmi would have fallen in love to begin with if not for their intoxicating difference defined by enmity, coupled with the primordial familiarity of exiles who find each other far from home.

Liat and Hilmi are strangers living in New York when they meet, a few hours after the Persian-Israeli Liat had a visit from FBI agents. It is 2003, and in the hysterical phase after 9/11, someone at her local café reported that a Middle Eastern-looking woman was sitting around writing suspiciously, from right to left, on her computer. Liat tells Hilmi the story, shaken. He listens sympathetically and asks, deadpan, “your first time?” Thus their familiarity of being from the same strip of land is compounded by a familiarity of being outsiders – she as a Middle Eastern Jew, he as a Palestinian; both as Middle Easterners in the U.S.

As two young, creative and sensitive individuals far away from their tormented land, Liat and Hilmi’s relationship sparkles. The attraction between them is soft, sharp and immediate; their attraction so palpable she needs only sparse sexual detail to describe it. But political identities collide almost immediately. The conflict is simply part of their formative experiences. Hilmi finds a Bible on Liat’s shelves which turns out to have been given to her by the IDF. The son of an atheist, Hilmi muses that it is just like Hamas merging god with the military. Liat is indignant — it’s nothing like Hamas. But her arguments don’t sound strong enough to her and she is befuddled.

He tells about his brief stint in Israeli military jail; her heart sinks as she imagines security prisoners and terrorists. When it turns out that the teenage Hilmi did four months for spray-painting the Palestinian flag on a wall, it’s not clear which is more confusing: Liat’s fear that he might have been a terrorist and her relief that he was not, or the realization that he did jail time as a teenager for spray painting, where military guards forced him to sing Hebrew songs (prompting the education minister’s comments to the media about the book demonizing IDF soldiers).

Moments like these are an awakening for the somewhat naïve Israeli Jewish protagonist. Is such learning subversive? Rabinyan doesn’t believe so.

“The meeting with Hilmi and Palestinian intellectuals simultaneously sharpens to [Liat] how embedded she is in the Zionist narrative, and how caught she is inside the imprint, the patterns of the Zionist education that designed, engineered her.”

Indeed, Liat does not turn into a pro-Palestinian radical; she digs in to her political positions. Like many Palestinians Hilmi turns out to be a devoted one-stater, while Liat believes in two. Hilmi’s brother comes to visit and argues with Liat against two states until she cries. Hilmi doesn’t defend her; her tears, his paralyzed divided loyalties, and their ensuing fight is one of the more painful moments in the book.

In yet another way, the book does just the opposite of “romanticizing” intermarriage, and enters what might be the deepest level of all —the realm of nature itself.

The jacket for the book All the Rivers, by Dorit Rabinyan.
The jacket for the book All the Rivers, by Dorit Rabinyan.

As Liat and Hilmi meet, autumn winds are howling. The cold worsens as both their love and political troubles grow. Liat keeps the relationship secret from most of her family; Hilmi hates being hidden. She never forgets the fight over political solutions.

The snow piles higher; the cold becomes a prison. They are locked into each other’s arms for warmth, but chafing in their identity chains.

As spring passes, both decide independently to leave New York, the land of self-invention where their union was made possible. Liat was already scheduled to move back to Tel Aviv; Hilmi visits his family in Ramallah for the summer. But back in the region, as close as Brooklyn to Manhattan, they are now physically separated by the conflict and the freshly built separation wall. The first person (Liat) briefly becomes a disembodied third-person narrator, almost a “ghost,” Rabinyan tells me, in order to imagine Hilmi’s life in Ramallah that she cannot see, and look through his eyes back at Tel Aviv.

But in the region, it appears life is too hot for them to touch together. The elements destroy what was left of their connection, through tragedy. In a sorrowful reading, one could conclude that while it may be natural to try crossing boundaries, actually defecting would be defying nature.

The greatest threat

Despite all the failures of the relationship, the book is as uplifting as it is tragic. Two people have connected at a level that is not only profound, but in hindsight turns out to have been eternal.

In a strange foreboding of the plot, and the real-life experience of writing the book, early in the relationship one night in bed, Liat feels she burrows so deeply into the sleeping Hilmi’s body and spirit, that she feels “I almost know what it is to be him.” It is a striking passage.

Rabinyan explained that in becoming Hilmi for that sleepy second, Liat has individualized him. “The demon that Liat and Hilmi are dealing with is generalization. Nationalization of the private, the intimate. Being citizens of the conflict, we are all wrapped inside this suffocating sack, and it blinds us.”

But, she says, “I think they triumph. The right of individualization, to acknowledge the other’s perspective…even in the simple gaze of looking at him as one, redeeming him from the multitude, by specifying him, by giving him a particular name, and [seeing] herself in his gaze.”

She is convinced that the book was rejected because literature ultimately is the magic of becoming another person. Like all her words, she chooses the term ‘magic’ deliberately. “It’s the same reason that witches were persecuted. [Liat] tries out a perspective that is not the one we are commanded to be loyal to. The magic of crossing the border of the self, diving inside the waters of the other, of being not me and seeing yourself from there. In 2017 in Israel that’s a threat to the wave of nationalism that is trying to paint all of us into the sack of generalization.”

Again, the themes of the water, waves, the sea, the color blue ripple through both her words and the tidal force of the story. It is a theme that gives life and takes it away.

Nature ruins their relationship, but the book, she feels, was a shared project. In her experience of writing it, they were together again. And as a literary product both their love and their identities live on, maybe for eternity. Perhaps this is a possibility nationalist governments cannot accept.