Israel and Palestine: reading and watching

The war in Gaza is top of mind, which led me to books and a television series set in Palestine and in Israel.

You may remember that in mid October, after the Hamas attack on Israel, the Frankfurt Book Fair canceled a celebratory award for Palestinian author Adania Shibli, for her novella Minor Detail, a finalist for the National Book Award that was long listed for the International Booker Prize. 

I was told of the book’s searing beauty by my son Evan Dent, who writes a Substack about literature. My friend Athena and her mom had read it, too, and recommended it. 

The story is split evenly, to the word, between a few days in 1949 and a few days 25 years later. In the first half, an Israeli military unit takes hostage a Bedouin girl, eventually raping and killing her. To the day 25 years later, a young Palestinian woman begins an obsessive search for the exact spot where the girl was killed. Maps, the smell of gasoline, and an almost unbearable tension links both halves. This is a gripping, heart-gutting story, beautifully told. 

Another book set in the region is My Hijacking, a memoir by Martha Hodes, given to me by my friend Suzanne, who’s a friend of Hodes. I’m not a fan of memoirs — so much navel gazing — but this is a different and better beast, because Hodes is a professor of history. She uses original documents in her work, and teaches student historians how to use them to tell an intimate story. This time, it’s her story.

In 1970, Hodes and sister Catherine were unaccompanied minors (12 and 13) traveling from Israel, where they’d spent the summer with their mother, to New York, where they lived the rest of the year with their father. Their TWA plane was hijacked by leaders of the Palestinian Front, who kept them hostage ten days, alongside two other parked, hijacked planes laced with explosives. The Palestinian Front argued that hijackings were necessary to bring worldwide attention to the plight of Palestinians, who’d lost their homeland to Israeli settlers.

I wept more than once for Hodes and her sister, and for her parents and step parents, waiting for their safe return. We know, of course, that Hodes and her sister survived, but this is a page-turner. Their hijackers are mostly kind and share food and water. But where were the male passengers taken? Why were they separating Christians from Jews? Would the terrorists blow up the plane? 

As they resumed their lives, why didn’t Hodes or her sister talk about their terrifying ordeal?

Because they’d have to explain why they were traveling alone, between divorced parents, which embarrassed them. Can a book be heartbreaking and thrilling? This is that. 

Based on 2014 events, the HBO series Our Boys is a revenge drama set in Jerusalem. Three Jewish teenagers are kidnapped and slain. A few days later, the burned body of a teenage Arab boy is found. This series is the story of the Jewish detective who solves the case and the Arab parents who demand justice. 

These are unsettling works of art, but I urge you to experience them. I heard a great line from David Remnick, on the New Yorker Radio Hour. He said, “Books don’t change us. They make us.” 


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