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Creative Writing: Breaking the Silence’s Book Project

avatar by Gerald Steinberg

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The Breaking the Silence logo.

Kingdom of Olives and Ash, edited by fiction writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman and prepared in cooperation with the highly controversial (understatement) Israeli NGO “Breaking the Silence,” is being published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war.

More than a literary work, this book is a political project, which, like most of Breaking the Silence’s activities, seeks to persuade an audience of non-Israelis and non-Palestinians.

As one of the many advocacy groups in the New Israel Fund network that place the blame for the conflict entirely on Israel, Breaking the Silence (a small NGO with a large budget) has been unable to convince many Israelis of the wisdom and practicality of its perspective. Israelis know the reality, including the basic issues of Palestinian rejectionism, terrorism, and incitement, and are not buying the simplistic NGO narrative.

As a result, this group has turned its passions and coffers towards international audiences with a superficial understanding of Israeli reality, in an attempt to force fundamental policy changes under the slogan of “ending the occupation.” This strategy is amplified by the millions of shekels it receives from European governments, church groups, and other actors that do not have Israel’s best interests in mind.

To their credit, the leaders of Breaking the Silence are very creative in their political campaigns. A book written by well known authors is bound to get attention, and this is the main objective. But the artistic endeavor, including the creative writing in this book, provides a partial picture. Writers specializing in fiction, with varying degrees of depth in understanding the history and context, and limited, if any, expertise, are necessarily limited in presenting the multi-dimensional reality.

The book’s chapters, like Breaking the Silence campaigns, strip away complexities. A section headlined “The Dovekeeper and the Children’s Intifada” is a micro-portrait of Palestinian terrorism as a human tragedy, in which attackers and victims are artificially presented as equals. The wider reality of 100 years of terror (long before “Israel captured this territory from Jordan,” one of many misleading shortcuts), constant incitement, and a wider Middle East that is drowning in blood and violence — independent of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — is blatantly missing. The testimonies, like the anonymous contents of the Breaking the Silence allegations and accusations, are taken at face value — the standard Palestinian victimization narrative is simply repeated. If the objective is to convince Israelis that the occupation is responsible for terror, this book is far off the mark. But for readers who are more emotionally involved than knowledgeable, the story works.

These shortcomings are explained in part by the process in which the chapters were written, based on brief experiences in Israel and the West Bank, carefully orchestrated by the unelected and unaccountable politicians of Breaking the Silence. If the book contributes anything, it is in demonstrating the unbearable ease with which people with very superficial knowledge make pronouncements with great certitude about Israel and the conflict. This book is also more evidence of what the writer Matti Friedman has termed “the cult of occupation” to which many outside journalists (and now authors of political fiction) blindly subscribe.

Resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot happen without the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Funding for Breaking the Silence by European governments and foundations, which is used to circumvent and undermine these core constituencies, and polemical publications such as this will not advance the ostensible objectives.

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