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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.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Mark

      How is it possible to write from right to left on a computer?

      Reply to Comment
      • Firentis

        With a marker.

        Reply to Comment
      • Carmen

        Wow. And I thought the most striking thing about this story is the photo of Bennett doing the nazi salute. Different priorities eh Mark?

        Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @Mark

        Are you being serious and if so could you be more specific about what you are asking?

        If you are asking what I think you are asking you just have the system that positions characters on screen start from the right hand side and count down pixels rather than starting from the left and counting them up. This is almost trivial to implement. Here is a link regarding standards for HTML (which doesn’t cover what the engines do, but I for that I’d need to know your background): https://www.w3.org/TR/i18n-html-tech-bidi/

        Reply to Comment
    2. Mark

      Why do I feel that a story about a romantic relationship between a Jewish man and a Palestinian Muslim woman might be even more interesting?

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Mark: Indeed, why do you? And if a Jewish man married a Palestinian woman from the West Bank, could she become an Israeli citizen?

        http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/shavuot/.premium-1.596678

        As many as one in 10 Israeli marriages are interfaith, with the non-Jewish partner often subjected to second-class treatment by the state.

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Bruce

          One of the true pity of the last election was Yesh Atid getting pushed out. The last government was making some headway in finally getting the conversion issue under control. Hopefully this comes back with the next government. Far more serious than the Palestinian issue is the Chief Rabbinate.

          Going to the American / British standard of one Jewish parent and identifying plus easing conversions would help tremendously. I’d personally prefer Ruth style conversions a vow to:

          1) To live with Israel
          2) To become part of the Israeli people
          3) To worship the God of Israel
          4) To be buried in an Israeli graveyard
          5) To maintain this state until death regardless of circumstance

          I think Lieberman is hinting at something like this.

          Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            Ruth style conversions, worship the god of israel….all this coming from an atheist. I don’t care if someone is an atheist, your choice, but don’t you feel even a tiny bit of discomfort with your religious requirements? WTF Jeffie. The last one was a humdinger and says everything one needs to know about you, no matter your quasi liberalism.

            Or could it be this was just another flagrant display of your demagoguery? If you respond, no superfluousness.

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Carmen

            The Israeli people overwhelming want a state church. I care about democracy more than separation of church and state. If the Israelis are going to live with all the tremendous disadvantages of a having a state church they are entitled to the benefits of having one. One of those is religions can help to make civic rites far more effectual.

            As far as Ruth style conversions compared to one of the worst religious systems on the planet. Yes that’s a pure improvement.

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            You care about democracy – not enough to realize there isn’t one here. There are pages upon pages of stories about arab citizens who aren’t treated equally to their jewish neighbors. I’m not interested in arguing with you, it’s a waste of time and you will deny the reality on the ground you don’t live on at every possible turn. You aren’t helping, but I don’t believe that’s your intention anyway. You’re just an attention-seeking bullshit artist, no different that Halevy. There are other right wing fanatics here I can respect because they appear to be honest. You aren’t them.

            Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            Those who are not happy with our democracy can leave. Israel is not a goulag. You go to Ben Gourion airport and a plane will take you away.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            ​What does the issue of conversion have to do with the problem that a non-Jewish marriage partner is often subjected to second-class treatment by the state?

            Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Ben

            They get second class treatment because they aren’t Jewish. By fixing the conversion problem you fix the cause of discrimination.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Here again rises the conclusion you’re merely trolling us.
            Why so long to reveal you’re not serious person? A mere kibbitzer. You could have saved us a lot of trouble.

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            You called that correctly.

            No need to worry about fixin’ the racism, xenophobia and apartheid. For your convenience, democratic mandatory conversions for all!

            Watch your step around this particularly gigantic, I mean ‘yuge’, extra bigly, reeking to the heavens troll dropping served up regularly by the illustrious jb. Sad!

            Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        Muslim Sharia law prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, but Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women (with the children thus being born Muslims), apparently in order to remove fertile women from the dhimmi population. Writing a story about Arab men marrying Jewish women is great for “progressives” because it infuriates the Jews and pleases the Muslims. A story about a Muslim women marrying a non-Muslim man would enrage the Muslims population and no good “progressive” would want to do that. In any event, such a women would possibly face a “family honor killing” and the “progressive” writer wouldn’t want to get involved in that, preferring to show Muslims in a positive light.

        Reply to Comment
        • carmen

          This is what happens when men run everything. Don’t be a hypocrite all the time Ike.

          Israeli Extremists Protest Marriage of a Jewish Woman Who Converted …
          http://www.tikkun.org/…/israeli-extremists-protest-marriage-of-a-jewish-woman-who-conve

          First off, the heading of this story as it was covered over and over was ‘Jewish woman’. She wasn’t jewish. She converted to the Muslim faith. But this Muslim woman marrying her Muslim partner practically caused a riot. Their wedding was disrupted by a crowd of pseudoreligious freaks who believed, like most pseudoreligious freaks, that women cannot be given autonomy over their vaginas; that particular holy of holies belongs to her father, brothers, uncles and their religious beliefs. You are the problem Ike, you and the other dicks in charge are the problem all the time and about everything.

          Reply to Comment
          • Itshak Gordin Halevy

            I think that this Arab husband has been arrested as a drug dealer. According to the Jewish tradition, intermarriages are forbidden. According to our rabbis a Jewish woman who marries a non-Jewish man is like a prostitute. I do not understand why this Dorit has written such a book. Probably to shock the Jewish G-believers.
            Happy Yom Haatsmaout to everybody.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Howard P Kane

      Excellent review of an excellent book!

      Reply to Comment
    4. Samir

      Arab-Jewish intermarriage was acceptable pre-1948.

      I personally know of many mixed families. Visit the Arab cities of Nazareth, Akka, Haifa and Yaffa and ask around.

      Reply to Comment
      • carmen

        Like any ‘mixed’ marriage, it isn’t the couple that’s the problem, but the complete strangers who feel it is their right and obligation to express their displeasure. Leave them alone. Marriage is hard enough without outside interference!

        Reply to Comment
      • Firentis

        Indeed. Islam accepts intermarriage as long as the husband is Muslim and the wife is of a different religion. The children are of course brought up to be Muslims. If it goes the other way and a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim man then she will be outcast at best and killed at worst, and the husband is going to have to worry about her family coming after him to try to kill him. That is called ‘tolerance’ in Muslim societies.

        There was a story a few years ago about a Christian man from Taybeh (the one in the West Bank, not Israel) who had a relationship with a Muslim woman from a neighboring village. As a result hundreds of Muslims raided Taybeh and set houses and businesses on fire. The woman was killed by her own family. This is the famous ‘tolerance’ of intermarriage in Palestine.

        Go sell your bridge somewhere where people believe your lies.

        Reply to Comment
          • irentis

            What you are doing is called whataboutery.

            And you are comparing some protests to a murder and a pogrom. Brilliant equivalence there.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            LoL. Suddenly someone here is all hot on whataboutery. Dump trucks of it get dumped here every day by Ike52, you can set your watch by its arrival, but that’s fine by him. Actually my post was not *mainly* about Israeli Jewish intolerance of intermarriage–as real as Middle Eastern Muslim intolerance of intermarriage (which is actually as much or more about terrible sexism as it is about religion) even if the behavioral reactions to it vary regionally, so my post was not exactly whataboutery, it was on topic–it was about hypocrisy. Israel is far from the smoothly tolerant, pink-washed place it works hard to present itself as. It is a substantially xenophobic, racist, religiously intolerant place. And becoming more so every day. Gay people parading down main street in pink tights can’t disguise what’s going on in the allies and the outlying hills by the likes of Naftali Bennnet, Benzti Gopstein and their ilk.

            Reply to Comment
        • carmen

          I’m not going anywhere. No sources for your Taybeh story either; as you have zero credibility, along with everyone else who doesn’t link to sources to substantiate their claims.

          Reply to Comment
          • i_like_ike52

            “Family honor killings” are a major issue in Israel and in the rest of the Arab world and have been discussed here at 972 and at “progressive” organs like Ha’aretz. Family honor killings occur not just because of a Muslim women getting involved with a non-Muslim man, but simply because the women was seeing men whom their fathers/brother don’t approve of, even if he is a Muslim.

            Reply to Comment
          • carmen

            This is a serious situation that shouldn’t be used as a prop, like you are doing in order to distract from the topic at hand. I’m pretty sure you could care less about this issue anyway, it’s just another diversionary tactic for you to employ here. But hey it’s just awesome that israelis have been so cool about Yair’s shiksa, right?

            Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        When you say that intermarriage was “acceptable”, it is important to understand in which context this was the case. At a “progressive” site like this one, the goal is to show the Arab/Muslim/Palestinian community as being “progressive” as in the sense of having essentially secular, universalist, tolerant, humanist values. I presume the point was made about intermarriage as being “acceptable” before 1948 in order to convey the impression that the Arab and Jewish communities were more “progressive” at that time. However, as has been pointed out, it is permissible for a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim dhimmi women, but it is strictly forbidden for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man. Thus, even though I don’t have the figures, it is safe to assume that virtually all the intermarriages were of Muslim men marrying dhimmi women. Assuming this is the case, then we see that the Arab/Muslim community was NOT accepting these types of marriages out of some sort of “progressive, secular, humanist, universalist, tolerant” set of values, but entirely within traditional Muslim values, and these same people who accepted these types of marriages would have been extremely agitated if, at the same time, Muslim women were marrying Jewish men and would have possibly taken extreme action against the Muslim women involved.

        Although Arafat was criticized for marrying a Christian women, many Muslims view marrying dhimmi women as a meritorious thing because it removes fertile women from the dhimmi population, ultimately weakening it.

        Reply to Comment
    5. carmen

      Progressive israeli reaction to Yair Netanyahoo’s girlfriend:
      Netanyahu’s son sparks outrage | The Times of Israel
      http://www.timesofisrael.com › Jewish Times

      Netanyahu’s Son’s Girlfriend Is Not Jewish, and Israel Is Freaking Out …
      https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/…netanyahus-son…non-jew/357423/

      Netanyahu Blasted For Son’s Non-Jewish Girlfriend – ABC News
      abcnews.go.com › News

      Yair Netanyahu & His Non-Jewish Girlfriend – Aish.com
      http://www.aish.com/jw/s/Yair-Netanyahu–His-Non-Jewish-Girlfriend.html

      Of course, Ivanka Trump had to convert in order to marry Kushner, but who’s counting.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Lewis from Afula

      What about Muslim conversions to Judaism in Arab Countries?
      Oh, I now remember……………. they get the death penalty.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Lewis from Afula

      I like that strategically taken photo of Bennett in the Knesset. 972 magazine like to pretend that he is doing a fascist salute…..except his elbow is bent and his palm is pointing upwards. He is actually voting. A nice try from some nasty, deviant people !

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        But of course the real issue and the funny part is not the bend of his elbow or the angle of his palm. (Though that guy with the toothbrush mustache use to bend his elbow and tilt his palm back in just that way, you know; and have you read Feiglin’s gushy words of admiration for the Hitlerjugend? I can point you to them if you like.) It is how strenuously you are working to point out that “he is actually voting!” Humor is one of the more effective ways to subvert authoritarianism. Thanks for the laughs.

        Reply to Comment
    8. i_like-ike52

      Here is an extensive survey of attitudes towards family honor killings in the Palestinian territories and other Middle Eastern states. Note that there is considerable, but not unanimous support for them if the woman has dishonored the famiily. Note that a considerable number of WOMEN consider family honor killings justified…

      http://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/2017/05/honor-crimes-still-largely-justified-in.html

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Israeli Education Minister banned a book because it explored love between a Jew and an Arab, sending the Jewish right wing into a deep panic….

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Can you tell me if the Palestinian education system has any books celebrating intermarriage between Muslim women and Jewish men, in the interest of educating their young people to be “tolerant, universalist secularists”?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Well, since we’re all Palestinians now, as you told everyone over at Anat Matar’s article, then I guess the answer is that the Palestinian Education Minister Bennett won’t allow Palestinian Jews to read stories about love between a Palestinian Jew and a Palestinian Arab, but since we’re all Palestinians now I know you hate that and are pushing for free love. Go slow there, fellah, most of the Israeli Right will promptly have a heart attack. Better give them time to adjust.

            Reply to Comment
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