Where Tel Aviv is the worldly heart of Israel, Shabazi Street is one of its party miles, with restaurants and bars that seem to never close. People from all walks of life flock to the street to meet friends and have a carefree night out.
I enter a cosy bookshop to listen to a discussion with Israeli writer Lizzie Doron about her latest book Sweet Occupation. This space is a treasure trove that boasts armchairs and pillows to allow clients to immerse themselves in the literature displayed. It is full of people. Friends of Doron and like-minded people make it an extremely informed audience. This isn’t a book reading, but rather a discussion with Doron’s Israeli publisher and a political scientist; they speak about the trauma of the occupation. This small gathering juxtaposes its importance as most Israelis shut their eyes when it comes to this conflict. Doron’s book is not new. It was published in Germany in 2017 already, but only in 2019 was it published in Hebrew through the project ‘Texts for the Future’ by the Goethe-Institut in Tel Aviv.
I have been very passionate about the writer Lizzie Doron for a while. She was born in 1953 and her memoirs about growing up alone with her mother, a survivor of the Holocaust, are a poetical memento mori (a reminder of mortality) against violence and hatred. She so masterly portrays how trauma and pain have lived on and shaped the next generations, the country and its future. ‘It is like a contract,’ Doron says, ‘new immigrants who had suffered other trauma should know everything about the Holocaust to prove that they are good Israelis.’ To meet her, I felt like being next to a power plant. The energy and empathy of this lively and passionate woman captivate you in no time.
Sweet Occupation is a deeply personal approach by a gifted writer who scrutinises the different narratives and concepts of memory to approximate a political conflict, to negotiate the destiny of Israelis and Palestinians, to fathom a vision of peace and living together in harmony. Emmanuel Levinas, a French philosopher of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, wrote in his book Totality and Infinity that ‘the being that presents himself in the face comes from a dimension of height, a dimension of transcendence whereby he can present himself as a stranger without opposing me as obstacle or enemy.’ Lizzie Doron did not know the face of her enemy; she had briefly met Palestinian activist Mohammed Owedeh. He asked her if she was interested in writing a book about the ‘Combatants of Peace’, a group of former fighters from both sides. Reluctantly, Doron agreed, and one of the greatest achievements of the book is how she honestly depicts her ideological underpinnings and fears that initially prevented her from seeing the face of the Other. She calls it the ‘arithmetic of the Middle East that counterbalances loss and pain and does not see the people behind it. We are being told that there are no partners, but there are people to meet, to acknowledge as our neighbours.’
The title of her book, Sweet Occupation, is based on one encounter she had with one of her protagonists, the Palestinian Suliman. He criticizes the concept of the ‘sweet occupation’ with its constant talk of peace by those who sit comfortably in good hotels and enjoy fancy dinners during their so-called peace talks. ‘You Jews enjoy the beaches of Tel Aviv, get sun-tanned while we come back and swim in the sewages of Hizma.’
Her book tells of five middle-aged men: the convicted former terrorists Muhammed, Suliman and Jamil from the occupied territories and the Israelis Chen and Amil, who objected to military service on grounds of conscience. All five men spent time in prison and after their release founded the Combatants for Peace movement as they were determined to give their lives another direction. For a year, Doron listened to the narratives of all her protagonists, their childhood memories, learnt about their emotions, their dreams and fears, about the moments when they killed and about their visions for a better future.
She intertwines her process of change into the book, which meanders between reflection and emotionality. It is a documentary entwicklungsroman (a development novel) about former radicals, who counter a senseless hatred through acknowledging the face of the neighbour. Levinas claims that ‘the first word of the face is the “Thou shall not kill.” It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me. However, at the same time, the face of the Other is destitute.’ Doron’s novel makes it very clear that this is a difficult and painful process as the existential threat is so entrenched in both parties.
In portraying these five men, Doron painfully addresses her own bias, her fears and those events of war and loss that have become an imperative narrative of the state of Israel since its foundation in 1948. She shares these fears and blindness for the trauma and pain of the other party with many Israelis and Palestinians. As the one who sees the Other’s face needs to question his idea of his own identity. Levinas understood responsibility not as a demand from the Other; it is more an asymmetrical relation. The departure from the I to the Other might happen without any return to the I. A rite of passage for Doron as both a writer and a human being.
Doron is very aware that her popularity and status as a renowned and award-winning writer would not spare her from hostilities. ‘Some of my friends argued that I trespassed a red line. Publishers in Israel warned me that this book would never be published in Israel. But there was never any alternative,’ Doron recalls. In Sweet Occupation, Doron tells of the many small steps that were necessary to break the vicious circle of fear, suspicion, humiliation and death. Even members of her own family considered her a traitor.
Doron’s moving account tells its gripping tale about the power of the word, which is stronger than Molotov cocktails, bombs or rocks. Her book makes it very clear that the Combatants for Peace are the vanguard of a new era, those who may rescue us who swim against the stream.
Sweet Occupation is a must-read for those among us who are intellectually and emotionally open enough to being disturbed constructively. This tender and poetic cry for peace embraces those among us whose favourite space is sitting between the chairs.
The discussion in the bookshop, which also featured one of the novel’s protagonists, an Israeli professor dedicated to peace, was a powerful beacon for change. Both the audience and the speakers made mention of Nelson Mandela on numerous occasions and spoke about how South Africa was able to embark on its road to freedom through the vision of those who understand that love can never grow where there is fear and ignorance, or to quote existential philosopher Martin Buber, ‘All real living is meeting’.
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