“Borderlife”, by Dorit Rabinyan

The new book by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, “Boderlife” (original Hebrew title “גדר חיה”), became a bestseller in Israel almost instantly. But not thanks to Rabinyan’s reputation or to good reviews.

The novel catapulted to the top of the bestseller lists because the Ministry of Education banned the book from inclusion in high school curricula. The reason? It is a story of an intimate relationship between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Muslim Palestinian man. Such a relationship was deemed inappropriate for teenager consumption, lest it endanger the separate identities of the two peoples and encourage assimilation. Following the public outcry, the Ministry clarified that the book is not banned, just “not included” in the recommended reading list.

The plot in short. A young Israeli woman, Liat, meets a young Palestinian man, Hilmi, in New York. They are both there temporarily. They fall in love and have a relationship that lasts a few months, during the winter of 2003. In the spring, they both return home – she to Tel Aviv, he to his village in the West Bank – and the relationship ends. They don’t meet in Israel/Palestine. Their short-lived relationship is a common love story, except of course in the background is the fact that they come from two sides of a bitter national conflict. Sometimes they argue, but mostly the book focuses on the woman’s thoughts (it’s written in the first female form) about this impossible love.

Rabinyan writes well, in beautiful Hebrew prose, just as she did in her previous two award-winning novels. But truth be told, the story itself is quite banal. I doubt whether this book would have been such a success had the authorities – in a typically short-sighted decision – not made it famous by declaring it “liber non grata”.

In my opinion, the Jewish-Muslim love story is not the problem of this book. Besides the banality of the love story, what is much more annoying is the way Rabinyan depicts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not a political novel (maybe it is?), but Rabinyan manages to subtly convey her opinion about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy in this conflict.

A few examples:

  • Hilmi comes from an educated family, who readily accepts his Jewish girlfriend. In contrast, Liat goes through painstaking efforts to hide her relationship, lest her family “hang her in public”.
  • Hilmi comes from a family that was deported from Israel in 1948, and when he was a teenager he was jailed for 4 months for writing graffiti. The soldiers in the military prison are described as minor sadists, who derive pleasure from making the Palestinian prisoners sing Israeli songs against their will.
  • Liat constantly thinks about how her lover sees their relationship through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She is constantly on the defensive, imagining his pains. Hilmi, on the other hand, is carefree and a free spirit (he is a painter).
  • The Israelis Liat and Hilmi bump into in New York are described as loud, rude and selfish. On the other hand, Hilmi’s brothers and friends are described as beautiful, smart and gentle.

And so it goes, on and on. Frankly, this is tiring. It is so typical of the prevailing zeitgeist among certain Israeli left-wing writers that it borders on the pathetic. My views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are well known to the readers of this blog, and yet I find such one-sided depictions of “who’s good and who’s bad” in this conflict truly despicable. I couldn’t enjoy this well-written book because of this annoyingly self-deprecating, perhaps even self-hating, subtext. Shame really.

So maybe, after all, the Ministry of Education’s decision, although misguided in its intention, is a blessing in disguise. Israeli teenagers are blessed not to be exposed to such dribble about the conflict they grew up into. They deserve better.

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