Speaking to Salman Rushdie at a recent PEN World Festival event in New York, controversial Israeli novelist Dorit Rabinyan asked how the celebrated author continued to write after facing life-or-death persecution (a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini) over his 1988 work The Satanic Verses.
Although Rabinyan has never had a price on her head, the Israeli government censored her novel All the Rivers, a Palestinian-Israeli love story, when it was published in Hebrew in 2014, making her a punching bag for right-wing zealots in the country.
“You have to learn how to think, ‘Fuck them,'” Rushdie told her.
With her book just released in English (Penguin/Random House), she’s trying to learn to care less and to put the past behind her. But it’s hard to shake the shock of being at the center of one of Israel’s biggest arts scandals, a symbol of the internecine culture wars between right and left.
“It was so delicate [that there seemed to be] no chance that it would be controversial,” she thought while she wrote the novel, in part a tribute to Palestinian artist Hasan Hourani, who drowned in 2003 sometime after their love affair in New York City. “It’s such a sweet memory of love. Sweetened by the forbidden color – we were both very young,” Rabinyan tells Rolling Stone of the romance.
But the Israeli government didn’t see it that way. Benjamin Netyanyahu’s conservative regime has increasingly taken to meddle in non-state matters; its cultural minister, Miri Regev, has said she wants to overthrow the liberal, secular European elite, denying public funding to any projects that don’t support her Zionist values.
Upon the book’s release, Rabinyan woke up one morning to find herself on the cover of every newspaper in her country. “The education system does not need to promote values that are against the values of the country,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said of her decision to remove the book from the country’s compulsory high school reading list in order “to preserve the identity and heritage of the students. …Intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threaten individual identity.”
International media camped out on her doorstep in Tel Aviv. Rabinyan got spat on at her local minimart. Literati like David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua threw their support behind her, fearful of the fate of the arts.
Book sales skyrocketed.
It all overwhelmed her. Rabinyan, now 44, found early fame when she published her first novel, Persian Brides, at 22 in 1995. She had no idea that All the Rivers would cause such a stir.
And to the American reader, it might be similarly perplexing. This Romeo and Juliet tale opens in post-9/11 Manhattan, with a chance meeting between two Middle Easterners: 29-year-old Israeli Liat and Hilmi, a Palestinian painter two years her junior. The two bond over being expats, hating the brutal winter, missing their families and the sweet smell of jasmine back home. While their past and backgrounds color almost all their interactions, this is not a political novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That’s why the censure took Rabinyan by surprise. “[It wasn’t] provocative, or trying to inflame conservative thought,” she says, pointing out that Liat never really considers a long-term relationship with Hilmi because of her own deep-rooted prejudices. In fact, when the book first came out, Rabinyan got flak from the left because they thought it went too easy on Israelis. Only months later, when the Education Ministry banned it (the government denies the term, only admitting they removed it from the curriculum) did Rabinyan begin to understand their problem.
“Why the hostility?” she wonders now. “The same reason witches were hunted in medieval times. They were practicing magic. Literature is our magic. Our potion is identification, this ability to step out of your own skin and your own realities to … to sink into an identity that is foreign to you, to wear the gaze of the other.” Her book’s crime, she muses, is that it presented Palestinians with empathy. “In Israel today, to prove your patriotism, you need to carry only one perspective. Otherwise it’s considered disloyal.”
Rabinyan says what happened to her should serve as a warning in the U.S.. “Israel has never had been so tribal, so fundamentalist, so chauvinist, so isolated, so self-righteous. This is the spirit of our times – walls and barriers and buffers and obsessing about your national identity being preserved, the fear of letting in outside influences; I can see it happening in America,” she says.
But the author also has trenchant advice for Americans struggling to cope in the Trump’s era – where, on her current book tour, she sees how our own culture wars are tearing us apart, just like in her homeland. “First, take a deep breath,” she suggests. “Acknowledge there’s going to be some time of alienation, that the people who govern, who decide your future and the next generation’s don’t reflect any of your common values, what you consider to be American.” She counsels patience and community – not devastation. “[That’s] a privilege you cannot indulge in or you will be defeated.”
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She continues, “We have to engage with the other side, the one that you’re so hostile to, and is so annoying to you, the obstacle to everything you aspire [to].”
Now, she adds, it’s more important than ever for artists to continue to create.
“This is the only thing that literature can do: it makes us humanistic creatures,” she says. “People know this – intuitively, they know that empathy is the cure.”