President-elect Donald Trump has indicated that his son-in-law Jared Kushner, recently appointed as special adviser to the president, might be a good broker for an Israel-Palestine deal. One can greet this brainstorm by Trump with more than the usual amount of skepticism. For one thing, efforts on the part of the Obama and Bush administrations have resulted very little, and the appointment of hard-liner David Friedman as ambassador to Israel, a selection that many foreign policy experts think is a diplomatic disaster, indicates that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recalcitrance to negotiate will be strengthened. His histrionic reaction to the America’s abstention on the vote condemning further expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is made possible by the election of the uncritical Trump.
Kushner will no doubt be relying on the advice of his hawkish father who has been a major benefactor to Israeli institutions and an ardent supporter of the Israeli state. Apparently Kushner knows many of “the major players” in the region and can introduce his real-estate developer son, who has no diplomatic experience, to these movers and shakers, though it is doubtful whether the list will include liberals and dissidents.
We might hope against hope that the Kushner is unlike his father-in-law who seems to be singularly uninterested in reading about issues, especially when those issues are so nuanced and complicated as the long-standing and intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, and so unmindful of historical context. We might hope that he sees that his charismatic personality and his success at his own art of the real estate deal are hardly enough to bring about any kind of quick solution. Convincing the parties to come together in Israel is not the same thing as convincing a Chinese investor to front the money for a New York City real estate project.
So we might hope that he might pick up a copy of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Modern Israel or any of many fair-minded works available, like The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (3rd Edition) by Lewis adjunct faculty member Gregory Harms. Or even Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon-Tree which offers a case-study in interpersonal reconciliation between Jew and Palestinian.
I would recommend that he also take a look at the recently published work of fiction by Amos Oz, one of Israel’s best known fiction writers, journalists, and intellectuals. Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002), about growing up in Jerusalem in the decade after the creation of the nation in 1948 has been turned into a film by Natalie Portman who plays his emotionally distraught mother.
His latest fiction, the first in ten years, is Judas (2016). Set in Jerusalem in the winter months of 1959, the work provides insight into some of the origins of the current problems.
There are two Judases. The first is the New Testament figure, the apostle who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. (There’s an interesting debate about how much a piece of silver – a denarius? A shekel? – was worth.) The novel’s protagonist, Schmuel Ash, is fascinated by the Judas figure as part of his aborted masters thesis devoted to Jewish views of Jesus and the history of the hostility of Christians toward “Christ-killing” Jews.
As a result of his immersion in biblical commentary, he discovers many ideas that go against common understanding. There is a school of historical interpretation (represented by Reza Aslan’s 2014 Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth) that posits the idea that Jesus saw himself not as divine avatar but both as a devout Jew and as a social revolution operating in Galilee far from the centers of Roman power in Jerusalem. Paul and the evangelists created the Jesus as God myth that took root in small communities that in turn blossomed in many unpredictable ways into the Catholic Church.
Schmuel imagines that Judas, far from being the traitor, is the one apostle who loves Jesus most deeply, who is convinced of his divinity, and willing serves as campaign advisor. Unlike the uneducated and unsophisticated fishermen-apostles, Judas is an affluent citizen of Jerusalem who thinks he knows how to stage manage Jesus divine mission. He wants Jesus to carry his message to a bigger arena. In Schmuel Ash’s variant gospel, it is Jesus, less convinced of his own divinity and special mission than Judas, who convinced Judas to turn him in. Unlike modern historians of currency, Ash claims that the reward of 30 coins was a mere pittance to the well-to-do Judas; thus, the “betrayer” could not have been motivated by money as is commonly thought. At the end of the novel we get a lengthy chapter in which Judas, on his way to the tree from which he will hang himself, reveals his motivations. The chapter is presumably part of the Gospel of Judas that Ash will continue to work on.
It must be said that in 2006 there surfaced a 26 page text fragment that contained a conversation between Jesus and Judas, a conversation in which Jesus asks his companion who understands him better than do the others to initiate his arrest. Thus the Ash/Oz hypothesis is not original.
The second Judas is Shaltiel Abravanel. The deceased Abravanel looms over Ash’s story. Ash is at a crisis in his life; he has lost his girlfriend, his modest socialist club has fractured, and his impoverished Tel Aviv parents tell him that they can no longer host their 20-something son in their house. His academic work has hit a brick wall. Thus he responds to an ad to provide companionship to an enfeebled ex-history teacher Gershom Wald. The ad has been posted by Atilia Abravanel, Shaltiel’s daughter, who was married briefly to Wald’s son, tragically killed and tortured by Arab resisters in the warfare following the declaration of the Jewish state. Atalia lives mysteriously in her father-in-law’s house, a place that once belonged to her father. Wald is a learned but quarrelsome man who loves to provoke his rented companion, and it is to Wald that Ash tests out many of his speculations about the Jews and Jewish-Christian relationships.
It is also from Wald that Ash finds out about Abravanel and his own traitorous ways. Abravanel, a member of The Council of the Jewish Agency, is a cautionary voice among the Zionist zealots like David Ben-Gurion, who will be the nation’s first prime minister. While most architects of the Jewish state see promise, despite the inconvenience of the hundreds of thousands of Arab/Palenstians living in the area of the British Mandate, Abravanel sees only decades of grief and strife ahead. A moral state cannot be built on a foundation of criminality: the taking of Arab property, the relocation of Arab populations, and the suppression of Arab economic interests. An idealist, Abravanel imagines a land where Jewish and Arab populations comingle socially, intermarry, and work to improve the economic interests of both tribes. He advocates restrictions on Jewish relocation to the Holy Land, even in the face of the grim facts of the Holocaust, so that populations can gradually assimilate. He’s a man who dreams about the elimination of nation states. Thus he finds the two state solution proposed in 1947 as undesirable.
Even in 1959, the year in which the novel takes place, the Abravanel vision, never widely embraced, is hardly even a small part of the conversation about the destiny of Israel. The once idealistic Zionist Ben-
Gurion is now leading an increasingly powerful regional player (made even more dramatic after the 6 Day Way in 1967). And sadly, Abravanel’s fear that the oppressed have become oppressors is becoming a fact.
For taking the stance that he does, Abravenal is labeled a traitor to the cause and suffers from ostracism from the planning council of which he was a part. And so, Wald’s history lesson blends with Ash’s research as similar projects in challenging the notion of traitorous behavior. Surprisingly, in this imaginative novel by Oz the image of the biblical Judas blends with the image of an obscure figure in the years of the formation of the Israeli state. The novel is an act of historical revisionism. [It is also a novel of longing and lust, as it charts Ash’s attraction to Atalia, two decades older than he, and her measured accommodations to his desires.]
Today the hard liner Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu would find the Abravanel vision naïve at best and destructively delusional at worst. And no doubt he and Ambassador-nominee Friedman, both unapologetic about the continued illegal expansion of the settlements in the West Bank and the acceptance of $38 billion dollars in American aid over the next ten years, would steer the diplomatic neophyte Jared Kushner in the same direction. They would undoubtedly urge him to not even pick up a work of fiction by a long-time citizen-critic of Israel. There are better things to do on the long plane ride between Washington and Tel Aviv.