Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel
ECW Press, 2016.
$22.95, 304 pages.
Strangers with The Same Dream
Knopf Canada, 2017.
$32.95, 368 pages.
Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier’s Story
Signal Books, 2016.
$32.00, 242 pages.
Recently, there has been a spate of books published in Canada, both fiction and non-fiction, that take the communal mythos of Israel—whether it’s the kibbutz or the citizen’s army—as their subject matter. Some of these books challenge Zionist narratives, while others virulently defend them. Chasing Utopia: The Future of the Kibbutz in a Divided Israel, by University of Victoria writing professor David Leach, is a non-fiction account of the Israeli kibbutz movement, its role in the establishment of the state, and its recent demise as a socialist, egalitarian experiment in communal living. The book is a genuine—if flawed—attempt to grapple with the communal dream as it played out in Israel/Palestine, and deals head-on with the contradictions inherent in political Zionism. Likewise, Alison Pick’s new novel, Strangers with the Same Dream, takes place in the first months of one of these new kibbutzes, and is a relentless fictionalization of the early days of Zionist colonialism. Finally, in his book Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier’s Story, Matti Friedman details the final years of the Pumpkin, a hilltop base in the Lebanon Security Zone, and argues for the significance of this period in Israeli history as a defining moment of the modern Middle East. Pumpkinflowers—which recently won a Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature in the history category—is ostensibly about the communal life of a soldier, but is actually an ideologically-motivated book-length attempt to prove the innocence of the Israeli soldier and to reaffirm Orientalist views of the Middle East.
As a Jewish person committed to challenging Zionism’s claims on both myself and the Jewish world, and to working for justice in Israel/Palestine, I believe that these books must be held to a high standard. Books, especially award-winners and best-sellers, help to shape Canadian Jewish perspectives on the state that claims everything it does is for the Jewish people. The basic elements of a just solution are easy to spell out: an end to the occupation; the repatriation/compensation of Palestinian refugees; and the replacement of the ethno-nationalist state and army by a true democracy, wherein everyone has the same rights and life-choices. If things are going to change in Israel, pressure will certainly need to be applied by those of us in the Jewish diaspora who believe that a better world, not just for Jews and Arabs, but for everybody, is possible. Fictional and non-fictional narratives play a decisive role in changing or solidifying the Jewish status-quo when it comes to Israel and Zionism, and have done so at least since 1902, when Theodor Herzl wrote Altneuland, his utopic novel imagining the glories of a future Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. Taking Leach’s, Pick’s, and Friedman’s books as exemplary of what is being published in Canada today, we can see how even though the discourse is starting to move away from impregnable love and support for the Israeli state to something more critical, a significant portion of the Jewish Canadian world is still beholden to a state and its national army at the far end of the Mediterranean, and is more than willing to excuse its crimes.
The Jewish Virtual Library defines the kibbutz, in part, as “a unique rural community; a society dedicated to mutual aid and social justice; a socioeconomic system based on the principle of joint ownership of property, equality and cooperation of production, consumption and education.” Add to this definition the kibbutzes’ role in the foundation of the state—as the original “facts on the ground,” these early settlements dictated the shape that the future state would take—and in cleansing the land of the indigenous Palestinian population, and you begin to have a sense of the real complexity of the kibbutz. Any fair definition of the kibbutz movement would have to acknowledgement its history as a radical social experiment wedded to ethnic superiority and settler-colonialism.
David Leach’s Chasing Utopia is a surprisingly nuanced take on the kibbutz movement, its failure(s), and its subsequent rebirths. I was expecting the book to not stray too far outside of the accepted narrative boundaries of Zionism and the Israeli state, but—for the most part—Leach has set out to write an even-handed book on a contentious subject. Chasing Utopia is part memoir, part reportage, part travelogue, and part diagnosis. The book, especially in its back half, makes room for Palestinian voices and narratives, though it could have done more. As someone forever drawn to the promise and radical potential of communal living—of structuring our lives differently—I could relate to the numerous idealists, seekers, activists, radicals, and strivers for social justice that Leach encounters in his travels and research. However, as Leach discovers, the radical societal reorganization of the kibbutz cannot be disentangled from the violent political Zionism in which it was born and in which it played a decisive role.
For the most part, Leach writes well, though there are a number of places wherein he overindulges his writing-professor self. An example: “The fat wand of loose tobacco was so parsimoniously seeded with rat turds of low-grade suburban hash that it was less a monster joint than the representation of a monster joint, a dim Platonic shadow of a mega-doobie.” A translation of this overworked sentence: they smoked a hash joint. At times, though, Leach’s writing hits just the right mark, as in his description of activist Eitan Bronstein, who “speaks with the quiet, self-composed intensity of a man who savours the friction of uncomfortable truths rubbing against unexamined dogmas.” Leach’s reportage, overall, makes the book a terrific introduction to the intricacies of the kibbutz, while still holding on to the radical hope that the early kibbutz pioneers—erroneously, as it turned out—had for their role in reshaping humanity.
The book is divided into two halves: “Who Killed the Kibbutz?” and “Look Back to the Galilee.” The overarching narrative of the former is the story of privatization, which transformed the majority of kibbutzes from “hard socialism” to “soft capitalism.” Having detailed his own experiences as a non-Jewish volunteer on Kibbutz Shamir in the Upper Galilee—eight months of manual labour, communal meals, sex, parties, some light Zionist indoctrination—Leach returns 20-or-so years later to Israel, to find out “what the kibbutz meant to the nation—and to me.” The fact that Shamir’s products are now traded on the NASDAQ, that “an agrarian commune founded by Marxists” now competes “with the greyhounds of global capital,” hints to what Leach will find. Leach discovers that once differential salaries were introduced, once the dining room stopped being the frenzied center of the community, once foreign workers were hired to work the fields and man the assembly lines—all symptoms of privatization—the kibbutz’s socialist beginnings mostly faded into memory, existing only on tourist brochures and official Israeli histories.
In the first decade of the 21st century, “three-quarters of kibbutzes abandoned their communal economies. The dream of total equality declared bankruptcy.” A community of a hundred or so families for whom equality was the highest order, everything was shared, everything debated in famously long meetings, had turned into garden suburbs. “The American Dream had come to the kibbutz,” Leach pithily puts it—“Revolution could wait.” One of the many people Leach interviews to give context to this story is Israel Oz, who is in the business of “de-communalizing” kibbutzes. Oz, a sort of one-man International Monetary Fund, had privatized over a dozen kibbutzes, and was either hated or loved by the kibbutzniks themselves—usually depending on how much they stood to gain from Oz’s program. In his arrogant appraisal of the failures of the kibbutz and his monetized plan to bring them into the warm embrace of free market economics, Oz is the personification of capitalism as vengeful asshat.
Elsewhere in the book’s first half, Leach spends time with a diverse cast of people involved in the kibbutz movement: Shay Shoshany, the current leader of Israel’s oldest and most storied kibbutz, Degania, who had to take the brunt of the nation’s attention when Degania privatized; Surika Braverman, an elderly die-hard kibbutznik who lectures young Israeli soldiers but is not allowed to talk with them about her leftwing politics; Dr. Yuval Achouch, who works at the Institute for Research of the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea at the University of Haifa; and Salman Fakhiraldeen, a Druze Arab who works at the Al-Marsad Center, where he and other staff “record violations against the land once owned by the Druze in the depopulated [Golan] Heights.” Fakhiraldeen, one of the more politically radical—and therefore likeable—people that Leach encounters, tells Leach that out of the 160 Druze villages that existed in the Golan, only five remained. Though Leach mostly avoids discussing the Palestinian narrative or settler-colonialism in this first part, he nonetheless paints a robust picture of the history of the kibbutz movement and the people involved in its demise.
“Who Killed the Kibbutz” ends with a realization on Leach’s part. After being confronted by pro-Palestinian activists at a number of lectures that he gave in Canada and Scotland on the history of the kibbutz, Leach recognises that he “couldn’t divorce the kibbutz from its colonial legacy and the tetchy politics of contemporary Israel.” Though the use of the word “tetchy” seems dismissive, Leach does attempt to grapple with Israel’s “colonial legacy” in the second half of the book, “Look Back to the Galilee.” Leach visits communities that are “forging new ways of living and thinking that might yet overcome the fear and violence between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples.” He visits, among other places: Nes Ammin, a Christian Kibbutz in the Galilee that is working towards co-existence; eco-kibbutzes Lotan and Ketura, both in the Arava Desert (I spent three months volunteering on Ketura, working in the dining room and auditing lectures by the anarchist Uri Gordon at the Arava Institute For Environmental Studies); a communal settlement in the occupied West Bank; and Rawabi, a Palestinian intentional community being built in the West Bank that is backed by global capitalists.
Leach saves his more critical opinions for this part of the book: “I realized that for all its noble rhetoric, the kibbutz movement’s failure to attract and accept, let alone integrate, Arab residents was perhaps its greatest failure,” he writes. “The left-wing Artzi Federation, which founded Shamir, had once promoted a vision of Israel as a binational state. And yet it never created a kibbutz for Jews and Palestinians.” Leach confronts the reality of the settlements, speaking with activists who are fighting the occupation, working for economic justice, and forcing the Palestinian narrative into the sightlines; he thus makes room in what could have been an overly-depressing narrative for hope of social, political, and human reinvention.
Leach’s decision to split the book in half leads to some of its biggest problems. “Who Killed the Kibbutz” basically ignores the problems of early Zionist settlement, not to mention the crisis currently engulfing Israel/Palestine. By leaving his discussion of Palestinian grievances, critiques of ethnic nationalism, and interviews with activists until the second half, Leach has unintentionally created a divided book. This arbitrary division affects Canada’s place in Leach’s narrative as well. Leach mentions Canada a number of times in the book’s first half, without acknowledging Canada’s own settler-colonialism. For example, Leach records the following joke an older kibbutz woman tells him: “There is a joke in Hebrew that Moses stuttered, . . . and when he said where should the Jewish people go, it was to ‘Canaan.’ But what he really said was ‘Ca-ca-ca. . .’ And he meant ‘Canada!’” The punchline is funny because Canada is supposed to be vast and underpopulated, without the crippling ethnic strife of Palestine.“We’ve got lots of space,” Leach says in response, glibly glossing over the similar colonial structures of the two countries. It’s not until deep into the second half of the book that Leach connects the settler-colonialism of Palestine to that of Canada. “In North America,” he writes, “we’ve shunted the dark history of our settler past into textbooks and relocated our First Peoples—the survivors of epidemics and genocides—onto reserves far from our cities.” Finally, if Leach was really committed to telling the Palestinian side of the narrative of the kibbutz and the founding of the Israeli state, this should have shown more in his sources; Leach cites very few Palestinian or Arab articles or books.
Even so, Chasing Utopia is an engaging look at a group of Jewish people who attempted to organize themselves outside of capitalism, yet yoked their radical collectives to colonialism. Though Leach acknowledges the death of the original kibbutz dream, he still maintains hope for better ways to live, for a different Israel/Palestine. Unfortunately, the fact is that Israel could give the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza citizenship tomorrow, but it won’t, and for one reason: if Israel is to remain an ethnically Jewish state—as opposed to an open state where Jews and Arabs and all others can live in peace—it must maintain, at all costs, its unnatural demographic majority. As the Druze activist Salman Fakhiraldeen put it to Leach: “This is the reality. . . . A state that is afraid of demographics is a sick state. It’s afraid of the future.”
Alison Pick’s new novel, Strangers with the Same Dream, brilliantly fictionalizes many of the issues Leach investigates. Pick tells the story of the establishment of a new kibbutz in the Galilee in the early pre-state years of the communal movement. The young Zionist settlers contend with the natural conditions, material scarcity, their own human flaws, and, most significantly, the Arab farmers who have lived and worked for hundreds of years on the land the young kibbutzniks claim as their own. Pick shows that, regardless of the wealthy Beirut landowner who sold real estate to the Jewish Agency, this land is the Arabs’ home. Pick creates an entire fictional world where, to borrow Leach’s phrasing, uncomfortable truth after uncomfortable truth smashes into unexamined dogma after unexamined dogma. The sparks that result are glorious, engaging, moving, and harrowing. Pick pulls no punches: the early kibbutzniks blame the Arabs for their own mistakes or shortcomings, are engulfed in interpersonal drama, and are childishly and dangerously obsessed with the settlement’s lone gun, which changes hands in a sort of Chekhovian musical chairs. Many of the characters believe in radical equality, and spend hours debating the minutiae of their communal enterprise (including if a woman should abort her baby because the kibbutz is not ready for children yet); nevertheless, misogyny, racism, and hierarchy burn through the kibbutz like the malaria they believe is the land of Israel entering and claiming their bodies. Pick is masterful at creating small interpersonal conflicts that symbolizes larger themes; it’s easy to imagine the actions of these young pioneers resulting in repercussions that are woven into the very fabric of the state they helped create.
The novel’s three sections each follow one member of the new kibbutz. Ida is a naive, inexperienced teenager whose father was murdered in a pogrom and who sees the events unfolding around her through innocent, idealistic eyes. David is the charismatic leader assigned to the new kibbutz, who had to leave his former, well-established kibbutz after he accidentally murdered a young Arab girl. Finally, Hannah, David’s wife, has made peace with David’s rampant adultery but is wracked with guilt for leaving her ailing father to move to the new settlement. The members of the new kibbutz have very little food and even fewer belongings, though their socialist Zionist fervour pushes them to work hard, debate harder, and dance even harder; almost every night ends with them dancing the hora under the stars. Pick brings this material scarcity to life by investing a number of objects—a pair of heirloom candlesticks, a pillow turned into a doll, the aforementioned gun—with substantial symbolic and narrative freight.
Strangers is swampy with lush descriptions of the Galilee, capturing both the natural beauty of the land and the kibbutzniks’ ideological rendering of said beauty. The novel also makes space for the Palestinian narrative, perhaps most importantly by including speaking, named Arab characters, who are surprisingly absent from a lot of North American Jewish fiction set in Israel/Palestine. The treatment of the Palestinian neighbours by the members of the kibbutz is pivotal to the action of the novel. Strangers bears more than a passing resemblance to another brilliant novel of the hopes and failures of a communal dream, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Brazil Maru, about a sect of Christian Japanese utopians who establish a commune in the rainforest of Brazil before and during the Second World War. Both novels are structured with different sections narrated by various characters, who recount the same events from different perspectives; both novels have powerful men who are drunk on their own power while still telling themselves they are an equal part of an equal system; both confront the problems of rigid ideological adherence.
One of the weaker aspects of Strangers is the narrator, who introduces herself in the book’s first pages as a ghost. This ghost, when she was alive, was one of the members of the new kibbutz, and now spends her afterlife constantly reliving the same formative months that led to her death through the eyes of the novel’s different characters. She explains, “Now that I have been snipped free from linear time I can drift back and forth as I wish. Far in the future lies the terrible bloom of what we planted. It is your bloom now. The future is a tangle I prefer not to visit.” If the first sentence of this quote sounds clunky (especially compared to the poetic prophesying of the following sentences), that’s because the conceit itself is awkward. Not only does this extra narrative layer rupture the flow of the novel, the narrating ghost having to periodically remind us of her presence, but it introduces an unnecessary metaphysical complication. Since the ghost is able to travel back in time and influence people on the kibbutz, this introduces the same issues similar to any narrative with a time-travel component, creating a brain-hurting loop of cause and effect. However, this conceit just further speaks to the success of the book as a whole; as problematic—and probably unnecessary—as the ghost narrator is, in the end it does not have too lasting an impact on the novel’s emotional and intellectual power.
As hinted at in the last two sentences of the passage quoted above, it is not difficult to read Strangers as a damning indictment of the communal dream as it played out in the settler-colonial context of Zionism, of that “terrible bloom of what we planted.” Without giving away too much, let me just say that the novel’s kibbutz is literally founded by murderers. The novel deftly shows how it’s not only the pioneers’ own faults and mistakes that set the ground for the coming realities of the state, but also how their moral failures compound and fester in the children. As our ghost narrator tells us, children “saw what was around them and they took it in. It grew. It changed. There was a kind of mutation. And then it came back out of them—in unimaginable time and form.” David and Hannah’s young daughter Ruth is friends with Arab children, and has a doll which can switch between wearing a headscarf and a kippah. “My doll speaks Hebrew and Arabic,” Ruth says proudly at one point. As a minor character, Leah, says, co-existence is possible—echoing Leach’s comment in Chasing Utopia that “Every child is born utopian”. However, by the novel’s end, the children are taught a very different lesson, and the hope of co-existence dims. Readers, Jewish or not, will are left to grapple with Pick’s powerful evocations of settler-colonialism, idealism, love, and death.
When I was younger and less politically-aware, I went on Birthright Israel, a free 10-day trip for Jewish North Americans that’s supposed to help you connect with the Jewish state. I was definitely not a Zionist; I went on the trip out of curiosity, because it was free, and in an to attempt to draw my own conclusions. For five days, a group of enlisted Israeli soldiers travelled with us as we bused across the country. They wore their uniforms, told us terrifying stories of losing friends on the battlefield, drank vodka with us, had sex with us. When it was time for them to leave, we sat around a fountain in Tiberias, and our tour leader—a modern Orthodox man who immigrated to Israel from Los Angeles and lived in the Old City of Jerusalem—lectured us about how now that we knew that Israeli soldiers were just like us, we had all the evidence we needed to defend the Jewish state against critics of Israel and anti-semites— per his logic, the two were synonymous. Even then, I saw the fallacy. We were supposed to believe that 19 and 20-year-old soldiers who liked rock music, drinking, and having sex with Canadian tourists had anything to do with the morality of the occupation, the latest Lebanon war, or the real roots of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Matti Friedman’s Pumpkinflowers is the book-length version of my tour leader’s fountain-side speech: it is based on the same premise and is just as rhetorically devoid of substance, if not more so. The book is about a small, hill-top base in Southern Lebanon called the Pumpkin. The base was active during the late ’90s, during the period of the Israeli Security Zone, when Israel maintained a small occupying force after having pulled out of the rest of Lebanon in the aftermath of the disastrous First Lebanon War (for an in-depth, highly depressing look at the Lebanon War, read journalist Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon). Friedman argues that the guerrilla tactics, propaganda, and suicide violence that the soldiers stationed at the Pumpkin witnessed marked the emergence of the contemporary Middle East. Friedman calls himself the Pumpkin’s “first historian in any language, and almost certainly its last,” which I guess means he feels he can say whatever he wants about it, and the Middle East in general, without a shred of context or historical knowledge or empathy for the non-Jewish Israeli.
Ostensibly a “soldier’s story” war narrative such as those by Tim O’Brien and George Orwell, Matti Friedman’s memoir is pointedly ideological in ways these forebears were not. For every story about an ambush while on patrol or the nearly-but-not-quite humanization of the Arab enemy, Friedman insistently argues that these Israeli soldiers are just like you and me; there is really no other way to read the constant flash-forwards that occur whenever Friedman is writing about a fellow soldier. There’s Dani, “for whom army service was a step on the way from a middle-class childhood to a doctorate on the modern history of Lebanon.” There’s Harel, who now “lives on Mount Gilboa, runs a cowshed in the valley, and has four black-haired boys as stubborn as he.” Sometimes these flash-forwards crop up in the middle of the action: “Ofir lay peering through his rifle scope . . . he is now a 35-year-old shiatsu therapist, but was then an 18-year-old marksman.” These sections are part of Friedman’s overall project to exonerate Israeli soldiers from the crimes they commit. “Israeli teenagers are more thoughtful than most,” he tells us, going so far as to claim that “There was no ideology at all at the outpost, as far as I could see, no militarism and certainly no overt patriotism.” Friedman might as well scream, “we didn’t even hate the enemy!” from the rooftops. Friedman and his platoon-mates were an occupying force with vastly more firepower than the people they occupied, but, according to Pumpkinflowers, they really were just thoughtful teenagers. Friedman and my Birthright tour guide are working from the same script here.
The humanizing of the soldiers who served at the Pumpkin is only one of the many insidious goals of this slim book. Chopped up into 60 very short chapters (some only half a page) that are spread out over four parts, the book reads fast and is written in direct, catchy sentences (journalist Steven Gutkin previously accused Friedman of producing “well-written hogwash”). Through journal entries, letters, and interviews, Friedman narrates what life was like at the Pumpkin before he arrived there, through the eyes of the doomed soldier Avi. Only one section of the book actually details Friedman’s experiences at the base, and is therefore the only section that adheres to the book’s subtitle. The end of Pumpkinflowers looks at the aftermath of the withdrawal from the Security Zone, and ends with Friedman’s return to Lebanon—undertaken incognito, the author posing as a Canadian tourist—two years after the Pumpkin is abandoned. This scene is one of the more disturbing parts of the book: does Friedman want us to laugh with him as he pretends not to be Jewish and elicits anti-semitic statements from the Lebanese he meets? It left me feeling dirty and non-consensually complicit, like when someone who looks like me makes a racist joke on television.
Significantly, though Friedman alludes to his childhood in Toronto, he never explains why he moved to Israel at 17. This omission is problematic, considering that Friedman wants his readers to think of the Israeli soldiers as innocent draftees, when, in his case at least, he—or his family—made the decision to emigrate to Israel shortly before he’d be called up. The book is downright obsessed with being considered part of the Great War Literature of the 20th century, with Friedman constantly referring to and quoting from writers and poets from World War I and World War II. Friedman goes so far as to claim that “If my ancestors’ great war was the first of the 20th century [both of his grandfathers fought in World War I], I believe our little one was the first of the 21st.”
This grandiose statement is part and parcel of Friedman’s overall thesis. In the preface Friedman writes that “This book is about the lives of young people who finished high school and then found themselves in a war—in a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war, but one that has nonetheless reverberated in our lives and in the life of our country and the world. . . . Anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East of today would do well to look closely at these events.” This claim is strewn like shrapnel throughout the book, whether he’s talking about the dangers of going on patrol, the helicopter crash that killed 73 soldiers and spelled the beginning of the end for the Security Zone, or his own experiences in South Lebanon. Friedman is like one of the characters in Pick’s novel, unaware of the political ramification of their actions.
By the fourth section of the book, any pretense at objectivity has vanished, and what readers are left with can only be called propaganda, Friedman baldly claiming that the Second Intifada—a mass Palestinian uprising that took place from 2000-2005—was purely a result of the Arabs’ evil nature. “When the suicide bombings began in our cities that fall,” Friedman tells us, “we realized there was no ‘new Middle East’ after all. That phrase would never be used again without sarcasm. The Middle East was gutted buses and cafes, and young killers in black masks.” As usual, Friedman completely elides the causes of the Second Intifada, which would include the continuing suffering of the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and the refugee camps; the failures of the Oslo years; and, more immediately, Ariel Sharon’s decision to march on the Temple Mount with an army of police officers.
Friedman is unwilling to admit that you can both condemn suicide violence and have empathy towards a group of people that has been so utterly dehumanized and dispossessed.
In the book’s final chapter, Friedman offers his most robust version of his argument that the soldiers at the Pumpkin witnessed the emergence of an even more intractable, irrational, violent Middle East. “On the hill we had been at the start of something,” he writes. “A new era in which conflict surges, shifts, or fades but doesn’t end, in which the most you can hope for is not peace, or the arrival of a better age, but only to remain safe as long as possible. None of us could have foreseen how the region would be seized by its own violence—the way Syria . . . would be devoured, and Iraq, and Libya, and Yemen, and much of the Islamic world around us. The outpost was the beginning. . . . The Pumpkin is gone, but nothing is over.” Yes, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen are in states of horrific chaos, but is that really because that is the essential “nature” of the Middle East, or is it because of centuries of colonial violence, democracies undermined, dictatorships installed, decades-long asymmetrical wars coupled with capitalism’s undead thirst for oil? Friedman’s every sentence is barbed with his argument for the former, though in his formulation it is not an argument at all—it is simply the truth. For Friedman, Israel’s history of establishing and maintaining its borders and Jewish majority through violence simply vanishes.
In a truly shocking paragraph, Friedman juxtaposes the history of Islam with the suicide bombings taking place in Israel during the Second Intifada, claiming a direct link between the two. “In the university’s walls in those days,” Friedman writes, “I studied Islam as an idea that touched a nerve in Arabia long ago and showered countries with spires and domes, poetry and prophecy in flowing letters, empires coming together like drops of mercury and splitting apart like amoebas. I spent an hour in my course ‘The Modern Middle East,’ . . . and then packed my books and exited into the modern Middle East, where a woman named Andalib . . . could walk into the open-air market in Jerusalem a few minutes after I walked out, press a button sending an electric charge to her explosives, and kill herself and six people who happened to be standing nearby.” This statement is vile, textbook Orientalism: the once-glorious Islamic past has degenerated into nothing but suicide violence. Friedman’s diagnosis is devoid of history, context, nuance, understanding, or empathy, and is deposited throughout his book like ideological mines planted for the sole reason of exonerating Israel and Israel’s role in destabilizing the region. “We might make good choices, or bad choices,” Friedman laments, “but the results are unpredictable and the possibilities limited. The Middle East doesn’t bend to our dictates or our hopes. It won’t change for us.” It doesn’t matter if the Israelis want peace or not—the Middle East is unknowable, unchangeable, doesn’t understand Western ideals. All the Israelis want to do is “eke out the usual human pleasures in an unfortunate region and an abnormal history,” but the uncontrollable Middle East won’t let them. You can’t think this way without wilfully ignoring the history of Palestine, of Zionism, of colonialism.
Friedman quite obviously didn’t write this book for people rightly critical of Israel’s “official” history; its claims and its rhetorical project are too easily dismantled by any thinking person not beholden to Zionism (Daniel Reisel, writing three years earlier, agrees, saying Friedman’s journalism “is so riddled with its own bias and inconsistencies that it’s hard to understand why anyone would take him seriously”). Who the book is written for, though, are Jewish Canadians who want to feel proud of the Israeli army, who want to be abdicated of any and all responsibility for the occupation. Perhaps that is why Pumpkinflowers won the Vine Award, because it feeds the terrible hunger in the Jewish community for anything that will exonerate Israel from its criminal behaviour. The fact that such a book can win a Jewish literature award—any award really—leaves me incredibly discouraged. My only hope is that the general reader, with a little bit of outside context, can pierce the heavy armour of ideology that encases Pumpkinflowers.
Unlike Chasing Utopia, which offers a nuanced, well-researched take on the situation in Israel/Palestine, and unlike Strangers with the Same Dream, which brilliantly fictionalizes the hopes, mistakes, and delusions of young Jewish settlers in pre-state Israel, Pumpkinflowers is an ideologically-motivated scree that is so high off its own self-righteousness that it cannot see its own inconsistencies and glaring blind-spots. To that end, I’d like to offer one last example of a weak-spot in Friedman’s textual armada. In a typical paragraph where Friedman once again describes how “wholesome life was on the hill,” he nonchalantly mentions that his platoon-mates would often watch Starship Troopers at the base, a movie “about a war between futuristic soldiers and giant bugs.” Friedman, it seems, is totally unaware of what Starship Troopers is actually about: the ways in which militarized fascism unites its soldier-citizens in hatred of a homogeneous, dehumanized Other.
Aaron Kreuter is the author of the poetry collection Arguments For Lawn Chairs (Guernica Editions, 2016), and the forthcoming short story collection You and Me, Belonging (Tightrope Books). He is currently writing his PhD dissertation on Jewish North American fiction that takes Israel/Palestine as its subject matter. He lives in Toronto.