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“All the Rivers” talk discusses Israel-Palestine relations

This past Wednesday, the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, the Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation Program (CAST), the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and the Hebrew Language Program co-sponsored an event titled “A Doomed Israeli-Palestinian Love Story,” which featured Dorit Rabinyan, the author of the controversial Israeli novel “All the Rivers.” The event was one in a year-long series of art-related events sponsored by the Schusterman Center.

“All the Rivers” was banned from Israeli high schools in 2015 by the Minister of Education, Naftali Bennett. The reason he gave was that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threaten to subvert our distinct identity.” Bennett felt Rabinyan portrayed Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers as “sadistic.” Bennett’s decision sparked uproar in greater Israeli society around government censorship and free speech, as well as greatly increased Rabinyan’s sales of the book.

Rabinyan was born in Israel to Iranian-Jewish parents and grew up in the city of Kfar Saba. As a young person, she spent a summer in New York City where she made a number of Palestinian friends. In particular, she became closely acquainted with a man named Hasan Hourani, who served as the inspiration for her novel’s protagonist, Hilmi.

Rabinyan spoke about how eye-opening it was for her to meet secular Palestinians because she had grown up with the notion that Palestinians were all “blackened with religion.” Rabinyan said that her more religious outlook made her feel “primitive” in comparison to her new friends, and she was impressed that they were able to cast aside what they had been taught as children when she wasn’t. She considered this feeling of inferiority a privilege because usually “being the Israeli brings along all the history of being in power and controlling someone else’s life.”

“All the Rivers” tells the story of a 29-year-old Israeli woman named Liat living in New York City, who ends up meeting a Palestinian artist named Hilmi. The two quickly become romantically involved. The novel explores, through the eyes of Liat, the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the need to look at “the other” with a sense of humanity.

Rabinyan framed her talk by speaking about the 22nd anniversary of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which she called “the beginning of the attack of our democratic values from within.” She spoke about Rabin’s goal of cooperation with Israel’s Arab neighbors and his belief in negotiation, and how he was a politician who really wanted to execute what he had been elected for.

Rabinyan feared her novel, published at the same time as the 2014 war in Gaza, would receive negative response. She said, “I thought, oy vey, there is no chance I am going to have one person interested in my novel, because my novel suggests a relationship between a Palestinian from Ramallah…and…a Jewish Israeli scholar…and for them, it was the beginning of a love story.”

Rabinyan spoke about separateness being a key element of Judaism and the history of the Jewish people, which she believes explains a lot of the resistance to the idea of her novel. She argued that this need for Jewish separateness in the past left its mark even on modern day Israel, which causes Israel to “exist as if it is a Jewish ghetto.”

On the conflict, Rabinyan stated, “Perhaps there is a blind spot in the Israeli subconscious: perhaps we do not only aspire for peace, and authentically wish for peace….but perhaps in the most suppressed back of our minds, we’re also fearful of that day. Because we know that that day is the start of us becoming much more Middle Eastern and much less Jewish.”

Rabinyan was excited by the different types of people who have read her book: She told one story of a Palestinian and an Israeli settler, living only a few miles from each other, writing to her about how influential they found her novel.

In the end, she quoted the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, which she felt best summarized the need for a book like hers. “We achieve our humanity only by understanding the humanity of the other.”

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