Culture & Conversation

The Wild West Bank


Eric Hamovitch attended an interview with Assaf Gavron on Saturday, part of the Blue Metropolis festival. 

When Assaf Gavron set out to write a novel focusing on a not-so-fictional hilltop settlement established by religious zealots in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, he first had to do a little research to get a clearer idea of how the people he wanted to write about actually think and act. This meant spending time among them, and winning their confidence was far from automatic. When he explained his purpose, reactions varied. People in some communities accepted him warily, while others told him to get lost. “They regarded me as a Tel Aviv lefty, which is what I am,” he told his Blue Met audience.

The Hilltop, written in Hebrew and published in English translation in October 2014, presents an array of fictional characters, notably two long-lost brothers, who choose to live in what even the settlement-promoting Israeli government regards as an illegal outpost. “According to government records, it doesn’t exist; according to the military, it must be defended,” says the book’s dust jacket. (The Israeli government distinguishes between what it regards as legal and illegal settlements. Western countries generally view all settlements on occupied territory as illegal. Although West Bank settlers constitute only a small minority of the Israeli population, they exercise significant political influence.)

Gavron, whose talk was sponsored partly by the Consulate General of Israel in Montreal, says he does not see fiction as a suitable means of expressing political ideas, though his satirical approach to the settlement enterprise makes clear the disdain he feels. Still, some of the settlement-dwellers he had spoken with, upon reading the book, “appreciated that I wrote about them as human beings.” He said it is wrong to generalize about the views held by settlers: they can vary widely.

About 400,000 Israeli Jews live in an array of settlements east of the Green Line, the internationally recognized boundary observed prior to the 1967 war. These run the gamut from established suburban communities serving as bedroom communities for Israeli cities, aided by generous housing subsidies, to barren clusters of trailers and shipping containers placed on hilltops overlooking Palestinian villages by people who regard this as a religious duty, more important than human laws, to recapture land given to Jews by God but “squatted on” by Arabs for thousands of years.

“I think their conclusions are wrong and even dangerous,” Gavron said. “But I could still be friends with them.”

Eric Hamovitch is a Montreal writer and translator with a keen interest in foreign affairs.

– photo: Jonathan Bloom

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