Q + A: Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon
Written by Zachary Brenner
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are two Jewish American authors living in Berkeley. Chabon is a Pulitzer prize winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Ayelet Waldman is the author of Bad Mother, to which she received a spot on the New York Times’ Best Seller list. She has also written about Judaism in her work, such as in her novel about the Holocaust, Love and Treasure. They also happen to be married. I sat down with them in their home to discuss, in part, their new book set to release in 2017 about the 50th anniversary of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The intention of this interview is to explore the political views of these two authors as well as their respective experiences as Jewish individuals. What is the importance for people with power to speak out against global issues? I aim to challenge what I view as an incomplete conversation in the Jewish American and greater American communities with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I aim to have readers grapple with the harsh realities of the occupation and settlement enterprise. The words published in this interview are the opinions of those involved.
This interview has been excerpted for clarity.
**This interview contains explicit language.
Zachary Brenner: You each have written about Judaism in your books. For example, Mr. Chabon, Kavalier and Clay and Ms. Waldman, Love and Treasure. What aspect of your Judaism did you identify with most when you were growing up?
Ayelet Waldman: My parents raised us to be atheists, to have a disdain for religion. But they were zionists. My father was a pioneer in Israel – he started a kibbutz in the 40s and he was in the Palmach. And then my mother, when she married him, moved to Israel in the 60s. Israel and zionism was their expression of Judaism. I went to high holidays once when my father was a fundraiser for Israel and I feel like I went once as a kid — like a Yom Kippur service. I spent the whole time in the bathroom with the other girls. I did go to Hebrew school. Mostly because my parents wanted me to know my enemy. Growing up, it was a matter of self identifying and Israel.
Michael Chabon: I was raised with a very strong cultural, Jewish identity and a less strong, but still present, religious identity. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, which was a planned community. It was a very innovative, experimental city of the future. It was racially and religiously integrated and all the different faiths shared the same facilities for worship. We belonged to a congregation where there was a reform congregation, a conservative congregation there – both very small – and then this third congregation that we belonged to that called itself innovative Judaism. I had a Bar Mitzvah and it was sort of the peak for me. For 15 years or more after that, I completely lost interest in any aspect of religious practice or observance. It wasn’t until after the end of my first marriage, just before I met Ayelet, that I started to do things on my own to try and connect. Religiously, I would have to say my efforts on the whole would have to be accounted of failure.
In the post 9/11 world, the rise of fundamentalisms of all kinds… Jewish, Muslim, Christian… It’s become so toxic that it ultimately ended up tainting the whole idea. Being religious has become highly suspect to me. And I feel like even people who are going about being religious in the most tolerant, mindful, progressive kind of way, are, in a sense, kidding themselves. What’s written is really clear. What’s written is really offensive and objectionable.
ZB: Were you involved in any Israel activism in college? If so, what did it look like?
MC: I was not. Were you?
AW: No. Not at all. In college I was involved in Apartheid activism, feminist activism, I was sort of involved in the range of progressive politics.
Z: Was there resistance to Israel activism?
AW: It wasn’t such a thing. We didn’t have a Hillel, but we had a Biet, which was a Jewish identification house, but there wasn’t any analogy of apartheid in Israel. And I went to Wesleyan. That is a campus where if they were going to do it, they were going to do it there.
MC: The big turning point, I think, was the Sabra and Shatila massacres [sic], right?
AW: Yeah, but it didn’t trickle down to the campuses. When I was at college, I wrote a paper. I had a professor who taught a class where we read the book Just and Unjust Wars, and I analyzed the war in Lebanon, specifically Sabra and Shatila, under the rubric of that book. And that was the first time that I had actually reached any kind of… I mean, I come from a pacifist family, many of whom are Israeli military. My brother is one of the most highly decorated soldiers in Israeli military history and he’s absolutely opposed to the settlements. As are many of the most highly decorated soldiers in Israeli military history. I had always had progressive politics when it came to the occupied territories, but that was a real turning point for me when I realized just the extent of the problem. And I still, at that age, planned on making Aliyah, anticipated spending my life in Israel.
MC: It also wasn’t until the 80s that we had American governments coming to this position that the Arab world is our enemy. The idea of fortress Israel as this bastion of American power and influence had been building and pieces had been falling into place over the courses of Nixon’s presidency, Carter’s presidency. But it was really in that Reagan era that… suddenly you saw Israel holding hands with the American right. But you start, as American progressive liberals, you start looking, like, why is Israel in bed with those people? Those are the most vile aspect of American political culture and that’s who Israel wants to hang out with? But by then, I was already out of college, out of graduate school.
ZB: Could you describe briefly the book you are both working about the occupation?
AW: Because this coming June is the 50th anniversary of the occupation, we decided, as progressives, as Jews, we needed to mark that horrible anniversary in some way with an act of activism. We’re in our 50s and we have children, we’re not going to go put our bodies on the barricades. We decided that, as writers, what we could do is show the truth of the occupation to other writers without an agenda, in the sense that we’re not telling anybody what to say.
MC: Let them see for themselves.
AW: And then publish what they have to say once they saw for themselves. We ended up with twenty-five writers from around the world, we brought them to Israel and Palestine and we showed them things and their interest drove what they wanted to see. Our partners on the ground were the organizations Breaking the Silence and Youth Against Settlements, and they would help find the things the writers were interested in pursuing. And then each writer wrote an essay and submitted it and we’re publishing it.
ZB: Why Breaking the Silence and not another trip?
AW: Because I think it’s one of the most admirable organizations. It comes from a position of such authenticity.
MC: They know what they’re talking about.
AW: It’s also a narrative organization so it comports with what we were trying to do. It’s an organization that tells stories.
ZB: Was it helpful that they were a group of soldiers who had served in the area?
AW: Do you mean in terms of keeping us safe?
ZB: No, no.
MC: Well that’s where the authenticity comes from.
AW: Because they’re soldiers, they’ve been there.
MC: When Yehudah is taking you through places, he’s like “See that window? I was standing at that window with my gun in my hand and I saw this guy come out over here, like..”
AW: Everything they do is tell stories. And I think more than anything else, their work shows the incredible power of narrative, like they don’t advocate, they simply tell their individual, human truths. And that’s what we wanted to achieve with this book.
ZB: Mr. Chabon, you have said that Hebron, an area with such a connection to Jews because of its significance in the bible, is being dishonored and made less sacred by the presence of the occupation. That it offends you. What would you say to Israel supporters and maybe even settlers themselves to have them come to your realization? Many Jews feel they have a right to the land and that it’s racist for Jews to be kept out.
MC: Yeah, well, except the Jews are free to come and go as they please except in the areas that they forced Palestinians into. The Palestinians were forced into those areas are not free to come and go, so that’s an inaccurate characterization. (Pause). The whole question about who has a right to what is, to me, a smokescreen. It’s not what should be argued about. When people insist on arguing that “we were here first”, “no, we were here first”, then the whole issue of the presumption of that somehow…. primacy gives you greater rights? If one could somehow prove that one had been there first unquestionably, that would decide the matter? I think that’s far from clear. Anyone who makes an argument based on a religious text, loses the argument in my view. It doesn’t prove anything. If you inject the whole question of who was here first, none of those arguments are relevant to the problem. The problem is the illegal military occupation of one people by another people that has been going on for almost 50 years now. That is what has to stop before any of those other endlessly fascinating questions can be debated ad nauseum.
AW: If there were, for example, a two state solution, although I don’t think that’s actually feasible anymore, and every individual was allowed to live where every individual wanted and every individual was allowed to work and do all the things that we take advantage of in this country, to exist as human beings with all the kinds of personal and civil freedoms that we enjoy in this country, then those people could live wherever they wanted. You want to live in Hebron, the city? Go and live there. But the fact that you are killing people, that you are…
MC: It takes how many soldiers per, what’s the ratio in Hebron?
AW: It’s almost 1:1. If you can live in harmony with people? Go with G-d. But, if what it takes for you to feel secure is to oppress and murder and destroy a community, immiserate an entire nation, an entire… you know what? Fuck nations. I’m not interested in nations. If what it takes is for you to immiserate 3 and a half million people, why do you get to do that? Because your ancient, farcical, myth of a book is more ancient than their ancient, farcical, myth of a book?
MC: And not only that, but your interpretation of that is the correct interpretation? To me, the metaphor that occurred to me at the time when we were there is when a house is burning down and there are people in the house that are going to die because the house is on fire, you don’t stand out in the street and argue about whose name is on the deed. You put the fire out. What has to be done is the occupation has to be ended. That has nothing to do with who was there first, what the bible says, or any of the things…It doesn’t have anything to do with any of them. There are no two sides of that issue. if you make it about the occupation, there’s only one side and that’s end the humanitarian disaster that is the occupation.
“There are lots of narratives of Palestine. Some of them as mythological as the narratives of Israel.”
ZB: Can you both describe, specifically, what you saw in the West Bank for those who haven’t had the opportunity to go?
AW: Catastrophic poverty. In the cities and the countryside. People who live with this incredible fear that at any moment their homes can be bulldozed. There are villages where people literally live in tarps, because every time they build anything, it gets bulldozed. It’s hard for me to imagine that any American, especially a university student that has at least some experience with the United States constitution, could look at a family and children and people trying to, you know, eek out a living from sheep and I don’t know what, and think that it’s okay that their homes are destroyed. I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense.
MC: Another thing is the, just, incredible sight, spectacle of the vast, powerful, sophisticated, technologically advanced, highly refined, military bureaucracy, heavily armed, being brought to bare on a daily basis with the mission of humiliating 4 and a half million people. Everyday. Humiliating them with inventiveness, humiliating them with creativity, humiliating them in the most diabolical, sophisticated ways imaginable…
AW: And banal. I mean, talk about the banality of evil, man.
MC: An analogy that any American might be able to just immediately grasp is the thing that African Americans will talk about about trying to hail a cab in New York City and having cabs just pass you by. And the sense of humiliation that that engenders, and anger and frustration. That’s just racist ethos in the air that causes that to happen. Legally, those cabs should be picking up black passengers. In occupied territories, that kind of tiny little indignity… that, “I just can’t even get a cab”, is reduplicated ten thousand times a day. But it’s policy, it’s done on purpose. It’s being done by design with the explicit intention of humiliating people by not treating them as human beings. It’s the massive denial of civil rights.
AW: There’s another great image that really capitulates everything you need to know about the settlers. In the city of Hebron, there’s mesh over the outdoor market.
MC: In the Arab quarter.
AW: In the Arab quarter. So why is there mesh? Because the settlers who live above throw their garbage, and their feces and—.
MC: And rocks. Big heavy rocks.
AW: Big heavy rocks onto the heads of the people going about their marketing. That’s what we’re talking about.
MC: The army came in to protect the populous with these metal screens over the street. And you can just see it.
AW: It’s covered in garbage.
MC: We were walking down the street. There’s garbage and trash and big rocks that are all just, like, sitting on these things and the weight starts buckling after a while and the army has to come and clear it away and replace it. But like, that’s the solution to people dumping shit, garbage, and rocks onto other people.
AW: As children walk to school, as women go to buy their food in the market place.
ZB: That’s remarkable to hear, to say the least. I’m curious, has your perception of the Palestinian narrative changed at all over the course of your life and education?
AW: There are many, many Palestinian narratives, right? And there are lots of narratives of Palestine. Some of them as mythological as the narratives of Israel. So, I think what has changed is that I now have the ability to see beyond “Palestinian” to individual human being. And to recognize this not as a faceless enemy but rather as a group of people.
MC: And for me, it’s just that realization that it doesn’t matter what I think about the Palestinians. It doesn’t matter if I believe their claims or disbelieve their claims or whether I think they’ve been treated historically unjustly, or if I were to accept the narrative that they never met an opportunity they couldn’t blow, or whether I accept the narrative that they’ve just been the victims over and over and over again of various state and governmental and political, imperial entities treating them like a football. It doesn’t matter what I think is true or what I think of Palestinians, all I have to do is look at what’s happening and say “that’s wrong, that’s evil, and it shouldn’t be happening at all.” No one should do what’s being done there to anyone for any reason. It’s not justified by anything, and not only that, I don’t want to pay for it. All Americans are paying for it.
AB: We’re paying for that in dollars and we’re paying for it in blood. I don’t think Israel makes America safer, I think Israel makes American interests and Americans more at risk.
MC: And nor does Israel make Israel safer.
AW: Yeah, exactly.
ZB: That’s an argument I personally connect to a lot.
AW: There’s a reason that the military leaders, the Shin Bet leaders, say the occupation is killing us. We have to stop it. All those old Shin Bet guys who made that movie, what’s it called?
MC: The Gate Keepers.
“We have a relationship with Israel that, from our standpoint, includes being responsible for what Israel does.”
ZB: I frequently hear the argument that there is too much attention given to this single issue. That there are other injustices to deal with. Why do you both feel that this one issue requires your attention?
AW: Nobody else gets as much money as Israel does from the American government.
AW: Until it doesn’t get that kind of money from the American government, it deserves all the attention it gets. The next time the United States spends 4 billion dollars propping up the occupation of I don’t know what…
AW: Then we can focus our attention on that.
ZB: Books have dealt with this topic before… Books such as The Yellow Wind by David Grossman. What is different about this book? What do you hope to accomplish?
AW: To use Trump’s favorite metaphor: I think it’s all about a wall. We’re just building this edifice of opposition to this injustice. And this is another brick in that edifice. I think that our hope for this book is for people who have not read or maybe aren’t going to read the work of David Grossman, but they were inspired by Geraldine Brooks… that those people will just read the essay by the writer they love. And that’s why we didn’t sort of go and ask all the usual suspects. I find what Tony Kushner writes about Palestine and Israel really fascinating, but I think he said that. He’s written that and it’s accessible to those who are already interested in it. That’s why we went to people who don’t come with preconceived notions, [who] haven’t written it before. Ideally, they are in the position of their audience. “I maybe have an idea about this, but I don’t know. What is it? What does it really look like?”
ZB: Ms. Waldman you have said that you are expecting to lose readers and that one cannot “fix the world without personal risk”. I assume, Mr. Chabon, that you have had similar realizations.
AW: Yeah…. If people agree with our work, they can each just buy two copies of our books. *laughs*.
ZB: *laughs*. That’s a good thought. What is the importance for artists and people of power to take personal risk in relation to controversial, important topics? Do you feel others should also do it?
MC: I wouldn’t ever want to say it’s obligatory. The way that we chose to go about doing this may not be the best way or may not turn out to be very effective or-
AW: We don’t even know what effective would mean.
MC: It’s okay to say that we’re saying we are taking a risk here, but when you compare the risk that we might be taking to that has been undertaken by a Palestinian father of four who is just trying to get through the checkpoint so he can go to his job and get paid and put food on his table every day and go through the whole bureaucracy and all the things just to have a semblance of a normal life… It just doesn’t even seem right to talk about risk in that context. I mean come on, look at us.
(a quaint room surrounds us)
ZB: What would you say to college students, or other young Jews, who feel they have a stake in the issue? Or for those who feel uncomfortable or that they don’t “know enough”. How would you motivate them to commit to activism?
AW: Well it’s funny because we haven’t motivated our own children. [The] reaction is “I don’t want to have anything to do with this. We are not interested, we don’t want any part of it.”
MC: All I would say is say what I would say to everyone. Which is, don’t talk to me about this issue if you think you do know about it, until you’ve gone and seen for yourself. Then come back and we can talk about it. If you’re going to Israel, go see. Don’t just go to Masada, don’t just go to Tel Aviv and have a great time and hang out in the cafes, don’t just go to the Old City…
AW: Pray at the Kotel…
MC: Go see. See it. For yourself.
AW: I think that’s the obligation of every Jew. Any Jew who want to have any relationship with Israel is obligated, in my mind, to have a complete relationship with Israel. That means you can’t have an unambiguous relationship with Israel where you ignore the reality. And if you go and you say “Oh my goodness, I want to become a settler because I believe in the primacy of Jewish ownership over this land”, I mean, I guess at least you’ve seen it.
MC: I don’t think Israel is a place that a Jew can just go on vacation. It’s bad enough, we might go as Americans to Mexico or somewhere in Central America and go and have a fantastic, wonderful time and never see anything of like the poverty of the people….
AW: And we’ve done that.
MC: It’s not a great feeling.
AW: We’re not some white knights here. We’ve engaged in that kind of poverty tourism and it’s… we don’t want to do it ever again.
MC: As Americans, we have a political relationship with the Mexican people and everything we do. Every purchase we are making. Our economy is so tied…. it is a political relationship and going to vacation is a political act, but it’s not… I’m not making, as an American, I’m not making the same kind of overt statement of support of the status quo, I don’t feel as I am, as a Jew, going to Israel just having a good time.
AW: Breaking the Silence trips are free. Peace Now trips, are free. Maczon Watch, which is the guard gate watch. Those trips are all free [once in Israel]. It’s really easy. You’re going to go do your Birthright trip, you’re going to take Sheldon Adelson and Bronfman money to go have your free trip to Israel, the “I sent my kid to Israel so they can fuck an Israeli soldier” trip? By all means, go to Israel. Fuck your Israeli soldier. There’s a reason that the ones who guide your trip are cute. They do that on purpose. But while you’re there… go online. Register for a Breaking the Silence trip. Take your afternoon. And then, if you’re unchanged by what you see…
AW: Enjoy. Be that person. But don’t hide. Don’t, like, float in the waters of the Dead Sea and buy your ahava scrub and pretend that-
MC: You’re not assenting to the deliberate, continual, brutal oppression of 4 and a half million people every single day.
AW: The same is true of Israelis by the way. For many, many Israelis, the only way they get through their lives is by pretending that nothing is happening an hour and a half away…
” If you make it about the occupation, there’s only one side and that’s end the humanitarian disaster that is the occupation.”
ZB: So on a slightly lighter note… Are you concerned that after this book is released, your readers might impose political interpretations on your work that otherwise might not have been thought of?
AW: Whatever. Have fun. When you write a book… the only thing you can control is the words on the page. The excitement of writing a book is that everybody brings to it something else, and everybody interprets something else. One of the joys is that it stops being your book and becomes other peoples’ book. That’s the great privilege of being a writer.
ZB: Say you had worked on this book years ago. Or that you had possessed the same knowledge you have now about the occupation. Would your previous work have been written differently? Would, for example, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” have been different?
AW: That’s a pretty woke book, dude.
MC: *laughs* Maybe I might have been tempted, but I think… There was no single point I was trying to make in “Yiddish Policemen’s Union”. When the book came out and there were people publicly interpreting that in diametrically opposite ways… some critics saying that “this book is obviously a zionist diatribe. This book is saying look at what a terrible place the world would be for Jews if there were no Israel in it.” And there were critics publicly saying “This book is an anti-zionist book. The author wishes there was no Israel and he’s created this fantasy world where there is no Israel”, ignoring the fact that the Jews in this book where they are living are living this incredibly precarious existence. I would much prefer to have these competing interpretations that are equally justifiable…. you know, all I wanted to sort of say that was sort of analogous to…. directly analogous to the current situation in Israel and Palestinians is that any time you take a large number of people and dump them in an area where there are already people living, you’re going to have some problems. That seemed obvious. And I thought of what would it be like once this plan went through to put European Jews in Alaska? I knew from the point of view of Washington D.C., from the bureaucrats that would be making this decision if it had actually come to pass and would be executing it, they were looking at this place as being empty. But I knew there were plenty of native people living there. Spread out, perhaps, but you would always see this thing about “There are only 15,000 white people in Alaska right now, it’s woefully underpopulated”. That’s what they would say. Well, how many Tlingit people? If they took all these two and a half million, three million Jews and put them in Alaska, what would happen? Well, one thing that would happen is probably there would be sore feelings on the part of the people that were already there. Without even getting into the question of who has a right to what.
ZB: Ms. Waldman, you’ve said that the aim of the book is to speak out about the life of those occupied. Are you afraid this book will be taken as a one-sided telling of an issue with a lot of context and nuance?
AW: No, there are not two sides to an occupation. It’s what Michael said. There’s the occupied and the occupiers. There are a lot of benefits to privilege, but one of the ways you can use privilege – that you can recognize your privilege and also use it to rectify itself almost – is recognize that you have a privileged voice and use it on behalf of people who don’t. And we have lots of writers of color. Particularly women of color. But still, all the writers here are coming from a relatively privileged position. Even the Palestinian writers are people who audiences have heard of. So, to give people the opportunity to use their privilege in a way that serves some kind of higher aim, I feel really proud of that.
MC: You can look at the list of writers, they’re from all over the world. They’re from every possible nature of the major religious backgrounds…From all different continents, different cultures where they had been historically victims of colonial oppression. They come from cultures who are historically colonial oppressors. They come from much different mother tongues. We have seven or eight writers whose first language of writing is not English.
AW: First language is certainly not English.
MC: They were chosen… there was no political litmus test, they were chosen because we were looking for diversity, scope, reach in terms of readers, writers who we thought already had a base of readers that they could reach, and quality of their writing. And not according to us, but general acclaim. These are acclaimed writers either in their countries or around the world. Those are the criteria. And then there was a certain amount of self selection that took place in that we would approach a writer and say “would you like to do this” and some would say no.
AW: There were writers who said “I don’t want to touch that topic.”
MC: And some who we had no idea why they wouldn’t write. They wouldn’t say. Maybe it was political, maybe they were too busy. All we wanted was good, well known writers…
ZB: Ms. Waldman, you are Israeli-American, but moved away from Israel as a young child. Mr. Chabon, you hadn’t been to Israel until you were an adult. Do you both feel at all uncomfortable speaking out about an issue where the immediate repercussions of the occupation directly affect the Israelis and Palestinians living over seas?
MC: Well, no. I think we have a direct, personal involvement in what’s happening in the occupation. We support it financially in our tax dollars, we support it tacitly by not speaking out against it, and whether we like it or not, whether Israelis like it or not, whether Americans like it or not, we have a relationship with Israel that, from our standpoint, includes being responsible for what Israel does.
AW: Let’s put this in a way that Jews understand… It’s 1938… the whole world said “Not our problem. That Hitler guy? We don’t like him. But we’re not going to do anything. It’s not our problem, we don’t have a right…”
MC: The Evian Conference? When was that?
AW: Exactly. I don’t remember what year.
MC: Where they were deciding what to do with the Jews and everyone said-
AW: “Not our problem”. You get to have an opinion about a human rights conference on the other side of the globe. Particularly if you’re paying for it.
MC: You don’t really get to not have an opinion. I think it’s not just a luxury, it’s a crime.
AW: Particularly if you’re paying for it.
“I think that’s the obligation of every Jew. Any Jew who want to have any relationship with Israel is obligated, in my mind, to have a complete relationship with Israel. That means you can’t have an unambiguous relationship with Israel where you ignore the reality.”
ZB: So I guess my last question would be… What is the most endearing trait about one another?
ZB: Yeah, endearing.
MC: Just one?!
ZB: You can list them.
AW: He’s brilliant and sweet and a feminist and an amazing father and a phenomenal writer and his prose is as exhilarating as his body…
MC: Stop, stop stop. *laughs*. You know, Ayelet is my moral compass and she’s so engaged with the lives of people around her – in her immediate vicinity, not just her family but her friends and people that she looks after. Even sometimes when they are not aware that she’s doing so, but also, people all over the world. Her instinct is always to go to the side of the underdog and, first of all, to see the underdog clearly as an underdog even when it’s not necessarily apparent and go to that side and say “What can be done to protect this underdog” from whatever is on their neck. And she’s, you know, incredibly funny. She’s a funny person. She makes things happen. For someone like me, the sediment at the bottom of the glass….
MC: We’re not opposed to the sediments, only the settlements. Thank you.