“The Hilltop: A Novel” by Assaf Gavron— On the West Bank

the hilltop

Gavron, Assaf. “The Hilltop: A Novel”, Scribner, 2014.

On the West Bank

Amos Lassen

Ma’aleh Hermesh C is a community that sits on a beautiful and rocky hilltop in Israel’s West Bank. It does not exist in the eyes of the government of Israel but the military still feels that it must be defended. As we all know too well, the West Bank is contested land and it is being carefully watched by its Palestinian neighbors. Othniel Assis goes about his days planting and watching his goats as he takes care of his growing family. Being able to manipulate government agencies, Othniel sees to it that more settlers arrive along with mobile homes and the settlement begins to be.

Gabi Kupper is one of the steadfast settlers of Ma’aleh Hermesh and he is a free spirit, an idealist and former kibbutznik who is undergoing a religious awakening. His life, however, takes a different turn when his brother Roni comes to see him after having lived in America. He had been off seeking his fortune but he has returned to Israel without a shekel in his pocket.

Roni develops a plan to sell the olive oil from a neighboring Palestinian village to Tel Aviv yuppies and the settlement is quite dismayed by this. Then there is the arrival of a correspondent from the Washington Post and Ma’aleh Hermesh C becomes the focus of an international diplomatic scandal and faces its greatest test yet. Having lived in Israel for many years and being very aware of situations like this, I was sure I knew exactly where this book was heading. However, I was surprised to find myself not exactly correct in my thoughts. Author Assaf Gavron uses both satire and seriousness to take on the reality of life in Israel especially regarding the settlers of the West Bank and the country’s relationship with the United States and we soon see what the kibbutz movement and the West Bank settlements share in common. Gavron indicts Israel for its treatment of the settlements and shows us how Israeli society ignores the existence of Arabs. We see this in the three different but related stories that make up the novel.

 The first story is the establishment of the illegal settlement of Ma’aleh Hermesh C (MH-C). It is important to notice that the letter “C” is part of the name. Ma’aleh Hermesh A (MH-A) is a thriving kibbutz on the West Bank that has already sent out arms that became Ma’aleh Hermesh B (MH-B). Yet another group has decided to establish a settlement on a hilltop of land above an Arab town and on land that is partially set aside as a ‘preserve’. Like most of the other illegal settlements, it is led by ultra-orthodox Jews who believe that Judea and Samaria rightfully belong to Israel and that the Arabs who are there have been squatters for two thousand plus years.

 Othniel Assis had originally settled the hilltop as part of an agricultural station. This was the original purpose of the “preserve”. But (there always seems to be a but) Othniel has been inviting others to join him and now other families have move up to the hilltop and established MH-C. They not only have their trailers, they have built a synagogue, a day care center and a playground and Othniel uses his connections to get the Israel Defense Forces to set up an outpost there to protect the settlement. We can characterize Othniel as a conniver who uses what he has and knows to keep the settlement going both by legal and illegal means. (If you are an Israeli or have lived in Israel you know and understand the meaning of the word “protectzia”. Obviously this describes Othniel. It’s not what you know but who you know and how you use them). Othniel is actually quite a comic character and we really see this regarding the fence that is being built to protect Israel from infiltration by sabotaging forces. The fence is meant is go through part of the settlement of MH-C. Othniel tries to convince the authorities to put it through the olive orchards of the Arab town in the valley below. He has been told that the settlement is illegal and that it will be torn down, he still negotiates with the government authorities to pave the road up to MH-C and to also connect them to the national power grid.

The other two stories are also enmeshed into the Othniel narrative. Gabi and Roni are brothers who were orphaned and raised by their aunt on a kibbutz. The brothers are not at all alike and each made decisions about their lives and they both left the kibbutz. Now years later, they both are at MH-C. With them is the real story of the novel—how they live and how they react to and deal with Israeli society.

Here in America we get only a small idea of what is happening in Israel’s literature and that is why I prefer to read the books first in Hebrew and then in English if a translation is available. However this can be quite burdensome in that I subconsciously retranslate the text back into Hebrew as I read. Sometimes it is like reading two different books. In effect, the writers who are translated are usually the big names like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua for example. These very same writers are older and more traditional literarily. They are the writers that are spoken about and respected (we can David Grossman and Aaron Applefeld to that group) and also those who still are responsible for helping to form our ideas about what Israeli fiction is and/or should be. However, they are what we call old guard and continue to write from their Jewish pasts in literary and elevated ways. We do not know much about the younger generation of literary Israelis with the excepting of, perhaps Etgar Keret and a couple of others. (This is something akin to listening to say Frank Sinatra instead of Miley Cyrus). But with this book we get Assaf Gavron, an Israeli bestseller and prize recipient.

Steven Cohen translated this novel and we see immediately that is realistic fiction with a touch of satire and humor and tells us how Israelis live today. “The Hilltop” looks at all the typical (whatever that means) ways that groups influence the culture of Israel. We read about Tel Aviv at night, the kibbutz, Israelis living in America but the focus is on MH-C, the settlement at the top of the hill (hence the name of the novel) on the West Bank, a community in the making.

It is important to remember that the Israelis who live in the settlements are, by and large, religious Jews and we really do not get the chance to read good press about them often. They are usually seen as colonizers and fanatics and since they have annexed Palestine, they create problems for a two state solution. I get the impression that Gavron is anti-settlers and settlement and we can read this book as a satire of how government and society collude. MH-C became a group of people living in Judea as religious zealots and Zionists.

Before anyone in charge realizes what’s happened, Ma’aleh Hermesh C has become a thriving community of about a dozen families, who see living in historic Judea as both a religious virtue and a Zionist achievement. For many of the Jews that live in MH-C living in the West Bank is a way to return to the early days of the Zionist movement in its early days. The book is in sync with the complexities of what is going on in Israel with regard to the settlements. Gavron gives us profundity along side of absurdity. Here we can better understand the political situation in the Middle East today and as we do we are totally entertained.

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