As an American Jew and both secular and far more progressive than the self-appointed leadership of the U.S. Jewish community, I’ve often wondered how the current intractable standoff between Israelis and Palestinians came about. “It’s obvious, you’ll say. “Jewish immigrants from Europe settled on Palestinian land,” and of course that’s true. But doesn’t it seem unlikely that every Israeli became an Arab-hater shortly after arriving, and every Arab a Jew-hater just as quickly? Weren’t there those on both sides who opposed the fighting and worked for reconciliation through the years of Israel’s “pre-history” (before 1948) and in the decades since? Surely, the latter-day Peace Now movement had its precursors in an earlier time.
The Debba by Avner Mandelman
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The Debba, though framed as a murder mystery (and an excellent one at that), is a serious fictional inquiry into this question. In the view of its author, Avner Mandelman, it’s also an examination of “necessary evil,” the maniuplations and assassinations and kidnappings that governments carry out in the name of national security. Mandelman, a short-story writer who divides his time among Canada, California, and Paris, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Air Force in the 1967 Six Days’ War that established the boundaries within which Israel allegedly lives today. He is well qualified to explore both questions.
Mandelman’s protagonist, David Starkman, a naturalized Canadian citizen, was a trained killer for the Israeli armed forces who carried out black missions in Arab capitals in the 1960s. When he learns of his father’s murder in Tel Aviv, Starkman is suddenly pulled back into the ethically murky environment he had fled seven years earlier.
The time is 1977, and the right-wing Likkud Party is given an even chance of overturning the Labour Government that has held office in Israel ever since Independence. Starkman’s father, Isser, a celebrated hero in Israel’s War of Independence, has been knifed to death and his body mutilated in the manner employed by Arab fighters. Starkman teams up with the police investigation but carries out his own independent inquiry through friends and family, encountering violent opposition along the way. Meanwhile, when his father’s will is read, Starkman learns that the old man is leaving his apartment and his savings to David only on condition that within 45 days he produce a play Isser wrote much earlier in life.
This play, The Debba, gives the novel its title and illuminates the early history of Jewish-Arab relations in Palestine. Its production brings about Starkman’s surprising new understanding of his father and his own family history as well as startling new insight into some of the events that set the course of Israel’s history.
The book, and the play, spotlight the “Debba,” a hyena-like creature that embodies the spirit of an Arab messiah who can lead the Palestinian people to vistory over the Jews.
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