Cover image of "The Debba," a novel about Israel's modern history

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

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 forced Palestinians from their 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? Those who 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. After all, Israel’s modern history is full of contradictions.

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 manipulations and assassinations and kidnappings that governments carry out in the name of national security. As a veteran of the Israeli Air Force with combat experience, he is well qualified to explore both questions.

The Debba by Avner Mandelman (2010) 368 pages ★★★★★

Menachem Begin after his election as Prime Minister of Israel in 1977, an epochal event in Israel's modern history
In the 1977 election, the Israeli people overturned their country’s socialist history by electing Right-Wing former terrorist Menachem Begin as Prime Minister. Image: The Times of Israel

A trained killer undertakes an inquiry into his father’s murder

Mandelman’s protagonist, David Starkman, a naturalized Canadian citizen, was a trained assassin 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 Labor 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 police investigators but carries out his own independent inquiry through friends and family. He encounters violent opposition along the way.

A father’s play reveals the family, and the country’s, history

Meanwhile, when his father’s will is read, Starkman learns that the old man is leaving his apartment and his savings to David. But there’s a condition. Within 45 days, David must 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. He also gains 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 victory over the Jews.

About the author

Photo of Avner Mandelman, author of this novel about Israel's modern history
Avner Mandelman. Image: Other Press

In addition to this novel, Avner Mandelman is the author of two short story collections and two books on investment, grounded in his experience as a hedge fund manager. He has won several awards for his writing. Mandelman is Israeli-Canadian. He was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day War. According to his author website, Mandelman has a BSc from the Israeli Technion, an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business, and an MA in English / Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. He divides his time among Canada, California, and Paris.

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