Israeli writer Assaf Gavron read from his award-winning novel “The Hilltop” and fielded an array of nonliterary questions during a March 27 visit to Classic Lines Bookstore on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. Gavron’s appearance was sponsored by J Street Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.
“The Hilltop” depicts the intricacies — and often absurdities — of life in a West Bank settlement.
“What I’m trying to do in my writing is to show the complexity; there are so many things to consider,” said Gavron. “Part of [my] job is to deepen the understanding of both peoples.”
To achieve his own understanding, Gavron — a Jerusalem-born Israeli writer, musician, translator, journalist and soccer player — undertook much research on settlements and associated concerns. He routinely visited a settlement near Gush Etzion and observed realities quite unfamiliar to most Israelis.
Unless people are curious, he said, it just doesn’t happen for someone to go on his own accord to see the settlements. “It’s like a different planet. I called it the Wild West Bank.”
Although Gavron was awarded a grant enabling him to write most of the novel from Berlin, he was cautioned against telling a tale considered controversial in contemporary Israeli life.
“A friend tried to dissuade me from writing it,” he said. “‘Everyone will hate you.’ But I’m kind of attracted to danger zones, and not enough fiction is about the conflict.”
The Book Publishers Association of Israel agreed, and in 2013, awarded Gavron the Bernstein Prize (an Israeli literary award for writers 50 years old and younger) for “The Hilltop.”
Despite such acclaim, Gavron said that the book is far from moving mountains.
“It’s not a type of book that could make a change,” he said. “I don’t know if there is a book that could be written that could make a change. … I don’t think there is one book that would make people realize that the occupation is wrong and would make it stop.”
Gavron said the dual purpose of his address was to help people “understand a little more about the situation in Israel” and to thank J Street for its “good work.”
He added: “ J Street is an important organization. I support it. We as Israelis need its help and support.”
Though neither a politician nor historian, Gavron was asked several ideological questions related to his text, including inquiries regarding the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, a two-state solution and the Palestinians’ nationalistic history.
“Regarding BDS, I don’t agree with it,” he said. “I see it on the artists’ side and academics’ side. Those are the people you should help. An economic boycott of products from the settlements is something I can understand, but the BDS I have experienced is barking up the wrong tree.”
BDS efforts against Israeli artists and academicians are “very simplistic and unhelpful,” he continued. “Sometimes, it really angers me because I know these artists who are boycotted, [and] they are actually there dedicating their lives to working with Palestinians. The artists’ side is the side I know, and I don’t see how it’s creating pressure on the Israeli government.”
“I hope that people got a sense that he, as an author, was trying to humanize certain groups as a way of understanding the complexity,” said Michal Friedman, visiting assistant professor at CMU and one of the event organizers.
“I think the event went well,” added Friedman. “He talked pretty freely. He read from his book. The questions were good questions. [Gavron] is not a politician, he’s a fiction writer, [but] people interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will ask questions [no matter who] the speaker is. I think he did well.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.