Israel’s Favorite Palestinian Moves to Illinois – Ruth Margalit/The New Yorker
A century ago, on Mt. Scopus, in Jerusalem, Albert Einstein gave the first lecture at the future Hebrew University, a ninety-minute inquest into cosmic mysteries: the meaning of time, the properties of light. In June, 2014, Sayed Kashua, a novelist, columnist, television writer, and perhaps the most visible representative of Palestinian life in Israel, trudged to the same spot with a more earthbound goal. A reluctant public speaker, he was there to deliver a commencement address to the graduating class. His subject was life between languages, familiar ground for an author who identifies himself as Palestinian but writes solely in Hebrew. Though he was given only fifteen minutes, the invitation was unprecedented—the first time the university had brought in an Arab to speak at graduation.
Kashua, who is forty, with thick, once black hair and a brooding gaze, slouched a little behind the lectern. He grew up in Tira, an Arab village in central Israel, in a family of fruit farmers who had lived in the same house since the days of the British Mandate. In the past decade, he has become the kind of writer whose column, in the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, “people hang on their fridge,” as a colleague put it. In 2007, a sitcom he wrote, titled “Arab Labor” (a Sabra idiom for second-rate work), had its début, introducing an Arab family to Israeli audiences for the first time. It made him a celebrity not just on the comfortable left but, as one television executive told me, among “taxi-drivers and supporters of Beitar,” a Jerusalem soccer club whose right-wing fans have been known to chant “I hate all Arabs.”
Standing before the students and their families, Kashua decided to say a few words about the political climate. These were agitated days. A week earlier, three Israeli teen-agers had been kidnapped while hitching a ride in a settlement south of Jerusalem. Kashua recounted how his son told him about it, garbling the news reports and the results of that summer’s World Cup soccer tournament. In a recent game, the Netherlands had grabbed five goals; now, his son said, “Palestine grabbed three.” His line drew nervous laughs, and Kashua quickly reassured the crowd: “It’s my fervent hope . . . the boys will be back home, safe and sound.” But he confessed to feeling “a stabbing in the chest,” and asked, “Does the hope that they will return home imply some sort of declaration that the settlements can be considered legitimate?”
The next day, Ynet, the most widely read news site in Israel, ran a story about Kashua’s speech. It quoted one graduate saying that Kashua had complained that his children “bothered him” with news of the kidnapping “while he tried to watch the World Cup.” Another student said, “Kashua used the technique of joke-telling but injected his speech with radical statements.”
Political debate in Israel is vigorous, if not always elegant, often summoning the old Hebrew phrase that describes “a dialogue between deaf people.” But it has been dampened in recent years by a series of government-sponsored bills: one demanding that non-Jewish Israelis take loyalty oaths; another authorizing the finance ministry to withhold funds from organizations deemed—however vaguely—to be violating Israel’s foundational tenet of a “Jewish and democratic” state. Kashua, like other Arab Israelis in the public eye, was used to having his words scrutinized. But the summer’s events felt different. As the conflict in Gaza escalated into war, the première of a movie based on his memoir “Dancing Arabs” was hastily scrapped. Flag-draped extremists in Tel Aviv brandished metal rods at antiwar demonstrators. The atmosphere of intimidation became so intense that Ayman Odeh, the youthful leader of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-backed parties that represent Palestinian aspirations in Israel, announced that an “age of ostracism” had taken hold.
Within the Green Line that separates Israel proper from Gaza and the West Bank, Arab Israelis make up twenty per cent of the population. For liberal Israelis, and for Arabs who hope to be accepted as equals, Kashua embodied the country’s stated ideal of coexistence—of Arab Israelis’ full legal and civil integration. For a decade, he had lived with his wife, Najat, in Ramat Denya, a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, and their children attended the city’s only bilingual school. In a country where columnists have a flair for grandiloquence, Kashua’s columns are conversational, confiding, anecdotal, centered on the rituals and trials of bourgeois life, like the “holiday tour” that includes stopping at sixteen relatives’ houses, or the visiting electrician who reprimands him for his children’s excessive television viewing. While his writing is rarely explicitly political, a sense of uprootedness lurks; when the electrician, also an Arab, overhears the kids speaking Hebrew, Kashua can’t stop apologizing.
Coexistence of the kind that Kashua represents seems increasingly out of reach these days, when more than a third of Jewish Israelis openly say that Arab citizens shouldn’t be entitled to equal rights. Of 1.7 million Arabs in Israel, perhaps forty thousand lead middle-class lives in mixed cities. Ayman Odeh told me that his party’s goal is for Arab citizens “to take part in every institution in the country—except for security, foreign relations, and immigration absorption, because these institutions blur the lines of our national identity.” But even his more hopeful speeches don’t envision such inclusiveness for ten more years.
Two weeks after Kashua’s commencement address, searchers discovered the bodies of the three kidnapped teen-agers in a mound of rocks in a field near Hebron. In Jerusalem, far-right protesters called on Jews to avenge the murders. Kashua watched the news, terrified. As far as he knew, there were only five Arabs living in Ramat Denya: him, Najat, and their three children. When air-raid sirens warned of incoming rockets from Gaza, Kashua sent his kids to the bomb shelter, but he stayed away, uneasy around his neighbors. One day, his teen-age daughter was pummelled with water bottles, apparently for being Arab.
A day after the teen-agers’ funerals, a sixteen-year-old Palestinian was found dead amid the pines in the Jerusalem Forest. He had been bludgeoned and burned alive—an act of revenge for the teen-agers’ murder, his killers later claimed. After that, Kashua said, “I didn’t want my children to leave the house.” He was scheduled to depart later that summer with his family for Champaign, Illinois, to teach for a year at the University of Illinois campus there. He moved up the date of their flight and changed the tickets to one-way. “I’m not coming back to this building, not coming back to this neighborhood, not coming back to Jerusalem,” he wrote in his Haaretz column. “The lie I’d told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the country equally was over.”
For Kashua’s faithful readers, his departure symbolized the country’s decline into angry factionalism. The Israeli author Amos Oz told me, “The fact that he left saddened me greatly. I can tell you that over the summer there wasn’t a decent Israeli who didn’t have similar thoughts.”
On the day the Kashuas were to leave, they scurried to prepare. A news crew from the investigative program “Fact” followed them as Najat filled large plastic bags with food. “They practically left with the pots still on the stove,” a neighbor told me. That night, a minivan drove the family to Ben-Gurion Airport. But first—snaking northwest, on rutted roads—they stopped in Tira. Under moonlight, Kashua kissed his relatives goodbye. “I’ll send you all Adidas,” he joked, as his mother cried silently in the background. His father, Darwish, sat by a picket fence in the back yard, smoking a cigarette. “He didn’t even consult,” Darwish said, visibly shaken. “He said, ‘That’s it, I’m leaving the country.’ ” Finally, Sayed approached him. “Bye, Aba,” he said softly. The two men embraced.
On the airplane, the heat of the day replaced by the cool nothing-air of transit, Kashua vowed that he wouldn’t return. “Please,” he said under his breath, “take me far, far away.”
The story of how Sayed Kashua came to write about Sayed Kashua sounds like a typical Sayed Kashua tale: the result of equal parts constraint and conviction. When he was sixteen, the only Arab student in his high-school class in Jerusalem, a teacher assigned an essay about a day in the life of a figure of the students’ choice. Kashua had the idea of writing—“hardcore-like,” he said—about a dead person. But a classmate who had lost her father asked if she could take the idea. He decided instead to tackle the only subject he knew well: “I wrote ‘A Day in the Life of Sayed Kashua.’ And I’ve been writing it ever since.”
The second of four brothers, Kashua was a nervous child—“scared of everything,” he said. At night, after his parents went to bed, he slipped into his grandmother’s room, where he heard stories about a bygone time, about “the fields and the lands and the first rain.” It was from her that he learned how to tell a story, and from her that he found out about “the damned war” of 1948, when Israel won independence and more than seven hundred thousand Palestinians became refugees. His grandmother described how a Jewish sniper killed his grandfather as he was picking grapes, leaving her alone with four daughters and a two-month-old son. When the war was over, she wanted to return to the fields. “So she tries to head out,” Kashua said, “and she sees an Israeli soldier, and he tells her, ‘There are no fields.’ ”
Bereft of her land, she continued to work in Tira, twenty miles north of Tel Aviv, as a hired field hand. When Kashua’s father married, he brought his wife to live with his family, across the hill from the village mosque. Today, Tira is an overcrowded city, rife with corruption and gang violence. But when Kashua was growing up the streets were quiet and nameless. On airless summer nights, neighbors slept on their rooftops. His mother taught at the local school; his father, after years of farming, went to work for the interior ministry, issuing passports in a basement office. “Sometimes he got so bored that he’d renew all our I.D.s and passports,” Kashua has written. Like other people in the village, his father was active in the Communist Party; children grew up singing Red Army songs. Tira may be the only place on earth where you can meet a man named Abu Castro.
One day, Kashua, rummaging in an old suitcase in his grandmother’s closet, found a postcard stamped “Damon Prison, Haifa,” and dated 1970. It read, “Tell Mother to stop crying. I will be released soon.” Kashua discovered that his father had been held for more than two years in administrative detention, without trial. A dusty clipping from Haaretz described his arrest for failing to thwart a bombing in a Hebrew University cafeteria, in 1969, which wounded twenty-nine people. “Some of those involved in the bombing were apparently friends of his,” Kashua said. “But he never talked about it.” Newspaper reports from the time say that Darwish Kashua, then a student at the university, was held on suspicion of “assisting” the terrorists, but he was never charged.
After Darwish was released, he named his firstborn son Sam, after the SAM missiles that Egypt fired at Israel during the Yom Kippur War. To his mortification, his sons grew up wholly uninterested in politics. (“We can’t even draw a flag,” Kashua writes.) He urged them to excel in school and, above all, to read. “He thought that Lenin, Trotsky, and Marx were all the literature you needed,” Kashua said. “So I tried. I read all of that shit. That and ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ in Arabic. Every Arab home I ever knew had ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ ”
Kashua was fourteen when the Israel Arts and Sciences Academy, the country’s most prestigious high school, reached out to Arab villages, seeking to diversify. Dozens of kids were bused in to take an entrance exam, and only Kashua and one older boy passed. Kashua arrived at school with a pencil-line mustache and a loud, billowy shirt—“Qalqilya fashion,” he calls it, after the provincial West Bank town. Outside the building, kids hounded him, chanting, “Muhammad is dead.” The first day, on the bus ride home, a soldier asked to see his identity card. Kashua, who wasn’t old enough to get an Israeli I.D., was thrown off the bus. “That’s when I started to understand what it meant to be Arab,” he said. Sobbing, he called his father. “Whose son are you?” his father said, laughing. “When a soldier didn’t notice me on the bus I would wave my I.D. and say, ‘I’m Arab, take me off!’ ”
Arabic is a diglossic language, with literary and colloquial versions. Kashua, whose Arabic education ended when he enrolled in the Jerusalem academy, isn’t versed in the literary one. The books he learned most deeply were classics of modern Hebrew, and they suggested a world he didn’t inhabit. Books by Amos Oz, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev implied that the Hebrew canon was closed to anyone who wasn’t a fair-skinned Ashkenazi. When Arabs appeared in their stories, it was usually as a Jewish character’s foil or negative image—what the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury has called “a shadow.”
Kashua likes to say that he fell in love in Hebrew, not with Hebrew. It was during his last year of high school, with a Jewish classmate. “I loved her like you can only love your first love,” he said. But the girl’s mother didn’t approve of the relationship—“I don’t want my daughter to live in an Arab village,” she told him. After graduation, as Kashua’s schoolmates left to perform their mandatory Army service, he stayed in Jerusalem and enrolled in university. He was lonely and quickly became depressed. Two events saved him: meeting Najat, a first-year student who also came from Tira, and beginning to report for a weekly paper called Kol Ha’ir.
Kashua’s first assignment, when he was twenty-one, was to cover an arts festival in Arab East Jerusalem. Kashua told me that he abhorred “any sign of nationalism” in a cultural context, and so his piece “made fun of the whole thing.” Yosef Cohen, then the editor of the paper, said, “In Hebrew media, there’s a tendency to see Arabs either through the sight of the rifle or as the eternal martyrs. Sayed did neither. He showed Arabs as human beings, with a sense of irony that was quite rare.”
Kashua decided to remain in Jerusalem and write, but when he told his parents they were devastated. “Art is for Jews,” his mother told him. “Minorities need a profession.” At night, in an unheated studio apartment he shared with Najat, in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa, Kashua started writing a bleak, meandering memoir. A group of young journalists from Kol Ha’ir met after hours, reading aloud from their work. At those meetings, Kashua tried out chapters:
There are only Arabs in the emergency room. Women who seem older than they are, with head scarves and plastic thongs, drag themselves through the corridors. Sometimes they bite the edge of their scarves. They seem lost, not knowing where to go. Why the hell do they have to look like that? Why do they even go out of the house? And why are those plastic thongs still being sold anyway?
Just don’t let anyone think I’m one of them or that I’m like them. Just don’t let them call out my wife’s name when it’s her turn.
In 2002, the memoir, “Dancing Arabs,” was published, and it introduced Kashua as a bracing voice in Hebrew literature. The Times compared the book to James Weldon Johnson’s “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” But being the anointed Arab interlocutor for Jewish readers came at a price. Najat warned Kashua against publishing a book that portrayed their home town as a petty, claustrophobic place, and that detailed, often in comic and critical terms, such taboos as dishonoring one’s parents or considering infidelity. “I didn’t want to deal with these things,” she recalled. “It would have been difficult for anyone to share, but especially for us, coming from a society that is—what can you do—very conservative.” One reviewer of the novel, in the Arabic-language newspaper Al Ittihad, told me that he took issue with Kashua’s writing “about his grandmother’s closet, about her underthings.” Almost immediately, Kashua regretted writing the book.
“Arab society in Israel suffers from a syndrome of ‘Who’s more Arab than whom?’ ” Ayman Sikseck, a young Arab Israeli novelist who writes in Hebrew, said. “And once you coöperate with the Israeli establishment then you’re supposedly no longer Arab.” The political map points to a precarious reality. Two-thirds of Arab Israelis, including Kashua and the politicians of the Joint List, support the idea of a Palestinian state. But, according to a 2012 poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, only a quarter of them are willing to have the cities they live in belong to it. Many Arabs, like Kashua, consider themselves both Palestinian and Israeli, a bifurcated identity that speaks to years of strife and longing. “People keep bringing up this question of ‘Would you want to live in a Palestinian state?’ ” Kashua told me. “Is there a Palestinian state? Where are its borders, exactly? What they’re asking is if you’d want to live behind a fence and be occupied. Of course not.”
Kashua made this ambivalence the subject of his next book, “Let It Be Morning,” a dystopian thriller about the residents of an Arab village who wake up one day to find themselves besieged by Israeli tanks, prompting a struggle to survive. As people claw through trash heaps, looking for food, they realize that the tanks are the by-product of a peace agreement; residents are under the jurisdiction of a new Palestinian state. When the novel came out, in 2004, the Arab journalist Ala Hlehel said, “It upgraded him from immediately suspect to immediately guilty.”
That winter, Kashua got a call from the television producer Danny Paran, asking to meet. Paran, an observant Jew, is an outlier in Israeli show business, whose ranks tend to be secular and left-wing, but he is a respected veteran, and he had been following Kashua’s newspaper columns. He had an idea for a series that he wanted to market to the Arab world.
“He took me to some kosher café,” Kashua recalled, and “kept fixing his kipa.” Kashua was fascinated to encounter a Jewish producer who was interested in Arab television, but he found Paran’s idea laughable. Hadn’t he heard of the Arab world’s boycott of Israel? They decided to collaborate on a different concept: a comedy about Jewish-Arab relations. Paran saw it as an antidote to the “heavy” political dramas that tried to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kashua envisioned a series closer to home, “about an Arab who really wants to do everything in order to be accepted as an equal in Israeli society—but it doesn’t work.” He had another motive, too, he later acknowledged. Although Arab Israelis represent a fifth of the population, in 2011 they made up one per cent of the characters on national TV and, according to a report by the agency that oversees commercial broadcasts in Israel, “usually appear in the context of crime and violence.” Kashua wanted “people to get used to seeing Arab actors on prime-time television.”
Kashua set to work, devising a deceptively modest script that skewered stereotypes among both Jews and Arabs. He said that he wanted each episode to touch on a stigma in Israeli society: “the whole thing with Arabs and dogs,” “Arabs and swimming,” and “Arabs and driving” (are afraid of, can’t, and are bad at, respectively). The script, whose dialogue was mostly in Arabic, to be screened with Hebrew subtitles, addressed the conflict at its most mundane: the measly water pressure in Arab towns, the spotty Internet coverage, the dearth of Arab gardeners following crackdowns. As Yonatan Amir, a friend of Kashua’s, said, the show helped explain “the kind of politics that arises from the dirty dishes in the sink.”
“Arab Labor” centers on Amjad Elian, a sycophantic Arab journalist for a Hebrew newspaper, who lives in an Arab village before moving with his family to a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. In the pilot, Amjad is fed up with being pulled over at checkpoints. He blasts Army Radio and puts on his best accent when addressing the soldiers, but nothing helps. Bewildered, he turns to a Jewish colleague, who tells him that the problem is with his car: “A Subaru like yours could belong only to Arabs or young settlers.” He recommends a Land Rover, so Amjad proceeds to buy one—stolen—from a local Arab dealer. The soldiers now wave him through. But Amjad’s father is livid when he hears that his son was seen wearing a seat belt. “Seat belt!” he tells his wife, and makes an effeminate gesture.
Kashua used prejudice like a boomerang: the moment a viewer snickered at a joke, she became its next target. “I’m not sure whom I’m laughing at, exactly,” he once said. “I think I’m laughing at Amjad, but maybe I’m really laughing at Israelis for thinking these things.” Incisive as Kashua was about right-wingers, he was even more unsparing toward the left and its hypocrisies. After a Jewish neighbor mistakes Amjad for the building’s new staircase cleaner (“Don’t leave a puddle by the door,” she warns), she awkwardly backpedals by announcing her membership in a leftist party: “We vote Meretz. Just so you know.”
For more than a year, Paran shopped around Kashua’s script, but network executives weren’t interested. “The challenge was to bring an Arab-speaking show to mainstream Israel,” Udi Lion, then a director of special programming at Keshet Media Group, said. “Even worldwide this hasn’t been done. There’s no Turkish-language show in Germany, no Spanish-speaking show on NBC, for example. Not in a foreign language, let alone in the language of the enemy.”
It didn’t help that Kashua was certain the series would fail. “I would throw seventy per cent of ‘Arab Labor’ in the trash,” he told me. He can be exacting on set, and, like many comedy writers, he is riddled with anxiety. “How should I put this gently,” Ran Telem, an executive at Keshet, said. “You know those girls in school who always come out of an exam crying and thinking they’ve failed and then they ace it? That’s Sayed.”
In April, 2005, Keshet won a ten-year deal to produce shows for Channel 2, the most widely watched channel on television. The agreement, drafted by a committee of public representatives, had a high-minded purpose: to develop shows made by and about “previously disenfranchised” sectors of society. By year’s end, Kashua’s series had been green-lighted.
“Arab Labor” was an overnight hit. Twenty-five per cent of viewers tuned in for the première, making it the third-most-watched series on TV. The production felt dated—misunderstandings spun out of control, set to punchy music—but the dialogue was unlike anything else on TV. For the most part, Jewish critics praised the series—Haaretz called it “easily the best show” on Israeli television—though they tended to stress its “importance,” rather than its entertainment value.
But in the Arab Israeli community the series, even more than Kashua’s novels, was met with scorn. Some Arab intellectuals said that the show trafficked in the very stereotypes that it was meant to upend. Amal Jamal, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, described it as “a fig-leaf show.” Kashua had done as much as he could, he said, but the show didn’t go far enough: “It doesn’t present racism as institutionalized, sanctioned, deep, and systemic.” Others attacked Kashua personally. A newspaper affiliated with the Islamist movement called him “a slave to the Jewish masters.” Pamphlets circulated in Tira calling him a “Jewish pig.”
One day in 2007, during the worst of this onslaught, Kashua sat in his parents’ living room, in Tira, and watched an episode of “Arab Labor.” The scene is depicted in the documentary “Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared,” by the filmmaker Dorit Zimbalist. “In today’s episode, there was ninety per cent Arabic—on prime-time Channel 2!” Kashua tells his parents, sounding embittered. If that didn’t register with Arab Israelis, what would? “Screw those Arab sons of bitches,” he mutters.
Reflecting on the criticism and the vilification, he says, “You hear things like that and say, ‘Fuck, for whose benefit am I carrying this burden?’ ” At the same time, he wonders whether his Arab critics are right. “Do you know what I’m fed up with? With this road I’ve taken, slowly and gently, just like this series. I say, ‘Yes, through culture, slowly they’ll understand.’ But it’s not true. And Israelis can’t take the truth to their faces.” Growing angry, he says, “I suck up to them, and what do I do on Passover? The column for Passover. I have to amuse Jews to be read over the weekend, so they can laugh at the Arab. I want to shout ‘Happy holiday’—but, you know, really shout it.” He cups a hand over his mouth and bellows, “Happy holiday! Have a happy holiday!”
Before I visited Kashua in Champaign, where he recently extended his contract with the University of Illinois for three more years, he warned me, “It’s one of the most boring places you’ll ever go to.” He insisted on meeting me at the airport, and arrived in a behemoth black Jeep, a booster seat in the back. “Does it smell like chicken?” he asked as I got in.
We drove through suburban streets to pick up his sons, who are ten and four, from school. His kids are by now trilingual and, unlike their parents, seem happily settled in their new surroundings. They argued over whether their Playmobil came from Target or from Walmart, while their older sister—“the tallest girl you can imagine,” Kashua said—was at basketball practice. At their house, a modest brick-and-clapboard rental, a car with an “Obama ’08” sticker was parked in the driveway.
Najat, a psychotherapist by training, appears in Israeli public life mostly as a crabbed presence, the object of her husband’s jokes. (“For a long time, I thought that depression can breed creativity,” Kashua once said, at a party for a season première. “She showed me that so, too, can sexual frustration.”) In person, she was graceful, with a pearly smile and dark hair coiled in a loose bun. She delighted in her kids’ Americanness—“Wait till we tell Fletcher!” she mimicked her youngest—and had a calm authority over her husband.
As we sat down, I asked whether the family followed the news from home. “Enough to not want to go back,” Kashua said. That day, someone had spray-painted “Death to the Arabs” on the bilingual school that the children had attended. A new government policy briefly forbade Palestinian workers to ride the same buses as Jewish settlers. “People say ‘Come back—just give it some time,’ ” he said. “Fuck that. I’m tired of waiting.” Still, in a recent column he had confessed to having an “overwhelming desire to go back home.” He couldn’t rid himself of the notion of the homeland that his father had instilled in him: “He etched in our brains the fear of leaving the country.”
During my visit, Kashua attempted, twice, to go to a documentary about Edward Said and once to a lecture on the Middle East. But there was always a child to drop off, a class to prepare for. The socializing he did was confined mostly to Israeli expats, of the sort who read him at home. He was struggling to create a life for himself, as was Najat. “Loneliness isn’t the problem,” she explained. “It’s the sense of having to build something new at an age when you’re not exactly ready for something new.”
Kashua’s creative life remains in Israel. A series he has written about a depressed comedy writer—his “Louie,” as some members of the production crew put it—is being edited. His column in Haaretz still runs every Friday; he recently described himself scrutinizing dishes on a restaurant menu with his daughter. (“It’s Cajun style,” she tells him. “I don’t think you’ll like it.”) “A Borrowed Identity,” the movie based on “Dancing Arabs,” was released in the U.S. this summer, but the interpretation is wooden, and it didn’t play much beyond the festival circuit. Those close to Kashua sense his displacement. His longtime literary agent, Deborah Harris, was baffled by his decision to settle in Champaign, rather than in New York or Boston. “I think he really wanted it to be exile,” she said. “He wants to be in the most parve place in the world.”
One afternoon, I met Kashua outside the building of the university’s Jewish-studies department, where he teaches advanced Hebrew. He was smoking next to a notice that said, “This is a smoke-free campus.” The irony of his situation—a Palestinian writer leaves Israel only to find himself teaching Hebrew to American Jews—hadn’t escaped him. When he was offered the job, he said, he warned the department head that students might adopt his Arabic accent in Hebrew and be “kicked out of Birthright,” the organization that offers Jewish kids free trips to Israel.
Inside, five students chatted around an oblong table, and a framed photograph on the wall showed a young woman holding a sign that read, “I am not a self-hating Jew.” Kashua is an uncertain, even timid teacher. In Hebrew, he asked the students to hand in homework at the end of class, then immediately demurred: “I don’t know. Do you want to?” Still, he bantered easily with them. When he asked them to translate “insert” and got a few snickers, he smiled and scolded them: “Only the shit words you understand.” Grammar bored him, but he loosened up a little as the students began reading a Hebrew translation of Italo Calvino’s “Adventure of Two Spouses,” struggling through language far too intricately shaded for them to manage. As they rose to leave, he handed them more pages: another story, this one by the Israeli writer S. Y. Agnon. “I was told it’s good for you,” he said. “Because Hebrew is important for you, right? And for me, too. Unfortunately.”
On my last night in Champaign, Kashua took me to a local sports bar, a barn-size establishment that he referred to as his “little neighborhood-y place.” Before leaving Israel, he said, he had lost his driver’s license in a D.U.I., and so he was allowing himself only one drink. But, as we sat, the resolution receded. Over Green Line beer, he spoke of his father, of his family in Tira, of Jerusalem.
It had been a difficult spring. Kashua’s father had been given a diagnosis of lung cancer, and died less than a month later. “Something screwed up in my head,” Kashua said. The Israeli elections, in March, had been cause for guarded optimism at first. Watching from afar, he had written in Haaretz that Odeh had “managed to instill some faith in me.” The Joint List did better than expected—becoming the third-largest party in parliament—but the election was most notable for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to court far-right votes. During the campaign, Netanyahu announced that he would not permit a Palestinian state—“It’s Us or Them” was his slogan—and warned ominously of Arabs “coming out in droves to the polls.” The rhetoric attracted nationalist voters, who helped to secure him a fourth term in office.
More recently, Jewish extremists firebombed a house in the West Bank village of Duma, killing an eighteen-month-old Palestinian boy and his father. Several incidents followed, in which Palestinians stabbed Israelis in the street, raising fears of a third Palestinian uprising. Kashua wrote mournfully in Haaretz about searching Google Earth for the torched house in Duma, and then for his parents’ home, in Tira: “I try clicking on the arrow to move myself a little closer. Just a tiny bit more, and I’m inside the house.”
In the bar, Kashua considered the distance between him and his old home. Despite pressure from Keshet, he has refused to write a fifth season of “Arab Labor.” He told me, “I couldn’t do humor anymore.” He was under contract for a new novel—about a journalist who sets out to write his father’s story while living in a small university town—but he hadn’t started. “I used to go to a bar, look at the kitchen, and see two Arab workers, or even Africans. I could be accurate; I could describe them. Here, I go, I look, I don’t know what I see.”
Mostly, he talked about his children, and his fear that they would grow up to resent him. “For confusing them,” he explained. “For the fact that they will have nowhere to be. Not there and not there and not here.” He once told his parents that, despite the hostility, he loved their home town more than anything else in the world. In the bar, he asked, “What kind of Tira do my kids have?” He seemed to weigh the question. “I wanted a more comfortable life for them. But you can’t raise children in Israel on values of full equality. Arab children, I mean. Jewish children maybe you can lie to. But when my children find out they’re not equal where will they go?” ♦