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Documenting a warped and psychotic society in Israel's Wild West

Interview with author Assaf Gavron, whose new book, 'The Hilltop,' engages with the radical fringes of the settler movement in their full, flesh-and-blood glory.
By Anshel Pfeffer | Aug. 12, 2013 | 6:01 PM

Photo by Dan Keinan

Among the glowing reviews garnered by Assaf Gavron's latest novel, The Hilltop, earlier this year, was a wry comment that the book had been written virtually ready for translation. Shortly after that review appeared, the Israeli literary community began buzzing with rumors of the six-figure sums Gavron had received for The Hilltop's translation rights (due out next month in German and in summer 2014 in English), confirming Gavron's status, as one observer of the local literary scene put it, as "the most marketable Israeli writer of his generation." A few months ago, there were at least half a dozen Israeli writers in their late-thirties and early-forties – among them Etgar Keret and Sayed Kashua – who would have been awarded that accolade ahead of Gavron, a versatile and talented writer, but not previously connected to significant commercial success. The Hilltop, though, is not only probably the best political novel to be written in Israel in a long while, and Gavron's biggest bestseller so far in Israel, it also opens up the lives of one of the most impenetrable yet powerful sections of Israeli society - the religious settlers living in the West Bank's hilltop outposts.

This is not the first novel written on the settlers, but while previous books tended either to idealize them (when written by sympathetic authors) or present them as stark and hollow caricatures, The Hilltop is the first book of its kind to spread out a range of full and complex personalities. These are settlers in their full, flesh-and-blood glory; in their humanity and violence, their little foibles; day-to-day frustrations and small victories. In many ways, it is a book that has been waiting to be written for decades. "It's the most interesting place in Israeli society," says Gavron. "For a prose writer, it's a gift that keeps giving of little frontier communities; a place without clear borders or laws. You don't know what jurisdiction applies where; it's a Wild West atmosphere of violence and hostility, amid the most pastoral and beautiful scenery in this country. On top of that, you have all the tension with the Palestinians and the army." Gavron brings this wealth of human experience and interaction to his book - which portrays them as very flawed and very human beings - and adds to the toxic mix a healthy dose of comedy (the teenage son of the main protagonist joins a Jewish supremacist group on the virtual world Second Life and destroy a mosque with Star of David-shaped spam bombs). The hallmark of good journalism is normally that it irritates both right and left simultaneously. Gavron's raw sense of humor has secured The Hilltop warm receptions on both sides of the Israeli political divide. Gavron says that most settlers he has spoken to since publication have reacted positively to the book, despite its descriptions of sexual abuse, financial corruption and petty rivalries within their ideal society. Likewise, Gavron‟s own left-leaning liberal Tel-Aviv milieu, the object of Gavron‟s main concern, he says. "I was worried that they would accuse me of sympathizing with the settlers, of humanizing them. But I didn't get that kind of reaction. People come up to me and say „I never believed I would find myself liking these characters.‟ " Gavron spent five years working on the book (one of which he spent writing in Berlin on a grant) and a large part of the research was done while staying in a tzimmer (holiday cabin) on Tekoa Dalet, a small outpost southeast of Jerusalem, which in the book is the fictional hilltop of Maale Hermesh Gimmel. While he made a few friends there, he is adamant that his political outlook didn‟t change. "These people are blind,” he says. “They live their lives at the expense of the Palestinians, in a situation the serves the masters on one side and suppresses the servants under the auspices of the army and the government." But he didn't set out to write a political manifesto, "just to describe how people live in that situation." Gavron refrains from judgment in the book, because "I trust the Israeli reader who is involved and understands the situation. I don't want to teach anyone what to think or to influence their political perspective. If it happens through reading this book, I doubt it will make them like the settlers more. I hope it's clear that I'm presenting a warped and anomalous situation; a psychotic and negative world." But Gavron is not only writing for the Israeli reader. Three of his previous novels have been published abroad and he had a realistic expectation that The Hilltop would also be bought by foreign publishers, especially following the critical success of his book

CrocAttack (published in the U.S. as Almost Dead), especially its English and German editions. He is concerned that he won't "be seen as a representative of the establishment, but instead of the variety and the events. I will feel bad if anyone interprets this as a defense [of the settlers], and all I am saying is that they are also human. That isn't what I tried to do and the Israeli readers understand this." Born in the Negev town of Arad and brought up in Motza Illit, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Gavron (44) is a representative of an entire creative generation that grew up in the capital in the 1970s and 1980s but eventually fled to Tel-Aviv. For many Jerusalemites he will always be remembered as the author of the mythological food column Eating Standing Up in the local Kol Ha'Ir weekly, a humoristic yet loving send-up of the city's falafel and Shwarma joints in the guise of a restaurant critic. Like other members of this group, his life is on the coast but there is a warm nostalgia for the old days of a more open and pluralistic Jerusalem in much of his writing. Unlike those writers, however, Gavron is also at home outside Israel. The son of British-born immigrants (his father, Daniel Gavron, is a veteran journalist), he studied communications in London and spent a decade of his life outside Israel altogether. He shies away though from the "Anglo" label. "I can't ignore my roots; every time I hear my parents speak, I can hear where they're from. And it's very much part of my personality, through all the time I spent in London. But you don't have the feeling of an English community in Israel, like the Yemenites or the Persians, with their own special foods. For me England is the cradle of contemporary culture, and as a kid who loved pop and books and television and films and football, I was extremely proud of my English roots, and still am. But you couldn't call me an AngloIsraeli writer in the same way that there are Iraqi-Israeli writers whose books deal with their memories of Baghdad and experiences as immigrants." Despite being one of the most sought-after translators of English books into Hebrew (a sideline that he is planning to give a rest for now, thanks to the success of The Hilltop) Gavron decided after one attempt at translating a book of his into English that he would stick at writing in Hebrew. "My first language was British-accented English, which I learnt from my parents, but I don't feel I have the capability," Gavron said in Hebrew. "I just find that I can write more easily in Hebrew and express myself better. I feel at home in Hebrew and it doesn't block me since my books get translated into English anyway." The Hilltop was the staunchly secular Gavron's first book with a major religious theme and he spent long months studying national-religious texts. But while his affiliations with English and American culture are not Jewish-based, he has found himself recently being drawn to translate American-Jewish writers, such as the works of Jonathan Safran Foer and Phillip Roth, including a new updated Hebrew edition of his classic Portnoy's Complaint. "I choose books for translation when I feel that I can learn something from them. Translation is a course in writing, you really learn the structure, the bare bones of it. I have an inclination towards writers who combine humor with a feeling of anxiety, and that usually means Jews."

His last three books certainly touched on different aspects of Israeli anxiety - the settlers, surviving terror attacks (CrocAttack) and a futuristic Israel in the aftermath of an ecological disaster (Hydromania) - but Gavron's next book, which he is now researching, will be the first in which he plans to address his own dual identities, with themes connected to the days of the pre-state British Mandate in Palestine. "It's part of me which I have never denied, but also never felt the need to write about" he says. "Now I feel that I want to." Down the road he also sees another period living outside Israel, like the year he spent in Berlin writing The Hilltop. "I lived in England for a decade, a year in Canada, a year in Germany. I understood that my ultimate home is here but not for very long periods. I have to leave every so often."