Saturday, December 15, 2007

Ambivalence by Jonathan Garfinkel

I enjoyed reading this memoir by Toronto writer Jonathan Garfinkel even more than Shalom Auslander's (see the link to my Gazette review below), maybe because as far as I'm concerned ambivalence is always preferrable to anger. Both ambivalence and anger are born of frustration and struggle, though ambivalence is open-ended and anger ultimately a dead-end.

Garfinkel writes honestly about his need to reconcile his Zionist upbringing with the injustices done to Palestinians in the aftermath of the War of Independence and the early years of the founding of the State of Israel.

Tipped off by an Arab-Israeli girl he meets in Toronto, he travels to Israel for the first time to find a house which is supposedly shared by both a Palestinian and Jewish family. If true, it would constitute a possible model for mutual coexistence, he thinks. Unsurprisingly, the situation of the house turns out to be something other than expected. But it doesn't really matter. The search for the house was only ever the means by which the author could venture out to map the contours and crevices of his Jewish soul.

The book is at its best in the first half. Garfinkel's portrayal of the Minsk shul minyan which he attends in Kensington Market is memorable, and the gradual dissolution of his relationship with his girlfriend is conveyed with subtlety. As a playwright, Garfinkel knows how to write spare, rich dialogue. Particularly moving is his description of his relationship with his grandfather and the responsibility he feels to the elder's legacy.

His initial arrival in Israel is absolutely hilarious: He falls into the hands of a group of boozing, dope-smoking, gun-toting Jerusalem punks who chastise him for being incapable (a Canadian trait) of saying "fuck" with the proper passion.

But as the book progresses his questions become less personal and more overtly political, which is a shame. He eschews touristy Holyland sites and heads straight for refugee camps in the West Bank. The majority of the interviews he conducts are with Palestinians who describe the hardship of daily existence and Garfinkel increasingly sympathizes with them. It's unfortunate that almost all of the Israelis he speaks with espouse either blinkered or intransigent positions, or are decidedly marginal, for example a representative of Zochrot, an organization devoted to memorializing the names of Palestinian towns that are no longer in existence. Garfinkel becomes so taken by the Palestinians he meets that he even makes an episode when his borrowed bicycle is stolen by some Palestinian kids and held for ransom seem almost sweet.

The author's Jewish conscience speaks to him in the form of imagined conversations with his old Bialik elementary school teacher Mrs. Blintzkrieg, which by the end sound too cute. As a balanced, considered examination of the political issues relevant to the prospects of building a lasting peace the book is lacking.

Suffice to say this will not be a popular book among Jewish Canadians who tend to be fiercely supportive of Israel. Nonetheless, Garfinkel's courage should be applauded. He opens himself up to a journey of unexpected returns, and faces head-on the many disturbing questions of loyalty and personal integrity encompassed by his Jewish identity. His conclusion that the pervasive preoccupation with victimization on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides is an untenable basis on which to forge peace is hardly earth-shattering. Efforts at mutual honesty and seeing the other for who they really are is required, not the building walls. How exactly this might happen, Garfinkel doesn't conjecture. Neither does he give the reader a sense of how his own ambivalence might be reconciled, which is a bit a letdown.

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