Alison Flood’s March 31 Guardian/Observer report on a new novel by William Sutcliffe about the Israeli ‘occupation’ includes a quote by the self-described Jewish atheist which encapsulates how the most facile understandings of both the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the broader political realities of our day often pass for serious commentary.
‘…the story of our era is the divide between the haves and the have-nots, and it seemed the wall in the West Bank was very specific to that situation, but also symbolic of other things happening elsewhere”.
As befits such platitudinous prose, Sutcliffe’s new work is targeted towards a less mature audience.
Flood’s review and interview begins thusly:
Pitched as a fable, his crossover novel is set in a city split in two by a vast wall. On one side live the privileged, the occupiers – and our hero Joshua. On the other live the desperate, the occupied, and when Joshua, hunting for his lost football, discovers a tunnel that leads under the wall, he sets in action a series of dreadful consequences. Without making it explicit, it soon becomes clear that this is the West Bank, that Joshua, 13, is Jewish, and that Leila, the girl who saves his life on the other side of the wall, is Palestinian.
The cover art chosen to illustrate the story of “privileged” Jews and “desperate” Palestinians is thoroughly consistent such an obtuse paradigm: An olive tree encircled with barbed wire, juxtaposed with a title evoking the morality tale Sutcliffe is demanding the young reader to imagine.
What finally pushed the writer to commence the project? Flood explains:
“…he heard about PalFest, Palestine’s annual travelling festival of literature, and decided he needed to travel to the region. He’d been to Israel before, but after experiencing PalFest, “everything I thought I knew about Israel was shattered.”
As CiF Watch has noted (here and here), Palfest (the Palestine Festival of Literature) is the (partially UK-funded) anti-Israel advocacy vehicle which has included a significant proportion of participating writers (and ‘recommended authors) who have been featured in the Guardian or ‘Comment is Free’ – including Ali Abunimah, Ben White, and Ghada Karmi.
Sutcliffe’s commentary on the ‘revelatory’ benefits of his Palfest journey continues:
He’d been to Israel before, but after experiencing PalFest, “everything I thought I knew about Israel was shattered. Seeing a military occupation up close, seeing a small number of people with guns telling a large number without guns what to do… it was so much more brutal than I thought it could be.”
It’s unclear where precisely Sutcliffe ventured in the West Bank, but it’s curious that in his apparently serious overall examination and research of the region he somehow failed to learn of the ubiquity of Palestinians ‘with guns‘, explosives and other weaponry – ‘activists’ who are of course waiting for the opportunity to deploy such lethal instruments of terror against Israeli civilians without guns.
To critics who may question Sutcliffe’s expertise on such a subject, his answer is as follows:
“it’s reportage – which is why I went out of my way with the two research trips”.
Yet, Sutcliffe’s reporting cum ‘activist tourism’ left him unable to grasp the most elementary story about the fence which divides Palestine and Israel, the muse which inspired his Middle East tale: That there once was a time when the borders dividing the two peoples were porous, when a genuine peace seemed, to some, to be within reach – an ideal which was shattered by an onslaught of snipers, bombings and suicide belts.
The security fence about which he writes was born of shrapnel, savagely fired, coursing through organs and limbs, tearing apart bodies, and shattering lives.
Flood then adds the following:
[Sutcliffe] is also playing on another familiar children’s literary motif – that of the portal from the mundane to a world of fantasy. “What’s happening in this book is a kid living in a complete fantasy, who discovers a portal to reality. I’m taking the cliché and turning it upside down,” he says. “I’ve been with the settlers… and I think they are living in a world of complete fantasy.”
However, as one ‘Comment is Free’ critic recently and quite keenly observed about such lazy depictions:
‘Whilst Palestinians have names, faces and form – their injured children…blazoned across headlines – Israelis are faceless, without history or family. They are not cute or charming or tragic. They are not gifted musicians or parlour comedians. Israelis are just, coldly and callously, ‘Israelis’, unnamed, numbered and otherwise ignored, unless they are ‘settlers’ or soldiers, when they are as if motherless, amorphous.
In his evocation of Israeli caricatures, unrecognizable as they are crude, it is Sutcliffe who conjures the most risible and fantastical tale.