Sunnie Yi Ning ‘18
Israeli writer and screenwriter Dorit Rabinyan gave a talk at Smith College last week on her controversial book “All the Rivers,” and why literature still matters. Students, faculty and members of the community filled the Graham Hall at Hillyer. Marjorie Roth ‘67, a donor to the Program of Jewish Studies, was also present at the talk.
Rabinyan grew up in an Iranian-Jewish family in Israel. Her 2014 novel “All the Rivers” won the Bernstein Prize.
The book tells a doomed love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. The talk centered on her development of the characters in the book and how the struggles of identities of the protagonists reflect her daily struggle as a Jew of Middle Eastern ancestry.
Professor Justin Cammy of the Jewish Studies Department opened the talk by introducing the novelist. Praising her work as a way of exploring “human concerns that transcend political concerns,” Cammy highlighted the novelist’s attention to the Hebrew words and elegant creativity with languages.
Rabinyan first explained her her protagonist, Liat, a Jewish woman with Arabic appearance, as a reflection of her own experience growing up in Tel Aviv.
Liat admits that she did not have exposure to many Arab people or culture and is constrained by the brainwashing descriptions of Arab people as demons, one must have fears and anxieties.
When Liat meets Hemmi, the Palestinian man she falls in love with, a deep sense of guilt emerges as she struggles to make sense of her growing love for him, against the internalized stereotypes she has of Arab people.
Rabinyan then discussed how the identity of Mizrahi Jews, or Jews of Middle Eastern descent, is exploited by the government, which is dominated by Jews of European descent. She reflected that as a result of the superiority of European Jews, Mizrahi Jews felt pressured to gain a Jewish identity by transforming their culture, behavior, look and even political allegiance.
The author also talked about the political controversy that the book has gained. Eighteen months after publication, “All the Rivers” was rejected by the Israeli Department of Education from the national high school curriculum, on the grounds that “it promotes intermarriage and assimilation,” according to The Economist.
Rabinyan thought it was a horrifying experience when her work of art was taken as a national symbol, either of betrayal or free speech, and it did not belong to her anymore. She also spoke of the fear and anxiety of being mentally and physically abused by enthusiastic right-wing supporters.
“I was traumatized and didn’t sleep for three neurotic months,” she said. Indeed, Rabiyan said she would rather trade the sale of her book in return for living in a more stable and reasonable society.
Towards the end of the talk, Rabinyan discussed her political ideas with her audience. She described herself as a leftist. She believes that the two-state solution is the only realistic solution to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, she also expressed her concern that the two-state solution will only perpetuate the fear of partnership between Jews and Arabs and diminish the hope for a shared nationality.