At a Glance
- Portland Zionists Unite!
- and Other Stories
- Page Count
- Trim Size
- 6″ × 9″
This vivid collection of stories and vignettes based on the author's experience serving in the Israeli army (and later moving to Portland), is a must-read for anyone interested in what is really going on in Israel and the territories. Eric Flamm brings life the unique mixture of boredom and torpor interspersed with flashes of violence that constitutes the lives of soldiers serving in the occupied West Bank. The first story, which takes place in Hebron in 1995, is a stunning piece of writing. It sheds more light on the reality of the occupation than a dozen journalistic dispatches or reports by international commissions. Here we see and feel the reality of a gritty day-to-day low-level confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians that never ends in which there can never be a winner or a loser. We should be grateful to Eric, not only for his service, but for the way he has used it to educate us all while creating a work of true literary merit.
Journalist, Novelist, and Special Advisor to the President, J Street
About the Book
These raw, interlocking short stories—set in Israel, Portland, and Thailand—explore the complex reality of modern Israel, its recent history, and what it represents to its citizens and foreign-born Jews. With a range of different narrators—three Israel Defense Force soldiers, a hawkish retiree, a synagogue executive director, and a young video game fan—each story viscerally speaks to the contrasts between Israel’s founding mythology and current political realities. Each narrator’s perspective is different, but collectively the voices engage with a growing concern in US Jewish communal life: how to countenance an Israel that increasingly doesn’t reflect the values of American Jews.
December 1995, Hebron, West Bank
I stumbled out of the Humvee with six other soldiers. The guys looked as pissed off as I felt—our uniforms disheveled, shirts and pants twisted off-kilter on our slender builds. We all lacked sleep. I had known when I lay down I would have less than two hours rest and so hadn’t even bothered to take my boots off. I stood there and squinted in the sun, looking at the dusty Hebron street, the flat cement buildings, the garbage—feeling raw at the effort it took to take it all in, but numb to the world two steps beyond.
The air still had the crisp smell of morning coolness, and through my haze I nodded in recognition that all was the same as it had been yesterday, and the day before that. The street was capped by three square cement blocks, three feet thick, meant to stop cars. On the other side was the Israeli Defense Forces fight position, a half-moon of sandbags piled to waist height, against which another six Golani soldiers lounged with their flak jackets open, helmets off, rifles propped up against the sandbags. They looked like weary commuters on a bus whose air conditioning had unexpectedly broken, and they threw off irritation with every gesture. Nothing to be said—no greetings or explanations. We were all here, with all the common grievances, very much in the grinding present.
“Allo habbi,” Dror Harel said with a smile. He hadn’t been summoned for extra duty and so had grabbed a few more hours sleep, now having the luxury of good humor. He carefully attended a battered gas burner with a finjan coffee pot, sitting haphazardly on a green jerrycan. Harel carefully poured the coffee into four dirty glasses and handed them out, the guys letting the grounds settle before languidly sipping. Boaz Kubovich paced on the far side of the sandbags, zipped up and by the book, chin strap secure, cradling his loaded rifle. He kept his eye on the far end of the street and the small crowd of Palestinians slowly drinking their own coffee, smoking, chatting, and getting ready for the day’s activities.
A green IDF cargo transport had been backed up near our position, tailgate down, showing a pile of plastic riot shields and ammo boxes containing the full spectrum of projectiles—all the flares, tear gas, live ammo, and rubber bullets for the entire West Bank and Gaza and then some. We would be gearing up soon for another round of riot control, as each day brought a protest of rocks and bottles. Today was starting slow; the Palestinians slept in or watched Al Jazeera, not yet assembling on the street in force. Kubovich stood sharp-eyed and vigilant while we pulled ourselves out of our haze.
A soldier handed the glass back to Harel, who splashed water on it from the jerrycan and flung the grounds indiscriminately onto the street. He refilled it with coffee and extended it in my direction. I took the glass and caught a strong whiff of body odor from Harel—reminding me that I, too, stank, as I had slept in my uniform more nights than I could remember.
David Ostrov, my buddy from South Africa, sat down beside me and leaned against the sandbags. He’d been selected, as I had, to go on the supplemental mission—either as punishment or confirmation of competence, I couldn’t tell which. We had both spent most of the night riding around to help arrest a possibly fictitious Palestinian suspect deep in the city. Two jeeps, two Humvees, and almost eighteen guys joined the party. We drove all over fuck—our twenty-something commanding officer, Alon Carmeli, was not proficient at map reading. We even stopped and asked directions from two beaten-down Palestinians in work clothes who were on route to a checkpoint at four in the morning. One, who wore a sweat-stained Yankees cap, pointed out the street, not pausing about giving assistance, probably fearing reprisals should he not answer or be elusive. I knew none of this was supposed to make sense, but I was nevertheless surprised to discover that it really didn’t.
When we had gotten to the house, I didn’t have to go inside until later. I just had to stand guard outside, which was a reprieve of sorts. A squad of eight entered the house and turned it inside out, throwing everything on the ground: wedding pictures, Star Wars pajamas, a bin of onions, a bottle of aspirin, an orange plastic cup— random items from an ordinary life. I never learned if this was one of our “show dominance” tactics that Carmeli regularly enjoyed, or if we were truly searching for a security suspect.
This was the third time I had participated in one of these shakedowns. The first time I had to stand over four terrified kids—all younger than seven—and try and remain unbendable. In all the screaming and crying, I deliberately didn’t want to say “it will be okay,” because at that moment, it didn’t seem even remotely likely. Always plenty of drama, with the hysterical women and children, everyone awoken to their worst fears, the IDF at their doorstep to trash the house and arrest anyone who didn’t like it. Last night, we had found no weapons or terrorists, but, as I said, we may not have been looking for any.
Now watching Ostrov sip his coffee, I instinctively felt he shared my growing contempt and incredulity that what we were doing had any enduring value to the IDF, to Israel, to anybody. I swatted this away, because out of all my army buds, Ostrov was the most gung-ho and the biggest army asshole, someone who kept his eye on a prize that had become increasingly invisible. I liked his fitness and aggression, but his lack of cynicism worried me. When I volunteered for the IDF from my snug little Long Island suburbia, I knew part of the bargain would be to grow suspicious of the security framework, as tough experience with guns and bureaucracies colored my thinking. We were still the good guys, but now I had to think harder, hoping for a clearer concept of who I would be at the end of the tunnel.
I stood up, stretched, ambled over to the truck, and took out a few shields, leaning them against the sandbags where we sat. I like to slowly gear up, making sure all the straps and Velcro are to my liking, weeding out happenstance and error. The shields stood ready for the order to push the Palestinians back to their side of the street, or just disperse them—a distinction with no difference from my end. The way we had been doing it was to pair up—one guy held the shield, protecting his buddy from the hail of rocks and bottles, which allowed him to fire with a steady hand. I kicked the gravel with my boot and looked around at the dilapidated buildings—I wanted whatever we would do to begin already. I was also angry. The feeling had been with me so long it had melted into me, and I couldn’t remember what life would be like without it. The yellow winter sun warmed me and brought awareness to my aching fingers, as the cuticles were cracked and infected from the dryness. I pulled off a sliver of dry skin, satisfied when it hurt and bled.
I sat down and closed my eyes to test how strong the fatigue pulled. I was content when my lids flipped open—I would be plenty awake for the next several hours at least. Yehuda Alkana told us a settler group was on the move today and would roll into the town for the modest pleasure of pissing off the Palestinians and tweaking the nose of the IDF, all in the name of a grand statement promoting the virtues of West Bank settlement.
“Yoni, you did your bit yesterday. Today I’ll take my crack on the shield,” Ostrov said in his clipped South African English, underscoring that neither of us had much enthusiasm for shooting anymore. Given the eternal and ambiguous nature of the mission, which was to keep everything at a simmer, we knew that nothing we did or did not do would bring any improvement. Maintaining a shitty stalemate was the best possible outcome. I felt comforted by the fact that Ostrov, too, was a volunteer, and had arrived on these shores with an economics degree at the advanced age of twenty-three. I was a few years behind him, with no college, coming to Israel with my own weird concepts of Zionism and duty. I knew what Israel meant to my former high school classmates back home in Westbury, New York. For them, Israel would always be a hyper-idealized place of beautiful contrasts and manageable conflicts—a land of undisputed excellence, and always the refuge from any future Holocausts in the United States or Europe. More broadly, we all tacitly acknowledged Eretz Yisrael as the undisputed warehouse of every possible manifestation of the Jewish soul and longing. These thoughts still burned true, but other ideas had begun to creep into the mix.
The bullets we now used were metal slugs coated in hard rubber to reduce their velocity, fired by jamming a packet of three down an enlarged tube anchored to the ends of our rifles—the shot powered by the gas emitted from a blank cartridge. The bullets, black cylinders half an inch wide and three-quarters long, could embed themselves deep in the flesh should they hit at close range. After thirty yards, they would usually bounce off skull or bone, leaving a jagged cut. When we fired the rubber bullets in packets of three, each slug drifted in its own random trajectory as it tumbled through the air, further allaying any fears we personally were responsible for the injury we inflicted. It had come down the grapevine that if you needed to take down a troublemaker, you could break open the cellophane holding the three bullets and load the gun with just one, ensuring greater velocity and accuracy. Alkana had tried this several times with the envisioned results—but as a new immigrant, I felt obligated to do things by the book.
“I’ll set up for the rubber,” I told Ostrov. “More theater of the absurd.” I scanned the dusty street past our barricade toward Arab Hebron and looked at the drab concrete buildings with rebar sticking out of the top, streaking the gray cement with brown rust. The stores had their shutters pulled down, steel doors firmly in place, entire facades dilapidated and rusted. The knots of Palestinian youths who patrolled the end of the street might as well have been rusted, too, given their overall look of poverty and slack expressions. Political setbacks, settler violence, and the endless drone of shuttle diplomacy were all just a background hum when I looked down my gun sights as young Palestinians ran to the end of their courage to throw Molotovs or rocks. Usually, the hulking presence of our squad would ensure that the missile landed short of its mark. But once a day the protesters’ anger would boil and the level of confrontation reached fever pitch, the mob boldly advancing down the street. We aimed for the legs and let loose. Head injuries were not uncommon, nor suspect, given the chaotic nature of the encounters. Afterward, an ambulance was called, and we chased down the lightly injured, the others fleeing back to their homes or hiding behind old women in the souk. The next day the sun rose, all players took their mark, and another day unfolded with the same ritualized symmetry.
Over the course of six interconnected stories, Flamm explores the myriad tensions that exist between Jews regarding their spiritual homeland. The author’s sharp and insightful prose molds the varying perspectives of his narrators, as here when the disillusioned soldier explains his reading of the fractured Jewish identity: “No longer were the Jews, Israelis, and IDF of the same body and mind, breathing the same air. These things had become nuanced and removed from one another, like three circles of a Venn diagram moving in opposition, where the point in common grew smaller each day.” More than simply analyzing the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Flamm shows what these complexities mean to contemporary (mostly male) Jews who find themselves at different points along the ideological spectrum. It’s a finely crafted and highly nuanced work that makes excellent use of the linked story format. What’s more, the author manages to speak effectively to a particular sociopolitical issue using the normally hermetic medium of short fiction.
A smart and empathetic look at the ways Zionism can manifest itself in modern Jewish life.Kirkus Reviews Read the Full Review