By Yosef Gotlieb
Atida Press -The Olive Group, ISBN 978-965-7557-00-6, paperback, 385 pages.
Times are tough. A country that was established on socialist economic principles and an uncompromisingly egalitarian social structure has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the industrialized world. Twenty super-rich families now effectively own and control the nation’s wealth and resources. The government, once run by secular liberal intellectuals, is now in the hands of a coalition of far-right politicians and ultra-nationalist clerics preaching violence against Arabs and other non-Jews. Extremist groups, both Arab and Jewish, are locked in a cycle of bloody, tit-for-tat terrorist attacks aimed almost exclusively at civilians, and most often at children. A country that was supposed to be “a light unto the nations” has descended into darkness—marked by rapacious greed, unchecked corruption, racism, hatred and violence.
The place, of course, is Israel and the time is now, as seen through the eyes of author Yosef Gotlieb in his just-published new novel, Rise. Both political statement and thriller, Rise is subtitled, “A Novel of Contemporary Israel”. Much of it, especially the comments about Israel’s economic tensions and the control of its economy by a handful of powerful cartels, seems as though it came from today’s newspaper. As we meet one of the novel’s main characters, we are told, “Michal thought it sad how materialistic the culture had become in a society where the gap between rich and poor—no, rich and everyone else was growing daily. Michal yearned for the simpler Israel she had known growing up when people meant more than things. When had it slipped away? Who had withdrawn it?”
The depictions of almost daily terrorism will resonate with anyone who lived in Israel during the second intifada, except for one important new element. Gotlieb has added an array of violent Jewish extremists to the mix, including what appears to be a dangerous new group of Jewish terrorists, calling themselves the “Sons of Gideon”. The cycle of violent attacks, blood-soaked political manifestos, fear, hatred and rioting in Israel’s towns and urban neighborhoods begins when this previously unknown group guns down an elderly Jaffa Arab woman in an unprovoked attack.
The title, Rise, is taken from the non-sectarian movement for unity formed by the novel’s protagonists in the midst of the rising violence. Lilah, a photographer returning to Israel after a 30 year self-exile in the U.S.; her husband Naftali, a left-wing Member of Knesset; Michal, Lilah’s closest friend from childhood, and Issam, a doctor, an Arab and Michal’s husband decide to start the movement at a “Rally of Hope” at which one of the lead characters exhorts the crowd to rise up and build a new Israel. “Rise. We must rise to confront the challenges and realize the potential that we, the people of Israel possess.” The resulting movement, called Na’aleh, is to stand for the “real” Israel—“a country of justice, equality and tolerance,” a land shared equally by “Ordinary Israelis. People like us: Jews, Arabs, Druze, Ashkenazim, Ethiopians, Sephardim, Russians. Men, women, workers, farmers, managers, shopkeepers, veterans, new immigrants, orthodox, secular. The whole rainbow of Israel.”
It is not difficult to discern the political leanings of the book’s author. His protagonists are all comfortably situated on the left of Israel’s political spectrum, while his villains are clearly right-wing. Gotlieb’s ‘villain-in-chief’, so to speak, is the one dimensionally evil Rabbi Yehezkel Epstein, who first appears in the story stridently exhorting his followers to “gouge out the eyes of Amalek” and to “eradicate their presence from our midst.” Epstein leads an organization called “Hebrew Fighters Association”, the members of which are described as “unemployed thugs”, “malcontents”, “hooligans” and, most significantly, as “brownshirts”. Gotlieb is both a sensitive and intelligent writer, and one must assume that he is aware of the specific historical images he is calling up by referring to Jewish followers of a Jewish rabbi as “brownshirts”.
Similarly, the government in this “novel of contemporary Israel” is described as “a gang of reactionaries” composed of “buffoons” and “Neanderthals”. Jewish settlements are called “feral”, composed of “slashers and stabbers” and “extremists” acting out a “deep guttural pathology”. It soon becomes evident to the reader that “the whole rainbow of Israel” that the Na’aleh Movement intends to unite is likely to end up excluding virtually everyone to the right of either Pnina Rosenblum or Yossi Beilin.
It would be easy to say that one will either love or hate this book depending upon one’s political leanings but, as it happens, Rise is about a lot more than just politics. A story of romance, crime, detection, intrigue and conspiracy, Rise is also a crackling good, fast-paced thriller that will have its readers turning pages well into the night. I found myself finishing the novel in one frenetic read, sitting up until 3:00 am to do so. The action is warp speed, and Gotlieb skillfully creates main characters that seem like real, flesh-and-blood people with genuine human conflicts. His knowledge of Israel is intricate and fine-tuned, and his use of the US city of Boston as a calmer, quieter counterpoint to Tel Aviv is refreshingly accurate and well-informed.
Gotlieb is a top-notch writer, with a superb ear for dialogue and an extraordinary ability to grab and hold the attention of his audience. Rise is to be commended and recommended as both a thriller and a highly topical dramatic novel. As far as the politics of the book are concerned, dear reader, you are on your own.