Who Does She Think She Is?

The new memoir by former Breaking the Silence director Yuli Novak is simplistic and solipsistic in equal measure.

This is one half of a duel review. For the other half, please see here

The publication of the book Who Do You Think You Are? by Yuli Novak is evidence, once more, that the artistic bar for anti-Zionist creation is low. The book is badly written. The metaphors worn out. Descriptions of nature as stand-ins for emotional turmoil (comparing volcanic eruptions to her turmoil, geological changes to social ones, comparing getting lost and found while traveling to getting lost and found emotionally), present throughout, would barely cut it as a high school writing exercise. But because the book tells the story of how Zionism is so irredeemable that it must be scrapped altogether, the low literary value of the book is ignored. Given that the book peddles a recent incarnation of the ancient idea that no amount of reform could make the collective Jew palatable, there is a thriving and stable market for material that caters to it.

Who Do You Think You Are? is part biography, part political reflection, part coming-of-age story. Unfortunately, though, there is no coming of age. The protagonist begins and ends the story as the same petulant child whose so-called reflections lead her to realize that the world is to blame, and everyone but her is “blind, numb, fearful and angry.” A vein of irresponsibility runs through the book. The protagonist just happens to do things. By her own description, Novak became director of Breaking the Silence, an organization devoted to ending Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, on a lark. She was studying to be a lawyer but didn’t want to be one and hadn’t yet figured out what she wanted to do. She came across a job ad for director of Breaking the Silence and thought it was “something worth trying.” Why? Not clear.

Once at the job she doesn’t understand why people get angry. Israeli Jews who respond to Palestinian attacks with “hysteria” and are manipulated by politicians into “fear and hatred” are at fault. She and her colleagues merely want to highlight the “inherent immorality” of the Occupation. The fury against her is because she “stood up against the regime.” The forces that oppose her are nefarious and anti-democratic. They target Breaking the Silence to promote an “illiberal order” and “concentration of powers by the government.”

Her intentions have always been nothing but good. Oh, and the media is at fault.

Theoretically, bad writing and childish protagonists could still make smart arguments. Alas, not in this book. Even if judging only on substance, each of the author’s premises is wrong. The first is that Jewish citizens of Israel do not know what is involved in exercising military control over Palestinians in the West Bank, the Occupation. If they knew, they would end it. Therefore, there is a need to “break the silence” surrounding the Occupation. This is a tantalizing idea. It appeals to the human desire to uncover dark secrets lurking beneath the surface. It lures people with the promise that they will hear something they have not heard before. It also confers a halo of martyrdom on those willing to break the so-called silence.

If only. The last thing surrounding Israel’s military control of the West Bank since 1967 is silence. From the moment Israel’s military has come to control the West Bank area captured from the Kingdom of Jordan, following King Hussein’s ill-fated decision to follow the charismatic Nasser into that disastrous war, there has been nothing but noise about it. Articles, interviews, reports, commentaries, documentaries, photos, video footage, movies, political debates, UN resolutions, international pronouncements, NGOs, movements, posts, tweets, memes. Jews, Arabs, Muslim, Israelis, Palestinians, Westerners, non-Westerners, academics, celebrities. All weighed in. Perhaps in a small village in China there is a person who has not had something to say about Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank. There is no silence to be broken.

The Occupation does not take place in a distant location. Israelis encounter it in numerous ways, not least of which is service in the military. Almost all of Israel’s non-Haredi Jewish citizens serve in the military. Almost all of those who serve or have served in Israel’s military had to contribute to maintaining that military control, from intelligence gathering to incarceration to boots on the ground. Israelis who serve in the military talk. Israeli Jews, (and Arabs), are not known for their reticence in use of words. Israelis know what is involved in maintaining the Occupation. Israeli ignorance is not the problem. The first and major premise of Who Do You Think You Are? and of the entire efforts of Breaking the Silence’s effort is that “what allows the Occupation to persist is the public silence around how it’s carried out and its ethical and moral implications.” This, by virtue of simple observation, is wrong.

Well then, if Israelis know about the Occupation and what is involved in its maintenance, and there is no need to break a non-existing silence around it, why do don’t they just end it? And “if not now,” when are they going to end it? According to the “political rationale” of Breaking the Silence, as explained by Novak, a straight line goes from Israelis hearing the stories of soldiers serving in the West Bank to realizing the “inherent immorality” of the Occupation and wanting to end it. There are two binary alternatives: the immoral choice of continuing the Occupation or the moral choice of ending it.

Like her colleagues across the Atlantic at If Not Now, an American organization nominally calling for ending Israel’s military occupation, Novak wants Israel to “just end the occupation.” Sure, how? Unfortunately, missing from the entire book is any serious consideration of policy alternatives and their attendant risks. Could it just be that, given all the bad choices, Israeli Jews understand that maintaining the Occupation is a dirty business, but rationally consider it (oh, the horror) the least bad of their real-world alternatives? But no, not for Novak this worldly business of choosing among several bad real-world alternatives. Presenting choices that are not black and white, good and evil, moral and immoral seems to be outside Novak’s interests. Whether ideas like Goodman’s “reduction of conflict” or decoupling the necessity of the military occupation as long as the Palestinian war with the state of Israel continues, from the question of unnecessary settlements, which this author champions, is not even discussed. Most problematic, the possibility that, despite multiple efforts, Israel has not been able to end its military control of the West Bank through an agreement is because Palestinians refuse to sign any agreement that is not effectively “From the River to the Sea” is never even considered.

Novak continues a long tradition of viewing the conflict through the prism of Jewish agency and Palestinian passivity. Jews are perpetrators. Palestinians are victims. Jews act. Palestinians respond. Jews provoke. Palestinians are provoked. The notion that Palestinians carry out deliberate acts against Jews in Israel to realize a clearly articulated vision of “From the River to the Sea” is nowhere to be found, except, ironically, in Palestinian expressions, available everywhere, except in Novak’s book. Who Do You Think You Are? partakes in this neo-colonial vision that deprives Palestinians of agency. The entire conversation takes place in the author’s head between different Israeli points of view. Worse, the entire book centers around the author’s feelings about morality. She felt “Breaking the Silence” was the moral thing to do. And then “it didn’t’ work out anymore,” “it was too difficult,” “it was in my head,” “something was broken inside me and I didn’t know what,” “I couldn’t anymore,” “It was too much responsibility,” “too much fear,” “too much loneliness.” It just didn’t “feel” right.

To Novak, everything is binary. She believed lies. Now she knows the truth. Zionists favor the state. She favors the individual. There is nothing in between. No nuance. No sophistication of thought. She was part of a matrix of Zionism that could only be sustained by “denial and avoidance.” Now she clearly sees that it is a “lie” that a sovereign Jewish state could exist without the Occupation. Why? She just feels it. When Novak fought “only” against the Occupation and not against Jewish self-determination altogether she was part of the system, and she bears responsibility for its “inherent immorality.” Novak mindlessly adopts fashionable ideas about whiteness and colonialism that could only take place when one is deprived of any historical understanding of the Jewish people. She claims Israel is not like South Africa only to immediately make that comparison. Novak’s ahistorical attitude is obvious throughout as she speaks of fighting the occupation because it’s happening “now” and who cares how we got here.

The desire for moral purity and resolution of the “inherent contradictions of Zionism” is another aspect of the petulance of the protagonist. It is a desire, present as much among Western Jews as among some Israeli Jews of the left, to achieve moral purity through powerlessness. It is the Jewish idea that my colleague Shany Mor calls “the last time Jews behaved morally was at the lines to the gas showers at Auschwitz.” It is a desire to free the Jewish soul from the Jewish body. To forgo the messy moral earthy life of Zionism for the moral purity of Jewish powerlessness. For some Jews, like Novak, the “inherent contradiction” they cannot sustain is not left-wing Zionism or even Zionism itself, but the very idea of Jewish power. What Novak seeks is “rebirth on a different soil.”

Novak travels around the world, clearly running away from something. Towards the end of the book her answer is that she ran away from coming to terms with the fact that she could no longer be a Zionist. She struggled because she couldn’t know who she is without Zionism. It is a supremely self-centered position. The most important thing for Novak is to feel good about who she is, everyone else be damned. In Novak’s world there is no history and there are no others. It is all about her, how she feels, and what is happening now.

By the end of the book Novak has left behind her earthy Zionism with all its contradictions. Like a spiritual born-again she is ready to embrace some vague utopia of individual equality and democracy unmoored from any sense of history and people. Like many utopians before her Novak is very good at the noble task of destroying what exists and clueless at building something new. There is probably no more anti-Zionist mindset, not in the sense of being opposed to Zionism, but in negating its very spirit. The genius of Zionism was that it had a vision for building something and went about realizing it. Zionism didn’t just tear down, although its thinkers had plenty of harsh criticism, not least of which about Jewish life in the diaspora. Zionism was very specific about what it sought to build and how it planned to go about building it and had the ruthless determination that came with it.

From inception, Zionism had thoughtful and fierce detractors who mounted thoughtful critiques. With Novak, we now have soft naval gazers whose only concern is how anything makes them feel. One could only be nostalgic for the days when Zionism had more formidable foes…

*Yuli Novak, Who Do You Think You Are? [Hebrew], Yediot Books, 2022

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