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Israel, Palestine and the Bildungsroman

14 February 2023
What this literary genre tells us about the conflict
Bildungsroman, a German word that translates as 'novel of education', is a literary genre emphasising development and progress. Dr Isabelle Hesse, from the Discipline of English, investigates how this genre allows authors the opportunity to shed new light on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The reactions to Australia’s decision to reverse the Morrison government’s recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital ranged from outrage to endorsement. They confirmed, once again, that the territories involved are intensely contested. They also showed that there is almost no position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that can be understood as genuinely neutral or beneficial for both sides. In the wake of the Second Palestinian Intifada, the conflict seems to have arrived at an impasse.

Might the literary genre of the Bildungsroman shed further light on the conflict?

Bildungsroman is a German word that translates as “novel of education”. The genre emphasises development and progress. It is associated with the maturation of a young or naive protagonist. Such protagonists are formed more by circumstance than academic instruction. They are “schooled by life”.

The focus of the genre, going back to Goethe’s foundational novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), is on protagonists who leave the security and safety of their home. They physically leave, as Wilhelm does when he joins a wandering theatre company, but they also metaphorically leave by questioning the value systems they were brought up in.

In recent decades, however, many Bildungsromane have become interested in their protagonists’ relationship to the past. As the literary scholar Harriet Earle has observed, the genre is often less a tale of upward mobility than a dramatisation of a tension between the “autonomy of the individual and the shaping pressure of history”.

The Bildungsroman has always been a genre written to engage and edify its readers. Hence, the historical turn can help readers understand how narratives about the past inform our attitude towards the present, a tendency that becomes clearer in novels for children and young adults, and in autobiographical graphic novels. These works, in particular, increasingly place their youthful heroes at the centre of complex historical events. Witnessing these events transforms the protagonists’ outlook, challenges their value systems, and assists their moral maturity.

Israel and Palestine after the Second Palestinian Intifada

In order to understand this type of political education, we need some historical context.

The Second Palestinian Intifada (2000–2005) represented a significant turning point for both Palestinians and Israelis. For Palestinians, the uprising was an important moment of resistance against Israel. It also resulted in Palestinians being subjected to more intensive military control and surveillance. The number of checkpoints increased, the use of drones intensified, and several military operations took place in the West Bank and Gaza.

For Israeli Jews, the new millennium was marked by a pronounced surge in Palestinian attacks, especially on civilians. This led to an increased sense of vulnerability and an increased desire for security, both during and after the Intifada.

It was also a period of reflection on the trauma undergone by conscripts into the Israeli Defence Forces. This is documented, for example, in the testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence, an organisation of soldiers who have served in the Israeli Military since the start of the Second Palestinian Intifada.

Another key aspect of the Second Palestinian Intifada was that, during this time, the Israeli government started building the wall or “separation barrier” between Israel and the West Bank. The wall has drastically changed the ways in which Palestinians experience life under occupation, but it has also influenced the ways in which Israelis engage with a conflict that is becoming more and more abstract to them.

The experiences of both these communities inform literary representations of the conflict. And the Bildungsroman, or coming of age narrative, allows authors to depict characters who bridge entrenched hostilities and who take an independent perspective on the conflict.

Social responsibility and individual choice

Book cover of The Cat at the Wall

Deborah Ellis's novel, The Cat at the Wall (2014).

Canadian writer Deborah Ellis’s young adult novel The Cat at the Wall (2014) tells the story of 13-year-old Clare, who lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. After her death, Clare is transformed into a cat and finds herself in Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank.

In a manner typical of the growth trajectory of the Bildungsroman, the feline Clare slowly develops as a character. She is increasingly able to feel empathy.

This change comes about through her encounter with Omar, a Palestinian boy living in Bethlehem. She sneaks into his house when two Israeli soldiers take it over for surveillance purposes.

Clare initially uses being a cat as an excuse for not helping Omar. But towards the end of the novel, she begins to assume social responsibility. This becomes most pronounced when she decides to do something that she would have considered undignified in her former life. In order to diffuse a tense situation between the Israeli army and Palestinians, she tells us,

I leapt down from the boy’s arms and out into the little space between the enemies. I started to dance. I danced for all of them, up on my hind legs. […] And everybody shut up and stopped to watch.

Ellis is careful not to suggest that Clare’s small act will change the situation. Dialogue and empathy alone cannot resolve this conflict if they are not accompanied by political concessions.

Nevertheless, Ellis’s novel reimagines the future of the conflict by stressing the importance of assuming social responsibility on an individual level. For young adult readers, this might mean considering the impact of their actions on their immediate environments. For an adult reader, this could be reconsidering the importance of individual choices in relation to wider issues, including the situation in Palestine/Israel.

Self and society

Book cover of A Little Piece of the Ground

A Little Piece of the Ground (2003), by British author Elizabeth Laird.

British author Elizabeth Laird wrote A Little Piece of Ground (2003) with Palestinian academic and children’s book author Sonia Nimr. The novel is set in 2002 against the backdrop of the events of Operation Defensive Shield, a large scale military operation by the Israeli Defense Force in the West Bank during the Second Palestinian Intifada.

At the start of this young adult novel, the protagonist Karim’s anger at the occupation mainly stems from being prevented from playing football whenever he wants to. But increasingly his anger is aimed at the occupation as a whole.

This development is catalysed through a scene at a flying checkpoint, when all the Palestinian men are told to step out of their cars and are forced to strip down to their underwear. Later, Karim’s family is harassed by Jewish settlers while they pick olives and he exclaims:

“Nobody does anything! […] My father – they stripped him! Then they shot at him – us – in our own olive groves! But he doesn’t do anything.”

The outburst shows Karim’s initial opposition to the older generation and to their non-violent resistance to the occupation. However, Karim’s opinion changes when he hides from Israeli tanks in an abandoned car. Staying put in the car recalls the practice of sumud, or steadfastness, staying put on the land. This makes Karim realise that

he was resisting too, in a way. Just being here, holding out on his own under their very noses, was an act of resistance.

The moment marks a turning point in Karim’s development. He becomes part of a community of Palestinians who resist the occupation.

Though the reader knows that Karim still lives under Israeli occupation, he has now found the tools to define his identity in relation to his community and to become a part of Palestinian non-violent resistance.

This is also what the novel suggests its readers should do, asking them to use their sense of empathy and solidarity to revise their preconceived ideas about the situation in the Palestinian Territories. It encourages them to challenge the equation between Palestinian resistance and violence that has gained renewed currency since the Second Palestinian Intifada.

Us and Them

Book cover of the The Wall

British Jewish writer William Sutcliffe wrote The Wall (2013) to revise perceptions of the Israel/Palestine conflict. 

The Wall (2013), a young adult novel written by British Jewish writer William Sutcliffe, is similarly aimed at revising perceptions of the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The main character, Joshua, lives in Amarias (an anagram of Samaria), a fictional town next to a wall in the “Occupied Zone”.

Sutcliffe’s use of a young adult narrator allows him to depict many aspects of the wall from a naïve and innocent perspective, but Joshua’s perception of the situation in the Occupied Zone slowly starts to change through his engagement with the people living on the other side of the wall. Using a tunnel, he finds under a demolished house, Joshua meets Leila. After a second visit where he learns more about Leila and her family, and especially the hardships they endure on a daily basis, Joshua feels unable to return to the identity imposed on him in Amarias. That identity was founded upon a clear distinction between us and them, a distinction he no longer believes in.

This becomes clear when his mother asks him to tell her where the tunnel under the wall is to protect “their” people. Joshua asks who “their” people are, to which the mother replies “all of us who live here”.

His mother’s statement exemplifies how walls can create and corroborate a closed collective identity that excludes others. Joshua questions this worldview by asking, “on both sides of the wall?”, emphasising that for him “here” is no longer demarcated by the wall as a boundary.

Sutcliffe’s novel criticises how a delineation between us and them can lead to people no longer considering the concerns of human beings outside of their community as worthy, especially if they live behind a wall, whether literal or figurative.

This criticism can be taken as referring to the Israeli Jewish collective and their relationship with Palestinians. But we can also apply it to the international community and their engagement with Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as any national community that builds a wall or barrier to protect its collective identity from outsiders.

Educational Work

Book cover of How to Understand Israel in 60 Days

Sarah Glidden's autobiographical graphic novel How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2011). 

In her autobiographical graphic novel How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (2011), Sarah Glidden depicts her more youthful avatar, “Sarah”, a 26-year-old Jewish American woman, who is uncertain of her calling in life.

Sarah is suspicious of Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians. However, she is uncertain of what to make of the seeming quagmire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her cynicism is partly due to her college education, as there is often considerable pro-Palestinian activism on American college campuses.

To confirm her bias and to have a travel experience, Sarah leaves the US to undertake a Taglit-Birthright tour. This is an educational trip to Israel for young Jewish adults who may not feel closely connected to Jewish religious and institutional frameworks.

Understanding Israel emphasises Sarah’s education through life experience, as she gradually overcomes her suspicion towards Israel. Sarah is intrigued to learn that young Jewish Americans like herself immigrate to Israel and that this is not done out of ideological fanaticism. Rather, they do this out of a willingness to make a contribution to a country that is itself still in formation.

Nevertheless, this is not a graphic novel that simply whitewashes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Sarah focuses on the treatment of Bedouins who are left homeless by the state of Israel. She discusses the consequences of home demolitions and experiences the omnipresent reality of the “separation barrier” between Israel and the West Bank.

Understanding Israel is carefully poised between disenchantment and enchantment, which is not unusual for Bildungsromane. Sarah is disenchanted with her previous ideological conditioning, which predisposed her to be hypercritical towards Israel. But she is also enchanted with many Jewish-Israelis and some Palestinian-Israelis that she encounters. These people are working towards a better future and a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Educated by this graphic novel, readers may be, like Sarah, more willing to venture outside their comfort zone. And they might also make more independent judgements about geopolitical conflicts in the future.

Productive disenchantment

Book cover of Not the Israel my Parents Promised Me

Not the Israel my Parents Promised Me (2014), is a graphic novel by Harvey Pekar. 

Published by the author of the American Splendor graphic novel series, Harvey Pekar’s graphic novel Not the Israel my Parents Promised Me is different in several respects. It is something of a twist on the genre invented by Goethe, in that it is more an intellectual and ethical journey than a geographical one.

Its protagonist is Pekar’s comic avatar “Harvey”. Harvey is based in Cleveland. He has never actually visited Israel. However, over the course of his life, he becomes disenchanted with the idea of Israel. This ideal of Israel was promised to him by his ardently pro-Zionist parents, who were Polish-Jewish immigrants to the US.

While getting to know the countercultural New Left in the 1960s, Harvey changes his mind. He no longer identifies with Israel as an ethical state and a sanctuary for the Jews after the Holocaust. Instead, he comes to view it as a nationalist and colonial project intent on military conquest and the dispossession of the Palestinians.

Harvey does not experience excessive shame over Israel’s actions, nor does he hold it to unreasonable standards. Rather, he comes to believe that addressing Israeli colonialism is necessary, given that “nationalism and ethnic pride, in the long run, delay human development, and the misery they cause must be recognized”.

While focused on a mature and cynical character, this graphic novel is faithful to the tenets of the Bildungsroman. We see “a loss of faith in the value of the hero’s home and family”, which “leads inevitably to the assertion of the youth’s independence”.

As in Glidden’s graphic novel, Harvey’s disenchantment with the idea of Israel is balanced by his understanding that the Jewish diaspora has interacted with a range of non-Jewish civilisations. These include interactions during the Babylonian exile, in Andalusian Spain in the early modern period, and during the era of emancipation in 18th century Germany, which led to a revival of Hebrew.

Harvey’s point is that Israel and Zionism cannot control the meaning of Judaism as Judaism continues to be formed and reformed together with the non-Jewish world.

Empathy and witnessing

Graphic narratives and young adult novels use the Bildungsroman to depict a historical and geopolitical context that is often seen as too complex to understand for both adult and young adult readers from outside the region. Drawing on the conventions of the Bildungsroman, especially someone coming of age in an important historical moment, allows them to make life in Palestine and Israel accessible to a wider audience.

Through their focus on educational journeys, these works interrogate deeply rooted ideas about conflicting religious or ethnic identities. They ask readers to revise their perceptions alongside their protagonists.

As these works suggest, the genre of the Bildungsroman is particularly useful in this context. As an empathetic art form, it combines autobiographical reflection, political witnessing, and attentiveness to the potential for change in the midst of war and suffering.

This article was originally published on The Conversation as What can the Bildungsroman tell us about the Israel and Palestine conflict? Dr Isabelle Hesse is a Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of English, where she works at the nexus of postcolonial, Jewish, and Middle Eastern studies. 

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