||Imagining Israel In 2024
Leon de Winter, one of Holland’s most acclaimed novelists, comes from a family of Orthodox Jews who, thanks to a Catholic resistance network, escaped capture by the Nazis. In his novels, including Zionoco and God’s Gym, the protagonists search for their Jewish identity. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in October about his controversial new novel, Right of Return.
NPQ | For those of us who have not had the opportunity to read your book Right of Return, which imagines Israel in 2024, what is the picture you paint?
Leon de Winter | I describe an Israel that is basically the area of larger Tel Aviv, with the northern part of the Negev, including Dimona. The north is gone, the south is gone, Jerusalem is gone. The country fell apart because of external pressure—continuous rocket bombardments—that caused families to leave, and because of internal erosion: The Israeli Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox Jews moved away from the secular Jewish heart of the nation. Those with a criminal record, those who are old, and another group fascinated to be part of an apocalypse, and those who just want to stay and defend the country no matter what happens, are left behind.
But this is all background, the setting. The main focus is on Bram Mannheim, originally a Dutch Jew who makes aliyah when he is 18 and becomes at a young age a celebrated professor. He teaches history of the Middle East at Tel Aviv University. But tragedy hits when, in 2008, he has moved to Princeton with his wife and young son to become a professor there. His 4-year-old son disappears. Just like that. His marriage collapses, his life stops, and he turns into a madman, a psychotic transient wandering around in the United States.
His old father finds him and brings him back to Tel Aviv. And in 2024 Bram runs a little bureau that helps parents of children who have disappeared as well. In this Jewish ghetto-city called Israel. And after a devastating attack, apparently executed by a young Jew who has disappeared in the same period as Bram’s child, Bram starts to hope again, starts to think that, maybe, his son is still alive, just like these other Jewish boys, a group that seems to have been kidnapped and trained to become Muslim suicide killers, Jewish kids who will come back to Israel to kill their parents.
NPQ | Your book has caused a huge stir in Germany, where it has just been published. Some critics charge that your dark vision of the future abets an increasing chorus of voices that argue the founding of Israel was a mistake in the first place.
De Winter | Let me first be clear about my personal loyalties (which are not always identical to my loyalties as a novelist): I am an admirer of the Zionist project, of the historical necessity, to use a Marxist phrase, to create a safe haven for European Jews as a reaction to 19th century anti-Semitism. It has been a breathtaking adventure—but it did not happen in a geographical or cultural or historical vacuum. It happened when the Islamic world was slowly awakening from the enormous blow executed by giant European forces, beginning with Napoleon’s easy march into Egypt in 1798, and by the search by Arab and Muslim intellectuals for their own answers to the question why their universe collapsed.
There have been very strong arguments for the case of a Jewish state in Palestine (a name given to the region by the Romans—until recently, there has never been an Arab tribe called the Palestinians), but now, decades later, if it would have been up to me, I would have picked another region, like the former Dutch colony Surinam, or Montana or New Mexico. Or better: a region with some oil and gold in the ground.
Just like the United States of America, Israel is the expression of an idea, and as such, it can be discussed, its existence can even be denied—contrary to China or France, which are historical entities and not per se intellectual concepts. But Israel is there, I love to visit it, I admire it, I am moved to tears when I hear its national anthem or see its fighter jets, and at the same time I deeply worry about its future.
It would have been so much easier if it would have been created right after World War II in what soon after became the German Democratic Republic. Wouldn’t that have been a nice way for the Germans to repay some of their debt to the Jews?
NPQ | How do you respond to critics who say you are harming Israel by spelling out a dim future for the Jewish state?
De Winter | Would it be more realistic if I had written a novel describing how in 2024 the Jews are going on vacation in Mecca, how the Saudi princes will enjoy their stay in the fancy suites of the Tel Aviv Hilton, how the Jordanian desert will blossom and the slums of Cairo have been transformed into wealthy suburbs and in the Middle East there is nothing but peace and joy and happiness? I just continued and enlarged the present trends. Very realistically, I did my job. I fear that Israel will not see its first centennial. Not because of a lack of vitality or commitment, but because after many decades in a region where they have been met with violence, wars and hatred, the Israeli Jews will conclude that they love their children more than their country.
NPQ | What prompted you to write such a book?
De Winter | Sleepless nights.
NPQ | What needs to happen—or not happen—by 2024 for your vision not to come true?
De Winter | Preferably, a miracle. The arrival of the Messiah would be a nice surprise, don’t you agree? If that’s not possible, a civil revolution in the Arab world would also be a nice event—sorry, this is also part of the miracle solution. I mean, there is no solution. This is an old, tribal, atavistic conflict. There aren’t that many of these conflicts in our present world anymore, but they have been fundamental in the development of our world: the fight over land.
In the past, these conflicts were solved very simply: One group exterminated the other group. End of conflict. We don’t accept this kind of problem management anymore, with good reason. We ask for sanity, compromises. But this conflict is being defined by two groups with very strong demands and traditions. They exclude each other’s idea of reason. They have to give up some elements of claims they consider sacred. Time, more time, would help, if the Iranian people succeed in transforming the Shiite revolution into a civil revolution—that would be an amazing event, with wide-reaching consequences for the whole world.
NPQ | You have said you wouldn’t live in Israel. Why? How has Israel changed?
De Winter | I don’t want to live there because I feel that other countries have the right, too, to have stubborn, difficult, always-complaining Jews like me as their citizen.
NPQ | Where do you expect most Jews to live in 20 years? Back in Europe? The US?
De Winter | In my novel, the Jews still living in Tel Aviv all want to go to Moscow, like in a Chekhov play. Vladimir Putin is president of Russia for the third time. In 2024, he is considered the main statesman in the world. Russia is rich, in the main Russian cities Jews are playing in the symphony orchestras again, there are fancy restaurants, the streets at night are full with lights and ladies in mink coats and elegantly dressed men on their way to the theater, and they have wonderful little cakes, “petits fours,” in cafés with chandeliers.
Despite the old Russian anti-Semitism, there has been a strong bond between Jews and Russia—there is a melancholy that Russians and Jews share, a sense of the dramatic flow of time, and a longing for a faraway land, behind the horizon. So, the Jews in my novel dream of going home to Moscow.