Thursday, February 27, 2014


Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is wonderful. 

It’s a novel built around the actual life of Sarah Grimke and a fictional depiction of characters in the slave-holding Grimke family of Charleston, South Carolina. It recounts the evolution of Sarah and her sister, Angelina, into outstanding abolitionists and pioneers of women’s struggle for equality. At the same time, what drives the narrative is the fierce hatred of blacks against slavery, their burning desire for freedom, brought out especially in the experience of the slave, Hetty, who grew up with Sarah, and Hetty’s mother, Caroline. These are fully drawn characters, rich in creativity and imagination, with fertile minds and strong emotions.

Kidd probes much about human interactions: black slaves with whites, slaves with each other, women with women, women with men. She looks at differences in religious belief or lack thereof, including contradictions among Quaker abolitionists. It’s so much deeper and more thoughtful than The Help, which got so much attention a couple of years ago. True, the periods covered were different, but The Help lacked authenticity in depicting the relative role of black and white women in confronting the Jim Crow society. In my opinion, Kidd’s is a much richer book, and I hope it’s read and discussed as widely as The Help.

One thing that always bothers me about historical novels: it’s so hard to tell where history gives way and fiction takes over. In her “afterword”, Kidd gives a very direct accounting of what she knows and what she imagines. And the book puts it all together almost seamlessly.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Just finished reading Ari Shavit’s “best seller”, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. This book is full of contradictions, which Shavit tries to sort out. That’s what makes it interesting.

A fervent Zionist, Shavit acknowledges parts of an ugly past and present that are denied and sanitized in the “official” Zionist legend. He confirms the accounts of the “Nakba” (catastrophe) experienced by the Palestinians, the forcible and brutal record of conquest, expansion, repression and occupation still ongoing. Despite all that, his is a rhapsodic ode to Israel, as it has been and is. He believes the occupation of the West Bank should be ended, but he advises Palestinians to “get past” their preoccupation with the injustices inflicted on them. While he faults the Israeli government for its occupation policies, he fully supports its regional nuclear weapons monopoly and its uncompromising confrontation and demand for military action against Iran.

Beyond stating his personal objection to Israel’s occupation, Shavit might have considered what could bring it to an end. On this he offers no clue. Certainly the Israeli government and the settlers want the very opposite. That won’t change until there is strong counter pressure within Israel; and that, in turn, won’t happen without growing international pressure against the occupation and for the Palestinian right to self-determination. It also requires unceasing support for serious negotiations to reduce violence, prevent war with Iran, and create a climate in which peace becomes possible.

A recent column by Tom Friedman noted the rising potential of the worldwide boycott movement against Israel’s occupation. That’s notable in that Friedman generally advocates for US and Israeli hegemonic interests in the Middle East. (I often take issue with his columns and, in fact, disagree with many comments in this one.) However, I agree with Friedman that the “demand that Palestinians halt all ‘incitement’ — but that Israel be free to keep building settlements in their face — is not winning Israel friends in Europe or America. It is only energizing the boycotters.”

 He cites progress of the boycott: “Just recently, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the Netherlands’ largest pension fund management company, PGGM, ‘has decided to withdraw all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks because they have branches in the West Bank and/or are involved in financing construction in the settlements.’ And The Jerusalem Post reported that Danske Bank, Denmark’s largest bank, has decided to boycott Israel’s Bank Hapoalim for 'legal and ethical' reasons related to its operating in the settlements."  Further from Friedman: “But my gut also tells me that the death of Mandela has left many of his followers looking for ways to honor his legacy and carry on his work. On some college campuses, they’ve found it: boycotting Israel until it ends the West Bank occupation.”

For speaking some truths about the past, and for his critical view of the settlers and continued occupation of the West Bank, Shavit is reviled by rightwing Zionists. But there is fulsome praise for his book from liberal partisans of Israel and almost all mainstream commentators. If you “google” for reviews of the book, the list is very long, but absent are commentaries from Palestinian and other Arab critics, who doubtless see Shavit’s glorification of Zionism as the dominant message of the narrative. A critical review by an Israeli, Noam Sheizaf, is a worthwhile counter to the media kudos.