By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Warning: If you prefer to view Israel through rose-colored glasses, then you should skip this review of Rebecca Sacks’ novel “City of a Thousand Gates” (Harper). If you’re hoping that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be easily resolved, you should think twice before opening its pages since it will leave you in despair. The events that occur just before the novel opens are horrific: the brutal stabbing of a 14-year-old Israeli girl by a Palestinian and the retaliation beating by a group of Israeli teenagers that leaves a 14-year-old Palestinian boy in a coma. The reactions to these events – the very different reactions – ripple through the characters’ lives. What is unusual, though, is how a book focusing on the political reality of the situation is also so intensely personal – offering intimate details about the characters’ mundane day-to-day lives.
“City of a Thousand Gates” follows numerous characters whose lives are impacted by the murder and the beating. For example, Hamid enters Israel illegally so he can earn money for college. The Israeli who hires him to install air conditioners is less concerned with politics than cheap labor. Hamid earns far more than he could working in the territories, but also faces danger whether he’s sneaking across the border or entering through Israeli checkpoints. Ori, a 19-year-old who lives in a settlement, guards one of those checkpoints. His settlement was the home of the murdered girl, and his mother, Miriam, fears for his safety and worries that he has abandoned their Orthodox faith.
The Israeli Ido and his American-born wife Emily focus on their newborn baby and their careers, while trying to ignore their very different feelings about the Israeli army and the settlements. Samar Farha, one of Hamid’s professors, know that while academic circles respect her because of her Ph.D., some members of her family treat her as inferior because she’s unmarried and has no children. Vera, a German freelance journalist hoping to make a name for herself, sympathizes with the Palestinian cause, while lusting for Amir, a professional Israeli soccer player who rarely acknowledges her text messages. This leaves her torn between her professional desires and her almost overwhelming sexual feelings. And these are only a few of the more than 25 people listed in the opening cast of characters.
The despair and fear felt by each side is palpable. Miriam wonders about the purpose behind the settlement where she lives if Ori no longer practices his faith: “What is the point of all the locked doors and the locked windows, the walls and the barbed wire, the grief, the rocks, the knives, and all the ways there are to die in these territories? These are the sacrifices, this is the labor – it is the work of a whole life to keep the commandments, to love and tend this land, the only inheritance that matters.” The Palestinians see Israelis settling in land that does not belong to them – filling swimming pools with clean water, while Palestinian homes are lucky to have running water. The callous treatment they receive at checkpoints and the ability of the Israeli army to enter their villages and search their homes makes most of them hate those who enforce these rules. Underlying this is fear they will be erased from the land their ancestors cultivated, that the Israelis won’t stop until they disappear.
“City of a Thousand Gates” is not a pleasant book to read. The explicit sexual scenes jarred until it became clear that the author was showing how fear and pain can live side-by-side with routine activities and everyday desires. The feelings of hate and destruction on both sides may leave readers squirming in their seats. Even relatively simple things – like the Arabic curse words used by Israeli soldiers whose translation turned out to be pornographic – were usually far more complex than one might imagine. “City of a Thousand Gates” is an impressive, if unlikeable, work.