Rise: A Novel of Contemporary Israel, by Yosef Gotlieb. ‘Atida Press. 386 pp. $14.99. Kindle eBook $4.99.
Rise is an astonishing tale, as true as the breaking news from Israel. Though it is easy to characterize it as promoting a leftist perspective on Israeli-Palestinian issues, it’s quite clear that the author and principal characters see themselves simply as practical. The new ingredient, for many readers, will be the increasing dimension of terrorism from within – meaning Jewish terrorism in particular. For Gotlieb, Israel’s own extreme right is as much a danger to the state as the terror born of Islamic fundamentalism. Its values and actions compromise the country not only politically, but also spiritually. They infect the country with a disease that cannot be cured even by Israel’s unparalleled medical institutions.
In the novel, the governing Nationalist Party is headed by a self-perpetuating leadership cadre committed to satisfying the wealthy and powerful. Its policies promote unbridled materialism, increasing the distance between the rich and the poor, and its security stance pays more attention to real estate than to the values of justice, equality, and tolerance. For many, including Naftali Kedem, leader of the opposition forces, and Knesset member, the Nationalist Party is a dead end for Israel, destroying its nobility and essence without solving any of its problems. It implicitly perpetuates home-grown terror.
The story opens with the long-delayed homecoming of Lilah Kedem, a sabra in her mid-fifties who has spent three decades living in the United States. She has become an internationally-acclaimed photographer, long-separated from her husband and son, whose heart now tells her it is time to return.
The Israel Lilah returns to is changed in many ways. The divisiveness is ugly and bitter; variety has transformed into shades of “us and them.” Party lines are sharply drawn, and disagreement is felt and labeled as treachery. The country seems to have lost its soul.
Now reunited with her husband, son, and childhood friend Michal, Lilah inevitably befriends Michal’s husband, an Israeli Arab physician named Issam Halaby. In a short period of time, circumstances lead the two couples to bond and found a new movement. Na’aleh (rise) is not a political party but a loosely organized grassroots organization that fosters communication, cooperation, and mutual support to Israeli communities of all ethnic and religious stripes. It works to awaken the population to rise up against mindless hate and bigotry and the stranglehold that twenty wealthy families seem to have on government policy.
Unofficially allied with Naftali’s New Democratic Party, Na’aleh’s immediate concern is to counteract the Sons of Gideon, a right-wing terrorist group killing Arabs and conciliatory Jews by staging spectacular acts of murderous violence. Essentially, the Gideon group promotes ethnic cleansing of Israel’s Arab population and brooks no dissent from those striving toward fruitful accommodation and reconciliation.
A separate thread of the novel develops around the mission of Eli Zedek, a top-level Israeli security agent charged with investigating domestic terrorism. He, too, is on the trail of these home-grown terrorists, who gladly take credit for their atrocious deeds.
Before long, Eli and Lilah cross each other’s paths. Lilah, who is determined to fight with her camera, discovers an image of one of the perpetrators in a roll of film she shot in Jaffa while building her portfolio for a book on Women of the Ports. The image matches the description of the hulking figure many had witnessed at a terrorist attack by the Gideons.
The novel winds back and forth between the home lives of the key characters, the public rallies to topple the present government staged by the New Democratic Party / Na’aleh organizations, and the growing frequency of terrorist attacks. Lilah becomes the spokesperson for the movement to redeem her country from its social ills and spiritual ills, its debilitating hatreds and violence.
Embedded into the suspense-filled events and rich characterizations are compelling analyses of what must be done to correct Israel’s path and to release it from the stranglehold of a powerful minority. The issues are thoughtfully and clearly expressed, and the passions of the Kedem and Halaby families, along with the almost superhuman commitment of Eli, so often thwarted by government ineptitude or interference, make Yosef Gotlieb’s ideas and principles for a renewed and reawakened Israel come fully alive.
This review appears in the February 2012 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, FL) as well as its sister publications: L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee Counties).