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Losing Israel

Jasmine Donahaye
ISBN-13: 
9781781722527
Publication Date: 
Thursday, June 18, 2015
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£12.99

Wales Book of the Year Non-Fiction Winner, English Language Category 2016

In 2007, in a chance conversation with her mother, a kibbutznik, Jasmine Donahaye stumbled upon the collusion of her family in the displacement of Palestinians in 1948. She set out to learn the story of what happened, and discovered an earlier and rarely discussed piece of history during the British Mandate in Palestine. Her discoveries challenged everything she thought she knew about the country and her family, and transformed her understanding of the place, and of herself. Losing Israel is a moving and honest account which spans travel writing, nature writing and memoir. Through the author's personal situation it explores the powerful and competing attachments that people feel about their country and its history, by attempting to understand and reconcile her conflicted attachments, rooted in her family story - and in a love of Israel's birds. A life-long bird watcher, Donahaye uses birds in Israel and her home in Wales to provide an unexpected and intriguing linking trope across the various themes of the book. Losing Israel stands apart from other titles about the Israel/Palestine situation with its focus on the British Mandate period, Palestine’s history in the 1930s, and the kibbutz movement. Her writing is frank and often immediate: the locations in Israel and Wales are sensually alive, and the author's physical exertions felt by the reader. Her childhood memories of her mother’s kibbutz, and her own experiences in Israel and Wales as an adult also bring originality to her writing. Losing Israel works on many levels - family relationships, the nature of patriotism and nationalism, cultural dislocation, the story of the Jewish diaspora and Israel, how history changes from one generation to the next, the histories of the dispossessed and the oppressed. In combining history, birdwatching, and her personal story Donahaye has written an accessible and human book about an habitual controversial conflict.

REVIEWS

Review By Meic Birtwistle, Planet

Friday, July 15, 2016

The history of Wales is filled with stories speaking of loss. Loss of language, loss of land, loss of independence, loss of livelihood: it is something that seems at times almost to define the Welsh psyche. Here, then, is a story that will undoubtedly chime with the experiences of the Welsh. But it is, in fact, the tale of another land and of another set entirely of alienation altogether. 

Innocence is one element of the loss that the poet Jasmine Donahaye describes in this moving memoir. The foundation myth of her mother's nation, Israel - a place where she herself has lived on and off - has been taken from her. A description has be perpetrated on her from her childhood: it seems as if her very nursery rhymes were contaminated. Was this a form of self-delusion or rather a gigantic con-trick, or both? Had the author's forebears - Jewish socialist settlers fleeing from poverty and persecution in distant lands - transformed themselves into privileged and powerful colonisers?

Theft of place and theft of names go side by side in this book and strike a quiet chord. Village and field names will have been changed - sometimes simply wiped off the face of the earth. Maps are perused - the possession laws of different states and mandates - are picked over. Ownership of ruins and rubble is contested. 

'But I don't know where I am. No map I consult can tell me. I have no idea where I am in relation to my personal orient. The whole landscape, physical and imagined, shimmers with duality, with sounds and stories that disorientate.'

Were those heaps of stone once a village, a community, or purely a natural phenomenon? Did man or nature cause their destruction, bringing another small world to an end? Was the communistic idealism of the kibbutz fatally flawed from its inception?

Landscape is acutely observed. Living as I do not far from the author on the same patch of Ceredigion mountain, where rocky hillside intersects with bog, I can feel the waterlogged ground and raging streams that she describes. The desert lands with their dry wadis and cactuses are beyond my experience or even comprehension; yet Donahaye cleverly juxtaposes these two extremes. finding parallels along the way. Nature observation binds the different times and places altogether. Birds of different species inhabit all the skies across the planet; yet two nations living in the same country dispute the title for a bird. As if the bird cared! As she names them in multiple languages, the author speaks to understand walled-off but interwoven human histories on the ground. 

This is a brave book. There are risks involved int eh making. Donahaye upsets her 'fellow countrymen' with her questioning, with her visits to the dispossessed 'enemy'; the Arab 'refugees' are in turn wary. Contested history and disputed territory mean that many sorts of borders must be negotiated. But perhaps the real bravery here is in the baring of her soul. The honesty with which she shares her thoughts and emotions is often tangible, almost painful; it is one of the book's strengths.

'The continual jostling of the present and the past, of omissions and concealments, of alternate names and stories with their injustices and outrages, is simultaneously enlivening and exhausting.'

As someone who learned in his teens that he had distant 'gwaed Iddewig' ('Jewish bloos') these sudden discoveries and feverish searches have an especial poignancy. And as someone who met Palestinians in college for the first time and so came to question the accepted story of Israeli victimhood, such as 'jostlings' certainly speak to me. 

One recurrent and enduring story found among Palestinians (and presumable all other displaced peoples) forced to flee in time of war or exile is that of the key - the house key, preserved over generations, a token of their intention to return, no matter what the damage at home. In a sense this book is just such a key for its author, since it fives access to precious memories of a childhood family home, and signals that the same intention to return, no matter what the emotional cost. 

Donahaye still loves her own people the goal of this memoir, which is also a narrative of travel, is to understand and face the crimes committed and concealed in her names. The journey is a continuing process, and so there can be no neat conclusion. But this book, int he process of uncovering, tries to explain. Read it. 

Review by Ahdaf Soueif, TLS

Friday, January 15, 2016

Losing Israel is Donahaye’s sorrowing account of how she peeled back Israel and saw that “the true peasants in Palestine were not the kibbutzniks, like my grandfather, but the Arab fellahin… displaced by capital in the 1920s and 1930s, and then by war in 1948. It is also an interrogation of accountability: has she “been complicit by loving a country… whose very existence is based on a wrong?”

Review by Nathan Abrams, Haaretz

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Disillusioned Zionist's Bird’s-eye View of Israel

Unequal parts autobiography, travelogue and nature book, author and ornithologist Jasmine Donahaye’s Losing Israel is a fascinating and powerful memoir. However, her views on the Jewish state may make some readers twitchy.

Nathan Abrams

Sep 04, 2015 9:35 PM

In lamenting the loss of a unique way of life in his country, Welsh philosopher J.R. Jones once described it as “the experience of knowing, not that you are leaving your country, but that your country is leaving you, is ceasing to exist under your very feet, is being sucked away from you, as if by an insatiable, consuming wind.”

This sentiment guides author-poet Jasmine Donahaye’s words in her new memoir, Losing Israel, which is part autobiography, part history, part nature writing and part travelogue. Donahaye’s work is not merely another rehash on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but a unique look at one person’s relationship with Israel. She goes from being an uncritical Zionist to someone whose ties to Israel are blighted by her own family’s less-than-savoury involvement in the Zionist enterprise. Donahaye recounts how, during a telephone conversation with her mother – who was born in Mandatory Palestine – she discovered by chance that a scar her grandfather bears resulted from skirmishes with Arabs from local villages that had long since ‘disappeared’. Her voyage to find out what happened to these villages and their residents leads Donahaye to unearth an alternative story underlying her family’s kibbutz, Beit Hashita, and, in turn, to question many of her deeply held preconceptions about Israel.

Born to an English father who made aliyah to Israel, where he met her kibbutznik mother, Donahaye grew up in England. At 19, she moved to the United States before ending up in rural west Wales, a country where she lives now and with which she seemingly has no familial or organic connection. She explains how moving to Wales and engaging with its troubles “was a form of Zionism displaced, a love of Wales-as-Israel.”

As Israel increasingly disappointed her, through its past and current actions, “staining” her love for the country, Donahaye began to feel increasingly ashamed, so she embraced this small Celtic nation, since Wales, “itself disenfranchised, likes to ally itself with the disenfranchised elsewhere.” Thus, Donahaye learned the Welsh language, in which she also speaks and writes – and which some claim is derived from Hebrew, making her an even more unusual writer from a British-Jewish perspective.

The connection to Wales, as the above J.R. Jones quote makes clear, permeates not only this memoir, but also Donahaye’s previous writing. Prior to this book, Donahaye – who is a poet, writer and teacher of Creative Writing at Swansea University – wrote The Greatest Need: The Creative Life and Troubled Times of Lily Tobias, A Welsh Jew (2015) and Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine (2012). She has also penned a poetry collection titled Self-Portrait as Ruth (2009), a collection about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “written in defiance of all official versions of Israeli or Palestinian history.”

‘My sense of whom I was came undone’

Donahaye’s biography is tied up with hard-line communist kibbutz Beit Hashita, established in 1935, situated equidistantly between Afula and Beit She’an in northeastern Israel. Her mother was born in Afula in 1941 and grew up on the kibbutz, raised in the children’s house. Her parents met on that same kibbutz when her father arrived, guitar in tow, that very instrument viewed suspiciously as a tool of “dangerous Western capitalist influence.”

In exploring the history of this kibbutz in particular, and how it stands as a metonym for wider Israeli society, Donahaye discovers how, in order for Beit Hashita to be founded, it was necessary to dispossess and displace more than 200 peasant Arabs who lived and worked on the same land. This occurred twice – during the 1930s and again in 1948 – and her family played a part in it. This discovery left Donahaye, in her own words, “profoundly disorientated, my sense of whom I was came undone.” Ultimately, she concludes that Beit Hashita, an “idealistic community with an ideology of self-sufficiency and communist equality, of workers owning the means of production, of worker empowerment,” was founded on precisely the opposite of this ethos.

Despite her growing disillusionment, there is still one thing about Israel that retains its pull on Donahaye: its birds. Israel, we learn, is one of the world’s most important bird migration corridors. “More than 500 species follow this flight path between Africa and Europe, and in total some half a million birds pass through Eilat twice a year,” she writes. Donahaye certainly knows her birds; bird-watching is an activity and metaphor that pervades not only her entire book, but also her life. It is the lure of these very birds that keeps her coming back to Israel, time and again.

And Donahaye writes about them, at length and in detail. I am no ornithologist, or “twitcher” as bird-watchers are known, but her descriptions, like this one, soar:

“Everywhere we go, it is not family, or ruins, or human stories that make the strongest impression on me, but birds. Masada is a bird-of-prey migration, not a site of heroic Jewish resistance to Roman rule: short-toed eagle, spotted eagle, imperial eagle, honey buzzard … The raptors rise on the thermals from the Negev and float past us at eye level. On the broken walls of Masada, there are lines of large dark birds with orange wing feathers and a haunting cry – Tristram’s grackles, spelled grakle in his [H.B. Tristram’s] Fauna and Flora of Palestine. Beit Hashita, the kibbutz my mother is from, is Smyrna kingfishers and black-winged stilts with red legs, and hoopoes. Sinai is wheateaters, every species of wheateater, and griffon vultures circling, and perhaps a black vulture.”

Even birds can’t escape the conflict

Naturally, given the centrality of bird-watching to this book (there are even birds on the cover), it is only a matter of time before Donahaye compares people to birds. “It’s so tempting, so easy, to see birds here in human terms. It’s impossible not to think about the language with which bird behaviour and belonging is described, and compare it to the truths and omissions in the description of variants of human belonging – ‘invasive’ or ‘indigenous,’ ‘migrant’ or ‘resident’.”

Birds, however, do not provide an escape from the conflict. Even an indigenous bird can be a victim of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A case in point is the naming of the orange-tufted or Palestine sunbird. In Hebrew, it is known as the tzofit; in Arabic, the ta’er al nedim al Filistini.

It is only a matter of time, then, before Donahaye compares birds, specifically, to Jews and Israelis. She writes:

“There’s something very Jewish about the crow family – or, to be more precise, something about them that fits ancient stereotypes about Jews: adaptable, clever, good at languages, and they too accumulate wealth, collecting anything shiny; they too suffer from a love of glitz and kitsch.”

On the surface, this comparison resembles a borderline anti-Semitic canard about Jews, money and vulgarity. This association between Jews and certain species of bird is deepened when she describes two striped hoopoes, Israel’s national bird:

“Hoopoes are dirty birds, somehow: they are unkosher, perhaps because they foul their nests, or are omnivores. Even so, they took precedence over the problematically named Palestine sunbird as the representative bird of Israel in the 60-year anniversary celebrations of 2008. They are cocky and vulgar, rejecting bourgeois manners and embracing peasant earthiness, like my old idea of kibbutzniks.”

Such comparisons, and accompanying descriptions, can surely be read in problematic terms, for it is Donahaye who, out of all the scores of species described in her book, has chosen to compare the Jews to crows (with their reputation for stealing) and to focus on the tref aspect of the hoopoes’ behavior: fouling their own nests.

Clearly, she sees similarities between the actions of Israeli Jews and the behavior of these two species of birds. One could extrapolate from these descriptions a larger point here about Donahaye and her ties to Judaism and Israel. But even without doing so, they certainly leave the reader with unanswered questions pointing at Donahaye’s unresolved feelings to Israel.

In spite of these looming questions, it is the lasting images of the numerous birds and bird-watching episodes that one takes away from Losing Israel, a fascinating and powerful book that provides a means to explore Israel’s contested history – but without resorting to large tomes. Writing this review in Wales myself, Donahaye’s book provides a timely link between these two small nations, which are connected in so many interesting ways.

Nathan Abrams is professor of film studies at Bangor University in Wales.

Review by Michael Kerr, The Telegraph

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Losing Israel weaves together memoir, travel, politics and birdwatching. It s a brave book, unflinchingly honest, and a beautiful one.

Review by Matthew Stewart, Rogue Strands

Saturday, August 15, 2015

What we are presented here by the author is beautifully written an open and deeply honest account of a troubled landscape and the search for the truth. This is also a riveting travelogue and also an account of Donahayes lifelong passion for Ornithology.

British born Donahaye reflects on her memories of past visits to her parent’s homeland, they left Israel before the author was born but paid many visits to Israel with the first one at the age of ten. Visiting had an effect on Donahaye. Visiting for the first time and seeing how her parents interacted with the locals especially her mother had the desired affect and it became a land she also came to love, many more visits where made and with it the chance to  explore the land and discover the birdlife of Israel, which is a major part of Losing Israel.

It was many years later that Donahaye discovered that in 1948 her grandfather was involved in driving out Palestinian’s from their homes and villages which were also destroyed, this became a catalyst for the author to search the history of this troubled land a land she still feels affection for to this day.

The truth sometimes is disturbing and also can hurt, this is where Donahaye excels in the style she writes through this book, and it is an open and deeply honest and passionate account. Some readers may find the tone of the book a little melancholy as she reflects on the past and searching for the truth not only in her family’s history but also the social history of Israel. The reader is will sympathise in the way she tells the story of her search for the truth and the way the Palestinian’s were treated and still are to this day.

As a review I was drawn to the way Donahaye weaved the story from one of searching the history of this land to one of a travelogue and describing the rich diverse birdlife of Israel. Home is now West Wales where the wet landscape surrounding the authors home is also explored, there is an affinity between the two lands and the rich wildlife contained within.

This is a book that may not add to the ongoing debate of this troubled part of the World but it is one woman’s emotional journey so eloquently written which makes Losing Israel a book that deserves to be read.

HIGHLY COMMENDED

Review by David J. Goldberg, The Jewish Chronicle

Friday, August 7, 2015

This is a strange, picaresque, affecting and beautifully written little meditation, part memoir, part travelogue, mostly a riveting account of the author's lifelong passion for ornithology, first conceived in the kibbutz fields.

REVIEW by Amy McCauley, New Welsh Review

Monday, May 25, 2015

A complex, multi-layered and ambitious book, Losing Israel isn’t your average ‘memoir’ by any stretch of the imagination. In one sense, the book isn’t the book Donahaye wanted to write: it is, instead, an example of what happens when life – with all its messy, unresolvable difficulties – usurps the author and her story. 

What begins as a personal exploration of identity – one which sees Donahaye return to Kibbutz Beit Hashita, where her mother grew up – evolves into a deep excavation of the history (and, crucially, the geography) of the contested space we now call Israel. She tackles the issue of the ‘depopulation’ of Palestinian Arabs between 1947 and 1949 with absolute determination, combining research of the conflicting literatures on the subject with her own reflections drawn from field work, interviews and personal experience. 

This method makes the relationship between present and past suddenly and vividly tangible, offering a thorough, engaging and highly readable ‘introduction’ to the conflict in Israel. This is not to say the book is simply for the ‘uninitiated’; but for me, coming to the book with little background knowledge of the conflict, I felt Donahaye offered me a ‘way in’ to the subject where previously I might have felt overwhelmed by it. She writes:
 

All That Remains [by Walid Khalidi] gives a detailed account of the history, population and remains of each of the villages emptied between 1947 and 1949, and cumulatively, the scale and extent of that depopulation is shocking to read. By now there are about five million Palestinian refugees – those who fled the newly established Jewish state in 1948, and their descendants. […] Jordan granted citizenship to most of its Palestinian refugees, but some one and a half million still live in refugee camps, now urban ghettos, throughout the Middle East.

Donahaye returns to the Palestinian villages obliterated during the forties – villages just a stone’s throw from her mother’s kibbutz – and seeks to discover exactly what happened to the Arab population. When she gets there, however, she finds a silence, a blank: an erasure of the past. Suddenly, she finds this act of erasure everywhere she goes, and begins to question her ‘reassuring picture of the innocent kibbutz, the safe ground of [her] family roots.’ The personal becomes deeply political, and Donahaye must contend with a wall of silence surrounding the erasure of the Arab community. To her credit – and with a dogged, sheer single-mindedness of resolve – she drills into the silence, despite the dawning realisation that the ‘answers’ she finds will unseat her own relationship to Israel, her family, and herself. 

As she questions her family and friends she places her personal relationships in peril; and yet Donahaye is driven to uncover – even just glimpse – some version of the truth. This results in her ‘back-story’ (along with her identity as an ex-‘kibbutznik’) being almost completely overturned during the course of the book. Towards the end of the book she writes:
 

The Zionist account of the past and the present is all-encompassing: it is a total story, a comprehensive account not only of a people, but of each individual, too. […] But to use the word Palestine or Palestinian is to lose the safety of that account. It acknowledges all the simplistic oppositions in the popular versions of the two narratives: heroic return to homeland versus European colonisation; defence against attack versus aggressive imperial expansionism; national self-determination as against racist exclusive ethnocentrism; a war displacing people and creating refugees, or a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing. The stories are irreconcilable.

And the very irreconcilability of the two accounts of history is the truth that Donahaye finally hits on – the fact that bothaccounts simply cannot both be true. But her investigation provokes a highly eloquent and thoughtful meditation on what it means to exist in history and as a product of history. She addresses the gaps, silences and palimpsests that emerge through geographies, languages, cultures and identities, and makes all of these things at once deeply political and strikingly personal. 

Amy McCauley has just submitted her PhD to Aberystwyth University. She is the author of a verse play, ‘My Baby Girl’.

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