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Refuse to be Enemies

By Avirama Golan

Haaretz December 15, 2017

The friendship of two captivating women, the Israeli Ruth Dayan and the Palestinian Raymonda Tawil, is recounted in Anthony David’s important and absorbing new book.

Beyond presenting a personal story, David offers a bold model of leadership and a wake-up call for the elites of the two peoples.

The morning of the sneak attack, on June 5, Moshe had toast and cornflakes with Ruth followed by coffee and croissants with his mistress Rachel. His mood was “fantastically optimistic.” (Page 115)

In an adjoining room, Raymonda repeated to him what she had heard on the plane and demanded to know if he’d married Suha. “You are not my mother, so don’t mix into my business,” he screamed at her. Raymonda shouted back, “This is my daughter . . . people are saying she is your mistress. YOU MUST TELL PEOPLE THE TRUTH.” (Page 234)

These two passages are not minor details added for atmospheric effect in the Improbable friendship, Anthony David's fascinating new biography. They are intertwined throughout the book and can even be said to shape the entire story. At the center of the book are two exceptional women, Ruth Dayan (100) and Raymonda Tawil (77). Both are from the pinnacle of the old and proud elites of their respective peoples. But since the author of this book is a man, and is also a member of an old elite, he makes the men in their lives cast long shadows.

David likewise describes himself in the introduction as a “shadow” accompanying his heroines. But unlike the two men of their lives, David is a successful shadow: watching carefully, listening attentively, gathering stories and, with keen narrative skill, organizing materials into high drama. David's effective technique, which includes working closely with the protagonists of his books and taking a empathetic and open attitude toward their positions, has proven itself in his previous books, especially in Once Upon a Country, the biography of the Palestinian Intellectual Sari Nusseibeh.

What emerges from this technique is simultaneously expansive and limited: expansive because it takes us into leadership and decision-making circles, revealing events behind-the-scenes secrets; limited, because it is delivered, as mentioned, from the top of the elite. Like Nusseibeh, who studied at Oxford and prefers to write in English, Ruth Dayan, whose parents attended the prestigious London School of Economics, prefers reading English over Hebrew. Raymonda, whose independent and staunchly feminist mother, named Christmas, grew up in the United States, has a perfect mastery of English. Like Nusseibeh the Palestinian "prince", the two captivating women described by David in his current book often come off as characters in a period film set in a turbulent, romantic Middle Eastern colony and whose plot is replete with intrigues, love, and passion.

Despite all this, and considering the impressive personalities and the important stories of these two heroines, readers should treat with an indulgent smile the masculine position and amazing power that is attributed to passionate emotional women and men. Improbable Friendship offers a gratifying, intriguing, and thought-provoking reading experience.

Between Two Weddings

The story begins with a furious quarrel: Tawil fires off an angry missive to Dayan accusing her of protecting Moshe Dayan and glossing over his deeds. Dayan, who initiates the writing of the book, is horrified by the quarrel and fears it could sabotage Tawil's vital cooperation. She justifies herself and tries to show that Tawil is wrong. There is a follow-up conversation, and another one after that, and finally the two laugh off their quarrel, and the work on the book begins. From this point on, David tells the two stories of Ruth and Raymonda as two parallel plots that will finally meet amid a tempest.

The first chapter, which begins with the wedding of Ruth and Moshe Dayan, features all the elements of the future drama: the economic, socialist and intellectual background of Ruth Schwartz of Jerusalem, and the colorful figure of Moshe Dayan, the son of a farmer from Nahalal. There are important guests at the wedding, and the book depicts the moment when the young bride slips into the cowshed to milk the cows. She declares that day to be the happiest of her life. All this becomes the background of what Ruth dreamed for her future, and the way her life in fact unfolded.

At the end of the chapter, Ruth's parents send the newlyweds to London so Moshe can get some education. "Moshe hated London, despised the damp climate, and it offended his Bedouin sense of male honor to be dependent on a mere girl to communicate with people he wanted nothing to do with, anyway,” David writes. What he doesn’t tell us is what Ruth felt about all this. It’s possible to guess that even in recounting these memories to David she didn’t complain or speak about her feelings, but reported what had happened to the man who had always remained faithful despite all the bitterness he dished out at her. Even after he died and the terrible pain he caused her children, with restraint and pride she kept her feelings for herself.

The potential for disappointment, present at the start of the story, deepens. Ruth is forever longing for the past, insisting that she did not marry a general but rather a farmer. The scene of her pining for quiet village rooted in family life is wholly convincing. One of the most touching passages in the book describes the tranquil family life that prevails after Moses is wounded and has to stay home to recover. But the chasm between her modest dream and her husband's towering ambitions is already evident: she relishes in his return to the farm where, together, they dance in the green fields with their little daughter; he is filled with rancor at the damage done to his warrior abilities. As the happy mother gives birth to two boys, he turns angry and withdrawn.

The first chapter dealing with her Palestinian friend, entitled "The Syrian Prince," also describes a wedding - Raymonda's aunt. This wedding also allows David to recount the history of Tawil family dynasty and to introduce Raymonda’s mother Christmas and her father Habib, the son of a British honorary consul. Habib lived in Acre, owned vast estates, and was an important contractor for the British Army in Palestine.

A Permanent Potential for Conflict

Being plunged within the book’s atmosphere of two social elites makes for riveting reading. Princely dynasties have a way of engaging readers’ hearts, especially today. But David goes well beyond veneration for the Israeli and Palestinian aristocracies, or for Moshe Dayan, whom he calls "the most celebrated Jewish leader since Joshua," "the most magnificent figure in the Israeli pantheon," and a “legendary hero worthy of Homer.”

The story that fell into David's hands is a precious one, and he handles it with care. Notwithstanding his clichés about Moshe, he presents the two women as complex and poignant figures, and the violent and bloody conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is reflected through their stories in all its despairing intensity. In fact, there is not a single moment in their private lives left untouched by the conflict. In chilling intersections, or thought-provoking parallels, terror and death seep into every scene.

To David's credit, it should be noted that even in the romantic framework he chooses for the book, he vigilantly recounts Raymonda and her family’s experiences during the Nakba. Ruth Dayan encountered great difficulties at different stages of her life. There is no doubt that her determined struggle for independence transformed her from being the "wife of" to one of the leading women within Israeli society and the peace camp. But Raymonda experienced a terrible tragedy, the horrific destruction of a family, a community, and the cultural life of a nation. David shows a deft hand in capturing this in the chapters dedicated to Raymonda.

Clearly, there is no symmetry between the two women’s stories. Ruth, after all, is not only an Israeli. She is the wife of a man who symbolizes more than anyone Israel as an occupying power. And the more David describes Moshe hand as "a soldier, tireless and fearless" or "a young and beautiful army man with an eye patch," the more shattering is the image of a military truck piled high with the blue bodies of men, women, and children. Or how Raymonda must flee in panic from her aunt's house, a house we later see ransacked and looted by a Jewish mob. This is the explosive material that makes the encounter between the two women so improbable. It is abundantly clear that their friendship sprouted and thrived against all odds, overcoming the vast abyss between them -- because of their singular personalities.

Irresistible obstinacy

There is too little space here to describe the enormity, with their human flaws, of these two women. The book does so with superb success. Sometimes the book slides into depictions more suitable for a glossy women’s magazine, but there are also scenes that are hard to forget. For example, the meeting of Raymonda with Abu Mazen at the headquarters of the PLO, when she declares the need to see the human behind the IDF uniform. There is no doubt, she tells him, that Israelis and Palestinians can live in this peace. This is only a few days before the Israeli military governor sentences her to house arrest for "extremist activity."

Or the moment when Ruth returns home and is about to go out again to a theater performance of Palestinian friends. Her husband flies off the handle. "WHAT IN HELL WERE YOU DOING SEEING THOSE TERRORISTS IN NABLUS!” he shouts, "You must stop undermining my authority!”

Ruth, who until then has quietly suffered his betrayal with his mistress Rachel, pours him a glass of whiskey and says, "Moshe, I want a divorce." She leaves the house with a suitcase and moves into a rented apartment. At last she is free.

These two descriptions are only a small hint of their ability to move mountains, change consciousness, and struggle within a world of bloody conflict led by powerful, dominating men. With all their differences in character and background, what binds Dayan and Tawil is an indefatigable stubbornness. By obeying an inner voice, they refuse to buckle to a person, a crisis, or to reality itself.

In this sense, Improbable Friendship goes far beyond being just a personal story. This book boldly proposes a model of a strong leadership capable of shattering the tired old instruments used to the "manage" the conflict. Ruth, Raymonda, and Anthony David propose a wake-up call to the elites of the two nations: despite the blood and suffering, the hatred and suspicion, the corrupt politics and violence, the occupation whose horrors have penetrated into the arteries of the two peoples, the dark memories and the prejudices – despite all this, it is still possible, if we desire, to knit a tight network of friendship and trust. In the end, this is what will permit us to live together.

Original review text (Hebrew):

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