Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and the Religion in the Matrix

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A Review of: Ten Thousand Lovers
by Toba Ajzenstat

Ten Thousand Lovers, set mainly in 1970s Israel, tells a love story, but the central concern of the author is to examine Israeli society and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lives of her characters. Edeet Ravel was born in Israel but grew up in Canada. She returned to Israel to do an undergraduate degree at the Hebrew University. She has a PhD in Jewish Studies and she is a peace activist.
Lily and Ami are the two central characters of Ten Thousand Lovers. Lily, the narrator of the novel, has lived in England for many years. She is now writing a highly focused memoir that relates the central emotional experience of her life-the short but extremely intense period of seven months when she and Ami were lovers more than twenty years earlier. As the novel opens, Lily is a twenty-year-old student at the Hebrew University. Though born in Israel she, like Ravel herself, has grown up in Canada. She meets Ami, an engaging Israeli man, one autumn day as she is hitchhiking from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. They are immediately drawn to each other. Ami informs Lily that he is an army interrogator. We learn later that he's employed by the Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service. Lily, who calls herself a pacifist, is horrified. This is exactly the type of man she does not want. But as it turns out Ami's sensitivities match Lily's more than she could have imagined. He is deeply conflicted about his own work and its consequences. He abhors and rejects the use of physical violence to extract information from the prisoners he deals with, but he has no control over what the other interrogators do. Nor can he direct any other aspect of his work.
Ten Thousand Lovers is about Lily's and Ami's love but it is also about the journey both make together as their relationship develops. Because of Ami's work and his struggles with it Lily becomes aware of and preoccupied with problems she sees everywhere. Lily takes us inside Israeli society. We follow her into various communal environments: her dormitory at the Hebrew University, her childhood kibbutz, a poor neighbourhood in Tel Aviv, Arab villages, and, by way of what Ami relates, into interrogation rooms. The reader sees what Lily sees and is caught up in her fears and angry questions. We get a sense of the tensions that exist between Jews and Arabs in everyday life in Israel, and we are exposed, at least in passing, to varying viewpoints concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as voiced by various characters.
What Ravel does in these passages rings true; she presents quite an accurate and not unbalanced picture of aspects of Israeli society and the tensions in it. She also asks some important questions. This is worthwhile, as far as it goes. The trouble with this relatively short novel is that Lily does not linger in any one of these environments for long, and she doesn't probe deeply. She takes what she wants from them, comes to some convenient conclusions, and moves on. Similarly, the characters we meet, though they may be passionate and appealing, nevertheless come across as one-dimensional, even Lily and Ami. There are moving moments in Ten Thousand Lovers, but instead of pausing to let the reader absorb something more meaningful about a character and his or her concerns, Ravel rushes us from one scene to another.
That is because Ravel's main purpose in Ten Thousand Lovers is to score a number of political points, ones that are critical of Israel's policies, and so the more literary elements of story-telling assume a secondary importance. Her desire to mount an argument is especially apparent in the breaks she introduces into Lily's chronological recounting of the events that took place in the 1970s. In these breaks Lily makes comments from her present day vantage point. It is a way within the overall framework of her story for Lily to address us more directly. The breaks also allow her to add nuance to the tale with musings on language and biblical references that would otherwise interrupt the narrative flow. The starting point for her digressions in these sections is often the etymology of Hebrew (and occasionally, Arabic) words which appear in her story or just words she wants to tell us about. The historical and biblical references are interesting, but again these are too obviously selected for purposes of reflecting critically on the attitudes and behaviour of Israelis.
The problem with Ten Thousand Lovers is not that Ravel is critical of Israel but that her criticism is directed solely at Israel. To view Israelis as entirely culpable, to deny the legitimacy of their security concerns, is to blind oneself to the barbaric attacks indiscriminately directed not just at Jewish Israelis, but at the countless immigrant workers and even Israeli Arabs.
A crisis comes in the novel when several of Ami's co-workers beat up a young Palestinian prisoner from the occupied territories who has been arrested for breaking a curfew. The young man later dies of his injuries. Ami's frustrations, which have been growing for a long time, reach boiling point and he decides to quit his job. In an outburst of anger he proclaims "...the occupation won't last for ever, and one day we'll have to account for everything. We'll have to look back and face it all. And we're going to see then, looking back, that we didn't do it for security, or out of fear, or despair, we did it because we were corrupt and sadistic and out of control." Is this Ami speaking in the anguish of the moment or Ravel grinding her ax? The novel goes completely off the tracks for me here. There's nothing in what follows to counter or balance Ami's statement. For Lily, Ami's is the definitive assessment of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and it seems Ravel is in agreement. By refusing to consider the serious concerns motivating the majority of Israelis here and throughout her novel, Ravel has signalled to her readers that she is unprepared to deal with the excruciatingly complicated reality at the heart of this conflict.

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