2014, pp. 229, $24
The Torture Trap
by Ethan Bronner
This thriller about the Israeli-Arab conflict comes with rare praise from one of the masters of suspense fiction and with a premise that suggests exploration of deep moral dilemmas. The endorsement comes from Stephen King, who says the book is “about the lies we tell ourselves until the truth is forced upon us,” and is “what great fiction is all about.”
The premise is this: An Israeli archetype of the left, a lawyer who defends Palestinians in Israeli courts and military tribunals—a thankless job requiring exceptional fortitude and devotion—is suddenly asked to come inside the defense ministry to be the arbiter of the use of torture (“extraordinary means”) against Palestinian detainees.
The lawyer, Dahlia Barr, is told by her former law professor, Zalman Arad, now the state’s top anti-terror official, that the unthinkable is happening—the Palestinian citizens of Israel are about to launch an internal rebellion of terror. To help combat the new threat, the military and security services are lending out their top officers to the less capable national police force. Dahlia is asked to be among those chosen for this vital project. As Arad puts it, “Whom would you trust with such decisions? Someone else—or yourself?”
I am sorry to report that although the intriguing plot, taut action and tangled relations make this a page-turner, this is not a revelatory book about truth and lies. There is no exploration of Dahlia’s moral and political dilemma. Nor is the delicate and complex issue of the loyalty of Palestinian Israelis to the state played out. Instead, the action moves swiftly to southern Lebanon, where a joint unit of Palestinians and Hezbollah has used hang gliders to penetrate the Israeli border, kill seven soldiers and take two others hostage. One is a Bedouin tracker. And wouldn’t you know it? The other is Dahlia Barr’s older son.
All of this is happening while an Israeli Arab named Mohammed al-Masri, who went to school with Dahlia and made an academic career for himself in Canada, has flown into Israel with tens of thousands of euros sewn clumsily into his suitcase. He travels on El Al, security officers notice his overstuffed suitcase—that seems to have been his plan—and he is detained upon arrival and held prisoner at police headquarters. Al-Masri, by appearances a sophisticated Westernized intellectual and a CNN commentator who changed his first name to Edward and married a blond Quebecoise, proves to be bitter, vicious—and, at heart, a killer. Unfortunately, that is pretty much the case with all Arab men in this book. They’re bumblers, lack depth and humanity, misconstrue reality, murder without a second thought and say things like, “The Jews control everything.”
By contrast, the Israeli Jews are endearingly hard-bitten and charmingly corrupt. When Dahlia notes that the telephone in her new police office is pink, she wonders if it is a sweet welcoming gesture toward her, one of the few women in the building. But we are quickly informed that all the building’s phones are pink. “Doubtless someone’s brother-in-law had a supply of pink phones he needed to unload.” So yes, the Jews are not above a little palm-greasing. But damn, are they smart—high-tech entrepreneurs, chess masters and Talmud scholars who would rather listen to Bach than defend their beleaguered nation, but, alas, they do not have that luxury. As blond-haired, blue-eyed Kobi Shem-Tov, deputy police commissioner—modern Orthodox with the bearing of a man you can trust—tells Dahlia, “We become like them, eh?” Later, he says, “In the end, either we Jews take responsibility for our own fate, or someone else will. And that, the last time, did not work out very well, did it?”
Dahlia Barr spends about five seconds in the opening pages of the novel playing the civil rights lawyer—indignant in court about the incarceration of a 13-year-old Palestinian girl—while in the rest of the book she sounds like a Likud campaign spokesperson. Dahlia, who is supposed to put us in mind of unbending real-life human rights advocates like Shulamit Aloni and Michael Sfard, has no patience for Palestinian grievance or legal nicety once her son is held captive in Lebanon. She may have been selected to prevent gratuitous torture by impatient security officials, but she doesn’t hesitate to stuff al-Masri’s mouth with a scarf, grind her cigarette into his chest and hold a loaded pistol to his head to get answers to a few questions. You see, Kobi was right: We do become like them.
So yes, the Jews are not above a little palm-greasing. But damn, are they smart—high-tech entrepreneurs, chess masters and Talmud scholars who would rather listen to Bach than defend their beleaguered nation, but, alas, they do not have that luxury.
The author, Hesh Kestin, grew up in Brooklyn, caught the Israel bug soon after the 1967 war and lived there for 18 years, serving in the military, writing novels, practicing journalism and working for Forbes magazine in Europe. At one point, he tried to start a competitor to The Jerusalem Post, in those days a liberal reflection of Labor Zionism. The child of Eastern European immigrants, he seems to have been smitten with the idea of tough Jews taking on the world. He portrays them well. Nothing wrong with that.
But his portrayal of Arabs is as lamentable as the lack of any effort to acknowledge that there is more than one side to this conflict. Al-Masri’s plan to get himself arrested to rile up Israel’s Arab population is one more ruse aimed at besmirching the Jewish state. When the port of Jaffa is introduced, we are told only that it was from there in 1909 that a dozen Jewish families moved to establish Tel Aviv. Actually, it was 66 families who famously parceled out lots with seashells. But that small error is nothing compared with the failure even to mention the tens of thousands of Palestinians pushed from Jaffa in 1948. Acknowledging such events would give the narrative some depth. Instead we have a story of Jewish heroism. It has its charms—some compelling detail, strong dialogue, a sense of place and a fast-paced plot. Those virtues are nothing to sneeze at, but King is wrong. The Lie is far from great fiction.
Ethan Bronner is deputy national editor of The New York Times and was Jerusalem bureau chief from 2008 to 2012.