Sayed Kashua wrote his novel, Second Person Singular, as an Arab-Israeli. He has since sadly reflected on his need to leave Israel for the US, after years of trying to find a place for himself in a society that treated him and other Palestinians as second-class participants in a country dominated by hard- right, nationalistic voices.
Before turning to Kashua’s novel, I wanted to place it in the harsh and punitive legal context of a variety of repressive laws that have been passed in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset. One such law enacted by Israel in March, 2017 denies entry to any foreigner who has exercised his or her freedom of conscience and of expression to support the international boycott movement that has gained steam. This law comes in an era where the ever-expanding illegal settlements established by the state of Israel calls into question any prospective two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians that could have any hope of a just and peaceful resolution of the ongoing turmoil endemic to the Palestinian / Israeli situation. It was reported that the vote came as the Israeli government’s right wing was clearly emboldened by the election of President Trump and his warm welcome the previous month of Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as the statements made by key members of his administration which have been highly supportive of the illegal settlements project.
Sayed Kashua wrote his novel, Second Person Singular, as an Arab-Israeli. Rabbi Rich Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in North America, was quoted in an interview as follows: “ It’s going to be a giant sign…’Don’t come unless you agree with everything we’re doing here.’ I don’t know what kind of democracy makes that statement.” A peace activist sees the law as redefining as an enemy of Israel anyone who does not agree that the settlements are now and forever to be part of Israel.
A second law that was enacted in the Knesset some years ago will now be utilized to punish two foreigners who have dared to call for a cultural boycott of Israel or the territory it controls. The 2011 law allows civil suits against those who might call for an economic or cultural boycott, by anyone who can claim economic harm. The law was heavily criticized by Israeli civil liberties groups, and as expected, the criticisms were to no avail.
But I certainly had these reports etched in my mind as I read Kashua’s novel. I thought about the fact that one of the protagonists’ is a lawyer whose name we never learn, but one who has developed a strong legal practice in Jerusalem. He specializes in representing his fellow Arabs who are accused of various crimes. Perhaps indeed , this character, “the Lawyer” ( a nice touch I think , by the author to emphasize the degree to which this man is to be identified almost completely by his career, which has catapulted him into upper-middle class Arab society in Jerusalem), will end up defending various Palestinians who dare to speak out against the settlements. Perhaps he will expand his practice and defend Jewish peace activists whose efforts to defend the fundamental rights of Palestinians and those who advocate on their behalf have met with severe repression by the Netanyahu government in recent years.
I thought about the fact that one of the protagonists’ is a lawyer whose name we never learn, but one who has developed a strong legal practice in Jerusalem. The novel is not a political fiction in any obvious way. The point certainly is not to explore specific political and legal problems that wreak havoc on the proper workings of Israeli society. Rather, it is an existential work, looking at questions of social identity and how they are constructed and what happens when pressure builds to construct false identities. We learn that the Lawyer was originally from a small Palestinian village. However, he got a first class education, including a top degree at law school and must perform a role that he has carefully constructed form himself, so that he might succeed in impressing his desired clientele. So he wears a Ralph Lauren tie, though he pretends to not know its make when asked by his friend, the owner of an independent café in Jerusalem’s downtown, on King George Street. He finds it necessary to attend to meetings and court in an expensive, German-made luxury car. He does this to win over skeptical Arabs who have joined the professions in Jerusalem and consider that only someone well-versed in the manners and mores of the Israeli Jews will be a substantial and reliable lawyer.
Although the novel does not take us through any trial scene, it describes the work our protagonist does. We learn that he finds the unwinnable criminal cases he conducts for those charged with attacks on Israeli cars in the West Bank on the bypass roads only available to the settlers and other Israeli Jews. There is no potential whatsoever to beat the charges we are told – a conviction and lengthy prison term is unavoidable. However, by finding any aspects of the action and of his client’s background that might be remembered for mitigation on the day a future prisoner exchange occurs, he will more than likely assist him or her. While that eventuality will be years down the road, it is the best that can be hoped for.
He soon tracks down the novella in a used book store and on his way home, spies a note inserted in the book that seems to indicate that his wife has been addressed by an apparent lover. Early scenes with a book club prepare the development of one of two main plot lines in Second Person Singular. The Lawyer’s wife asks him if he has read Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata. He soon tracks down the novella in a used book store and on his way home, spies a note inserted in the book that seems to indicate that his wife has been addressed by an apparent lover. This triggers intense jealousy and a psychic melt-down, as the carefully constructed progressive persona he has built up disintegrates. He regresses to a conservative, irrational man whose ingrained habits from his village upbringing pour out.
A parallel plot involved a young man who has also arrived in Jerusalem, Amir, from the village of Jamilla, who has just completed his graduate work in social studies. Amir also finds it necessary for various emotional and practical reasons to construct a persona and to slip out of his “Arab skin” and takes extreme action to become accepted within Israeli society. At one point, Amir states that he wants to be like them – “without loyalty tests, without admission exams, without a fear of suspicious looks…without feeling that I am committing a crime.” I won’t give away the plot other than to indicate that it develops in surprising ways once Amir becomes a helper for a young Jewish Israeli who is suffering from paralysis. Kashua eventually links the two plots in a rather ingenious fashion. In the process, he tells us much about the struggles of middle class Palestinian Israelis who attempt to find a true home and sense of belonging in a truly precarious or risky atmosphere. This novel brings to life tough issues that might otherwise remain abstract ideas.