In last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, American novelist Rachel Kushner recounts her visit to the Shuafat refugee camp in Jerusalem (“‘We Are Orphans Here’: Life and Death in East Jerusalem’s Palestinian Refugee Camp,” December 1, 2016).
Unsurprising for a piece by someone without “previous experience in the region,” the narrative is brimming with clichéd sympathy for the Palestinians and disdain for Israel. While Kushner briefly mentions that the camp is run by the United Nations (UNRWA), she blames Israel alone for the hardships experienced by its residents. Instances of violence against Israelis and Palestinians alike are glossed over.
Kushner makes sure to include her deep ambivalence on the connection between Zionism and Jewish identity in the piece. She states that, when asked by a guard if she was Jewish when leaving Shuafat, she did not answer yes, but instead notes her “Yiddish-speaking Odessan great-grandfather was a clothing merchant on Orchard Street. My grandfather worked in his shop as a boy. That is classically Jewish, but my sense of self, of what it might mean to inherit some trace of that lineage, was not the kind of patrimony the soldier was asking after.”
Left unsaid in the article, and in a “Back Story” interview with the author, is the central role that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) played in the creation of Kushner’s confused narrative.
Kushner did not travel to the Shuafat refugee camp, or to Israel in general, on her own – she was brought with other well-known authors as part of a Breaking the Silence political campaign. These authors are each expected to contribute to a forthcoming book about Israel, due to be published in June 2017 to coincide with “50 years of occupation.” (See this April 2016 article in Haaretz for more details on the Breaking the Silence/authors tour.)
Kushner also relies on Ir Amim, an NGO with a particular and highly politicized approach to Jerusalem. In her article, Kushner approvingly cites Ir Amim’s creative attribution of a tragic traffic accident to “the multiple challenges of living beyond the separation barrier.”
Likewise, Moriel Rothman-Zecher is acknowledged as accompanying Kushner throughout her visit to the refugee camp. What is not mentioned is that Rothman-Zecher is a regular contributor to +972 Magazine – a website that publishes articles that promote a marginal agenda, from the fringes of Israeli discourse.
These three NGOs are important parts of the New Israel Fund political network and receive significant funding from European governments. Breaking the Silence alone received NIS 6,459,364 from foreign governmental bodies in 2012-2016, and the New Israel Fund authorized grants to the NGO worth $699,310 from 2008-2014.
As noted, Kushner’s piece is not the end of the story, but part of a wider campaign. Perhaps, by the time of the book’s publication, Kushner will have had time to gain a more nuanced perspective of the complex reality in Israel, one not provided by narrow political advocacy NGOs. However, inasmuch as the book reflects the influence of NGOs like Breaking the Silence and incorporates the political agendas of their funders, it is bound to be filled with the same one-dimensional understanding seen in Kushner’s New York Times article.