Sayed Kashua, until recently one of Jerusalem’s best-known resident contemporary writers, has left the city for good, with his wife and children. He has moved to the town of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, two hours from the nearest big city, Chicago.
While Kashua is not as famous outside Israel as other Hebrew-language novelists such as Amos Oz or David Grossman, his books have been translated into fifteen languages, and he is a popular writer within Israel, as well as being a well-known public figure.
Kashua has written four series of the television show ‘Arab Labor’, an acclaimed sitcom about a Palestinian family living in Israel and their attempts to assimilate, in an echo of Kashua’s own background as a Palestinian citizen from the predominantly Arab Israeli town of Tira, who moved to Jerusalem in his early teens. Kashua also has a regular column for the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and for the Jerusalem magazine Kol Hair.
Following the murder of the 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem in July, an attack which was widely seen as a revenge killing for the kidnap and murder in June of three teenage Israeli settlers hitchhiking in the West Bank, and the upsurge of anti-Arab violence and demonstrations in the city at this time, Kashua made his decision to leave.
He elaborated on his decision in his Haaretz column, which was reprinted by The Observer two weeks into the recent Israeli assaults on Gaza, which at the time of writing have paused in a temporary ceasefire.
Kashua stated that his hopes of Arab-Jewish coexistence, which he attempted to contribute to through writing about Palestinian experiences in Hebrew for an Israeli audience, had been crushed. As he records in the article:
‘Twenty-five years of writing in Hebrew, and nothing has changed. Twenty-five years clutching at the hope, believing it is not possible that people can be so blind. Twenty-five years during which I had few reasons to be optimistic but continued to believe that one day this place in which both Jews and Arabs live together would be the one story where the story of the other is not denied. That one day the Israelis would stop denying the Nakba, the Occupation, and the suffering of the Palestinian people. That one day the Palestinians would be willing to forgive and together we would build a place that was worth living in.
Twenty-five years that I am writing and knowing bitter criticism from both sides, but last week I gave up.’
Michelle Campos article for Middle East Research Information Project provides a longer historical view of segregation and discrimination in Jerusalem, and an insightful reading of the changing position of Palestinians in Israel depicted in Kashua’s TV series, from its first season in 2007, to the most recent, in 2013.
As she notes, and has been discussed in accounts of the Ottoman period, Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods were mostly mixed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their gradual segregation began around the time of the 1930s, introducing a continuing move towards division that was consolidated in the war of 1948, and again in 1967.
Kashua’s decision came not just in response to recent violence, then, but was also the result of practices intended to squeeze out Israel’s Palestinian population with a longer history, which, as Kashua has sadly concluded, his attempts to bridge communities as a Palestinian writing in Hebrew cannot overcome.
In his latest column for Haaretz, Kashua recounts the banal irritations of his family’s new life in America and his attempts to navigate a complicated university bureaucracy.
He also describes his children’s requests to go home, to which, he tells us, he responds: ‘We are home, sweetie’.