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Jonathon Garfinkel. Photo by Rhonda Spivak

The Ambivalent Author: Jonathon Garfinkel Talks About Crossing the Israel/Paelstine Divide

By Rhonda J Spivak, B.A., L.L.B. Feb 1/2009

[Written 2007]"I started smoking in Israel and stopped when I left" said Jonathan Garfinkel, the Torontonian who is the author of the  book "Ambivalence-Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide."

Garfinkel, who is a poet and playwright spoke about the book and his thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Winnipeg at McNally Robinson bookstore.

During the second intifada, Garfinkel  met a Palestinian woman, Rana at the Toronto Film Festival.  She told him of a curious story about a house in Jerusalem that is shared by an Arab and a Jew.  He developed a friendship with Rana, who challenged the Zionist assumptions he learned as a child at Bialik day school in Toronto.  Her viewpoints also challenged those he hears at his synagogue, the Minsk, on Kensington Market.

"The story of the shared house was my entre into Israel", said Garfinkel who speaks Hebrew but " put off going to Israel for a long time."  He felt compelled to travel to Israel for the first time to find that house, hoping it might be a model for peaceful co-existence.

"My trip was a complete disaster," said Garfinkel.   "When I got there
nothing went as planned.  The address for the house didn't exist.  When I finally found the Palestinian and Israeli family who occupy the house, they didn't want to talk to me," he says.

Ambivalence is the product of Garfinkel's often humourous travels in Israel and the West Bank, and examines the complexities of real life when they come up against ideals and doctrines. 

"My intensive education as a child at Bialik school didn't prepare me for what Israel was.When I left Israel in 2004, I left with a kind of pessimism.
Everybody in the conflict was suffering.  It was taking its toll on everybody.  I  left feeling pretty upset, and I returned in 2006 feeling I needed to know more" Garfinkel said.

Near the end of the book, Garfinkel learns that his friend Rana believes that suicide bombing is a legitimate form of resistance.  When asked about whether he has been able to maintain a friendship with Rana given this viewpoint he responds.  "Rana is reading my book now.  To be honest I'm hoping we're going to have a good talk about this.For me, it's important to actually continue the dialogue with her.  I can never support violent resistance.  It's made it difficult for me to look her in the eye at times.
I felt I had developed a trust with her.  I'm sure many Israelis on the Left had a similar kind of loss of trust after Barak's efforts to make peace with Arafat failed.  I've heard that the Left in Israel lost a lot of faith in the peace process after that.  I can't help but think that I felt a similar disappointment [with Rana] that the Left felt then.I hope to resume my dialogue with Rana and convince her to change her mind."

When asked whether he found his "peace" as a result of his travels, Garfinkel paused "In a way, I did. I am still ambivalent.The peace I have arrived at is acknowledging that there are these contradictions."

He continues, " My views are always shifting. I haven't resolved my ambivalence.  I went to Israel with a lot of innocence.  At first I swung hard to the left right away.  It was kind of a reaction to the education I had. But by the end I think I veered towards more middle ground.  But my innocence and stupidity made a good story."

When asked about the message of his book, he said "The message of the book is to look for the human in this conflict and to try to get people not to be afraid to talk about it.  We need not to be afraid of ideas and ideas we don't agree with.  In Israel, they debate issues like crazy.  But in the mainstream Jewish community in Toronto, there is far less debate." 

Garfinkel's experiences in Israel also became the basis for a play, House of Many Tongues.  "The play is based on the idea of the divided house in Jerusalem.  But the characters are all made up.  The house is a character.
She is a woman and she speaks," he noted.

The play was translated into Hebrew and German.  It was presented at Habima Theatre in Tel-Aviv in the 2008-2009 season.

Garfinkel's roots trace back to Winnipeg.  His parents Dr. Paul and Dorothy Garfinkel lived in Winnipeg before moving to Toronto.  The author's uncle Marvin Garfinkel and his family were in attendance at McNally Robinson for the lecture and book signing event when he spoke in Winnipeg.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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