I hadn’t intended reading Shani Boianjiu’s Means of Suppressing Demonstrations in the New Yorker, but when I read Phil Weiss’s demented response to the story (“a piece of propagandistic fiction…that must be categorized as Israeli army literature.”), I knew that it would be worth looking at. The third-person narrator in the story is close to the perspective of Lea, an officer nearing the end of her army service. She spends her days bored at a checkpoint on Route 799 (the road, like the story, is fictional), and her nights having meaningless but not necessarily unpleasant sex with a fellow soldier, Tomer. The premise of the story is that three local Palestinians approach her, demanding that she and Tomer suppress their ‘demonstration’ as brutally as possible, so that it will make the papers. They come back every day, trying to convince the soldiers to up the ante from tear gas to rubber bullets to live fire. It’s a clever conceit, and it’s executed brilliantly. The story is droll and ambiguous, at once a satire of the life of an IDF soldier and the Palestinians they meet on a daily basis. It is only propagandistic fiction if you don’t understand how fiction works, if you think IDF soldiers in the West Bank spend every day murdering people, or if you believe that the purpose of fiction is to be pro-Palestinian propaganda.
Weiss’s first objection to the story is based on its opening paragraph. Lea is reading an article in the newspaper in which “the world says” [my italics] that seven Palestinians killed on a Gaza beach were killed by Israeli artillery, while the Israeli army “knew that the family had been killed by a dormant shell that Palestinian militants had left by the sea”. His objection to this distinction is augmented by another unhinged Mondoweiss author, Annie Robins, who discovered that this incident was based on a real life episode, the killing of the Elaliya family in June 2006. But Boianjiu makes no attempt to hide this: the name of the sole survivor of the artillery shell in her story is also Hulda. This is Robins’ lament: “It was the magazine’s choice to publish a story that replicates the impenetrable cloak of lies pumped out by Israel’s robust hasbara emissaries. But for a respected publication like the New Yorker to publish a “fictional” story which replicates the horrible death of a family of 7, thus beginning a summer of violence and clearly recorded as resulting in innumerable attacks…I still find this inconceivable and unconscionable.”
In their rush to expose the propaganda, Weiss and Robins aren’t reading closely enough. Lea is presumably reading about the tragedy the day after it happened. And she would presumably believe the IDF’s explanation. This does not mean that Boianjiu is attempting to absolve the IDF of its responsibility. The fact that she makes no attempt to fictionalize the story, and that we now know the IDF were responsible for the killing of the Elalilya family, can plausibly be read as a critique of soldiers swallowing everything the army tells them. Either way, using this real life event as the framing device for her narrative is no crime, either against fiction or against the Palestinians.
Weiss’s ire, though, is focused on this section: “He is thirteen,” the man said. “That’s a man for you. That’s bar mitzvah.” He looked younger. She [Lea] remembered that the instructors said that, no matter what, means of suppressing demonstrations should not be used against children. She also remembered a long discussion in her officers’ training school about a child being anyone whom you could not possibly imagine having already had his bar mitzvah…These demonstrators really knew their stuff – informed consumers [my italics] or whatnot.” Weiss misses Lea’s boredom and cynicism. He treats the prose like he would treat a news story in the New Yorker: Informed consumers! That’s what she called them! Unacceptable!
In an interview accompanying the story’s publication, Boijaniu told the New Yorker about its genesis. As part of her army service, she taught soldiers about the different means for suppressing demonstrations. “One reservist asked me if I could imagine a scenario in which soldiers would have time to measure all these distances [of means for suppressing demonstrations] while at the same time trying to control a wild demonstration. I couldn’t, but I wanted to imagine it. So I wrote this story.” It might not make sense to Weiss – who seems to think that she wrote the story as piece of hasbara – but it should make sense to anyone who understands how fiction gets made.
On Twitter, Boijaniu has been fighting back. Weiss asks her, “Do you believe the Palestinian protesters ask the IDF to use violence against them in order to receive press coverage?” Her response: “3 of them do in my fiction! They also come wearing mattresses and lab goggles. Do you believe Harry Potter is really a wizard?” Enough said. She has written a piece of fiction, and it should be judged as a piece of fiction, even if she once served in the IDF and has characters who are IDF soldiers and not evil Nazis. In response to John Banville’s harsh review of Saturday, Ian McEwan wrote, “The critic was revealing far more about himself…than anything about the book.” So it goes for Phil and Boijaniu’s story.