Daniella Levy’s new book Disengagement came out this month. Disengagement is first work of quality literary fiction to address the personal and social impact of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. This kaleidoscopic novel examines a wide range of perspectives on the Gaza settlement project and its painful dissolution—from fishermen to fanatics, from devout believers to reluctant soldiers to Tel Aviv cynics to the Arabs who watch the settlements arrive and ultimately disappear around them. Levy writes with a rare appreciation of the humanity of her characters—even in conflict, they all remain accessible and sympathetic.
Rather than endorse a particular political or religious point of view, Disengagement invites us to engage with the full range of people caught up in a national trauma, and at the end we find ourselves liking and empathizing with them all.
Kasva asked Daniella about her writing process:
How did you come up with the idea for Disengagement?
It started with a short story I wrote about a year after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, about a female soldier who evacuates a widow from her home in Gush Katif. A few years ago, when I found myself focusing on short fiction, I came back to that story and decided to rewrite it — but this time, to research properly and make it as true to life as possible.
So I sat down and watched footage from the evacuation for 3 hours. And I came out of it with so many different feelings about what I’d seen. Some of those feelings were in complete conflict with each other. And I felt I couldn’t rewrite that story, because I simply couldn’t choose only one perspective to portray when I had so many conflicting feelings about the event.
I think it may have been my husband who pointed out that I didn’t actually have to choose: I could write a different story for each. So I did, and the story became a collection of stories, and that collection eventually grew into a novel.
How were you personally affected by the disengagement from Gaza?
I was 18, a recent high school graduate, when the disengagement took place. But I never actually visited Gush Katif, much less lived there. I attended a Bnei Akiva high school that was strongly Zionist-religious and most of the staff members (and many of my friends and classmates) felt connected to the settler movement and community. At home, though, it was more complicated: my dad supported the disengagement and my mom opposed it. On principle, I identified more with my mom’s point of view, but I was always ambivalent.
When the day came, I barricaded myself in my bedroom on the top floor of our house in Rehovot and refused to watch any of the footage. It was just too painful for me. My dad watched avidly, and he was deeply rattled by it. I remember him telling me about a dream he’d had, something about meeting a friend from Pittsburgh (the city we’d left when we immigrated to Israel nine years before) and a sense that he could never go back. That dream — which he doesn’t remember having — was the inspiration for the story that grew into Reuben’s perspective.
Why do you think the disengagement from Gaza is still relevant to us in 2020?
Well, one obvious reason is that we are still dealing with the geopolitical implications of the withdrawal today. But more importantly, the disengagement was a microcosm of the polarization we are seeing all over the world in political discourse.
Each side was not only 100% convinced that they were right, they were dismissive of the other side to a point where the other side wasn’t even real to them. Settlers believed that most of the people of Israel were on their side. I read materials from the Museum of Gush Katif claiming that the soldiers wouldn’t have been able to carry out their orders if they hadn’t been so thoroughly “brainwashed.” (Someone else might have called it “adequately prepared.”) The left-wing, on the other hand, saw — and still sees — settlers as some kind of Baruch Goldstein caricature, crazy, Arab-hating, religious fanatics putting their children in danger for the sake of a messianic dream. The other side weren’t real people, with intelligence, concerns, and hopes just like them. And thus, they didn’t talk to them as though they were real people. When the settlers tried to reach out, they spoke using their own points of reference, their own internal language, as if repeating those slogans should be enough to bring those other people back from the dark side. The left-wing, on their part, saw the settlers as a lost cause. As one character says in the book, “There’s no talking to these people.”
This is exactly what I see going on in the US now. Republicans are all gun-toting racist rednecks, and liberals are all entitled neo-communists with a victim complex. Neither are real humans to each other. It’s very disturbing.
In my opinion, the real tragedy of the disengagement was less the loss of the land or people’s homes, and more the loss of empathy—the ability to listen to and care about other people’s stories.
On a more personal level, why do you think you felt compelled to write about this topic, especially considering how fiercely you avoided involvement in it while the event was happening?
I think I only learned the answer to that once the book had taken shape and I began to see the common themes emerging.
At its heart, this is a book about home: about what it means to have a home, and what it means to leave a home.
The defining event of my childhood was leaving the only home I remembered living in, in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, and moving to Israel with my family. I was a few months shy of 10 years old at the time.
And the thing about aliyah (immigration to Israel) is that it is both leaving home and coming home in a way. The USA is home in ways that Israel can never be: it’s where my family culture is from, where my mother tongue is spoken, where my earliest memories were shaped, where many of my family members still live. On the other hand, Israel has always been home in ways that the USA can never be: it’s the homeland of the Jewish people, the only place in the world where Judaism is the majority culture, the only place where I don’t have to feel strange and different for the way I dress or practice my religion. Those two realities coexist in a constant contradiction, and I’ve spent my life navigating the tension that stretches between them.
So I think I felt compelled to write about the disengagement because it is also about home: what it means to leave home, what it means to find home. And the book addresses that question on many different levels.
The book is written from 16 perspectives — half male, half female, some religious, some secular, some sabras, some olim, and even one Palestinian. How were you able to write convincingly from such a wide range of perspectives?
I think I was in a unique position to write this book, partly because of my personal background and partly because of who I am as a person.
My mother tells me that even as a young child, I was always most interested in the kids who were different. I was often the first to befriend the “new kid,” the outsider, the immigrant. And then I became an immigrant myself. From then on, I was an outsider. Israelis call me American; Americans call me Israeli. Even in the Anglo community in Israel I feel different, because many of my friends and the people I meet made aliyah as adults, whereas I partially grew up here. As mentioned above, I feel as though I’ve always been suspended between worlds.
Feeling as though you never exactly fit in has its advantages. I often see both sides of the argument so well, I don’t quite know what side I’m on. This makes me a terrible decision-maker, but an effective writer when it comes to portraying a variety of very different viewpoints.
Did you know when you started writing who your characters would be or did they take shape in the writing?
For the most part, I had no idea who they would be, beyond the most basic details. I made an outline with just a few words sketching what the story would be about. When I started writing Ehud, for example, I had no idea he would be so funny. I knew it was going to be a very serious book, and he surprised me. When I started writing Maayan, I didn’t know she was a poet, and I had no idea who the young man she encounters was, either, until he told her! As usual, some characters strolled into my head fully formed, while others took a while to take shape.
Which perspective did you find most difficult to write?
Ironically, the perspective I struggled with the most was the one that was closest to autobiographical: that of Reuben, the oleh from Boston. I had to completely rewrite the first chapter because I felt that the writing was too distant, too detached. Why is it so hard for me to connect to my own story in fiction? I guess that’s a question for my therapist…
Which perspective did you most enjoy writing?
Oh, so hard to choose. I tend to have the most fun writing the lighter, more humorous parts, so Ehud and Hedva were up there in my favorites, and Maayan’s perspective had a lot of that snappy, banter-y dialogue that readers of my previous novel will find familiar. But Talia’s perspective required a deep dive into my own darkest fears and doubts and anger with God, and there was something profoundly therapeutic about that. Amal’s story also has a special place in my heart.
Were there particular characters that you felt closer to, or who represented your own conflicts surrounding the disengagement from Gaza?
Honestly, they all represent my own conflicts, not only surrounding the disengagement from Gaza, but surrounding a lot of other issues, too. I identify with all of their struggles, even though their experiences and worldviews may be very different from mine.
You write movingly of the crisis of faith suffered by one of your characters. What answers might you give someone dealing with similar issues?
That chapter may be the strongest in the book, because of how “true” it is—straight from my own struggling, hurting heart. I have no answers. I just hope that chapter helps people who are dealing with similar issues understand that they are not alone, that it’s okay to struggle and okay to be open about that struggle, even—maybe especially—as a person of faith.
Do you feel that the viewpoints in the book accurately represent the various factions of Israeli society that were affected by the disengagement?
Unequivocally, no. I wanted to cast as wide a net as I could, but ultimately there was a story to tell and I had to choose perspectives that served the story and that I was able to write. I feel I’m already challenging the reader quite a bit in asking them to identify and empathize with so many different characters. I regret that I was not able to represent more perspectives.
Do you think you’ll come back to any of the stories in Disengagement in your future writing?
Well, I’ve never written sequels, and tend to prefer to leave stories at their natural conclusions. But I wouldn’t rule it out. There’s a first time for everything.