Muddling Fact and Fiction
A review of Exile by Richard North Patterson, Henry Holt, 2007, 576 pages, $26
By Mitchell Bard
Richard North Patterson knew that he was going to have problems with his novel Exile because he devotes six pages at the end to talk about the controversy he expected. He writes off the anticipated criticism he would get as partisans “so committed to their own narrative that they are grossly offended by any deviation.” To further try to insulate himself from any accusation of bias, he cites as readers two of the best known advocates on each side, Alan Dershowitz and Jim Zogby. Alas, his book suffers from serious problems that reference to sources on all sides cannot ameliorate.
First, as a work of fiction, Patterson has written an inventive, albeit implausible plot, involving an American Jewish man and a Palestinian Muslim woman who meet in law school, have an affair and then are brought together years later when he decides to represent her when she is tried for her role in a terrorist conspiracy. The writing isn’t great and, as thrillers go, there’s little suspense, a not too surprising twist at the end and a completely unsatisfying conclusion. For most readers, it still is a decent read and unless they are knowledgeable about Middle East affairs will probably not realize how absurd much of the plot is.
For those of us who are familiar with Middle East politics, the implausibilities and factual inaccuracies are distracting and annoying. The fact that he pairs an assimilated American Jew with a radical Palestinian Muslim immediately strikes a discordant note. Why is the Jewish character so ignorant? And why would a devout Muslim woman fall for him? The main reason for the pairing seems to be to give Patterson the opportunity to use the woman to deliver the Palestinian narrative. Naturally, Israelis are brutal, immoral and inhumane. The Jew just soaks it all in and doesn’t have the most basic knowledge of his heritage to respond.
Patterson makes some effort to balance the political partisanship of the book by briefly giving the Jew a Jewish fiancé and prospective father-in-law who is a Holocaust survivor. This allows Patterson to bring in some of the Jewish perspective on the conflict with the Arabs. When the protagonist visits Israel to gather evidence for the trial, the author also imparts some important information about the political situation as it is rather than as the Palestinian characters make it out to be. Of course, when Patterson sends the lawyer to the West Bank, the reader is given another propaganda lesson.
To give just a few examples of the bias and distortions in the book, Patterson uses the cliche of the Palestinian who carries a key to her father’s home in Israel that was stolen by the Jews and then has the woman say that Palestinian history began thousands of years before Israel was created, never mind the fact that, at best, the Arabs can trace their history in Palestine back a thousand years. In another place, the woman says it’s a myth that Arab women are subservient. One need only read any report on the status of women in the Middle East to see the truth about their role in Muslim societies.
The story of Sabra and Shatila is repeated numerous times and the Palestinian woman’s husband’s radicalism is attributed to seeing his family murdered in the camp by the Phalangists. As is the case throughout the retelling of the Palestinian version of history, the massacre in the refugee camp is presented in a vacuum and the Palestinians are portrayed as blameless victims subject to endless persecution. Because the Palestinian’s family is dead, the Jewish lawyer sees them as no different than his father-in-law’s family being killed by the Nazis. In Patterson’s mind, Christians murdering Palestinians in revenge for Palestinians murdering them is similar to the Nazis’ scientific campaign of extermination.
Patterson has an Israeli character say the Palestinians fled after partition because they were expelled and were prevented from coming back, ignoring the fact that thousands left before the war, many others left at the behest of their leaders and most wanted to avoid being caught in the crossfire of the war. Few were expelled and, after the war, Israel offered to take tens of thousands back in the context of a peace agreement.
The author makes an effort to distinguish between different political factions in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but really doesn’t understand them. For example, he recognizes that Hamas and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade have different agendas, but doesn’t recognize that the rivalry between them is over who will control the PA and not over their ultimate goal, which is to destroy Israel.
The peace offer Patterson imagines Israel making is basically a capitulation to Palestinian demands. Israel makes all the concessions because it is the one that is guilty of all manner of sins while the Palestinians are not required to do anything. In fact, the plan Patterson outlines is similar to what Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat in 2000 and that he rejected.
To give an example of factual errors, in Patterson’s dramatization of the atrocities committed by Israeli forces he says that Israeli F-16s bombed the refugee camp in Jenin and this traumatized the Palestinian woman’s daughter. In truth, Israel purposely chose not to bomb Jenin, which he neglects to mention was a terrorist base, and instead sent its soldiers on an infinitely more dangerous house-to-house operation in a small area of the camp. During the mission 23 soldiers were killed. Israel would not have lost a single soldier if it had used F-16s but it would have risked the kind of damage that Patterson’s character invents.
One example of a factual error that reflects some of his carelessness with the facts is that he places Armageddon in the West Bank when it is believed to actually be the town of Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley of Israel. Another mistake is that he says Israel promised in the 1993 Oslo agreement to freeze settlement building. This is false. Discussion of settlements was specifically put off for final status negotiations and Israel did not agree to place any restrictions on them.
Patterson also repeats the Palestinian mantra about the security fence carving up the West Bank and in Jimmy Carter-like fashion suggests Israel is only interested in grabbing land, ignoring the fact that Israel has withdrawn from 94% of the territory it captured in 1967. He claims the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929 came after Jews massacred Arabs in Jerusalem, but this is a complete fabrication. A character also says that an Israeli considered the womb of Palestinian women a ticking bomb, but it is the Palestinians themselves who have said that the wombs of their women are weapons in their war against the Jews.
In one particularly absurd scene, the protagonist goes to a school in the West Bank and is told about Palestinian children maimed by the Israelis. The kids in this school only play with toys and have no guns or swords because they are being taught that “violence only breeds more violence.” The reality is that Palestinian schools teach just the opposite, putting photos of suicide bombers on the walls as examples of heroes and teaching them Israel does not exist and that there is no Jewish history in “Palestine.”
He also invents a Palestinians for Peace group and suggests there’s a large movement in the territories advocating non-violence. This is certainly a literary invention that ignores the overwhelming support for violence routinely found in Palestinian opinion surveys. While it is easy to produce dozens of photos of thousands of Israelis marching in Peace Now demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Patterson would be hard-pressed to produce a similar photo of Palestinian peace activists.
Exile is a novel so perhaps the author should be cut some slack so he can tell his story. Unfortunately, much of the education of the public comes from American popular culture, including novels by best-selling authors such as Patterson, and those who read this book are likely to come away with a disturbing image of Israel that is as fictional as the plot and characters.