Review: An American novel manages, for once, to get Israel right

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, seen over a border wall from East Jerusalem.
Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, seen over a border wall from East Jerusalem. Rebecca Sacks’ “City of a Thousand Gates” probes Israel’s many people and points of view.

On the Shelf

City of a Thousand Gates

By Rebecca Sacks
Harper: 400 pages, $8.

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I was nearly certain, before I started reading “City of a Thousand Gates,” the debut novel by Rebecca Sacks, that I was going to hate it. The way it was being pitched reminded me of the early breathlessness around “American Dirt,” a novel that was marketed as the definitive take on the Mexico-to-U.S. immigration experience. Promotional materials promising “Gates” would “spark admiration and controversy” immediately put me on edge; learning the author had spent only a couple years in Israel and the West Bank, the politically fraught setting of the book, made me even warier.

In the decade I’ve been living in the U.S., I’ve heard countless people opine on a nation whose founding was recognized by global powers that didn’t want Jews coming to their shores; a nation founded with violence that still enacts violence and has normalized a terrible kind of abusive power; a nation I also called home for most of my life. I have seen American Jews defend their right to a land they have no interest in living in — though they take advantage of Birthright, a free trip meant to brainwash them ideologically and, increasingly, religiously. I’ve watched with horror as evangelical Christians support Israel monetarily out of a Biblically-based desire to expedite the second coming of Jesus Christ (upon whose arrival the gathered Jews will either convert or go straight to hell).

On the other hand, I’ve also noticed how American progressives use Israel and Palestinian liberation as moral yardsticks, a strange flex that, at least in my experience, isn’t applied to other oppressive governments and oppressed peoples outside (and sometimes within) the United States.


All this is to say that I had ample reason to avoid Sacks’ book entirely. But I did not hate “City of a Thousand Gates”; I loved it. By the end of the novel, I was emotionally exhausted (“Aren’t you ashamed of this country?” one character asks) but also deeply appreciative of the care and nuance on every page, the characters’ messiness and the plot’s purposeful irresolution.

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There are off-key moments that will likely elude most readers: There isn’t a lone tattoo artist in Jerusalem but tattoo shops aplenty; one transliteration collapses two different phrases into one; and the weight placed on whiteness rings false in a place where colorism certainly exists, but ethnicity, religion and nationality are far more meaningful than American connotations of race. For the most part, however, Sacks skillfully balances her characters’ daily dramas and relationships — crushes, parents, siblings, engagements, babies and sex — with the ever-present hum of underlying ideology and potential violence

Rebecca Sacks' debut novel is "City of a Thousand Gates."
(Justin Bishop)

“City of a Thousand Gates” is a novel of vignettes, some shorter than others, that bounce among a multitude of characters over the course of a winter, spring and summer. The key players are Hamid, a Palestinian man who has to sneak into Tel Aviv to work for a Russian Jew; Vera, a German journalist who’s sleeping with a Jewish Israeli soccer player and pitching sociopolitical features to Der Spiegel; Emily, an American Jewish immigrant, momstagrammer and softball liberal married to Ido, a casual right-wing Israeli Jewish animator; Samar Farha, a Muslim Palestinian professor at Bethlehem University writing about “national narratives as forms of codified misremembering”; and Mai, a Muslim student of Farha’s who lives in an East Jerusalem villa. The list goes on, and some appear only once or twice but help round out the narrative.

The characters circle one another, their paths occasionally crossing, the boundaries between their lives porous but strictly controlled by law, the state, ideology and gender. What holds them together is their various reactions to (and interactions with) the targeted beating of a 14-year-old Palestinian teenager, Salem Abu-Khdeir. Ostensibly, the act was revenge for the murder of a settler girl of the same age, Yael Salomon, by a young Palestinian man. But neither murder is the first of its kind, and their personhood and youth are nearly beside the point: Their deaths are shoved into a narrative of cyclical violence, quid pro quo, an eye for an eye.

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But Sacks, thankfully, does not leave it there. Over and over again she demonstrates the immense power imbalances at play. There is the imbalance of time: Hamid’s mother wastes so much of it getting from Bethlehem to Ramallah and back for work because of Israeli checkpoints. The imbalance of safety: Palestinian teens throw stones, Israeli soldiers (often teenagers as well but with military gear) shoot back with rifles. State power: “Isn’t it illegal,” an American rabbi asks on a tour of Area B, “What the army is doing?” Omar, the Palestinian tour guide, responds: “‘It is legal because they write the laws,’ he says. ‘This is the undramatic heart of the occupation.’ Pause. Then, making a gesture with a marker like a wand: ‘Bureaucracy.’”

Book jacket of "City of a Thousand Gates," by Rebecca Sacks.

Power is central to the novel — its accumulation, fetishization and consequences interrogated at length. Vera, the journalist, who carries Germany’s collective guilt on her shoulders, silently asks a Jewish friend, “Do you know how lucky you were? Your people, I mean. You went all those years, those hundreds of years, thousands of years, and never had a state, an army — never had the means to oppress. Do you know what you gave up?”

It’s an oversimplified question, of course. Power comes in many forms, and its reach can be as vast as a state or as small as a family. But it’s an intriguing question — how does oppression harm the oppressors, especially when they are descended from the oppressed? — and one that “The City of a Thousand Gates” doesn’t answer. It doesn’t need to. Asking the question is more than enough.

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Masad is a books and culture critic and author of “All My Mother’s Lovers.”