The roots of Israel’s current chaos in a potent new historical noir

An old photo of a hotel in Israel
In the 1930s, the Hotel Fast in Jerusalem displayed both British and Nazi flags, reflecting an era of turmoil and confusion.
(Sepia Times / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


The Red Balcony

By Jonathan Wilson
Schocken: 272 pages, $27

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In March 1933, the new German flag with its black swastika flew above the Hotel Fast in Jerusalem. The city was then part of British Mandate Palestine, but still — it’s a bizarre thing to consider: The Nazi flag once flew over what is today Israel.

This haunting image opens Jonathan Wilson’s ninth book, “The Red Balcony,” a seductive historical novel set in Palestine that reimagines the investigation of the notorious murder of Haim Arlosoroff. And if you want to understand the current Arab-Jewish conflict as well as the ideological division tearing apart Israeli society — why, for example, about 100,000 people in Jerusalem just protested Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government — “The Red Balcony” is an entertaining place to start. Because most of the problems found in Israel today can be traced to the British Mandate in the 1930s, when levels of political tension and violence were even higher than they are now.

A defining event of the Mandate was the assassination of Arlosoroff, a prominent Jewish leader of the time; he was the political director of the Jewish Agency, helping to bring European Jews to Palestine. As a socialist and Jewish nationalist, Arlosoroff not only navigated between the extreme and moderate Zionist factions, but he also brought prominent Arab and even Nazi leaders to the discussion — making him one of the most hated men in Palestine. So it wasn’t surprising when, on June 16, 1933, while walking with his wife on a beach in Tel Aviv, Arlosoroff was shot.


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"The Red Balcony" by Jonathan Wilson

Wilson sets “The Red Balcony” in motion when Ivor Castle — an Oxford-educated Jewish Englishman whose father changed their name from the German and Jewish-sounding Schloss — comes to Palestine to help with the legal defense of the accused assassins, two right-wing Russian Jews described as looking like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. An ideal protagonist for this perplexing story, Ivor is — to borrow a line from Wilson’s 2003 breakout novel, “A Palestine Affair” — “To the Jews, British; to the British, a Jew; and for the Arabs, the worst of both worlds.”

Caught between these projections of identity, Ivor has no passion for a Palestinian homeland; he isn’t a Zionist, and he knows no Hebrew. A model of modern secularism, he’s simply committed to defending his clients, even if they’re guilty.

But the case isn’t straightforward. Initially, Arlosoroff’s wife is certain her husband was shot “by Arabs,” but then she changed her testimony, claiming that Jews “executed” her husband and identifying the accused. Soon after, a couple of already-imprisoned Arabs confess to the murder, but then they retract. The truth is quickly buried under politics, and everyone seems to know more than they let on. Though a lawyer, Ivor acts more like a detective, and despite the bright Mediterranean sun, “The Red Balcony” is essentially — in structure and in spirit — a noir.

Soon after arriving, Ivor meets the story’s femme fatale, Tsiona Kerem, a 30-year-old artist of unconventional beauty; she’s a potential witness, and Ivor becomes smitten during a preliminary examination. Despite knowing better, he accepts Tsiona’s invitation to her birthday party; he arrives at her flat near the Mahane Yehuda market in West Jerusalem to find a scene of Palestinian bohemia. The attendees are the expected painters and poets and also “architects, sculptors, writers, actors, composers, photographers, and filmmakers” — all of which Ivor quickly gleans because “these creative types could hardly stop talking about either themselves or their ‘work.’”

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These are the liberals we might later find on a kibbutz or, still later, in Tel Aviv. Though the novel isn’t necessarily schematic, Wilson’s characters establish the ideological spectrum of 1930s Palestine, with each representing a political position we still find in Israel today.

Jonathan Wilson, author of "The Red Balcony."

Playing foil to Tsiona’s bohemian set is Charles Gross, one of the few Jewish students Ivor knew at Oxford. Charles’ hero is Vladimir Jabotinsky, the militant leader of the Revisionist movement that planted the ideological seeds of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party. Unlike more moderate early Zionist leaders, the Revisionists were “territorial maximalists” whose idea of a Jewish homeland is Eretz Yisrael, the entirety of Palestine stretching into the Transjordan. Charles disdains David Ben-Gurion’s Labor socialists, as well as liberal “cultural Zionists” like Tsiona, as they are uninterested in forming a Jewish state, being “happy to live in peace with the Arabs on the ancestral lands in some weak-kneed binational entity.”

Though no main character is religious, Wilson includes the American perspective by introducing Ivor to Charles’ cousin, Susannah Green. Educated at Radcliffe, the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore lawyer continuing Arlosoroff’s mission to get Jews out of Germany, Susannah seems designed to remind readers of America’s own antisemitism. When she and Ivor are appalled to see the Nazi flag flying over the Hotel Fast, she says, “I don’t think there’s all that much antipathy toward the Nazis at home.” Playing the nice Jewish girl to Tsiona’s temptress, Susannah’s romantic pining for Ivor is a little too obvious, but her seduction by the Holy Land is right on the nose; like many Americans who visit Israel today, she decides to stay. “I looked down from the hills to the Sea of Galilee and I had a revelation,” she says. “I began to feel a mystical tinge.”

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“The Red Balcony” is delightful for bringing the undeniable mystical tinge of that beautiful landscape to life. And though of course the Holy Land is now much more developed than ever, in some ways things haven’t changed since the 1930s. After getting caught in what would later be known as the Jaffa Massacre, Ivor comes to feel that Palestine “was a place of violence and blood — or at least, a place of multiple clashing dreams of belonging — and that things could only get worse.”


After several wars, escalating cycles of violence and a fractured political present that has Israelis fearing societal collapse, it would be difficult to argue that anything has gotten better. But Wilson’s “The Red Balcony” reminds us that the land of Israel has always housed “multiple clashing dreams.” And what’s a dream for one is often a nightmare for another.

Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications.