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Finally, a Russian Jewish Novel Breaks Out of the Autobiographical Rut

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The question at the heart of David Bezmozgis’s new novel, The Betrayers, is the legacy that one generation bequeaths to another. The novel, which is set in a single 24-hour period, asks us to consider how the heroism and political stoicism associated with Soviet-era Jewish dissidents get translated into a blueprint for political action by their children who, now planted in a different place, interpret this legacy in their own ways. 

Betrayers cover

The protagonist of The Betrayers, Boruch Kotler, is modeled on the figure of Natan Sharansky, an aging one-time Soviet Jewish refusenik who became an Israeli politician. In the events that kick off the novel, Kotler decides not to support the Israeli government’s decision to dismantle a settlement block in the West Bank—a huge blow to the government given Kotler’s near-mythic stature as a national hero. Kotler is subsequently blackmailed by one of the Prime Minister’s henchmen, who tries to pressure him into reversing his decision. He refuses to compromise—or even to consider the threat posed to himself and to his family.

As a result, the blackmailer reveals to the entire country that Kotler is having an extramarital affair with his young assistant Leora—herself a daughter of refuseniks who was brought to Israel as a child. Fleeing the scandal a day before the government orders the settlements dismantled, Kotler and Leora dash off to Crimea—a place where Kotler spent some time as a child vacationing with his parents. (The novel is set in Crimea prior to its annexation by Russia—Bezmozgis completed his novel before the events that unfolded earlier this year.)

Away from the turbulent events unfolding in Israel, Kotler begins to grapple with his descent into potential irrelevance. The novel underlines this in Kotler’s near-parodic Soviet dissident-turned-Israeli politician rhetoric. “What do you propose we do?” Kotler asks Leora when faced with a hotel reservation snafu. “Write an open letter, stage a hunger strike?” While scanning the forlorn faces of people trying to rent out rooms in their houses to summertime tourists, Kotler thinks: “Somebody should teach them the importance of projecting the image of strength.” Kotler’s clichéd language culminates in a telephone conversation with his daughter Dafna. Defending his decision not to heed his blackmailer’s warning, Kotler tells Dafna about the importance of “not negotiating with terrorists.” Dafna refuses to take it. Any benefit to the country is worthless “if it destroys our family,” she says.

Bezmozgis’s Kotler is a fine study of whether unwavering moral principles are applicable in a different time and place from which they originated. The novel complicates Kotler’s intransigent position by pitting him, in the present, against his one-time accuser, Tankilevich, whose house in Crimea, by complete chance, is where he and Leora end up renting a room.

For years, Tankilevich had existed in Kotler’s mind as a one-dimensional figure, a cog in the Soviet system who performed a simple function: infiltrating underground Zionist circles in the USSR, betraying Kotler to the authorities, and bearing false witness against him to make a trumped-up case that Kotler was a foreign spy. In the novel, however, Tankilevich, a pitiful figure symbolic of what remains of the Jewish community in Crimea, is given a chance to tell his own far deeper and more personal story. He was forced to work on this single assignment for the KGB, it turns out, in order to protect his brother, who faced execution.

Kotler shoots back at Tankilevich after this revelation: “I couldn’t have done what you did. Sooner than betray any of my brothers, I was prepared to die, to lose my wife, and to abandon my parents to a lonesome old age.” Here, the two stories pivot on how each protagonist understood the notion of kinship: “brothers” refers to Kotler’s fellow Zionists and Jewish dissidents in the USSR, while his actual family—unlike that of his betrayer—fell victim to his political steadfastness.

By setting this conversation in the present, Bezmozgis illuminates Kotler’s political stance in Israel by analogy to his political struggle in the USSR. The “brothers” Kotler protects as a minster in the Israeli government are settlers, unyielding in their devotion to a notion of Biblical Israel that, for Palestinians, translates into prolonged occupation. Kotler’s wife and children are in favor of the settlers’ cause, but Dafna questions the price her father paid by prioritizing political allies over his actual family. “Betrayers”—in the plural—is the noun Bezmozgis designates as his novel’s title: In coming to terms with the full story of Tankilevich’s betrayal, Kotler must grapple with a crooked mirror image of himself. 

With The Betrayers, Bezmozgis has broken away from the propensity for autobiographically inspired fiction in the growing body of works by Soviet-born American Jewish writers. However, he is at his best examining the inter-generational transmission of identity between immigrants and their children—to which he has devoted many finely crafted pages in his previous books, Natasha and Other Stories and The Free World. The exploration of this question is at the center of the novel; it begins with Dafna’s phone call, continues with Leora—herself as young as Kotler’s children—and her realization that her infatuation with Kotler has more to do with hero-worship than actual love. And it reaches its apex in the treatment of Benzion, Kotler’s son.

Natasha cover
Natasha and Other Stories

A religious IDF soldier stationed in Hebron, Benzion is torn between his civic duty as a member of the army and the admonitions of settler rabbis demanding that religious soldiers refuse to carry out the orders to dismantle settlements. Benzion calls his father from Israel to seek his advice: Should he refuse to collaborate with the state? Kotler, while understanding Benzion’s predicament, cannot advise him to refuse orders; he also reminds his son that, in his own experience, he has found that there is usually a third way between compromise and refusal. Admitting that he failed to find such an alternative when he was blackmailed, Kotler adds: “Whether we have the strength to make this choice is another matter.” Kotler’s advice turns out to be fateful. Benzion does find an alternative: a shocking act that also turns Benzion into a cultural hero of those opposed to the withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Free world
The Free World

Benzion’s opposition to withdrawal is motivated by his strict religiously-inspired understanding of how the borders of the state of Israel correspond to those of Biblical Israel. In dwelling on the relationship between religion and politics, Bezmozgis also gives voice to Kotler’s wife, Miriam, whose own Biblical analogy underscores the inter-generational issues at the heart of the novel. In an email to Kotler, Miriam compares herself to the aging Bathsheba, the wife of King David; Leora, in Miriam’s analogy, is Abishag—the young woman tasked with warming the aging David’s bed at night. Abishag, in the first book of Kings, is also the figure who causes the despairing Bathsheba to compromise and accept a lowered status in exchange for a promise that her son Solomon be anointed David’s successor. Between the lines, Miriam’s email seems to imply that it is not David but rather Solomon—a son found more worthy than his father—who is given the task of building Jerusalem’s first Temple. As Kotler reflects on how his upcoming return to Israel will differ greatly from his first arrival there, fresh out of Soviet prison and greeted as a hero, we realize the full implication of Miriam’s analogy, in which Kotler plays David to Benzion’s Solomon.

Kotler’s refusenik logic and his dogged insistence on not compromising cause his downfall from the pedestal of cultural heroes. His lack of authority, in turn, causes his son to find his own way out of a situation that his father had failed to resolve. Benzion, a refusenik’s child who reads his father’s Soviet Jewish story in a way that helps him understand his own struggle, is now the new hero.

As the drama of Boruch Kotler plays out between Crimea and Israel, Bezmozgis has given us a complex moral thriller with weighty political implications regarding the continued effects of migration of Soviet Jews to Israel on global politics. The novel makes us consider how the legacy of Soviet Jewish dissidence can become, in the hands of the new generation, a blueprint for a kind of heroism that can inspire the continuation—rather than the end—of the occupation.

This piece has been updated.