Quilting a Fictional Character from Real People: Background information when reading The Betrayers

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The Betrayers

by David Bezmozgis

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis X
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 240 pages

    Jun 2015, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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About this Book

Quilting a Fictional Character from Real People

This article relates to The Betrayers

Print Review

Natan SharanskyAny Jew or Israeli reading this book will recognize much of the famous Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky in Baruch Kotler. This was apparently Bezmozgis' intention, and he drew on Sharansky's extremely vocal and high profile opposition to Israel's 2005 unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip, including his resignation from the Knesset (the legislative branch of the Israeli government.)

Natan Sharansky's wife, Avital, slipped into virtual public oblivion not long after the birth of their first daughter (they have two girls). While fighting for her husband's freedom, she found religion and today practices Orthodox Judaism, but Natan remained secular, viewing his being Jewish as more of a belonging to a nation than to a religion. Unlike their fictional counterparts in The Betrayers, there have never been any rumors of either being unfaithful.

Avigdor LiebermanBezmozgis' Kotler also draws on some aspects of today's leader of the mostly Russian Israeli party called "Yisrael Beitaynu" (aka the Jewish Home party), Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman's party has been joining forces with the Likud party on and off since 2000 (led by both the late Ariel Sharon and more recently with Netanyahu), particularly when they think their respective support is starting to wane. In 2012, Lieberman went on trial for breach of public trust and fraud, and had to step down from his ministerial post until his subsequent acquittal.

On a personal note, the Sharansky-based character is what piqued my interest in this book. Like many Jews in the USA, I grew up supporting the cause to free Russian Jews. Before moving to Israel, like many young people of the late '70s, I was involved with a group that "adopted" a refusenik in the hopes that publicizing his plight would hasten his release. (He, unfortunately, died while still a prisoner in Siberia.) This is why Sharansky's release and move to Israel was always a topic of interest for me, and I have admired him ever since, despite my not agreeing with all of his political opinions. While living in Israel, I have been witness to the immigration of over a million people (which we call Aliyah), and I also worked for an organization that developed programs to help immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). Through this, and contact with many Russian speakers over the years, I learned quite a bit about this population group.

Russian JewsOf those things (and please note that these are sweeping generalizations and do not apply to all Russian speakers in Israel), what is most relevant to this book is their politics. Many people originally assumed that the Russian immigrants would lean to the political left, due to their communist background. In reality, they rebelled against anything that had even the tiniest whiff of socialism; they wanted democracy and all the capitalism they could grab. They outright refused to take housing on kibbutzim, even temporarily, and preferred to take their chances in any city or town, no matter how poor or lacking. They believed that Russian ingenuity would prevail, and with this came the idea that the more space Israel had to grow, the more opportunities for their personal prosperity. They believe in fighting for the human rights of oppressed minorities, but only if they are the minority in question, their enemies certainly don't deserve the same. This is why the vast majority of immigrants from the FSU want nothing to do with making peace with Palestinians, especially if it means giving up land. These are exactly the attitudes voiced by the Sharanskys and Liebermans active in Israeli politics today, and Kotler mirrors them all perfectly.

Natan Sharansky (2007), courtesy of Kika Sso
Avigdor Lieberman, courtesy of Michael Thaidigsmann
Soviet Jews demonstrate for the right to emigrate to Israel, in front of the Ministry of Affairs in 1973, courtesy of Humus sapiens

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Davida Chazan

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Betrayers. It originally ran in November 2014 and has been updated for the June 2015 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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