The Hilltop

 The Cover Says •

Was Othniel Assis asking too much? All he wanted was to grow some cherry tomatoes for his wife’s salad and to milk his goat.

In the heart of the West Bank, he discovers a hilltop with a small field, shifts a large container there, acquires a generator, and establishes a non-profit association.

A path is constructed to the hilltop, and one winter night five trailers are unloaded near the farm. When the local army commander arrives at the site, tempers flare. The Israeli Civil Administration for the occupied territories claims that there is no permit to install the trailers, but there is no permit to remove them either.

Thus the outpost Maale Hermesh C is established.

Years go by and the hilltop blossoms: more trailers, a playground, organic fields, and a synagogue; families and singles, farmers and teachers, religious and secular, a hot-headed cosmetician, and two brothers, former kibbutz members.

One day an American journalist happens by, and his report leads to an international crisis: how will the Defense Minister get the American pressure off his back? How will Captain Omer, who receives conflicting messages from his superiors and who is driven mad by the settlers, react? Will the born-again-Jew, Gabriel Nehushtan, find some solace for his wounded soul? What has the economic meltdown in the United States got to do with the illegal outpost? And what are the mysterious Japanese looking for in the neighboring Palestinian village?

The Hilltop is a sprawling, daring novel, which dismantles the extreme and absurd reality in the Israeli-occupied West Bank: Catch 22 meets 21st century Israel. Violence, greed, lust for power and the blurring of values, but also a burning ideological passion.

With The Hilltop Assaf Gavron achieves the peak of his work so far. As always, he charts a path between styles and genres, between realism and satire, between being earnest and wildly funny.

Gavron’s best-selling novels have been translated into many languages and won prestigious international awards. He wrote parts of The Hilltop in a cabin in a settlement in the West Bank.

  The reviews say •

“Structurally brilliant….Violence haunts the narrative, providing its emotional core.” Pauls Tautonghi, New York Times Book Review

“Expansive, humorous novel… Gavron’s satiric touches can be coruscating…” The New Yorker

“Gavron turns out to be a natural fit for an American readership….The Hilltop is a ‘great Israeli novel’ in much the same way that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a ‘great American novel.’ Like Franzen, Gavron writes realistic fiction with a comic edge that aims to take the temperature of his whole society, to tell us how Israelis live now….The Hilltop maintains its composure and hopeful good spirits throughout, even when dealing with the gravest problems in Israeli society. Indeed, Gavron offers a welcome antidote to the panic and pessimism that informs so much American Jewish discourse about Israel. Despite everything, he suggests, there is room for hope, for laughter, and for sheer ordinary life.” Adam Kirsch, Tablet

“The Hilltop undoubtedly provides an extraordinary view of contemporary Israeli society… it is something entirely new – a comic settlement-saga that attempts to understand the terrible saga of the settlements.” Iam Sansom, The Guardian

“The book deals with Israel’s overarching conflicts — Jew versus Jew, Jew versus Palestinian — and presents them with a nuanced complexity that feels very real. It’s a funny and ultimately melancholy read.” Mark Katkov, NPR best books of 2014

“Gavron sets out to complicate the [settlers'] stereotype… Though the issues raised are grave, Gavron’s tack is surprisingly light-hearted… An ambitious novel, a distanced overview, meticulously realistic… Gavron represents a distinctly new generation of Israeli writing… his work is not shadowed by the Holocaust or the 1948 war of Independence…” Morris Dickstein, in the Times Literary Supplement, UK

“Compelling….touchingly human….gripping….Gavron’s achievement is to strip Ma’aleh Hermesh C of all the expectations, projections and stereotypes that Western readers usually have of ‘settlers.’ And instead he makes it about the real, fascinating people who live there.” Dan Friedman, Forward

“Painting a big picture but giving a nuanced perspective of a conflict this complex… a big and epic novel, the satire is spot-on” Aftonbladet, Sweden

“Brilliantly attuned to the madhouse complexities of the current settlement crisis… The superbly orchestrated chaos makes this an indispensable novel…” Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

“… Lends vital volume and humanity to a story that shows how fiction can fully access the areas diplomacy and journalism do not quite reach… infused with gentle, everyday humour and flickers of kindness… could be taken as an allegory of Israel’s journey from leftwing secularism to the religious right…” Julius Purcell, Financial Times

“… crisp insight and dry humor… Slowly and incrementally, like those settlers on that craggy West Bank hilltop, Gavron’s story gains a foothold in our hearts and minds and stubbornly refuses to leave.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“One of the most important and interesting books of recent years… a novel of great ideas… the author has exceptional control of the art of storytelling… The Hilltop is a bold and capable attempt to confront the tradition of the novel. Gavron succeeds exceptionally.” Bernstein Prize jury arguments

“One of the most important Israeli novels of recent years.” Arik Glasner, Yedioth Achronot

“There are novels that simply tell a story, but new and unheard one. Such novel is “The Hilltop . Gavron provides patiently and with a keen eye the small human needs and motivations of his protagonists… told with the utmost accuracy and ambivalence, and immensely funny… It is the great novel of the internal state of Israel.” Eva Menasse, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

“This capacity for unconditional openness and thoughtful, ironic narration, makes him the most interesting political writer in his country.” Nicole Henneberg, Der Tagesspiegel, Germany

“If you hate Israel and you hate the settlers, read this novel. If you love Israel and defend the settlers, read this novel. But even if you do not care at all about the Middle East and its politics, but you love literature, read this novel.” Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah

“The Hilltop is first and foremost a very funny novel. And it is a very political novel, firing sharp poisoned barbs in all directions… But what really makes “The Hilltop” ascend to the top of the literary heap is the sharp movement between two antithetical poles of the storytelling craft. On one end you have the meticulously orchestrated analytic and ironic voice, which sends the reader to regions of reflection on the essence of Israeliness… on the other pole you will find the keenest emotion, enough to rip the heart in two… this particular reader, a leftist-radical-agnostic girl, did not expect to fall in love, contrary to her own good sense, with a protagonist who is despicable by any standard.” Liat Elkayam, Haaretz Books Supplement

“An intense, funny and violent novel… a wonderful book… Gavron’s Magnum Opus, written with the pretension and dare of The Great Israeli Novel.” Yehuda Nuriel, Yediot Achronot.

“The most interesting book written about the religious Zionism… a marvelous novel!” Keren Neubach, Seder Yom (National Israeli Radio)

“The best novel you will read in the near future.” Amit Segal, political correspondent, Channel 2 News

“Gavron loves his characters. The settlers in The Hilltop are not ideological scarecrows, even when ideology has an important role in their lives. The Hilltop is not an anthropological book about the settlers. It is a story about a hill on which people live. A small hill in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of everywhere. It is a universal story, and also a very private story.” Motti Fogel, Achbar Ha’ir Magazine

“A clever novel, with which Gavron demonstrates a variety of writing styles, from scathing social realism to laugh-out-loud satire (the dogs in the outpost are named Beilin and Condoleezza) without patronizing his protagonists even for a moment (the cover mentions that he wrote part of the novel in a hut in an outpost). Great literature isn’t meant to help us decide how to vote in the ballot. It is enough that it will present for us anew the familiar and the mundane. The Hilltop is surely great literature.” Ronen Tal, Sofashavua Magazine

“A groundbreaking attempt to move the focus to the settlement as the setting of the Israeli Story.” Yoni Livne, Yediot Achronot

“Assaf Gavron’s The Hilltop succeeds in combining light and sharp writing with an original and uncompromising statement about the settlement project… The new Great Israeli Novel.” Yuval Avivi, Time Out Tel Aviv

“This rainbow of characters is described in Gavron’s virtuoso language, which is at sometimes quick and at others lingers. Gavron can examine a moment with a surgeon’s knife, and moment later describes international events and compresses different events to a sweeping, funny plot… An absurd comedy that is realist and funny at the same time.” Yonatan Amir, Israel Hayom

“I’m always happy to read a new book by Assaf Gavron. from this generation he is really one of those who have the language and the ability to sweep you into a story with the speed of a crocodile collecting his prey down into the water. He simply plucks you into it and you are there. He achieves an almost impossible deed and manages to write about the settlers reality objectively, meaning, he is telling a story first. Wonderful.” Jacky Levi, GLZ Radio

“The whole of The Hilltop is written by Gavron simply brilliantly, and he manages to refine a human and touching truth from every character, and does so with beautiful literary aesthetics that pleases with its accurate wording… allow me to bet that next year we will see gavron shortlisted for the Sapir Award, and rightly so.” Edna Abramson, The Literary Republic Blog

“A dazzling novel… A clinically accurate and stunningly powerful description of the state of affairs in the twenty first century Israel. The Hilltop manages to connect emotionally to the situation and at the dame time to laugh at it from the outside.” Ran Bin-Nun, Yediot Achronot

“The Hilltop is a novel about human weaknesses, about the exhausting places that drive all of us and about the moment of clarity that sometimes awaken us, but paralize us in other moments. Assaf Gavron did not write a novel about the fact that we are all human beings, he simply wrote a novel about human beings.” Anat Gafni, Mako

“The Hilltop avoids didacticism and turns reality into a game between images, a game whose rules are so complex and vague that it is-and will remain-impossible to identify who the victor is.” Omri Herzog, Haaretz

More Info •

Finalist in the Brener Award, Israel, May 2013.

Winner of the 50,000 Shekel Bernstein Prize for Literature, Israel, October 2013.

Long listed for the Sapir Award, Israel, November 2013.

Buy •

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 Read Some •

Prologue: The Fields

It began with the fields. Othniel Assis was living in Ma’aleh Hermesh, where he enjoyed raising a goat, cherry tomatoes and arugula in his garden. The goat was for the children, the tomatoes and arugula for his wife Rachel’s salad. Othniel was pleased with these pursuits, and tired of his work as a bookkeeper. He found a small field within the settlement’s borders where he could cultivate his crops. But the field was adjacent to the vineyards of a resident who made boutique wines which he sold to “The Golden Apple” and other gourmet restaurants in Tel-Aviv—and, he claimed, even in the Dordogne and in Paris. The vintner turned his nose up and explained that he had permission from the Regional Council to plant additional vineyards on the plot Othniel had his eye on, because its soil, combined with the cold winters and cool summer nights, imbued his grapes with an extraordinary quality, a unique terroir that gave his wine its full body and nutty aroma.

Othniel acquiesced to the vintner and went hiking around, for he loved the country and loved to be alone and loved to pray and loved to walk. Since leaving his job, he had allowed his beard and hair to grow out, and wore dark-blue work clothes every day. He hiked through streams and crannies, over nearby hilltops, and reached a broad plain that was not particularly rocky and not occupied by the olive trees of the neighboring ArabvillageofKharmish. Here I shall plant my fields, he said.

         Othniel experimented: cucumbers and tomatoes, parsley and cilantro, zucchini and eggplant, radishes and lettuce. The plants bowed their heads in the summer heat and stiffened in the winter chill, then fell victim to aggressive mice and tortoises. Finally, Othniel settled on asparagus in the field and mushrooms in a hothouse, and of course the arugula and the cherry tomatoes, which his wife Rachel and his daughters Gitit and Devorah loved to munch on as if they were chips.

He requested authorization from the Council to manage an agricultural farm and to set up a shipping container as his office and warehouse. And since the military requires government authorization for such plans unless they fall under Mandate-era legislation, Othniel Assis said, “The plans are Mandatory, of course they are, whatever you say, brethren,” and received his permits without the knowledge of government authorities.

He moved the goat, and took a small loan to buy five more, and started milking their fine milk and bringing it home in small pitchers. With Rachel’s assistance, he experimented with various puddings and cheese-making. Othniel’s eyes glazed over and he said to himself: The day will come when I shall set up a small but cutting-edge dairy here, and I shall plant grapevines and operate a winery finer than my neighbor’s, and then he’ll see what’s what!

The Settlement Division of the Zionist Organization signed over a 20-kw generator to provide power, and then Othniel asked to put up a guard-hut, because the Ishmaelites from Kharmish had stolen his crops. Othniel stood guard himself a few times, with his Mark VII Desert Eagle pistol, and the rest of the time the hut stood empty, because the crops had been stolen only once, after which he went slightly crazy and drove into the village with a few friends and fired shots in the air and told the villagers to watch out.

One of the friends was Uzi Shimoni, a Jew of imposing body and beard, an enthusiastic lover of Israelwho had gone to Othniel’s high-school yeshiva inJerusalem. Shimoni tried to persuade Othniel to start a formal settlement on the site. Othniel was reluctant, because his permit was only for an agricultural farm and a guard-hut. Shimoni said, “Don’t worry.” Othniel said, “Where will we get money for houses and construction and transportation?” Shimoni replied, “I have obtained a donation from a kind Jew who resides inMiami.”

Othniel was about to build a permanent house in Ma’aleh Hermesh at the time, but had become entangled in a prolonged bureaucratic complication with the Council engineer, a stubborn neighbor and a corrupt real estate lawyer. Finally he said to his wife Rachel, “To hell with everyone.” He was sick of it—the exhausting bureaucracy, the complacent bourgeoisie of Ma’aleh Hermesh, the one-mile walk each way to his fields and back every day. He loved the hilltop and the winds and the ancient landscapes, and he missed the aura of his youthful pioneering days. He said yes to Uzi Shimoni, who somehow got hold of a couple of 240-square-feet trailers. Othniel connected one to the office-warehouse container and to the guard-hut, with the help of an expert welder, and moved in with Rachel and the kids. Shimoni settled in the other trailer with his family, and together they went to the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations inJerusalemand registered a non-profit named “Hermesh Cooperative Agricultural Association.”

Then an access path to the hilltop was broken through. Giora, the Regimental Commander of the District, who was a friend of Othniel’s from his military service, claimed to be unaware of the new path. It was cleared in a way that could not be viewed from the main road that led down from Ma’aleh Hermesh B to the steep valley, then up the hill. But shortly afterwards, following a phone call to a friend in the Infrastructures Office, the Public Works Authority installed a safety rail because the path traversed a dangerously steep route.

The Regimental Commander said that one wintry night he was notified over the walkie-talkie that five 260-square-feet prefab trailers had been installed next to the Assis farm. He arrived at the site and found several trucks and trailers. The settlers, he says, blocked his command-car from entering. The Regional Council Chair arrived, arguments and verbal confrontations ensued, and expletives were hurled at the Regimental Commander, who called the Civil Administration and asked what to do. He was told there was no permit for the trailers. But nor was there authorization to remove them. The soldiers put the local residents on military vehicles and drove them away, which meant that in the records of the army and the Ministry of Defense, the outpost was reported evacuated. The settlers came back the next day, and the Commander moved on to more urgent matters.

Thus the outpost was established.

The five trailers were rented out by the state-owned housing company, Amidar, with authorization from the Ministry of Housing, which was obtained by the Council Chair through his connections with the Assistant to the Minister, and they were quickly inhabited. The structures were temporary, the air was bitterly cold, and yet there were mosquitoes. The settlers put screens on the windows, built wooden doors, paved access roads and paths, and set aside one structure for a synagogue. (AJerusalemcongregation that was refurbishing donated its old furniture, including a holy ark in good condition. One of the men arrived one day with a Torah scroll—he didn’t say where he’d got it.) At nights, after working hard all day, they stood guard because the Arabs from the village kept watching them suspiciously. There was no regular supply of water or power yet, so the residents made do with a rusty mobile water tank that leaked, and oil lamps at night. A hyena stopped by occasionally to feast on food and clothes. Hyraxes and rats also liked to visit.

Two families left in the first few weeks. The Assises and the Shimonis stuck it out, and the other survivor was Hilik Yisraeli, a young man in his late twenties whose gaunt face was adorned with thin-framed glasses and a moustache. Hilik had grown up on Ma’aleh Hermesh and was studying political science at theHebrewUniversityinJerusalem. He had tired of the bourgeois life and longed for pioneerism, a sense of mission, and redemption of the land. He moved into a trailer with his wife and two young sons. But wherever there are two Jews there are three opinions, and where there are three Jews, God help us. Hilik was the first to bring up with Shimoni the matter of the promised donation from theMiamimillionaire, because although Shimoni seemed to be funneling some funds for construction and infrastructure, it was not clear how much, where they were going, or what the priorities were. Uzi Shimoni went to Othniel to complain about “that pushy kid I invited here and now he has the gall to question me.” Othniel nodded, but when he went home and talked with Rachel, he realized the pushy kid’s questions were appropriate. He went back to Shimoni and tried to get some answers. Was there any money? How much? Could they get a better generator? Build a fence? Set up lighting? Shimoni grumbled that he was “taking care of everything” and “not to worry.” Othniel began to worry.

One day Uzi Shimoni announced to Othniel and Hilik that two new families were arriving “imminently” to populate the empty trailers. A surprised Hilik answered, “Which families? Who are they? And who decided to accept them, what were the criteria?” Shimoni glared at him, stroked his thick beard, and said, “Kid, keep these questions up and you’ll find yourself outside.”

From that moment on, Othniel and Hilik officially became a united front. They started snooping around, and realized there were more questions than answers regarding theMiamidonation. They became suspicious of Uzi’s handling of the non-profit’s funds. Othniel was furious. He’d come across his fair share of corruption, but at the expense of Jewish settlement? Was there no limit? He didn’t confront Uzi directly, but started pulling strings: Shimoni was well-connected, but Othniel knew people in the Council and was close to the Chair and to the secretary of Ma’aleh Hermesh. Shimoni was slowly sidelined.

One morning Othniel was climbing up to the outpost in his Renault Express. Shimoni’s dog lay scratching its ear in the middle of the road.

“Why?! Why him? What harm has he done?” cried Shimoni as he rushed out of the caravan with his family when he heard the animal’s yelps.

“He jumped in front of my wheels before I could hit the brakes,” said Othniel, still in shock.

“Don’t lie! You ran him over on purpose! He never did you any harm!” Uzi’s little girls were sobbing. He gave them a pained look, then glared at Othniel. “I never thought you would sink this low, Othniel. Don’t you have any limits?”

While Shimoni kept hurling accusations, Othniel’s shock gradually turned to rage. He glared back at Shimoni and said, “What’s with the non-profit, Uzi? What’s going on with the funds?”

Shimoni didn’t answer. He drew his gun, loaded it, and put an end to the dog’s misery with one shot. “Let’s go,” he told his family and turned back to his home. The next day they packed up and moved to a hill inSamaria. He called Hilik and Othniel “worse traitors than Korah.”

Two families remained, united in their vision of the settlement yet lacking in funds. Their luck gradually turned. Wherever an Israeli makes his home, he will receive protection and Arabs will be forbidden to enter a certain radius around him, so IDF soldiers equipped with a guard-hut, a water tower, and a generator far more powerful than the small one from the Jewish Agency arrived to protect the Assis and Yisraeli families and the three empty trailers. Othniel asked his friend Giora, the Regimental Commander, to do him a favor and let them draw power from the generator and water from the tower. Giora winked and said, “Sure, why not?”

At the Settlement Division of the Zionist Organization, they liked the farm idea—how could anyone object to fresh asparagus and mushrooms and fine goat cheese, not to mention a real pioneering spirit just like in the old days? The officials in the Division gave retroactive authorization for the expansion of Ma’aleh Hermesh C and even included the farm in the outpost agreement (where it appeared under the name “Hermesh South Livestock Farm”).

This led the way for Amidar to rent out more trailers.

And for the Postal Authority to open a distribution point at the site.

And for the Ministry of Infrastructures to instruct the Public Works Authority to lay down some asphalt on days when the Civil Administration’s inspectors weren’t around.

And for the Ministry of Agriculture to grant Othniel farmer status and reduced water fees.

And for the Deputy Accountant General in the Ministry of Finance to instruct the bank to issue mortgages for residential units on the site, which come with automatic approval from the Ministry of Housing to perform infrastructure works, which also expands the Arab-free radius.

And for the ‘Amanah’ settlement organization to get in on the act and initiate initiatives and determine criteria for land use.

Even a combine turned up one day, donated by a group of German Christians who supported Greater Israel.

Following an aerial photography jaunt by one of the leftist organizations, phone calls started coming in from the Ministries of Defense, Interior Affairs, Housing and Construction, and the Prime Minister’s Office: Who had made the decision to set up this new Israeli community? Whom did the land belong to and what was its legal status? Were these state lands, state-declared lands, or survey lands? Private lands seized for security reasons? Private lands purchased from Palestinians? Private Palestinian lands that had not been purchased? And if the latter—were they farmed or not? Were these lands regulated, registered, or Mandatory? Who gave the approval? Had there been a formal planning procedure, with architectural plans submitted to the planning committees, and if so—had they been approved? What was the new settlement’s jurisdiction? What did the Coordinator say? What about the Public Trustee? And the Division—what was its opinion? And had they been in touch with the Major General’s office?

So many questions!

They were all told politely that it was merely an agricultural farm within the jurisdiction of Ma’aleh Hermesh, for the most part, at least—a simple expansion of the existing settlement, which did not require government authorization—and that there was no reason to kick up a fuss. What was the big deal? Othniel Assis wanted to grow mushrooms and asparagus and cherry tomatoes and arugula so that those very same leftists could serve a nice salad with their salmon at their Tel-Aviv dinners, so here you go. Still, the outpost was noted in the Peace Now settlement observation report and even appeared in the interactive map on the website of Haaretz. The Civil Administration’s inspection unit came and issued cease and desist orders for work on the residential units.

Which led to a barrage of phone calls from people asking to join the outpost.

And to authorization from the Deputy Minister of Defense for Settlement Affairs to transport and erect two more trailers allocated by Amidar.

And to assistance from the Bureau of Rural Construction at the Ministry of Housing and Construction.

And to funds allocated by the Regional Council.

And to the arrival of more families, young couples and some single men—whether out of love for the Land of Israel, or in search of quietude and nature, or attracted by the low costs. Nothing was hidden – the minutes of the land distribution meeting were hung on the synagogue wall in plain sight! – but nothing was declared, and from time to time there were threats of evacuation and fingers were wagged at the settlers, and babies were born on the hilltop, and thus the modern-day pioneering flourished and Ma’aleh Hermesh C grew and expanded.