False Flag is my most personal book.
When I was twelve, my parents asked me if I wanted to be bar mitzvahed. They assumed I would jump at the chance, not out of religious conviction – I was then, as now, pretty much agnostic – but because I’d already put in years of Hebrew School and the payday was just around the corner. (Bar and bat mitzvahs are notoriously profitable for the youngsters moving into adult life, who are showered with celebratory gifts.)
But my parents had miscalculated. A few books, a few comics, and a good ten-speed was all I needed, and those I had. And I truly hated Hebrew School. More, the thought of chanting Hebrew in front of all my friends petrified me. And so I chose not to become bar mitzvahed, and thus in the eyes of the Jewish faith, have never been anointed a man.
Be that as it may. With the bullet of the bar mitzvah dodged, I set aside any thoughts of Jewish identity and got on with my life. Not until I was researching A GATHERING OF SPIES – reading at length about World War II and the Holocaust – did I start thinking again of myself as a Jew.
For the first time in my life, I found a sense of Jewish identity. And it was angry. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich made me bitterly furious. I had family in Israel, family who had survived the Holocaust. As Shirer explained what had happened during the war, and the extent to which ordinary people had let it happen, I seethed and boiled.
Newly-awakened to anti-Semitism, I began to see it – not wrongly – everywhere. Once I was sitting in a bar in Chicago and a guy on the stool beside me told a Jewish joke to a friend. (“What’s the difference between a canoe and a Jew?” he asked. “Sometimes a Jew tips.”) I spun on him. “I’m Jewish,” I snapped, “and I happen to be a very generous tipper, motherfucker.” Luckily for me, he apologized and backed off – otherwise, outnumbered, I could have been in real trouble.
Soon after, 9/11 happened. Then the anti-Semitism I’d been describing to my friends got dragged out into the open. Suddenly America threw its full weight behind Israel. Instead of second-guessing that nation’s habit of preemptive killing, America said: Teach us.
Over the next few years, my initial fear and anger after 9/11 became replaced by more nuanced emotions. I started questioning America’s ongoing wars and Israel’s preemptive doctrines. I wondered what the end game might be. Not until years later would I read a quote, by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, that summed up what I was coming to think: “The majority of (Israel’s) leaders have elevated and sanctified the tactical method of combating terror and existential threats at the expense of the true vision, statesmanship, and genuine desire to reach a political solution that is necessary for peace to be attained”.
I see myself as a left-leaning moderate. I have no doubt that anti-Semitism is widespread and virulent. I believe that we Jews have the right to protect ourselves. But I also see the hardline Israeli view, the expanding settlements and crackdowns on Palestinian protests, as counter-productive. An Israel that inflames hatred is not a safe Israel. Nor is it a just one.
I see myself as moderate – but many in my family see me as irrationally dovish. We have trouble discussing Israel reasonably, my family and I. Tempers fray. Voices rise. Jews love to argue.
So the thought of having the discussion in a novel – where nobody could interrupt me – was irresistible.
As with THE WATCHMEN, which let me work through my ambivalence about the War on Terror, False Flag let me explore at my own pace an issue that seemed impossibly tangled. My proxies would be a hard-right zealot, Jana, and a left-leaning professor of military history, Dalia, who “studies war only to better enable herself to prevent it”.
The product pleased me more than any of my previous novels. The book struck me – and still strikes me – as balanced and intelligent, without losing tension or readability. That it pushes the envelope by portraying in fiction Israeli extremists pleases the iconoclast in me. I knew that some people would be offended by it. That was okay. I wanted to provoke discussion. No intractable situation gets solved without discussion.
Along the way, I fell in love with my protagonist, Dalia Artzi, the pacifist military historian who “lives in peace but is always ready for war”. And so for my next novel I decided to write – and this time finish— my first direct sequel.