By Ron Leshem
Harvill Secker, £12.99
For a country so dominated by conflict, Israel has produced remarkably little literature about its wars. Only two major books have been written about the near-defeat of 1973, for example. And Beaufort, Ron Leshem’s powerful book about the retreat from Lebanon in 2000, was rejected by several publishers. He was repeatedly told that the public was not ready to confront this traumatic episode in its recent history.
When it did eventually appear, it was snapped up by women wanting to understand what their men had been through, and by former soldiers no longer interested in suppression. In 2006, it won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s leading literary award, and was later made into a movie by director Joseph Cedar, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
The book centres on Erez Liberti, a commander at the Beaufort outpost in Lebanon after the Prime Minister has announced that the IDF is preparing to withdraw. While, back in Israel, a few miles to the south, the public is either oblivious to their presence there or actively opposed to it, the men — teenagers, really — remain gung-ho, as they must in order to survive psychologically while under constant attack. But, slowly, they are forced to ask themselves why they are dying for a position that the government has already said they are going to abandon.
Leshem’s isolated military world, populated mostly by Sephardim, the poor, new immigrants, and the national-religious, is brilliantly realised.
Although life is dominated by alternating danger and boredom, it is clear, despite multiple deaths, that this is an experience many of the soldiers actually love, and will later even miss.
This is because, ultimately, as Leshem, a 32-year-old television producer, told me in London recently: “This is not a story about war. It’s a story about being 18 in Israel, about love which grows only during conflict, about loyalty and friends. The war is only a backdrop.”