When his novel, If Heaven Exists, came out in 2005, Ron Leshem visited bookstores all over Israel to see how potential buyers reacted to it. “They’d pick up the book and then turn it over to read the back cover,” Leshem says. “When they realized that it was a book about Israeli soldiers stationed at Beaufort Castle during the last year of Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon, they’d make a face and put it down.” But Leshem didn’t take it personally. “How much war trauma can you take? They hear so much about war on the news that they didn’t want to read a novel about it.”
Few Israelis seemed willing even to talk about the eighteen-year occupation, in which the ancient Beaufort fortress,
Beaufort Castle, 1982
eight miles north of the Israeli border, was strategically vital. Yet the book took off. “It first became popular among Israeli soldiers,” Leshem says. “Whenever I gave lectures, the people in the audience were predominantly soldiers who were just out of the army and young guys before their induction because the book was relevant to them.”
“Relevant” is understating the case. If Heaven Exists speaks directly to soldiers’ experience, using the blunt and gritty language of the front lines. Not only has the book garnered positive reviews from critics and respected Israeli writers like David Grossman and Meir Shalev, but it has also sold more than 130,000 copies, making it a hit of titanic proportions in Israel. During its eighteen-month stint on the best seller lists of the newspapers Haaretz and Yediot Ahronot, it held the number-one slot for nine months. You couldn’t sit on a train crowded with IDF soldiers traveling home and not find one or two of them reading it. Slowly, mothers of soldiers began reading the book to understand their sons’ army experiences. (I was one of those mothers.) In 2006, it won the Sapir Prize for Literature, the Israeli equivalent of the Booker Prize. “The reason that caused Leshem’s book to have such an impact is not the literary value of the novel,” says Maya Feldman, a book critic for Yediot Ahronot’s web site. “Its realistic content presents a chain of events that is expressed through soldiers’ words, people who were there, and not through the words of an author. Meaning, almost unprocessed. This authenticity, in my eyes, is strongly appealing.”
In March, a movie adaptation co-written by Leshem, titled Beaufort, opened in Israel to outstanding reviews. It broke box-office records in its first month of release (despite criticism from families of slain soldiers and war veterans that three of the leading actors had never served in the army), and became the nation’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Its director, Joseph Cedar, won the Best Director award at the Berlin International Film Festival. The novel will be published in the United States this month, also under the title Beaufort, and the film will open in New York City in January.
“The book provided soldiers with an outlet, a way to legitimize what they were feeling,” says Leshem over coffee at a café near his apartment in Givatayim, a Tel Aviv suburb. Slender and pale, with pensive dark eyes and a self-effacing demeanor, Leshem is thirty-one and works as Deputy Director of Programming at Israel’s Channel Two, lining up what he calls “escapist” shows like A Star Is Born. He says he did his own military service as a “pencil-pusher” in the Israeli Defense Ministry, working on behind-the-scenes preparations for the 1998 Wye peace negotiations. When he was released, he got a job reporting for Yediot Ahronot. He was sent to cover the Palestinians’ Second Intifada in the Gaza Strip in the fall of 2000, where he met the IDF soldier Rotem Yair, a commander in the Givati Brigade. “Rotem told me right out that he hated me,” says Leshem. “He said that when he was hiding in the bushes of Lebanon, I was, in his words, ‘drinking lemonade in a Tel Aviv café.’ He said I wouldn’t have even turned on the radio to see if he was okay and ‘you wouldn’t have even known if I was killed.’ Rotem hated me for not knowing.”
Leshem’s “guilt of not knowing” propelled him to persuade Rotem, who had always refused to speak to journalists, to recount his experiences. In If Heaven Exists Leshem has fictionalized him, turning him into Liraz Liberti, a dark-skinned Sephardic high school dropout, now the dispassionate but determined young commander of a team of thirteen Israel Defense Forces soldiers. The novel is written as his diary, detailing a condensed version of the actual events of the last winter of the occupation. “It’s really a book about withdrawal, not combat,” Leshem says.
At the start of the 1982 Lebanese War, a small Golani reconnaissance unit stormed and captured Beaufort Castle.
Israeli army troops at Beaufort Castle on June 7, 1982, the day after Israel Defense Forces invaded southern Lebanon
The Southern Lebanon security zone, controlled by the Israeli Army allied with the predominantly Christian South Lebanese Army, was established to prevent further rocket attacks on Israel by Hezbollah fighters who had moved into Lebanon. Soldiers at Beaufort knew the castle could become another Masada; they were sitting ducks for Hezbollah raids and mortar attacks. Alone in a medieval fortress on a lonely, vulnerable peak, cut off from their superiors at Army headquarters, they created their own culture, language, and rules. A wounded soldier is a flower; a dead soldier is a poppy. Eaten is afraid, and it is the worst thing for the unit, because it is contagious. The novel’s title comes from a saying that was written by a soldier over the doorway leading into Beaufort’s bunkers: “If heaven exists, this is what it looks like. If there’s a hell, this is what it feels like.”
Since Hezbollah soldiers often tried to storm the castle and there were constant rocket attacks, the soldiers always had to be ready for battle in less than thirty seconds—which meant sleeping in their uniforms and their boots. They couldn’t take showers or change their underwear; they took anti-diarrhea pills to avoid being caught by mortar attack while their pants were down. And every soldier knew how it felt to hold a dead man in his arms. The book captures both the intense devotion that develops among them and the propaganda that Hezbollah uses to try to break them. In one wrenching moment, the soldiers watch a Hezbollah broadcast on television that shows real footage from Israeli military cemeteries and pictures of Israeli soldiers weeping at a soldier’s funeral. “They love life, those Jews,” an announcer says in Hebrew with a Shiite accent. “We, on the other hand, love death.”
“I wanted to write an anti-war story,” Leshem says, “but it became a way for families of soldiers killed in the Second Lebanese War to cope with their grief.” The novel describes a game, What He Can’t Do Anymore, that Israeli soldiers played, a game of stories about their fallen comrades. In the first pages, the game is played about a soldier named Yonatan. “Yonatan can’t take his little brother to a movie any more. . . . He won’t be at his grandfather’s funeral, he won’t know if his sister gets married, he won’t take a piss with us from the highest peak in South America.”
Six soldiers named Yonatan were killed in the Second Lebanese War. At the war’s start, when Yonatan Hadasi, the first soldier named Yonatan, was killed, Israeli Army radio reported that the text of the What He Can’t Do Anymore passage of the book was read at Hadasi’s funeral. “Several parents of other fallen soldiers called me during the war,” Leshem says. “They told me that their son was in the middle of reading If Heaven Exists or had just finished reading it when he was killed and invited me to come to their house to meet their family.” Leshem went to pay shiva calls to these families. It was almost as if, because these soldiers were reading If Heaven Exists, they knew Leshem. And somehow, the families felt that Leshem knew their fallen sons and could bring some consolation. “Some of the families did a ‘take-off’ of my text,” Leshem says. “They rewrote a personalized version for the fallen soldier that was read during the eulogies.”
Dozens of American novels have been written by and about soldiers who served in Vietnam, but until If Heaven Exists no Israeli novel had ever been published about what happened to Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. “The Israeli Army pulled out on May 24, 2000, a Wednesday,” Leshem says. “By Friday, the word Lebanon was erased. Nobody talked about it.” His book, according to Maya Feldman, was the “first to break the silence surrounding that period.”
The book also serves as a painful reminder of how Israel has come full circle. “I thought that the withdrawal from Southern Lebanon was the right thing to do,” Leshem says. “It was an amazing chapter in Israeli history that what began as a movement of civilians, primarily mothers of soldiers, pushed the government to decide to pull out.” Yet the novel’s chillingly accurate prophecies, voiced by Liberti, about what would happen after Israel’s withdrawal seem to provide a way of understanding the growing consensus in Israel that the country is doomed to endless wars, even though it withdrew from Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip—and will most likely withdraw from the Palestinian Territories. “You don’t think Kiryat Shmona will be bombarded again?” Liberti asks on the last page of the book. “They’ll take a soldier hostage . . . bombard some northern settlement with mortar shells. . . . And when it comes, anyone who thinks a flock of IAF fighter jets is capable of taking care of the job from the air is going to learn there’s no replacing foot soldiers. We’ll march in there.”
In July 2006, ten months after If Heaven Exists was published, Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers along the Israeli-Lebanese border. Then the Second Lebanese War broke out. Hezbollah shelled Kiryat Shmona and the entire north of Israel (including the village where my family and I live). Israel’s Air Force bombed Hezbollah targets, and soon foot soldiers returned to South Lebanon to engage in house-to-house fighting. Israelis have a reputation for being resilient—hard, even—and rightly so. Sometimes it feels as if the country chokes its sorrow in a numbing silence. But as Liberti says in the book, “I’m sane, don’t worry. I’m not shell-shocked. In our country I’m certainly not the only twenty-one-year-old who’s held a body of a friend missing a head. You could almost say it’s normal around here.”