2018-11-07 / Voice at the Shore

Builders of Israel are ‘Greatest Generation,’ says NBC’s Martin Fletcher at Margate JCC

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER Voice shore editor

Author and foreign correspondent Martin Fletcher (left) chats with Barbara Gerber while signing copies of his new novel, “Promised Land,” at the JCC in Margate on Oct.15. JCC Program Director Josh Cutler is pictured in the background. Author and foreign correspondent Martin Fletcher (left) chats with Barbara Gerber while signing copies of his new novel, “Promised Land,” at the JCC in Margate on Oct.15. JCC Program Director Josh Cutler is pictured in the background. Foreign correspondent Martin Fletcher, who recently spoke at the Margate JCC, spent a large chunk of his illustrious 40-year career reporting from Israel, where he eventually became NBC’s Tel Aviv Bureau Chief. He is also Jewish, the child of parents who fled Vienna, taking refuge in London to escape the Holocaust.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that he and Tom Brokaw had a friendly disagreement about the term “Greatest Generation,” which was the title of Brokaw’s 2001 book on Americans who lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and went on to build modern America. Fletcher told Brokaw that the “Greatest Generation” designation actually belonged to the Jewish generation that endured discrimination in Europe, survived the Holocaust, and went on the build the nation of Israel.

Martin Fletcher chats with Sharon Spitzer while signing copies of “Promised Land” at the JCC in Margate. Martin Fletcher chats with Sharon Spitzer while signing copies of “Promised Land” at the JCC in Margate. Fletcher’s newest book, “Promised Land,” is about that greatest generation. It is the first book of what he has said will be a three-part series that brings Israel’s 70-year history to life. As the first presenter in the JCC’s new Jewish Author Series, Fletcher spoke about his book and career to a crowd of roughly 60 people on October 15.

“Promised Land,” Fletcher’s sixth book and fourth novel, tells the story of two brothers, Peter and Aren, who are German Jews. When the Nazis come to power, the older brother Peter is sent to America, while Aren ends up in a concentration camp with the rest of his family, where only Aren survives. The two brothers reunite in Israel. There, Aren becomes a fabulously successful businessman who helps build Israel, while Peter, a top Mossad agent, protects it.

As a work of fiction, “Promised Land” is a departure from the journalistic reporting and writing for which Fletcher is so well known.

The winner of five Emmys and almost every award for TV journalists, Fletcher has covered wars in Israel, Sarajevo, and Rwanda, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ethiopian famines, and terrorism throughout the world. He was the only reporter to enter the American embassy in Tehran during the 444 days American diplomats were held hostage there; the only television reporter to join the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; and he spent three weeks walking across mountains with Mujahedeen, today’s Taliban, to report on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“I’ve reported on 17 wars,” he said. “Walking across mountains with the Mujahedeen was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he added.

By Fletcher’s own description, his career was initially catapulted by arriving places just before major events unfolded. He arrived in Israel as a cameraman for Britain’s Visnews on Oct. 1, 1973, just days before the Yom Kippur War broke out. He was then told to go to the Golan Heights. “I didn’t know where it was at the time,” he recalled.

This same “luck” continued: Shortly after that he took a vacation to Cyprus. “The Turks invaded two days later,” he said. Then, a week after starting his assignment as an NBC correspondent in Tel Aviv in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon.

Covering these events as a journalist was effectively writing history, said Fletcher. “Journalists always talk about [what they do as] writing the first draft of history,” he noted. Yet now, in his early 70s, Fletcher is more interested in fiction, which allows him to write “the next page in someone’s life” and capture important human stories in a way that journalism often can’t.

Fletcher wrote his novel, “The List,” after finding a piece of paper his dad had put together with a list of all his family members who had gone to concentration camps. “I’d been trying to write a novel for a long time,” he noted, and this finding inspired him. Like his parents, the main characters in the novel, Georg and Edith, are Austrian refugees who escape the Nazis by immigrating to London, where they also encounter anti-Semitism and discrimination as they struggle to build their lives.

Published in 2011, “The List” was selected as Philadelphia’s One Book, One Jewish Community Book of the Year. “Walking Israel,” a 2010 nonfiction book in which Fletcher reflects on the history and people of Israel as he walks its coastline, earned him the National Jewish Book Award.

When Fletcher set out to write his own version of the “Greatest Generation,” he envisioned writing a nonfiction book but changed his mind. “I wanted to go beyond the journalistic,” he explained. “I wanted to tell the story of what it was really like to be there during those years.”

“I didn’t want to write the history of Israel,” he added. “I wanted to tell what it was like to be that person” who was part of creating and building the new nation of Israel. “So my book became a novel, which surprised me.”

“Promised Land” was intentionally written as a quasisequel to Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” with some key differences. “‘Exodus’ has been described as propaganda,” explained Fletcher, which was the opposite of what he wanted for “Promised Land.” Written in 1958, “Exodus” tells the story of Israel’s birth as a nation through a handful of heroic Israeli characters who overcome discrimination and Arab brutality.

Fletcher’s characters in “Promised Land” are more flawed than those in “Exodus” because he wanted to create a story that rang true to life. “I wanted my book to be as authentic as possible,” he stressed.

It also needed to be compelling. That was yet another reason why Fletcher chose to write historical fiction. Thanks to the power of story, historical fiction captivates more readers than a traditional history book, explained Fletcher, who now teaches writing and storytelling to NBC staff.

The ultimate goal of “Promised Land” was to paint a compelling and accurate portrait of the Israel he has come to know intimately through his years of reporting and living there. Even now, Fletcher, who is married to an Israeli, maintains a residence in Israel as well as in New York.

“I want people who read the book to understand where today’s Israel is coming from and hopefully support it,” he stressed. s

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