A literary blank ballot
Byline: Miriam Shaviv
Date: Friday, March 9, 2001
Unlike yesteryear's Zionist icons, young Israeli writers shun political
relevancy, whether as writers or activists.
The atmosphere in the room was of quiet desperation. The two main speakers,
prize-winning authors Amos Oz and David Grossman, who had worked for the
cause of peace for 30 years, were blunt. Grossman turned to the Israeli
Arabs, who had threatened to boycott the election en masse, and challenged,
edgily: 'Is not voting worth the price of a Sharon administration?' Oz, who
looked tired and gray, finally let emotion overtake him and raised his
voice, warning: 'I do not envy the person who will have to look at
themselves in the mirror and know that they played a part in bringing about
the next Arab-Israeli war.'
The emotional appeal, which was given heavy coverage on the evening news and
in the dailies the next day, was just one of a string of political
pronouncements made by prominent authors during the 2001 campaign. In early
January Oz, Grossman, AB Yehoshua, and Meir Shalev were amongst the most
recognizable names to sign an open letter to the Palestinian leadership,
calling on them to sign a framework agreement with Israel and give up on
their demand for a right of return for refugees.
On the day of, and the day after the election, Oz, Shalev, and Grossman all
had opinion columns plastered on the front page of Yediot Aharonot and
Ma'ariv, Israel's two largest-circulating dailies.
Such political involvement is common in many countries where authors have
traditionally acted as a 'kind of secular prophets, with a spiritual
authority,' says Dr. Nissim Calderon of Tel Aviv University.
So the silence of authors below the age of 40 was conspicuous, especially at
a time when Israeli literature is 'full of energy, even feverish, definitely
as interesting as anything in Europe right now,' according to Calderon.
'This younger generation does not want to be spokesmen for the collective,'
says Gadi Taub, himself a fiction writer in his mid 30s, who also authored A
Dispirited Rebellion, a collection of essays on contemporary Israeli
culture. 'They shy away from the age-old Jewish role of 'Hatzofeh le-beit
Yisrael'' - the writer as heir to the prophets, with a moral vision that he
has a duty to share with his people.
Critics see the phenomenon as a reflection of the increased divisions in
Israeli society, which are causing citizens to feel less loyal to and
responsible for the collective. 'Literature is capturing the increasing
number of sub-cultures in Israeli society - the end of the dream of the
melting pot,' says Calderon.
There is certainly a feeling of turning inwards in the writings of the
up-and-coming literary stars, who include Ronit Matalon, Orly Kastel-Bloom,
Etgar Keret, Shimon Laor and Yuval Shimoni. Although the authors are a
fairly eclectic bunch, encompassing a wide variety of styles and subject
matters, they tend to focus on personal experiences that rarely touch on the
moral and ideological issues occupying the Israeli political scene.
Matalon and Kastel-Bloom, for example, both write about women. In
Kastel-Bloom's last book, Min Aliza, she illustrates the tension between
traditional expectations from women, and the need to write, in a nervous
narrative. Keret's stories, which are only a few hundred words long, might
feature a boy who finds a headless body in the bushes, or a man who
suppresses the suspicion his girlfriend is cheating on him. He often uses
the voice of a child who is injured by the real world, expressing an intense
feeling of alienation.
'There's no attempt to write about the state any more. There's no such thing
as the big picture,' says Dror Burstein, a literary critic for the Hebrew
daily Ha'aretz. 'Everyone tells their own story,' he says, noting the
explosion in women writing about women, religious people writing about their
own community, and books on the Tel Aviv singles scene.
Again, avoiding the prophetic role, the younger generation tends not to take
strong moral or ideological stances in their stories.
Why are the characters leading empty lives? What does it show about society?
What can be done? What should be done? These authors don't tell their
readers, and often make it hard for them to guess. 'With Amos Oz, you'll
always know who says what, what each character believes,' says Burstein. By
contrast, in the new generation, characters often do not 'talk with one
voice. They don't always have something clear to say.'
Calderon explains, 'The author used to have a spiritual authority. But,
through their literature, a lot of today's authors seem to say, 'I don't
know more than you, my readers,' I don't see from above. We live in a
complicated reality, and I, the author, am no more than a military man, or
bridegroom, or tenant...'
Critics think that the authors' changing role is just one expression of a
dramatic loss of interest in public life in the general population. Says
Burstein, 'Just like there was a trend in the general population to put a
blank ballot in the box on election day, the authors are putting in a
literary blank ballot.'
In the modern era, the tie between Jewish literature and politics began to
form in the late 18th century, as the Jewish Enlightenment movement gained
momentum. The writers of the early Enlightenment movement, or maskilim, as
they were better known, were cultural polemicists, who tried to 'fight the
influence of the rabbis, through stories and poetry' explains Prof. Avraham
Balaban, the head of the African and Asian Languages and Literature
department at the University of Florida, who covers Hebrew literature for
the Encyclopedia Britannica. 'Their political goals were achieved through
This was continued by the Zionist luminaries, such as Natan Alterman, Y.H.
Brener and Uri Zvi Greenberg. The fact that they wrote in Hebrew increased
their political prestige, since when the language was first revived, merely
being able to speak it - let alone speak it well - was an accomplishment.
Soon, 'the very fact someone would write was considered a virtue. Moshe
Dayan wrote a few verses just so that he would be able to say he, too, was a
writer,' Balaban relates.
After the establishment of the state, the generation of authors that still
frequents the political scene today - Oz, Yehoshua, and their peers - were
initially critical of the interventionist tendencies of their predecessors.
But the 1967 Six Day War 'forced us to return to questions of Zionism, and
the Palestinians. We had to develop opinions,' says A.B. Yehoshua. The
authors comfortably slipped back into the tradition of political activity
because 'we saw ourselves as a link in a chain of the Hebrew literature
Why has this generation broken the link?
'When Oz, Yehoshua, and their generation started being active, they lived in
a different environment - a world with a center,' explains Prof. Balaban.
'There was one university, and when My Michael [by Amos Oz] was published in
1967, anyone who read literature read that book.
'Today, it's a postmodern society, very divided, and there's no single
literary or cultural center. There's no way today's main authors can receive
the same kind of hearing,' he says.
Asher Barak, a 24-year-old IDF economist whose first book, a thriller, is
due out this month, adds that as Israelis became more sophisticated,
educated, and urbanized, 'they feel less of an obligation to others... and
less of a sense of belonging to a community,' he says, noting that Israelis
are considered less Zionist, and less 'Jewish' today than in the past,
reflecting less of a collective identity. 'People are more focused on
themselves, so that's what they write about. It's a factor of modern life.'
Political changes have also made it harder for Israelis to be united
'Our society used to be founded on a series of stories, like the fact that
we're a small country surrounded by enemies, and the justice of the Zionist
enterprise... Ben-Gurion himself is a myth - the old man who sits in Sde
Boker and tells everyone to trust him,' says Burstein. 'Myths are like
benevolent lies; they hold a society together.'
A series of disillusioning events in the 1970s and 1980s - such as the Yom
Kippur War, the Lebanon War, and the intifada - made people begin to realize
that the country's ideological stance did not fit with reality. 'It's in the
nature of myths that they are broken,' says Burstein.
And in a culture without uniting stories, 'every person has to reinvent
their whole world,' he says. 'Literature begins again.' Hence, says
Burstein, 'everyone tells their own story - there's no big picture. People
write about their own corner of Tel Aviv, and there's no attempt to write
about the state.'
For Ronit Matalon, the best-selling author of one book of short-stories, and
two novels, abandoning traditional perspective on her society was a
'When my generation grew up, the education system was full of
indoctrination,' she relates from her Tel Aviv apartment, just minutes away
from the Mann Auditorium and the Habimah Theatre, highly symbolic centers of
homegrown Israeli culture. 'We were told, we are a chosen nation, pure,
The result, she says, was that 'most of us developed a flinching reaction to
lies. We went against the ideology of the collective, which had become
corrupt,' and became fiercely protective of their individuality. The reason
her generation does not want 'to go to the prime minister and recommend a
national unity government, or speak at a Peace Now demonstration,' is
because 'you lose your 'I' if you speak in the name of the collective,' she
Matalon does not take Israeli identity as something obvious or monolithic.
'I feel the need to complicate the question, ask what Israeli identity is,
and what identity itself means' - an interest that is fuelled by her own
diverse background, which includes Egyptian-born grandparents, one of whom
managed Cairo's opera, and parents who went through the immigrant camps of
Israel's early years.
Many of her characters, therefore, occupy themselves with questions of
self-definition, and the fluidity of identity. The One Facing Us, her first
novel, involves a teenage girl, who forges her own identity as she explores
the history of her family, as they move between Egypt, Cameroon, and Israel.
Nissim Calderon notes that Matalon is typical of the new generation, in that
she reverts back to exploration of her own ethnicity and gender, and does
not accept the traditional definitions of Israeliness. But even if she seems
more political than her peers, she insists that they all 'think in political
terms, just different ones... creating new types of Israeli identities is
also a political act.'
GADI TAUB, for one, says that 'it has lately begun to strike me as strange'
that his peers are so disengaged. 'It is a generation that has lost its
The bleached-blond Taub, who sports two small silver earrings, himself used
to write harsh tales of alienated individuals in the Tel Aviv scene. He gave
it up, he says, when he realized that the drive to bash myths was
understandable as far back as the 1980s, when it was a 'weighty, even
suffocating tradition.' But now the authors are 'trying to bash through
doors that are open... What started as a rebellion against a world where the
private was not legitimate, is now operating in a world where only the
private is legitimate.'
Taub, who is currently completing a PhD in American history at Rutgers
University in order to help himself understand the American influence on
Israel, is concerned that his peers have not 'acquired habits of thought
that are useful tools for constructing' and concludes that the myth-bashing
attitude, today, 'has very little to offer us... Our hiding from the
political is causing more damage than good.'
Taub identifies 'an undercurrent of mourning... a world yearning for
meaning, some sense of order' in the literature of his generation, implying
that this generation itself is, at least unconsciously, dissatisfied with
its turning inwards. 'They have failed to find any ties beyond the self, and
feel strangely disengaged.'
Balaban, too, feels that avoiding politics in today's Israeli reality is
impossible. 'You cannot live in our country today without taking a stand
about what is going on around us - the way the Palestinians are treated. The
things happening in today's society are simply too important not to have an
echo in what is being written.'
Asked why his generation has not managed to find its way out of its apathy
to national politics, Taub answers deliberately that they have 'maneuvered
themselves into this tradition. It's childish - assuming someone else will
take care' of national business. 'What was once very forceful as
myth-bashing, is now spoilt and self- indulgent...'
A.B. Yehoshua speculates that the next generation never found a way to talk
to the public, because 'they may have been squashed by our [generation's]
weight.' He agrees that 'perhaps we are doing their work,' adding only
half-jokingly, 'Perhaps it's time to reach a work arrangement.'
So far, however, there does not seem to be any sign that a new, more
politically active generation is emerging. 'In order to be socially
involved, you have to feel that you have a place in society, and that it is
important,' says Balaban, 'and that is simply not what people feel in Israel
Matalon rejects out-of-hand any suggestion that her generation is shirking
its duty. 'There was always a lot of value put on doing, and less on being
in the Zionist culture, and it's very pressurizing,' she says. 'The pressure
to suggest solutions [to the nation's problems] is simplistic. First of all
you have to deconstruct reality, and understand it in depth, and that is
something we haven't done well enough yet,' she insists. 'The blurring and
the lies are still to great - there's still work to be done intellectually.'
(Box 1) When Israeli authors were hawks
Three months after the 1967 Six Day War, author Moshe Shamir came to Nobel
Laureate S.Y. Agnon's house in Jerusalem and presented him a petition.
”The integral land of Israel is now in the hands of the Jewish people,” read
the euphoric document that would be published that weekend in all major
papers, “and just like we are forbidden to forfeit the State of Israel,
weare also commanded to retain what it gave us: the Land of Israel. We must
be loyal to our country's integrity, considering the nation's past and
future alike; and no government in Israel is allowed to compromise this
Agnon, by far the greatest Israeli author ever, didn't need much prodding,
according to biographer Dan Laor. After listening to Shamir for a few
minutes he simply asked him to hand him a pen and added his signature to the
petition, which already included Natan Alterman, at the time the high priest
of Israeli poetry.
Ultimately, besides veteran Revisionists like poet Uri Zvi Greenberg and
writer Yisrael Eldad, the petition was also signed by mainstream writers
like Haim Guri, Haim Hazaz, Aharon Reuveni, Gershom Shofman, and Yehuda
Burla. Coupled with veteran Labor movement figures like Moshe Tabenkin and
Eliezer Livneh and religious leaders like Rabbi M.Z. Nerya and Professor
Harel Fish, the Greater Israel movement thus started as a highly cultural
and multi-partisan grouping. Though he refused to take part in the new
group's public meetings, Agnon offered his pen to its organ, Zu Artzenu,
where he published several short stories.
(Box 2) The Talmud and the pen
Rabbi Haim Sabato is something of an enigma. In his mid 50s, he is a member
of a generation of authors with no qualms about mixing literature and
One of the few contemporary Israeli authors to write from the depths of a
rich Judaic background, he also heads a yeshiva, or Talmudic academy. And
last year, he won the prestigious mainstream Sapir Prize for his Adjustment
of Sights, Israel's first novel to deal directly with the 1973 Yom Kippur
War as experienced by a plain combat soldier, automatically lending him
great authority - if only he wanted it.
'My writing contains no message,' the greying Talmudist emphasizes, sounding
like a typical representative of a generation younger than his own. 'If
people see something in my writing later, that's one thing. But they're not
seeing a message I put there.'
Sabato's book, a memoir, brings to life the mental anguish experienced by
young soldiers thrown into a war the army is spectacularly unprepared for.
'Just because I wrote two good stories doesn't suddenly make me a
philosopher in Israeli society,' the rabbi says, shifting in his seat in his
modest office in Birkat Moshe, the elite religious seminary he heads outside
Jerusalem. For Sabato, writing is an intensely personal experience, during
which he tries 'not to think of my audience.' While writing his Yom Kippur
memoir, he confides, 'I got into the story with all my strength, and felt
like I was in those days again, helmet and all. When I finished writing, I
felt a tremendous sense of relief.'
Sabato modestly hesitates to attribute a political attitude to any cultural
wind. 'It's my personality; I don't like to accuse others,' he says.
Still, one cultural wind he may indeed be a part of, intentionally or not,
is the religious community's emerging literary voice.
Observant writers were originally closely associated with Orthodox leaders,
who 'began to realize that writing is a tool that can be used to serve the
community's political needs,' says Hava Pinchas-Cohen, editor of Dimui
('Image'), a religious literary journal.
According to Yair Sheleg in his recent book, The New Religious Jews, rabbis
now actively encourage self- expression in writing, art, and in particular
cinema and television, out of recognition that 'that these areas are
particularly popular and have the most influence.' But Pinchas-Cohen
emphasizes that the writers are not towing the party line. 'We've grown out
of that problem,' she says. 'The picture that emerges is of a complex
society, with people with problems, loves, hates, like any other society.'
Notable authors writing from within this community include women such as
Mira Magen, Yehudit Rotem, and Hana Bat-Shachar, who often feature women
protagonists. Naomi Ragen (see page 17), an American immigrant who writes in
English, has achieved international success with dramatic, often tragic,
tales of religious women.
Dr. Nissim Calderon of Tel Aviv University, questions the quality of the
growing body of work. There is no 'great talent' among people coming from
the religious world, he claims. But others emphasize the diversity of the
literature, and its freshness. 'This is a community that for many years was
mute,' notes Pinchas-Cohen
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