Introduction why and how

In this article, I will try to evaluate some recent trends in Hebrew literature to establish the tendencies represented by a group of writers on the left flank of Zionism when dealing both with Zionist identity and that of Palestine. This group has been chosen because of its high profile abroad and within Israel, and because its writings seem to be a poignant instance of the present cultural and political crisis of Zionism. It would be easy to quote at length from rabid, right-wing and racist publications by Gush Emunim or similar organisations, or even from established right-wing writers such as Alterman or Shamir. Instead, I have chosen to quote only those writers belonging to left-Zionism1, the most progressive tendencies. It can safely be assumed that any racism and nationalism detected within this group will be even more evident within the Zionist mainstream. Since it is from this group that any shift in Zionist policy towards the Palestinians may emerge, it is extremely interesting to analyse the positions it represents. More will be said later about this choice.

Literature in Israel plays a central political and ideological role similar to that played by the electronic media in Britain or western Europe. While a full analysis of this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this article, some suggestions are made in one of the following sections. Literature is used here as an important litmus-paper of current shifts in Zionist thinking, and any lessons which may be learned from this analysis are not medium-specific.

This study attempts to relate the different aspects and current crisis of the identity construction within Zionism. The first chapter deals with the special role played by literature within Zionism: the traditional positions taken by writers and, in the wider context of Zionist argumentation, the effect of regional and global political trends on Zionist writers, with particular reference to fascist developments in the 1930s. In the second chapter, the writer’s self-image and its relationship to ‘national’ identity is examined. The third chapter examines the process of synthesizing a nation in Israel and the ideological material used in this construction. The last two chapters deal with the Palestinian image in recent Israeli writing and the identity crisis within Zionism. The concluding chapter attempts to connect these different strands together.

This article will look at a small but influential selection of recent Hebrew literature to examine the social, political and moral attitudes which form its ideological basis. Texts have been chosen for their social and political significance and raison d’etre rather than artistic merits. Examples include a relatively new and marginal literary genre – that of a writer\political activist setting out not so much to interview as to have rambling conversations with people belonging to the communities locked in mortal struggle in Palestine.

This ‘touring troubadour’ genre was reintroduced by Amos Oz in 1982, in a book called ‘Po Vasham Be’Eretz Israel‘.2 This book is part of a wider Israeli phenomenon of a society speaking to itself through literature and poetry. While this may be true, to an extent, of most societies, it reaches an advanced stage of development in particular historical circumstances.

An historical perspective

The particular intensity with which Hebrew and Arabic literature and poetry have taken up the conflict as their central theme, brings to mind other recent periods of great social and political tension in which literature played a similar role. An obvious example is that of pre-revolutionary Russia, the vast social landscape of which was painted with passionate detail by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Gorky. Russian literature of the 19th century and since, is centrally placed as an influence on Hebrew literature. Many writers in pre-mandate Palestine came from Russia and wrote in Russian before writing in Hebrew. They had brought with them not only the rhythms of the motherland but a range of attitudes, subjects and themes specific to 19th century Russian literature. In that sense, Hebrew literature in Palestine was always of a polemic cast, a phenomenon not restricted to pre-revolutionary Russia but evident in many societies undergoing violent change, such as Weimar Germany or the USA during the Depression.

Thus, while Oz may be the current reactivator of the genre, the tendency itself has a long history. Not only are novels, poems and plays used as platforms for political argumentation, as part of the political arsenal that reaches a wide and crucial audience, but writers consistently participate in the interminable and constant public debate on the nature of the Zionist project. The ideological battle fought over the direction to be taken by Zionism has been dominated from the start by literary figures in an abundance not seen elsewhere. It would be impossible (and unnecessary) to give here a full account of the role played by literati in the history of Zionism.

The obvious one to start with is Herzl, a journalist, mediocre playwright and novelist who attained fame through his books – ‘Altneuland’ and ‘Der Judenstaat’ – which describe, in different ways, the realisation of Zionist aspirations. The ideas expressed in those books were not new but had already been propounded a few years earlier, specifically in Leo Pinsker’s book ‘Auto-emancipation’. Books discussing the options facing the Jews of Europe were not unusual; since Jewish communities spanned the globe, literature had been the paramount vehicle of dialogue within world Jewry. The debate fired by Herzl was joined by Jewish writers from various countries. Polemicists such as Achad Ha’am and Borochov and poets like Bialik joined the fray and the debate was brought to the public through newspapers, novels, pamphlets and poems.

This was a formative period of the Zionist discourse, one in which politicians as such were missing, and was in effect a political debate held in the cultural arena. For a people that had survived longer than most and who cherished the Bible as a powerful combination of history, religion, culture, mores and a political programme for the future (not to mention a land-registry document), the choice of literary polemics to execute this crucial discourse on the movement’s future directions was an obvious one.

Literature in Israel is the stage on which power struggles take shape, where opposing groupings within Zionism talk to each other, using the public arena as a testing ground for new tendencies. The Zionist right has never been short of literary proponents – from the poets Greenberg and Alterman, to novelists such as Agnon and Shamir, but amongst the voices of euphoric nationalism and neo-colonial jubilation at the start of colonisation were voices of dissent and discord. After Achad Ha’am and his scruples, came Brenner who raised political and personal doubts about the direction of the Zionist project. These two were followed in the 1920s by a group of intellectuals led by Martin Buber, called Brith Shalom (Peace Pact). The group tried to set up a united front for peace in Palestine, but was less than successful in persuading substantial numbers of either Jews or Arabs to join.

This was a period of gains for the Zionist right, with Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionist federation, attracting many young Zionists in Europe and Palestine. Jabotinsky, another Zionist writer-turned-politician, had been influenced by Mussolini during the early 1920s. Though he later disagreed bitterly with fascism and was one of its strongest opponents within Zionism, his organisation’s youth movement resembled the Hitler Jugend and the armed motorcades of supporters clearly drew inspiration from the Stunn Abteilung in Germany. This accusation was continuously hurled at them by their opponents on the left flank of Zionism.

It is interesting to note, in passing, that the concept of state power and its crucial role within the future Zionist state, was developed by Jabotinsky in the historical novel ‘Samson’. The final message his Samson sends back to the Israelites consists of two words: ‘Iron’ and ‘King’. (These two they are told to strive for, at any cost, so that they can become the lords of Canaan). His is a cry for ‘normalcy’, in a world where the norm has become the rule of naked power, racism and oppression. In this light, the liberation of the Jew is seen not as a freedom won from the society of goyim but as freedom from the ‘misguided’ humanism preached and practiced by so many Jewish intellectuals in the diaspora.

It is the rich tradition of Jewish radicalism, of the important role played by many Jews within the socialist and communist movements, which is being countered here. That tradition was the dominant voice of politicised Jews in East Europe before the holocaust, through organisations like the Bund, and various socialist and communist organisations. As a direct challenge to all they stand for, this tradition was, and still is, anathema to Zionist writers and has to be shown to be a futile and doomed stance, a miscalculation by the politically naive.

The retreat from 19th century radical and liberal traditions to a pre-historical, mythical and glorious past, had been the hallmark of fascist tendencies elsewhere – supplying an ideological justification for demands to establish new empires and a battle cry for the masses to follow. It continues to supply ammunition and argumentation for the current generation of fascists and racists in Israel who are closer in their thinking, political style and lexicon to Jabotinsky than to the Labour Movement.

Thus, the struggle for political control within Zionism in Palestine was not limited to brute force and armed provocation in the style developed in central Europe; like left-Zionism with its publication houses, the right enjoyed the full backing of the Revisionist publication machinery which included a journal called Diary of a Jewish Fascist, edited by another man of letters, Aba Achimeir. In the context of fascist victories in Europe, this group of ultra-right extremists was indicative of the general direction taken by Zionists during this period.

It was inconceivable for Brith Shalom to succeed in such an atmosphere dominated by nationalist and neo-colonial sentiments. The decline of left-of-centre ideas and influence during the 1930s in Palestine has resurfaced in the 1980s with the coming to power of the right-wing block, and the formation of even more extreme, fascist parliamentary and extra-parliamentary blocks and parties which enjoy popular support, particularly amongst the Jewish youth.

A fuller account of the centrality and importance of literature and literary debate within mainstream Zionism during its formative period is available in Hebrew in publications too numerous to list here.

The ‘macro political’ context

The relationship of Zionism to wider trends is as true now as it was then. One has only to think of the rise of the right during the 1970s, although this may have been more dramatic in Israel than in some other societies. A look at the period of rising fascism in the 1920s in Europe, offers some important insights into the interdependence of similar political trends. This point is habitually denied by Zionists who prefer to describe themselves and their movement as totally unique. Comparisons of the colonisation process with any other, e.g. South Africa, enrages Zionist apologists who are adept at splitting methodological hairs like seasoned Talmudists. (While the differences between the two political situations are many and important, the failure to see the similarities is sheer blindness. It is no coincidence that both societies have grown closer to each other in many fields over the last decade).

Thus, a look at historical and political parallels, such as the rise of fascism in Europe, may provide conceptual keys to a number of ideological closed doors behind which the harmful creations of this tumultuous period are still intact. It was during this period that terms such as ‘cruel Zionism’ were coined to describe a dominant tendency within Zionism led by the undisputed strong-man of the Zionist establishment, Ben Gurion. The term evolved out of the priorities of building Zionism and its empire-in-the-making rather than paying attention to the millions of Jews living in Europe under the impending threat of extinction. It is especially illuminating to look at the ‘poetic’ terminology used by some ‘liberal’ Zionist leaders, such as Weizmann, to see how deep fascist ideology had struck. As early as 1937, Weizmann was using poignant language to describe the Jews of Europe and their projected future:

The old ones will pass; they will bear their fate, or they will not. They were dust, economic and moral dust in a cruel world… Two millions, and perhaps less – She’erit Hapleta – only a branch will survive. They have to accept it. The rest they must leave to the future – to their youth.3

The reference to millions of human beings as ‘human dust’ cannot be conceived in isolation from the literary campaign by the Zionist right, politically and historically synchronised and related to the rise of European fascism. The ascendency of militant, empire-seeking nationalism has had a decisive dehumanizing effect on Zionism, through a complex system of links with the cultural centres around which this new growth has flourished. Not taking account of these links is tantamount to accepting the central Zionist myth of the uniqueness of Zionism, a movement not just denying the historical developments, but able to reverse some of them.

The ‘cosmetic’ alternative

The debate around the central features of the Zionist utopia was held, from the start, between two unequal groupings. The first included those who, following Herzl’s notions of the colonisation process in Palestine, and its links with and dependence on the empire of the day, set about achieving their goals in the shortest possible period. Despite important differences between right and left-wing Zionism about priorities and methods, both wings of mainstream Zionism form part of this first grouping and were in accord over the main tenets of political Zionism.

The second grouping was a motley crew – liberals, socialists, communists who found their way to Palestine as a result of European anti-semitism rather than as a result of ardent Zionism. This was not a tendency struggle between the dominant and an alternative – the alternative had by definition to exist outside Zionism and to offer not just an opposition to it but an alternative programme altogether. Such a group did not exist within the Jewish community in Palestine, at least not a group with any real cultural and political influence. Hence the debate was held between dominant, aggressive forms of Zionism and critics of such a tendency who, rather than disassociating themselves from it and fighting it outright, were reformers and not radicals or revolutionaries. Such criticism may be called ‘cosmetic’ as it is a disagreement about ways and means, not about goals.

An unusually clear and frank account of the relationship between the dominant tendency and its critics appears in Amos Oz’s book, Be’or Hatcheleth He’aza.4 Amos Oz is one of the few Israeli writers who are relatively well known abroad – his books have been translated into many languages and he is thought of as a left-wing activist and a supporter of Palestinian rights. In Israel he has been attacked by the right-wing groups numerous times, classified as an ashafist (Israeli jargon for PLO supporters from the Hebrew acronym ashaf for the PLO). His book is a collection of articles and public talks written during the 1970s. In it he says:

Where the followers of the trendy school of thought are talking about “territories”, the Greater Israel Movement is saying quite openly “Eretz Israel”. Where some smart Alecs are preaching: let’s try to grab as much as the Goyish nations will allow, the Greater Israel people are saying: All is ours, the whole country and it should not be redivided. Where the nod and wink rule and where everyone uses synonyms in order to cover up, they are saying: colonize, Judaize, inherit.

These are necessary words. There is in them, amongst other things, a measure of neatness and trust. This movement was not born out of inferior elements; it comes out of the noble heritage of Jewry. I see it as a live branch, totally necessary to the main Zionist tree trunk. If we forget for a moment some specks of ugliness that have attached themselves to the movement (and which movement is clear of those?) then the movement of Greater Israel is founded on love, trust and visionary insight. I belong to a different and remote branch of the same tree, but even from a distance I can recognise the temperament, suffering, anger, heart-rendering wishes. Both them and me are partners of a kind, sharing a hostility towards those waiting to see which way the wind blows…5

To fully appreciate those words, it may be useful to transpose them to other political realities. Would similar expressions be possible from a liberal or left-wing activist to describe links and connections to a tradition held in common with the extreme right? Brecht speaking about Nazism? Gramsci speaking about Fascism? Jackson eulogising about the Ku Klux Klan? A unique situation, indeed, for anyone purporting to be active on the left. But in the case of Oz and others like him in left-Zionist groups from the Labour party to Peace Now, sentiments connecting them to the extreme Jewish right are apparently firmer than any positive leanings they may have towards Palestinians, even those on the left of the political spectrum. This sense of belonging not to an internationalist left movement, but to a tradition created by reactionary forces and now dominated by the extreme right, may explain the images of Palestine and Palestinians they create. This innate racism is why the struggle of ‘cosmetic reformers’ of Zionism, while being the more sympathetic and acceptable aspect of a repressive system, can offer neither a real alternative nor an enduring resistance to the dominant.

The vacillation of this tendency on central issues, like the self-determination of the Palestinians or the colonial nature of the Zionist enterprise, limits their actions and proclamations to a corrective type, a rearguard cultural guerrilla activity. Such a position, by supplying a more acceptable and palatable face for both internal and external consumption, serves as an effective apologist for the excesses of Zionism. It also highlights the extent of the crisis in which Zionism has found itself 20 years after the ‘miracle’ of 1967.

The continued support of most such writers for Zionism seems to emerge not from a determined decision based on an evaluation of existing options, but rather a disregard for any political choices that might require a rethinking of communal and national identity. Such dissent as they voice arises out of a disenchantment with what their society has become, not from a political analysis. Concern for the lost dream of Zionist utopia, to find out ‘where it all went wrong’, assumes a pure and innocent dream that somehow became tainted.

This romanticism has fired many Zionists whose need to see Palestine filled with Jews has made them blind to the existence of another nation there prior to their arrival. It is not the dream which is to blame, they argue, but only its realisation which did not measure up to the promised paradise. But the dream did not become tainted at all; rather, it had in it a fatal flaw, built into the very fibre of its being – the denial of the other. This denial operates on all levels – the ideological negation of a Palestinian people underlines and justifies the very material forms of denial developed by Israeli society.

When the existence of the other becomes visible and no longer possible to deny, further means have to be put forward. Immediately after the occupation in 1967, Y. Weitz, a prominent member of the establishment and former head of the Colonization Department of the Jewish Agency, revealed that in his diary of 1940 he had written the following:

Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both people together in this country… We shall not achieve our goal of being an independent people, with the Arabs in this small country. The only solution is a Palestine, at least Western Palestine (West of the Jordan river) without Arabs… And there is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here into the neighbouring countries, to transfer all of them: Not one village, not one tribe, should be left… Only after this transfer will the country be able to absorb the millions of our brethren. There is no other way out.6

But it was Herzl, not Weitz, who invented the idea of a total transfer. His may be the first written reference to the idea of mass transfer as a political solution in Palestine:

When we occupy the land, we shall bring immediate benefits to the state that receives us. We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us.

We shall try to spirit the pennyless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country.

The property-owners will come to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.

Let the owners of immovable property believe that they are cheating us, selling us things for more than they are worth.

But we are not going to sell them anything back.7

Interestingly, later the same day (12th June 1895), Herzl notes a task to be performed by the indigenous population before it is transferred to the ‘transit countries’:

If we move into a region where there are wild animals to which the Jews are not accustomed – big snakes, etc. – I shall use the natives, prior to giving them employment in the transit countries, for the extermination of these animals. High premium for snake skins, etc, as well as their spawn.8

That such thoughts were carefully edited and sanitised from published works and speeches, points to a systematic denial and rewriting of history, a reworking of the Zionist self. Herzl himself was meticulous in removing references to the indigenous population from his published material. Indeed, the silence on this point rings loudly in his other books. This effort still continues and signifies a censoring of political consciousness, forcing underground any evidence of embarrassing traits of Zionism during its formative years.

The solutions outlined above were necessary not because of shortage of space in Palestine, but because of a more crucial factor – the imagined nature and identity of the Jewish/Israeli self in Palestine.

Thus, while it is possible for left-Zionist writers to be critical of Zionism in practice, it seems more difficult, almost impossible, to question the theoretical and ideological basis of the whole enterprise. Criticising a mode of practice does not necessarily invalidate the theory behind it; finding basic faults with the theory invalidates the whole enterprise.

Other reasons for the infertile nature of the ‘cosmetic alternative’ concern the material and methods central to writers of that tendency, such as Yehoshua, Oz, Kenan, Kaniuk, Shabtai and Grossman, who use dreams and nightmares – namely, myth, fantasy and poetic liaison – to build their argument. As this is central to the analysis presented here, it will be dealt with in the section ‘The Devil’s Dark Fire’.

The great project – synthesizing the nation

As a result of external and internal pressures during the 1930s, the fragile cultural and political dominance of left-Zionism comes to an early end. The new cultural activists of the ascending right are quick to pinpoint the internal contradictions permeating left-Zionism. To them, concepts such as social justice, class struggle and world revolution are simply anachronisms, symptoms of the ‘diaspora mentality’ and ‘Jewish cosmopolitanism’ which they wish to expunge.

The proponents of this tendency were Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion. Though belonging to opposite poles within Zionism, they both understood their task not simply as political but as a cultural regenerative project aimed at synthesizing a new nation out of the broken bits of history, cultural tradition, geography, myth and religion of the Jewish diaspora. One of the best descriptions of this perspective comes from Oz, when talking about the pioneering period in one of his public talks:

A world which is new fences, new saplings, a new and a bit artificial language when coming from the lips of the Shtetl people (until now we cry, laugh, count and have a bloody row in Yiddish), new buildings, new grass, a new syllabus, fresh paint everywhere. Even new lullabies and new “ancient legends” which were synthesized by eager writers from the Jewish National Fund for the new Israeli children, filling the new, experimental readers. Folk songs before the Folk existed. Folk song and dances that require the officially trained guides who, travelling up and down the country, are teaching the folk how to sing and dance properly!9

The concept of the Zionist ‘melting-pot’ was to forge a manufactured identity from a set of unwanted ones – namely, that of the Ghetto Jew, an antisemitic stereotype embraced by Zionism and fought against until its physical extinction. The starting point for such a project was always the belief that the Jews were not a nation in the normal sense of the word. This has been pointed out not just by the critics of the Zionist project, but even by the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl:

…But how will this phenomenon be perceived in the middle classes, where the “Jewish Question” (Judenfrage) is residing, as the Jews are a middle class nation?10

And later, discussing the reasons for antisemitism:

In the ghetto we have developed, quite strangely, into a middle class nation; having left it, we acted as terrible competition for the indigenous middle classes. Thus it was, that after the Emancipation, we found ourselves in bourgeois circles, having to face the double pressures, external and internal.11

One does not have to agree with Herzl’s peculiar reading of Jewish history in order to appreciate the point. The Ghetto Jew had to be expunged – this was agreed grounds between right and left Zionism from very early on. But what would replace it, what kind of ‘New Jew’ had to be constructed?

The ‘New Jew’ was not to be constructed in the abstract but would be forged on the battleground of Arab Palestine, a country yet to be wrenched away from the adversary, the indigenous Palestinian population. Hence, another negative determinant was added to the synthetic brew – that of the Arab, specifically the Palestinian Arab, as the ‘other’. Between these two polarities of ‘otherness’ a space was made for the new identity. As pointed out by Childers,12 Said13 and others, this traditional racist stance and function has a long history. The Arab as other has contributed to the identity forging of a number of European nations.

The new identity had to be European-based. It is clear from Herzl’s diaries14 that a new nation in the Middle East was to be a synthesis of the gaiety of Paris and Vienna, the efficiency of London and the military might of Berlin. The descriptions are too numerous to quote here.

The symbols chosen for the Zionist nation serve to make this point clearer. All were imported from other cultures15 and appropriated as ‘Israeli’: the music of the national anthem came from the Czech nationalist musician, Smetana; most of the music used for nationalist songs came from Russian folk-songs; the term for a Palestinian-born Jew is the Arabic word Sabar, Hebraicised as Tsabar (Sabra), the native prickly pear grown as a hedge by Palestinian villagers. Different rationales were found to justify this project of producing a nation willy-nilly, with the help of science, technology and, not least, propaganda.

Thus the Zionist project was originally conceived less as a national liberation movement within the context of the rise of European nationalism, and more as the manufacturing of a nation from the cultural stock of spare-parts of mainly central-European Jewry. This would be achieved by colonizing Palestine, a Third World country of great interest to Europeans. The European nations that were to be counted on for support, and which have duly obliged, were to be lured by an image of a new nation that reflected their own biases.

The ‘New Jew’ was to be created in the image of the model of European neo-colonialism. In this context, the role of the Palestinians in the brew was that of local spice, the proof of belonging to the sun-scorched plains of the Middle East, like the sabra plant. Certain aspects of Israeli architecture reveal such a tendency to take over local cultural elements and motifs which are then adapted to suit the coloniser. The arch, dome and enclosed courtyard are all elements of Palestinian Arab architecture, although their true origin is sanitised by being referred to as ‘regional’ or ‘Middle-Eastern’. Thus the very existence, history and creativity of the victim supplies ammunition to the oppressor and Zionism can argue that, despite the mainly European components of its identity, there are sufficient ‘regional’ and ‘Middle-Eastern’ features to make it a true inhabitant of the khamsin-swept plains of Palestine.

This obsession with synthesizing a nation at all costs and in a short period of time, may be the underlining reason for the centrality of literature within the Zionist project. Much literary effort is devoted to debating aspects of Jewish, Israeli and Zionist identity. How else could that identity be defined and examined?

At this point, it might be useful to examine the viewpoint of the literary proponents of left-Zionism to establish the similarities and differences from the official line, and most importantly, their positions, hopes, aspirations and fears.

‘The Devil’s Dark Fire’ a look in the mirror

The fire of the title is the one lit by one of Israel’s foremost writers, Amos Oz, in his book Be’or Hatcheleth He’aza.16 In it we discover Oz’s conception of his and other writers’ role within Israeli society – that of ‘tribal witchdoctor’ responsible for raising the ‘Devil’s dark fire…’, of excorcising the ghosts and shadows of the national past. Analysing the macabre motif evident in Moshe Dayan’s speeches (‘…the man sitting in the garden of his villa, surrounded by sarcopagi … the smell of death emanating from every single one of his political speeches…’), Oz defines the difference between political leaders and writers like himself, thus:

It may well be that in Dayan we lost an authentic poet of the Israeli experience of those who spent their lives in wars and the funerary interludes between them. But I do not wish poets by the helm and dashboard of power. The emotional twilight, the Devil’s dark fire, I myself know a little; and not from a distance. Those infected by it, should sit and write. By the control panels and the brakes I prefer to see not a visionary with figurative speech, but a sane pilot, enlightened, accurate and cool. No “divine voices”, no “intuitive types”.17

His analysis of Dayan’s linguistic devices is indeed fascinating but even more fascinating is Oz’s perception of his own role, mandate and realm of operation. What he allows himself, he denies the politician, in a country where politics is so deeply affected by millennia-old texts, legends and mythical\political ghosts! Is this division of labour between the ‘cool pilot’ and the ‘tribal witchdoctor’ anything but wishful thinking?

The problem with this artificial separation has been pointed out by N. Calderon in an article published in 1979.18 Calderon points out that Oz appropriates for the witchdoctor all areas of meaning, leaving the politician the mere technical function of an automatic pilot. This separation between ‘meaning’ and ‘action’ or between ‘form’ and ‘content’ does not merit the effort of serious theoretical refutation here. Such a view of politics, myth and ideology is either naive or, more likely, insincere. For Oz the writer, politics and political action are not only technical and bureaucratic, but also meaningless. In comparison to the ‘Devil’s dark fire’, politics pales into grey insignificance and is simply a diversion from the deep, full world of the poetic ruptures denied to so many of us…

Were Oz a mere ‘witchdoctor’, his views would be of little consequence, part of Israel’s post-colonial cultural neurosis. But Oz does not stick to his own rules. The fact that he is involved in the political wrangling on the left flank of Zionism changes all this.19 While denying the dark fire to the politicians, he allows himself pilot’s seat, functioning now as the driving instructor, now as the seer and prophet with foresight, analysis and judgement.

The contradictory position taken by Oz is not just his own but applies to the tendency of which he is a proponent. In this political camp, the unavoidable contradictions are not faced with a view to arriving at a position to be taken and followed. Instead, the contradiction itself becomes a closed regenerative loop, a promising poetic spinning-wheel of self-pity and navel gazing. Pacing around in a circle of one’s own making becomes the inspiration for the tunes being hummed, Pooh-style, so as not to lose heart while travelling down the political and historical spiral of ‘there is no alternative’. The shallowness of this position is not lost on Oz himself, always the perceptive onlooker:

Yes, I know: We had no alternative. Our backs to the wall. To die – or take the mount. A new country and a new leaf. I know; I only try to explain, maybe to apologise, to tell you why it is so difficult here to create a narrative with some depth and which is, like all good stories, a tale of witchcraft, of raising devils and ghosts from their rest.

It may be that we need to give up, to do our best and wait a century or two, until some literature of the calibre of the writers at the beginning of the century may be written here…20

The self-pity of the powerful, of those ‘forced’ against their will into despicable situations, has an extremely hollow ring. Nonetheless, this specific ghost of ‘There Is No Alternative’ needs a witchdoctor to raise it from uneasy rest; and who better than Oz, with his gentle irony?

To say this is not to denigrate the sincere efforts of Oz and others on the Zionist left, on behalf of the Palestinians and against the atrocities carried out by the state in their name. These efforts, however, amount to little more than an ameliorating factor in Israeli politics and cultural discourse unless the root cause of the problem is tackled. There is little doubt that Oz, and a number of other Israeli writers, is emminently suited to the task of facing up to the heritage of Zionism and its harvest of doom. Were they equal to the task, they would have a captive audience in Israeli progressive circles. This inability to face the past and present in order to guarantee a humane future, is a result of failing to systematically analyse Zionism and its characteristics. By accepting ideological claims and rejecting empirical evidence, these writers seem to be trapped in a cultural neurosis. The process of socio-analysis has not yet started; the patient is still dominated by the super-ego and in disavowing the nature of the political id, thereby denies the subconscious elements of colonialism.

Here we may turn our attention to the problem plaguing Oz’s argument at a deeper level. If one accepts his above description of the synthesizing process and its artificiality, with what is one left? What constitutes for him the ‘real’ human experience? Where are his ghosts hidden? In which area of the Israeli experience are the devils buried, the black fires waiting to be rekindled?

It is no surprise that the devils and ghosts reside within the most concrete Israel experience – that of fighting, killing and dying, the daily soiree with death he so graphically points to when discussing Dayan. In other words, the great synthesizers have failed in their efforts to put the nation together, Frankenstein-fashion, from the dead bits of the past. Like Mary Shelley’s count, what they needed was some higher form of energy to fuse it all. And they found this higher form of energy in a continuous and unending ritual, holy war.

This is not a conspiracy; the state of war is there for very real, material reasons. But it serves as a socio-political binding agent more efficient than the cultural efforts described above. Oz’s people, his nation in the making, were not put together by cultural efforts. The nation became what it is because of the one real experience that binds it – the tribal camaraderie of warriors. This happened because of politics and not despite it. Indeed, a witchdoctor comes in handy in the context of battle and death, of a war without respite to the bitter end.

Palestine the ‘other’ defining Zionist self-image

Like a number of other left-Zionist writers, Oz is not content in the role filled for many years by Alterman, the confidante and apologist of Ben Gurion, the poet laureate of the Zionist court. Such crude support for a system – which, after all, cannot be described along the ‘David versus Goliath’ model, at least not with Israel playing David – is beyond the pale. The system is too despicable for them to identify with, though most of their political positions are identical to official ones. So, while differing temperamentally and emotionally from right-wing Zionists, these writers nonetheless accept the tenets of Zionist propaganda apparently unquestioningly. One is defining oneself by defining the other and otherness. Oz again:

The Al-Fatah organisation started its activities in the mid-60’s because the maddest extremists amongst our enemies could not stand the relative calm during those years – The massacre of the sportsmen in Munich was designed to drag Israel and the Arab states into a total war…21

While Oz is quick to criticise this type of ‘analysis’ when used by others, he falls into the same trap himself. Thus the dominant organisation in the PLO is a creation of the ‘maddest extremists’ and the massacre in Munich achieves the proportions of a potential Armageddon.

This may well be a result of the constant pressure on such writers in Israel to prove their patriotic credentials. In another book, he reaches even higher; while describing his first visit to the editorial offices of the Jerusalem Palestinian paper, Al-Fajr, he says:

Behind the Dawn (Al-Fajr) stands the fortune of the mysterious Paul Ajlouni. Behind Ajlouni stands, so they say, the PLO, the mighty resources of Libya and Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the power of the Islamic bloc, the resources of the Soviet alliance, the masses of the Third World. Behind them stand the phalanxes, the mouthpieces of the simplistic New Left and of the reactionaries of the old right, as well as humanitarian do-good liberalism aching for symmetry and light.22

No 19th century anti-semite would fail to identify the inspiration of this description, namely, the great masterpiece of racism – ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion‘. Even the crudest propaganda coming out of Israel had never put it as clearly. This latter-day racism seems to jump out of the author despite his caution elsewhere, in the only chapter in the same book which deals with Palestinians directly. On entering the editorial office of Al-Fajr, Oz does not fail to note:

The atmosphere… is similar, perhaps, to that in the office of a Hebrew-language journal or a Yiddish newspaper in Eastern Europe before the fall: poverty and enthusiasm, lofty rhetoric and irritating prosaic hardships, poetry and politics. I count five medium-sized rooms, slightly shabby, furnished with simple wooden desks, peeling-painted chairs…23

Like the racist meeting a Jew and seeing not a human being but a representative of the plots and machinations of World Jewry, so Oz rejects all evidence of senses and logic, even evidence he himself has provided, in favour of the ‘Elders of Palestine’ plot. Obviously, the Al-Fajr offices with their shabby desks are a mere camouflage, a front for the powers of darkness of the conglomerate Palestinians\Soviets\Third World\New Left\Old Right\Humanists. How impressive!

This brings us back to the starting point: while writers like Oz are critical of some government policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians on humanistic grounds, most of them accept the official version of the history of the conflict. Behind such lines is hidden not just simple racism, but a more far-reaching distortion of perceived realities. In Israel, a term has been coined for this popular abberation of experience – ha’olam kulo negdenu or ‘the whole world is against us’. This ‘common-sense’ notion, popularised by ministers and media, is more surprising when detected in the higher echelons of left-Zionist culture; but there it is, unmistakably. The description of the enemy above, hiding behind the shabby desks of Al-Fajr and waiting to pounce on poor little Zionism, is as sad as it is ridiculous. Notably absent ‘friends’ are the West and assorted military dictatorships of a sympathetic nature, such as Chile and South Africa.

It would be wrong to reject Oz’s notions as being particular or specific to him. Many left-Zionist writers express similar views, but a difference may be drawn between those who look at Palestinians as the ‘other’, and writers who venture into the minefield of trying to talk to and understand the ‘other’. While Oz, Yehoshua and others belong to the first category, some of the new generation of writers belong to the second, more risky, variety. Two such writers are Sammy Michael and David Grossman, who try to understand and describe the Palestinian position as a valid one, even using it as the basis for their critique of Israeli society.

In his recent novel, Michael chose a young Palestinian woman, Houda, as his protagonist; the narrative tells of her love for a Russian Jew, a new immigrant called Alex. The description of Houda’s family and their tribulations is sensitive if not politically inspiring. A window is opened for the Hebrew reader, through which the Palestinian is seen as a person with history, memories, wishes, fears and hopes. This is not the ‘Arab’ in Yehoshua’s writing, an anaemic and passive figment of the Israeli imagination, a servile creature. The people described by Michael are full human beings; this is quite understandable – Michael, an Iraqi Jew, was active in the communist underground movement in Iraq before fleeing the country. He speaks Arabic, knows and respects the culture and history of the Arab peoples; this gives his characters an authentic touch, a degree of intimacy unusual in Hebrew literature when dealing with the Palestinian man or woman. Indeed, in his novel it is the Israeli and not the Palestinian who plays the role of ‘other’.

One peculiarity in this novel is interesting to note in connection to the identity question. Houda, the young Palestinian woman, is most attracted to the poems of the famous Hebrew poet, Yehuda Amichai. For her birthday, she gets a book of his poems from her Jewish office colleagues, who know about her great admiration for Amichai. Throughout the novel, she finds solace and strength by reading his poems:

I opened Amichai’s book and read several times a couple of lines:
And my door is ajar
like a grave of the resurrected.24

While Houda’s knowledge of Amichai’s poetry is not surprising in a country where Palestinians are not allowed to study their own poets at school and are taught Hebrew poetry instead, the absence of any Arab or Palestinian cultural reference weakens the character and makes it more palatable to the Israeli reader. A Palestinian who reads and loves Amichai – surely this must be the ‘Good Arab’ stereotype in operation here, as in many other instances in recent Hebrew literature. The Arab who knows and loves Hebrew poetry has now become almost a stock character. Another example is Na’im, a young garage worker in Yehoshua’s novel, The Lover.25 Na’im brings to the garage a book of poetry by Bialik, the ‘national poet’. On a number of occasions he manages to surprise Jews by his knowledge of Hebrew poetry:

She looked at him in astonishment, whispering to me, “What’s this? Can he read Hebrew or is he just pretending?”
“He knows Hebrew very well… he’s been to school… he knows poems by Bialik by heart…”26

This proficiency of Palestinians in Hebrew poetry, at the same time lacking any knowledge or interest in Arab poetry and culture, says more about the writers than any real character they may try to describe. The attitude is one of the ‘dog-playing-piano’ description; a full analysis of this peculiar trait of modern Hebrew writing about the Palestinians is beyond the scope of this article but is definitely necessary.

A different Palestinian emerges from Grossman’s writing. Grossman is younger than the other writers mentioned but, like Michael, knows Arabic and Arab culture is not alien to him. Both in his novel The Goat’s Smile27 and in his book of conversations with Palestinians and Israelis, Yellow Wind,28 an unusual perspective for Hebrew literature is presented to the reader. The old Arab woman he meets in the village reminds him of his grandmother, he realises with a certain embarrassment; he treats all the Palestinians he meets like human beings, but not quite as equals or comrades. An invisible line, a line of ideology, history, material reality, still separates him from his Palestinian subjects. Such a line does not separate him from Israeli Jews, however, even when he disagrees violently with them. The language he uses to describe his arrival at Ofra, a Gush-Emunim settlement, reveals a soft spot:

For the careful outsider, coming from afar, a surprise is awaited at Ofra. On a Friday afternoon it is soft and green, fenceless and open, its people hearty, simple and kind, and quickly, very quickly, even the careful outsider is lured by the festive feeling of Sabbath here; and with surprise one discovers in oneself a soft wish to wholly integrate, to become part of this, to shed one’s armour, to be worthy of this kindness, the nostalgic palpitations of candlelight at the end of a rocky road between the villages Ein-Yabroud and Silouad.29

The choice of adjectives, the elevated, almost poetic prose, is unusual in this book of harsh sentiments; it reminds one of the analogy made by Oz and quoted above – the two different branches belonging to the same tree. One thing becomes clear from the description of Ofra’s people – Grossman considers them as equals even when disagreeing with them. He feels close to their milieu, he identifies with many of their signs and signifiers. The last sentence reveals his surprise – surprise not so much with the place and its atmosphere, but because it is located where it is identifying sameness in the heart of otherness or Jewish candlelight in the heart of darkness…

The same cannot be said about Grossman’s relationship to the Palestinians he meets. He may (and does) sympathise with them, feel their pain and anger which he conveys efficiently; nonetheless, they are forever others, foreign, different and remote.

Hence it can be seen that even for ‘progressive’ Hebrew writers, the Arab and specifically, the Palestinian, connotes not only ‘otherness’, but represents that entity of otherness particular to Judaism, that of the goy. This may be one of the reasons why the term ‘Arab’ replaces ‘Palestinian’ both in daily speech and in literature. The particularity of ‘Palestinian’ makes it difficult to read it as the total ‘other’, a role filled very well by ‘Arab’, a word relating to hundreds of millions in the region.

The writers of this left tendency seem to see the Palestinian as a subject, a victim, one being subjected to the Israeli rule and will, a subject devoid of autonomy. It may be that the Palestinian for them serves as the outline to what they see as their own identity, autonomy, independence and power. To see and describe the Palestinian as a free agent, a person of complexity, coherence, internal contradictions, options for action from which to choose and a historical context in which to operate – that still remains to be done by some future Hebrew writer.

In this connection, it would be unjust not to mention a few notable exceptions. The most obvious one is a recent Hebrew novel by a Palestinian writer, Anton Shammas,30 in which exactly the task outlined above is undertaken, with great power, intellectual and political integrity and important artistic\aesthetic achievements. It is less than surprising that it takes a Palestinian like Shammas to do that – the more surprising aspect is his choice of Hebrew as the vehicle for his discourse – a complicated political and cultural choice directed at the Israeli public. Thus, Shammas manages to problematise the issue of identity for the Hebrew reader, as the Israelis described in his book are not just ‘others’, the Palestinians not just subjects or victims. As I have dealt with this novel at some length in a recent article, it may be inappropriate to repeat here arguments made elsewhere.

The other, more significant exception, is a novel by Hemda Alon,31 dealing with the relationship of a Palestinian academic and an Israeli woman student in Jerusalem of the early 1960s. It is significant that the fullest, most progressive description of a Palestinian in Hebrew literature has been written by a woman, while all the quotes from many male writers used here connote otherness. The candid descriptions of Israeli racism are quite unusual for the period in which the novel was published. In an internal monologue, while separated from her secret lover by her family and the Jewish holidays, she muses:

My brother Gideon, Colonel Bar-On. What common language can you find between you? For him you are the enemy. His whole life is devoted to fighting you, undoing your schemes, preparing to kill you before you manage to kill him. How can he stretch his hand out towards you, in a gesture of peace? My father. Moderate, calculating, objective. “I have many acquaintances amongst the Arabs” he tends to insert early in the conversation. “But, believe you me, with the best will in the world, it is impossible…” and mother concludes the argument, cuts him short, decisively, “I hate them, I – hate them”. Once, during one of the seasonal charwoman-crises, which every working woman encounters, a friend suggested an Arab charwoman, enumerating her qualities. “No!” said mother. “I will not bring an Arab home. I hate them”. That’s it. This is my family. This is my world. I may not love them, but I belong to them. This evening it was proven again. Ali, my dearest love, the distance between us is so much more than the geographical space between Jerusalem and Haifa.32

Family, friends and the secret service all join in the effort to separate the lovers once their secret is discovered. Ronny, the young student, relents and gives in to the pressures. In a letter she receives from Ali who is writing from jail while awaiting trial for alleged security offences, she reads:

My future is no longer in my hands. I am detained here, in Nazareth, until the trial that will take place in six months. I expect to be imprisoned; they say, at least a couple of years. After that, I obviously will not be able to continue my scientific work, the only career I can consider. It so turned out, that in my homeland there is no place for me. The only chance I may get is a permit, after some time has passed, to leave and settle abroad. It is not an ideal solution, but there is no other way.

In England, if I am lucky, my research may be completed. I will continue my doctorate work; In contact with one college or another, I will join the long, anonymous line of dry and lonesome dons working through fog and drizzle on worthy subjects, interesting no one but themselves. I will not bloom in England, will be neither successful nor happy. I know it well, without illusions. But there is no choice.33 

Hence, when inspecting the normative features of the Palestinian stereotype in Hebrew literature, exceptions aside, one finds totally contradictory elements. The Palestinian is seen as a mixture of similarity and difference, a conditioning presence for the Zionist onlooker. Could those dualities of ‘murderer’ and ‘extremist’ on the one hand, and a poor journalist with a shabby desk on the other, connote anything but a negative relief, outlining Israeli identity for Oz and his ilk? The Israeli is someone who is not extreme, not a murderer, someone who does not reside in a shabby office where the paint peels off the walls. Once we start analysing these images of the Palestinian from his perspective, an interesting function of Zionist literature is revealed. How clear are those writers about their own identity? Can they define it without the use of the Palestinian as background, as contrast? Are they aware that they are using this particular other in contradictory roles – as the all-powerful goy from the diaspora and as the stereotypical colonial native?

These questions are of central importance in trying to determine the potential of future developments. If, as seems to be the case, the main fountainhead of Zionist identity is the difference it marks from the Palestinian Arab, if the conflict seems to supply the main reservoir of meaning for Israeli existence, then how is it possible even to dream about coexistence? As long as identity is read as the racist distance from ‘otherness’, no political settlement can either take place or have any serious chance of success, as it would by definition mean the loss of hard-earned identity. The next section deals with the forces contending for the last word on Zionist identity.

The identity crisis

A crisis of identity is not new in Israel, yet the current one is quantitatively different from any other. In a country that refused for years to play football in the Asian League, claiming itself part of Europe, the concept is loaded with the most powerful political explosive.

That Zionist identity is not a resolved matter is expressed by Amos Oz in a talk he gave to settlers at Ofra, a right-wing settlement:

I have stated many times that Zionism is not a first name but a surname, a family name, and this family is divided, feuding over the question of a “master plan” for the enterprise: How shall we live here? Shall we aspire to build the kingdom of David and Solomon? Shall we construct a Marxist paradise here? A Western society, a social-democratic welfare state? Or shall we create a model of the petit bourgeoisie diluted with a little yiddishkeit?34

This debate within Zionism is as old as the movement itself. In it a number of models compete for dominance. The basic one has been developed by Herzl himself – one could call it the ‘colonial dependency’ model. While Herzl fancied himself as a Jewish emperor with a court filled with the new nobility,35 in his actions he was much more realistic.

His modus operandi for Zionism was based on getting the whole territory from the imperial power under a ‘charter’, thus enjoying that power’s protection. His many pilgrimages to as many potentates in Europe and Turkey were all planned to yield the charter over Palestine and win it in one swoop. But the more meaningful part of this strategy was rooted in mid-European identity. Reading his diaries and books, one is struck by this utopian obsession with building the model European society outside Europe – a bizzare mixture of some of the most reactionary and the most progressive elements of European history, overlaid with Viennese waltzes. By definition, it constituted a totally dismissive, ill-informed and racist position relative to the indigenous population, which is either absent from any considerations or is busy being thankful to its Euro-saviours for bringing the delights of the Vienna comic-opera to the Middle East.

Total dependency on the host empire is a requirement pivotal to the scheme. The role portrayed is obviously of a colon, a client-state, an agency and a branch of ‘civilisation’. One of the clearest descriptions of it is by Herzl’s deputy, Nordau:

Our aspirations point to Palestine as a compass points to the north. Therefore we must orient ourselves towards those powers under whose influence it happens to be.36

Herzl himself describes it graphically in Der Judenstaat:

If His Majesty the Sultan were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake the complete management of the finances of Turkey. We would form there a part of a wall of defence of Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilisation against barbarism. We would, as a neutral state, remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.37

While this description sounds like a caricature, it is not only an accurate description of Herzl’s strategy but of an influential and dominant trend within recent Zionism. The shift of allegiances from Britain to France, then to the USA, followed the global power shifts in the Middle East, and resembles Herzl trotting from Bismarck to Abdul Hamid, to Plehve, then back to the Kaiser again. Behind the niceties of rationale is hidden a simple formula – Zionism is only able to control Palestine under the aegis of an imperial\neo-colonial power; it will support and seek the support of the dominant power, according to changing situations. Though many Zionists have criticised Herzl for holding this position, some notable critics did not hesitate to apply the very same policy.

But such a policy is problematic, even when it yields the hoped-for results. Being the agents of a foreign power raises certain problems not only with the indigenous population, but with the colon itself. It is likely to hit the population exactly where it hurts – its identity. Hence, though the political model of action has been accepted and applied by Zionism, it fell short on the need to supply a coherent identity structure.

The second model on which identity was constructed within Zionism, is the ‘utopian autonomy’ model, based on mixing Jewish heritage with Western humanism. Its adherents preferred to leave politics out of the discussion altogether, concentrating on ideology\culture. Achad Ha’am is followed by Borochov in suggesting some Jewish autonomy in Palestine, which somehow does not infringe on the Palestinians, mainly by not discussing them and their rights as problematic. Having thus solved the problem of the Palestinians by elimination, they are then able to concentrate on the makings of the Jewish identity in Palestine – a subject dear to their hearts. The writers quoted and mentioned above belong in the main to that tendency. Amos Oz again, in his talk at Ofra:

In any event, we have no intention of breaking up this “marriage” between the Jewish heritage and the European humanist experience for the sake of some “purist” return to the sources… Most of those who have experienced this humanism will not abandon it – Nobody will force us to choose – because we will refuse to make such a choice – between our Judaism and our humanism. For us they are one and the same… We have assimilated that meeting, internalised it to such a degree… that my identity has already become a combination of the Jewish and humanist elements.38

If for Herzl, in his naivete, identity is seen as unproblematic, not so for the writers of ‘utopian autonomy’. What will be the materials from which this Jewishness is to be built? Whose Jewishness will win?

When it comes to Jewishness, there are, of course, other contenders for the identity project – the clergy. It may be true to say that there were two elements affecting the lack of development in Judaism throughout the centuries – the Jewish religious establishment and anti-semitism. Between them, these two have managed to contain Europe’s Jewry as an (almost) unchanging entity.

With the clergy as an undeniable partner to the forging of this new identity, the atheistic tendency within Zionism lost the battle even before it started. ‘Who is a Jew?’ is a query that could not arise in a similar form in most other countries but only in theocratic states in the region. Yet, this question has been central to Zionist debates for decades, obscuring in its fervour the real issues of importance linking Israelis and Palestinians. As Israel is actually called ‘a Jewish state’ in its declaration of independence, it is hardly surprising that this concept will give rise to ferocious arguments.

Bearing in mind the extremely varied ethnic, cultural and linguistic myriad thrown into the Zionist ‘melting pot’, there were obvious struggles for the right to establish this or that version of Judaism as the official one.

This brings us to the third and last main model of identity construction, rather more ‘simple’ than the first two. It is a combination of the ultra-religious and ultra-nationalistic, the perspective of Gush Emunim and related organisations. This model is the most recent of the three, an ascending force that has emerged in the last decade like a phoenix from the ashes, boosted by the rise of the right to power and dominance. Like its counterparts in the region, this form of Jewish religious fundamentalism is introspective and self-sufficient; it is a root-seeking formula. So, part of the new identity is a rejection of universally heralded values as ‘un-Jewish’. After all, the Torah does not mention democracy, so it must be a goyish invention. While talking to the settlers in Tekoa, an ultra-right settlement south of Bethlehem, Amos Oz reports one of the women saying:

Weapons aren’t what win a war! Men win wars! Faith wins! God almighty wins! The world has to realise that. In the Six-Day War, and the Yom-Kippur War, too, we should never have stopped. We should have gone on, brought them to total surrender! Smashed their capital cities! Who cares what the goyim were yelling?39

When Oz asks about the Palestinians (the ‘Arabs’) – ‘should they live under our sovereignty and do the dirty work for us?’ the same woman (Harriet, from Queens, New York), says:

Why not?… Isn’t that the way it is in the Bible? Weren’t there hewers of wood and carriers of water? For murderers that’s a very light punishment! it’s mercy!

And is there no point in trying to compromise?

With the goyim? Whenever we gave in to them we had troubles. That’s the way it was in the Bible. King Saul lost his whole kingdom because he took pity on Amalek. The goyim are bound to be against us. It’s their nature. Sometimes it’s because of their religion, sometimes it’s out of ideology, sometimes out of anti-semitism, but actually it’s all God’s will. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and then He destroys him. It’s them or us.40

And another man, Amiel, explains:

Wondrous are the ways of the Lord. Slowly but surely those who oppose us will understand their errors. Western culture is not for us, even though there is a lot we should adopt from it. The only path for the people of Israel is the path of the bible…

…It’s all American import, from Vietnam, all this left-wing stuff. It’s a fashion. It’s passé in America – pretty soon it’ll be passé here, too. It’s all imitation, alien to the Jewish spirit.41

From this cursory description, it can be seen that the conceptual location of left-Zionist writers, somewhere between neo-colonials and Jewish Ayatollas, is not an enviable one – to criticise and be criticised but without being able to offer a fresh and alternative identity. The complexity of their offering, a product of the enlightenment, is difficult to market in contemporary Israeli society.

None of the tendencies described ever rules without opposition. The development is movement from one specific mix of these tendencies towards another, due to a complex tendency struggle. Needless to say, a large degree of super-imposition exists between the tendencies. Thus, the recent move towards a stronger position enjoyed by the religious rightwing has not reduced dependency on the USA, for example.

An important additional factor related to the ‘identity models’ is the struggle of the Oriental Jewish community to reestablish its own identity. This was forcibly repressed by the European Jewish majority in Israel during the 50s when large numbers of Jews from the Maghreb countries started arriving in Israel. This struggle for identity cuts across the other Zionist trends developed and dominated by intellectuals of European origin. A recent novel devoted to the early days of this specific struggle is Yehoshua Kenaz’s Heart Murmur.42 In it he tells the story of a group of army trainees during their basic training in 1955. The group is made up of European (Ashkenazi) and Oriental Jews, the latter being mostly recent arrivals. To the Ashkenazis, the arrival of the newcomers is a catastrophe, a disaster for Zionism. The ‘proper’ Israelis, like the kibbuznik Alon, describe them:

“The army” said Alon, “that’s our only hope. Only in the army can they be educated, converted into proper Israelis, until they become like us. They do not know any part of this country outside their transit camps, know nothing of its history, its beauty, its culture. When they are brought to the new settlements in Lachish, they refuse to get off the lorries. They are not ready for this life of work and fields and agriculture. So how can they like our songs? The army has to reeducate them into it. At least the youth, as the old ones are hopeless, nothing will ever come out of them; The Desert Generation”.43

And elsewhere in the same novel, Alon proposes the ‘new life’ to one of his colleagues:

…there are now places in the Negev, in Lachish, all sorts of places, there are new immigrants’ settlements. That is where you should have gone. There you can start to live a healthy, new life, not the way you lived abroad”.

“Life abroad was great”, said Rachamim, “it was excellent! You know nothing about it. You Sabras think that here in Israel it is the best”.44

But the clearest expression of this position is later provided by Alon towards the end of the novel, shortly before he commits suicide:

“It all goes wrong here”, said Alon, “everything we had in this country. What a great people lived here before. And the things they did. Now it is all reversing. Soon nothing will remain of it. Even our Hebrew will not survive. In a few years children will not understand the Hebrew of the Bible. People will not be able to read Alterman and Yizhar. They will speak a new, ugly language. And the Arabs are already preparing for the next round; huge arsenals are hoarded. Who is going to stand up and be counted? The underworld? All that was built, all the blood shed here, the suffering and the diseases and the hunger, so that a new people can be built, a new land, all this for nothing? This madness, egoism and the underworld will pulverise it all? Why are the Arabs collecting all these arms? Their work will be done by these…

…the whole Arab society is shot through because of these drugs. Everyone knows that. Now they bring it here. And the country is full of new, weak and desperate people that cannot adopt our way of life – of labour and fighting… I don’t mind their laughter; I say what I believe in, what frightens me, what is important to me. Weeds have to be pulled out, everywhere you see them. Otherwise they take over, strangling everything. Our heroes shed their blood in covert operations, while those continue with their diseases brought from the diaspora. They want to turn this into a new diaspora. We should not let them! Can’t you see?”45

This monologue is complementary to another monologue of reported speech in Oz’s book:

“My parents came from North Africa; all right – from Morocco. So what? They had their dignity, didn’t they? Their own values? Their faith? Me, I am not a religious man. I travel on the Sabbath. But my parents, why did you make fun of their beliefs? Why did they have to be disinfected with Lysol at the Haifa port?… The Mapainiks just wiped out everything that was imprinted on a person. As if it was all nonsense. And then they put what they wanted into him. From that ideology of theirs. Human dust, supposedly. Ben Gurion himself called us “human dust”.46

This struggle is only starting, the struggle between the colonising fathers and their labour imported exactly because the indigenous population could not, at the time, be used for this purpose – it had to be expelled and dispossessed, unhinged off the land. That the imported labour consisted of people from the Arab countries is a bitter twist of irony in Zionist history. That meant their ‘Arabness’ had to be expunged, they had to be cleansed of it, to be ‘Israelised’ (or really, Europeanised). In order to fit into the dream they had to change their identity, lose their culture, their language and oral traditions – their history.47 History is written by the winners…

Postscript: mid-life crisis

Thus brings us to the main point of argument: never before has Zionism controlled so much territory, been so strong militarily, enjoyed such unswerving support of its policies from its friends and paymasters. This is paralleled by an overall reduction in the military capabilities of the Palestinians. On the face of it, Zionism has ‘never had it so good’, and yet…

The crisis hastened and sharpened by the intifada in the West Bank and Gaza is now well established. I call it a mid-life crisis because it is at the point of maximum strength that the long decline starts. It is at that point that the empire feels strong enough to both openly repress its adversaries and look at their situation for the ‘first time’, with the naiveté of the powerful. It is the time of checking oneself in the mirror of the other, a time for doubts, cracks and fissures to appear. It is the beginning of the end.

The Zionist self is now being defined by the Palestinian ‘other’ like a contour defining the form; hence no sympathy and closeness is possible between the Zionist writers of right and left alike, and the Palestinian – either as person, as culture, language, national aspirations, class or gender – the Palestinian is, and continues to be, the great ‘other’. When one realises how deep this gap now is, even deeper than it was in 1948, when S. Yizhar was writing, it becomes clear how little the Israeli consensus has moved in forty years towards an accommodation.

Accommodation must start with acceptance of the enemy as human, similar to oneself, and the state of conflict as a temporary aberration in the order of things. But instead of growing accommodation, the grim prophecies of S. Yizhar in his story Khirbet Khizeh48 seem to have come true. In this short story, Yizhar recounts the destruction of a peaceful Arab village, the arbitrary killing by the Israeli ‘Defence Forces’ of many inhabitants and the forced explusion of the rest, all this without a single provocation. After the horrors of the day are over, the commanding officer notes the storyteller’s reticence and, finding out that he disagrees with the atrocities which he took part in perpetrating, the officer tells him:

“You, listen to me here!” said Moishe and his eyes searched for mine, “to Khirbet whats-its-name, will come the new immigrants, you hear, they will take this land and till it, it will be great!” of course and what? This is it! How come I did not foresee this. Our Khirbet Khizeh. Problems of accommodation and establishment on the ground! And we will accommodate and establish, Hurrah, Hurrah: a cooperative shop will be opened, a kindergarten and school, maybe even a synagogue. And there will be political parties. A lot of debates, discussions about everything, they will plough the fields and sow and reap and grow big. Hurrah to Hebrew Khizeh! Who would ever believe, realise that there once was here some Khirbet Khizeh, one we expelled and inherited. We came, shot, burnt, blew up, pushed off and displaced and expelled them to their diaspora.

What in hell are we doing here?49

What current writer in Israel can equal the frankness expressed in S. Yizhar’s lines, shocking after all these years, because their message is still not heeded? The comparison to Yizhar seems to suggest that in the battle between his Judaism and humanism, humanism always won. Not a claim that can be made by the current generation of Zionist apologists, who use humanism as a cultural fig-leaf to obscure their Zionist pudenda.

But the central methodological problem with the theories of reforming Zionism and Israeli society, so that coexistence may be possible, is the absence of understanding of the identity crisis. As this identity is so pivotal to Israeli existence, as so much of it revolves exactly around the difference and struggle with the great ‘other’ – how can any change be tackled, before the eradication of the Zionist self? As the military, economical, cultural and class struggle against the Palestinians is filling the Israeli image with every ounce of meaning that it holds – how can it be abandoned? What will replace it? After all, this is not a purely national struggle between oppressor and oppressed, it is a total struggle between opposing stereotypes, a struggle to the bitter end. In that way, the oppressed Palestinian may have become the condition for the continuation of Zionism, a necessary ingredient of a complex formula, part of the heart of the matter – of modern Zionist identity.

This aspect and root cause of the struggle in Palestine is one that the Zionist right understands very well, and is more open about than the left. Since the beginning of the intifada, the transfer of the Palestinians is openly discussed as a viable political option for the near future. I will quote here only one example of this latter-day Zionism, difficult to differentiate from Herzl’s ideas on the same topic, in connection with the crucial issue of identity. The quote is from a report about General Ze’evi, an ex-arms dealer, currently heading the Eretz-Yisrael Museum in Tel Aviv:

Ze’evi brushes off such accusations angrily. Removing Arabs from Eretz-Yisrael (greater Israel), he argues, is part of the ideological basis of Zionism. He opposes forced explusions, but believes instead in creating what he calls a “negative magnet” that will induce Palestinians to pack their bags and leave.

“If the transfer idea is immoral”, Ze’evi said recently, “then Zionism itself is immoral. All the settlement that has been carried out in the last 100 years was based on the transfer of Arabs”…

…Ze’evi represents what seems to be a powerful new force in Israeli politics. According to a recent poll, 49 per cent of the Jewish adults believe that the “transfer” of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza “would allow the democratic and Jewish nature of Israeli society to be maintained”…

…”A transfer will take place in Eretz-Yisrael”, he predicts, “because two peoples cannot live in one country. The question is, who will be transferred, the Jews or the Arabs?”50

Hence, the right is stating quite openly that because of national identity, it will be necessary to rid the country of its indigenous population. In comparison with such positivist clarity, the left-Zionist arguments seem weak and disorganised, more hypocritical than Ze’evi’s openness.

The failure of left-Zionist writers is one of not noting their own position, of accepting their vantage point as transparent and constant. Though they disagree with the oppression in many cases, the only Palestinian they see and describe is the oppressed Palestinian, the subject dependent and lacking autonomy of action, passive.

The most that is offered by the new generation and its writers is a painful recognition that the Palestinian refuses to satisfy the Zionist dream and dematerialise. In these circumstances, they agree to talk, to negotiate, even to argue on-behalf-of, charity-fashion. What they are not prepared for, at least not yet, is to drop the mask of otherness and exchange their coloniser-oppressor identity – a total transformation of the self. This metamorphosis, without which no real change is possible – is continuously and emphatically denied. Life side-by-side, maybe; human and national rights, maybe; togetherness, solidarity, brotherhood – No!.

At least, not yet.

  1. When using terms like ‘left-Zionism’ or ‘right-wing Zionism’ one should always be aware that these carry different meanings to the ones we assume in Europe. As Zionism is based, in the main, on the need to expunge class struggle within it, to form a unity which is supposedly beyond class barriers, the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are approximations of ‘liberal’ or ‘humanist’ on the one hand, and ‘conservative’ on the other. These terms do not apply to social divisions within Israeli society but rather to the different modes of looking at the Palestinian entity. Hence, it is usual to find extreme right tendencies within the Labour Alliance. Conversely, the right-wing party Herut has been reacting to, and exploiting, the anger of the majority of Oriental Jews directed against their oppression by successive Labour (left-Zionist) governments. It will be important to note the different groups who support both blocs: the left was traditionally supported by the main beneficiaries of its policies, the kibbutz movement and sectors of the skilled working class and the middle class. Begin and his party have traditionally scored very well in the oriental Jewish community, made of farmers, the petty-bourgeoisie and blue-collar workers.
  2. Oz, Amos; ‘Po Vasham Be’Eretz Israel’, Tel Aviv, 1977, Published in English as ‘In the Land of Israel’, Fontana, London, 1983. Quotes are from the English edition.
  3. Weizmann, Chaim; in ‘Dr Weizmann’s Political Address – 20th Zionist Congress’, quoted in New Judea, London, August 1937, p. 215.
  4. Oz, Amos: Be’or Hatcheleth He’aza (‘Under This Blazing Light’), Tel Aviv, 1977; All quotes translated by H.B.
  5. Ibid, p. 116
  6. Weitz, Y.; in Davar, Hebrew newspaper, Sept. 29th, 1967.
  7. Herzl, Theodor; The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, The Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff, London, 1960, p. 88.
  8. Ibid, p. 98. I found it necessary to quote at length here, as these paragraphs from the Herzl diaries are themselves an example of suppression and denial. These same ideas about the indigenous population are totally missing from the published works.

    Though they appear in the Hebrew edition of the diaries, they are missing from most English editions, like numerous other quotes relating to the Arabs of Palestine. It is interesting to note that in his introduction, the editor of one of the most important editions, Marvin Lowenthal, points out that the German edition of the diaries is incomplete, mentioning as one of the reasons for cuts – ‘political observations of equal embarrassment’. When describing his own rationale for editing the text even further, he notes: ‘the omissions mainly deal with the financial endeavors and intramural politics of the Zionist movement, which would have comparatively feeble interest for the general reader.’

    One may be forgiven for wondering whether this central quote was excluded because of its ‘feeble interest for the general reader’. (From – Lowenthal, Marvin; in a prefatory note to Herzl, Theodor; The Diaries, The Dial Press, New York 1956, page vi).

  9. Oz, Amos; Ibid, p. 24.
  10. Herzl, Theodor; Der Judenstaat (‘The Jewish State’), Leipzig und Wien, 1896, p. 13. All quotes translated by H.B.
  11. Ibid, p. 25.
  12. Childers, Erskine; Common Sense About the Arab World, London, 1956.
  13. Said, Edward; Orientalism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1978.
  14. Herzl, Theodor; The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, The Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff, London, 1960. This edition is far preferable, as it includes many allusions edited elsewhere.
  15. In pointing this out, I am indebted to Dr M. Machover, who fIrst drew my attention to this form of synthesizing within Zionist history.
  16. Oz, Amos; Ibid.
  17. Ibid, p. 29.
  18. Calderon, Nissim; Be’heksher Politi (‘In a political context’), Tel Aviv, 1980.
  19. Oz, Amos; Mi’mordoth Halvanon (‘The Slopes of Lebanon’), Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 1987, pp. 83-86. See his reaction to the accusations by the left, after he signed an open letter, together with three other writers, calling for a national unity government, including the Labour Party and the Likud.
  20. Oz, Amos; Be’or Hatcheleth He’aza, p. 24.
  21. Oz, Amos; In the Land of Israel, Flamingo, London 1983; p. 157.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid, p. 164.
  24. Michael, Sammy; Khatsotsra Ba’Wadi (‘A Trumpet in the Wadi’); Am Oved, Tel Aviv 1987, p. 56. Quote translated by H.B.
  25. Yehoshua, Avraham B.; The Lover, Doubleday, New York 1978.
  26. Ibid, p. 201.
  27. Grossman, David; Khiyuch Hagdi (‘The Goat’s Smile’); Tel Aviv, 1986.
  28. Grossman, David; Hazman Hatsahov (‘Yellow Wind’); Tel Aviv, 1987. Quote translated by H.B.
  29. Ibid, p. 31.
  30. Shammas, Anton; Arabesquoth (‘Arabesques’); Tel Aviv, 1986.
  31. Alon, Hemda; Zar Lo Yavoh (‘No Trespassing’); Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv, 1967; All quotes translated by H.B.
  32. Ibid, p. 146.
  33. Ibid, p. 279.
  34. Oz, Amos; Ibid, p. 128.
  35. Herzl, Theodor; Ibid, p. 132.
  36. Nordau, Max.
  37. Herzl, Theodor, Der Judenstaat, p. 29.
  38. Oz, Amos; Ibid, p. 138.
  39. Ibid, p. 60.
  40. Ibid, p. 61.
  41. Ibid, p. 69.
  42. Kenaz, Yehoshua; Hitganvuth Yekhidim (‘Heart Murmur’); Am Oved, Tel Aviv 1986; Quotes translated by H.B.
  43. Ibid, p. 95.
  44. Ibid, p. 244.
  45. Ibid, p. 555.
  46. Oz, Amos; Ibid, p. 34.
  47. There are, of course, a few other important sub-tendencies dealing with the issue of identity in Israel – I have tried to outline only the main, influential ones. One should mention here the Canaanites, a group of Israeli intellectuals in the 50s and 60s, who tried to invent an Israeli nationality based on pre-Jewish civilisations in Palestine. They described themselves as ‘pagan’ and opposed religious oppression. This approach is interesting, inasmuch as it tries to deny many millenia of history by making it irrelevant, by annuling its results. The group always remained small and obscure, a kind of literary club.
  48. Yizhar, Smilanski; Shiv’ah Sipurim (‘Seven stories’); Tel Aviv 1971; Quote translated by H.B.
  49. Ibid, p. 86.
  50. Black, Ian; in the Guardian, 6th September 1988, London.