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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2006
Number 65
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Israeli Literature and Israeli Politics

Identity, Nation and Canon: Political Perspectives on Israeli Literature
A Review Essay by Esther Fuchs

The books I review here offer political approaches to understanding Israeli literature. Though they differ in their interpretation and evaluation of specific works and authors, they all agree that the literary canon is a product of political, rather than aesthetic or artistic processes. Drawing on theories of the nation, post-colonialism, cultural theory, and feminist theory, the authors reviewed here suggest that a political understanding of the Israeli literary canon reveals both lines of struggle and resistance, as well as lines of collaboration and ideological “bonding,” which are essential to a complete and more balanced appreciation of the complexity of Israeli national culture and collective identity. Central to all three books are concepts of national and political minority discourses, the uses of Hebrew as a radical invention of a modernist tradition, the relationship between Europe and the West to Israel and the Middle East, Arab-Israeli relations, theories of homeland and exile, and the formative and constitutive function of literature. Literary texts are understood here not as reflections of artistic values, but as instruments that shape national identity. All these books recognize that cultural production is inseparable from politics, that the literary is political.

I. Hannan Hever. Producing the Modern Hebrew Canon: Nation Building and Minority Discourse. New York and London: New York University Press.

Hever sees Hebrew literature as a Western modernist national phenomenon, rather than as a uniquely Jewish one. The Hebrew literary canon enshrines works that validate Zionist ideologies, not merely works of great artistic genius. In this book Hever attempts to trace an alternative historiography by focusing on the suppression of dissident, heterodox or minority discourses that shaped what we know today as the Hebrew literary canon. Drawing on postcolonial theories, and theories of nationalities, Hever seeks to expose the hegemonic Zionist meta-narrative or “cover story that represses and excludes social, ethnic and national minorities” (p. 4).

The first three chapters of the book deal with the suppression of writing by non-Zionist authors in 19th century Eastern Europe who opposed the anti-Diaspora doctrine, and who hoped to establish a Hebrew literary tradition as a minority discourse in Europe. The first few chapters trace the development of the debate between the anti-Diaspora Zionist authors (e.g., Y.H. Brenner, M.Y. Berdichevsky, S.Y. Agnon) who promoted the idea of a unitary and exclusive cultural center in Palestine and their opponents who remained by and large outside of the literary canon. “The Zionists equated Hebrew culture with the Zionist negation of the Diaspora” (p. 7), and this equation seemed to constitute the standard that determined who was to be included in the literary canon.

The next chapters focus on the emergence of canonic writing in Palestine. In the late 1930s and 1940s the voices that were suppressed belonged to the anti-Zionist secular Canaanites, led by the poet Yonatan Ratosh. This group claimed that the emerging national identity in Eretz Israel should not depend on ties with Jewish historical memory or connection to Jews in the Diaspora. Thus Aharon Amir and Shraga Gafni wrote from a Canaanite, amoral stance that considered Arabs and Jews equal natives in a shared territory. Yet their minor counter-literature was excluded from the literary canon that accorded a place of honor to S.Yizhar, for example, who tended to stereotype his Arab characters as victimized Others. In chapter six Hever focuses our attention on the ethnic process of suppression that determined the formation of the canon in the 1950s. Despite their considerable differences, Amos Oz and Amalia Kahana-Carmon, and A. B. Yehoshua used an Oedipal code that appealed to the Ashkenazi sensibilities of the critical establishment, while the Iraqi born writer, Shimon Ballas, who used the Oedipal code differently, and whose work described the trauma of ethnic alienation and dislocation experience, did not speak to the hegemonic Ashkenazi elite.

The last two chapters deal with the national suppression of minority discourses. In chapter seven, Hever discusses the status of the Arab Christian writer, Anton Shammas, whose Hebrew novel, Arabesques (1986) represents a challenge to the Israeli canon on several levels. As a novel that wrestles with the question of national identity—Israel homeland or exile—Shhammas may have penned the most quintessentially Israeli novel ever produced. In chapter eight, Hever argues that as minority discourse, Arab literature, whether written in Hebrew or translated into Hebrew, must be recognized as part of the Hebrew literary canon. Emil Habibi who won the Israel Prize in 1992 is a case in point. Habibi’s novel The Pessoptimist is critical both of the Jewish majority and the Palestinian minority in Israel. The Hebrew reader can read Habibi both internally, as part of the Israeli canon and externally, as outside it. At the end Habibi remains, like Shammas, on the borderline of canonic legitimacy.

II. Michael Gluzman. The Politics of Canonicity: Lines of Resistance in Modernist Hebrew Poetry. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

This book explores the politics of selection and inclusion that shaped the Hebrew poetic canon during the Yishuv, the pre-state era of nation building. It argues that an adherence to Zionist ideology, including a fierce critique of the European Diaspora and Yiddish culture, was major for inclusion in the poetic canon. While M.Y. Berdichevsky and H. Y. Brenner rejected Ahad Ha’am’s narrowly defined nationalist norms, they did not reject the foundational tenets of the Zionist imperative. This guaranteed them a central status in the formative period of Hebrew literature.

The Zionist imperative that emerged from the cultural debate, according to chapter one, was to write the nation and to “(un)write the self,” or to focus on the public rather than the private. H.N. Bialik, the designated national poet, sought to fuse the private with the public, the personal and the national in conjunction with this desideratum. The emphasis on the public, the national homeland, was contrary to the prevailing modernist European norms that emphasized the private, and the state of exile. The poets Alexander Penn and Leah Goldberg, who promulgated a cosmopolitan, international and diasporic sense of identity, did not attain the central place in the canon that Avraham Shlonsky attained in the 1930s and 1940s. In chapter three, Gluzman re-reads the “minor writing” of Avraham Fogel, a poet who was marginalized in the 1930s and criticized by the likes of Uri Zvi Greenberg and Avraham Shlonsky for his poetics of simplicity. Gluzman argues that Fogel must be understood within a European modernist context and that his minimalist aesthetics of simplicity was a radical option he offered to his nationalist peers.

In chapter four Gluzman argues that modernist women’s poetry of the 1930s-40s including Rachel, Esther Raab, Anda Pinkerfeld, Yocheved Bat Miriam and Leah Goldberg also has been suppressed because it belonged to the aesthetic tradition of simplicity and “minor writing.” Associated with the private, occasional and emotional, women’s poetry in general has been dismissed as self-involved, limited, minor and amateurish. The obsessive focus on Rachel’s biography, for example, did not allow for a careful examination of her poetry within the context of Hebrew and international modernisms. The dismissal of Esther Raab failed to note her choice of minimalism and rejection of the male tradition as too bound to the past and to the collective, and as such restricts personal expression. That Rachel, Raab and Pinkerfeld resisted the modernism of Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman resulted in their exclusion from the Hebrew canon. Chapter five focuses on the exclusion of Avot Yeshurun from the center of the canon. Though Yeshurun was belatedly recognized in 1992 as the recipient of the Israel Prize for Literature (along with Emil Habibi), Gluzman suggests that this exclusion was the result of Yeshurun’s resistance to Zionist normative separatism and his pro-Palestinian stance, as expressed, for instance in the hermetic poem “Passover on Caves,” a poem Gluzman analyzes here in detail.

In his epilogue Gluzman clarifies that the systematic and consistent exclusion of “minor” authors is often a political decision to suppress dissent and resistance rather than an aesthetic decision. Nevertheless, this process is not necessarily conscious or intentional in the conventional sense of the word. Even as he affirms the other’s right to speak differently, Gluzman rejects the concept of an intentional conspiracy that is attributable to specific individuals. The politics of exclusion and inclusion are ideological and as such concealed even from its practitioners and followers.

III. Rachel Feldhay Brenner. Inextricably Bonded: Israeli Arab and Jewish writers Re-Visioning Culture. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.

This book suggests that political dissent is at the very heart of landmark canonical works by both Israeli Jewish and Arab writers. Brenner argues that both “Israeli Arab and Jewish writings call into question the Zionist exclusionary claim to the land” (p. 5). Against the doctrine of exclusion, the literary representations reassert the denied histories of both the Palestinian Arab and the Diaspora Jew. The book consists of three parts. The first part, “Zionism and the Discourses of Negation: Is Post-Zionism Really ‘Post?’” deals with the history of political dissent within Jewish Zionist thought. Brenner traces an anti-exclusivist and anti-supremacist idea of Zionism to Ahad Ha’Am (1856-1927) and Martin Buber (1878-1965). Both thinkers rejected the doctrine of the “negation of the Diaspora” as well as the doctrine of the “empty land” calling attention to the Arab residents and the urgency of creating peaceful relations with them. Both thinkers feared that by becoming like all other nations and states, the Jewish people would forfeit their historical destiny as “light to the nations.”

The second part, “Dissenting Literatures and the Literary Canon,” analyzes the European influence on the secular and modern foundations of Hebrew literature. The nationalist Western orientation of Hebrew literature did not change when the center of Hebrew culture was transferred from Europe to Palestine by the end of the 1920s. On the one hand, Zionist ideology and Hebrew literature share a symbiotic relationship as both used Hebrew, the modern secular language of Jewish revival as a medium of communication. On the other hand, leading authors used this medium to criticize basic Zionist tenets, including its separatism and exclusivist claim to the land. What made it possible for these authors (e.g. S. Yizhar, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman) to gain canonic status was the existentialist and psychological, humanitarian and universal interpretations and acclamations by leading Euro-centric critics, like Gersohn Shaked, Menachem Perry, and Nurith Gertz. Similarly, critical works by Atallah Mansour, Emile Habiby and Anton Shammas are unsparing in their “representations of Israeli domination…colonialist dispossession, discrimination and the brutality of conquest and occupation” (p. 111). Brenner argues that both in their Hebrew translation and in their originally Hebrew rendition (in the case of Shammas), these works were well received by Israeli critics who saw in them fictional, subjective, psychological expressions that are legitimate literary articulations by the Western standards of literary criticism. The price of canonic legitimacy has been the limited appreciation of the subversive and political implications of these works.

In part three, “Discourses of Bonding” Brenner calls for a critical re-evaluation of both Jewish and Arab texts of political defiance. The chapters included in this part consist of an analysis of four pairs of authors, S. Yizhar’s “Hirbet Hizah” and Emile Habiby’s Pessoptimist, A.B. Yehoshua’s “Facing the Forests” and Atallah Mansour’s In a New Light, Amos Oz’s My Michael and Emile Habiby’s Saraya, Daughter of the Ghoul, and David Grossman’s Smile of the Lamb and Anton Shammas’s Arabasques. Whether they deal with traumatic memory of victimization, or with the tormenting effects of collective guilt, the narratives illuminate and complement one another. By replacing the aesthetic lens with a political one, Brenner offers a vibrant and refreshing approach that challenges readers to re-read familiar canonic Hebrew texts, and consider reading “other” texts generated by a socially and culturally marginalized minority.

Esther Fuchs is professor of Near Eastern Studies Department, the University of Arizona, Tucson, and a contributing editor.

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