On Israeli Writers
To the Editor:
Robert Alter in his article [“Israeli Writers and Their Problems,” July] presents some interesting comments, but a consideration of more writers, particularly the “in between generation,” would have shed more light. . . .
Alter implies a dichotomy among Israeli novelists. He describes the older writers as quite incapable of capturing the new accent, rhythm, and nuance of feeling and thought characteristic of the contemporary scene. The new writers are labeled simply inept.
A real investigation of such authors as Shenhar, Burla, and Hazaz shows their great feeling for the peculiar and unique ethos of the land. They do talk of new accents and rhythms. We must realize that these are of no one group—no one ethos as yet. There are many particular groups, such as the Afro-Asian Jews, who have a considerable influence in Israel, being over 50 per cent of the population. They are playing a tremendous role in the rhythm, accent, and nuance of Israel and the above novelists of the “in between generation,” which is not of Agnon (the older generation) or Shamir (the younger group), have captured this in a beautiful way. Furthermore, is Israel not in an “in between” state itself? . . .
Alter states that “when an older Hebrew writer sets his narrative in Israel, he succeeds by selecting an enclave of life in Israel which is not Israeli, and therefore is in some sense familiar ground to him.” What is truly Israeli at this time? The army and kibbutz are not all that is Israel. Besides, Shenhar, Burla, and Hazaz write of the whole, not merely an enclave, and they succeed very well.
Alter says that when Ben Gurion sharply criticized certain Hebrew writers for their lack of social responsibility and indifference to the great national effort of the “ingathering of the exiles,” or when Hazaz castigated younger writers for turning their backs on the richest of Jewish tradition, this does not induce good literature. But is it not the function of literature to display the depths of the reality of national consciousness? Must literature be nihilistic or cynical to be real?
Alter . . . implies that little of any significance in terms of Jewish culture is being produced. But Israel is the only place where Jewish fiction is really being written, fiction which is going to last in the millennia-old tradition of Hebrew letters. . . .
(Rabbi) Amiel Wohl
Mr. Alter writes:
I share much of Rabbi Wohl’s excitement over modern Hebrew creativity, but I am afraid that his enthusiasm for Israel and its literature prevents him from looking squarely at all the facts.
There is, of course, an element of arbitrariness in dividing writers into generations. One could easily sift out a middle generation of Israeli novelists, but it would in no way constitute the magic missing link which Rabbi Wohl suggests. A primary fact about the Israeli literary situation is the gap between the older and younger groups, the so often discussed be’ayat hadorot; and the handful of undistinguished writers older than Yizhar and younger than Hazaz scarcely close this gap.
While more than half the Israeli population now is Afro-Asian in origin, the tenor of Israeli society—at least for the present—remains thoroughly Occidental. The characteristic experiences of Israel are the army, the kibbutz, the youth movement, the government bureaucracy. Moreover, writers like Hazaz, Burla, and Churgin turn to that segment of the Afro-Asians which is an exotic curiosity, not to the Westernizing younger generation which will help determine the nature of future Israeli society.
I certainly do not accept Rabbi Wohl’s assumption that the function of literature is to display national consciousness, but, in any case, one can hardly make a programmatic appeal to writers for national consciousness, as Mr. Ben Gurion has done, and expect to get creative literature. I am astonished that Rabbi Wohl sees nihilism and cynicism as the only logical alternatives to an Israeli literature which is either simply propaganda or a kind of Zionist Heimatkunst. . . .
The natural setting of Israel understandably plays a significant part in the literature, though some romanticizing Hebrew critics tend to exaggerate its importance. . . .
In my article, while I tried to describe the struggles of the younger writers, I never called them “simply inept” and I indicated that their efforts were in many ways quite admirable. I made no judgments, by implication or otherwise, about the Jewishness of the culture Israel is creating. In any case, Rabbi Wohl seems to me to place more faith than the facts would warrant in the efficacy of the Hebrew language as a foolproof guarantee of Jewish authenticity. I wish he were right—it would solve a number of grave problems for contemporary Jewry, both in Israel and elsewhere.