Commentary Magazine

Politics and the Israeli Novel

<p>&ldquo;There is no real role for politics in my novels,&rdquo; the Israeli author Amos Oz was quoted as saying in a December <em>New York Times</em> article about him, A.B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman, the reigning triumvirate of contemporary Israeli fiction. &ldquo;I have never written a story,&rdquo; Oz continued, &ldquo;in order to tell the Israelis to stop building settlements or to tell the government to stop putting pressure on the Palestinians. That is the realm of bad fiction.&rdquo;</p>
<p>In discussing the place of politics in the literary careers of Oz, Yehoshua, and Grossman&mdash;all three are active in the Israeli &ldquo;peace movement&rdquo; and were participants in the recent &ldquo;Geneva Initiative&rdquo;&mdash;the author of the <em>Times</em> article, Amy Wilentz, observed that Oz in particular is &ldquo;adamant about the division between his fictional writing and his political work.&rdquo; But the same division is basic to all three. &ldquo;Read [their] nonfiction, and you will find essayists and reporters profoundly involved with the political life of their times. Read their fiction, and it is like listening to the inner workings of anyone&#39;s heart.&rdquo; In interviews, Wilentz reported, all three &ldquo;said that they suffered from the classic problem of writers in times of trouble, what could be called creative dissonance, in which fiction and nonfiction seem almost to come into conflict.&rdquo;</p>
<p>David Grossman would delete the &ldquo;almost.&rdquo; He told Wilentz:</p>
<p>When a group of Israeli pilots refused to continue participating in missions in which Palestinian civilians were routinely killed, I felt so moved that I couldn&#39;t continue with my imaginary writing. And then you write an article [about it], and then there are many responses, and you have to respond to these responses, and then people talk to you in the street.</p>
<p>(Besides publishing an op-ed on the pilots&#39; declaration last September, Grossman helped organize a writers&#39; manifesto in their support. A second, more cautiously worded statement in their behalf was initiated and signed by Yehoshua and Oz.)</p>
<p>Oz summed up:</p>
<p>In the Jewish tradition, [writers] are supposed to be the prophets who show the way and get stoned in the marketplace. . . . [But] when I am writing a novel, I myself have [no] politics. I am on everyone&#39;s side.</p>
<p>And yet while more politics in the novels of Oz, Yehoshua, and Grossman might or might not benefit their fiction, it would almost certainly be good for their politics. This is a point I shall return to.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>The only &ldquo;Jewish writer&rdquo; on record to have been stoned by anyone is the prophet Zechariah the son of Yehoyada at the start of the 8th century B.C.E. Nevertheless, the &ldquo;creative dissonance&rdquo; spoken of by Wilentz, far from being uniquely associated with the stresses of contemporary Israeli life, has been present in modern Hebrew literature all along. Since its emergence in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th-century Haskalah, or Hebrew enlightenment, this literature has had politics thrust on it. As spokesmen for the Haskalah, its earliest writers constituted not only a literary movement but a lobby for social reform at a time when East European Jewry had no other leadership than its deeply conservative rabbinic establishment. Authors like Y.L. Gordon, Peretz Smolenskin, and Moshe Leib Lilienblum were forced to be political precisely because modern Jewish politics did not yet exist.</p>
<p>In this respect, early modern Hebrew literature performed a task that fell to the literatures of other European peoples, too, in the early stages of their struggle for political empowerment. But Hebrew authors remained politically in the forefront even after East European Jewry and its Zionist colony in Palestine developed political institutions. So inextricably linked were Hebrew literature and Zionism that their futures were mutually dependent. Only a culturally revolutionary Hebrew society in Palestine could create a Jewish state; only a Hebrew-speaking Jewish state could guarantee a place in which modern Hebrew authors would be read. For Diaspora writers who did not grow up speaking Hebrew, writing in the language was a political act by definition, and one they were expected by their readers to articulate.</p>
<p>Since artists tend to resist expectations as often as they obey them, however, this articulation often took indirect forms. Yosef Hayyim Brenner, for example, a major Hebrew novelist and short-story writer of the early 20th century, dealt with the conflict between his own sense of radical isolation and his belief in the politics of Jewish solidarity by replicating it in the lives of his characters: lonely protagonists who confront the comforts and complicities of community. The private lives of the characters of S.Y. Agnon, on the other hand, are often symbolic embodiments of public issues that they themselves are not conscious of representing.</p>
<p>Some Hebrew writers compartmentalized stylistically Thus, the mid-20th-century poet Natan Alterman published a regular column of light-verse political commentary in the newspapers while setting a higher aesthetic bar for his more serious work elsewhere. And Hayyim Nahman Bialik, proclaimed the &ldquo;national poet&rdquo; of the Hebrew renaissance at a precociously young age, composed his bardic blank verse and his introspective lyrics of sadness, longing, cynicism, and revulsion with equal care, while keeping them apart by means of prosodies so distinct that they seem almost to be written by different hands.</p>
<p>Bialik, though he cultivated this dichotomy in his creative life, also resented it. There is a poem of his called &ldquo;Evening,&rdquo; written in the characteristic quatrains of his lyrical mode, which begins with a vision of a splendid sunset and great building blocks of clouds changing shape on the horizon&mdash;whole worlds, in an image taken from the Midrash, being demiurgically &ldquo;made and destroyed.&rdquo; But when the poet looks again, the sunset has faded into grayness and the universes under construction have vanished, leaving only &ldquo;idiot evening scattering ashes on the earth.&rdquo; And the poet concludes, addressing the readers who have placed a laureate&#39;s wreath like a millstone around his neck:</p>
<p>I have grubbed for your coins</p>
<p>And lost my treasure&mdash;</p>
<p>And Mephistopheles stands behind me and grins</p>
<p>With a hideous pleasure.</p>
<p>Amos Oz could have been thinking of this poem when he told Amy Wilentz: &ldquo;If I would sit at my desk and write a description of a beautiful sunset on a winter evening while people are dying ten miles from my home, I would feel like a traitor. But if, on the other hand, I use my storyteller&#39;s pen to write manifestoes in thin literary disguise, I will again feel like a traitor, to my art.&rdquo;</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>The tug-of-war between these allegiances is, in short, a recurrent theme in the Hebrew literature of the last hundred years. One of the first aesthetically accomplished Hebrew novels, Mordecai Ze&#39;ev Feierberg&#39;s <em>Whither</em>, published in 1898, tells the story of a private self strangled practically in the cradle. Its young hero, Hofni, grows up in a Ukrainian shtetl in the 1870&#39;s and 80&#39;s, the son of a sternly pietistic father who instills in him a fierce sense of Jewish duty; dreams as a boy and adolescent of bringing the messiah by his inward faith and devotion; is stricken by depression when this grandiose fantasy collapses; and recovers briefly as news of the new movement of Zionism reaches his village. &ldquo;It was as if,&rdquo; we are told,</p>
<p>a revolution in his being had made happiness of all his despair. . . . What need had there been for his madness, his isolation from life, when there was so much to do, so much new movement and light? If the Jewish people had never forgotten its homeland in all its years of bitter exile, how could he, who fancied himself its general, have done such a thing?</p>
<p>Yet Hofni&#39;s &ldquo;being&rdquo; does not belong to him. The flurry of excitement over Zionism dies down, and his mental illness returns and results in an early death. As imaginatively developed as he is, Hofni has no self apart from the self he shares with his people, his despair for whom is despair of his own life.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>A &ldquo;general&rdquo; of the Jewish people is, quite literally, what the boy born in 1939 who grew up to become Amos Oz fantasizes being in Oz&#39;s recent autobiographical account of his childhood and adolescence, <em>A Tale of Love and Darkness</em>.<sup><a name="1" href="#1.1">1</a></sup> Fighting Israel&#39;s 1948-49 War of Independence from his family&#39;s Jerusalem apartment, the nine-year-old Amos builds fortifications of blocks and pick-up sticks in the hallway, marshals armies of buttons on the living-room rug, fills his parents&#39; bedroom with the forks and spoons of tanks and armored cars, and runs a communication wire from the bathroom to command headquarters in a closet by the front door. As the commander of his troops, he runs from room to room directing their movements.</p>
<p>Any small boy might play war games like these when his country is fighting on real battlefields. But the young Amos, the son of a bookishly intellectual and fervently Zionist father and a depressed and emotionally stifled mother who longs in hot, dusty Jerusalem for the green meadows, white snows, and chivalrous manners of her native Poland, has a precocious sense of identification with, and responsibility toward, not only his parents but the entire Jewish people. In a striking episode, he visits, during the last days of the British Mandate, the home of a wealthy Arab family; strays into its garden, where he encounters the family&#39;s daughter, a girl slightly older than himself; climbs a tree on a dare from her; and, swinging heroically from its branches and emitting Tarzan-like whoops, thinks, a moment before disastrously knocking over a heavy weight that maims the girl&#39;s baby brother below:</p>
<p>Why, for sixty generations . . . the world has regarded us as a pitiful people of stoop-shouldered yeshiva students, frail moths afraid of our shadows, children of death, as the Arabs called us&mdash;and now a new, muscular Jew has appeared, a young Hebrew full of life whose lion-like roar shakes the world.</p>
<p>And the grown author of <em>A Tale of Love and Darkness</em> looks back ruefully on the &ldquo;nine-year-old Zionist propagandist&rdquo; that he was, actually a pale, skinny Jerusalem boy as bookish as his father, and remarks: &ldquo;And yet, instead of the new Hebrew approaching the noble Arab, . . . couldn&#39;t I just have been a little boy with a young girl? Was that too much to ask?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Those familiar with Oz&#39;s fiction will detect here the biographical genesis of a motif. Over and over again in Oz&#39;s novels, a protagonist feels trapped or constrained by a public self that is not of his choosing. Like Yonatan Lifshitz in <em>A Perfect Peace</em> (1982), who &ldquo;at twenty-six . . . found himself longing to be alone at last, entirely alone, to find for himself what it was all about,&rdquo; Oz&#39;s characters yearn to cast off an identity imposed on them by the collectivism of the new Jewish state, with its youth movements, its kibbutzim, its army service, its ideological enthusiasms and quarrels, its hourly news bulletins listened to by an entire nation. Like Yonatan&#39;s, their lives seem to pass &ldquo;in a clamorous, smoke-filled room where a tedious argument about some bizarre matter drags endlessly on&rdquo;&mdash;an argument, so Yonatan tells himself, that he has no interest in.</p>
<p>Yonatan, a kibbutznik, feels that &ldquo;real life&rdquo; must be elsewhere. So, in Oz&#39;s <em>To Know a Woman</em> (1989), does Yoel Ravid, a Holocaust survivor and ex-Mossad operative who has the &ldquo;vague sense that nothing is awake&rdquo; and says to himself, when his old boss seeks to recall him from retirement by playing on his Jewish patriotism, &ldquo;he and they will not be satisfied with less than my whole life, with everybody&#39;s whole life . . . and I&#39;m not giving them that.&rdquo; So does the dying Alec Gideon in <em>Black Box</em> (1987), writing to his estranged wife that redemption through political activity is &ldquo;the annihilation of the self. What is the obsession with redemption? Only a mask for a complete absence of the basic talent for life.&rdquo; So does Ruth Kipnis, a Palestinian-Jewish Madame Bovary and the mother of the boy Hillel in Oz&#39;s early novella <em>The Hill of Evil Counsel</em> (1976), the only one of his characters actually to elope with &ldquo;real life,&rdquo; since she deserts her husband and son in a Jerusalem soon to be besieged by the Arab Legion and runs off to exotic climes with a British officer.</p>
<p>The actual story of the woman on whom Ruth Kipnis was modeled, Amos Oz&#39;s mother, Fanya Klausner, is told in full for the first time in <em>A Tale of Love and Darkness</em>. That story ended differently, with Fanya&#39;s suicide in 1951. In comparing these two different versions of how a young boy lost his mother, each featuring some of Oz&#39;s best writing, one must take into account his preemptive attack in his autobiography on those readers and critics who look for &ldquo;the gossip [of] what happened to you in real life as opposed to what you jazzed up in your fiction.&rdquo; Yet since few novelists choose, at the age of sixty, to write 600 pages about their &ldquo;real lives,&rdquo; this protest remains disingenuous.</p>
<p>By Oz&#39;s decision, <em>A Tale of Love and Darkness</em>, which deals frontally with an upbringing previously inferable only from his stories and novels, now forms with these a case study in how fiction simultaneously distills and deflects the realities that engender it. Perhaps, in the fantasies of the adolescent Amos-Hillel, there was an alternative version of his mother&#39;s life in which suicide was a family cover story for an even more shameful romantic escape; perhaps, for the real Fanya Klausner, death was the only eligible romantic partner. One way or another, however, attempted flight&mdash;from an oppressive environment, from a routinized life, from the public to the private self&mdash;is the subject of much of Oz&#39;s fiction.</p>
<p>This public self is not just the one constructed in response to the claims of Jewish peoplehood and statehood, though Oz&#39;s formative years in the 1940&#39;s and 50&#39;s did coincide with a time when such claims were intense and eagerly responded to by Israeli youth. It is, as well, the self of family, friendship, social obligation, and career. But the demands of peoplehood are always present in Oz&#39;s work, as they are in Bialik&#39;s and Feierberg&#39;s and Brenner&#39;s and Alterman&#39;s and Agnon&#39;s and dozens of other modern Hebrew writers. And the tension between them and the private self&#39;s need for recognition is central to Oz&#39;s writing, as it continues to be central to the life of Israel&mdash;a country that goes on demanding greater sacrifices of its citizens than does any other Western democracy, yet that has been deeply affected, like every Western democracy, by the contemporary privileging of the private life and its fulfillments.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>Amos Oz&#39;s fictional strategy, like Brenner&#39;s three-quarters of a century before him, has been to express this tension as an awareness, sometimes dim and sometimes acute, in the minds of his characters. While the latter rarely have strong political views&mdash;Oz has saved these, as he told the <em>Times</em>, for his journalism&mdash;they feel the grip of politics and history on their lives and struggle to shake it off.</p>
<p>The fiction of Oz&#39;s contemporary A.B. Yehoshua, on the other hand, adopts an Agnonian strategy. Yehoshua&#39;s characters are even less politically aware than Oz&#39;s, since they lack the fear of politics as a predator that feeds on their lives. But they are also the focus of larger themes that crystallize around them even as they go unnoticed.</p>
<p>Yehoshua&#39;s latest novel, <em>The Liberated Bride</em>,<sup><a name="2" href="#2.2">2</a></sup> is typical in this respect. On the face of it, its main plot, having to do with an Israeli family from Haifa and its former in-laws in Jerusalem, is far removed from the public domain. The parents in this family, the middle-aged Yochanan and Hagit Rivlin, he a professor of Middle East history and she a district judge, have two sons&mdash;the younger in the army, the older, Ofer, a divorc&#233; living in Paris. Ofer&#39;s ex-wife, Galya, with whom he is still tormentedly in love, has remarried and is pregnant with her first child; her father, the owner of a small Jerusalem hotel, has just died, leaving the running of it to her older sister Tehila&mdash;who, we gradually learn, has had an incestuous relationship with him. It was Ofer&#39;s discovery of this relationship that caused his break-up with Galya when she refused to believe it. But Ofer&#39;s parents do not know this secret or understand why their son&#39;s marriage has failed&mdash;and while Hagit, the judge, is temperamentally content to make do with the evidence presented to her, her husband the historian, much to her disapproval, is obsessed with unearthing the full truth, which alone, he believes, can free his son of the ghosts of the past. The family conflicts to which this leads form one axis of <em>The Liberated Bride</em>.</p>
<p>Not exactly the stuff of a political novel. But there is a subplot, too. This involves one of Yochanan Rivlin&#39;s students, a young Israeli Arab woman unable to graduate because she owes Rivlin an unfinished paper. Trying to coax a &ldquo;complete&rdquo; out of him, she invites him to her wedding and cajoles him to visit her village and family. There he meets a cousin of hers, who enlists him in an attempt to obtain an Israeli residence permit for a sister living in the Palestinian Authority&mdash;an attempt that ends tragically when, the permit denied, the sister&#39;s son is killed trying to cross illegally into Israel.</p>
<p>Here, at least, there would seem to be political potential. Yet if Yehoshua is exploring in this subplot the ways in which manipulations of Arab and Jewish identity affect a teacher-student relationship, or the deadly effect of Israeli rule over the Palestinians, what does this have to do with the main plot? It is possible to read the whole of <em>The Liberated Bride</em> as no more than a darkly comic account of an intellectually hyperactive scholar who, thinking he must get to the bottom of everything and find a solution for all problems, embroils himself and others in a series of predicaments.</p>
<p>As always in Yehoshua&#39;s work, however, one must look for a second, submerged novel beneath the first one. The clue to this underground structure is the theme of borders, which repeatedly crops up in <em>The Liberated Bride</em>. Just as the absence of clear borders between Israel and the occupied territories leads to the death of an Arab boy, so it permits the incest between Tehila and her father; causes Rivlin to interfere in his son&#39;s life, nearly destroying their relationship and straining his ties with his wife; entangles him in dealings with an Arab student and her family that compromise his professional standing; and above all, brutally prolongs the territorial war between Israel and the Palestinians, two people who have been unable to draw a boundary between them. Boundaries, once you begin to look for them, are missing everywhere in <em>The Liberated Bride</em>&mdash;even in a Palestinian Authority-sponsored evening of poetry attended by Rivlin and his wife, at which are read the verses of Islamic mystics describing the union of soul with soul and of soul with God, thus erasing the most fundamental distinctions of all.</p>
<p>It is Hagit Rivlin, the district judge entrusted with enforcing boundaries, and their levelheaded defender, who is the real hero of <em>The Liberated Bride</em>. The relationship between her and her husband, loving even when combative, occupies the best pages of the novel&mdash;in which, as often in Yehoshua, one is sometimes distracted by the clank of off-stage machinery lifting and lowering symbolic scenes into place. Hagit speaks politically for Yehoshua, whose own position has long been that borderlessness&mdash;physical, intellectual, juridical, and metaphorical&mdash;is responsible for the problems of Israel and the Jewish people.</p>
<p>A radical, &ldquo;Diaspora-negating&rdquo; Zionist, Yehoshua has written a nonfiction book, <em>The Right to Normalcy</em> (1980), calling for unambiguous demarcations between Israel and world Jewry and between Judaism and Jewishness. Elsewhere he has analyzed anti-Semitism as a phobic reaction to the Jews&#39; amorphous nature, which allows them to be both a religion and a nationality, staunchly territorial and at home everywhere, the most passionate of universalists and the most stubborn of particularists. Although the Rivlins and others in <em>The Liberated Bride</em> do not consciously reflect on such themes, they are the medium through which they are refracted. The political is not opposed by Yehoshua to the personal, as it is by Amos Oz, but is rather subsumed in it&mdash;the public, in a reversal of the usual order of things, hidden inside the private, the outer inside the inner.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>David Grossman has dealt with his &ldquo;creative dissonance&rdquo; by following the model of Alterman. Indeed, he has gone well beyond it to an almost Manichean duality.</p>
<p>Grossman, born in 1954, belongs to the literary generation that followed Yehoshua and Oz&#39;s, and the defining political event of his childhood was the 1967 rather than the 1948 war. His first novel, <em>The Smile of the Lamb</em> (1983), dealt with the consequences of this war and of Israeli rule in the occupied territories. Two of its four main characters are friends and army officers, a lieutenant and a major responsible for the administration of an occupied West Bank town; the other two are an elderly Palestinian whose son has been killed by Israeli soldiers and the lieutenant&#39;s wife, who is also the major&#39;s lover. Although neither officer is blind to the injustices of the occupation, their attitudes toward it differ, the lieutenant convinced it is an evil that must be ended, the tougher-minded major believing it can&mdash;like his adultery with his friend&#39;s wife&mdash;be ridden out. In the end both men, the cynic and the idealist, die together, killed by the Palestinian, an eccentric storyteller more innocent yet more cunning than either of them.</p>
<p><em>The Smile of the Lamb</em> is an absorbing but flawed novel, its moral too obvious, its juxtaposition of the public and the private, the self-deceptions of the occupation and of an adulterous marriage, too symmetrical. Although it was well-received by the critics, Grossman, a writer of great ambition and talent, chose in his subsequent books to separate the political from the personal entirely. There have been nine of these so far. Three, <em>The Yellow Wind</em> (1987), <em>Sleeping on a Wire</em> (1992), and most recently <em>Death As a Way of Life</em><sup><a name="3" href="#3.3">3</a></sup> (2003) are works of political reportage and journalism, all centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The other six have been novels. Of these, the three major ones, <em>See Under: LOVE</em> (1986), <em>The Book of Intimate Grammar</em> (1991), and <em>Be My Knife</em> (1998)&mdash;the last recently released in English translation<sup><a name="4" href="#4.4">4</a></sup>&mdash;are attempts to tunnel ever deeper into private worlds.</p>
<p><em>Be My Knife</em> employs that oldest of novelistic forms, the epistolary exchange. Except for a brief, final chapter, it comprises two sections, a longer one of letters written by a man named Ya&#39;ir to a woman he has never met, and a shorter one of letters written by the woman, Miriam, to Ya&#39;ir.</p>
<p>Ya&#39;ir, a happily married man (or so he tells Miriam) and the father of a small boy, has seen Mriam only once, at a class reunion to which she accompanied her husband. Attracted to her on sight, he decides that she is the woman for an experiment he wishes to try, namely, to create between two people an honesty and intimacy so great that each will undergo, as he writes to her, &ldquo;a complete entering into the other . . . in order to experience, just once, a stranger, I mean, another in you.&rdquo; This merger of two beings is to be achieved by words alone. A sexual relationship, even a face-to-face meeting, is ruled out, because, as Ya&#39;ir puts it platonically, &ldquo;bodies are, after all, only a coincidence . . . just a few chunks of meat that happen to be stuck together in one way and not in another.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Miriam, intrigued and flattered, accepts the challenge. &ldquo;I imagine,&rdquo; she replies, &ldquo;a storm, a volcanic eruption from your insides and mine, something sweeping and shaking, that exposes us, forces us to live in another skin (or even better than that&mdash;with no skin at all).&rdquo; The two correspond (rather anachronistically, via handwritten snail mail) and fall in love. Just as Ya&#39;ir planned, they are soon baring their romantic selves to each other as they have never done to their marriage partners, with whom they have settled into a domestic pattern of regularly uttered and permanently unutterable thoughts&mdash;and it is the unutterable that Ya&#39;ir and Miriam now strive to put on paper. Had it been they, rather than the Rivlins in <em>The Liberated Bride</em>, attending the Palestinian Authority&#39;s evening of poetry, they would have recognized their project in the words of the medieval mystic Al-Hallaj:</p>
<p>Your soul stirred into mine:<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;Into clear water&mdash;wine.<br />
Who touches you, touches me,<br />
&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;I am you in one we.</p>
<p>Yet while Ya&#39;ir and Mriam&#39;s souls are exquisitely attuned to each other, the perfect union&mdash;which Miriam, to Ya&#39;ir&#39;s growing distress, begins retrogradely to desire in the flesh&mdash;does not take place. By now we know a great deal about these souls and even something about the bodies they inhabit, which could be almost anywhere&mdash;in Jerusalem, where they are, but equally in Madrid, Milan, Stockholm, or Valparaiso, since this city, although it does not lack flowers, birds, seasons, weather, or other things useful for love&#39;s conceits, has no suicide bombers, no cabinet meetings, no politics, no newspapers, not even any news. Ya&#39;ir, to judge from his prose, has been dosing himself heavily with Rilke, especially with <em>The Notebooks of Make Laureds Brigge</em>. But whereas Malte wrests his hard-earned insights from a Paris whose streets he walks and absorbs every day in all their haunting beauty and degradation, Ya&#39;ir, writing to Mriam from his desk, makes, in John Donne&#39;s words, of one little room an everywhere.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>In <em>Be My Knife</em>, the flight into the private self goes so deep that it seeks to emerge, as it were, on that self&#39;s far, inner side&mdash;where, in battering down the interior wall of another self, it paradoxically surrenders every shred of the privacy it has fought to gain. If in the dynamics of consciousness as in those of physics, actions have their equal and opposite reactions, this novel is the ultimate reaction of the Hebrew writer to the burden of public selfhood. The personal and the political in Grossman&#39;s work have reached a state here of utter disassociation.</p>
<p>The short, final section of <em>Be My Knife</em> may tell us that this reaction has gone too far. In this section, which gives the novel its dialectical bite, Mriam receives a panicky phone call from Ya&#39;ir. It is the first time she has spoken to him, and he tells her that his wife is away for the day. He has had a fight with his five-year-old son and has locked him out of the house in a freezing rain until he apologizes&mdash;something, however, that the boy stubbornly refuses to do. Mriam, shocked by the anger and rigidity of a man she has known until now only from his tender letters, tries to persuade him to abandon this battle of wills and let the boy in. When Ya&#39;ir remains as stubborn as his son, she jumps into her car and drives to his home. There she finds him, &ldquo;naked and blue from the cold,&rdquo; having quite insanely preferred to punish himself along with the child by stripping to the bone and joining him in the rain. The two are lying in a puddle of rainwater, &ldquo;twisted,&rdquo; as she puts it, &ldquo;at a horrible angle to each other like two bent nails.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Possibly, this is <em>Be My Knife</em>&#39;s way of saying that, in divorcing itself from the world of daily obligation, routine, physicality, and even politics&mdash;for what is the inability to negotiate a settlement with a small child but political failure at its most elemental?&mdash;the preciously refined soul offered up by Ya&#39;ir to Mriam has become unhinged. Balanced on only one leg, it can be knocked down by the slightest bump in reality even one no bigger than a five-year-old.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>The declaration of the 27 pilots who refused last September to participate in air-force missions over the occupied territories was a bigger bump.</p>
<p>&ldquo;We, writers and poets in Israel,&rdquo; began the manifesto that David Grossman was instrumental in formulating, &ldquo;hereby express our support of the moral right of air-force pilots to refuse to rocket and bomb civilian population centers, even as part of the war against terror.&rdquo; In his own op-ed in the newspaper <em>Haaretz</em>, Grossman wrote:</p>
<p>When a state orders its pilots to fire missiles at a car [in which terrorists are traveling] that has pedestrians around it, even if it does not deliberately seek to injure them, the act and its results are like those of a terrorist organization. . . . A country cannot carry out liquidations, murders, and executions without trials.</p>
<p>The pilots themselves, a tiny fraction of Israel&#39;s roster of active-duty and reserve flyers, did not address the argument that, although innocent deaths are often unavoidable in war, pinpoint &ldquo;assassinations&rdquo; of the enemy are the best possible way to minimize them. (Such attacks are, in fact, the diametrical opposite of terror, which is designed to maximize innocent deaths.) Nor did they suggest a better way of punishing terrorists operating from Palestinian territory. They left this to David Grossman, who thinks such terrorists should be apprehended and brought to trial.</p>
<p>In some cases, like that of the Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti, this is what Israel has done. And yet, for a novelist, Grossman is surprisingly unimaginative here. What, after all, would have happened had Israel sought to arrest the Hamas arch-terrorist Saleh Shahadeh rather than stage the helicopter attack on his home that, in a much-criticized incident in July 2002, killed fifteen Palestinians besides him, including women and children? Ground troops, supported by armor and air cover, would have had to go deep into Gaza to make the arrest. They would have had to fight their way through crowded neighborhoods to reach their destination, at which they almost certainly would have arrived too late, their forewarned quarry having vanished. They would then have had to cordon off a wide area and search for Shahadeh from house to house, killing and being killed so as to capture him alive. Had he then been legally convicted, would this have saved innocent Palestinians lives, let alone Israeli ones? If a journalist writes about what has happened while a novelist imagines what might happen, Grossman indeed wrote his op-ed strictly as a journalist.</p>
<p>The Oz-Yehoshua statement on the pilots was more moderate. While supporting &ldquo;the right and obligation of every soldier to refuse to carry out any flagrantly illegal order,&rdquo; it also spoke of &ldquo;the right and obligation of the state of Israel to defend its citizens in, and only in, all legal ways,&rdquo; and &ldquo;the right and obligation of the courts to determine the boundaries of what is legally permitted and forbidden in time of war.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Yet such a formula, too, is unrealistically abstract. Is it really possible to set legal standards that would have enabled a commanding officer to decide whether to rocket Shahadeh&#39;s home? Would one innocent person by Shahadeh&#39;s side have been enough to rule out such an attack? Two? And suppose&mdash;as appears to have been the case&mdash;that intelligence sources were unaware of any persons; should an attack still have been barred because&mdash;as <em>was</em> the case&mdash;this intelligence might have been faulty or collateral damage might have harmed&mdash;as it in fact did&mdash;innocent people in the street? And if Israel&#39;s courts laid down such guidelines, would it be possible to apply them in the minutes or even seconds that are all a commanding officer may have in which to make up his mind?</p>
<p>The point is not that Israel&#39;s campaign against terror does not need to be fought morally. It is rather that situations of war can be too fluid, fast-moving, ambiguous, or complex to be responded to on the basis of moral reasoning. One must react to them by moral <em>instinct</em>&mdash;and the instantaneous vector of judgments, values, emotions, experiences, and assumptions that compose such an instinct, and that determine whether a commander decides to send a pilot on a mission, or a pilot chooses to fire his ordnance, would no doubt be better grasped by a novel than by a legal brief.</p>
<p>Nor is this true only of situations of war. A serious novelist must surely believe that the simulations of fiction&mdash;which can adopt any perspective, follow any thought into the mind of its thinker, trace the branchings of any emotion&mdash;are the optimal medium for exploring the nuances of human behavior. Nothing else can put them under such close scrutiny.</p>
<p>It may seem obvious, as it did to the <em>Times</em>&#39;s Amy Wilentz, why Oz, Yehoshua, and Grossman, each of whom has written extensively about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have shied away from a direct treatment of that conflict in all but a few of their fictional works. (Besides Grossman&#39;s <em>The Smile of the Lamb</em>, one might point to Oz&#39;s <em>Black Box</em>, with its clumsily satirical portrait of the right-wing religious nationalist Michael Sommo, and one or two of Yehoshua&#39;s early stories, such as &ldquo;Facing The Forests&rdquo; or &ldquo;Early in the Summer of 1970.&rdquo;) None of them has been at his best when writing overtly political fiction, and all belong to a Hebrew literary tradition in which the harmful effect of politics on &ldquo;pure&rdquo; art has been feared and resisted. In all of modern Hebrew literature, indeed, there is not a single outstanding political novel.</p>
<p>And yet, while speaking from his place in this tradition, Amos Oz was wrong to remark that a political point of view in a novel necessarily results in &ldquo;bad fiction.&rdquo; Dostoevsky&#39;s <em>The Devils</em>, Malraux&#39;s <em>The Human Condition</em>, D.H. Lawrence&#39;s <em>The Plumed Serpent</em>: bad fiction? On the contrary, these are wonderful works of fiction precisely because the political element in them, far from having a coarsening effect, is itself enriched and expanded beyond the flatness of political advocacy by its contact with the novelistic imagination. Although Oz may feel that he cannot write well about anyone whose &ldquo;side&rdquo; he is not on, this is to confuse opinion with empathy. Dostoevsky, in <em>The Devils</em>, not only despises Peter Verkhovensky&#39;s revolutionary politics, he despises Peter, his own creation; yet such is his fascination with and understanding of Peter that he makes him a fictionally enthralling and even prophetic figure, the classic portrait of the Bolshevik apparatchik 50 years before its time.</p>
<p>&ldquo;[These] Hebrew pilots, who are flesh of the flesh of the Israeli consensus and the jewel in its crown,&rdquo; David Grossman wrote in <em>Haaretz</em>, &ldquo;have obliged us to look, if only for a moment, into the heart of darkness.&rdquo; But &ldquo;the heart of darkness,&rdquo; itself the name of a great political novel, is not to be found in the journalistic facts of an &ldquo;assassination&rdquo; of a Palestinian terrorist. It is in the inner sinews of that terrorist; of those who back and support him; of those who stalk him in order to kill him; of the ways their lives intersect. To anyone doubting that a work of contemporary fiction can bring disparate lives together to cast light on the nature of political violence with a brilliance that no journalism can match, I recommend a novel like Robert Stone&#39;s <em>A Flag for Sunrise</em>, set in Central America.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />
<p>In separating or concealing their politics from their fiction, talented writers like Oz, Yehoshua, and Grossman may think they are protecting their fiction. In fact, they are protecting only their politics. It is the weaker side that needs protection&mdash;and each of these men is a stronger novelist than he is a political advocate. His name on a statement of support for the 2 7 pilots, or on the Geneva Initiative, means less than it would on a work of fiction about them.</p>
<p>A novel about the Geneva Initiative? It might not be a bad idea. A cabal of several dozen men and women meeting secretly in different capitals of the world to end a conflict whose solution has eluded their warring peoples for decades has dramatic, not to say comic, possibilities. It offers a wide choice of venues: Jerusalem, Amman, Geneva, London, New York. Of characters: Israeli and Palestinian politicians, academics, military men, intellectuals. Of motives: adventure, hope, despair, duty, frustration, ambition, the seductive glamor of high purpose, the thrill and flattery of making history.</p>
<p>Such a novel would not lack for fictional situations: friendships, enmities, alliances, arguments, intrigues, deceptions, manipulations, hidden contacts. Or for themes: idealism and innocence, elitism and accountability. Nor would there be any shortage of possible plot developments. Suppose the leader of one of the delegations was receiving covert instructions from the head of the government he was supposedly independent of; or that a member of the other was planning to found a political party that would use the agreement arrived at as an instrument to bring him to power?</p>
<p>But it is not a critic&#39;s job to tell Israel&#39;s leading novelists what their next book should be about, or that, rather than letting, as Amy Wilentz puts it, &ldquo;reporters and conferences and signings of peace accords in foreign cities&rdquo; keep them from writing their novels, they should write their novels about reporters and conferences and peace accords in foreign cities. It is enough to suggest that, when it comes to the tensions between politics and fiction, they might risk, as neither any of them nor Hebrew literature has often done, putting their politics to fiction&#39;s test. Getting an &ldquo;A&rdquo; from the <em>New York Times</em> is easy by comparison.</p>
<p align="center">_____________</p><br />


1 The Hebrew version came out in 2002. The book will be published in English this autumn by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

2 The Hebrew original appeared in 2001. The English translation (by me) was brought out in this country last autumn by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 576 pp., $27.00.

3 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 192 pp., $22.00.

4 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 324 pp., $25.00. Even more recently published in English is Grossman's Someone to Run With (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 352 pp., $24.00), a novel that—like his previous The Zigzag Kid—straddles the line between juvenile and adult fiction. An urban fairytale set in Jerusalem, it is, though delightfully written, more an entertainment than serious fiction.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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