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Israeli Writers for Peace
Israeli authors AB Yehoshua and Sayed Kashua at the Voices From Two Sides of the Bridge meeting
by Judy Lash Balint
Makor Rishon (Hebrew) newspaper
June 17, 2005

One would be hard put to name any contemporary best-selling American fiction writers who influence the U.S. public debate on serious issues of the day. Does Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) weigh in on the social security fund crisis? Do we hear from John Grisham (The Broker) on improving higher education? Yet here in Israel, it seems that our popular fiction writers are among the first to be quoted when it comes to dealing with the great questions of the day.

No doubt during the current Hebrew Book Week we'll be hearing even more from the same five or six writers who have occupied Israel's intellectual pedestal over the past few decades. But where does this belief come from that one who makes a living from composing stories from his or her imagination has anything profound to say about our social, let alone our security problems? Most disturbing, is the fact that these same writers march in political lockstep—on the left side of the flank, of course.

During the International Jerusalem Book Fair back in February, the syndrome was much in evidence. "They're very much like me…we have so much in common, " gushed Israeli novelist, Dorit Rabanyan, to a rapt audience of international literati, book publishers and journalists as she described her encounters with Palestinians in New York.

"The peace I make with one person encourages me that we can make peace between two peoples," she concluded to rapturous applause from the audience assembled at the Sheik Hussein Peace Bridge during the Book Fair for a gathering billed as ‘Voices from Two Sides of the Bridge.' No one got up to scream that we're not the same: Arab society where incitement and hatred reign is nothing like Israeli society where every popular song is a plea for peace. Neither did anyone rise to ask why Dorit Rabanyan's perspectives on peace merit any attention at all. Why not ask the sound man who fixed Rabanyan's microphone how he perceives peace? Moderator, Michael Naumann, former chief editor of Germany's leading newspaper Die Zeit, set us all straight. "Writers have a special responsibility to imagine different possibilities," he noted. But sadly, most Israeli writers today all come up with the same "possibilities."

That's what makes all the Israeli-Arab so called "cultural exchange" programs and panels so bland and uninteresting. The whole enterprise gives me an acute case of déjà vu. I find myself transported back twenty-five years or so to the days of the evil Soviet empire, when the Cold War was in full force. The Soviets used cultural exchange to avert attention from their human rights abuses and soften their image abroad. Month after month, American cities would be deluged with delegations from the Bolshoi Ballet, the Moscow Circus or the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra.

For those of us active in the Soviet Jewry movement to promote free emigration, the cultural visits provided an opportunity to try to publicize the plight of various individuals who had been arrested or harassed for courageous acts of dissent against the communist regime.

Invariably, American leftists would decry our efforts to speak out about human rights abuses, warning that we were disturbing the atmosphere of friendship and exchange and disrupting the warming of personal relations between Russians and Americans.

"The Russians are people just like us," the leftists would declaim. "They want peace too." Many of these well-meaning naïve Americans would head off for official visits to Soviet sister cities, where they'd meet with "counterparts" carefully vetted by the KGB, and come back to yell even louder against those who might mess up future exchanges by raising that pesky issue of Jewish emigration or freedom of religion.

It took years until Americans involved in the citizen's exchange movement realized that they'd been had. They never got to meet real Russians who could freely speak their minds and engage in true dialogue. Their "friends" were KGB fronts who filled their heads with Soviet propaganda and sent them back into their communities to spread the word. There were no Russians who returned to Moscow, Leningrad or Vladivostok proclaiming their love for America—they would end up in jail if they did so.

Back at the Bridge, it's discouraging to see a parallel of sorts percolating through Israeli intellectual elite circles. The goal of the ‘Voices' project was to bring together Palestinian, Jordanian, Turkish and Israeli writers for a literary exchange.

In fact what occurred was a gathering of Israelis--Jews and Arabs—with only two of the invited Palestinians and none of the Jordanians showing up. Organizer Deborah Harris, Israel's premier literary agent, was furious. With curious journalists nosing around for a story, rumors swirled about the reasons for the no-shows.

The Jordanian Writers Union had apparently nixed the travel plans of their fellow countrymen. Moderator Naumann announced that the Palestinian writers had received threatening phone calls from the Palestine Liberation Organization warning writers not to take part.

Swearing under her breath as she learned in the early morning that the writers she'd paid to appear had decided not to come, Harris valiantly juggled the panels to resemble some kind of interchange.

But the uniformity of opinions made for an all too predictable event. The fawning audience empowered the fiction authors to pontificate about their political views virtually unchallenged. Take Dorit Rabanyan, for instance.

Like several of her fellow panelists at the event, Rabanyan trotted out the despicable moral equivalency diatribe. She spoke of the reason she fled Tel Aviv for New York in the horrible spring of 2002. She couldn't take "the awful terrorism nor the IDF reaction to it..." she explained, as if the murder of civilians could be equated with Israel's strikes against the terrorist perpetrators. But Rabanyan is an author who writes about the superstitions of family life in 19th century Persia—is it reasonable to expect any moral clarity or political acuity from her?

Sami Michael, the controversial Iraqi-born Israeli author is a more seasoned political operator. The one time Communist Party member and chairperson of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) decried the "corruptive occupation," but chose not to repeat the assertion he made in an earlier magazine interview that he could understand the motivations of Hamas bombers who blew up "settlers."

In a vivid demonstration of how far out of touch with reality are the perceptions of the far left, Michael did succeed in making the most stunning statement of the conference. He told the attentive audience that included authors David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua, that Israeli writers who are staunch peace supporters "are forced to stay silent." Just Google Amos Oz, Yehoshua or Grossman and it will be apparent just how "silent" they are.

But when asked to expand on his comment, Michael replied that the other leftist authors are actually, "part of the establishment. The establishment needs the façade of progressive writers to put forward its point of view," he claimed. In the next breath, the 79 year old novelist tells me that when he put together a full page ad denouncing Israel's policy of targeted assassinations, Amos Oz made calls to other public figures to persuade them not to sign. It's a conspiracy theory worthy of the KGB.

One prominent Israeli writer who has the humility not to speak out on political matters is Aharon Appelfeld. Perhaps it's because he's not a sabra, like almost every other outspoken Israeli writer today. Appelfeld makes an intriguing observation about Israeli literature. The common Israeli experience, Appelfeld claims, is the immigrant experience. Even today, one out of every two Israelis is not native born, he asserts. It's that disorienting experience that we all share, says Appelfeld. "Feelings are not absorbed in a proper way." Yet, because of the difficulty of immigrants to express themselves in Hebrew, even those who have been in the country many years, literature is almost exclusively in the hands of sabras. "But the real Israeli experience is that of the immigrant--he is the main hero," Appelfeld asserts.

Appelfeld also views the role of art quite differently to many of his contemporaries. At the end of WWII Appelfeld says he was mute. He had avoided speaking with people for six years, because of the danger of his true identity being discovered. No matter, Appelfeld, recounts, "The unsaid in art is more important than that which is said."

Appelfeld, who may be seen every day writing longhand in a Jerusalem cafe, says, "Writing has nothing to do with ideas. It's the senses that lead to something. " Just like music and art rely completely on hearing and sight, literature "begins and ends with the senses. It never starts with an idea--I have to trust my senses," he concludes.

Prize-winning author and rabbi, Haim Sabato holds similar views. In his first novel, Adjusting Sights, Sabato invites the reader into the inner world of the young soldier during the period surrounding the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Sabato notes that most of the other books about the war are written from the strategic or political point of view--how the commanders and planners saw it. "But this book just poured out of me like a stream. " Like Appelfeld, Sabato's art relies on his senses. Thus despite his military and religious background, which in fact would qualify him more than most to assess the current situation, it's almost inconceivable that Sabato would follow the path of Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman who have all penned op eds in the New York Times on Israeli politics. Indeed, when was the last time Haim Sabato was invited to a cultural exchange conference even here in Israel to air his politicial views?

Perhaps Israeli life isn't yet ready for the notion that artists and writers should regard their political identities as wholly separate from their artistic ones. Perhaps it's a legacy of the early Zionist writers who were overwhelmingly socialist or even communist in their political leanings and couldn't resist using their work to press their worldview on the unenlightened. But in most Western societies, as soon as artists become political commentators, they cease to be viewed as artists in the full sense of the word.

Popular short-story writer Etgar Keret says he asks himself if writers can change the world. The answer is a resounding ‘no,' he states categorically. So this Book Week, see if you can enjoy the literature but ignore the politics.

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