Sunday, February 27, 2011

sons and lovers, the hebrew version (2009)

I read slowly, especially when I'm trying to do it in two languages, so it took me a couple of months to get through David Grossman's "To the End of the Land" (אשה בורחת מבשורה), which is 576 pages in English and even longer in the original. OK, I read it in English and only skimmed it for important passages in Hebrew: it's still long, and not an easy read on any number of levels. But it's worth the effort, because it tells more about Israel--and human beings generally--than anything else I've read in a long time, and leaves the reader with the profoundly disturbed sense that all serious literature leaves in its wake.

Like A.B. Yehoshua's "The Lover," which preceded it by 30 years, "To the End of the Land" is the story of a love triangle, in which an Israeli woman (Ora) is suspended between her husband (Ilan), a more or less stereotypical Israeli, and another man (Avram) who--while technically Israeli--is emotionally and psychologically closer to the Galut (Diaspora) Jews from whom most Israelis spring. Indeed the parallels are even spookier: both Avram and Gabriel, the title character in Yehoshua's book, have undergone serious and apparently irreversible transformations as a result of their experiences in the Sinai Desert during and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Avram was taken prisoner and tortured in ways that leave him scarred on numerous levels. (Gabriel was luckier and merely returned as a somewhat half-hearted Orthodox Jew.)

While "The Lover" book takes place during and immediately after the 1973 war,"To the End of the Land" takes place thirty years later, when the children of the 70s generation have grown up and have themselves gone off to war. The bulk of the book involves a seemingly endless hike that Ora takes with Avram after Ilan has left her and while their son, Ofer, is on a mission in the Occupied Territories: a walk Ora takes for the express purpose of avoiding any news about her son's fate (the Hebrew title means "a woman flees from [bad] news") and, it becomes clear, to re-humanize Avram with the story of Ofer's birth, upbringing, and transformation into a strong but also somewhat frightening young man. The power of the book lies not so much in the story as in the way it is told, with Grossman using the allegory as a way to investigate the meaning of Israeli identity and the relationship of men, women, and children on a more universal level.

Much of the press coverage of the book stems from the bitter reality that Grossman's own son, Uri, was killed in the Second Lebanon War as the book was being finished. In the book itself, however, it is unclear which Ora is more afraid of: that her son will be killed or that he will survive, in which case she will have to face the hard, violent edge her once frail and playful child has taken on. While this point is obviously exaggerated by the militarization of contemporary Israeli society--in one memorable scene Ora notes how her son's voice and vocabulary change when he calls from an Army base--there is also a wider theme of women, men, and motherhood, of the pain caused when boys inevitably distance themselves from their parents and assert their independence at their mothers' (and to some degree all women's) expense. (In another scene, Ofer mocks his mother's fear that he will be blown up at a checkpoint for suicide bombers: "That's my job," he dismisses her coldly.) Grossman's ability, as a man, to portray a woman's reality is especially impressive here: at one point Ora laments that she has spent her life as a "sponge" for the blood, tears, semen et al. of the men in her family, a lament that has surely been heard from many women a long way from Jerusalem.

Notwithstanding this universal appeal, at least two things stamp the book as profoundly Israeli in content. The first is language, much of which comes across in Jessica Cohen's brilliant translation, but some of which inevitably doesn't. Grossman loves word games, and there are games aplenty in the text. At one point, Ora gouges Avram's face and remarks that the act was מעשה ידיה להצטער (her handwork which she regrets), a clear play on מעשה ידי להתפאר (my handwork which pleases me), a Talmudic description of God's attitude toward human beings. A rather racier example is the author's creation of the word כיוס (literally to "vaginasize") as a sort of female equivalent of זיון (to screw but literally to "penisize") in colloquial Hebrew. Puns like this remind us that, no matter how secular Israeli writers are, they inevitably are part of a much broader tradition that--like Dante in Italy or Whitman in the United States--affects them even if they struggle to break away from it.

A further Israeli stamp is provided by the role of the Yom Kippur War, now almost 40 years old but still playing the same central literary role that it did in the 1970s. A question of subject arises here. Israel has fought a lot of different wars, and it tends to win most of them. So why are the early stages of the 1973 conflict, which is pretty much the only thing Israel lost, still so hotly debated, and why do two of the most famous Israelis novels--written more than three decades apart--both turn on it?

I think the answer relates to the Jewish/Israeli dichotomy with which I began this comment. Until 1973, Israelis believed that they had transcended Jewishness: that they had constructed a peculiarly "Israeli" identity that did not need the Disapora and that, in its extreme version, did not really need God or religion, either. The Egyptian crossing of the canal and the near collapse of the Syrian front, although reversed by later Israeli victories, shattered that sense of invincibility and in a sense reconnected Israel with the mainstream of Jewish history. That the Sinai was in a sense the birthplace of the Jewish people--Gabriel in The Lover has a powerful vision that the people arose from the Sinai and are now sinking back into it--and that the modern Egyptians (unlike their Biblical forebears) made it across the water unscathed, gives the Egyptian front a particular historic resonance.

The problem, of course, is that the shattering of one illusion inevitably leads to others. For Grossman and other secular intellectuals, the lesson of 1973 was the price of arrogance, and the need to make peace with Israel's Arab neighbors before it was too late. (Matti Ashkenazi, the moral forerunner of Peace Now, was the commander of the one stronghold (מעוז) on the canal that didn't fall to the Egyptians.) For those of a more religious/nationalist bent, the lesson was that Israel had gotten too far from God and tradition and needed to return to both. In a sense all subsequent Israeli politics is about the difference between these interpretations. The war was over in a few weeks, but forty years later we are still fighting about its meaning.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

israel, egypt, america

Everyone seems to be happy about Egypt's mini-revolution, except maybe Mubarak himself . . . and a lot of Israelis. The fear is that the smiles in Tahrir Square will eventually give rise to an Islamic-oriented Government that is even less fond of Israel than its predecessor, and potentially more willing to act on its dislike. The outgoing Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, said what many Israelis were thinking: in the Middle East stability is better than democracy--at the very least, it's better for our interests.

There's something to this, of course, but I think it's more of a mixed bag than many people think. For one thing, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was never based on love, but on self-interest. Having from its perspective won the last Egypt-Israel War, in 1973, Egypt has a lot to lose and not terribly much to gain from renewing it.

It's also not clear that democracy always works out badly for Israel. The most commonly cited example is Turkey, whose Islamic parties are less comfortable with Israel than its secular elite, and of course Iran, which turned sharply against Israel after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. But Iran isn't a democracy and--while Turkey often talks like an enemy--nobody really expects to see Turkish soldiers on Israel's border anytime soon. If it succeeds in creating an Islamic-influenced democracy, a la Turkey, and still maintaining a stable if less than friendly peace with Israel, Egypt might offer an alternative example for the entire Middle East, one ultimately not all bad from Israel's perspective.

If I were the Israeli prime minister, I would be less worried about the strategic threat than the political one. Thirty years ago most Americans saw the Middle East through Israeli eyes. Now Egypt is a fledgling democracy; Emirates is one of the world's largest airlines; and hundreds of thousands of Americans have served time in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan. In this situation many Americans--including some Jews--are already beginning to see the Middle East through Arab- rather than Israeli-colored glasses. TV and movies regularly picture Israelis as exotic, attractive, but not especially likable. Sooner or later, this kinds of stuff affects people's attitudes toward political questions, as well. Better to be feared the liked, one might respond; but are those the only two choices?