Reviews — From the January 2010 issue

Lines of Occupation

The post-Zionist poetics of Yitzhak Laor

( 5 of 6 )

Laor’s polemic engages divergences of East and West in two ways. He accuses his peers of advocating a vague peace in translation, in such forums as Le Monde and Die Zeit, then vociferously supporting recent incursions domestically, in Hebrew. He further accuses them of discriminating between putatively Eastern and Western influences within Israeli Jewry itself. Although Ashkenazim, or European Jewry, constitute a minority of Israelis, their traditions have always been privileged. Despite the presence of the Sephardim—Jews ingathered from Arab lands, for whom Arabic was a primary language—culture for Israel still means Kultur, the cult of Bildung: Beethoven, Rembrandt, Goethe, with maybe a Russian or two, or Marx, included for good measure. This primacy, in turn, is evinced as the subject of most exported Israeli fiction—how European “we” are, how well-educated, how polished. Israeli writers like to mention that Tel Aviv boasts the highest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world.

According to Laor, it is precisely this identification with the West that allows Oz and Yehoshua to be perceived as “liberals,” perhaps even to be “liberals,” yet to distort the facts mercilessly: Oz claiming in the foreign press that the Camp David accords failed because Yasir Arafat insisted on being granted the Right of Return (the right of Palestinians to return to confiscated lands, which critics rightly fear would overrun the country and outpopulate the Jews), whereas Laor (and subsequent intelligence) claims it was because Israel refused to negotiate shared custodianship of Jerusalem; Yehoshua insisting on a binational Pax Semitica, even while recommending an embargo on Gaza and justifying sanctions against the West Bank, agitating in Haaretz in 2004 for “not a desired war, but definitely a purifying one. A war that will make it clear to the Palestinians that they are sovereign,” and threatening “all the rules of war will be different . . . we will make use of force against an entire population.”

By contrast with the Ashkenazi, Israel’s Sephardi or Mizrahi (“Eastern”) majority are largely absent from Israeli fiction, even from that of writers born to Mizrahi families, like Yehoshua, whose mother was born in Morocco and whose father’s people have lived in Jerusalem for five generations. Laor takes Yehoshua to task for disavowing his heritage, and he censures Oz, born Amos Klausner, son of a renowned Russian family of Judaic scholars, for writing novels that praise Jewish Europe, or Jewish Europeans in Israel, while ignoring a sizable swath of his country’s demographic.

Laor—whose own father, a Galician immigrant to Germany, changed his surname from Laufer upon emigration to Palestine—is particularly perplexed by Oz, a writer who denies his origins in life yet cleaves to them on the page, eulogizing in his memoir, _A Tale of Love and Darkness, _those Jewish “Europhiles, who could speak so many of Europe’s languages, recite its poetry, who believed in its moral superiority.” Oz does this, Laor maintains, to make a statement about the qualifications of the victims of Nazism, despite the fact that most of the Jews the Nazis exterminated were far from being urban poetasters or linguists. Just as wherever Jewish literary history is discussed the Yiddish of Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz is emphasized over the Arabic of Jewish writers like Anwar Shaul and Murad Michael, in popular iconography the image of a Lubavitcher rabbi appears intimately bound to that of Einstein, or Freud. To Laor, these reductions and lacunae imply a schizophrenia, a desperate reinforcement of older, weaker Jewishness as a stereotype of both what to venerate and never to be, commingled with a racist fear of Arabness that resolves itself in the institution of a synthetic Israeli identity.

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