The lecture I will deliver today is a part of a larger project dedicated to the engagement with history in contemporary literature. More specifically, I am focusing in this study on how narrative prose deals with decisive, traumatic events of the recent past. My concern is with what I am calling “telling times,” the literary invocation of historical events in the wake of recent historical occurrences of great magnitude; events that seem to challenge our ability to account for the past—most distinctly (though not exclusively), in the wake of the Holocaust. Contemporary literature fascinated with recent history is characterized, I claim, by the challenge of facing unprecedented moments of upheaval and, at the same time, by the crucial shifts in Western thought we have come to call the “linguistic turn.” Writing on critical historical events thus involves, for the works I am studying, both thematizing the past and considering the very act of historical narration; both offering an image of decisive historical events, and a direct or implied awareness of narrative prose as a verbal act, an active intervention in the present. To be clear from the outset: I do not wish to extend on the work in literary studies that focuses on trauma and memory. Instead, my approach aims to shift emphasis to the question of how literature, in employing distinctive figurative choices, extends existing vocabularies and thus acts, performs—how literature is not only retrospective, but prospective, as well. [Richard Rorty, literature as a mode of ‘imaginative redescription’]
I could say more on the modes and reasons for these more general concerns in the discussion. My talk today, however, centers on the ways in which they emerge in contemporary Hebrew literature—which also is a major focus of my book. I would therefore like; with your permission, to “zoom in.”
I: Writing the Unsaid
Anyone observing the landscape of modern Israel would soon notice the abundance of obvious and concealed sites of memory. Ruins, memorials, museums, and archeological gardens dominate the country’s topography, turning the material surface of this narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley into a vast open-air museum of world history featuring thousands of years of human culture.
Many of Israel’s significant sites of memory—Massada, the Western Wall, and Tel Hai, to name only a few—invoke more than a single period, and stand thus for the complexity of Israel’s Zeitschichten, or temporal layering, to use Reinhart Koselleck’s metaphor: They are the materiality through which individuals and groups perceive and make sense of the past. Never a mere “surface” covering a “deeper” sense, Israel’s natural and urban topography is—to borrow W. J. T. Mitchell’s reflection on landscape—“both a representation and presented space . . . both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside the package.”1
In recent decades, the contested perceptions and uses of the Israeli landscape have been the subject of much scholarly interest and dispute. In most cases, attention has been focused on historiography and on architecture and their political implications2. In this lecture, I would like to examine how Hebrew literature traces the changing landscape of Israel as the spatial site of the events that we have come to know as the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem: in other words, how Hebrew prose, through figurative constellations, relates to the exodus of Palestinians in the course of 1948 and its consequences in the following decades. As I will show, it is primarily through “literary topographies”—spatial images, and allegorical constellations such as ruins, groves, and forests, that the existing image of the past is extended3. The literary engagement with these topographies, I claim, emerges at the intersection of the two vectors always at work in historical narratives that we may call with Reinhart Koselleck “the space of experience” and the “horizon of expectation”: In imagining the contours of the space of experience—what had occurred or might have occurred at a ruin, for example, the narratives I will present were written vis-à-vis their time’s horizon of expectation, that is, they were informed by and at times informed Zionist or contra-Zionist ideologies and notions regarding the future4.
Literary topographies such as the kibbutz or the first modern Jewish city—Tel-Aviv—were always part and parcel of what Gershon Shaked described as the Zionist “metanarrative”: the notion that Zionism would bring the Jewish people to an empty landscape and transform them from a diasporic entity into a modern and self-sufficient national body5. Only around the so-called Arab riots of 1929 did the fact that the land was neither empty nor waiting to be redeemed by Zionism slip through. It was then that the ramifications of the conflict over the land become evident in Hebrew literature, giving rise to works more conscious of the contestation occurring over the land6.
The 1948 War of Independence resulted in the creation of the state of Israel, but also brought with it the most decisive chapter to date in the struggle over Eretz Israel or Palestine: the flight and expulsion of the country’s Palestinian population (figures vary from 700 to 800 thousand people)7. Regardless of what concretely led to the Palestinians’ departure, the image of columns of Palestinian refugees going into exile would haunt the Jewish state and—in different, evolving ways—its literature.
Known, yet often avoided or repressed, the flight and expulsion of Palestinians would become for Israeli cultural discourse a central unsaid. By unsaid I wish to mark what is only implicitly (if at all) referred to: the outskirts of both shared and individual consciousness. Writing the unsaid means firstly the thematic encoding of the forgotten or repressed guilt of “1948.” It implies, in fact, that while the Jewish population endured the threat of defeat, losing one percent of its population, “1948” also marks the exodus of Palestinians from pre-state Palestine and its human and political consequences8. […]
…one of the most interesting novels published in Israel in recent years—Michal Govrin’s Hevzekim (Snapshots). As the title suggests, Govrin opts for a narrative that avoids the very notion of a consistent whole. Evoking Israel’s temporal layers—from “1948” to “1967” and 1973—side by side with fictional and autobiographical narrative threads, Hevzekim is written intransitively, in Roland Barthes’ sense9. Like the work of Proust or Claude Simon, it captures the contemporaneity of what is “inside” and “outside” the text, and calls upon the reader to engage with it in a productive manner—to question and reorder the historical, to pull the different temporal layers apart and bring them together anew10.
The image that nevertheless emerges is that of the protagonist, the leftist architect Ilana Zuriel, as she deals with her oedipal relation to her father and, through him to the utopias of his generation. She also must deal with her attraction to the Palestinian actor and producer Sa’id Ashabi. Sa’id is a theater director and Zuriel’s partner in an architectural-theatrical production, “Har ha’shemitah hu-moshevet ha-sukkot,” (the mountain of Shemittah and tabernacle colony) set to be completed in Jerusalem of the early 1990s11. Aiming at the creation of a structural design following “a particular, Jewish architecture” and bringing it into dialog with Palestinian experiences and Muslim lines of thought, the tabernacle colony is set against Jerusalem’s “holy stone fortresses”, thus performing a reinscription of space in a manner diametrically opposing the mythologies of Godly promise in the vein of the messianic settler movement of post-1967 Israel.
While the tropes of the ruin and the grove so decisive in the work of Yizhar and Yehoshua indicated an interest in encoding “1948” as the crypt of Israeli statehood, Zuriel’s project aims at adding on to space a new, futural element; one that is based on the ancient Judaic concept of Shemitah—literally, “letting go.”12 Shemitah is the religious command that maintains that every seventh year, “the land must keep Sabbath unto the Lord” and lie fallow (Lev. 25.2)—that humans do not own the land, but only maintain it under divine guidance13. Beyond offering a poetic figure of the past, Zuriel’s artifice thus wants not only to ask how we got to where we are, but also and perhaps much more where we can go from here. The utopian Israeli-Palestinian colony of tabernacles should offer individuals and groups the opportunity to spend the symbolic time-cycle of a week “to study, debate, reflect, remember. And eat and drink, pray or sing, make love”.14 The tabernacles, the sukkot, should be at the center of a notion of a space outside the domestic confines, a place in which, as every year on the holiday of Sukkot, ushpizin (guests) are welcome—a place in which ‘letting go’ rather than ‘holding on’ is literally carried out.
Refusing to be “crushed under the press of history,” Zuriel’s utopian vision echoes the post-Zionist discourse of the 1980s and 1990s. It dedicates much space to making a place for Said, for Palestinian personal and national fate, in her own mental and verbal dwelling. What separates Govrin’s narrative from the often simplistic metanarrative of post-Zionism, however, is her avoidance of a polarized stylization of Zionism as European colonialism driven by the wish to subjugate “the other,” on the one hand, and of the Palestinians as the mere object of ruthless Zionist aggression, on the other15.
Aware of her protagonist’s utopianism, Michal Govrin concludes Hevzekim with the failure of the performative project and thus gives clear indication of the boundaries of holistic ideologies in the age of “posthistory.” In mobilizing seemingly nonnegotiable narratives in one and the same textual space, it nevertheless becomes the Sukkah (the tabernacle) it allegorically sketched: From the front cover to the back cover, weaving conflicted narratives and architectural-spatial images into one literary whole, Hevzekim becomes the nonredemptive space where the threads of history are both held together and fall apart, a space in which readers can reflect upon the suggested imagery and idioms of letting go.
Admitting the Palestinian memory into the Hebrew text, into the Israeli dwelling, Hevzekim exceeds the realm of representation to become a mode of prospective engagement. Israelis “ought” to remember and acknowledge the Palestinian narrative, Hevzekim seems to imply, not only because they should admit those aspects of their past that had been unjust to Palestinians but also because the acknowledgment of the existence of another narrative in the same geographical space, is bound to reduce the suffering of those whose story had been unrecognized. Engaging in a discourse of space broader than that of ancestral inheritance, Hevzekim implies, is bound to make Israelis more sensible in the sense offered by Avishai Margalit in his Ethics of Memory: It cannot contribute to the anyway unfeasible restitution of pre-Israel Palestinian existence, yet it can acknowledge Palestinian suffering and thus, perhaps, help reduce the humiliation caused by forgetting16.
Even if the notion of the literary implied in Hevzekim seems somewhat beyond the humble scope of literature, I believe in the power of such narratives of times past to utter, to write the unsaid—to make present both what one might wish to leave outside the realm of awareness and to open up the work as a space of reflection on ethical and political concerns. In crossing the lines separating past, present, and future, they indicate the interrelatedness of all temporal realms in the human unconscious and in human consciousness. While encoding and encrypting the traumatic past, they also stand for the best of what Richard Rorty sees as our “literary culture”—a culture that is replacing the centuries-old “philosophical culture” and its search for finite truths with literature’s ability to cause its readers to rethink previously held “judgments”—to go back in time, yet prospectively17. If the novel (“literary culture”) might help us in grasping the contingencies of our lives and “our own moral vocabulary,” as Rorty suggests, narratives such as those presented here expand our view of the life-worlds we inhabit, and, potentially, allow us to imagine inhabiting them in a different manner18 Offering what Rorty terms an “imaginative redescription” of our present, they are—much like Govrin’s tabernacle colony—textual spaces in which the reader is capable of (yet not forced to) engaging in a process of reevaluating the constitution of the present for the sake of the future19. Through biblical allusion, irony, metaphor and complex allegory they allow us to consider prospectively—without offering a political roadmap—such future-oriented issues as the role of ethnically-grounded ideology in Zionist discourse in allowing or preventing inhuman actions against Palestinians and others. The result might be—dare we say it—to think of literature and other modes of artistic production as supplementing, in their distinctive, non-subsumable manner—the desperately needed diplomatic efforts, by imagining and then courageously re-imagining an Israeli-Palestinian future with less humiliation and less suffering on both sides of the political divide20.
On the manners in which landscapes signify and thus do that is symbolize, used and abuse, see W. J. T. Mitchell (ed.), Landscape and Power (second edition, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press 1994/2002). The sentences quoted here are from W. J. T. Mitchell’s opening essay, „Imperial Landscape,“ ibid 5-5-34, here 5.
I will come to discuss the debate within historiography at a later point. As for the architectural dimension of space re-inscription in Israel/Palestine, see, for example, Eyal Weizman, “The Politics of Verticality: The West Bank as Architectural Construction,” in Klaus Biesenback, Anselm Franke, Rafi Segal, Eyal Weizman (ed.), Territories. Islands, Camps, and other States of Utopia (Berlin: KW—Institute for Contemporary Art/Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2003), 65-118. The entire volume collects essays dedicated to different aspects of architectural practices as political statements and the usage of architecture to re-inscribe meanings into the space of the West Bank. Daniel Bertrand Monk analyses in An Aesthetic Occupation. The Immediacy of Architecture and the Palestine Conflict (Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2002) the political uses of historical signification and its implications in the cycle of violence in Palestine/Israel. Stones, monuments, and landscape seem to have gained, as Monk’s analysis shows, a life of their own. Monk is especially interested in Jerusalem and the ways the city is transcended and abused in the contemporary political discourse. Karen Armstrong observes a persistence of an archaic understanding of images, holy sites and symbols which constitute an “underlying current” of the modern experience of Jerusalem. For the members of the “cult” of Jerusalem, the city has become bound up with their conception of themselves. (Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem. One City three Faiths (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 6. Rashid Khalidi claims that the historical construction of Palestinian national consciousness and says, “it is easy to see why Jerusalem should have been the touchstone of identity for all the inhabitants of Palestine in the modern era as in the past.” (Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 35. Meron Benvenisti claims that the supposed redemptive criterion of historical consiousness described by Khalidi is nothing more than “a gigantic quarry from which each side [Palestinians and Israelis] has mined stones for the construction of its myths—and for throwing at each other.” Meron Benvenisti, City of Stones. The Hidden History of Jerusalem, trans. Maxine Kaufman Nunn (Berkeley: Uiniversity of Califonia Press, 1996), 4. Following the template of Eric Hobsbawm and Pierre Nora, Monk regards Khalidi and Benvenisti and others as examples of the “reification of history” and “a prolonged history of reifications.” (Monk, 8) and thus studies/analyses the history of Jerusalem as a lieux de memoire or an “invented tradition” with uncanny manifestations and implications.
From its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, Zionist culture relied heavily on the stratification of meaning in space, and emphasized the contemporaneity of the noncontemporaneous in signified loci in Palestine/Eretz Israel. Building both on elements from the archive of Jewish cultural memory—the bible, Mishna, Jewish liturgy and literature—and on European Romanticism in its fascination with the Orient, early Zionist culture rejected Judaism’s millennia long acceptance of the exilic condition and projected into the space of Palestine-Eretz Israel a modern, its vision of a Jewish national renaissance. The Zionist meta-narrative was based on the notion that it is in and through this old-new space, where Jews shared a collective history before becoming scattered through exile and persecution, that they will now be reunited and become bound again by a unified, cohesive entity. On Hebrew literature in its participation in the creation of this meta narrative see Hannan Hever, “Mapping Literary Spaces: Territory and Violence in Israeli Literature,” in: Laurence J. Silberstein, Mapping Jewish Identities (New York/London: New York University Press, 2000), 201-219, here 203.Early Zionist artists and writers who in their work engaged with space and with place amalgamated ancient Jewish culture from the period of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine with a potent, modern ‘Hellenic’ aesthetics, romanticist in origins and ‘Orientalistic’ in its approach. On Zionist Orientalism and its birth from European Romanticism see Ariel Hirschfeld, “Locus and Language: Hebrew Culture in Israel 1890-1990,” in David Biale (ed.), Cultures of the Jews. A New History (New York: Schoken Books, 2002), 1011-1058, here 1012-1013. The meta-narrative guiding this cultural blend contained several crucial elements. It assumed a Jewish national return to the birthplace of Jewish civilization in Palestine while deemphasizing Jewish life in exile during the middle ages and the early modern age and rejecting the diaspora as a form of valid Jewish existence. The biblical narrative describing the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt became the foundational myth of the old-new nation—the first exodus in what was conceived and narrated as continuing in the modern age through the exodus of the Jewish population from Eastern and Western Europe. European Jewry was to become the old-new Israelites. In this narrative, the image of Palestine or Eretz Israel was that of an empty terrain lightly populated with nomads—a land waiting to be redeemed by European indeed Jewish intellect and vigor.
Reinhart Koselleck, “’Space of Experience’ and ‘Horizon of Expectation’”: Two Historical Categories,” in Reinhart Koselleck, Future Pasts. On the Semantics of Historical Times trans. Keith Treib (Massachusetts/London: MIT Press 1985), 267-288.)
Gershon Shaked, “Ha’siporet ve’siper ha’al hazioni: ha’siport ha’ivrit be’hitmodedut dialectit im metziut mishtanah,” in: Anit Shapira (ed.), Atzmaut. 50 ha’shanim ha’rishonot [Independence. The First Fifty Years] (Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center, 1998), 487-512, here 488. In her detailed analysis of contemporary Israeli Arab and Jewish literature, especially in its relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rachel Feldhay Brenner sees a direct relation between the discourse of “she’lilat ha’golah” the negation of the diaspora that is of legitimacy for Jewish life in the diaspora and the ideological emphasis on the necessity of immigration to Palestine as closely related to the reference to Palestine as an “empty land”—a reference which later becomes a blindness to the fact that Palestinians lived in Palestine for centuries before the rise of Zionism. The new Jewish identity embodied in early Zionist discourse was to be built on the erasure of Jewish life in the Diaspora—its culture, achievements and possibilities—through referring to Diaspora Jewry as the modern reincarnation of biblical Israelites wondering through the desert. The Zionist arriving in Palestine were viewed as redeeming the promised ‘empty’ land and as the first generation of modern Jewish redemption as such. See Rachel Feldhay Brenner, Inextricably Bonded: Israeli Arab and Jewish Writers Re-Visioning Culture (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press 2003, pp. 6 and pp. 19. On the Nietzschean characteristics of the “new Hebrew” or “new Jew” discourse, see David Ohana, “Zarathustra in Jerusalem: Nietzsche and the ‘New Hebrews’,” Israel Affairs, Volume 1, Number 3, Spring 1995 (Special Issue: The Shaping of Israeli Identity: Myth, Memory and Trauma edited by Rober Wistrich and David Ohana), pp. 38-60 "
See on this period, Ariel Hirschfeld, “Locus and Language: Hebrew Culture in Israel 1890-1990,” in David Biale (ed.), Cultures of the Jews. A New History (New York: Schoken Books, 2002), 1011-1058, here pp. 1018.
The question, to what extent did the young Israeli state, in the course of the 1948 War of Independence expelled and/or enforced the flight of some 700-800 thousand Palestinians outside what will later become the ceasefire-borders of is surely among the most contentious in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is not my aim here to try to offer an accurate account of these events, and I doubt to what extent such an account might ever be possible. While Israeli historians (and I will restrict myself to them in this work) vary in their presentation of the events from those who accept the claim that the vast majority of Palestinians fled the land in the course of a war which was imposed on Israel and because of their fear of atrocities or living under Zionist rule, others, mostly known as “postzionist” or “new” historians, see the Palestinian exodus as the result of the clear trajectory within Zionism—a course leading directly from colonial, “Orientalist,” national-chauvinistic ideologies to the planed, and then carefully carried out act of expulsion, in fact, ethnic cleansing. On the span of such presentations, see, for example, the supportive overview of postzionist “debates” offered in Laurence J. Silberstein, The Postzionism Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture (New York/London: Routledge, 1999), 89-126, the critique of such approaches representatively summarized in Anita Shapira, “The Past is not a Foreign Country: The Failure of Israel’s ‘new historians’ to explain war and peace.” (The New Republic, November 29, 1999) or the more polemic yet contextualizing critique of Postzionism of Gadi Taub, in his “Postzionut—ha’kesher ha’zarfati-amerikai-yisraeli” (Postzionism—the French-American-Israeli Connection), in Tuvia Friling, An Answer to a Post-Zionist Colleague (Tel-Aviv: Yediot Aharonot/Hemed, 2003), 224-242. The significance of ideology and present- and future-oriented trajectories for both poles of the postzionist debates are all too obvious. On the ‘postzionist’ side, we find the basic conviction that the source of what is seen as overwhelmingly obvious expulsion of Palestinians lies, inherently, in nationalism in its modern Jewish version. The only way to approach the past and the only remedy for the present is in proceeding to a postnational age in which one doesn’t need the rituals of nation, and nationalism as such is overcome. The solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will thus inevitably be within a bi-national future state. On the other hand, historians skeptical regarding the arrival of a post-national age and those who hold on to Zionism emphasize Zionism’s justification in expressing the Jewish right of national self-definition as well as the difficulties in convincing individuals with national believes of the ‘contractedness’ of their ultimately ‘false’ consciousness. They thus reject postcolonial and post-national depictions of the past (i.e. the emphasis on ‘expulsion’ rather then ‘flight’) and plea for a solution of the Palestinian refugees’ problem through the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. On the manners in which the presentation of the past (flight/expulsion) relates to the present day political debate, see for example, Nissim Kalderon, “Post-zionut al reka ribuy tarbuyot be-yisrael (Postzionism on the backdrop of multiculturalism in Israel),” in Tuvia Friling, An Answer to a Post-Zionist Colleague (Tel-Aviv: Yediot Aharonot/Hemed, 2003), 173-223. To be sure, the struggle between these camps bears not only meaning for historians and academicians but has quite acute political implications, since accepting or rejecting a narrative of ‘mostly expulsion’ or one of ‘mostly flight’ implies clear political circumstances. After all, the very issue of “the right of return” of those who had fled/were expelled and their decedents is at the heart of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hence, narratives of the past are in this case almost immediately translatable—either back into ideological and political premises regarding nationalism/Zionism or in regard to the future and possible, ‘historically grounded’ solutions for the future which are based on the manners in which the Palestinian ‘departure’ from Palestine occurred: narratives which emphasize flight imply less responsibility (if at all) for the state of Israel vis-à-vis exiled Palestinians. Such narratives see in the Palestinian exodus the result of a war which was not initiated by Zionist Jews and thus its in its results the liability of Palestinians and Israel’s 1948 Arab adversaries. Narratives emploted along the lines of expulsion clearly follow the meta-historical, philosophical premises of nationalism critique along the lines of Foucault’s analysis of power and knowledge and Benedict Anderson’s redescription of national entities as “imagined” communities (see, for example, Uri Ram, “Postnationalist Past: The Case of Israel,” in Jeffrey K. Olick (ed.), States of Memory: Continuities, Conflicts, and Transformations in National Retrospection (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, 227-258. Significantly, historians on both sides of this spectrum are also participating in the contemporary debate regarding the genealogy of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and possible ways to solve it. Those who emphasize flight rather than expulsion, side with a ‘national’ solution to the refugee’s problem: the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders should be the subject of negotiation and the resolution of the refugee’s problem within the borders of the future Palestinian state. On the other hand, those who emphasize expulsion would like Israel to overcome its ‘nationalist’ infancy and proceed to a post-national future marked by a bi-national Israel—the state of all its citizens, including of the returning Palestinians. On such future-oriented readings of Israel’s present, see, for example the Postzionism-supportive presentation of Laurence J. Silberstein, Postzionism Debates: Knowledge and Power in Israeli Culture New York/London: Routledge, 1999) 165-209. While any attempt to try to settle the debate or even present an image of what might have happened in the course of the 1948 War of Independence would be rather presumptuous for a literary critic like myself, I would like to emphasize what seems today rather obvious in regard to the question of flight and expulsion: Pre-1948 Palestine had been the site of a harsh conflict between Palestinians and Jews—a conflict which resulted from conflicting, contradicting ownership-claims, dating from a Jewish-Zionist perspective back to antiquity, and from a Palestinian context to the recent centuries. In their de-emphasis of the historical conditions of Zionist beginnings in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, all attempts to present the Zionist endeavor teleologically as a Western, imperialist project seem rather oblivious if not tendentious. At the same time, presenting pre-state Zionist Ideology and practices as free of all questionable nationalist elements is bound to appear as beautifying. Zionist seemed to have toyed with the idea of resolving the tensions between Jews and Palestinians in the future Jewish state through population transfer. (see Benny Morris, “For the record, “The Guardian, January 14, 2004 and Anita Shapira’s redescription in “The Past is not a Foreign Country: The Failure of Israel’s ‘new historians’ to explain war and peace.” (The New Republic, November 29, 1999) As Morris underlines, the possibility of “transfer” “had never translated into an expulsion masterplan; there was no such plan or policy in the course of 1948. Indeed, as late as March 24 1948, the high command of the Haganah had instructed all its units to recognize “the full rights, needs and freedom of the Arabs in the Jewish state without discrimination, and a striving for coexistence with freedom and respect.” (ibid) In the course of the war, and especially from April of 1948, either because of what Morris calls Zionist “‘transfer’-thinking” or what Shapira calls (Anita Shapira, “The Past is not a Foreign Country”) “panic” and the growing ‘admissibility” and ‘attractively’ of the idea of a large-scale Palestinian exodus had, nevertheless, translated into actions taken by Jewish officers and officials—actions which resulted in the forceful expulsion of many Palestinians—we would never know for sure how many—from towns and villages. In the ensuing months, and in the course of a war which was fought throughout the territory of British mandate Palestine—that is in minimal proximity to Jewish villages and cities which were the target of attacks by their Palestinian neighboring communities—many Palestinians were indeed expelled from their homes. The War of Independence, al-naqba (Arabic, the Catastrophe) or ‘1948’ marks these decisive, morally complex indeed partly questionable actions, and what is surely the deplorable cases of pillage, rape and execution of prisoners of war as well as what Morris calls “small- and medium-scale massacres of Arabs.” (ibid) As Morris and others have shown, the birth of the Palestinian refugees’ problem remain, however, also the result of mass voluntary flight or Arab-states encouraged departure of Palestinians—in many cases accompanied by the assurance of a soon return, that is after the final defeat of the Zionist population. The traumatic events of ‘1948’ encompass thus both the measureless sufferings of Palestinians forced into exile, or departing to what they thought would be temporary exile and the shame and self-doubt which became the lot of at least some Jewish soldiers and of segments of Zionist discourse. It is important to note that my discussion does not indicate a complete juxtaposition of Jewish-Zionist culpability versus absolute Palestinian innocence nor an acceptance of the assumption that Zionism itself is the ultimate cause of Palestinian sufferings, and thus a questioning if not a complete rejection of the very idea of a Jewish nationalism. The exile and immense ensuing sufferings of Palestinians are the result of a conflict which at more than one point in 1948 and thereafter led to actions with devastating human implications. While it is important to know whatever is possible regarding these occurrences—their preconditions, course and outcome—it remains clear to me that the very notion of Jewish nationalism is not negated by these events. At the same time, I am convinced of the significance of acknowledging and remembering the questionable acts involved in the 1948 War of Independence. The literature presented in this chapter, I believe, is just one medium for what remains a significant endeavor for Israelis and Zionists living outside the borders of Israel. On the issues of expulsion and flight see both, Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and the more contextualized accounts of the events leading to expulsion and flight (including of the so-called ‘Arab riots’ in his Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-2001 with a new final chapter (New York: Vintage 2001), 121-259. Readers interested in other manners to redescribe this past should certainly confront Morris’s accounts with Efraim Karsh, The Arab-Israeli Conflict. The Palestine 1948 War (Oxford: Osprey, 2002) and his critical account of the “new historians,” in Fabricating Israeli History: The ‘New Historians’ (London: Frank Cass, 1997).
The topic of Palestinian flight and expulsion in Hebrew literature had been discussed in a variety of studies during the last decades, though usually from the larger perspective of the Arab-Israeli conflict thematics. Recent accounts include Gilead Morahg, “New Images of Arabs in Israeli Fiction,” Prooftexts 6:2 (1986): 147-62, Menakhem Perry, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Metaphor in Recent Israeli Fiction,” Poetics Today 7:4 (1986): 603-19. A more comprehensive account is offered in Gila Ramras-Rauch, The Arab in the Israeli Literature (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 1989) and Rachel Feldhay Brenner, Inextricably Bonded: Israeli Arab and Jewish Writers Re-Visioning Culture (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press 2003. A detailed presentation of the issue of fight and expulsion, including significant references to Hebrew poetry is offers in a larger essay, “Anu kotvim otach moledet” (homeland, we are writing you) by the writer Yitzhak Laor (in Yitzhak Laor, Anu kotvim otach moledet [Narratives with no Natives: Essays on Israeli Literature] Tel-Aviv: Kibbutz Meuchad, 1995), 115-170. Written, however, in an ardent ‘engaged’ idiom, much of Laor’s account is so politicized that the aesthetic and poetic specificities of the literary often completely give way to the works’ assumed political subtext.
Mike Bal describes Proust’s writing practices in a manner resembling what we fine in Govrin referring to the “ontology of snapshot.” Cf. Bal, “The Gaze in the Closet,” 143-144.
Barthes, "To Write: An Intransitive Verb" (1966).
Govrin clearly goes in this narrative beyond what the generation of Dor ha’medinah (erotic fascination along the lines of national territoriality) was set on. On the difference between Govrin’s fantasy of an Israeli-Palestinian relationship and those of Amos Oz (Nomads and Viper (1962)) or A. B. Yehoshua (in The Lover (1977)), see Yohai Openheimer’s review of Michal Govrin’s Hevzekim, “Ha’haim ha’kfulim shel ha’utopia” (“The Double Life of the Utopia”), Haaretz 5. Juni 2002.
The reference to the ruin of the Palestinian village as the crypt Israeli statehood follows the psychoanalytical discourse surrounding the wolf man. Following and expending Freud, the discourse of the crypt emphasizes the crypt as the site/place of mourning and of a repressed and potentially violent knowledge. On the concept and discourse of the crypt, see Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Wold Man’s Magic World. A Cryponomy trans. Nicholas Rand, forward by Jacques Derrida (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1976.
According to the concept of shemitah, whatever grows on the land is designated in the seventh year ownerless to which all enjoy equal rights with the owner. The Jewish notion of Shemittah goes back to the Biblical accord that every seventh year “the land must keep Sabbath unto the Lord” (Lv. 25.2) and lie fallow: whatever grows on it is designated ownerless (hefqer) to which all enjor equal rights with the owner. The agricultural value of this command is accompanied by a decisive symbolism: Shemittah indicates that humans do not own the land but only maintain it under divine guidance. Every fifty years, after seven Shemittah-cycles of seven years each, one counts the Yovel year. At this occasion, both the forty-ninth and fiftieth year are holy. During this period, one should abstain from agricultural work, free the slaves, and let purchased properties return to their original tribal owners. The Shemittah cycle is similar to the yearly cycle of the Omer culminating in Shavuot, in which human beings to acknowledge the supernatural realm, the Yovel year indicates the difference between human versus natural history. Cf. “Shemittah,” in R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, Geoffrey Wigoder (ed.), The Oxford dictionary of the Jewish religion (New York : Oxford University Press, 1997), 631-632. The Sukkah is a booth or a tabernacle to be dwelled in for seven days “in order that your generations may know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in tabernacles when I brought them out of Egypt (Lv. 23. 42-43). The Sukkah must be a temporary structure its roof covered with cut vegetation and open to the sun. According to Kabbalistic tradition, it is customary to welcome in the Sukkah ushpizin, guests. Hence the days of dwelling in the Sukkah during the holiday of Sukkot are days of hospitality. Cf. “Sukkot,” in R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, Geoffrey Wigoder (ed.), The Oxford dictionary of the Jewish religion, 659-660.
In an essay written at the height of the Al-Aksa Intifada, Michal Govrin herself views the biblical narrative of the binding of Isaac as the literary expression of a symbolic shift from the archaic sacrifice-drive to the monotheistic humane understanding of worshiping through exchange. She sees in this symbolism of exchange a way to move forward in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In her poetic reading of the situation, the tragic dimension of the struggle over Palestine is to be located back to a meta-historical triangle in which Muslims, Christians and Jews are entangled in their desire to hold on and possess the Holy Land. The consequences of this triangle are reflected in the continuing sacrifice of life on the altar of the land—the altar of possession. The only way out of this entanglement, so Govrin, is through “escaping the impulse of sacrifice, victimhood, and murder…,” through the reciprocal acceptance of the right of all participants in the Palestine drama to be attached to the same space and attribute to it their communal narratives and beliefs. In order to break the cycle of violence which results from the translation of these beliefs into political praxis, one should develop a notion of shared rather than exclusively owned space, one that is based on accepting “a substitute sacrifice and reparations in exchange for grief, harm and shame” involved in the outcome of the struggle: the exile of Palestinians from their homeland. According to Govrin, substitute sacrifice and reparations are the only way out of a lose-lose situation in which Israelis reject the materialization of the Palestinian “right of return” because this would ultimately lead to the end of the Jewish state and the Palestinians keep on rejecting Israel as a Jewish state because this recognition would lead to their factual ‘letting go’ of the ‘right of return’—of the era of pre-1948 Palestine. See, Michal Govrin, “Life in Jerusalem,” in Partisan Review 2/ 2003, VOLUME LXX NUMBER 2 OR Martyrs and Survivors? Thoughts on the Mythical Dimension of the Story War,” in???
A narrative along these lines is offered, for example, in Baruch Kimmerling, Zionism and Territory: The Socio-Territorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics (Berkeley, University of California Press 1983), Gershon Shafir, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987), Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (New York: Pantheon, 1987), and in Ilan Pappe, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-51 (London: I.B.Tauris, 1992).
Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 104-106.
Rorty, „Redemption from egotism: James and Proust as spiritual exercises” (manuscript), 2.
Richard Rorty, „Redemption from egotism: James and Proust as spiritual exercises” (manuscript), 2. ON Egotism as “self-satisfaction,” see ibid, 8.
Following R. Rorty, my claim in refereeing to the narratives at the center of this chapter as offering an “imaginative redescription” is that they are not intent on nor imply arriving at a finite description of gone times. Rather, these narratives signal the expansion of existing ‘descriptions’. It is not that they are set on changing the existing image of what had happened but rather that their account exceeds current historical representation and expends the current pool of images we posses. What their redescription thus implies is the possibility of breaking away from the given, prevalent image, from inherited positions and notions regarding the past and thus the going beyond rigid consensus about collective convictions concerning marked events of history. Following Richard Rorty, I would like to suggest that these narratives hardly have or should have a certain pedagogical, political or ethical ‘mission’, but rather that they are capable—through thematics, narrative strategies and figurative choices—to allow the reader to move beyond existing descriptions and thus help him or her become “a more sensitive, more knowledgeable, wiser person.” (Richard Rorty, „Redemption from egotism: James and Proust as spiritual exercises” (manuscript), 2. Rorty relates this potential to Harlod Bloom’s idea that the reading of literature supports the establishment of an autonomous self that is not simply the product of its cultural surrounding but rather the result of self-creation (Bloom, How to Read and Why, 195.) Building on these views, I believe that narratives of history enlarge our imagination through encompassing multitudes—other perspectives, views, experiences, explanation modes of human action—a way of looking at the world and ourselves that goes beyond what is present, expanding our views and rethinking previously held notions. It is not that literature can or should communicate absolute meanings or truths nor promote enduring moral convictions. (Rorty, „Redemption from egotism: James and Proust as spiritual exercises” (manuscript), 18.) What it might do, however, is imaginatively redescribe, and thus, potentially, enable new self-definitions of individuals and communities. According to Rorty, and I share his conviction, imaginative redescription such as offered in narratives of history can (but doesn’t have to) make us more autonomous, free us from individual and social convictions and helps us to enlarge ourselves. (Rorty, Der Roman als Mittel, 14). Redesribing marked events of times past, imaginative redescription implies reconsidering the constitution of the present as this evolved from gone times. It thus also allow a reconsideration of the relation between past, present and notions of a possible future. Again: not as lessons to be learned from the past but rather as a new, broader than the existing way to see it—a more wide-ranging way to observe the present and thus imagine a possible future (Cf. Rorty, „Redemption from egotism: James and Proust as spiritual exercises” (manuscript), 24)
In concluding his introductory essay to his Pragmatism reader, Louis Menand notes, “It is sometimes complained that Pragmatism is a bootstrap theory—that it cannot tell us where we should want to go or how we can get there. The answer to this is that theory can never tell us where to go; only we can tell us where to go. Theories are just one of the ways we make sense of our needs. We wake up one morning and find ourselves in a new place, and then build a ladder to explain how we got there. The pragmatist is the person who asks whether this is a good place to be. The nonprgamatist is the person who admires the ladder.” Louise Menand, Pragmatism. A Reader (New York: Vintage, 1997), xxxiv. Echoing Menand, I would like to suggest that the literature presented in this chapter (among other things) both outlined and continues to do so the ‘where we are’ of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It does so, however, not only to ‘understand’ and ‘explain’ or reach ‘the core’ of the conflict—it’s reasons, course, and aftermath—but just the same asks, or, more precisely, allows us–in literary means, that is through its poetic effects, narratives strategies etc.—to ask if this is a good place, and if one can think of other places we might want to create or move on to. In a similar vain, I believe that literary criticism should both ask, how the literary work encodes the past or signifies, reflects etc. its belatedness into the present (that is, in Menand’s metaphoric admire the ladder) and, at the same time, think of the possibility of literature to address times to come or what might bring them.