From Zion to Uganda…and New York?

From today’s Haaretz, a piece commemorating the notorious  Uganda proposal of 1903, in which the British government offered the Zionist Organisation an opportunity to settle in British East Africa.   The article is very good, but it doesn’t mention that unexpected support for the proposal came from none other than Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew.  Ben-Yehuda despaired of creating a vibrant modern Hebrew culture in the Holy Land, whose Jewish community was at that time overwhelmingly Ultra-Orthodox, and he thought that Hebrew culture would have a better chance of flourishing in Africa, beyond the reach of rabbinic control.

Israel has created the flourishing Hebrew culture of Ben-Yehuda’s dreams, but that culture can also be found throughout the world, and not necessarily only within major Israeli diaspora enclaves like New York.  “Israeli” and “Hebrew” culture are interrelated but not identical.  True, non-Jews producing Hebrew culture are rare – the poet Robert Whitehill is a fascinating exception – but Hebrew has become a global language, Israelis travel everywhere, and bi-national, bilingual authors like Shelly Oria (whose stories include one called “New York 1, Tel Aviv 0”) are likely to become increasingly common in years to come.

Hebrew Fiction and the World Market

Europe is said to be rife with anti-Israel sentiment, far more so than North America, yet Israeli literature – written by authors across the political spectrum – is much more likely to be available in French, Spanish, German and Italian translation than in English versions.

In North America, Israeli literature is read largely by Jews, and aside from the holy trinity of great Israeli authors – Amos Oz, A B Yehoshua, and David Grossman, it is far from assured that any Israeli author will as a matter of course be translated into English.  Fortunately, electronic publishing is cheap enough to allow for the dissemination of works of Hebrew literature that might otherwise never have made it to the English-speaking world, e.g., Yoram Kaniuk’s fictionalised memoir of his experiences during the war of 1948; or Assaf Gavron’s The Hilltop, an edgy novel about Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

The fact remains that more Israeli titles are translated into European languages than into English, and the appearance of a major Israeli novel can be a major literary event in circles far beyond the Jewish community.  Why? Part of the reason has to do with the general insularity of English-language readers who shy away from translated literature, and the reluctance of publishers within the vast English-language world to invest in translations when there is so much talent to draw on within the world of Anglophone letters.  But there is another reason.  However conflicted Europeans’ feelings about Israel may be, they are fascinated by the country.  They see Israel as having originated as an extension of Europe and are haunted by the genocide that European civilisation perpetrated upon the Jews three generations ago.  Israel is, literally and figuratively, much closer to them than it is to most North Americans.

Will recent films based on Israeli novels – Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness and Sayed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs – arouse the interest of American publishers and readers in Israeli fiction?  Fortunately, all of Kashua’s novels are available in English, but these darkly humorous explorations of Israeli-Palestinian identity have not yet found the audience they deserve.  And what of great Iraqi-Israeli novelists such as Sami Michael, whose masterpiece Victoria appeared in an English edition that almost immediately went out of print, yet remains readily available in French?

Israeli literature, whether written in Hebrew or Arabic, speaks to a global audience.  That audience should include more readers in North America.

On Behalf of Free Speech, Even When it Hurts

A distinguished academic who has vigorously opposed academic boycotts of Israel and a veteran senior administrator in American Jewish organisational life have protested the decision by the University of Southampton to cancel a planned academic conference challenging the legitimacy of the state of Israel under international law.  They have sent a letter in this regard to the Vice Chancellor of the University and published the letter in Inside Higher Education.  The link to the letter may be found at  I have also reproduced the letter below.


Dear Vice Chancellor Nutbeam,

We write as two North Americans who oppose academic boycotts and support academic freedom. While we find the upcoming conference on International Law and the State of Israel disturbing (it questions the right of Israel to exist, it includes panelists who have made gross antisemitic statements, etc.), we are shocked by the report that the university might cancel the conference.

Academic freedom requires that scholarly meetings, even ones that can rightly be criticized for promoting bigotry, are permitted to be held. The correct answer to the problems this conference poses is for others to use their own academic freedom to document what is wrong when, as here, history and principles are twisted to promote a bigoted political agenda. Especially given the University’s track record of supporting important and valued teaching and research in Jewish studies, it is well poised to answer speech with speech, rather than with suppression.

Canceling the conference because of security concerns is called, in the American context, a “heckler’s veto.” We ask Southampton not to eviscerate the right its faculty and students have to hear what the organizers of this conference present, even if what is presented is troubling and bigoted.

Campus security can surely handle a demonstration against the conference. Indeed people participating in such a protest would be exercising their own academic freedom so long as the event was allowed to continue.

We also worry about the precedent Southampton would set by canceling. Whether pro-Israel or anti-Israel (or pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, or pro-gay rights or anti-gay rights, etc), it would effectively be saying that forces inside and outside the academic community who don’t like a particular point of view can shut down speech by threats. How can learning take place in such an environment? Would Southampton only then have conferences and speakers on “safe” topics? How can students learn to think when difficult issues and hot topics are no longer appropriate for campus programming?

We call on the university to allow this conference to take place, on campus, with adequate security. And we call on you and your colleagues to use your own academic freedom to speak out about both the bigotry that will likely be evidenced at the conference, and the danger to the academic enterprise when speech, even troubling and bigoted speech, is suppressed.

Cary Nelson, co-chair, Alliance for Academic Freedom
Kenneth Stern, executive director, Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, executive committee, Alliance for Academic Freedom



Political Responsibility in a Democratic State

The much-anticipated and highly-divisive Israeli elections have come and gone, and I’d like to offer some reflections on what the elections mean about the nature of Israeli democracy.

The structure and integrity of the Israeli electoral system means that the outcome accurately represented the will of the people, proving beyond any doubt that a plurality of Israeli citizens would rather be ruled by the right than the left.

The Likud won fair and square.  Netanyahu used racist language to get out the vote, but there was no ballot tampering, let alone intimidation at the voting stations.  Had the electorate decided otherwise, the Zionist Union would be forming the government, and Netanyahu would have handed over the keys to the Prime Minister’s residence.  Netanyahu may be a demagogue but he is not a dictator.  Israel is still a democracy in which elected representatives serve with the consent of the people.  All citizens have the same political rights, although the Jewish majority enjoys social privileges that the Arab minority does not.

As a stable democracy, Israel remains qualitatively different from its Arab neighbours.  Arab states have a long tradition of serving narrow elites and being disconnected from the populace except as providers of public employment.  Ordinary Arabs, even in putative democracies, have felt little connection with the state apparatus.  The Arab uprisings strove to tear the old system down, and many Arabs wanted to install genuine democracies in its place.  For the most part, the uprisings failed, with authoritarianism back in place in Egypt and chaos in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Arabs are bitterly angry and frustrated about their condition, yet because of the anti-democratic, non-inclusive tradition of politics in Arab states, they have not felt personally responsible for their states’ crimes.  Yet Arabs commonly blame Israelis for everything their state does.  This behaviour is in part irrational and even anti-Semitic, but it is also justified to the extent that in Israel the government is accountable to the electorate. In the Arab world, the only way to change things is to go out into the street and protest, thereby risking jail or death, or to take up arms  (and, of course, face an even greater risk of jail or death).

In Israel, people vote governments in and out power.  There has never been a coup or civil war. New governments do not carry out reprisals against the former government’s members and their friends and families.   Israelis and their supporters throughout the world can take justifiable pride in their country’s steadfast attachment to democratic government.  They should also realise that if governments are accountable to the people, the people are accountable for the governments they elect.