Israel as Lebanon?

The popular television series Fauda testifies to a profound cultural shift within the state of Israel. The program shows that Israel is becoming increasingly Middle Eastern precisely in pace with the growing intractability of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Fauda tells the story of an elite undercover IDF unit of mistarevim, whose members go undercover in the West Bank. The operatives, and a Security Services interrogator with whom they work closely, speak fluid Palestinian Arabic, and are intimately familiar with Palestinian culture. When the lead character, Doron, assumes the identity of a member of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in order to seduce a Palestinian doctor, he quickly falls in love with her, and he appears to be much more at ease speaking with her in Arabic than with his own wife in Hebrew. Inside a mosque, Doron plays the role of the pious Muslim so comfortably that one wonders if what he’s doing is entirely performance.

Many of the program’s characters are Palestinian – guerrillas and their family members, brains and brawn from Hamas and the Palestine Authority’s security services. Some seventy per cent of the show’s dialogue is in Arabic. Israeli television has never broadcast a program that so thoroughly mixes Jewish and Arab characters and the cityscapes of Tel Aviv and Ramallah. (The show’s West Bank scenes were actually filmed in the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasim). Both Jewish and Arab characters are depicted with empathy. They are all trapped in a conflict not of their making and which their gruesome, cruel, and barbaric acts of violence can only exacerbate.

In real life, few mistarevim are such consummate shape shifters as Doron. Israeli Jews seldom speak Palestinian Arabic with native fluency. Fauda may not be entirely veracious but it reveals a truth about Israel that is deeper than its depiction of terrorism and counter-terrorism. That truth accounts for the show’s enormous popularity. Viewers love its gripping plot, high production values, and excellent acting. But more important, the show touches a nerve.

Fauda is about a conflict that appears to have had no beginning and that will have no end. Both sides are equally capable of savagery. (In a reference to a backstory, we learn that the unit’s head and the Israeli Defence Minister once killed five bound Palestinian prisoners in cold blood.) The Israeli operatives are intensely, viscerally connected to their enemy. They can live neither with nor without the Palestinians. Like the Maronites in Lebanon during its decades of civil war, the Israelis are natives of the Middle East even though they claim ties to the West. They are both dominators and victims. The IDF is vastly more powerful and effective than all of the old Maronite militias put together, but the conflation of political and military power, and the deterioration of war into a blood feud, are similar.

The Israeli separation barrier, which in Jerusalem takes the form of a terrifyingly high wall, looms in many scenes. The wall symbolizes the separation between the Israeli-Jewish “us” and the Palestinian “them,” and between the well-ordered Israeli state and the chaos (Fauda in Arabic) of the West Bank. But as the program’s characters show us, there can be no absolute separation between Jew and Arab. Israel is in, even if not of, the Middle East, and with every generation it moves further away from its European roots. Israel’s close political and economic ties to the United States, and its status as an EU member in most respects, exert a diminishing effect on the country’s political and military culture. Israel’s strong state and relative homogeneity have kept it from following Lebanon’s path. But Israel’s Jews are becoming to the entire Middle East what the Maronites are within Lebanon – a minority that is alienated from a majority as much by their commonalities as by their differences.

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.