A harbinger of post-Zionism

Issue 

An unprecedented development is evident in Israel. A challenge is being mounted to the founding ideology of the state, Zionism. A key factor in this challenge has been the writings of what have been called the new or revisionist Israeli historians.

The work of Israeli writer and poet YITZAK LAOR is a harbinger of what has been dubbed post-Zionism. Israeli-born, the 40-year-old Laor speaks in a voice unfamiliar to those outside Israel and disturbing to those within. In 1985, his play Ephraim Goes Back to the Army was banned on the grounds that it was "defamatory to the Israeli army"; the play depicted an uprising in the occupied territories being put down by the Israeli military with bombs and tear gas. Laor fought the ban, which was lifted in February 1987.

Last September, Laor published an extended essay about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the respected Israeli daily, Ha'aretz. A trenchant attack on the Zionist version of Israeli history, Laor s essay focused on dovish writers like Amos Oz, who, Laor says, contributed to this construction of history. Literally translated, the title "The Ripped Tongue" refers to the way the Palestinian voice and presence have been absent from Israeli history and consciousness. Laor spoke to Sydney-based writer VIVIENNE PORZSOLT in Tel Aviv about his essay.

My point was not as optimistic as some other historians they call the new historians or the revisionist historians. My point was that the structures of the Israeli discourse around the Palestinian issue are so deeply built in, that some of the optimism of the Israelis on the dovish side is too early.

I took some of the literature of that generation which grew up together with the state, people who could easily remember, if they only wanted to, another kind of a country where Jews and Arabs lived, not very happily, but probably in a more multicultural situation or at least mixed among each other. Yet in their literature — and I mean the famous Amos Oz or some other dovish writers — what I wanted to show was how people who could have their own memory gave it up to the common memory that the state dictated, which is, for example, devoid of Arabs.

If you take Hebrew literature, Arabs appear there only in the last 10 or 15 years, always as an outside enemy, and not inside, native.

There was an epistemological break, of a whole generation, even those who wanted very much to remember that something happened in '48 — not only a war, because the war was part of the cover for many, many other things. "Once upon a time there was a war' , and then everything is blurred, and when the smoke clears, it's just like in a movie: there is nothing, nothing left. And even the thought of a return of part of the Palestinians became more and more taboo.

If you read documents from '48 or even a year after the war, you could still find hesitations, confusions, documents showing that it was not taboo to say that Palestinians will come back. Then, within five or 10 years, it became something that was not only unimaginable, but unspeakable.

And this unspeakability was despicability. It became so despicable that just before the agreement in Oslo, when Palestinians spoke about their right of return, they immediately got the name of rejectionists or extremists or non-realists. I speak of something that was built in this state, as a nation state, from '48 onward.

This state from the beginning defined its citizenship by blood. Not only that, but since ideology in Israel is so much based on this keeping the different out, is so extreme, and this ideology of bringing Jews of all sorts of colours and all kinds of traditions here into one place, it came to such contradictions that, today, you hear some doubts about the Law of Return [which allows any Jew to migrate to Israel].

But these doubts are not the doubts of a true democrat, because when you hear Israelis raising doubts about the Law of Return, it is like they're saying, "OK, until now we had the national enterprise of 'Every Jew will come here'. Now we have a privatising of the Law of Return, 'Every Jew who can afford it can come'."

The only compassion that Zionism had was towards the poor Jews. All of a sudden, you realise that this compassion, at least from the point of view of these doubts, was on condition: as long as we can send you to sit in X Palestinian villages, as long as you are healthy enough to work.

With a free market you cannot cope with immigration with the Law of Return. Zionism is the ideology of the nation state come to a block, a deadlock, and they say we cannot afford to take care of all of the Jews. It was a dream. Now, these dreams are broken.

What I tried to do was to show how those writers older than I am, enthusiastic Zionist intellectuals, colluded always with the things that were done to the Palestinians. They knew. It was a big silence. The imperative was to deny that anything like this happened. Somehow in the memory stood something that was impossible.

After I published my essay, I got a telephone call from the general director of the second largest bank in Israel. He said, "Thank you very much for your essay. I want to tell you a story."

During the '48 war, he occupied part of Megiddo, on the way to the Galilee. Through his checkpoint, they kicked out the refugees from Mount Carmel. He said, "I remember myself standing on the hill, watching the people getting off the bus, because they brought them with the buses, and hence they had to walk, because in a few kilometres there was the Jordanian Legion.

"I can remember a woman who got off the bus, being confused by what to leave and what to take, because she had a blanket full of personal stuff and a bucket of oil, you know, a box with oil, and her baby. And I remember myself looking at her blank, I mean, without feeling. I had no feeling", he said over the telephone. "I just looked indifferent. And then I heard a sob, somebody was crying behind me. So I looked behind me, and there were my soldiers, and they were from Europe, refugees from Europe, and they were standing crying."

Part of this sensitivity to the point of what happened in '48 was the belief that if we speak about it, we bring it back, but also, if we speak about it, we admit that it happened, and we can t admit that it happened.

I think that what Israel tries to do now is to divide the Palestinians into three different zones, which will be cantons. So they expand Jerusalem down to Jericho and once they get to Jericho, they will divide the West Bank into two. What they try, I think, is to build a canton north of Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin. And then Hebron and then Gaza — and that s all. Then they declare that King Hussein is the lawful guardian of the holy places.

The two-state solution is a solution, but you cannot make a two-state solution if you don t recognise the evil you did. You cannot always expect to say to the other, "You are the guilty one". If you say it, you don t want peace with him. And because of this guilt, you try to deduce your privileges. "I deserve more security." Why? "Because he was to blame for the war." Now, if you re-read the war as the revisionists do, the story is not so clear.

I am not a politician; I am a writer and I am trying to make people look a different way on their lives. I try to say "People, think about your own memory. Talk to friends who were with you in the army who saw terrible things. Then they deny things, and then you say, 'But you remember ...'"

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