On the Bookshelf
The state of the Jewish state: Activists, artists, and academics—including Jeremy Ben-Ami, Udi Aloni, and Albert Einstein—argue about Israel
Great for publishers, terrible for everyone else: That’s the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Or at least that’s how it seems, given the profusion of new titles appearing this summer: It seems like you can’t have an opinion without writing a book about it.
There’s Jeremy Ben-Ami’s A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, July), which offers the philosophy and personal story of the JStreet founder in a format that his most passionate opponents (hi, down there in the comments!) will find conveniently burns when exposed to open flame. And for those, in Israel and in America, who regard JStreet as a villainous, self-hating, anti-Israel cabal (hi, members of Knesset!), there’s even more aggravation to be found in Jack Ross’ Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism (Potomac, June), which comes complete with a blurb from John Mearsheimer and locates a precedent for lefty Jewish anti-Zionists in a mid-century Reform rabbi. And if that’s not enough, there’s also What Does a Jew Want?: On Binationalism and Other Specters (Columbia, June), which offers the single-state-solution wit and wisdom of Israeli-American filmmaker Udi Aloni, which comes with endorsements and engagements from such celebrities of academic critical theory as Judith Butler, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Zizek (who it turns out probably isn’t friends, or friends-with-benefits, with Lady Gaga). How could such paradox-loving dialecticians not support Aloni, who opposes “all forms of boycott against arts,” but also, at the same time, is among the most vocal supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement?
It’s not that publishers want to sell books only by infuriating AIPAC devotees; they’re happy to sell to just about any constituency. In No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation (Columbia, June), Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan situate the debate about a Palestinian “right of return” alongside other cases of “people displaced from their homes, regions, and countries as a result of political violence.” In this context, they argue, it becomes clear that “not only is return not the preferred solution for these minorities … but attempted return is unlikely to resolve the problem,” and, so those who really do care about the suffering of displaced minority populations should concentrate on “resolving refugee suffering in the short term rather than hiding behind eschatological promises.”
Zionism does raise tough questions—even the most iconic genius of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, struggled with them. As Ze’ev Rosenkranz demonstrates in Einstein Before Israel: Zionist Icon or Iconoclast? (Princeton, June), the great physicist was a card-carrying Zionist, but what with his opposition to nationalism, he didn’t always agree with the movement. In one fascinating letter to the editor of a Jaffa Arabic-language newspaper, in 1930, Einstein noted his opposition to “aggressive nationalism,” and that he could “only imagine the future of Palestine in the form of peaceful cooperation between the two peoples residing there.”
On a visit to Palestine in 1923, Einstein visited a kibbutz in the Galilee, where he found the colonists “extremely congenial”; it might (or might not) have been Degania Alef, the first kibbutz, which is where One Hundred Years of Kibbutz Life: A Century of Crises and Reinvention (Transaction, July), starts. The collection, edited by Brandeis professor Shulamit Reinharz and Michal Palgi of the Institute for the Research on the Kibbutz and the Cooperative Idea, offers an overview of the achievements of kibbutzniks and suggests that despite all the challenges to the movement, a renaissance of Israeli collective farming remains possible.
Kibbutz life in the 1980s gets the arty comic-book treatment in the aptly cooperative Farm 54 (Ponent Mon/Fanfare, May), by the poet Galit Seliktar and her artist brother Gilad. While the excerpt in Words Without Borders focused on the protagonist’s first night in the army, in which she attends a Palestinian house demolition, most of the rest of the book concentrates on tense everyday moments of life on the farm, from afternoon family barbecues to shifts inspecting eggs.
Meanwhile, Dalkey Archive Press continues its Hebrew Literature Series, which is doing its best to make the richness of contemporary Israeli literature more accessible to those Americans who can’t read Hebrew. The two latest titles are Asaf Schurr’s Motti (Dalkey Archive, May) and Gabriela Avigur-Rotem’s Heatwave and Crazy Birds (Dalkey Archive, June). The former is a self-reflectively narrated tale about a loner who takes the blame for a friend’s car accident and winds up in prison, while the latter concerns a woman’s return to the country, to inquire about the death of her father’s friend, after a quarter-century abroad. Like Farm 54, these novels demand that readers attend to them as aesthetically innovative projects, rather than as reflections of current events.
That’s worth emphasizing, because, as has been frequently pointed out, readers often insist on reading every Israeli novel, no matter how fictional and psychological, as a gussied-up Op-Ed essay about the political situation. Then again, there’s often good reason to view Israeli cultural products as representing national and political concerns. That’s what Miri Talmon and Yaron Peleg’s anthology Israeli Cinema: Identities in Motion (Texas, July) does, collecting essays from Israeli and American scholars who analyze classic and recent Israeli cinema “as a prism that refracts collective Israeli identities”—or, in other words, as a means through which a global audience gains insight into how Israelis understand themselves. Better that, perhaps, than the pro- and anti- propaganda that seems ever more ubiquitous, not only on the news and in the speeches of ideologues, but also on bookstore shelves.
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