Our Primary Myth of Violence: Shulamith Hareven's Peace Politics

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Editor's Note:

"Art between Peace and War," a tribute to Israeli author and peace activist Shulamith Hareven (1930-2003), took place at New York University on November 17th 2004, under the auspices of the Taub Center for Israel Studies at NYU, the Department of Cultural Affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York, and the Jewish Feminist Research Group at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The following two essays by Yael S. Feldman and Alicia Ostriker are based on the papers presented at that tribute.

In November 2003 Israel lost one of its most versatile artistic and socially aware voices--the novelist, essayist, peace activist, and social conscience, Shulamith Hareven, author of nineteen Hebrew books in a variety of genres. Her fiction and essays are widely translated, including the novel City of Many Days, Twilight and Other Stories, the three Biblical novellas that constitute Thirst: The Desert Trilogy, and a selection of her essays, significantly entitled The Vocabulary of Peace. (1)

Born in Warsaw in 1930, Shulamith Hareven escaped the Holocaust as a child. Arriving in Palestine with her parents in 1940, she rarely evoked its memory, preferring to begin her life story with her participation in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, in which she served as a combat medic in besieged Jerusalem. Even so, she penned some of the most poignant Hebrew stories on the perception and reception of the Holocaust in both Warsaw and Israel. She also fashioned some of the most independent women characters in Israeli fiction--while at the same time arguing against feminism, which she saw as a foreign American import. Although highly political, she tried to keep her fiction free of politics, expressing her social and political views in her essays instead. Since the 1970's, no controversial topic escaped her pen, winning her the Avrech Best Essayist Prize (1995) and recognition by the Paris-based L'Express as being one of the 100 women "who have moved the world."

I had the pleasure of knowing her, through personal contact and correspondence, but mostly through her work. I must admit that I didn't warm t it all at once. It took me a while. But once I grasped the fullness of her literary, intellectual, and ethical journey--I fell in love with her work. Eventually, she became the only author whose work overflowed the single chapter I had originally planned for her in my study, No Room of Their Own. (2) And why? Because her literary legacy includes a most vital component--her life-long struggle for peace.

My emphasis is on "struggle." For her, literary peace politics were not naive, nor were they of one piece. They slowly evolved over two decades, from the 1970s through the 1990s, culminating in her last novella After Childhood (1994). This novella is available in English--it is the last part of her "Desert Trilogy," Thirst. However, only one of her essays relevant to this issue included in the English selection of her essays, TJ Vocabulary of Peace. This essay, "What Should We Do About Myth?," was originally delivered as a Hanukka lecture some 15 years ago, in 1989. It no doubt constituted a turning point in her thinking about what she labeled "Our Primary Myth of Violence." The story hiding behind this turning point needs to be unraveled, especially today, as Israel and the Middle East are hopefully embarking on a new path for peace. This essay will therefore follow Hareven's odyssey to this moment and from it, mapping the ways in which J affected her consequent intellectual and ethics wrestling with the question of violence and humanity' chances for peace.

Hareven first referred to "our primary myth c violence" in a 1976 essay named "Alimut [Violence] (3) In this essay she conducted dialogue with one of Israel's bites noires---the criminologist and social critic, Shlomo Giora Shoham--who year earlier had published, in both Israel and America, a rather controversial article, "The Isaac Syndrome. …