"Much Delusion That Is in Good Will": Aharon Appelfeld's Ambivalent Position on Zionism-In His Non-Fiction and in His Fiction

By Rudin, Shai | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

"Much Delusion That Is in Good Will": Aharon Appelfeld's Ambivalent Position on Zionism-In His Non-Fiction and in His Fiction


Rudin, Shai, Hebrew Studies Journal


Aharon Appelfeld is among the most venerable writers active today in Israel, and his literary success is evident abroad also. (1) His books are indeed not perceived to adopt the Zionist ethos as a super-narrative, but in fact, since the appearance of his first collection of stories, Smoke, in March 1962, Appelfeld has conducted a covert and an overt dialogue with the Zionist movement. (2) This exchange finds expression in his fiction and in his published essays and interviews with the press. The concern of this article is to compare Appelfeld's stance on Zionism as reflected in each of the two forms of textual expression he practices, fiction and journalism/essays. Juxtaposing the two forms reveals not only tension but actual contradiction: Appelfeld's non-fiction mostly exudes a harshly critical tone from the writer, a Holocaust survivor who was obliged to change his name from Arvin to Aharon and has overcome his difficult experiences in the Israeli melting pot, as a youth who arrived as a Holocaust refugee with Youth Aliya. But reading his fiction, one finds something different: the early Appelfeld indeed criticizes Zionism in his books, but the later writer forgoes his critical note and in fact joins in the Zionist discourse, which he undermined in his non-fiction.

1. Non-Fiction

1.1 Interviews with the Press

"Only naive Zionism thought that when we got here all would be resolved," says Appelfeld in an interview published in 2006. (3) This statement may be considered gentle. In an interview in 2004, Appelfeld accentuates the violence embedded in the Zionist project:

   There was an aggressive element in Zionism. It fought Yiddish and
   it fought the Diaspora and it fought Jewish culture. I understand
   that it was necessary. For a while it was essential. But in the end
   we are paying a terrible price for it. We are paying for it with the
   shrinking of the Jewish soul. (4)

Later in the interview, Appelfeld notes the implications of the Zionist view:

   There was some sort of move towards a kind of primitivism here. And
   an attempt here to amputate internal organs of the soul. And this
   caused crippling. Severe cultural crippling. So I think that today
   the Jewish people is conducting two existential wars at once. One
   war for the body, against the Arabs, and another war for the soul,
   against itself. Identifying Jewishness with religion, from which
   they try to hold back, creates a very serious vacuum here. So there
   is a black identity hole here. So there is deep revulsion here
   against anything Jewish. But without our having some kind of Jewish
   identity we cannot exist. (5)

Appelfeld dismisses the notion of "Israeliness" and insists that a society of immigrants cannot create monolithic Israeliness or a "new Jew," as the Zionist movement wanted. Zionism has not turned the Jew residing in Israel into a "non-migrant:"

   What is this "Israeliness"? We are a society of migrants, migration
   is what characterizes us, with all its ills, but also with the
   richness in it. Hebrew criticism has invented a kind of illusion
   that there is an "Israeli" being--a person who went to kindergarten,
   then went to elementary school and secondary school, served in the
   army's Nahal Brigade, and so on. In my view, this is a very
   stereotypic Israeliness, with a slightly unrealistic mythological
   touch, and in the name of this Israeliness they have been
   brandishing at me all these years.... I grew up as an orphan, and I
   went through the war, and I wandered with the refugees, and I'm
   still a migrant. A migrant is a migrant is a migrant. (6)

In an interview with Schneider, Appelfeld comments, "few are the nations that have so fought against themselves, against their culture, against their past." (7) These words connect the pre-Holocaust assimilating Jewry and the wish to break away from the roots of Judaism to Zionism which in its striving for the melting pot, distanced the Jew, Appelfeld maintains, from the Jewish legacy. …

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