Fracturing the Zionist Narrative

By Mintz, Alan | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Fracturing the Zionist Narrative

Mintz, Alan, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

TO THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE OF ISRAELI LITERATURE, ONE first has to understand the achievements of the past twenty-five years, which have been a period of extraordinary boom. The innovations of Israeli literature during this period can be described from three different, and at time overlapping, angles: minority discourse, that is writing by or about ethnic groups that had not previously been the subject of literary representation; women's writing and the reexamination of gender codes; and magical realism, the fantastic and postmodernist narrative techniques in the writing of fiction.

The whole notion of minorities in Israeli society is one that is at odds with the official Zionist ideal of "ingathering." Rather than being seen as ethnic groups or minorities, the Jews who came to Israel from many countries around the globe were meant to be absorbed into a new society in Zion that represents a departure from life in the many and varied diasporas. In actuality, however, the culture of the Yishuv and later the state was largely based upon the norms of a single society: the socialist Zionism that had emerged in Eastern Europe, and it was often into that culture that Jews from other lands were, willingly or unwillingly, gathered in. Over time the Israeli Jews whose families had settled in Israel for ideological reasons became themselves a minority; yet the institutions of the state and its literary culture continued to bear the impress of the East European socialist stamp.

Jews from North Africa and the Middle East-together loosely called Sephardim-had long been presences in the Old and New Yishuv, but it was not until the upheavals occasioned by the War of Independence in 1948 that great numbers arrived in Israel. The immigrants from Eastern lands were extremely diverse in their backgrounds. Some came from the secularized urban professional classes of Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad; others were shopkeepers with a traditional religious outlook; and still others came from small towns and villages that had hardly been touched by industrial life. Only a small number were Zionists in the modem ideological sense of the term, and for the great majority their sudden arrival in Israel was experienced as an enormous and unanticipated upheaval. While the Zionist leadership took a romantic and ethnographic interest in the varied and distinct folkways of this exotic population, Eastern Jews were urged to integrate themselves into the dominant civic culture of the new state. After the hardsh ips and indignities of the transit camps hastily set up to absorb this mass immigration, some did succeed in assimilating into Israeli society, while others, who had been settled in outlying "development towns" that never developed, slipped into a chronic underclass.

Creating a voice and projecting it within the literary world of the newly adopted country required taking on the challenge of Hebrew. Most of the writers from Ashkenazic backgrounds had either been born into Hebrewspeaking families or had been educated in Hebrew-oriented school before coming to Palestine. Intellectuals from Eastern lands, by contrast, were at home in Arabic, and sometimes French or Berber or Turkish. Being suddenly transplanted into a Hebrew-speaking culture presented aspiring writers with the enormous challenge of learning to create in an adopted language. Some clung to Arabic and were marginalized; others went through a difficult gestation period and began to write in Hebrew. The first works produced by Sephardic writers dealt with the humiliations of transit camps and were written in the tradition of social outrage. By the period covered in this volume, Sephardic writing had evolved into a nuanced examination of the complexities of acculturation into Israeli society. The most recent ficti onal efforts have reached beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of Israel to re-evoke in highly imaginative terms the Jewish life of Baghdad and Damascus before the establishment of Israel and the "ingathering" of Eastern Jewry. …

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