At work in an identity laboratory

In the first of series of articles leading up to Jewish Book Week on the relationship between factual and fictional writing, we speak to Israelis from contrasting generations and genres


In a chilling reminder of how life imitates literature, the title of AB Yehoshua’s latest novel, Friendly Fire, has in recent weeks become a key phrase in Israel. “Friendly fire” was the official cause of the deaths of five IDF soldiers killed in last month’s operation in Gaza. It was also what killed the son of a character in Yehoshua’s book, and what spurred that character to try and escape Israel for an archaeological dig in Tanzania, in a desperate attempt to shed his now resented Israeli and Jewish identity.

“It is an unending resource that supplies us with so many situations and drama,” says Yehoshua, of the Israeli-Arab conflict, which permeates so much of Israeli writing. But how does a writer create his own fictional tapestry when so many of the threads are held by the everyday media?

Yehoshua admits that Israeli authors are much of the time “competing with journalism” and explains how this might be carried out: “The writer tries to escape the events in their journalistic prism and experiment with imagination, not to go back to the events that have been ground up by the media, but to find in them new twists, new creations.”

Media cynicism was the starting point for Yehoshua’s previous novel, A Woman in Jerusalem, in which the body of an unknown foreign cleaner killed in a suicide bombing causes a flurry in the bakery that fired her a month earlier. Yehoshua insists that “the terror attack was a side affair”.

He highlights that awful, because mundane, Israeli view in order to address “the alienation of bureaucracy that war creates towards the dead”. He sees this alienation “in the Israeli toughness towards the death and destruction in Gaza now, this apathy, the feeling that there is no choice, not caring any more about it”. On the other hand, Yehoshua did, in a newspaper column, give the Gaza operation his support, though far from joyfully.

Yehoshua sees the Israeli writer’s role as seeking “that point, where journalism is so laconic, where the numbers of dead lose their meaning, and to use fantasy to experiment with permutations that we can’t try out in reality — and to try out moral situations that you don’t find every day in the laboratory of literature”.

But the most fundamental theme in Israeli literature, Yehoshua believes, is that of Israeli and Jewish identity: “It is like the question of class in British writing, where does the Jew end and the human begin? In what ways are we Israelis?”

He explored this in his monumental work, Mr Mani, and has returned to it incessantly. Friendly Fire is predicated on it. “A man who is trying every time to reinvent his identity, Jewish and Israeli, and then trying to peel these identities away, with varying degrees of success” is how Yehoshua talks of his novel.

While Yehoshua, in discussion with Lyse Doucet, will close Jewish Book Week 2009, that other venerable titan of Israeli letters, Amos Oz, will open it.

Like Yehoshua, Oz, too, wrote a column supporting the Gaza operation — and occupied the role of grandfather of the new left-wing alliance which called for the operation’s cessation.

Tellingly perhaps, Oz’s opening talk, with journalist Jonathan Freedland, is entitled “Urgent Words”.

An Israeli JBW participant from a different generation and vantage point, is Rachel Shabi, who will talk to Guardian Middle East editor Ian Black about her first book, Not The Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

Shabi, 38, who was born in Israel to Iraqi parents and emigrated with her family to London at the age of four, has written for the Guardian mainly on social and campaigning issues. For the past three years, however, she has worked as a freelance journalist in Israel. Her book, an often devastating critique of the attitude of Israel’s political and cultural elites to the Sephardi — or Mizrahi — Jews who arrived in the country from Arab lands, evocatively tells the bitter story of how they and their children still struggle today to carve out a place in Israeli society.

Though the book is a personal voyage and interspersed with Shabi’s own family experiences, she insists that it is “straight journalism, a piece of reportage. I’m a journalist… I go out on the street and talk to people.”

Not the Enemy will upset quite a few people in Israel. Critics will claim Shabi disregards the many stories of successful integration. She says she is simply challenging “the common story-line that there was never ethnic discrimination in Israel, or that it is now all behind us. But I wanted to voice Mizrahi people’s experiences. I was really astonished about how much of these experiences are still alive — people were talking to me about things that happened to them only weeks ago.”

While addressing the historical narrative of Israel’s Mizrahi community, Shabi’s book is very much rooted in the here-and-now and, like so many other books written in modern Israel, Not the Enemy represents an attempt to confront and try to define the parameters of Israeli and Jewish identity, which so obsess the country’s writers and thinkers.

As Yehoshua puts it, “this incessant dissection of our identity is fascinating perhaps for others, on the outside, but we are exhausted by it. We would love to be like the French who have solved their identity problems and view the world through the prism of relationships between men and women.”

Anshel Pfeffer is the JC’s special correspondent in Israel; ‘Friendly Fire’, by AB Yehoshua, is published by Halban, ‘Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands’, by Yale University Press. AB Yehoshua will be appearing at JBW on March 1, in a Hebrew language session at 5pm and in discussion with Lyse Doucet at 8.30pm. Rachel Shabi will appear on February 22. Amos Oz’s new novel is reviewed below

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