When we take a walk, we are three,
You, me and the next war.
When we go to sleep, we are three,
You, me and the next war.
When we smile at a moment of love,
The next war smiles with us.
When we wait at the maternity ward,
The next war waits with us.
When they knock on the door, we are three,
You, me and the next war.
And when all this is over, we still are three,
You, the next war and the photograph.
“You, Me and the Next War”
by Hanoch Levin (1968)
When we envision the future — personal, national, or global — our minds generally wrap themselves around three alternative scenarios: catastrophe/apocalypse/disaster (easiest to imagine); resolution/utopia; and More of the Same. In addition to these three scenarios, there is a fourth option — let’s call it “The Interventionist Unexpected.” For some people, the intervention is not so much unexpected as uncharted and out of time — with a divine origin, a defined telos, or goal, and a messenger called “Mashiah.” For those who put their faith in human action and political resolution, its current agent is named Barack Obama. In any event, the interventionist version can be compatible with either the apocalyptic or the utopian scenario.
All three alternatives are embedded in constitutive acts of the Jewish imagination. The Zionist enterprise was animated by two incompatible utopian visions: the messianic version, with its millennial pedigree emanating from the midrashic literature of the first centuries of the Common Era, and the Altneuland version of 1902. Theodor Herzl’s novel, growing out of the utopian fiction of 19th-century Europe, envisioned a pluralistic culture and a technologically progressive society — not unlike that of Tel Aviv in 2013 (his novel was called Tel Aviv in the Hebrew translation).
In the second half of the 20th century, the apocalyptic/dystopic default mode of utopia animated the darkest fictions of S.Y. Agnon (specifically in his 1945 novel, Tmol Shilshom [Only Yesterday] and the darkest satires of Hanoch Levin.) In Levin’s drama “You, Me and the Next War” (At Ve-ani Ve-ha-milhama Ha-ba’ah, 1968), the first-person singular voice seamlessly envisions its own demise as the expendable player in the endless replay of the triad: “And when all this is over, we still are three,/ You, the next war and the photograph.”
But the more widespread form that Israeli culture has taken has been neither utopian nor apocalyptic/dystopic but rather a persistently realistic exposé of the blemishes and outgrowths of an unresolved political situation. Much of the canonic culture of the past 65 years has explored the ethical consequences of a future based on More of the Same. Its literary antecedents are S. Yizhar’s piercing short fiction, Ha-shavui (“The Prisoner” and “Hirbet Hiz’eh”) and Natan Alterman’s magisterial poem, “Magash Ha-Kesef”— “The Silver Platter” — all three written within months of the cessation of hostilities in 1948 and the establishment of the state. Almost instantaneously acquiring iconic status, these texts continued for many decades to be intoned on ceremonial occasions and incorporated into school curricula in Israel.
From Yizhar’s fiction in the late 1940s through the early stories of Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua in the late 1950s and 1960s, one can trace an ongoing contrarian (but still somehow mainstream) stance focused on the ubiquity and perpetuity of war as well as on the erased traces of the 1948 Nakba (the “Catastrophe,” the Palestinian term for the war and displacement that led to Israel’s founding) and the moral price of displacing the native Arab population. Israel’s defenders point to these cultural products as evidence of a robust, self-examining democracy; its detractors claim that they are fig leafs meant to cover our shame.
After 1967, and specifically after the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, all this changed. Although it may seem subtle, the focus shifted from a conscientious but poetically elegiac acceptance of the price to be paid for ongoing conflict prompted by historical wrongs — the Arab-Israeli conflict — to the active demand for a resolution of what had become the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. The protest movement that began with reactions to the Lebanon War (the first nonconsensual war) was inscribed in the fiction and investigative journalism of David Grossman, the poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, and the dramas of Yehoshua Sobol and the Akko Theatre Centre. Much has been written about the engaged culture of this period, which was blunt and aggressive but premised on the conviction that history was on our side.
The phenomenon, and the conviction, were effectively killed along with Yitzhak Rabin.
In the late 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, it seemed to some observers, myself among them, that if our most engaged writers, especially Grossman, were “going underground” — that is, focusing on the daily struggles in the lives of private individuals far from the battlegrounds and the settlements — it was in the service of securing the private realm so that “When Peace Comes We Will Know What to Do with It” (see especially Grossman’s novels for teenagers, The Book of Intimate Grammar, Someone to Run With, and The Zigzag Kid). While that may have been true for Grossman, it seems increasingly like a retreat from the whole mess — something like “wake me up when it’s over” — for many of the younger writers, including the postmoderns Orly Castel Bloom and Etgar Keret.
There remains one genre in which engagement is ongoing and unblinking — documentary films. At first it appeared that the phenomenon of the past decade that includes “Arna’s Children” (directed by Juliano Mer Khamis and Danniel Danniel, 2004), “Shilton ha-hok” (“The Law in these Parts,” directed by Ra’anan Alexandrovicz, 2011), “Five Broken Cameras” (directed by Emad Burnad and Guy Davidi, 2011), and “Shomrei Ha-saf” (“The Gatekeepers,” directed by Dror Moreh, 2013) was anticipated in or consistent with such docudramas or fictional films as “Beaufort” (directed by Joseph Cedar, 2007) and “Waltz with Bashir” (directed by Ari Folman, 2008). I submit that they are, rather, a signal of a break with that tradition. The films directed by Folman and Cedar are, I believe, versions of the elegiac “war is hell” libretto or, in Hebrew parlance, “yorim u-vokhim” (“shooting and crying”). These documentaries focus not on a wartime struggle over some claustrophobic fortress in Lebanon or the post-traumatic stress disorder of soldiers who turned a blind eye to the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in 1982, but rather upon the ongoing atrocities and abuses against the Palestinian civilian population. They have an urgency that goes beyond anything the fictive imagination could invent.
Our culture has many tools to record seismic shifts, and it sometimes even initiates the shifts. If we are unlucky and apocalypse “happens,” the broken cameras and celluloid traces from these brave films will be the detritus that archaeologists will unearth from the rubble of Israel to show that there was a force trying to forestall destruction, the way the plays of Euripides and Aristophanes and the histories of Thucydides survived the destruction of Athens in the Peloponnesian Wars. If we are lucky and utopia “happens” through the sudden wisdom of our leaders or the benign intervention of outside forces, these films will prove to have been a signal of change, of the moment (three minutes to midnight) when More of the Same— the “status quo” — became simply insupportable, when reality, too unbearable even for fiction, gave way to the documentary eye of the camera that forced us to look into the mirror.email print