Israeli culture makes us wonder about how art is produced in times and places of conflict. How is the creative process different here in Israel, where art lacks the nurturing and funding it finds elsewhere?
We know (from reading the classics), that art is the very thing that is produced while the world producing it collapses. Great art is most always about the inevitable collapse of life into death, order into chaos. In Plato’s Symposium, a civil war rages and Athens is bound to fall, and yet, those who know they don’t know talk about love as if life itself depended on it, or rather as if the essence of being is revealed in that bubble of “unknowing.” It is the intention of art to explain and express truth about the short and bitter span of human life.
And though notions of Jewish exceptionalism are problematic, there are reasons why Israeli art and culture create a paradox: a deeply vital culture in a logically impossible polity that hosts ethnically opposed populations within a democracy that is also a Jewish homeland. All this is beset by moral quandaries that have origins in a powerless culture of Diaspora Judaism and its violent roots in the war of 1948.
Most Israelis understand their reality with a “situational awareness.” The term originates in the military and describes the preferred state of perception for a soldier in danger, where he or she is aware of all that is happening in the vicinity without focusing on any specific element of the environment. Such is our reality, knowing we are sentenced to life in a friction zone, always a step behind the completed histories of the others. Thus, our culture becomes simultaneously disconnected, a bubble of hedonism and normality, and yet keenly aware of the crisis at the edges.
Israeli art — and specifically its literature — is also informed by the brutal and murderous 20th century and a history of Middle East colonialism. Though younger authors have not obtained the public political stature awarded to Amos Oz, A. B. Yehushua, or David Grossman, they are contributing to the conversation on the political situation. One such attempt is Hagiva (The Hilltop), a recently published novel by Assaf Gavron, author of the 2010 book Almost Dead. In The Hilltop, the 44-year-old Gavron writes about an illegal settlement in the territories. The novel tells the story of two orphan brothers who end up occupying this hilltop settlement, and it explores the peculiarities of living in a sociopolitical space where flaws of character are a force of history. In the novel, life on the hilltop turns out to parody the early Hebrew literature of the pioneers, or chalutzim. Those familiar with the early Zionist writings cannot escape the ironies that abound as the once-heroic story is described from a skeptical, secular, Tel Aviv point of view.
In today’s postmodern reading, the story could reflect an ideological tale or refer to childhood fantasies given legs by the state and religion. The author displays a frigid cynicism; emotion feels fake, because reality is so overbearing and crushing. In some Tolstoynian manner, the situation itself is the protagonist of the novel; human agents serve as window dressing. Oddly, the novel describes these settlers in a way similar to Tolstoy’s descriptions of the nobility: as agents of history, with their passions, failings, and actions impacting others in ways that are tragic and momentous. Here, Gavron creates settlers as people who drag Israelis and Palestinians into a life of endless war and dispossession.
American Jewry plays an important role in creating and maintaining this fictional hilltop and perhaps the situation itself. The hilltop is populated with Jewish immigrants, mostly Americans, and funds are provided by the generosity of one Mamelstein. The brothers spend formative periods of their lives as young adults in America, one of them eventually fleeing prosecution for fraud as the markets come crashing down. An unquestioning support of Israel is the American backdrop of a story driven by romantic and Orientalist views of Israel, the kibbutz, and the hilltop. Even Gavron’s Hebrew sounds like a form of English; the syntax and the choice of vocabulary are noticeably Americanized, almost willfully divorced from the messianic fervor and liturgical beauty of the Hebrew language.
The book explores the space/time warp that makes Tel Aviv and New York feel much closer than they really are. The situation, it turns out, is not only Israeli. Hilltops can be found in the towers of finance as easily as in Judea, and none are impervious to terror. The difference that often goes unnoticed, though, is the fatalism. America believes it can solve its problems or at least export them; Israel seems to survive its problems or exacerbate them. In the end, the hilltop remains — nothing dramatic happens. Like the situation in Israel, life goes on while keeping the festering “friction zone” mostly out of sight. Situational awareness is inevitable: Life, politics, and history have placed the characters, those who reside here and perhaps those who care about them, in the wounds of the world.email print