Monday, November 24, 2008

Intellectual dishonesty at the Literary Saloon

Nothing is more intellectually dishonest than pretending to talk about books in order to unfurl a political banner.

Earlier today the Literary Saloon proudly announced a new book that will be “Exhibit A in the case against Israel.” The book is a new English translation of S. Yizhar’s 1949 novella Khirbet Khizeh. And the quotation is from a review of the book in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

To their credit, the Saloonists provide a link to Noah Efron’s review of Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck’s new English translation. To their eternal shame, however, they quote Efron only selectively for the purpose of distorting his argument.

Here is the passage they quote:

       Now, a generation later, reading the English translation, many of the same feelings return, though they are still more complicated. Once again, horror is followed by an awed pride that so self-immolating a story could ever have been considered canonical, much less remain so for almost 60 years. But then comes a dull, dyspeptic realization that Khirbet Khizeh, in English, in 2008, is a gift for anti-Israel propagandists. It will enter the growing bibliography of “ethnic cleansing” literature.
       From now on, it will be Exhibit A in the case against Israel: positive proof that from the very start, like today, Israel has violently, sometimes murderously, displaced innocent Palestinians.
       The book invites this. Khirbet Khizeh retains an immediacy that lends it straight-from-today’s-front-page relevance.
An attentive reader might ask, “What are the ‘same feelings’ to which Efron refers in the first sentence?” The Saloonists would prefer that you didn’t ask, but as long as you have:       [Yizhar’s novella] wrecked my naive confidence that, after centuries of persecutions culminating in the Holocaust, Jews with guns, by their nature, complied with high standards of morality. Yizhar was not subtle about this point. In his story, the guns Jews aim at Palestinians are German Spandaus, and the transports onto which Jews load Palestinian are called “boxcars.” The parallel Yizhar drew between Jews and Nazis was inescapable. Jews had ordered atrocities, and Jews had carried them out. I was appalled to realize this.
       In short order, the horror I felt gave way to a peculiar pride.
       If Khirbet Khizeh demonstrated that Israelis were not above exiling innocents, it also showed that we Israelis were not afraid to admit our crimes, either. We were told that beginning in 1964, the novella had been included in the list of canonical texts on the high school matriculation exam in literature. Not only, then, had one of Israel’s most esteemed writers produced a work of searing self-criticism, but a generation of teens were also forced to read it before they themselves enlisted. Unconscionable acts had been committed, I concluded, but Israelis did not lack a conscience. Long live Yiddischer rectitude.
Man, was I sorely tempted to excise the last two sentences! I don’t much appreciate Efron’s irony here. But if I did so I would be repeating the Saloonists’ error of doing violence to Efron’s thought for the purpose of installing him, against his will and intention, on my side of the political aisle.

That is what the Literary Saloon does by foreshortening his remarks. For Efron does not conclude that Khirbet Khizeh is “Exhibit A in the case against Israel.” He goes on immediately—I mean, in the very next sentence—to praise the new afterword by Professor David Shulman of Hebrew University:Shulman is right to find in Khirbet Khizeh the message: ‘We did this; We do this.’ And he is not wrong to draw the moral: ‘No more Khirbet Khizehs.’ Perhaps this is what the novella means in 2008. Perhaps this is especially what the novella means when translated into English.Efron does not end with Professor Shulman’s conclusion, but does not reject it either. In reaching his own conclusion (“this story that lends itself so smoothly to polemic . . . is, at its heart, an inversion of polemic”), Efron quotes remarks by Yizhar himself on the novella that the Saloonists might have done well to pause and reflect upon:There’s no duty or necessity whatsoever for a story about some specific events to have to symbolize something more general. . . . And what you find in a given tale is not necessarily a model for everything that happened in the history of a people or a country at a particular time.Why bother with the duty or necessity of respecting a writer’s intentions, or even the actual conclusions of a friendly critic, when all you really want is to press Israelis into the service of anti-Israeli polemic?