The literary critic Vivian Gornick reviews a book by A.B. Yehoshua in the latest Nation and the piece represents another landmark in open contempt for Israeli culture. It’s plain and devastating, and ends with the haunting image of a society facing “the escalating isolation and the petrifying last stand,” in which Jews have ceased to be Jews.
(Times are changing. Compare her piece to this lovesong to Israel at 60 that the Nation published in ’08, which four times cited Israeli artists who won “the Israel Prize”– whatever that is, as if Americans should care)
I have excerpts of the piece below, but the news here is the fact that a writer of Gornick’s stature and boldness would drop a book about Israel 30 years ago because to write critically of the country would have been “literary suicide.”
So this is how high liberal culture works. This is dangerous territory. Remember that in 2009, the prominent leftlib journalist Michelle Goldberg told Justin Elliott that criticizing Israel was career poison:
Goldberg: There are people in the Jewish community who understand that they are defending the indefensible [in Israeli conduct].
Elliott: Have you experienced pressures as a journalist not to say things?
Goldberg: “Yes, to be honest, there are certain things I’m not going to talk about… Everybody knows that if you write certain things you put yourself beyond the pale of certain publications. And not just the obvious ones like the New Republic. I mean you take a certain stance and you consign yourself to the loony left. I think that is maybe becoming less and less true.” She has been told on some occasions, “You can’t write something,” and there “is a degree of self-censorship as well.”
OK, now here is Gornick on the same theme:
I had gone to Israel [30-odd years ago] charged with the task of writing a book-length piece of personal journalism about the country as I found it, on the ground, in the ordinariness of its daily life. I never wrote that book. The country had not aroused my affection, and by then I had learned that to write critically, without sympathy, for the subject at hand was to commit literary suicide. I had met some of the most marvelous people I would ever know, looked at some of the most striking landscapes on the face of the planet, felt living history in the faces all about me. Yet however much I tried during the six months that I lived in Israel, through whichever of the various elements of identity at my disposal (Jewish, female, American), I was unable to connect. I returned to New York with a hundred pages of notes on people, places, events—all in the negative. Everything I had written said, “Yes, but…” As the child of Yiddish-speaking secular Jews, the Hebrew language meant no more to me than any other foreign tongue; as a woman, I balked at finding myself in a country more sexist than my own; as a product of individuating America, I found the tribalism of the culture dismaying.
Here are some of her insights into the culture:
I never knew anyone in Israel who was not an active member of a tight-knit family, and for whom consideration of the family was not permanently compelling. It was as though all Israelis had been raised to be husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, not simply women or men. The idea of living as a person who began and ended with oneself would, if proposed, invariably be met with a blank gaze, followed by: “But that is unnatural! What is natural is to be in a family.” A good many Israelis had married young and seemed to be going through life joined at the hip—a convention that I came to think at least partially responsible for the overwhelming impression I had of the Israelis I knew as men and women with a distinctly limited knowledge of themselves as sensual beings….
Of course, the all-embracing sense of family feeds the remarkable solidarity that Israelis demonstrate in the face of external threat. During my time in the country I witnessed, more than once, the transformation within twenty-four hours of a random population into what felt like a civilian army. It was an impressive sight, one not easily forgotten: the unambiguous reward for being raised to take your place in the tribe. On the other hand, God help you if you did not take your place. In Israel, at that time, if a man or a woman was gay, or unmarried by choice, or a pacifist who refused to serve in the army, a crippling sense of social exclusion—far greater than any that could be leveled in Europe or the United States—dogged one’s life. Such was the price to be paid for living in a society that did not know how to accommodate the one who is different….
Here is a description of her meeting the writer Yehoshua, and his intolerant attitude toward Diaspora Jews:
He looked up and said in a voice rising on a note of insinuation, “So why are you still living in the Diaspora? Why aren’t you living here where you belong?” I laughed. “You’re kidding,” I said. He told me that he most certainly was not kidding and went on to sketch a picture of my life in the States as one at risk in a Christian nation that, at any time, might turn on me; right now, at this very minute, I was standing on a narrow strip of beach with the sea at my back and the goyim, for all I knew, beginning to advance on me. The visit lasted an hour, during which I said little while Yehoshua harangued me….
Here’s her return to Israel last summer:
At the end of last summer, for the first time in thirty years, I spent a week in Israel. The buses were no longer tin cans, no one barked at me in the shops or tried to get ahead of me in line, and the youth culture of Tel Aviv—beautiful young people dressed in Alphabet City black, everywhere, in bars, restaurants, cafés—was striking. Nonetheless, old friends were shocked to learn that I was still neither married nor a mother, and insinuating inflections marked most encounters in a way that still got on my nerves. (Question: “Are you enjoying that book?” Response: “And why shouldn’t I be enjoying this book?”) What was most startling, however, was the frenzy of building that seemed to be going on everywhere at the same time. Maybe it was the killing heat—it was, after all, the end of summer—but everyone and everything, the very air itself, seemed tired: bone tired, bitter tired, millennial tired; tired of the weariness and the canopy of coals, the escalating isolation and the petrifying last stand. It flashed through my mind: perhaps the Jews—because love, of love they have despaired—really are tired of being Jews.
And here in the Boston Review, Gornick is bracingly plain about the American Jewish rise into the establishment. And this was five years ago. She’s saying that the American Jewish experience is now such an entitled one that it doesn’t bear being related in and of itself in fiction (because fiction has an instructive purpose):
There is no hyphenated [American-]Jewish experience anymore. I have two nieces who are both Ivy League babies and they’re in the ruling class. There’s nothing they can’t do. Nothing. So there’s nothing to talk about. There’s really nothing to write about. Yet you have young people who keep on doing it. All I’m saying is, it doesn’t count