Yehouda Shenhav is an Israeli professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, a theorist of bureaucracy, management, and capitalism, and a writer of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He has taught in the United States at Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Wisconsin—Madison, and Columbia University. His critical essay, “Beyond the Two State Solution” (2012) argued that the world’s fixation on Israel’s Green Line (the 1949 ceasefire line) and Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line since 1967, is counter-productive and offers no long-term solution.
Gilad Halpern and Dahlia Scheindlin, now co-hosts of the podcast series The Tel Aviv Review, interviewed him on their most recent program.
Shenhav has lost faith in the ability of academic scholarship to bridge the gap between Israeli and Palestinian society, and so he is turning to literature. With the support of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, he is translating novels written by Palestinians about the Palestinian condition, from Arabic to Hebrew. The first book in the series, Salman Natur’s Walking on the Wind, will be launched at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017.
Translation of literature is needed, said Shenhav, because the number of Jewish-Israelis who speak Arabic, outside of the security services, is approximately “zero.” The translation of Arabic literature, he hopes, will help bridge the gap between these languages and cultures. Literature, he said, can help forge a common language and that might represent a tentative step towards a shared society.
Literature, said Shenhav, can approach topics that our political discourse can not:
“I think that literature is a better battlefield than academia. To be honest, I lost some faith in academia and in research.”
Then, Shenhav used the example of himself and colleagues in the academe in explaining how their different ethnic and religious identities shaped how their academic discourse was received.
“First of all, it has to do with my identity. We were three or four good friends. One of them was Adi Ophir and Hanan Chever who are a very prominent, a philosopher and a literary researcher who say very, very nasty things against the Jewish state, or the Zionist state. Then comes me, who says similar things. Then comes Azmi Bishara [a Palestinian citizen of Israel and public intellectual] who says lenient–more lenient arguments. I mean, he is not as critical.”
Gild Halpern injected in the interview, “Would you say that you are more radical than Azmi Bishara?”
“Not now, in the time when he was here, I could as a Jew say more harsh things[…] he would say hard things, the interpretation of what he says is mediated by his position in a society, and this is my first point to your question Dahlia. If you are an Ashkenazi Jew, if you are a European, the compartment of what you can say is larger or wider. When you are Mizrahi [a Jew with origins in the Middle East] it narrows down. When you’re an Arab, you know, it can go to hell.”
Shenhav added more:
“I always told him [Azmi Bishara] if I say what you have said, nothing would have happened. And now I go back to your question and I compare myself and to my position as a Mizrahi, who is potentially an Arab Jew, is much more alerting than if my friend, my dear friend Hanan Chever agrees with me. […] So he is the black sheep of the family. I am…, Azmi Bishara is beyond the pale and I am in between. So I think identity mediates very much what you say. This is A.”
“This B is, I don’t think this whole project of the two-state-solution and this idea of dividing [the land is viable]. I think that the left in Israel is not less fascist than the right winger is, and sometimes more.”
“The nakbah, which I call, painfully so, ‘the ethnic cleansing of Palestine,’ was done by the Israeli Left. By the Jewish Left. Hashomer Hatzair, the most radical leftist (a Zionist-socialist movement], swallowed the most of the Palestinian lands and the story as if 48—à la guerre comme à la guerre—This is bullshit because most of the Palestinians were kicked out prior to ’48. I say that painfully. I could have been an ardent Zionist. I was. I was. But I feel as a Jew, an Israeli Jew who grew up here—I’m from the ’73 cohort, that’s when I was in the army—I was betrayed by, I wouldn’t say by this country, but by this [left-Zionist] ideology. And I realized that this is not actually what we were taught all these years. And you know, somebody who feels that he was cheated thinks twice afterward. And where we were cheated, and why we were cheated—we—the Sabra—the Israeli-Jews who were really, really…you know what I wanted to do in 1973, I really wanted to die. I really wanted to die […] for the country. I didn’t have a gram of fear.”
And, Shenhav trailed off into a shared, traumatic, memory; memories best left to literature.
Halpern prodded him: “The whole outlook that you now paint is very bleak. Do you have any hope whatsoever in the future? [..] You said you lost faith in the ability of academia to change [the dialogue] and now you’re engaged in this cultural/literary project.”
And Scheindlein chimed: “I think this is very clear—for everything you have lost faith in, you have something to replace it: you’ve lost faith in academia, but you replaced it with literature; you’ve lost faith in the two-state-solution, and you have replaced it with–?”
Shenhav gives it a try: we cannot divide the land!
“I would say without dividing the land. There is no way we can divide the land because the Palestinians and the Jews are like Siamese twins. You cannot, you cannot separate them. You know how they [try to] separate them here: they call them Palestinians in the West Bank, and Israeli-Arabs here. But this is bullshit–you know, we all know this is bullshit. This is like in South Africa, they had 14 definitions of blacks just to divide them and rule.”
Jews and Muslims cannot be separated from their close embrace in the small land that is Israel-Palestine, which is not much larger than Los Angeles. We may as well learn each other’s language, read each other’s literature, suggested Shenhav.
“I remember, Dahlia, that we met, we bumped into each other in New York once, and I was after the debate with […] Peter Beinart […] We were all going out to this Korean restaurant […] Peter Beinart, if you, you know, put a gun to his head and ask him, ‘so at the end, at the end, what do you want?’ [Beinart answered] ‘A Jewish state.’
There is not enough Arab literature in that, suggested Shenhav. It will never work.
In the 1990s, with Yitzhak Rabin and the peace process, Shenhav believed in the two-state solution. He protested against the settlements, “all these kind of things,” he said. But today his views have changed.
“I believe today that you should not kick out people, expel people from their homes, even if, even if—it’s a bad practice, it’s a bad practice. And I think we should be very careful with those kinds of practices.”
What Shenhav was referencing, was in 2005 Israel withdrew its troops from inside of Gaza, while it continued to control passage in and out of Gaza for both goods and people. The disengagement was a mistake, contended Shenhav:
“Had it been today, I would protest against the government with the settlers. However, however, I also believe in the [Palestinian refugees’] right of return. I think it’s possible. I think it is desirable, and I think that to some extent it will happen,” he said.
“So you’re saying there is going to be a law of return for Jews, for Palestinians and for Jews who want to go back to settlements—is that what you’re saying—in Gaza,” asked Scheindlin. “Why not?” Shenhav said. In other words, giving up Gaza was a mistake, but not for the usual reasons.
“Why not? I don’t have anything against settlements[…]OK, let me end with a non-provocative statement. There is no single settlement that caused so much trouble to that Palestinians like Natzrat Illit and Karmiel [“two Jewish cities inside Israel,” clarified Scheindlin]. There are 19 years that separate between ’67 and ’48. What is the difference [between] those settlements and those settlements? So we cannot object [to] settlements [as such]. The funny decision that the Green Line has become [a border for what constitutes a “settlement.”]
Non-provocative, perhaps only in literature…
The interview concluded when Dahlia Scheindlin recalled attending a demonstration by Palestinians at Tel Aviv University some years ago…(“I think it was probably Nakba Day,” she said.) There, she observed Baruch Marzel [head of the extremist Kach movement of settlers) wearing a blue T-shirt with the words “Sheikh Muwannis.” That was the name of the old Palestinian village where Tel Aviv University sits today. Surely he wore the T-shirt sarcastically, Scheindlin suggested.
“No. No,” said Shenhav. “You are going to talk about settlements, they want to speak of the old places as well. They want this idea [that there is no difference between pre-48 and post-67 Israel] to trickle down as well. And I say the same. So my students went out from class when they saw that, and they protested with him against the Meretz [left wing] voters, who denied [that Tel Aviv was once a Palestinian village].”
“This is the paradox, that the Meretz voters denied that this was an Arab village, and Baruch Marzel acknowledged [it]. So you know that something is crooked here. You know that something is upside down here. You know that something is not right here. So let’s explore, what is this?” Through literature,
Through literature, Shenhav explored.
Listen to the program at TLV1 HERE.
This article was originally published on Roland Nikles’ blog here.