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The Word in Times of Crisis

Given at Mare Nostrum III: The Mediterranean: Dividing Waters or Common Ground? The role of literature and writers in a world in conflict, Cyprus – Nov.5th-7th 2004, The European Writers’ Congress (EWC) and the Cyprus Writers Union (CWU).

Yael Lerer

16 Nov. 2004

The title of this session is "The Word in Times of Crisis," and I was invited here to speak as an Israeli who translates Arabic literature into Hebrew. My assumption, later confirmed by the organizers of this event, was that I has been invited to talk about OUR times of crisis—that of Israelis and Palestinians. But before I address THE WORD in times of crisis, I would like to say a few words about THE CRISIS ITSELF. There is no “time of crisis” in Israel/Palestine. There is a permanent state of conflict between colonizer and colonized, occupier and occupied, the privileged and the disenfranchised.

This conflict is rooted in the Zionist enterprise, in the very idea of a "land without people for a people without a land." It intensified after the Nakba—the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948 in which some 3/4 of a million Palestinians were expelled from their homeland—and continued with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, which has now entered its 38th year. Today, one can say that this conflict is "stabilizing" (if one can use such a term in the context of ongoing horror), in the form of an Apartheid-like regime. I use Apartheid-like because there is no other term at my disposal to describe the policy of unequal separation unilaterally enforced by Israel, beginning with "roads for Jews" and "roads for Arabs"—if the latter are lucky enough to have a functional road at all—and on to separate tracks for almost every other function or facet of daily life.

Thus, it is very difficult for me to relate to the current reality as a "time of crisis," an anomalous epoch disrupting the would-be normalcy of the times.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the current situation is particularly harsh. In the past month alone, some 430 Palestinians were injured, 140 Palestinians were killed—including 25 children under the age of 18. The Israeli army damaged at least 230 homes in the northern Gaza Strip, including 85 housing units ground to dust. The Israelis called this operation, or 2 weeks of wanton destruction "The Days of Repentance."

In Judaism, the “Days of Repentance” mark the 10 days between the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement. These are the days during which every Jewish man and woman should be soul-searching, and asking for forgiveness from friends and foes alike, as well as from God. Days of good deeds, prayers, and appeals. The Day of Atonement is the climax in a process of expressing regret, begging for mercy, and demonstrating kindness. On Yom Kippur 2004, the Israeli army destroyed 45 houses in Gaza.

The operation "Days of Repentance" was launched four days later, on the eve of Sukkoth, the holiday of harvest, of reaping what you sow. A seven-day holiday during which most Israelis are on vacation, public festivities are held around the country, attended by hundreds of thousands of people. The Hebrew media were full of images of Israelis at leisure, at play, celebrating in the traditional makeshift tabernacle known as the sukka. Almost nonexistent were images of the Palestinians forced into makeshift huts FOR REAL because their homes, and their lives, were being systematically destroyed.

As a Jew, this reality is unbearable, and calls my work, if not my life in this country, into question. How can one hear such news, and then pick up the phone to call the literary supplements to find out if this or that book is going to be reviewed? How can one get angry at the fact that nobody has noticed that Andalus—the publishing house I founded and run—has printed a new title, when nobody notices what's taking place next door. As a private person, and an Israeli citizen, it is more important that I pick up the phone to call the editors of the daily papers to find out why they are omitting news of the ongoing massacre in Gaza. Before Israeli readers should get to know Arabic literature, they should know AND CARE about the crimes that are being perpetrated in their name. At times like these, it seems that to do anything other than to struggle against the occupation is to normalize an unbearable situation. By normalize, I mean treat the abnormal, the intolerable, as if it were routine.

Indeed, OUR "Time of Crisis," has being going on for over 100 years, though, as I noted earlier, since the Nakba of 1948, it has become a permanent state of expulsion, dispossession, oppression, and occupation. I was born into this conflict, it wasn’t a matter of choice. I was also born into the Hebrew language, my mother tongue as well as that of both my parents. Since I became a conscious adult, I have found this reality intolerable, but more importantly, I have tried to assume responsibility for it. I am the expeller, the dispossessor, the oppressor, the occupier. It was I who riddled the tender 13-year-old body of Iman al-Hams of Rafah with 20 live bullets; it is I who holds the key to the locked gate in the wall that separates Palestinian schoolchildren from their school.

Yet in any other country, and any other tongue, I would feel myself a stranger, an immigrant. My fierce criticism of Zionism notwithstanding, it created me, along with several million other native Hebrew speakers whose only homeland was established upon the ruins of another. Knowing this, it is my responsibility to fight for national and civic equality between Arabs and Jews; to work for historic reconciliation based on the Israeli recognition of the Palestinian Right of Return; for a life of partnership, justice, and equality. The only framework in which I can envision realizing these values, is a bi-national one. To quote Israeli historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, who proposes bi-nationalism as the basis for rethinking a political alternative.

Bi-national is first of all a description of the existing reality. And since the national distinction—Jews vs. Arabs—is the basis for the definition of this reality, the bi-national position is the only one which embodies the demand to dismantle the mechanisms by which the Jewish collective asserts control over the Arab collective. The bi-national position launches a discussion that integrates the various aspects of the so-called “Palestinian question”—usually discussed separately: the occupied territories, the refugees, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the future of the Jewish collective in Israel and its surrounding Arab environment.

In Raz-Krakotzkin’s words:

“The discussion is a single discussion: the question of the Jews and the question of the Arabs. One can not speak of Jewish rights without speaking about Palestinian rights. Similarly, one cannot accept a separation between the discussion on the occupation and the discussion on the Jewish character of the State of Israel, as though they were separate issues. Only by combining these discussions, is change likely to occur.”

Raz-Krakotzkin evokes the term bi-nationalism not as an alternative to a Palestinian state in the form of a single state, but rather as an alternative to the principle of “separation,” a precept that has informed Zionism from the outset. It was Labor’s last Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, who put it to cynical use in his electoral campaign with the barefaced slogan (borrowed from the extreme right!): ”We are Here and They are There!” WE being the Jews and THEY being the Arabs. Adopting separation as THE precondition for “peace,” as THE necessary requirement for Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state, has meant that under the guise of Israeli withdrawal, Israel has in fact intensified the occupation by expanding settlements, paving bypass roads, and confiscating great amounts of land in order to orchestrate separation upon separation. The massive wall under construction deep inside the West Bank, is but this precept’s most recent and blatant physical example.

To quote Raz-Krakotzkin again:

“Bi-nationalism, in the broad sense, is the question of the Arab-Jew, and its aim is to counter the Orientalist paradigm that pits one of these identities against the other—in all the senses that paradigm functions as a basis for the definition of Israeli culture… The category Arab-Jew isn’t merely marking an identity that was and still is the basis for the consciousness of Arab Jews [i.e., Jews who originated in Arab lands]: it is meant to constitute a basis for defining the consciousness of every Israeli, the new basis for Israeli identity, whose existence and right to do so, must be premised on their existence in the Arab world. As long as Israeli discourse is premised on the dichotomy Arab vs. Jew, it will be impossible to frame an alternative. Arab-Jew is, thus, a call for partnership based on the decolonization of Jewish identity in all senses and contexts.”

Andalus Publishing is guided by such a bi-national conception, by the assumption that the only life possible is a life together, in Israel-Palestine and in our larger Arab surroundings. Of course, this should include cultural partnership, literary partnership. Andalus seeks to foster points of contact between Hebrew and Arabic literature, the Hebrew and Arabic languages, and the worlds (and words) they convey; to imbed Arabic literature into the Hebrew experience; to create a textual middle ground, an intermediate cultural space that blurs borders but avoids the pitfalls of Orientalism, which distances rather than draws closer. Blurring borders means resisting the hegemonic dictate to separate and refusing to accept the false binary Arab vs. Jew.

Andalus Publishing seeks to evoke a shared Arab-Jewish past. Andalus, the site of the "golden age" of Islamic and Jewish thought, where Arabic and Jewish cultures fed and fertilized one another, was also an epoch known for its literary and intellectual output by some of the greatest Muslim and Jewish philosophers, theologians, and poets. It was a period during which texts were translated and ideas exchanged freely from Arabic to Hebrew and vice versa.

Andalus was established a few months BEFORE the outbreak of the current Intifada. Here I must admit that, despite my clarification at the outset, the feeling of crisis we have been in since October 2000: the daily killings, the spiraling Israeli descent into fascism, would have precluded Andalus’ establishment a few months AFTER the outbreak of the current Intifada. That is to say, I had yet to learn (!) to accept horror as a fixed situation—which it isn’t, it only gets worse by the year.

Between 1932—when Menahem Kapeliuk's Hebrew translation of Taha Hussein's Al-Ayyam (The Days) was published in Tel Aviv—and 2000, less than 40 Arabic language fiction titles were translated from Arabic into Hebrew. Most of these were authored by Egyptians and Palestinians (before Andalus Publishing began operating, not a single Syrian, Iraqi, or North African writer was translated to Hebrew from Arabic—the Moroccan Taher Ben Jaloun was translated from French as were a number of others). Of these, only three are women: the Palestinians Sahar Khalife and Fadwa Tuqan, and the Egyptian Nawal al-Sa'adawi.

Contemporary Arabic writers who have been translated into many languages, and, needless to say, are well known to every literate Arab, remain unknown to the Hebrew reader, save for the Egyptian Nobel laureate Nagib Mahfouz. The names of authors such as the Egyptian Sunallah Ibrahim, the Syrian Zakaria Tamer, the Lebanese Hanan al-Sheikh and Elias Khoury, not to mention the late Iraqi Jew Samir Naqash who wrote in Arabic and published from his home in Petach Tiqva, Israel are not familiar to the Israeli public, nor is their extensive body of literary work.

Despite Israel’s location in the heart of the Arab world, Hebrew-reading Israelis remain, for the most part, unexposed to Arabic culture in general, and Arabic literature and thought in particular. Until recently it was nearly impossible to find translations of narratives that might enable the Hebrew reader to understand Arab societies and the various, complex experiences that shape the lives of the people who comprise them.

What could be more normal than translating Hanan al-Sheikh or Hoda Barakat into Hebrew? And here we arrive at the greatest paradox of all. While at Andalus we are guided by a conception that seeks to normalize Jewish existence in the Arab world, we must ask ourselves day in and day out whether or not acting "normal" also normalizes the current situation, which, as I noted before is not only abnormal, but intolerable.

Questions of normalization preoccupy not only us. In may 2001, following Andalus' appeal to several Arab writers to grant us permission to translate and publish their works, an intensive debate broke out among Arab writers and intellectuals over the pages of the Arabic press on the pros and cons of translating Arabic literature into Hebrew, re-examining the question of cultural normalization.

The late Edward Said was fierce in his attack on those Arab writers who oppose having their works translated into Hebrew. Over the pages of Al-Hayat he wrote:

"Take the recent campaign against the translation of Arabic books into Hebrew. One would have thought that the more Arabic literature is available in Israel, the better able Israelis are to understand us as a people, and to stop treating us as animals or less-than-human. Instead we have the sorry spectacle of serious Arab writers actually denouncing their colleagues for "allowing" themselves to "normalize" with Israel, which is the idiotic phrase used as an accusation for collaborating with the enemy. Isn't it the case, as Julien Benda was the first to say, that intellectuals are supposed to go against collective passions instead of trading in them demagogically? How on earth is a Hebrew translation an act of collaboration? Getting into a foreign language is always a victory for the writer. Always and in each case. Isn't it a far more intelligent and useful thing than the craven "normalization" of the various countries that have trade and diplomatic relationships with the enemy even as Palestinians are being killed like so many flies by the Israeli army and air force? Aren't Hebrew translations of Arabic literature a way of entering Israeli life culturally, making a positive effect in it, changing people's mind from bloody passion to reasonable understanding of Israel's Arab Others, especially when it is Israeli publishers who have gone and published the translations as a sign of cultural protest against Israel's barbarous Arab policy?"

Although I agree with Said's every word, I must say that as time (that of crisis and that of heightened crisis) goes by, my pessimism only grows deeper, and the answers to these question appear ever-less clear.


Yael Lerer is the founder of Andalus Publishing, publisher of Arabic Literature in Hebrew translation.