Saturday, June 25, 2016

Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret is a celebrated 48-year-old Israeli author of short (sometimes very), pungent, often surreal fictions. If you want to familiarize yourself with his work, I'd recommend the pleasures of "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door" (translated from the Hebrew by Nathan Englander.)

Keret also has political opinions. He has differentiated himself from an august elder of Israeli literature A.B. Yehoshua, who upholds the higher, the maximal Zionism, meaning that for him Israel is the only place you can really be a Jew.

Keret demurs. He makes no such sharp distinction between "Diaspora" and Israel. A Brooklyn Jew is no less a Jew than a Jerusalemite.

In a new op-ed for the NY Times, Keret argues for being ambi-Israel, meaning you can stand up for the existence of your country while utterly opposing the harm it inflicts on those it occupies.

He writes:

Those with “ambi” positions will be allowed to support an end to the occupation while still condemning Hamas; they may believe that the Jewish people deserve a state but also maintain that Israel should not occupy territories that do not belong to it.

NY Times Book Review 6/26/16

Etgar Keret

I’m Not Anti-Israel, I’m Ambi-Israel

TEL AVIV — I was recently honored to learn that I had won the Charles Bronfman Prize. It’s an award that recognizes humanitarian work inspired by Jewish values, and I was overwhelmed and thrilled to receive it. Several news outlets reported on the announcement, and one headline in particular caught my attention: “Anti-Israel Author Etgar Keret Awarded Bronfman Prize,” proclaimed FrontPage Mag, a conservative website.

As I perused the article and the online comments (debating the best way to connect with my books, one reader suggested throwing them in the toilet and flushing them with urine), I found myself contemplating the term “anti-Israel.” Apparently a person cannot engage in Middle Eastern political issues without being quickly labeled “anti-Israeli” or “anti-Palestinian” (or sometimes, if his or her opinions are complicated enough, both).

We are all familiar with the term “anti.” We understand what it is to be “anti-Semitic,” “anti-gay” or “anti-Communist.” But what exactly does “anti-Israel” mean? After all, Israel is a state, and we rarely encounter someone who is “anti-Switzerland” or “anti-Netherlands.” Unlike ideologies, which we can attempt to sweepingly reject, when it comes to states there are complex, multifaceted, heterogeneous entities, and that much is clear to anyone who sets out to defend or attack them. For example, we can be grateful for the Dutch people who hid Anne Frank in their attic, while at the same time criticizing the Dutch citizens who volunteered for the S.S. We can adore the soccer talent that evolved in that same country, but be less admiring of aged Dutch cheeses.

As far as I am concerned there is no difference between “pro-Israel” and “pro-women-with-big-breasts.” Both positions are equally reductive and chauvinistic. I find it perplexing that precisely on the issues I hold dearest and most essential, many people insist on reducing my views to such superficiality. I love my wife, but I’m not “pro-wife,” especially when she’s unjustly berating me. I have a fraught relationship with my new neighbor, whose dogs leave their waste right outside our apartment building, but it would be wrong to say that I’m “anti” her, or her cute dogs.

Which brings me back to my initial question: Why is it that people refuse to accept this reductive perspective on most aspects of our lives, yet they adopt it without batting an eye when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Why, for example, are people who are appalled by the death of Palestinian children in an Israeli Air Force bombing of Gaza, or horrified when Israeli children are killed in a terrorist attack, moved to these reactions by an unbending support of the Palestinian people, or of the Israeli nation, rather than by a no-less-fervent defense of innocent lives in general?

My theory is that many people on both sides of this dichotomy are tired of earnestly debating the specifics and find it easier to demand a tribal discourse, the kind that essentially resembles a sports fan’s unequivocal support of a team. This denies a priori the possibility of criticizing the group you support, and moreover, if done properly, can absolve you from voicing any empathy for the other side. The “anti” or “pro” appeal aims to invalidate any discussion of tiresome issues like “occupation,” “coexistence” or “two-state solution,” replacing them with a simple binary model: us versus them.

Israeli society’s avoidance of the complexities and ambivalences of genuine introspection was especially noticeable during the debate after an Israel Defense Forces soldier, Elor Azaria, shot and killed a wounded terrorist in Hebron. His supporters united around the slogan, “The soldier is the son of us all.” Just as with the “pro” or “anti” ralliers, many of these supporters did not bother wading into the subtleties of moral or legal arguments, sufficing with a declaration that the soldier is our virtual child, and when it comes to our own children we do not have to concern ourselves with the facts but simply stand by their side.

One question, however, is unavoidable — and this may only reinforce my “anti-Israel” label — and that is: Is this really the case? If your own son were to shoot an unarmed terrorist, would you consider your love of him a justification for his acts? It is a complicated issue, but those of you who would continue to love your son while still condemning his deeds would not necessarily become “anti-son.”

To lend a helping hand to those who are fond of simplified labels, I would like to suggest a third option. Let’s call it “ambi.” The terms “ambi-Israeli” or “ambi-Palestinian” will simply indicate that our opinions on Middle Eastern affairs, while they may be resolute, are complex. Those with “ambi” positions will be allowed to support an end to the occupation while still condemning Hamas; they may believe that the Jewish people deserve a state but also maintain that Israel should not occupy territories that do not belong to it. Careful application of this new label might enable us to delve deeper into the essential arguments around the conflict and its resolution, instead of merely squirting water at one another in the shallow end of the pool.

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