S. Y. Agnon’s Ironic View of Zionism’s Future and the Jewish Past

Nov. 15 2016

Reviewing recently published translations of fiction by S.Y. Agnon (1888-1970)—the only Hebrew writer to have won a Nobel Prize for literature—Adam Kirsch examines this pious yet modernist author’s oeuvre and its literary treatment of Zionism, Judaism, and Jewish history. To illustrate the novelist’s sometimes confounding use of parable, Kirsch interprets an episode from Only Yesterday, the work that “is considered [Agnon’s] masterpiece and has a claim to being the Great Israeli Novel.”

One day, in a fit of whimsy or cruelty, [the protagonist] paints the words “crazy dog” on the back of a stray Jerusalem mutt. This idle action condemns the dog to misery, since everyone who encounters him is convinced that he has rabies, and he is driven from place to place with curses and hails of rocks.

It is impossible not to read the story of the dog—who is eventually named Balak, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “dog” spelled backward—as a parable of Jewish history itself. Like the Jewish people, Balak is marked for a persecution that he can neither understand nor avert. His suffering leads him, like Job, to challenge Providence: “Balak complains to Heaven and shouts, arf arf, give me a place to rest, give me righteousness and justice. And when Balak’s shout is heard, they assault him with stones and sticks.” But during the course of the novel Agnon expands and complicates the allegory, with the result that it is no longer so clear; he even makes fun of the efforts of the characters in the book to figure out what Balak’s story means.

Like Kafka—a writer whom Agnon said he never read—Agnon presents us with a parable that turns out to be illegible, as if to show that, in a 20th-century novel, meaning itself must be made endlessly problematic. In this way, Only Yesterday, though an emphatically local story, makes a place for itself in the pantheon of international modernism.

Only Yesterday was published in Palestine in 1945, which means that it was being written at the time the Holocaust was taking place. If ever there was a moment when piety and solidarity might have seemed compelling literary values, this was it. Agnon, however, refuses both, in favor of a complex and unsettling chronicle of an often mythologized period in Israeli history. One might say that, for Agnon, Israel represented the reality and the future of Jewish life, and of his own adulthood. His writing about it is ambivalent and ironic, like adult life itself. Piety and nostalgia belong to the past—which is why Agnon’s writing never glows with a warmer love than when he is describing the [Polish] town he left as a teenager, Buczacz.

Read more at New Yorker

More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew literature, Holocaust, Israeli literature, S. Y. Agnon, Zionism

Israel Has Survived Eight Years of Barack Obama’s False Friendship

Jan. 20 2017

In his speech justifying America’s decision to allow passage of the UN Security Council resolution declaring it a violation of international law for Jews to live in east Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Golan Heights, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that “friends need to tell each other the hard truths.” John Podhoretz comments:

The decision in December by President Obama to abstain on the UN Security Council vote . . . marked the moment he crossed the finish line in the course he had charted from 2008 onward. The turn against Israel was complete. And, as he had when he began it, in farewell interview after farewell interview he characterized his assault on the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in the Holy Land as an act of tough love. . . .

Which raises the key question: why [only] abstain [from the resolution]? If “hard truths” define friendship, then by all means they should have made the truths as hard as possible. If Barack Obama and John Kerry truly believe the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem is illicit, then they should have voted for the resolution. Instead, they took the coward’s way out. They opened the vault to the criminals and placed the jewels in their hands while wearing white gloves so there would be no residual trace of their fingerprints. The abstention was in some weird sense the mark of their bad conscience. They wanted something to happen while maintaining some historical deniability about their involvement in it.

In the eight years of the Obama presidency, war broke out twice between the Palestinians and the Israelis and nearly broke out a third time. In each case, the issue was not the West Bank, or east Jerusalem, or anything near. . . . The idea that the settlements and the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem are the main barrier to peace between Israel and the Palestinians was proved to be a lie right before Obama’s eyes in 2009, and 2012, and 2014. And he didn’t care to see it, because he is blinded by an antipathy he wishes to ascribe to Israeli action when honesty would compel him to find it in his own misguided leftist ideology—or within his own soul.

Israel has survived the horrendous blessing of Barack Obama’s false friendship.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Barack Obama, Israel & Zionism, John Kerry, U.S. Foreign policy, US-Israel relations