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

Hamas Won’t Compromise with the Palestinian Authority, and Gazans Won’t Overthrow Hamas

July 24 2017

Since the terrorist organization Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, much of Israeli strategy toward it has stemmed from the belief that, if sufficient pressure is applied, the territory’s residents will rise up against it. Yaakov Amidror argues this is unlikely to happen, and he also doubts that improved living conditions for ordinary Gazans would deter Hamas from terrorism or war:

The hardships experienced by the Strip’s residents, no matter how terrible, will not drive them to stage a coup to topple Hamas. The organization is entrenched in Gaza and is notorious for its brutality toward any sign of dissidence, and the Palestinians know there is no viable alternative waiting for an opportunity to [take over].

[Therefore], it is time everyone got used to the idea that Hamas is not about to relinquish its dominant position in the Gaza Strip, let alone concede to the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas. . . . [Yet the] assumption is also baseless that if Gaza experiences economic stability and prosperity, Hamas would refrain from provoking hostilities. This misconception is based on the theory that Hamas operates by governmental norms and prioritizes the needs and welfare of its citizens. This logic does not apply to Hamas. . . .

[Hamas’s] priorities are to bolster its military power and cement its iron grip. This is why all the supplies Israel allows into Gaza on a daily basis to facilitate normal life have little chance of reaching the people. Hamas first and foremost takes care of its leaders and makes sure it has what it needs to sustain its terror-tunnel-digging enterprise and its weapon-production efforts. It then sees to the needs of its members, and then—and only then—what little is left is diverted to rehabilitation efforts that benefit the population.

This is why the argument that Israel is responsible for Gaza’s inability to recover from its plight is baseless. Hamas is the one that determines the priorities by which to allocate resources in the enclave, and the more construction materials that enter Gaza, the easier and faster it is for Hamas to restore its military capabilities. Should Israel sacrifice its own security on the altar of Gazans’ living conditions? I don’t think so.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security