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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’s Economy Thrives While the Middle East Disintegrates

Jan. 19 2018

Now that the data have come in from 2017, it is clear that the Israeli economy had another successful year, expanding at a rate higher than that of any other advanced country. Israel’s per-capita GDP also grew, placing it above those of France and Japan. Daniel Kryger notes some of the implications regarding the Jewish state’s place in the Middle East:

The contrast between first-world Israel and the surrounding third-world Arab states is larger today than ever before. Israel’s GDP per capita is almost twenty times the GDP per capita of impoverished Egypt and five times larger than semi-developed Lebanon.

Like any human project, Israel is a never-ending work in progress and much work remains to integrate ḥaredi Jews and Israeli Arabs into Israel’s knowledge economy. Properly addressing Israel’s high costs of living requires more economic and legislative reforms and breaking up inefficient oligopolies that keep the prices artificially high. However, by any standard, the reborn Jewish state is a remarkable success story. . . .

Much has changed since OPEC launched its oil embargo against the West after the failed Arab aggression against Israel in October 1973. Before the collapse of the pro-Arab Soviet empire, China and India had no official ties with Israel and many Western and Japanese companies avoided doing business with Israel. Collapsing oil prices have dramatically eroded the power of oil-producing countries. It has become obvious that the future belongs to those who innovate, not those who happen to sit on oil. Israel has today strong commercial ties with China and a thriving partnership with India. Business delegations from Jamaica to Japan are eager to do business with Israel and benefit from Israel’s expertise. . . .

[For its part], the boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) movement may bully Jewish and pro-Israel students on Western campuses. However, in real life, BDS stands no chance of succeeding against Israel. The reason is simple: reborn Israel has . . . become too valuable a player in the global economy.

Read more at Mida

More about: BDS, Israel & Zionism, Israeli economy, Middle East, OPEC