Remembering Aharon Appelfeld, One of Israel’s Most Distinguished Novelists

Aharon Appelfeld—the author of 47 books, including numerous novels—died yesterday at the age of eighty-five. Born in the Romanian city of Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), Appelfeld survived World War II as a child in hiding—an experience that informed much of his fiction. He came to Israel in 1946, where he first began to learn Hebrew, the only language in which he would write; his final novel was published in September. Unlike Israel’s other literary giants, Appelfeld steered clear of politics in both his writings and his public pronouncements. In 1983, Ruth Wisse appraised his work up to that point:

Appelfeld’s short stories and novels are concerned with the effect of [World War II] on the assimilated Jews of his boyhood milieu. His work is classified as Holocaust literature because of its subject matter and because of the sense of doom that presses down on most of his characters even when they temporarily manage to elude their earthly predators. Yet Appelfeld’s writings are actually more engaged with the world into which he was born than with the forces that determined its extinction. Like Kafka, the writer with whom he is often compared and to whom he acknowledges a major debt, Appelfeld knew anti-Semitism from the inside, from the anti-Jewishness of his own home, before he encountered it in society, and it is this initial discovery that has remained the more decisive. The hostility of outsiders appeared to be almost proper retribution for the spiritual meanness of his assimilating family. . . .

Appelfeld’s The Age of Wonders, [published in English in 1981], . . . traces the remorseless pressure of anti-Semitism in the late 1930’s upon a family that is ill-equipped to understand or to escape it. Under Nazism, the [protagonist, then a boy], and his mother—expelled from an idyllic summer retreat—become aware of the meaning of their identity. The boy’s father, who had just begun to attain some recognition as a writer, is set upon in print by anonymous critics, and is gradually cut off from all his cultural outlets. This is the more unbearable to him since he shares in the general hostility to Jews, of whose evil and unpleasant ways he considers himself free. . . .

The ontological condition of this book is anti-Semitism, and one can think of few such thorough descriptions of its spread among Jews themselves. The boy’s father is the purest example. . . . The boy, grown to a man, avenges his father by a peculiar act of definition: if six million corpses were not enough to satisfy the anti-Semite’s hatred, the Jew can at least refuse to play the complementary role of the self-hater. So he slaps his enemy, returning the aggression where it belongs. But he cannot slap his father for the inglorious and ugly legacy he has been given, nor can he free himself from its oppressiveness. “His father, his father—the wound that never healed.”

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More about: Aharon Appelfeld, Anti-Semitism, Arts & Culture, Hebrew literature, Holocaust fiction, Israeli literature

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem