Two Recent Novels about Undying Jewish Women Make Distinctive Statements about Human Purpose

March 11 2019

The protagonist of Dara Horn’s Eternal Life is a Second Temple-era Jewish woman cursed with eternal life. Similarly, the protagonist of Sarah Perry’s Melmoth is a Jewish woman from the same time but, in her case, fated to wander the earth for eternity as punishment for witnessing Jesus’ resurrection and then denying she did so. Michael Weingrad notes a singular difference in how the two books address their shared central question of “why go on?”

Horn [considers]—and this is what makes her tale so distinctive—not the value of an individual life but the determination to be fruitful and multiply, to continue the Jewish story through our children and our children’s children. Horn shows that the will to enlarge a family is the deepest expression of faith not only in the divine but in the human, too. As contemporary demography suggests, when that faith weakens, birthrates fall. Human concern retreats to the shape and duration of the individual’s life. The import of Horn’s book for our moment, then, is not [her protagonist] Rachel’s longevity but her natality. . . .

[By contrast], Perry’s wraith-like wanderer is an eternal witness to human cruelty with none of the consolations of religious belief. The subjects of her visitations are bystanders, and sometimes worse, to the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Christian religious persecution, violent misogyny, the deportation of illegal immigrants, and the criminalization of euthanasia. Call it progressive gothic.

Like Horn’s novel, Perry’s asks: why go on? But here the question means, why go on when humanity is so ugly? Why go on when each of us is so implicated in the injustices of the world? . . .

I couldn’t help being struck by the fact that not one of the half-dozen or so characters visited by Perry’s [protagonist] has children. Some are married, some elderly, but none, it seems, is a parent. Perry’s novel seems to warn of the despair that accrues from witnessing the world without a vantage point larger than the self. Horn’s is about a certain hopeful yearning for the world, a hope that in some sense is our children.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Children, Dara Horn, Jewish literature

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat