“The Last Unicorn” as a Reflection on Jews and Judaism after the Holocaust

April 16 2019

Peter S. Beagle, who turns eighty on Saturday, has behind him a six-decade career as a novelist, and is still writing. A native of the Bronx with literary aspirations, who was born into a family of Jewish artists and rubbed elbows with Ken Kesey, Beagle, as Michael Weingrad puts it, “could have ended up an American Jewish novelist trailing belatedly after Saul Bellow and Philip Roth or an occasional surrealist like Bernard Malamud or Cynthia Ozick, an observer of and sometime participant in the counterculture.” But while he experimented in a number of genres, Beagle stands out from this group by writing several works of fantasy, most importantly the 1968 The Last Unicorn, for which he is best known. Weingrad comments on this book’s subtle, but inescapable, Jewish themes, which go far beyond the fact that one of its main characters is a wizard named Schmendrick:

[In this novel] Beagle does not ironize evil; he treats it mythically. He introduces villains, above all the Red Bull, an implacable, destructive force that has been unleashed against the unicorns. Beagle’s depiction of the [titular] unicorn’s melancholy quest for the rest of her kind borders on secular post-ḥasidic parables of God discovering what has become of His Jews in the wake of the Shoah. “Wherever she went,” Beagle writes, “she searched for her people, but she found no trace of them.”

Though the novel cannot be reduced to allegory, its language is infused with suggestive parallels to God and the Six Million. The unicorn repeatedly refers to the other unicorns as her “people.” “How terrible it would be,” she says ominously, “if all my people had been turned human by well-meaning wizards—exiled, trapped in burning houses. I would sooner find that the Red Bull had killed them all.”

Beagle’s unicorn resembles a god who has been living apart from the world. When the unicorn leaves her timeless forest, she enters into history and is shocked and saddened by what she discovers, not least that human beings are no longer able to recognize her. “There has never been a world in which I was not known,” she muses, surprised when a farmer takes her for an ordinary mare.

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More about: American Jewish literature, Fantasy, Holocaust, Judaism

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