How a Master of Hebrew Fiction Made Peace with His East European Hometown

On the Jewish calendar, tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the great Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon, several of whose works are set in the Galician town he calls Shibush (in Hebrew, “mistake”): a stand-in for his hometown of Buczacz in what is now Ukraine. Jeffrey Saks considers the city’s role in Agnon’s posthumous book A City in Its Fullness—a cycle of stories set in Shibush—which, like most of Agnon’s work, was written in the Land of Israel:

Agnon’s early writings are marked by a harsh critical eye, spotlighting hypocrisy and deception, especially relating to financial matters and social injustice. Only as Agnon matures is his focus on physical poverty (which remains ever present in his writing) overtaken by a portrayal of the spiritual poverty of Buczacz as a synecdoche for Jewry in general.

Agnon departed Buczacz at age twenty, and, aside from two very brief visits, essentially never returned—yet his literary imagination was never far from his hometown, as if to say, “you can take the boy out of Buczacz, but you can’t take the Buczacz out of the boy.” Similar observations can and have been made about other great novelists; Mark Twain, James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Philip Roth all come to mind.

A City in Its Fullness is awash in social criticism, bordering on outright indictment of the communal leadership and the corrosive effects of vanity and power on Jewish life. Among the objects of particular concern are the oppression of the poor and the gap between the town’s expressed ideals as a religious community and its sometimes-shoddy application of those ideals. The book bears a dedication to a city that “was full of Torah, wisdom, love, piety, life, grace, kindness and charity”; its content often tells a different tale.

The essential difference between his early and later career is how Agnon learned to temper the youthful critique. He did this out of artistic impulse, . . . but also out of a desire not to be a shill for the old world, or attempt to deconstruct it. . . . Agnon desired simultaneously to skewer and to sacralize and, in so doing, ask what that world of the past has to say to the present and future. It is this last insight which makes Agnon and his writing worthy of our attention even now, a half-century since his passing.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: East European Jewry, Hebrew literature, S. Y. Agnon

Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood