Israeli Literature: The New Wave

In the second half of the 20th century, Israeli writers became a voice of critique and protest.

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A more direct response to the transformations in attitude effected by the Sinai Campaign and by the Lavon Affair was mounted in Yariv Ben‑Aharon's book Hakerav [The Battle], which was published in 1967--the year of the Six Day War. In Or Be'ad Or [Skin for Skin] In 1962, Orpaz protested the war and the values that led up to it. So did Amos Oz in one of his major works of fiction, Mikha'el Sheli [My Michael]. Though the book appeared only in 1968, nonetheless its inner climax corresponds, not to the Six Day War, but to the Sinai Campaign. It discharged tensions that had built up during the years of living on the edge.

Various aspects of the Holocaust, which the Israelis had been unable to contend with directly, remained suppressed until the 1960s. Secular Zionism had rested on the negation of the Diaspora and Diaspora Judaism. The Eichmann trial revalidated the old Jew in Israeli eyes. The Jews who had been slaughtered were not guilty of anything, not even of having failed to heed the Zionist message in time. They were innocent victims of a hostile world. Therefore, the Jewish metaplot, of which the Zionist metaplot was one part, had to acknowledge these Jews as equally legitimate protagonists in the unfolding of the national narrative.

This realization concerning European Jewry took an even more radical turn following the Six Day War, in which the corollary of Diaspora weakness as opposed to Israeli strength and invulnerability, came to be tested. On the one hand, the impending conflict revitalized and revivified national myths, as the nation envisioned a second Auschwitz. Accordingly, one euphoric response to the victory of 1967 was a reconfirmation of divine promise and Zionist vision finally realized.

But such triumphalism angered many leftist intellectuals, whose outcry determined the dominant post‑1967 note, especially as Israel, in the wake of its self‑confidence, nearly lost the Yom Kippur War. In the autumn of 1974 the periodical Akhshav published a "we told you so" editorial, as if Israel's near‑defeat at the hands of the Arabs was a sort of moral victory, not only for the political left, but for avant‑garde literature: "Are we, as writers and intellectuals, supposed to keep silent in the face of this foolish refusal which harms Israel, to recognize the right of the other nation in this country, namely the Palestinian people, to self‑determination at our side?"­

Repelled by the exultant society around her, writers such as Ruth Almog, for example, in her novel Mavet Bageshem [Death in the Rain] in 1982, presented post‑1967 Israel as a land of contractors, snobs, and the newly affluent. Or take the following passage from Oz's Laga'at Bamayim, Laga'at Baruah [Touch the Water, Touch the Wind] in 1973, which was published a little before the Yom Kippur War and is set in the moment of 1967:

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Gershon Shaked

Gershon Shaked, (1929--2006), was Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University, the author of The Shadows Within: Essays on Modern Jewish Writers and many other books. He was a recipient of the Israel Prize and the Bialik Prize.