In light of the argument between Tayyip Erdogan and Paul Auster about the relative freedoms of Turkey and Israel, I thought it would be instructive to quote from a Hebrew language profile of Auster published (of all places) in Yisrael HaYom. Unfortunately, the original interview was in English but the article was published in Hebrew. A request to the reporter for the original English materials was (of course) unanswered. So I’ll translate back into English the portions of the interview that dealt with Auster’s views about Israel:
Auster was nine months old when the UN voted in favor of the birth of the State of Israel…The fate of European Jewry after WWII occupied his family’s attention.
“I grew up on Israel,” he says. “Every day I went to Hebrew School in New Jersey knowing that a large portion of my lessons would be devoted to raising funds for the young state. We were involved in planting trees and writing pen-pal letters to people in Israel. We felt that we were part of the State despite the fact that physically we were distant from it. We felt, young and old, that we were helping build an idealistic new place. We were very excited by this.”
“I said that I was raised on Israel and in a certain sense, it accompanies me my entire life. The connection is beyond the fact that I have friends and acquaintances there. It’s possible to deliberate forever about the elements of Zionism and its foundations, but in the period of destruction that WWII left behind in Europe, Israel seemed a very reasonable response both in terms of the remaining Jewish refugees and the world at large.
“I admit that I have mixed feelings about the Israel of today, because Israeli society has changed. Israel was transformed from an idealistic state to a socialist state, but to date, it is a state within which there are far too many fundamentalist religious elements. I don’t believe the founders of Israel would’ve foreseen that the state would become one in which the subject of religion would become so fateful and essential, in the future.”
What I remember especially from your conversation with David Grossman at the 2010 Writers Festival were your memories of your last visit to Israel in 1997:
“I visited Israel only twice, in January 1997 and May 2010. What I saw in 1997 with my own eyes was difficult. It was only a year after the murder of Rabin. People in the streets were still in mourning. The feeling in the air was one of great trauma. The prime minister then as today, was Binyamin Netanyahu, a man whose views personally I do not share. Nevertheless, Netanyahu signed the Hebron agreement, which signified a gigantic step in the political process toward the Palestinian people. So there was hope. People talked about things. Besides I remember we stayed in Jerusalem and the streets were humming on Shabbat and stores were open and full of customers.
“On my second trip, the streets were empty and closed except for a lone café that remained open. I traveled to Tel Aviv to see a friend and when I told him about this he said in typically cynical Israeli fashion: ‘Jerusalem isn’t a city. It’s a disease.’
“The festival in which I participated at Mishkenot Shaananim was well-organized and there seemed a true hunger in Israel for artistic life and spiritual existence. But from a political perspective I understand that people no longer know what to think, and don’t see any hope on the horizon. One of the writers who participated in the Festival said to me, justifiably, that the sense was that Israelis live between despair–characterizing the left side of the spectrum, and denial–characterizing the right. With very little in between. The denial is intolerable, it can’t survive. The despair too doesn’t elicit any hope. So everything is a mess.”
Auster says that more than anything, he can’t come to terms with the settlers who arrived in Israel from the U.S.
“Many of the settlers came from here, even from Brooklyn. This is subject that concerns me a lot. Because most of them aren’t originally Israeli, but American fanatics who live in a Wild West fantasy in which the Palestinian are the Indians. These people don’t behave rationally and because of this the situation is quite complicated. This sort of irrationality also characterizes American politics: people so fixed in their ideas that they can only see the world in one way and never change their minds. You can’t have any sort of dialogue with people like this. Therefore you can’t create any relationship with them. It happens in Israel. It happens in America. And it happens in too many countries in the world.
Though Auster speaks with great warmth and sensitivity about his relationship with Israel’s greatest living novelist, David Grossman, it’s clear that he has little more than an artificial sense of what Israeli life is like. That’s why he can mouth platitudes about Israel being a secular democracy when it’s anything but. For that young Jewish boy helping to plant trees in the young Jewish state, Israel will always be a secular democracy. But for real Israelis living day to day existence in a state overwhelmed by ultranationalist fervor, there is little left of secular democracy but fumes.
In my first post about the Auster-Erdogan dispute I focussed on the threats to press freedom and free speech inside Israel proper. Anat Matar has written about the same subject from a Palestinian vantage point.
While Auster certainly wasn’t thinking of this when he spoke about Israel’s alleged free press, he should’ve because these issues in the Territories are controlled by Israel and are a reflection of Israel. It is common for liberal Zionists like the American Jewish author to see the Occupation as something apart from Israel. If only Israel could end the Occupation or separate from it, then all would return to normal. What he doesn’t understand is that the Occupation IS Israel. It isn’t apart from it.
Here is how Matar describes the problem (translation by Sol Salbe):
A close scrutiny of the reports by Reporters without Borders shows that the organisation expressed its concern at the wave of arrests of West Bank and East Jerusalem journalists. Among others, these included the arrest Isra Salhab, presenter of a TV program about Palestinian prisoners, and the extension of the detention of Walid Khaled , editor of Filisteen newspaper…
Arrests of and injuries to journalists and photographers at the weekly Friday demonstrations are a common sight…Reporters without Borders has strongly condemned the violent manner in which the Israeli forces are treating journalists. Among other things it mentions two photographers — Mahib Al-Barghouti, and Hazem Bader – who sustained injuries in the face and legs while working. Bader, an Associated Press photographer, was arrested while covering a demonstration at the village of al Tawani , when a stun grenade exploded right in front of him. He is still suffering from multiple burns. Al- Barghouti was recently wounded while covering the weekly protest in Bil’in. Two bullets penetrated his leg, when he was in a different location and at some distance from the other participants in the demonstration.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has sent a strongly worded protest letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about a month ago. The note protested about Israel’s violent attitude to journalists covering the events in the West Bank. This note as well contained a great deal of facts and figures on the administrative detentions of journalists, physical assaults and the persistent harassment of journalists while they are on the job.
One could…add the arrest and imprisonment of writers – Ahmed Katamish who is under administrative detention provides one well-known example – but it is not my intention here. My aim, as noted earlier, is to endeavour to pinpoint the origin of Auster’s blindness…
The point is that Auster, like many other intellectuals in the West, ignores everything that happens outside Israel’s formal borders – as if anything related to the never-ending Occupation has no bearing on the essence of Israel identity as a liberal and enlightened country. This is exactly what is always behind those who play innocent and deny Israel’s Apartheid situation…It’s true: if you resolutely ignore what is happening in the blood-stained front yard, you can truly rejoice at the freedom that characterises what’s inside the palace, where Auster hangs around when he visits the Holy Land.
In short, the situation in Israel is grim, much grimmer than Auster acknowledges. Instead of seeing the situation for what it really is, he wears rose-colored glasses and talks about his “mixed feelings” about Israel and the “complications” that settlers cause. The real situation has gone far beyond the point of ambivalence and complications. Israel is in a crisis. It’s existence is threatened. Not from without, but from within. Settlers aren’t just a complication, they are strangling the secular democratic state he raised money for as a child.
My feeling is that soon the State of Israel, at least as we conceived it when we were young idealistic liberal Zionists, will be doomed. I don’t know what will replace it. It could be something far worse. It could be something better. But its fate hangs in the balance. And Auster’s moral blindness hinders, rather than helps.