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The Dynamics of Images in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Israel: commitments

Is there a right-wing alternative to the left-wing Bohemianism in Israel?

Cyril Aslanov


Cet article s’efforce de comprendre les raisons de l’absence d’une bohème littéraire de droite en Israël. Au-delà des facteurs structurels liés à l’association naturelle de la bohème avec la gauche, soit comme un choix par défaut soit comme un terme marqué, le conservatisme inhérent à la littérature droitière est incompatible avec la renonciation au passé qui caractérise souvent les lettres israéliennes. En outre, la bohème de gauche en Israël ne tarit pas de critiques vis-à-vis de son propre pays. Cette préoccupation brille par son absence dans les écrits souvent partisans émanant de la droite. Enfin, la réception de la littérature israélienne hors d’Israël favorise nettement la bohème littéraire de gauche au point qu’on voit se dessiner une répartition complémentaire entre la droite aux commandes du pays et la gauche, maîtresse presque exclusive du Parnasse israélien.

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  • 1 Agnon 1993, V, p. 83.

1Once upon a time, the split between general and revisionist Zionism was not necessarily formulated as an opposition between Left and Right. For many members of the Yishuv, general Zionism with its socialist-inspired ideology constituted a mainstream or even a default choice affiliation. An echo of this reluctance from party sectarianism is found in S. Y. Agnon’s novel Only Yesterday (Tmol Shilshom) where Itzhak Kummer, the hero and narrative double of the writer, is described as refusing to play the game of party affiliation after his arrival in Ottoman Palestine.1 At the time Agnon wrote those lines and in the immediately following decades (1945-1967), nationalism and Left were strongly linked together in the politic life of the Yishuv and the State of Israel to the extent that even such a formations like Ha-poel Ha-mizrai and its continuation the National Religious Party were considered part of the Center-left or the Center, certainly not of the Right.

  • 2 On this affiliation and on its impact on the reception of Israeli writers abroad, see Aslanov 2011.

2Nowadays, the situation is very different due to the strong polarization between the heirs of revisionist Zionism and the Labor Party continuators of general Zionism. Although this polarization was recently moderated by the attempt to create centrist parties (Kadima and Independence), it is obvious that Amos Oz, Abraham B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, the most illustrious representatives of Israeli literary Bohemianism, and may be Israeli literary Bohemianism as a whole, are clearly affiliated to the Left and the Peace Camp.2

3I would like to check whether this association between modern Israeli literary Bohemianism and the Left suffers some exceptions in the local Parnassus. To be sure, some authors more associated with the Right seem to have broken the monopole of left-wing literary Bohemianism. However, right-wing Bohemianism would probably sound as an oxymoron since Bohemians are usually associated with leftist ideals, in Israel and elsewhere.

4Sometimes, Israeli writers did not belong to the Left only because they considered themselves above the parties like Agnon’s aforementioned hero. Some other times, their non-affiliation to the Left is due to a deep involvement in right-wing formations. One thinks for instance of the figure of Moshe Shamir who was well known for his itinerary from the Ha-shomer Ha-tza‘ir to Teiya, Geulah Cohen’s extreme right party. Whatever the definition of Israeli Right might be (and it is certainly different from European Rights), the question that will bother us here is not the positive affiliation of those writers to political formations different from the Labor Party mainstream or the leftist camp. We will rather focus on the question to which extent the indifference or the hostility toward the Left was able to affect the reception of those authors in Israel. In other words, does the identification with the Left constitute a default choice option as a result of which any non-affiliated writer or any writer expressing alternative opinions is stigmatized as a literary nobody? We will try to answer this question and to understand what are the historical reasons that could explain the ostracism frequently underwent by non-leftist writers in Israel. And what are the repercussions of their rejection at home on their reception abroad?

Left as a default choice, Right as a marked term

5If we consider the pertaining to general Zionism or to the Israeli Left a default choice, then every manifestation of an alternative political identity like revisionist Zionism or right-wing Israeli nationalism is doomed to be perceived as a marked term, full of heavy connotations that may harm the reception of a non-leftist author. The illustrious precedent of Vladimir Jabotinsky who was equally famous for his revisionist activism and literary creation may have paved the way for a tradition of right-wing inspired literary dandyism that was continued by such a poet like Uri Zvi Grinberg who shared with Jabotinsky the particularity of being a Yiddish writer alongside his literary activity in Hebrew.

6However, it is not sure that other writers managed to join this prestigious club of right-wing authors. In spite of their declared nationalism such prominent authors as Agnon or Nathan Alterman did not belong to the revisionist camp and their patriotic feelings remained within the range of general Zionism and even socialist Zionism as far as Alterman was concerned (until his 1967 adhesion to the idea of Greater Israel). As for other authors, stigmatized as rightist by the left-oriented literary establishment, they probably fell short of the talent of Jabotinsky or U. Z. Grinberg. Indeed who could dare to put in doubt the talent of those revisionist writers who became part of the classical canon? However, a writer like the aforementioned Moshe Shamir is doubly exposed to the ostracism of the left-wing literary establishment: his rightist opinions are blatant (he was very active in politics to the extent that he was elected member of the Israeli parliament) but his literary achievements cannot be reasonably compared with those of Jabotinsky and Grinberg. In other words, it is always difficult to be an average writer but even more so when one does not belong to the leftist mainstream of Israeli Bohemianism.

7The example of Moshe Shamir shows that there is no salvation outside left-wing Bohemianism or right-wing dandyism. After his socialist past in the frame of the Ha-shomer Ha-tza‘ir, this author adopted a right-wing populist stand, first in the rank of the Likkud, then with the aforementioned Geulah Cohen. Weren’t it for his change from the Left to the Extreme Right, Shamir could have been part of Israeli Bohemianism. However, his political choices removed him away from the political-literary mainstream. Yet his populism prevented him from becoming a literary dandy like the aforementioned Jabotinsky and Grinberg.

8The fact that right-wing or center-right coalitions dominated the Israeli political life most of the time since 1977 (1977-1984; 1986-1992; 1996-1999; 2001-…) did not help the rightist writers find a legitimacy in the cultural horizon of their country, quite the contrary. Indeed, in the past decade and may be also in the second half of the previous one, Israeli political life was characterized by the fact that many leftists felt as if they were exiled in their own land. Some of them even expressed their will to emigrate outside the country. The main reason for such a stand is the fact that leftists belong to the elite of the nation, that very one elite that lost political leadership in 1977, and did not manage to recover it durably after Rabin’s assassination. Not unlike the French aristocrats who constituted a group of émigrés de l’intérieur during the First Empire, those elitist leftists kept their economic, social and intellectual prestige long after they lost their political power. Ousted from the executive power, this class perpetuated its strong hegemony on the public opinion and the intellectual life of the country. The polarization between the political class and the elite was even more accentuated since the generation of Amos Oz and Abraham B. Yehoshua whose rebellion against the literary establishment was accompanied by a clear commitment to leftist ideals. The identification of leading figures of the Israeli Parnassus with the Left can explain why right-wing writers paradoxically appear as a minority in a country ruled by a rightist or center-right political leadership.

  • 3 On Shahar’s subtle political stand as it is expressed in his fiction, see Peled Ginsburg and Ron 20 (...)
  • 4 Against the conception that views Shahar as an “Oriental Proust”, see ibid., pp. 119-148.

9The case of David Shahar is even more complicated inasmuch as his reputation of rightist did not really rely on a clear-cut affiliation to a political party.3 Nevertheless the fact that he received many literary prices and fulfilled the functions of chair of the Hebrew Writers Association in Israel may have given the feeling that Shahar was a kind of cultural apparatchik, cumulating the official distinctions but failing to attract the sympathies of the critics. However, most of those distinctions were received before 1977 when Israel was still ruled by Labor Party governments. Actually, the real reason of Shahar’s lack of popularity in Israel is inherent to his work rather than to his public life. It is probably connected with his image of an Israeli Proust, whatever the worth of this association.4 Actually, Shahar was a dandy in his literary taste, but sociologically speaking, his style of life was more Bohemian than dandyish.

Getting rid of the tradition?

  • 5 On the role of the Bible in Husband and Wife, see Shemtov 2006.

10One of Abraham B. Yehoshua’s first writings was the The Death of the Old Man (Mot Ha-zaqen), an allegorical novel published in 1963. In this short story, the novelist tells about an old-timer who does not manage to die and whom the people of the neighborhood decide to bury alive. In his coffin, they put an exemplar of the Bible, as if they were willing to get rid not only of the literary tradition or of the tradition at all but also of the Bible as a model of writing. The same motive is retaken in a more realistic way by Zeruya Shalev in Husband and Wife (Baal Ve-ishah) (2000) where the hero Na‘amah wants to live her husband Udi’s Bible in the hotel room where he was suddenly stricken by blindness.5 To be sure, neither Yehoshua nor Shalev really managed to put the Biblical legacy aside. However, they expressed in a kind of mise en abyme the attempt to cut the tie with Biblical intertextuality.

11This iconoclastic stand is clearly rejected by Rabbi Haim Sabato whose writing ostentatiously relies on all the possible strata of Hebrew sacred literature from the Bible till medieval liturgical poetry. In his attempt to give a high visibility to Jewish sacred literacy in his fictions Sabato acts differently from Agnon whose relationship to the formulations of the Mishnah nourishes the very texture of his writings. Here, however, the quotations from the sacred corpus are clearly delimitated from the simple prose he uses whenever he stages dialogues. In other words, there is a clear and deliberate gap between the voice of the narrator who is bearing with him the whole corpus of sacred literature and the voices of the characters who speak like average Israelis. In this polyphony of voices, it is difficult to say where stands the heteroglossia – on the side of the narrator or in the mouth of the dramatis personae?

12It seems that Sabato is doing exactly the opposite than the representatives of the Haskalah who wanted to recycle the hieratic discourse of the source for a secularizing purpose. Sabato, on the other hand, inserts Biblical, Talmudic or liturgical fragments in order to enhance the expressive power of his literary discourse and perhaps to sanctify it back some 150 years after the Maskilim tried to secularize Hebrew letters tough remaining faithful to the esthetic dimension of the Biblical word. In a certain sense, Sabato is reverting the sense of the history of Hebrew literature.

13However, this image of Sabato as an anti-Maskil may be due to an Ashkenazi-centered vision of the development of Hebrew literature. Sabato, the Cairo-born rabbi of Aleppine origin belongs to a tradition where the conflicts between religion and secularism that tore the Eastern European Jewish horizons were less intensively felt.

  • 6 Berg, 1997.

14Anyway, the combination of Sephardic and religious identity doubly isolates Sabato from Israeli literary Bohemianism, which can be considered the emanation of the ausalim (“Ashkenazi secular Israeli-born liberal Israelis” or in other words, the WASP of Israel). To be sure, one of the most prestigious representatives of left-wing Israeli literary Bohemianism is the Sephardic writer Yehoshua who gave a tangible expression of his non-Ashkenazi identity in his fiction.6 However, there is no contradiction in the Yehoshua’s belonging to the milieus of Israel WASP if we take into account that since the days of Yehudah Burla (1886-1969) and Itzhak Shami (1888-1949), the way to the Ashkenazi-centered literary Bohemianism in Mandatory Palestine or in Israel was also open for writers of Sephardic or Oriental background. Even Arab authors writing in Hebrew like Emile Habibi, Anton Shammas and more recently, Sayed Kashua joined the Israeli Hebrew-writing Parnassus.

  • 7 Elbaum, 2005.

15In the case of Sabato, what really makes the difference is the rabbi’s affirmed religious identity that prevented him from joining the literary mainstream. The aforementioned Yehudah Burla and Itzhak Shami both underwent a process of westernization/ secularization at the teacher seminar of the German Jewish organization Hilfsverein der deustchen Juden. Sabato, however, remained faithful to traditional Jewish culture, and he tried to give a modern expression to his roots, bypassing the avenue of mainstream Israel literature. By doing so he met the expectative of a wide range of Israeli readers who perceive the production of the mainstream as ideologically and esthetically remote from their sensibility. In those circles as well as among his detractors,7 Sabato is sometimes compared with Agnon, a comparison that fails to take into account the fundamental difference mentioned above between writing the profane in a religious-like style and quoting the sacred texts in order to sanctify the profane.

Different conceptions of the writers’ commitment

  • 8 An example of such a deterred reaction provoked by the indifference to the horror of war displayed (...)

16Sabato’s attempt to sanctify the profane even includes the macabre reality of war and death to the extent that the commitment to ideology minimizes the horrors that the heroes of Adjusting Sights (Teum Kavanot) encounters on the battle field. This attempt to overcome fear and sadness through religion and nationalism has a deterring effect on many Israelis who do not share Sabato’s Weltanschauung.8 The misunderstanding between the religious nationalist rabbi and the mainstream of Israeli Bohemianism raises the question of the meaning of commitment in the Israeli literary horizon. As a matter of fact, the two kinds of commitment – the leftist one of the Bohemians and the right-wing one of their political opponents – essentially differ not only in their content but also as far as the attitude to the very phenomenon of ideology is concerned. As mentioned above, leftist ideology is a default choice option in the literary horizon of modern Israel. And yet, for many representatives of the Israeli left-oriented Bohemianism, fictional writing is an opportunity to deconstruct the inherited ideologies, some of which were part and parcel of the political credo of the Israeli Left in “the good old days”. Sabato, however, is not deconstructing the values of his political camp. He is just reaffirming them in order to make them compatible with the realities that he describes in his fictions. As in Zhdanovian-like literature, the stories he tells are often an instrument meant to illustrate some ideological contents. Paradoxically, the main stream is more subversive than Sabato, the outsider and the trouble-maker in the Israeli cultural horizon.

17Nevertheless, one can find some seeds of subversion in Sabato’s description of IDF. In order to enhance the dignity of the true heroes who suffered in the Yom Kippur war, the author stigmatizes the errors of the high commandment and caricaturizes the young officers who comes directly from the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv in clean and new, first time worn uniforms in order to dispatch distinction badges to the fighters. However, the soldiers who just underwent the sufferings of the battle field refuse to adorn their torn and dirty uniforms with what they consider useless accessories. In this scene Sabato stereotypically contrasts the antagonism between the base and the top of IDF and through it, of Israeli society as a whole.

18A similar denunciation of the gaps within Israeli society is expressed in Sabato’s last fiction Boei Ha-rua (2007) (From the Four Winds), a book that describes the difficulties of integration encountered by Oriental Jews when they emigrated to Israel in the fifties.

19Sabato’s latent resentment against the Ashkenazi left-wing establishment is characteristic of Israeli political landscape where the Ashkenazi or Ashkenazized socio-economic and intellectual elites are usually leftist whereas the masses, frequently of Sephardic and Oriental origin, are rather attracted to right-wing formations (at least since 1977). The fact that Dov Indig who fell on duty (a true character) is a Romanian-born emigrant does not contradict the assumption that Sabato’s writing raises social and ethnic issues if we take into account that Romanian Jews in Israel were often considered as second-choice Ashkenazim in the socio-ethnic mosaic of the Jewish State.

  • 9 For a different appreciation of the representatives of Israeli left-wing literary Bohemianism see L (...)

20To sum up, the left-wing representatives of Israeli literary Bohemianism are deconstructing the fundaments of the system to which they belong although they enjoy a privileged status from it.9 On the other hand, Sabato is denouncing disparities within the system without putting in question its legitimacy as a whole, let alone the legitimacy of his own ideological system. This essential difference may have direct repercussions on the reception of those authors abroad.

The test of the reception abroad

  • 10 Aslanov, 2011.

21As stated in my aforementioned article,10 the extraordinary success of Israeli literature abroad is partly connected with the fact that it is often perceived as a dissident literature. We just noted that this alleged dissidence is more exactly speaking, a sound self-criticism directed toward the accepted truths on which the State of Israel relies since its foundation. If this is really the reason of the popularity of leftist Israeli writers outside Israel, it should be asked what are the chances of Sabato’s books to be well received abroad? Doesn’t he risk to be viewed as an ideology-intoxicated writer whose novels reflect preconceived political agendas? To some extent, Sabato avoided the risk of being ostracized by foreign readerships as shown by the fact that the book that made him famous – Adjusting Sights – was translated in three major languages: English (by Hillel Halkin); French (by Tsivia Frank-Wygoda) and Russian (by Natalia Radovski). It was certainly not easy to promote a book on the cover page of which appears a gunner meditating on the top of a tank with its erected gun. In both the English and French translations this illustration is retaken from the 2003 edition published in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of Yom Kippur War with an interesting detail: whereas in the Hebrew original, the gun is pointed to the left while the seated gunner is gazing at the same direction, as if it were alluding to the right-to-left direction of reading, the aforementioned English and French translations reverted the direction of the picture, perhaps in order to point to left-to-right direction of reading.

22In terms of editorial policy and book marketing, it is interesting that the Toby Press, a young publisher based in New Milford, Connecticut, took the risk of publishing the French translation of Adjusting Sights (with the poetic title Lunes d’automne, “Fall moons”). It seems that even with this change in the title, no significant French publishers would have dared to propose such a militaristic religious-oriented book to Francophone readership, let alone the Parisian antireligious and antimilitaristic audience.

  • 11 As in the dithyrambic article published in the Modern Orthodox magazine Jewish Action by Leibowitz (...)

23The translators who took on themselves the difficult task to render the heavy intertextuality so manifest in the narrative part of the novel are persons who are very well versed in the world of Hebrew sacred literature and who all live since many years in Israel. As for the readership of Sabato, it is mainly composed of people who are able to understand the intertextual games of this rabbi, even after they are transposed into foreign languages. The reception of Sabato’s translations into English, French and Russian in the respective cultural horizons expresses a deep sense of identification with the world of values exemplified by this kind of committed writing.11 However, it is impossible to compare Sabato’s confessional-parochial success abroad with the extremely wide audience reached by the most prestigious representatives of left-wing Israeli Bohemianism in languages that have very few relation with Jewish civilization like Norwegian, Finnish, Chinese, Japanese or Korean. This disproportion reveals fundamental trends in the reception of Hebrew literature nowadays. First, this literature is mainly appreciated inasmuch as it reflects modern Israeli secular culture, which leaves few chances to Sabato, a representative of Jewish tradition (though in the modernized garb of religious Zionism). In this sense, it can be said that much time has elapsed since 1966 when Agnon received the Nobel Prize as a Jewish rather than as an Israeli writer (as shown by the fact that he shared the prize with the German-writing Jewish poet Nelly Sachs). Second, left-wing Israeli Bohemianism is still considered the showcase of the country even though the modern political and diplomatic of Israel staff gives a totally different image of the State abroad.


24To sum up, it seems that for the meanwhile, there cannot be any alternative to left-wing literary Bohemianism in Israel not only because Bohemianism is not very compatible with the Right, but also because since 1977 (with the short intermezzi of 1984-1986; 1992-1996; 1999-2001) there seems to be a complementary distribution between Right and Left in Israel. Whereas the former attracts the masses and concentrates the executive and administrative power, the latter appears as a kind of enlightened aristocracy, not pugnacious enough as to infringe on the Right’s prerogatives, but eminently able to produce cultural products generally at odds with the agenda of the government. It is certainly not fortuitous that the take-off of Abraham B. Yehoshua’s literary career was concomitant with the beginning of the Likkud era. Significantly, The Lover (Ha-Meahev) was published the very year of Begin’s victory at the elections. This does not hold true with regard to Amos Oz who was already a well-known novelist in 1977. However, Oz’s politically-committed essayistic writing knew an important turning point after 1977 with the publication of Be-or ha-tkhelet ha-‘azzah in 1979 (partly translated as Under this Blazing Light).

25Does it mean that Israel right-wing authors will only deserve success when they will be perceived as the expression of a dissident voice? Actually, they already constitute a kind of alternative track in the Israeli Parnassus or may be beside it, if we take into account that the Israeli Republic of Letters is a kind of leftist shadow government where people affiliated to the tradition of Revisionist Zionism may feel as bad apples. We already stressed the alternative option that would consist in holding individually the position of a literary dandy. However, this option is not so viable, not only because dandies are incompatible with the persistent collectivistic spirit that still structurates Israeli society, but also because distinguished elitistic excentric writers in Byron’s fashion are not welcome in the globalized-democratized cultural horizon of our days. On the other hand, Left-wing Bohemianism is acceptable because it can serve as a moral alibi or as a harmless substitute for politics in a world where demagogically manipulated masses bring to the power political staff totally at odds with the enlightened part of public opinion. Yet right-wing dandyism is not politically correct enough. This is a major flaw in a world dominated by the tyranny of political correctness beside the despotism of demagogically manipulated masses. For all those reasons I am quite pessimistic about the possibility for a right-wing alternative to Israeli left-wing Bohemianism to ever emerge. Besides, it is not sufficient to be rightist in order to be proclaimed a literary dandy. By definition, “strait is the gate” of literary dandyism.

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Agnon, S. Y.
1993    Kol sipurav shel ‘Agnon, Schocken, Tel Aviv.

Aslanov, C.
2011    “La séduction israélienne de la renonciation au passé,” La Vie des idées, 31 mai 2011. ISSN : 2105-3030.

Berg, N. E.
1997    “Sephardi Writing: From the Margins to the Mainstream,” in: Alan L. Mintz (ed.), The Boom in Contemporary Israeli Fiction, Brandeis University Press, Hanover, NH, 1997, pp. 114-142.

Elbaum, D.
2005    “Ma‘aseh bi-shnei ‘Agnonim she hayu be-‘irenu,” Haaretz book supplement, 6 April 2005.

Laor, Y.
2010    The Myths of Liberal Zionism, Verso, London.

Leibowitz Schmidt S. and J. Setbon
2006    “Double-Take: Haim Sabato’s Books Make Waves on Israel’s Cultural Scene,” Jewish Action, vol. 67, no 1, pp. 34-37.

Peled Ginsburg, M. and M. Ron
2004    Shattered Vessels: Memory, Identity, and Creation in the Work of David Shahar, State University of New York Press, Albany.

Rosenthal, R.
2001    “Shloshah yomanei milḥamah,” Eretz Aeret, no 3, pp. 40-47.

Shemtov, V.
2006    “The Bible in contemporary Israeli literature: text and place in Zeruya Shalev’s Husband and wife and Michal Govrin’s Snapshots,” Hebrew studies, no 47, pp. 363-384.

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1 Agnon 1993, V, p. 83.

2 On this affiliation and on its impact on the reception of Israeli writers abroad, see Aslanov 2011.

3 On Shahar’s subtle political stand as it is expressed in his fiction, see Peled Ginsburg and Ron 2004, pp. 87-117.

4 Against the conception that views Shahar as an “Oriental Proust”, see ibid., pp. 119-148.

5 On the role of the Bible in Husband and Wife, see Shemtov 2006.

6 Berg, 1997.

7 Elbaum, 2005.

8 An example of such a deterred reaction provoked by the indifference to the horror of war displayed by the ideologically committed hero is provided by Rosenthal 2001.

9 For a different appreciation of the representatives of Israeli left-wing literary Bohemianism see Laor 2010.

10 Aslanov, 2011.

11 As in the dithyrambic article published in the Modern Orthodox magazine Jewish Action by Leibowitz Schmidt and Setbon 2006.

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Cyril Aslanov, « Is there a right-wing alternative to the left-wing Bohemianism in Israel? », Bulletin du Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem [En ligne], 23 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 janvier 2013, Consulté le 24 juin 2018. URL :

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Cyril Aslanov

Cyril Aslanov, alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure/ Rue d’Ulm, is associate professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he chairs the French studies program, the International Center for University Teaching of Jewish Civilization and the Chais Center for Jewish Studies in Russian. He is also consulting member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Among his last publications, Sociolingüística histórica de las lenguas judías, Buenos Aires, 2011.

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