Saturday, May 9, 2015

Where the Stones Come From

Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments by Oz Shelach

One Afternoon

            A professor of History from Bayit Va-Gan took his family for a picnic in a quiet pinewood 
            near Giv’at Shaul, formerly known as Deir Yassin. It was not too cold to be in the shade and 
            not too warm to build a fire, so the professor passed on to his son the camping skills he had 
            acquired in the army. They arranged three square stones in a U, to block the wind, leaving 
            access on the fourth side. They stacked broken branches on top of the twigs on top of dry pine 
            needles. He let his son put a match to it. Listening carefully, they heard a faint low hum from the 
            curves of the winding highway, hidden from view by the trees. The professor did not talk of the 
            village, origin of the stones. He did not talk of the village school, now a psychiatric hospital, on 
            the other side of the hill. He imagined that he and his family were having a picnic, unrelated to 
            the village; enjoying its grounds outside history.

From 1947-1949 the newly minted Israelis, the majority of them just arrived as refugees from Hitler’s Europe, conspired, in their ironic and headlong embrace of nationalism, to forcibly remove more than 700, 000 Arabs from their homes and villages in what is now the State of Israel, terrorizing the people, burning their houses, and pillaging their goods—their livestock, their utensils, their tools. The photograph above depicts the remains of an Arab village after the Arabs themselves had been removed (see George Ovitt’s earlier post on the remarkable 1949 Israeli novel, Khirbet Khizeh, 9/2/13).

For all of the post-war wonder that was the birth of Israel, for all of its phoenix-like glory and potential as a force for good in the Middle East, it cannot be understood today (nor truly, justly, appreciated) without also recognizing the violent and systematic expulsion of Arabs from the land, a fact that is now and will always be an essential part of its national-cultural DNA. It is a practice (this ethnic cleansing avant le mot), begun as early as the 1930’s, that continues to this day in the cynical, nearly relentless government-sanctioned expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a movement now motivated less by the utopian (if still fundamentally racist) Zionism of the early European settlers than by the hidebound, often hateful, always fiercely anti-democratic fanaticism of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox, the aggressive, politically intractable Haredim, who exert (with the help of U.S. taxpayers and such bullying right-wing American lobbying groups as AIPAC) what is now a veritable stranglehold over public policy and discourse, both here in the U.S. and in Israel itself, what is still a predominantly secular, democratic, and cosmopolitan state.

Now here is where it gets tricky. Take all that you have ever read about Israel, about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then spend a few weeks there and see what sifts out in the end. I can almost guarantee you (even those of you who—like me—are intensely critical of Israeli policy and practice toward the Palestinians) that you will leave the country charmed, not only by the general brilliance and sophistication of Israeli Jews, but by their humanity and compassion as a people, not to mention astounded by what they have done, in some sixty short years, to transform that arid, much disputed patch of land. You will leave deeply moved by them (for, such is the climate there that, unless you have connections, you are not likely to get to know any Arabs) and inspired by the land itself. Which is not to say that you will leave convinced of anything political at all. If anything your convictions will be muddled by your stay. What is clear is that, however deep and well-founded your criticism of the Israeli government itself, you will like the people there and suddenly find it hard, if not impossible, to generalize about them, to critique them as a lot. It is exactly what happened to me. It is why the Jews of Israel still fill me with hope.

Which brings me to the point of this post: In my many years of living and traveling, it has become clear to me that one of the truest ways of experiencing the lives of others, short of meeting them in person, in the homes and neighborhoods where they live, is by reading about them in their own books, by seeing them fleshed out before you—in novels and poems and plays—as living, breathing, struggling human beings. "Literature is by its very nature humanist," writes Jewish-Italian author Alberto Moravia in his cogent, deeply heartening collection of essays on humanism called Man As An End—making reading itself a powerful act of faith.  

So if you really want some clarity about what is happening in Israel today, if you wish, as author Damon Galgut puts it, to "see through events to the people behind them," then forget the newspapers and cable news programs for awhile and read a novel or a volume of poetry instead. As I have insisted before, what the regional novelists, playwrights, and poets have to tell us about the conflict there is exactly what we need most: the reminder that the wages of every political stunt and machination, every embedded news report, every grandstanding politician, political lobbyist, and religious extremist, are tallied in human lives—lives like yours, lives like mine. A good place to start might be this short, easily accessible novel, Picnic Grounds. 

When interviewed about this 2003 novel, author Oz Shelach, in an effort to describe the often deeply conflicted attitude of Israeli Jews toward their own history, told the following story, plainly echoed in the first short chapter of his novel with which I opened this post:

I think denial is built into the national culture… Let me illustrate with an example: My cousin’s husband published a guidebook in Hebrew called Fun Family Tours, which is basically an outdoors tour guide with additional games to play with the kids in the car. He took many of the pictures himself, and they’re striking—there’s so much rubble, so many structures that used to be people’s homes, and traces of their agriculture. Of course these are all indigenous Palestinian traces, but they’re described variously as “an abandoned orchard,” “a deserted village,” or as “ancient structures.” The people who used to live there are sometimes two miles away in a refugee camp, but they’re invisible. 

Inspired by Thomas Bernhard’s laconic miniatures, The Voice Imitator, Shelach’s “novel in fragments” reads like a collection of modern parables about the tormented land he loves, stories as remarkable for the things left unsaid as for those so beautifully said. Described as “the most relentlessly restrained cartographer of the current Israeli scene,” Shelach is also an archeologist, preoccupied with the ever-more-pressing facts and implications of the past, so that if history is in part the record of our complicity as human beings, we have writers like Shelach to show us the stones. 

Oz Shelach was born in West Jerusalem in 1968 and has been a journalist and editor for Israeli radio and magazines.

Peter Adam Nash

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