Israeli writers ponder turmoil

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM - When violent clashes erupted last October between police and Israeli Arabs, the esteemed Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua realized that his novel-in-progress, "The Liberated Bride," dealt with an urgent topic. The novel recounts a Haifa University professor's relationship with his Arab students, and attempts to enter deeply into the souls of Israel's Arab minority.

But the timeliness was also very depressing, Yehoshua says. With a group of fellow writers, Yehoshua went to comfort families of the 13 Arabs shot to death in the riots, telling them, "It is unacceptable to us, for citizens of Israel to be killed by Israeli police without our coming to you and saying we're sorry."

The ongoing conflict between Arabs and Jews is making an imprint on the Israeli literary scene, affecting the work and actions of the nation's authors.

Novelist Michal Govrin drew new energy to complete "Snapshots," begun just before the start of the Oslo peace process in 1993. Set during the intifada - the Palestinian uprising that began in the late 1980s and the gulf war - it portrays intimate and complicated relationships between Israelis and Palestinians and the links to Israel's founding generation. It also attempts, through the voice of a character, to weave the conflicting historical narratives that torment this region.

Mystery writer Batya Gur says the uprising is too big an issue to handle in her fiction. Nevertheless, it seeps into her latest book, "Murder on Bethlehem Road," with descriptions of what she calls the more abusive, vindictive treatment Israeli police mete out to Arabs.

Some authors have had trouble simply working at all. "A lot of my writers stopped writing. For six months they went through total paralysis," says literary agent Deborah Harris.

Others vent their feelings in newspaper articles. Amos Oz excoriated Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for failing to grasp former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's peace proposal, concluding that maybe Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon deserved each other.

Meir Shalev, whose newspaper columns usually recount humorous everyday events, finds himself pulled into writing about what people here call "the situation." In a recent column, he contrasted the calm, courageous response to bloodshed of ordinary Israelis with the bombast of politicians: "Israel of yesterday displayed and saw much better civilians than their leaders."

He says, "I don't want to find myself in 20 years sharing my columns with grandchildren and having them say, 'Look at everything that was happening to the country, and you wrote about your cat.'"

More than in many Western countries, novelists in Israel hold a special place as commentators and opinion-shapers. In a nation rooted in epic sagas, the storyteller's gift is prized. And in a place where everyone's life is directly affected by the events of the day, writers are not expected to remain cloistered.

Several of the most prominent writers are roughly the same age as the state of Israel, and the stages of their lives coincided with major moments in the country's history. Imbued as children with Zionism, they shared the youthful euphoria after the Six Day War, the disillusionment after the Yom Kippur War as young adults and the shock of the Lebanon War as new parents.

Now, as conflict rages in the West Bank and Gaza, the writers' sons and daughters are of military draft age.

Almost all the writers consider themselves leftists, which in Israel means working to coexist with a Palestinian state and demanding an Israeli pullback from the occupied territories. But the force and hatred unleashed by the uprising have shaken writers' beliefs and their sense of knowing what's right for the country.

Yehoshua, who at 64 is older than most of his colleagues, remains a harsh critic of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and believes the United States should have done more to prevent their expansion.

But he views Yasser Arafat as "a terrible person, really playing a negative role for about 30 years." He has given up hope that Jerusalem, where his own family arrived from Greece five generations ago, can be peacefully divided.

"I feel today - with relations so bad, the damage so terrible and the violence so great - that it's now important as a healing factor to separate the two peoples. We should remove the crazy settlements that are doing so much damage, withdraw to [a line giving Palestinians] 80 percent, stay in Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, and maintain a reliable, defensible border."

David Grossman was among the earliest Israeli writers to explore the Palestinian psyche and describe the destructive effects that Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza had on both sides. A decade after traveling through the West Bank and the publication of "The Yellow Wind," he wrote a prescient new introduction: "The heart cringes at the thought that we are doomed to endure another round of blood, worse than its predecessor, so we understand there is no choice other than the way of peace."

But he now thinks the price demanded by the Palestinians is too high - a right of refugees to return to their homes inside Israel. In a syndicated article published in January, he recalled a scene from his 1987 visit to the Dahaisha refugee camp outside Bethlehem in which a schoolteacher vowed that the 1948 displacement and expulsion of Arabs from Israel would one day be reversed: What was taken by force will be returned by force.

"If we accept the right of return, hundreds of thousands perhaps millions of Palestinians will move into a country that they have for years sworn to destroy," Grossman wrote.

Batya Gur retains the unflinching views of the Israeli peace camp. The worst moment of the current uprising for her, she says, came when a Jewish mob from a hillside suburb of Nazareth descended on the town and began attacking Arabs.

She calls it a "pogrom" and utters the word with blunt authority: Her mother survived the Holocaust by hiding in Poland; her father fled to Russia.

Since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, she says, she has recoiled at the mention of Sharon's name.

For her, writing is almost a refuge. Her second son, Udi, serves in the army. Recently, he was sent to Sderot, the northern Negev town that has been hit by Palestinian mortars.

He also served two months in Lebanon, and later helped protect settlers near the West Bank town of Hebron.

His mother notes this with bitter irony. "We taught them to be so obedient - good citizens. It makes you sick, but it's too late for us to undo what we did. I did what I thought at the time was the right thing. I'm really an Israeli."

Meir Shalev, author of "Four Meals," has no difficulty walling himself off from the current violence to pursue his fiction, a separate world of human relationships. In his private life, he will soon face the same ordeal as Gur. His son is 17, nearing the age of army service. "He's thinking about whether to go at all or where to go in the army," Shalev says.

"When I went, someone who did not go, or who did not go into a combat unit, would be looked down on by friends and family. Today, not. That's the price we pay for 33 years of occupation."

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