I have been reading the New York review of Books for over 50 years. It was recommended to me by a writing professor during my junior year in college. It has featured reviews, essays and commentaries by some of the finest journalists, historians and scholars in the world. I love it. But its comments on Israel and Israelis are not very favorable.
About a year ago, during the height of the flaming balloon incursions into Israel, it featured an article declaring that the names on former Arab villages inside the Green Line near Gaza should be kept on maps. It was apparently fine for claims to be made against what is unquestionably Israeli territory to justify a cross-border invasion from Gaza complete with flaming balloons and attempts to storm the border fence. Also, no matter that it has been regarded as a scandal in some Arab counties even to show Israel in on a map. Remember the brouhaha in Lebanon when someone put out a geography book that actually showed Israel in it. Or the maps in the Cairo airport that showed no cities at all between Cairo and Damascus.
Then, last October, NYR published a generally thoughtful review by Robyn Creswell, a Yale literature professor, of an intriguing novel, Minor Detail, by Palestinian writer Adania Shibli about a rape carried out by IDF soldiers in 1949, during the War for Independence. The historical facts about the event were, according to the review, revealed in a story in Haaretz in 2003. The review points out that the novel is not polemical, it deals with harsh facts on the ground without romanticizing the Arabs as perfect heroes and heroines. So far so good.
But the review cannot resist a few tropes about Israelis. One is the rootless Jew. “many have contrasted”, says the article,” the supposedly immediate and concrete relation of Palestinians with the earth to the bookish and abstract relation enjoyed by Israelis.” Creswell then comments that the novel in question does not make this claim. So why repeat it? It is demonstrably false, in terms of Israelis, many of whom just flocked to the country’s national parks to enjoy a recent spate of warmer weather. Israelis farm, hike, sing about the land– Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and the Song of the Grasses come to mind– and enjoy it physically to the utmost. They study its antiquities, flock to its beaches, and create beautiful spaces like the linear railroad park in Jerusalem’s Germany colony, one of the finest urban spaces in the world. They have showered love on cities like Tel Aviv, which were created out of whole cloth. Rootless cosmopolites? Hardly. Again, why repeat this trope?
In fact, Creswell actually criticizes Israelis for loving the land. He claims to make the desert bloom, which is usually considered to show affection for land and farming, actually meant driving Arabs off the land. So the review, which is measured and thoughtful in many ways, contains these digs at Israelis for either failing to love the land or loving it too much. We cannot win.
He also somehow manages to justify the Second Intifada as a product of “growing popular disillusionment over the so-called peace process.” He thus makes political claims that the author, Shibli, does not actually address in her work. This throwaway comment has very little to do with the book being reviewed. Yet Creswell could not help throwing a dart at the efforts of Israeli and American leaders to get an agreement in the face of the refusal of the Palestinian leadership to accept any solution that did not involve Israeli acceptance of millions of bitter descendants of refugees. Another instance of anti-Israeli muttering for no discernible end, in an otherwise insightful literary review.
The above is not a brief for the ‘Israel can do no wrong’ viewpoint. It does reflect on the extent to which casual anti-Israeli legitimacy comments have become an accepted part of literary discourse. One can hope, if somewhat forlornly, for better in the future. For the time being, we can only take note of these excursions and comment on them as a matter of self-respect.