Stuart Schoffman

Why we write

Does political punditry make any difference in these dangerous, anxious times?

“Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.”

So wrote George Orwell (1903-1950), arguably the best English essayist of the turbulent twentieth century, in a piece from 1946 called “Why I Write.” It’s well worth reading, in these dangerous, unstable times.

Orwell’s reasons for writing are, first: “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.”

The next three reasons are “Aesthetic Enthusiasm,” “Historical Impulse,” and “Political Purpose.” “I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth,” writes Orwell, the consummate political writer. “In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties.” But his was not a peaceful age, and neither is ours. After 1936, when he went to fight against Franco in Spain, he knew where he stood: “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.”

Some advocates of Israel, noting that Orwell, the upper-crust leftist Brit, is said to have been an anti-Semite, might roll their eyes and click to a different page. That is their right. We live in a jam-packed digital marketplace of preachers and choirs, and readers may pick and choose. But Orwell, political loyalties apart, has a thing or two to teach us, and “Why I Write” is freely available online. As Maimonides, regarding non-Jewish philosophy, wrote (in the preface to “Eight Chapters,” part of his commentary on “Ethics of the Fathers”): “One should accept the truth from whatever source it comes.”

What is the truth? We who dwell in Zion, as well as others in whose hearts Zion dwells, are in a state of high anxiety. We are told, over and over, that Iran equals Hitler, and must be stopped, and soon. We are reminded that we are a Nation Who Dwells Alone and that in every generation “they” will “rise up to destroy us.” In North America, echoes of the Holocaust may fade, but they never disappear. All it takes is a serious crisis to turn up the volume. In Israel, existential fear never fades. We breathe the ashes of Auschwitz like smog in LA.

Who is doing the reminding? We journalists are. We relay with relish every scrap of scary news, and bemoan the imminent, tragic (yet perhaps avoidable) demise of the Zionist dream. We funnel every pronouncement from the prime minister, with critical commentary perhaps, but duly funneled nonetheless. And he, “King Bibi,” is the one with power. It is his Orwellian egoism that matters most. You watch him on TV or iPad or read what he reportedly says behind closed doors. He pounds his fist on his chest and proclaims: I am the one who decides. I am the one.

You may read op-eds that call Netanyahu a messianic megalomaniac, insecure and indecisive. What else is new? The first of Israel’s kings, King Saul, was mad as a hatter. Famously paranoid, he feared and hated David. Frightened for his crown, Saul gallops to the witch of Endor, a medium who raises the Prophet Samuel, Saul’s spirit-guide and nemesis, from the dead. A columnist might be tempted to spin this theme into a riff about Bibi and his late father, the fiercely pessimistic historian, cleverly garnished with quotes from the Bible and the poets Rudyard Kipling and Saul Tchernichovsky, who both wrote “Endor” poems. Such an op-ed might infuriate, unsettle, disturb, bore or entertain readers, but it would not matter a whit. It would be one of an irrelevant zillion, as the countdown continues.

Then why write? We write because it’s what we do and who we are. It’s not only our living, but our lives. Yes, all of us who publish for pay are constrained, in some way or other. Even bloggers who write for free consider their readership, and wish to expand it. Few of us are great writers, but that is not what matters. The playwright Bertolt Brecht, who fled Nazi Germany for Los Angeles, kvetched that in Hollywood, one must write very badly, but also as well as one possibly can. He was half wrong: the first half is a matter of taste. But the second part is a moment of truth. Have you done your best? If you are writing as well as you can, you are writing your inner truth, whatever that may be.

In a precarious atmosphere, as daily headlines predict the likelihood of war and its unintended consequences, people who write seriously about Israel often write from great passion. Some write as if their lives depended on it, as if each article were their last. This is a time for action, and the way writers act is by writing. But how much can it matter? As Orwell wrote, the primal impulse of “sheer egoism” is shared with “politicians, lawyers, soldiers,” and — last but not least — “successful businessmen.” Will Sheldon Adelson’s billions coupled with Netanyahu’s personality and politics bring about the destruction of Israel, with a bang or a whimper, or are these men our saviors in disguise?

Israel is apparently facing its gravest existential threat since 1967, 1973, 1948 — take your pick. In any case, people are scared, and scarred by history. The writer is scared, the reader is scared, the prime minister is scared, and each reacts accordingly. The writer keeps writing, trying to find new ways to wake people up, to be heard, to be noticed. But the reader — the voter, the public — does not take to the streets. Many people are living in denial. Many salute the leader out of habit, respect, or faith, or fear. Many have stopped reading papers and watching TV news. Some folks fulminate online under made-up names, playing ping-pong with pundits who rail against anti-Semites, Muslims, defeatists, self-haters, boycotters, warmongers, extremists, racists, etc., etc.

“The beauty of apocalyptic demagoguery is that it cannot be proven wrong.” Who said that? It really doesn’t matter. Fear works wonders, and Bibi knows it. Still, we write. It is a mirror to our nostrils, a sign of vitality, a declaration of identity. Not to write is also a political act. It is humbug to pretend otherwise.

Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and translator, is an iEngage Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. 

About the Author
Stuart Schoffman, an iEngage Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is a journalist, editor, and translator