Rubber Bullets: Power & Conscience in Modern Israel

Rubber Bullets: Power & Conscience in Modern Israel

by Ezrahi

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Rubber Bullets: Power & Conscience in Modern Israel by Ezrahi

Among commentators on Israeli affairs, Yaron Ezrahi is distinguished by his analytical brilliance, his twin passions for Jewish traditions and the tradition of liberal democracy, and his ability to see behind current events to their causes, some of them three generations in the making, some three millennia. Here he offers an uncommonly insightful analysis of the ways that history, politics, and the national character of Israel come to bear on current affairs there. Ezrahi regards surprising and divisive events--such as the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu's defeat of Shimon Peres in the subsequent ministerial election--as signs of an ongoing, fundamental conflict in Israeli society. He explores ways in which the conflict is felt in diverse aspects of Israeli life and culture, from the social dimensions of military service and the development of the modern Hebrew language to Israelis' attitudes toward nature and the status of women. In chapters that blend probing analysis with stirring memoir, Ezrahi tells the story of Israel's transformation from a defensive, embattled society held together by a myth of national liberation to a prosperous liberal society that must make room for the many different stories of individual Israelis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374252793
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/01/1997
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.33(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Yaron Ezrahi is Professor of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Senior Fellow of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Impoverished Language of the Israeli Self

Many years ago, my father told me that when I was just three or four years old my grandfather would follow me with a notebook and a pencil and write down what I said. I remember hoping that my father was telling me a story about adult appreciation of a precocious child, of my early signs of intellectual promise. But no. My grandfather, Mordechai Krichevsky (later Ezrahi), a leading member of a circle of Hebrew scholars and intellectuals who had devoted decades to the revival of Hebrew culture in Palestine, was engaged at the time in a fierce polemic. While some of his peers insisted that the ancient Hebrew language should be modernized by scholars, he argued that modern Hebrew would emerge as a living language from the mouths of babes, from the spontaneous utterances of the first generations of children born in a Hebrew-speaking community. So my grandfather was not really listening to me, not trying to save any gems of wisdom falling from my lips. He was only using me as a source of data with which to test and defend his faith. It was not what I said that interested him, but the linguistic forms of my Hebrew sentences.

Many years later, in the general reading room of the library at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I found what I was looking for among the volumes of Leshonenu La'am (Our Language for the People), which my grandfather had co-edited. In the volume published in 1944 was a section entitled "From the Mouths of Babes." There I read the following: "The father of four-year-old Yaron scolded him and Yaron cried. When hestopped crying, he came to his father and said, 'Abba, you made me cry.'" Not even the most sympathetic reader, I would think, would see in this rather unexceptional communication signs of a precocious child. Yet my grandfather had obviously found what he was looking for. The grammatical form used by his four-year-old grandchild to express the Hebrew equivalent of "You made me cry" ("Ata hivketa oti") was a rare form, and this was important.

In retrospect I was pleased, of course, to have made, between playing and crying, even the tiniest contribution to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language in Zion. But the fact that it was not my pain or insult that was important but the grammatical form of its expression made me cherish this episode as a reflection of a deeper and more persistent experience: the difficulty of discovering or inventing one's private voice in the midst of this chorus of pioneers, all singing the epic of the return of the Jews from exile and the resurrection of our ancient language in the Holy Land. The Hebrew language as the language of God, or as the revived language of the Jewish people, was not a suitable medium for communicating personal thoughts or feelings. An epic language that is suitable for describing great deeds and events, or a fixed liturgical language that is suitable for communal prayers—these are not congenial tools for self-expression. Such a language resisted even the experiences of the children of the early pioneers, who grew up speaking it. "Who could have written in such a high language," asked a soldier in Israel's War of Independence of 1948, "what really happened on the battlefield?"(1)

To be born in Tel Aviv in 1940 and turn eight about four weeks before the Declaration of Israel's Independence was to grow up in the shadow of monumental history, to be dwarfed by a narrative stretching between catastrophe and redemption. It could dry up an early appreciation for anything personal, for private language, private space, private time, even private life. As the very first generation of children born as native Hebrew-speakers in this land, we were expected to realize the dream of our parents and grandparents: to speak the new Hebrew and embody the new kind of Jew. When I was born, the Jewish community in Palestine was already two or three decades into evolving a more colloquial vernacular Hebrew. But the conversational Hebrew I heard in my boyhood was still thick with layers of majestic, biblical, midrashic, or classical literary style. In retrospect, the spoken Hebrew of my home, or, more precisely, the Hebrew of my native-born father, Yariv, was a beautiful, mostly literary Hebrew, forged in the Ben-Yehuda circle my grandfather belonged to. It must have been difficult in this environment to have contact with forms of personal, subjective, idiosyncratic discourse.

While holding intimate conversations in Hebrew must have been as difficult as carrying on small talk in Latin—and must have sounded as ridiculous—in our home in Tel Aviv, which was a conservatory of music, the medium for expressing the most delicate nuances of feelings and intimacy was the violin. Beyond interpreting such works as Beethoven's sonatas on his violin, my father composed and improvised, conveying to us his moods and emotions. His playing opened gates to the self which I could appreciate only years later. Any young person, of course, might have been impressed by such playing. But it may have struck me so forcefully because I was growing up in a society obsessed with collective liberation and cultural revival. The Zionist leaders and educators of the time, focused so intently on the monumental implications of our ancient tribe's return to its land, were not concerned with cultivating the solitary self, the lyrical personal voice of the individual. The modern Hebrew prose and poetry we read in our elementary and high schools were immersed, in both style and content, in the collective political and cultural agenda of the Israeli revolution; they offered few examples of personal expression. It is probably not a coincidence that David Fogel, a Hebrew poet and novelist who was one of the first to succeed, as Robert Alter puts it, in "forging a Hebrew self," was a non-Zionist Jew who lived outside Palestine and died in World War II. It is as if one had to stand apart from, or even to defy, the Zionist epic of return in order to carve out a Hebrew idiom that could express the inner self relatively free of the life of the tribe. In his poem "The Street Has Made Us Tired" [Rav hel'anu ze harehov], first published in 1938, Fogel wrote: "Into solitude we shall withdraw, for the crowd has made us tired." Historically, however, Israeli culture has identified such expressions of the self with abandonment or betrayal of a besieged community.(2)

This limitation certainly inhibited Israeli literary sensibilities and delayed the recognition and acceptance of such writers as Fogel and U. Z. Gnessin. It took much longer before Israelis could accommodate individualistic sensibilities and view the expressions of subjectivity not as negations or abandonments of the group but as intrinsically valuable in themselves. Only in the late 1950s did the first publications of a young generation of Hebrew poets who wrote in a very personal style begin audaciously to convert the emerging spoken Hebrew and the accumulating deposits of contemporary Israeli experience into a new poetics of the Israeli self. In 1966, one of those modern Israeli poets, Nathan Zach, stated explicitly the objections of a group of his contemporaries—Yehuda Amichai, Dalia Rabikovitch, and Dan Avidan among them—to the ideologically loaded, formulaic, stylized forms pervasive in the Hebrew poetry and literature of the times. He wrote against the reverence for ornamental, majestic, often pompous literary Hebrew and advocated the development of minimalistic, conversational, first-person language forms.

For decades such shifts in literary sensibilities remained compartmentalized and confined; throughout most of the first five decades of Israel's existence whatever forms of subjective individual idioms of expression were created and refined by Israeli writers remained relevant and accessible mainly to a limited, highly educated elite. Even today, they have penetrated neither the sphere of public political speech nor the domain of educational practices. The rhetorical style of Israeli political leaders such as Ben-Gurion, Begin, Peres, and Netanyahu has been largely "prophetic," declamatory, impersonal, and sloganistic, although it has grown less pompous over time.

The resistance to personal, individualized styles of speech in Israeli public life, the sense that the public sphere as the cultural domain of collective group speech cannot accommodate public communication of individual or personal expressions, has been manifest also in the formal, often ceremonial, intonation of Israeli radio and television news broadcasters. Israeli anchorpersons have for a long time read the news in characteristically declamatory impersonal voices, as if they were acting out a Greek tragedy. The attempt to avoid figures of speech and use normative Hebrew vocabulary and accent, of course, only reinforced the sense of the news as an ongoing high historical narrative.

The extent to which Israeli broadcasters succeed in their attempts to forge a stiff, impersonal style and produce a kind of socially collective voice, free of individual vocal personality traits, can even be seen when they cross the lines with other forms of cultural mediation. Chayuta Dvir was hired to moderate a chamber music festival in northern Israel. Sitting in the hall listening with delight to the intimate chamber music pieces, in interpretations which brought out the special beauty of this conversational musical genre, I was jolted by Dvir's steely, distant, "official" voice, as she announced, in the familiar epic intonation with which she and others have for years brought us the news about the war: "The next piece is Schubert's Quartet Number 2." She sounded totally out of touch, almost like a divine commentator on simple human pleasures. It would be instructive to compare the vocal style of such Israeli broadcasters with that of some broadcasters of National Public Radio in America, for instance, who succeed in giving listeners the illusion that the person in the studio is talking directly to them. From time to time broadcasters such as Yitzhak Roeh have tried to break out of this style. Roeh's latenight television news program Almost Midnight was first aired in 1979; the title suggested his readiness to relax the tyranny of formal precision and introduce a less structured air of informality. Roeh's style was personal, intimate, ironic, laid back, and humorous. It was as if he were inviting his viewers to take a less anxious, more humane look at our collective life; it was a kind of momentary relief from the suffocating grimness and tension with which we have characteristically met the unfolding drama of modern Israel.

As expected, this approach was not welcomed by the incumbent nationalist guardians of our soul. The program was terminated a few months later, and even the protests of such Israelis as the poet Abba Kovner, who praised Roeh's personal style for helping Israelis survive the "shock of the news," were ignored. It was as if those in charge realized that Roeh's colloquial, ironic style could legitimate some skeptical distancing on the part of his viewers—that a conversational style does not properly prepare the public for heroic sacrifices, but might help us extricate ourselves from the state of mobilized, anxious attentiveness in which we lived. After the popular TV satire Nikkui Rosh (a product of the 1970s resembling America's Saturday Night Live) was removed from the screen by political pressure, such programs survived until recently only as fragments in the children's series Zehu Zeh on Friday afternoons.

Despite the cultural policy of maintaining the hegemony of the high epic style of public speech and communications, the spread of ordinary colloquial Hebrew style could not be stopped. Its gradual effects on public life chipped off the stiff, rocklike ceremonial pathos of the older pioneer generation. Seeing old newsreels easily provokes grins among younger audiences. The election in 1993 of one of the most radical embodiments of the informality and low colloquial Hebrew style of the Israeli-born generation, Ezer Weizman, to the ceremonial position of Israel's President is quite significant in this connection. Weizman had served as a pilot and commander in the Israeli air force and spent most of his life in the military—one of the principal sources of irreverent colloquial Hebrew in Israel. By contrast (to take one example), Israel's third President, Zalman Shazar, was a man of letters and a great Zionist orator. Many Israelis still remember how President Shazar invited the ridicule of young Israelis when he opened the annual football season with a passionate speech in formulaic Hebrew. It sounded as if the game and the players were crucial for the holy history and liberation of the Jewish people. Shazar's application of lofty literary Hebrew nevertheless gave a wonderfully instructive insight into the comic side of Israeli grimness and the limits of the cultural forms which have mediated our experience. In the same way, the distance between habits of speech of the pioneer and Israeli-born generations was for many years a subject of countless jokes. The most typical one is about the Hebrew teacher who drowned in the waters off Tel Aviv because bystanders could not understand what he wanted when he cried out in classical Hebrew, "Redeem me! Redeem me!" ("Hoshiuni! Hoshiuni!"), instead of the colloquial Hebrew equivalent for "Save me! Save me!" ("Hatzilu! Hatzilu!").

I have come to the conclusion that the often irreverent language which has come to be widely used in nationally televised parliamentary debates does not simply undermine public respect for Israeli legislators, nor (as many commentators suggest) does it just give a bad name to the parliament and perhaps to politics as such. What worries many Israeli educators may actually have had some salutary effects. It may have punctured the epic conception of politics so often guarded by the political leadership and rendered it less invincible. Colloquial political speech (by which I do not mean verbal violence) makes leaders who were spoiled by decades of Israeli public docility more vulnerable and provides a real service to the pedagogy of democratic political participation. If a high rhetorical style creates distance and seems to imply accountability to principles or to history, a low style encourages interruptions and improvisations; it diminishes credulity and makes leaders more directly accountable to their live audience—participants of the political process. Israeli politics has not remained unaffected by the impulse of a growing number of Israelis born here to shake themselves free of heavy standard Hebrew, which, as Netiva Ben-Yehuda insists, has prevented us from expressing our real experiences and telling the truth about our lives. For too long we had neither the language nor the tone to challenge those who addressed us in the high, pompous language of politics as history.

Low styles of speech do not necessarily correspond, of course, to the development of individualized idioms of expression. The evolution of ordinary colloquial Hebrew, of informal conversational style, and even of modern Hebrew poetry has certainly been contributing to the growth of a resilient democratic individualism in Israel. As we shall see, however, the development of a culture of the self depends not only on self-expression but also upon such things as conceptions and practices of private space and private time. It took centuries for modern Western individualism to evolve from such cultural practices and traditions so that the voice of the individual could be distinguished from and opposed to the voice of the community—for the sonnets of Petrarch to transform medieval poetic formulas beyond very limited social circles or for the Confessions of Rousseau to offer language as an instrument for inquiring into, and expressing, the interior self. Petrarch is especially interesting for the Israeli situation because of the ways in which his poetry empowers the lyrical as against the epic voice. As Thomas Greene put it in his commentary on this poet: "The imperial imagination of Roman epic, whose vocation was the ordering of history and space, yields to a private intuition ... [of] a speaker who is chief actor and a sufferer and a mythic center"; it yields to poetry which expresses the "raptures of a psyche [where] the very divisions of meaning are meaningful." Such exchange of "epic breadth for lyrical immediacy" is illustrated in Petrarch's sonnet 164: "I swim through a sea that has no floor or shore, I plow the waves and find my house on sand and write on the wind."(3)

Petrarch's ability to transform Latin into a graceful poetic language with which to express the tenderness and the discontinuities found in an honest gazing at oneself, and his ability to use vernacular Italian to express the transient, often melancholy, unresolved feelings of solitude and loss, forged a lasting vocabulary for the individual self. The work of Petrarch and his successors gradually undermined the linguistic and stylistic conventions underlying Greek and Roman epics and didactic Christian literature. But it took centuries for the interior self to be articulated in a social context, for the modern individual to emerge as a political agent, a carrier of rights, and a voice able to make claims on and criticize society.

Such shifts as between Latin and the vernacular—between the presumed God's-eye view of the entire cosmos and the inherently partial, limited human view—the rise of perspective in Renaissance painting as a symbolic expression of the presence of the individual person in the world, and the rise of autobiography as a literary genre in the writings of Montaigne and Rousseau were all significant stations in the emergence of modern democratic individualism. Without such deep cultural undercurrents no society can evolve and ground a genuine liberal-democratic polity even if it has, like Israel, adopted democratic legal and institutional structures which for the most part were developed elsewhere.

Jews who were emancipated from the European ghettos, in which traditional, mostly Orthodox religious life persisted, were able to be transformed by the rich European culture of individualism. Some Jews—like Spinoza, for example—even made singular contributions to this culture. But the establishment of modern Israel was inspired more by religious, nationalist, and

Table of Contents

1. The Impoverished Language of the Israeli Self19
2. The Limits of Private Space31
3. Escape to Nature?47
4. The Precariousness of Autobiographical Time59
5. Self-narration as Self-defense77
6. Father's Milk: Father's Tales That Feed and Kill117
7. My Father, My Son143
8. Historicizing the Fantasy of Jewish Power175
9. Rubber Bullets207
10. Women as Agents of the Anti-epic 235
11. From Here to Eternity and Back267

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