Was literature, both Hebrew and Arabic, always associated with
processes that promoted peace? Not necessarily.
It was frequently associated with those very forces that blocked
peace, that disseminated hostility, militarism and defeatism as
regards faith in peace. There has also been much literature
associated with tribal versions of justice, supporting the
continuation of war.
We always foster the illusion that literature is the supreme
representative of universal values. Assuming that universal values
are not in themselves illusory, it is clear that the assumption
that literature always expresses universal values lacks all
empirical confirmation. There are indeed wonderful examples to
affirm it, such as Schiller's "an the Aesthetic Education of Man"
or Jean-Paul Sartre's "What Is Literature?"
Such works strengthen the essential and internal connection between
artistic literature, especially stories, and a spirit of mutual
understanding, tolerance and peace.
This connection surely exists in the work of many great writers,
both in world and in Israeli literature, but in the same measure
there also exists an opposite context in which artistic writing,
fiction, to some extent stories, and particularly poetry,
frequently stood behind the horrors of the twentieth century.
Wherever there was a tribal, nationalistic, racist concept, which
rejects and hates the Other, it had on its side literature and
poetry, and not only by minor literary figures.
Examples at Home and Abroad
That is the empirical reality and it can be proven by quoting from
the great poets of this century who backed Italian Fascism or
Nazism or Stalinism, not only supporting them, but providing them
with those literary myths which maintained tyrannical regimes. This
was often done willingly rather than out of external pressure or
We can find examples in the Israeli-Arab conflict. After the 1967
war, the manifesto of the "Greater Israel" movement altogether
failed to see the Arab side in Palestine, or perceived it as
peripheral. The movement was considered a stepping stone toward
implementing the autistic two ¬thousand-year-old Jewish vision
of a "Greater Israel" Yet some of the best Hebrew writers and poets
at that time signed the appeal. When a liberal or social-democratic
intellectual plays with the idea that, had the political leadership
paid more attention to the authors or read more literature, it
would have adopted a better political line, it is easy to show that
this is a futile idea.
Of all Israeli prime ministers, the one most influenced by
literature was Yitzhak Shamir, who knew by heart tens of pages from
the poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg.1 In a meeting at the Hebrew
University honoring the publication of the first volumes of
Greenberg's poetry, Shamir read an old article by the poet,
maintaining that even if no Jewish foot ever steps in Gaza, Gaza
was always Jewish and will always remain so, because of the
biblical tale of Shimshon, because of Nathan of Gaza in the
seventeenth century and, in general, because of Gaza's place in
Jewish history. Inspired by the great poet, his whole address was
dedicated to the idea that we must never give up Gaza. Perhaps
politicians who listened not to such literary voices, but to the
Israeli soldiers in Gaza, would have been better able to deal with
the problem of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. The view
that, in general, literature always promotes peace, mutual
understanding, tolerance and justice, is an illusion.
It is not only on the Israeli and the Zionist side, but also on the
Arab¬Palestinian side that one can perceive great writers
creating barriers to peace through their visions. The great
Egyptian writer and playwright Yusuf Idris (1927-1991) boycotted
Israel, opposed coming to terms with it, and called for its
destruction. The contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was
not always a great promoter of the peace process and of political
accommodation. Neither does Professor Edward Sa'id exactly
encourage the peace process in his concepts: he supports what he
sees as true peace, but is against the actual Oslo peace process. A
writer can enfeeble the peace process, not only in the name of the
rights of one tribe over the other, or of one human group against
another, but also in the name of invoking a perfect peace rather
than the only peace of compromise which can really be
The Distortion of 'Universalistic Values'
There are many people who like to perceive this as a struggle
between the tribal spirit and general values. I am no longer
certain even about this. Talk of universalistic values doesn't
always assist peace because such values are often perceived as
embodied only in a particular people and struggle for those values,
therefore, behooves fighting for that people. You can agree, for
example, that justice and morality are universalistic values, but
also assume that they are primarily embodied in the Jewish people.
Therefore, when you fight for the Jewish people as a political
reality, everything receives endorsement.
In this spirit, many Germans supported the rise of a man who was to
be the worst leader in the history of Europe. They did so for
universalistic reasons, embodied, in their eyes, in the German
people more deeply than in, for example, the Slavic peoples. So,
the inspiration is created from the moment that politics works as
the embodiment of values, and this in the name of morality and on
its behalf. It is then no longer a matter of prosaic affairs like
territorial interests, but becomes part of a vision.
There have been many such failures in the twentieth century. Even
great philosophers, like Herman Cohen and Martin Buber, called upon
Jewish youth in the First World War to join the German army in the
name of morality and culture. It was left to the ostracized
Communists, and to Jews like Rosa Luxembourg, to stress the real
character of the war.
A Pragmatic Peace
That peace which we hope is now on the agenda was not born, to my
mind, from literary inspiration or vision, even if it did receive
encouragement from writers from both parties to the conflict. Peace
does not come because the spirit takes over men of action or
because army generals are moved by a vision. Not surprisingly, it
may be these very generals and leaders who strive for a practical
Peace will be the result of pragmatic needs, or of a realistic
realization that unceasing and unending bloodshed leads nowhere
except to the gradual destruction of one people by the other and
the destruction of each people by itself. It is the result of
exhaustion, of realism, of the insolubility of a conflict between
two sorts of justice or between the relative justice of both sides
which is perceived by both as absolute justice.
None of us can today be certain that, in itself, dealing with high
culture automatically contributes to desirable political processes
in humanistic, democratic, liberal and socialist terms. Writing
good poetry, creating good music or art do not necessarily promote
What to Translate?
Now to some thoughts on translation. Translation, both of Hebrew
literature to Arabic and of Arabic and Palestinian literature to
Hebrew, should not be in any way selective from a political point
of view. As an Israeli associated for many years both with the
Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature and with the
peace movement, I want first to recommend giving preference not to
translating precisely those works which are acceptable to the other
side, like the Hebrew work "Hirbet Hizah" by Yizhar Smilansky
(1949).2 On the contrary, there are good reasons for translating
those literary excerpts which, at first sight, appear to impede
rather than to assist peace.
This means that there will be translations from Hebrew into Arabic
of the most hostile elements, those most opposed to peace in Hebrew
literature and in the traditional Jewish philosphy and in Zionism.
Translations will not come only from peace-loving and humanistic
elements which are deeply rooted in the Jewish and Zionist
tradition, in philosophy and in Hebrew literature.
However bitter the truth, let the Israeli reading in Hebrew know it
through translations of Arab and Palestinian literature into
Hebrew, just as the Palestinian and the Arab will know it through
an unselective translation of Hebrew and Israeli literature and
philosophy into Arabic. This is surely preferable to stereotypes
constructed over centuries by ideologies oriented toward war and
refusing to rethink or to adapt to an era of accommodation.
For its part, selective translation - selective from a political
and not an artistic point of view and regardless of good
translation into Arabic or Hebrew - could always serve the war
machine. For example, if the Israelis repeatedly feed the Arabs
with stories like Yizhar's "Hirbet Hizah," or "The Prisoner,"3
though I support their translation into Arabic because of their
artistic value, this could create a false image and be exploited to
show that the Jews recognize their "guilt" and accept that the
other side is in the right.
The same could be said of a selection of Martin Buber's essays on
the Israeli-Arab conflict, or works by A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz or
Binyamin Tamuz.4 This is also true of selective translation from
Arabic literature. Let us say that one only translates from the
Arabic spineless material, Western¬oriented intellectual
material or works by Palestinian Arabs with Western inclinations.
These express not the depth of rage and anger, but only pragmatic
pressures or a position of inferiority toward the Zionist Israeli
or the Israeli, as representing Western culture.
Such writing can serve as evidence showing, as it were, that the
Arabs "recognize" their need to learn from the Jews, that the Arabs
are backward and inferior, which helps to feed the stereotypes. All
this leads to the conclusion that what is needed is unselective
translation which draws attention to the hardest and bitterest
aspects of both people's literatures.
The more we translate unselectively and give expression to all
shades of thought, the more can we fight against the
"metaphysication" of the Arab¬Israeli conflict and work for a
reinterpretation of each party by the other. In the name of this
reinterpretation one does not have to jettison the whole of
Zionism, just as one does not have to jettison all the ideals of
the PLO, on condition that neither will be perceived as the holy
Tables of the Law, where every letter is sacred.
First a Political Peace
In conclusion, we have to spread the idea that people, states,
nations, sociopolitical movements, are not eternal assets, and that
the compromises they make are not temporary diversion from some
deep metaphysical will of a tribe or a people or a movement. The
"concessions" which peoples make create a prospect of redefining
their identity in their own eyes, of renewed compromise with
themselves and by themselves: the Zionist Israelis as Zionist
Israelis, and the Palestinian Arabs as Palestinian Arabs.
As I see it, the greatest enemy of the peace process today is not
only stereotypes, but the perception that there is an essence to
Judaism, an essence to Zionism and an essence to the spirit of
Islam and to the Arab spirit. According to this, everything else is
superficial and pragmatic political matters are meaningless,
expressing merely some deep metaphysical factor.
There is a discussion as to whether, in the last decade, Israeli
literature has become less Zionist. In any case, over the last
century much has been written which makes the process of political
accommodation difficult. But, in truth, it is not a matter of
psychological accommodation or of literary inspiration that brings
political peace. On the contrary, it is the necessity for a
political peace process which facilitates becoming acquainted with
the other side.
Psychological accommodation will come later. Peace will be born in
political compromise and not in love. It is political peace, the
result of a realistic balance of forces and an inability to destroy
the other side without self-destruction, which creates the
possibility of a wider psychological and intellectual affinity.
Thus to the political peace will be added a new dimension of a more
comprehensive process of accommodation.
1. Uri Zvi Greenberg (1894-1981), one of the greatest Hebrew poets,
was originally connected with the Labor movement, but from the
1930s became a militant Revisionist with a mystical-religious and
2. A story on the expulsion of Arab farmers from their land during
the 1948 war.
3. How Israeli soldiers debate releasing an Arab prisoner in the
4. Humanistic modem Hebrew writers with a sensitive approach to the
Adapted from a lecture to the Institute for the Translation
of Hebrew Literature, published in Tirguma, organ of the Israel