Monday, February 4, 2008

Connect The Dots #3: The Ghost Writer

Exhibit One. The following is excerpted from a recent column in Haaretz. The “he” in question is Philip Roth, whom the columnist met for the first time last week in a New York restaurant.

“So, what do you want?” he asked.

I didn't know where to begin. What do I want? For him to autograph my copies of his books, to tell me everything about Portnoy, about Zuckerman, about Operation Shylock, about Mickey Sabbath's theater, about how he got started, about how it was with Saul Bellow. What do I really want? I know very well what I want. I want to know what it's like to feel like a public enemy, how a writer copes with attacks from the very people to whom he belongs. All I really wanted was for him to tell me how to deal with that kind of criticism, how to live with the feeling that the people who are closest to you have become your persecutors. I wanted to ask him how he had felt when the entire Jewish-American leadership attacked his work. What had he done then, and what's it like now? But how do I even begin, I reflected, embarrassed when he shattered my deep, tongue-tied consternation.

“So what do you want?’ he repeated, and I was about to open my mouth and ask fateful questions when he interjected, They have very good breakfasts here. Do you want one?”

If you guessed that the “I” in question is a young Hebrew novelist, educated to Israel’s old Zionist culture, yet punky, erudite, marginal, and self-ironizing—steeped, now, in American Jewish literature—you’d be right. If you think he feels out on a limb, writing his heart out, you’d be right. If you think that, like Zuckerman going to Lonoff, he is seeking not just literary affirmation but literary courage, you’d also be right. The writer is, Sayed Kashua, Israeli and (have you guessed?) Arab.

Exhibit Two. The day Kashua’s column was on the stands—while the country was preoccupied with the fall-out from the publication of the Winograd Commission—20,000 Israeli Arabs marched in protest in the town of Sakhnin. Their action was prompted by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz's decision earlier this week not to seek any indictments in the case of police officers involved in the deaths of thirteen young Israeli Arabs during October 2000. Back then, Arab towns were inarguably in turmoil, and some youth were described as “rioting in solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Police opened fire with live ammunition. The Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Unit subsequently exonerated the police officers charged with using excessive force—and it was this decision that Mazuz decided not to overturn, pleading evidentiary difficulties in bringing indictments.

After the violence subsided, incidentally, Ehud Barak’s government appointed a commission of inquiry, led by Justice Theodor Or, and including Professor Shimon Shamir, the highly respected expert on Arab affairs, who wound up becoming the primary author of the report. The commission met for twelve months and heard 349 witnesses; their report, published in September 2003, pointed to glaring inequalities in land rights and infrastructural budgets, and also cast doubt on areas thought to be trending toward equality, employment and education. As for the decision of the Police Investigations Unit, Shamir responded, “A situation where 13 people are killed and no one is indicted is one that is hard to grasp.” By the way, 78% of Israeli Arabs voted in the 1999 election that brought Barak to power, and a majority voted for him; he turned around and shut them out of his government. Just after the tragedy in question, in February 2001, there was a crucial national election. Only about 18% of Israeli Arabs actually voted; about 60% participated but most cast blank ballots.

Question: How many of the young Israeli Arab protesters who marched last Friday prefer Hamas websites to Haaretz?

Extra Credit: How long before even Israeli Arab intellectuals—living in a state where foreign Jews who cannot speak, let alone write, Hebrew have privileges they do not—will ditch Herzog and discover The Fire Next Time?