Sunday, September 17, 2006

Three Eulogies

I came across these three eulogies recently. Two are contemporary. The third from 1956.

The first eulogy is that of S Yizhar, who died last month. Yizhar was the great Israeli author of the pre-state period, the War of Independence, and the early years of the state. The author of glorious “short pants” romantic Zionism. A true devotee of the Labour Zionist dream of the new Hebrew man, close to soil and the landscape, simple taciturn and true, committed to egalitarianism, self sacrifice and the good of all. Yet he also saw the conflict between the collective will and the individuals desires and conscience. Moreover, he was also the revealer of the darkest secret of the 1948 war – the expulsion of the Palestinians.

Yizhar, was the quintessential conflicted sensitive Israeli. “We cry and we shoot, we cry and we shoot.” Though his prose allowed no one to deny awful truths; neither his heroes nor he himself actively opposed or protested. He just noted and mourned.

The second eulogy is that of Roi Rutenberg a young Israeli killed, in 1956, by Arab infiltrators from Gaza. Delivered by Moshe Dayan, it is classic defence of the need for Israelis to be tough, and it is a J’Accuse against Israeli yafeh nefesh (pretty hearts) who believe that peace and justice are options actually available to Israeli Jews. For Dayan these people are naive and dangerous. Dayan understands that the Palestinians have reason to hate us – we expelled them. But he see no possibility of reconciliation, and argues that it is better to kill than be killed. No other option exists, and best to accept that without false sentimentality. Dayan would have had no patience for S Yizhar.

The third eulogy is for Uri Grossman, by his father the great contemporary Israeli author David Grossman. Uri Grossman was killed in the recent war in Lebanon. Two weeks earlier his father had signed a public letter, together with other Israeli authors – calling for a halt to the fighting in Lebanon. Both Grossmans – father and son – were firmly in the Zionist peace camp. Believing that peace and justice are possible, but not as long as Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza. Believing that even if Israel is doomed to fight for the foreseeable future, it is not doomed to being cruel and unjust. Indeed, only by removing cruelty, gratuitous “toughness”, and injustices – propagated, as if, for the higher ideal – are peace and real security possible. For the Grossman’s human life in all its complexities, burdens, and potentialities trumps both grim fatalism and nostalgia for lost innocence. Cynicism is a curse. Decency, love, sincerity are always options.

The eulogies are presented below.

· · ·

With the August 21 passing of Yizhar Smilansky, Israeli literature lost a voice of moral conscience and modern Hebrew lost one of its most gifted virtuosos. (He wrote under the name S. Yizhar, as he was and is universally known in common parlance as Samekh Yizhar.) Dubbed the James Joyce of Hebrew literature, Smilansky — who received numerous literary awards, including the prestigious Israel Prize — died one month shy of his 90th birthday.

Born in 1916 into a literary family in the farming community of Rehovot, Smilansky studied education in Jerusalem and worked as a teacher for a number of years. At the age of 22, he burst onto the literary scene with the novella “Efrayim Returns to the Alfalfa.” His capacity to challenge his readers never diminished. Later he served as a member of the first Knesset, representing the original Labor Party, and continued dabbling in politics until the Six Day War began. In the 1970s he returned to academia. He was hired by a number of Israel’s leading universities, first as a professor of education and later as one of literature.

Throughout his oeuvre of short stories and novellas, Smilansky’s protagonists tended to display the same general characteristics: single; male; resides or longs for life in a small, rural community; highly sensitive and idealistic, and takes with him wherever he goes the idealized image of a beautiful woman who must remain beyond his reach. The Yizharesque male guards his privacy jealously and is given to extended meditation and lengthy inner discourses; though never out of touch with immediate reality, he is helplessly indecisive, emotionally vulnerable and ultimately unfulfilled.

Part of the first generation of sabra writers, Smilansky portrayed both the beauty and the sins of his country. In 1949 he wrote two stories that would bring him notoriety and generate intense public debate, and that are now classics of Israeli literature: “The Captive” and “Hirbet Hiz’ah.” Both grew directly out of the author’s wartime experience and describe in graphic detail the callousness and cruelty displayed by a platoon of young Israeli soldiers toward hapless Arab villagers caught in the middle of the hostilities. Against pressure exerted by Smilansky’s critics on the right, “The Captive” and its companion story entered the curriculum of the secular education mainstream and have been long-time standards in most anthologies of Israeli literature in translation. (In the 1970s, “Hirbet Hiz’ah.” was, to much controversy, made into a TV drama. For a fascinating in-depth essay on the significance of these works on Israeli literature and the Israeli consciousness see here. )

In the late 1950s his massive work "Yemey Ziklag" ("Days of Ziklag") appeared, comprising two volumes and more than a thousand pages. This work completely changed the outlook for Hebrew prose on the one hand, and "war literature" on the other. The work earned him the Israel Prize at only 43, making him one of the youngest recipients of the prize.

By the 1980s it was generally assumed that the writer’s literary career had peaked, given that no new work of fiction had appeared in almost three decades. But in the early 1990s, Smilansky once again stunned the literary establishment with a burst of creativity that saw no fewer than half-a-dozen new novellas published in less than a decade.

· · ·

Early yesterday morning Roi was murdered. The quiet of the spring morning dazzled him and he did not see those waiting in ambush for him, at the edge of the furrow.

Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.

It is not among the Arabs in Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek Roi's blood. How did we shut our eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate, and see, in all its brutality, the destiny of our generation? Have we forgotten that this group of young people dwelling at Nahal Oz is bearing the heavy gates of Gaza on its shoulders?

Beyond the furrow of the border, a sea of hatred and desire for revenge is swelling, awaiting the day when serenity will dull our path, for the day when we will heed the ambassadors of malevolent hypocrisy who call upon us to lay down our arms.

Roi's blood is crying out to us and only to us from his torn body. Although we have sworn a thousandfold that our blood shall not flow in vain, yesterday again we were tempted, we listened, we believed.

We will make our reckoning with ourselves today; we are a generation that settles the land and without the steel helmet and the canon's maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home. Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken.

This is the fate of our generation. This is our life's choice - to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.

The young Roi who left Tel Aviv to build his home at the gates of Gaza to be a wall for us was blinded by the light in his heart and he did not see the flash of the sword. The yearning for peace deafened his ears and he did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush. The gates of Gaza weighed too heavily on his shoulders and overcame him.

· · ·

My dear Uri,

At 20 minutes to 3 in the morning, on the night between Saturday and Sunday, they rang our bell. On the intercom. They said they were from the army. Already three days in which every thought begins with "no." No, he won't come, no, we won't speak, no we won't laugh. No, this lad with the ironic expression and the maddening sense of humor won't be any more. No, the rare conjunction of determination and delicacy will no longer exist, no, there will no longer be Uri's boundless tenderness, nor the quiet with which he stabilizes every storm. And no, we will no longer watch "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld" together, nor will we listen to Johnny Cash with you, and no, we will not feel your strong embrace and we will not see you walking and talking with Yonatan, gesticulating enthusiastically, and we won't see you hugging Ruthie, the darling of your heart.

My beloved Uri, during all of your short life we all learned from you. From your strength and your determination to follow your own path. To follow it even if there is no chance that you will succeed in it. We followed with wonder your battle to get accepted to a tank commanders' course. How you would not give in to your commanders, because you knew that you could be a good commander, and you were not prepared to be content with giving less than you are capable of giving. And when you succeeded, I thought, here is a person who knows his abilities in such a simple and intelligent way. In whom there is no pretense and no arrogance. Who is not influenced by what others say about him. Whose source of strength is within himself.

And you were like that from birth. A child who lives in harmony with himself and with those around him. A child who knows his place, who knows he is loved, who is aware of his limitations and knows his strengths. And truly, from the moment you bent the entire army to your will and became a commander, it was clear what kind of commander and human being you are. And today we are hearing from your friends and your soldiers about a commander and friend, who would wake up before everyone in order to organize everything, and go to sleep only after everyone had dozed off. And yesterday, at midnight, I looked at the house that was quite a mess after hundreds of people had visited and consoled us and I said, nu, now we need Uri to help get things organized.

You were the leftist in your battalion, and they respected you because you stood by your opinion without giving up any of your military tasks. When you went out to Lebanon, Mom said what she was most afraid of was your "Eliphelet syndrome." We were very much afraid that like Eliphelet in the song, if it became necessary to rescue someone who was wounded, you would run right into the line of fire, and you would be the first to volunteer to bring a supply of ammunition that had long run out. And just as you were your whole life, at home and at school and in your military service, and just as you always volunteered to give up a furlough because another soldier needed a furlough more than you, or because his household was in a more difficult situation - that is exactly how you would act there, too, in Lebanon, in face of the difficult fighting.

You were a son to me, and also a friend. And you were the same to Mom. Our soul is linked to yours. You were a person at peace with himself, a person with whom it was good to be. I cannot even say out loud how much you were someone to run with, for me. On every one of your furloughs you would say, "Dad, let's talk" and we would go somewhere together, usually to a restaurant, and sit and talk. You told me so much, Uri, and I felt pride that I had the good fortune to be your confidant. That a man like you chose me.

You lit up our life, Uri. Mom and I raised you with love. It was so easy to love you with all our hearts, and I know that life was good for you. That your short life was good. I hope that I was a father worthy of a child like you. But I know that being a child of Michal's means to grow up in endless generosity and kindness and love, and you received all of these in great abundance, and you knew how to appreciate and how to give thanks, and nothing that you received was taken for granted.

At this time I am not saying anything about the war in which you were killed. We, our family, have already lost in this war. The State of Israel will now make its own reckoning of conscience. We will huddle into our pain, surrounded by our good friends, wrapped in the tremendous love that we feel today from so many people, most of whom we do not know, and I thank them for their boundless support. I fervently hope that we will know how to give one another this love and solidarity at other times as well. This is perhaps our most unique national resource, our greatest national spiritual treasure.

I fervently hope that we will know how to be more tender toward one another. I fervently hope that we will succeed in extricating ourselves from the violence and hostility that have seeped so deeply into all aspects of our lives. I fervently hope that we will know how to straighten up and save ourselves now, at the very last minute, because very hard times still await us.

Uri was a very Israeli child; even his name is so Israeli and so Hebrew. He was the essence of Israeliness as I would want to see it. The Israeliness that has almost been forgotten. The Israeliness that is sometimes considered almost a curiosity. And he was a person with values. This word has been much eroded and has been ridiculed in recent years, because in our crazy, cruel and cynical world it is not "cool" to be a person of values, or to be a humanist, or be truly sensitive to the other's distress, even if the other is your enemy on the field of battle. But I learned from Uri that it is indeed both possible and necessary. That we indeed need to preserve our soul. To defend ourselves in both senses: both to protect our life and to preserve our soul. To insist on defending it from simplistic might and simplistic thinking, from the corruption that lies in cynicism, from the pollution of the heart and the scorn for human beings that truly represent the biggest curse for everyone who lives his whole life in a disaster zone like ours.

Uri simply had the courage to be himself, always, in every situation. And finding his precise voice in everything he said and did is what protected him from the pollution, corruption and shriveling of the soul.

On the night between Saturday and Sunday, at 20 minutes to 3 in the morning, they rang at our door. Over the intercom they said that they were from the army, and went to open the door and I thought to myself - this is it, life is over. But five hours later, when Michal and I went into Ruthie's room and woke her up to tell her the terrible news, Ruthie, after the first tears, said: "But we will live, right? We will live and we will go on trips like before and I want to keep on singing in the choir and we will keep on laughing like always and I want to learn to play the guitar." And we hugged her and told her that we would live.

We will draw our strength from Uri; he had strengths that will suffice us for many years. He had such a strong aura of life, of vitality and of warmth and love, and its light will continue to shine on us, even if the star that generated it is extinguished. Our beloved, we had the great privilege of living with you. Thank you for every moment you were ours.

Mom and Dad, Yonatan and Ruthie


Anonymous Shmuel said...

Interesting analysis of Dayan's eulogy in: Idit Zertal, "Ha'umah Vehamavet", Dvir, 2002.

5:51 pm  

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