Yaron Peleg, Israeli Culture Between the Two Intifadas: A Brief Romance (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2008).
“The son of the head of the Mossad didn’t even know that he was the son of the head of the Mossad.” Thus begins a short story by Israeli author Etgar Keret, who bore the label “post-modern” among the Israeli literary circles of the 1990s. What follows is a tale that departs significantly from conventional Zionist storylines in its failure to venerate the state as personified in the figure of the father. Instead, Keret’s portrait of the vaunted intelligence agency tracks its corrupting influence in Israeli lives.
This critique of what Yaron Peleg terms the “grand Zionist story” lies at the core of Israeli Culture Between the Two Intifadas. Peleg provides a “literary map” of Israeli society and culture between 1987 and 2000, a period of profound change within Israel and in its relationship to its occupied territories. Focusing on close readings of literary works and popular media — particularly the writings of Keret, Gadi Taub, Uzi Weil and Gafi Amir — Peleg illustrates the ways Israeli literature of this period crafted a new Israeli voice at a considerable remove from “Jewish identity, Jewish nationality or Jewish history.” Richly evident in this book is the diversity of the “post-national” literary project — one that took shape not only in political critique (or conspicuous refusal thereof) but also in new literary styles, aesthetics and consumer desires.
Chapter two will appeal to readers interested in the Israeli cultural landscape. Here, Peleg examines Tel Aviv’s premier weekly paper Ha’ir, studying the challenge it posed to the mainstream Israeli media establishment through a pointed rejection of state affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict in favor of both sensational news and the everyday consumer landscape of Tel Aviv. At the core of this chapter is a concern with Ha’ir’s coverage and cultivation of Israel’s growing consumer economy and “the ascendancy of a new bourgeois culture” — manifest in the cornucopia of restaurant and club reviews and the proliferation of mundane detail, the paper’s attention, in the words of one of its writers, to “the sesame seed on every bagel…[artisan] cheese rack after [homemade] pickle rack.” Peleg argues that the substance of Ha’ir’s post-nationalism lay in these seeming trivialities. After “years of strife and conflict,” the paper’s celebration of consumer practices forged an alternative to the dominant Israeli media agenda by allowing everyday pleasure to usurp the sacred place once occupied by the political.
The departure from the classic national agenda took a very different form in the work of Etgar Keret, treated in chapter three. Keret presented an Israel that was not merely politically irreverent but also “confusing, mean and hellish.” In close dialogue with the concurrent Israeli landscape, his writing meditated upon “the dissolution of civil society in Israel because of the Palestinian uprising,” even as it echoed the images and sounds of his generation through frequent recourse to military slang and English syntax. No Israeli sacred cow was left intact in Keret’s work. Service in the Israel Defense Forces was figured as an “amusing diversion” and Israel’s Holocaust memorial rituals, long sutured to the Zionist project, became the grounds for senseless Israeli violence.
But Israeli critique from 1987 to 2000 was also voiced in other terms. The remainder of chapter three and much of chapter four considers a body of literature and mass media that insistently retreats from politics, taking refuge in apathy, intimate interiors, romance and the everyday. Peleg suggests that an investment in the details of “lighting up a cigarette, making coffee, lying in bed” in writings of this period be understood as an effort to forge alternatives to a hegemonic Israeli literature circumscribed by the parameters of conventional politics and the national.
Peleg’s readings are careful and interesting. The text offers an important argument about the polyvalent nature of “post-nationalism” in Israeli literature and popular media — particularly so at moments when conflict and existential angst receded from the headlines. As such, it will be of tremendous interest to scholars interested in this crucial period in Israeli social and political history, bringing to light a domain of counter-nationalism that more traditional stories of the political tend to obscure. Yet what remains a bit less satisfying is Peleg’s relationship to the history that frames his study. As Peleg briefly notes, the literary landscape was closely linked with concurrent social and political processes within Israel — among them, accelerated economic development, the growing influence of the new Israeli historians and sociologists, and the political shifts that resulted from the 1993 Oslo accords. What remains relatively unexplored are the enormous shifts within the Israeli political scene during the years in question — the lurch, for example, from the Peres/Rabin administration’s dreams of a “new Middle East” to the ideology of “peace with security” under the subsequent Netanyahu administration — and how such changes altered the tenor, style or subject matter of the literary realm, particularly as pertains to efforts to think beyond classic Zionist paradigms. Rather, the period tends to be treated as a singular and somewhat homogenous political field in ways that make it difficult to track the interplay between politics and literature with any precision. It should be noted that despite their appearance in the book’s title, the two Palestinian uprisings are of relatively little concern to Peleg, save their framing of a cultural moment internal to Jewish Israeli society. Peleg is chiefly interested in the vicissitudes of Israeliness that popular literature makes evident.
The literary landscape that Peleg documents had a relatively short life, truncated by the outbreak of the second intifada. After 2000, Israel returns to what Peleg terms the “siege mentality,” and Israeli literature follows suit. Many of the authors that Peleg chronicles stop writing at this juncture — at least temporarily. And what decisively changes is the collective investment in thinking beyond nationalist paradigms; instead, one witnesses a return to “the greater national story,” a phenomenon that intensifies after Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon. As Peleg muses, it seems that “the time for a post-Zionist or a post-national age has not yet come.” Read from the vantage of the present, one wonders if it ever will.