Wooing the Wordsmiths

Not many intellectuals have chosen to sit in the Knesset. The king's republic and the republic of the book have been in no hurry to mingle.

With Meretz now in pursuit of intellectuals to take under its wing, the political involvement of authors has risen once more to the fore. Was it not the wielders of the pen who let the genie out of the poisoned ink bottle 41 years ago? Israeli literature owes a heavy debt to the State of Israel. Payback time is here.

Not many intellectuals have chosen to sit in the Knesset. The king's republic and the republic of the book have been in no hurry to mingle. A touch was enough. Uri Zvi Greenberg, S. Yizhar, Emil Habibi, Moshe Shamir, Tawfik Ziad - that is the ultra-short list (if I have forgotten anyone, I beg their forgiveness). They did not leave their mark. They were more like babes in captivity, sinning through no fault of their own.

Yet what a pity they were not more numerous. More writers in the Knesset would only add, not detract. At least their speeches would be easier on the ear than those who mangle the language. I will never forget how my father would hush me up when the Knesset proceedings were broadcast over the radio, in the hope that maybe S. Yizhar would speak. "Pay heed," he would say. "No perfume ever smelled as sweet. Every phrase a pearl; every word a gem."

Last year, David Grossman spoke at Rabin Square and his words are still reverberating. Who remembers what Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni rambled on about this year, from the very same podium?

So much for language. But when it comes to content, things get more complicated. Just because someone is a writer does not guarantee the worthiness of his insights. Do we put intellectuals bitten by the fascist bug in a police lineup? Do we point an accusing finger at supporters of Stalin whose eyes did not open before the despot closed his?

But why look for evidence elsewhere when it is right here at home? Natan Alterman, a member of the Labor movement, was the one who planted the messianic dybbuk in the soul of the country - a dybbuk that refuses to leave to this day. Alterman was the first to blaspheme democracy as the initiator of a petition signed by writers and intellectuals after the Six-Day War. "No government has the right to give up the land of Greater Israel," he wrote. And it was the wordsmiths, of all people, who did not understand the meaning of those words. Who will remove the putrid ashes of Hebron from their eyes?

Who signed Alterman's petition? Haim Hazaz, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Israel Eldad, Haim Gouri, Moshe Shamir, Yehuda Burla, Gershon Shofman, Yitzhak Shalev, Avraham Kariv and the two Tabenkin boys. S.Y. Agnon, as usual, was not feeling well, but he too was signing, he let it be known. Some of the signatories lived to rue that day.

The authors of the revamped left who are now the talk of the town are not to blame. They are not the ones who summoned up the evil spirit. They rejected it. Hosea was not talking about them when he declared the prophet a fool and the man of spirit mad. They shielded the candle when the great lights went out.

But with that strength let them go forth now: Not as lightweights on the political scale, venturing out and pulling back, but with all the force they can muster. Maybe this generation will find its own Yosef Haim Brenner.