Apart from stale clichés, the Israeli left isn’t offering its voters much. And because, regrettably, for unclear reasons of historical commitment, I am one of those voters, I’m able to observe everything with a certain irony.
One of those stale clichés of the left was well formulated in a headline I saw not long ago: “There is no right-wing David Grossman.” In other words, the right can bend over backward, but in the intellectual arena, the left will always have the upper hand. The proof was provided, supposedly, in the recent Israel Prize episode, when the right wing tried to infiltrate the secret society of furtive mandarins whose members award the prize to one another every year, on grounds that outsiders are unworthy to be apprised of, and had to retreat with its tail between its legs, more or less.
Initially this statement – there is no right-wing David Grossman – is grasped as a theological tenet, one that I think is considered gospel even by many right-wingers. However, a closer look reveals that the left’s boasting about its intellectual supremacy is problematic on several counts. First of all, because the very act by which a collectivity is boastful about the achievements of individual members is a saliently right-wing, if not racist, approach. It comes from the repertoire of generally dumb boastfulness resorted to by some nations in an effort to prove their superiority over their neighbors.
For example, Jews are often heard to say, “How many Nobel Prizes have Arabs received and how many have Jews received?” This justifies our continued rule over the Arabs. Another example: On a recent visit to Hungary, a truly nationalist and right-wing country, I came across an album glorifying the intellectual and scientific achievements of the Hungarians – one that left the reader with the impression that this is a land of geniuses. And from my father I heard that when he was growing up in Turkey he was taught in school that the Turks discovered America before Columbus, and other such nonsense.
The left’s boasting about great writers is also problematic factually. Was S.Y. Agnon, who is universally considered a creative personality, no less great than David Grossman, a person of the left? I think his descendants would double over in laughter, or in horror, if someone were to say, “The right (or the left) doesn’t have an Agnon.”
Indeed, above all, Agnon was a great writer, and in the course of his life increasingly became a religious conservative, like many classic writers before him, such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who were right-wing and religious, but without any contradiction to their conservative views, were also towering humanists. Or Thomas Mann, who was a German nationalist and a conservative – hardly “left-wing” – but whose work as well as his life followed diverse tracks that don’t fit neatly into any political box.
In our time, Aharon Amir comes to mind. He is one of the fathers of the Young Hebrews movement, which exercised a profound effect on Israeli culture; as the editor of the periodical Keshet, he discovered and published all the major writers who today describe themselves as being “from the left.” He himself was and remains a radical right-wing intellectual, and I would wish many intellectuals of the left his richness of thought, conceptual originality and integrity.
There are many like Amir, but they never enjoyed good public relations, because the right never established a class of secretive mandarins as the left did, who glorify one another and themselves. Thus many highly original thinkers faded into the recesses of oblivion. Among them was the late essayist and thinker Mordechai Shalev, who enriched the pages of Haaretz with his riveting articles, some of which were directed against Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Or the intellectual giant Maya Kaganskaya, who fought fiercely all her life against what she viewed as the nullity of spirit of the Israeli left, and was also swallowed up in that black hole of anonymity to which the Israeli elites banish those who dare to be impudent toward them.
It may be this fear that leads many writers and intellectuals who basically do not espouse a saliently left-wing orientation to remain silent and refrain from expressing political opinions. I would say that Aharon Appelfeld is in this group, and perhaps also Yoel Hoffmann – two authors who are no less great and original than David Grossman, and possibly more. Would anyone conceive of saying “The left has no Yoel Hoffmann,” or “The left has no Aharon Appelfeld”?
Writers and intellectuals are definitely a lot better off declaring themselves part of “the left.” The advantages outweigh those of being identified with the right. It’s a lot easier to move about in the globalized world if you’re a self-declared left-wing intellectual. Domestically, you belong to the secret society of mandarins, and you preserve that status by signing petitions against the government or writing the occasional critical article. Abroad, you present yourself as a fighter against the right-wing regime and its various wrongs and as its victim. It’s a terrific deal.