If She Didn't Do It, No One Else Would

A eulogy for Tanya Reinhart, a brilliant linguist whose academic credentials were matched by her keen sense of political responsibility

Many years ago, in Haifa, Tanya Reinhart was a member of the Communist Youth, among whom, contrary to the norms in the Zionist youth movements, it was considered all right to rock and slow-dance at parties. It was even a necessity, if you wanted to get really close to the true young working-class. Tanya, however, always longed to be like the girls of the Zionist youth movements. That may be why she always walked around in simple, flat-soled leather sandals. Only much later, when she was already a cosmopolitan woman, a sought-after professor who taught at various universities, with friends in Amsterdam, Paris, New York and Budapest, did she find what in her youth she had resolutely shunned. These were the days of Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads, music usually favored by people a decade or two younger than her; it was certainly not the typical fare of those born in the 40s, this music that was not nourished by the most common kind of nostalgia in the pop industry, that is, nostalgia for the 1960s. At parties she really did become addicted to dancing, and there you could really see what broad circles of friendship she had formed with younger people, in addition to her bonds with her old friends.

She alternated between (weak) Europa and (strong) Gauloise cigarettes, carrying both brands in her purse, and knew how to stop smoking all at once. She had an amazing ability to stay up-to-date. Once I met her in New York, entirely by coincidence, and we wandered together among the galleries of SoHo. The "return to painting" already prevailed then and I, as a provincial, found it hard to adjust, after what I had loved seeing in Israel in the '70s. Tanya understood (she really did always know how to formulate the basis for the contrary position) and also explained what seemed to me utterly new. She never rejected the new. In general, nostalgia is not recommended for Israelis: After all, the country we miss no longer exists, it never will exist again, and it is doubtful whether it ever existed in the first place.

At the end of that same month, November 1981, at a large demonstration against the occupation in Ramallah's Manara Square, the army fired tear gas at Israeli protesters, who scattered in all directions. Tanya found herself with a small group of younger people in a side alley. An armed soldier tried to stop them and, when he did not quite succeed, he became "the few against the many," screamed, cocked his rifle, and threatened. There was silence, and Tanya quietly appealed to his sense of reason (as she always used to call giving it another try), and smiled to calm him. The incident ended then, in an arrest only. Those who knew her ability to make one angry or to annoy, but not her gift for dispelling tension with a smile or rational, cerebral conversation, missed out on knowing what should be called the responsibility to do what no one else will do if you don't do it, and right now.

Moment of hope

The contact made in those days with faculty members at Bir Zeit University was a moment of great hope and optimism, a feeling that aside from struggle, something else was being created. While having dinner one night at the home of a Palestinian professor in El Bira, we asked our hosts to sing, and they sang one of Fairuz's Andalusian songs ("A Thousand Nights"). At their request, we also sang an Israeli song. This was before the massive wave of colonization; everything seemed open. Now, however, those who used to say "two states within the June 4, 1967, borders" no longer really say that, but add "with corrections," and in fact wink at the settlers, at the army, at the "moderate majority." Here is the thing one should never become up-to-date about: the falling-into-step with the rabble in order to push the blame and the duty of making concessions onto the other side, to the point of disenfranchisement, of hunger.

For many years, the well-known linguist placed her scientific prestige at the service of the political struggle; during the early 1980s, when the dean of students at Tel Aviv University was Aharon Chelouche, a retired police officer and military governor whose duties included curtailing the political activity on campus, Tanya would show up at his office over and over to obtain a license for demonstrations. In this context she played the role of "Professor Reinhart," that is, placed the feudal logic of the university in the service of democracy.

I have heard academics from the "moderate left" (a euphemism for the new right) complain about the way she "exploited her academic status," as if all the academics had not used her academic prestige, like cubs suckling at the teats of a large she-wolf.

Let me explain this point, so that the malicious nature of Tanya's environment can be understood: Universities need "international names." That is the only way they can establish their value in the global market of knowledge; it is also the only way that others, with less impressive accomplishments, can walk around that world with the words "Tel Aviv University" emblazoned on their chests. And everyone, including those who remain silent in the face of the horrors all around us, fed off the few names that gained international acclaim.

For many years the university needed "Prof. Reinhart from Tel Aviv University" much more than she needed the institution. She did not use this unequal state of affairs to be self-indulgent, miss classes, be late or come to teach unprepared, but rather to make her prestige available to left-wing activists, to the Palestinians and above all to her research students. She had an international reputation but maintained her modesty in full, never mentioning that her essays about the anaphora or her groundbreaking articles on syntactic grammar, especially on the so-called "c-command," constituted an internationally recognized contribution to linguistics. This should be remembered when people think of her activity in support of an academic boycott against Israel. This activity was derived from her concept of responsibility: On the one hand, there was the clear annihilation of Palestinian society, and on the other - the fact that Tanya herself contributed to the university's international standing. And the time had come for the debt to be paid off.

Her departure was a slow process. It began in 1991, during the first Gulf War, when, after many years of activism in a left-wing collective, she had to face the fact that too many people around her were afraid to confront the Israeli collective, which was drunk on American support for Israel. She began to replace the direct actions of the collective with individual action, something that had been foreign to her until that year. She moved to writing op-ed pieces, a kind of writing that assumes the existence of another, hidden collective, since without one there can be no politics. Instead of her beloved non-linguistic class about modernism in art, she began to teach a course entitled "It Said in the Newspaper..."

And then the Oslo Accords came around, and everything was already in place: In the wake of the colonization wave, the new state solidified, with its own left wing (supporting a partial withdrawal from the occupied territories) and a right wing (opposed to any withdrawal), the two differing from each other by very little. No one, except Tanya, managed to pinpoint all this in time. She experienced a great flare-up of hope when, at some point in the second Intifada, the hidden collective emerged: She met the anarchists of the struggle against the separation wall and the direct action that she so believed in.

In Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo," Andrea says to his teacher, who refuses to be a hero: "Unhappy is the land that has no heroes." After a minute or two, some brief dialogue and commotion, Galileo answers: "No Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero."