Where Are the Hebrew War Novels?

Despite the paucity of such works, Nitza Ben-Dov addresses an essential and complicated issue in her latest book: the constant, excruciating presence of war in the lives of the Israeli people, as expressed through outstanding literary works.

Doron B. Cohen
A scene from the movie version of Ron Leshem's novel 'Beaufort.'
A scene from the movie version of Ron Leshem's novel 'Beaufort.'
Doron B. Cohen

“Hayyei Milhama” (“War Lives: On the Army, Revenge, Grief and the Consciousness of War in Israeli Fiction”), by Nitza Ben-Dov, Schocken (Hebrew), 396 pages, 99 shekels

In the introduction to her new book about the theme of war in Israeli fiction, Nitza Ben-Dov quotes from Yehuda Amichai’s novel “Not of This Time, Not of This Place”: “People always live between two wars.” Amichai, better known to readers of Hebrew – and, through numerous translations, to English readers as well – as an outstanding poet, published this somewhat neglected, lengthy, semi-autobiographical novel back in 1963.

However, the reality of Israeli lives has hardly changed over the past decades, as Ben-Dov, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of Haifa, remarks after citing Amichai: “War surrounds the Jewish-Israeli human being front and back, it is part of their past and part of their future.” What impact has this reality had on the literature written in Israel since the state’s inception?

The answer to this question is neither simple nor straightforward. On the one hand, as Ben-Dov demonstrates throughout her book, the presence of war seems constant, always lurking in the background even when the foreground is occupied by other concerns, such as love, family life, growing up, immigration and absorption, and so on. On the other hand, paradoxically perhaps, very few novels have been written in Hebrew that focus fully on the experience of war. There exists a treasure trove of historical books and studies on the country’s wars, and there are also some nonfiction (or semi-fictional) books describing personal experiences and traumas of war, but hardly any hard-boiled war novels have been written and published here. One has only to recall the plethora of American war novels following World War II to wonder: Where is the great Israeli war novel?

Ben-Dov uses as the ultimate universal example of such a book – to which she compares what is to be found locally – Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” from 1929, the great novel of World War I, told from the point of view of soldiers on the front and depicting their experience in all its horror. But she can offer only two likely parallels in Hebrew.

The first is S. Yizhar’s monumental novel of the War of Independence, “Days of Ziklag,” which occupies a unique, somewhat confusing place in the annals of modern Hebrew literature. Ben-Dov refers to it mostly in her introduction – quoting at length from an earlier article by her on it, and again in her conclusion, where she points out that Yizhar’s work (which has never been translated to English), from 1958, is not a novel of blood and fire, but rather about the inner lives of its adolescent protagonists.

Nitza Ben-Dov.Credit: Yaron Kaminski

The other parallel, to Ron Leshem’s “Beaufort,” is indeed a closer match to Remarque’s novel in recounting the actual life and death of soldiers under constant fire in Israel’s self-declared “security zone” in southern Lebanon shortly before the army pulled out in 2000. However, this novel too represents a somewhat bewildering paradox: Although depicting faithfully the experience of Israeli soldiers on the front, down to their gallows-humor language, its author tells us in an epilogue that he had never even been to the places he describes, nor has he experienced any fighting, having spent his military service in the safety of Tel Aviv. He did, however, thoroughly research his subject, something that allows for the authenticity of his descriptions. Indeed, one might even say that the reality of war is so embedded in the Israeli psyche, that it can be related truthfully even without actual experience.

In her chapter about “Beaufort,” Ben-Dov quotes Leshem’s complaint about the lack of sufficient reference to recent wars by canonical Hebrew authors, as if out of a fear of dealing with deep traumas and open wounds. Leshem himself was attempting to fill the void with “Beaufort,” which was a huge success, both critically and in terms of sales, and was promptly made into an acclaimed film.

Ben-Dov suggests that the reason for the paucity of Hebrew war novels should be sought in extra-literary factors: “It may be the outcome of escapism, allowing young people to repress, live and dream.” Elsewhere she asserts that “the Israeli army and war literature are not heroic by nature, but rather lean toward pacifism.” While all these possibilities may certainly be correct, the question still needs pondering: Why has so much war experience yielded such a relatively limited portrayal of actual war in Hebrew literature?

As Ben-Dov notes in her introduction, the novels she has analyzed do not constitute “war literature” per se. “War, its fear, the experience of military service, the feeling of revenge and the pain of loss are depicted in Israeli prose in a restrained, indirect and limited way, considering life under the shadow of war and inside it to which every Israeli is accustomed,” she writes. Still, even these restrained depictions offer rich social, psychological and in particular artistic insights, as demonstrated in this book.

“War Lives” contains a long introduction followed by 10 chapters dedicated to 10 different works of fiction, and an additional one concerned with the place of women in the works analyzed, all of which were written by men. The works examined are S.Y. Agnon’s “To This Day” (1952); “The Brigade,” by Hanoch Bartov (1965); Amichai’s “Not of This Time, Not of This Place”; “Infiltration,” by Yehoshua Kenaz (1986); “My Michael,” by Amos Oz (1968); Eli Amir’s “Jasmine” (2005); “To the End of the Land,” by David Grossman (2008); “Pigeons at Trafalgar Square,” by Sami Michael (2005); “Beaufort”; and A. B. Yehoshua’s “Friendly Fire: A Duet” (2007). (Incidentally, all of these novels have appeared in English translation, save for Sami Michael’s book.) The wars reflected in these novels begin as far back as World War I (“To this Day”), and go all the way up to the second intifada, as in both Yehoshua’s and Grossman’s books.

Each chapter stands on its own as an in-depth study of a specific work of prose (or, rather, of certain crucial motifs in each one), with an occasional mention of other associatively or thematically related works. Certain chapters share a common motif; for example, Bartov’s and Amichai’s novels have in common the burning desire for revenge against the Nazis, which in both cases remains frustratingly unfulfilled from the point of view of the narrators. Another example is the motif of the “melting pot” and the complicated relations between Israelis of European and Middle Eastern descent, and how they are aggravated during joint military service. Ben-Dov points out the considerable social changes that can be discerned in Israeli society when comparing two of the novels portraying this theme: Kenaz’s book, taking place in the mid 1950s, and Leshem’s, which takes place 45 years later.

Writer S. Y. Agnon.Credit: National Library of Israel

Also, while most of the novels are set against the background of a specific war, some span more than one. Standing out in this respect are Amichai’s novel, which occurs during both World War II and the 1948 War of Independence, and Grossman’s, which opens with the 1967 Six-Day War, depicting harrowing scenes from the Yom Kippur War six years later, but the principal story occurs during the second intifada. Grossman’s novel also refutes Leshem’s accusation regarding the reluctance of major authors to delve into the horrors of more recent wars; in fact, “To the End of the Land” was published shortly after Leshem made his remark.

Ben-Dov’s forte is in her close reading of novels and her ability to locate and bring up from the depth of each one the motifs and symbols that often lie beneath the surface, but which are responsible for the true merit of the literary work. For readers familiar with the novels, each chapter will enhance the reading experience and reveal some unexpected interpretations.

Following her English-language book “Agnon’s Art of Indirection” (1993), Ben-Dov published three Hebrew volumes of literary studies, beginning with the work of Agnon, the great master of Hebrew prose. She then turned her attention to two of his major “descendants,” Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, making major contributions to the study of the these two leading and popular authors’ oeuvre. In a fifth book, “Written Lives,” from 2011, she ventured into the study of the autobiographical works of several other contemporary Hebrew authors.

In all her books, while she employs a vast variety of approaches to the literary text, Ben-Dov writes in a style that will appeal to lay readers, allowing them to get closer and deeper into familiar and loved books. She acts as a reliable companion, guiding the readers through the text while challenging them to venture along new roads on their own. In her current book, she has paved the way to the study of an essential and complicated issue: the constant, excruciating presence of war in the lives of the Israeli people as expressed through outstanding literary works. Her exposition may also lead to other questions, such as: If indeed Israeli literature shuns heroics and is pacifistic by nature, why does its society, whose unconscious sides this literature may express, find it so difficult to imagine peace and strive for it?

Doron B. Cohen is a translator and scholar of literature and religion, currently residing in Kyoto, Japan and teaching at Doshisha University.

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