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To talk about ourselves
By: Nir Baram
Haokets
1 May 2012

Original Hebrew: http://www.haokets.org/2012/05/01/%D7%9C%D7%93%D7%91%D7%A8-%D7%A2%D7%9C-%D7%A2%D7%A6%D7%9E%D7%A0%D7%95/

Today it was reported that after Nir Baram’s speech at the Writers’ Festival two years ago, this year writers were asked to submit their speeches in advance for the approval of the Festival organizers. Baram dared – heaven forfend – to be political, and he reminded those who live by the sea of the danger that they might stop hearing the rustle of the waves. Here is his complete speech:


In 1907 two of the greatest Jewish writers of the 20th century met in London. One was Yosef Haim Brenner, and the other was his friend from youth, the writer Uri Nissan Gnessin. Brenner waited for Gnessin like “a lover awaiting his heart’s desire”, and hoped that he would bring “light into the darkness of his life.”

Although the two men were close friends with similar life experiences, each one of them took his creation in a fundamentally different direction. Brenner strove for a Hebrew literature which from the distress of the individual would deal with the current conflicts that preoccupied the Jews, whereas Gnessin wrote personal, convoluted and impressionistic literature. Brenner, as the editor of the journal Hameorer, shouted in the language of “we”, whereas Gnessin whispered in the language of “I”. And the two were opposite in all aspects of their characters, as Asher Beilin, one of their close friends, put it: Brenner was “a roaring raging sea”, whereas Gnessin was “a melancholy pond that weeps in a whisper”.

Those two writers, among the most wonderful known to modern Hebrew literature, did not succeed in bridging the differences between them at that meeting in London. Nor did they pretend that it was possible. A literary, ideological and personal abyss yawned between them, and they were both too honest to cover up the differences with words of courtesy or flattery.

It could be said that the meeting ended in failure. The ill Gnessin left London and they did not see each other again.

This raises an interesting question about meetings between writers: when is such a meeting a failure? When they do not conceal their differences, when they scratch the wounds, when they express resentment, when they tell the truth, can that be called a failure?

As a young writer who has attended few literary festivals, I sometimes wonder whether the rituals of the festival, the cocktail parties, the rules of courtesy and the ceremony, the respect for the hosts, the need to entertain the audience, do not mask the differences and convert the whole event into an excessively cultivated one. Do the unwritten rules of the festival not sterilize the event of the volatile and unsettling potential of literary dialogue? Indeed Kafka claimed, in one of his best-known articles, that a book – like a literary dialogue, incidentally – should be an axe that cleaves the frozen sea within us.

And maybe today too there are too many things we do not talk about?

True, a literary festival is measured by its literary content, but is it even possible to speak just of “literature” – just of literary and aesthetic values – without touching on the social and political conditions within which that literature is written?

Having seen in the twentieth century how various regimes use “culture” and to what ends, it is no longer possible to speak of art that is not political. Creation, and it does not matter what kind, is a product of the era in which it takes place. Whether it wants to or not, it is interpreted in the spirit of the time. “We are children of the era”, wrote Szymborska, and the era is always political.

I was born and grew up in Jerusalem, and there is not one story in my family that does not begin or end in this city. But today, a few kilometres to the east of here, we can see the separation wall that the State of Israel has built as a part of the Israelis’ clear vision to separate their state from the Arab world. This development, which speaks to the hearts of the Jews who are worried about the future of their state, reflects the paralyzing power of exclusive, introverted Jewish ethnicism, which does not even bother to pretend to protect the rights of those of different ethnic or religious backgrounds, be they Palestinians, migrant workers from Colombia or refugees from Darfur.

Under the cloak of victimhood that has indeed been sewn for us, the Jews, by history, we are witness to systematic violation of the rights of non-Jews within the State of Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Modern Hebrew literature, in contrast to other national literatures, sprouted within a foreign geographical, social, cultural and linguistic area. It emerged mainly in Eastern Europe as well as the Arab countries, through an unending dialogue with other cultures in a multi-lingual and diverse environment. And indeed the literature that was written by writers like Mendele Mocher Sforim, Brenner, Gnessin, Bialik, Fogel and others does not descend from the peaks of European modernism.

Perhaps in the Israeli imagination it seems to us that in those days the Jews were locked up in small enclosed towns and today we are part of the big world. But to my dismay, particularly in the past decade, it is we who are enclosed behind walls; we who strive to construct surroundings for Jews only and denounce and even expel the strangers in our midst; it is we who alienate ourselves from the geopolitical region in which we live. And if the young generation of Israelis has one mission, at which we have so far failed in every sense, it is to knock down those walls.

Dear guests, I want to welcome you to the festival. It features wonderful writers who have influenced Hebrew literature in general as well as me as a writer. And I want to say to you that sometimes it seems to me that we no longer know how to talk about ourselves, and even when it seems to us that we have formulated a new idea, the familiar Jewish-Israeli story speaks from within our throats, cunningly navigating the world of our imaginations.

Maybe we need are in particular need, these days, and also at this festival, of a penetrating and honest dialogue. Maybe that sympathetic but also critical look from outside can illuminate the spaces that are concealed from our eyes. As has already been said: when you live by the sea, you gradually stop hearing the rustle of the waves.

Translated from Hebrew by George Malent
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