As Israel faces a snap election, it's our responsibility to cast out the looming right-wing proposition says Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
The first Israeli spacecraft reached the moon on 11 April 2019, shortly after the publication of the final results of the Israeli elections. The spacecraft was launched from Israel in February, in the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in the middle of an exhausting election campaign. On that evening in February, Bibi did not know if he would still be Israel’s prime minister when the spacecraft was due to land two months later.
Apart from technical equipment, the spaceship, Beresheet, also contained symbolic cargo: a Bible and the Israeli flag. These objects represented the State of Israel, a country determined to go above its earthly existence and touch infinity. On the body of the lunar lander a plaque had been inscribed: ‘Am yisrael chai’. “The Bible, the flag of Israel and the writing ‘The people of Israel live’ on the moon”, said Netanyahu at the launch, “is a dream come true”.
Two months later, immediately after the election results were announced, the spacecraft approached its destination. Netanyahu, the newly re-elected prime minister, arrived once more at the Israeli Aerospace Industries centre in Yehud, to watch the celebratory landing on the moon. Israel’s citizens were watching the event on their television sets at home, or on giant screens set up in Tel Aviv and around the country.
The TV repeatedly broadcast the image that had been taken from the spacecraft while approaching landing – the face of the moon with the plaque right next to it. Another inscription next to it read in English: ‘A small country, big dreams’, hinting at the possibility that extra-terrestrial life may not read Hebrew. Arabic did not get to be launched to the moon, despite the fact that 20 per cent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs.
The countdown started. Excitement was at its peak. But moments before landing, connection with the spaceship was lost. After a few minutes of nerve-wracking tension, the message arrived: the spacecraft had succeeded in orbiting the moon, but had crashed during landing.
We soon learned that a problem in the acceleration gauge had led to engine failure. Although this explanation sounds plausible in engineering terms, it does not satisfy me. After all, the journey to the moon was never a mere engineering act. It was also a symbolic act. And if the landing on the moon has a symbolic value, then crashing on the moon also has a symbolic explanation. I shall dare to offer a literary one: the spacecraft did not crash on the moon because of a problem in the accelerometer, but because of another gauge – the gauge of Entitlement.
A country that does not bother to acknowledge and recognise 20 per cent of its citizens with equal rights, a country that does not fight for a just existence for all its citizens – maybe such a country is not yet entitled to reach the moon. Before we can touch the heavens we still have a few things to sort here, in our Middle Eastern land.
Mourning over Beresheet did not take long. The elected prime minister left the control room and returned to Jerusalem to construct a government and prepare for another term. Netanyahu made many decisions in the days following the elections, but one of them constitutes, in my opinion, the essence of the new term – he gave instructions to deny entry into Israel to Palestinians who wished to take part in the Israeli-Palestinian remembrance day that had been planned in Tel Aviv on the evening of Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s remembrance day for its fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism) later that week.
The ceremony is marked jointly by Israelis and Palestinians, and takes place on the evening before Israel’s remembrance day. Unlike the landing of Beresheet on the moon, this ceremony is not broadcast on national television, but its internet coverage is watched by many in Israel, Bethlehem and in other settlements and towns in the Palestinian territories.
Every year, the speakers call for the ending of the killings on both sides. Last year it was the writer David Grossman, who had lost his son in the second Lebanon war, and who gave a spine-tingling speech at the ceremony: “We, Israelis and Palestinians who, in the wars between us, lost those who were dear to us, perhaps more dear than our own lives – we are sentenced to touch reality through an open wound. Whoever is wounded in this way can no longer have illusions. Whoever is wounded in this way knows how much life is built from a huge sacrifice, from an endless compromise.”
Grossman spoke as a bereaved father, not as an author. But his rare ability as an author was revealed during that difficult night. He allowed himself to imagine a different world from the one in which we walk now. He invited us to visit, walk within it. He made it appear possible. While he was speaking, right-wing demonstrators stood at the edge of the ceremony and swore at the Jewish participants who chose to mourn together with Palestinians. “Nazis”, they shouted, “go to Gaza”. Israeli reality leaves us paralysed at times, unable to express an alternative. Grossman used his literary power to dream for us, about us being better than we are.
Many writers in Israel still avoid taking a definitive political position. This may be because of concerns about sales or fear of losing public sympathy, which tends to lean towards the right. Perhaps it is due to humility: why would a writer think their opinion is more important than the opinion of any other citizen?
In my opinion, taking a political stance is part of the ethical responsibility of every person. That responsibility is greater for those whose circumstances enable their voice to resonate more loudly in the public domain. The person with a microphone; the person the public chooses to listen to, read or watch – that person is obliged to use their power to fight for what is worth fighting for. Otherwise, that person is nothing but a coward.
A person must make their voice heard, even if they fear that nobody hears them. Even if it is only for the sake of me being able to tell my children, when they grow up, that we did everything we could in order to preserve a democratic Israel for them. On the other hand, has anybody ever changed their opinion because another person waved a placard in front of them?
Amos Oz left us this year. A brilliant author, who refused to shut himself in his study and sink into his own words – he insisted on repeatedly meeting the world, or trying to change it. After years of activity on the Israeli left, Oz published a book, Dear Zealots, and astonished the Israeli literary world when he chose to be interviewed in the most right-wing paper of all, Israel Hayom (Israel Today) – a newspaper that most lefty authors avoid appearing in. This was a radical declaration from Oz about the need to build a bridge between the various layers of Israeli society. If the Israeli left wants to influence society, perhaps we should understand that demonstrations and preaching are not the way. Perhaps we need to learn a lesson in humility, a lesson in how to conduct a dialogue.
While writers often wonder what influence – if any – their words have on the public, it seems that politicians are deprived of this uncertainty. The blunt attack by right-wing ministers on freedom of expression in Israel is a testament to the fact that, for them, the written word constitutes a real threat. For example, Minister of Education Naphtali Bennett gave instructions that the novel Gader Haya (All the Rivers) by the Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan should be removed from the secondary school curriculum. The novel follows a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. Bennett’s concern was that the novel, a kind of contemporary Romeo and Juliet, would encourage assimilation among young readers. Noa Mannheim, the witty literary Hebrew editor of Kinneret publishing house, remarked: “The only encouraging thing in Bennett’s decision is the assumption behind it – it is exciting to think that our minister of education believes that one book has the power to uproot all the grudge and suspicion between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Miri Regev, the minister of culture of the outgoing right-wing government, also did all she could to scare the Israeli creative community. Her ‘loyalty in culture’ law, which proposes withdrawing or reducing funding from cultural bodies that, according to the government, don’t show sufficient loyalty to the state, poses a direct danger to the wider Israeli democracy. But real loyalty does not lie in appeasement. A loyal friend is not one who will always tell us that we look wonderful. A loyal friend is the one who dares to tell us that something is stuck between our teeth.
Writers do not need a budget from the government to enable them to realise their vision. But in order to shoot a film, filmmakers need funds – funds that Regev wishes to control. In order to stage a play, playwrights and directors need theatres, which are controlled by the Ministry of Education. The publishing world has its faults, but at least it is not subjected to the hands of the censors. Yet I fear self-censorship. I am concerned for the young writer who sits at their desk in Jerusalem, or Haifa or Be’er Sheba, and erases the lines they'd written out of concern that they are ‘too political’.
However, a novel is not a political petition. Even though I am an enthusiastic supporter of the #metoo campaign, I wrote the novel Liar, which is about a young woman who fabricates a sexual assault that had not actually taken place. And although I am an activist for refugee rights, I insisted on creating, in my novel Waking Lions, the character of an Eritrean refugee who is far from a pitiful victim.
Israeli writers are not obliged to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or about the return to Zion. By all means they can write a love story that takes place in a spacecraft on its way to the moon. But when they finish their work and leave the desk, the writers will open the door of the room. And when they do that, the moon will be far away in the sky and the realities of Israel will still be on their doorstep. The choice lies in their hands – will they turn their back and return to the room, or will they go out into the street and try to change it?
By Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Translated by Yael Breuer
Photos by Yonatan Sindel / Flash90
Liar, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s latest novel, is out now via Pushkin Press. www.pushkinpress.com/product/liar
This article also features in the July 2019 issue of JR.