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Writers often talk of the torments of writing, of “the fear of the blank page,” of nights waking in a cold sweat because suddenly they see the weaknesses, the vulnerabilities, of the story that they have been writing, sometimes for years. This distress is certainly real, but I insist also upon the pleasures of creation, of inventing an entire fictional world out of thousands of facts and details. There is a particular kind of wonder that I feel when a character I have invented begins to overtake me, to run ahead and pull me forward: suddenly this imagined character knows more than I do about its own fate, its own future, and also about other characters in the story, and I must learn to follow, to catch up. In a way that I do not fully understand, my invented person infuses me with the materials of life, with ideas, with plot twists, with understandings I never knew I possessed.
A creative work represents, for me, the possibility of touching infinity. Not mathematical infinity or philosophical infinity, but human infinity. That is, the infinity of the human face. The infinite strings of a single heart, the infinity of an individual’s intellect and understanding, of her opinions, urges, illusions, of his smallness and greatness, her power to create, his power to destroy — the infinity of her configurations. Almost every idea that comes to my mind about the character I am writing opens me up to more and more human possibilities: to a lush garden of forking paths.
“To be whole, it is enough to exist,” wrote the poet Fernando Pessoa. This wonderful observation pours salt on the wounds of every writer who knows how difficult it is to translate a character born in the imagination into a character that contains even a particle of the Pessoan “wholeness,” even a fraction of the fullness of life that exists in one single second of a living person. It is this wholeness — made up also of infinite flaws, with defects and deficiencies of both mind and body — to which a writer aspires. This is the writer’s wish, this is the writer’s compulsion: to reach that alchemical develop-ment at which suddenly, through the use of inanimate matter — symbols arranged on a page in a particular order — we have conjured into being a life. Writers who have written characters and dissolved into them and then come back into themselves; who have come back to find themselves now composed in part of their character; who know that if they had not written these characters they would not truly know themselves — these writers know the pleasures to be found in the sense of life’s fullness that lives inside each of us.
It is almost banal to be moved by this, but I am: we, each and every one of us, are in fact a plenitude of life. We each contain an infinity of possibilities and ways of being inside life. Yet finally such an observation is not banal at all. It is a truth of which we regularly need to remind ourselves. After all, look how cautiously we avoid living all the abundance that we are, how we dodge so many of the possibilities that are broached by our souls, our bodies, our circumstances. Quickly, at an early age, we ossify, and diminish ourselves into a single thing, a “one,” a this or a that, a clearly delineated being. Perhaps it is our desire not to face this confusing and sometimes deceptive welter within us that makes us lose some part of ourselves.
Sometimes the unlived life, the life we could have lived but were unable to live, or did not dare to live, withers inside us and vanishes. At other moments we may feel it stirring within, we may see it before our eyes, and it stings us with regret, with sorrow, with a sensation of squandered chances, with humiliation, even with grief, because something, or someone, was abandoned or destroyed. It might be a passionate love that we renounced in favor of calm. Or a profession wrongly chosen, in which we molder for the rest of our lives. Or an entire life spent in the wrong gender. It could be a thousand and one choices that are not right for us, which we make because of pressures and expectations, because of our fears, our desire to please, our submission to the assumptions and the prejudices of our time.
Writing is a movement of the soul directed against such a submission, against such an evasion of the abundance within us. It is a subversive movement of the writer made primarily against himself. We might imagine it as a tough massage that the writer keeps administering to the stale muscles of his cautious, rigid, inhibited consciousness. In my own case, writing is a free, supple, easy movement along the imaginary axes between the little boy I still am and the old man I already am, between the man in me and the woman in me, between my sanity and my madness, between my inner Jew-in-a-concentration-camp and my inner commander of that camp, between the Israeli I am and the Palestinian I might have been.
I remember, for example, the difficulties I experienced when I wrote Ora, the main character in To the End of the Land. For two years I struggled with her, but I was unable to know her completely. There were so many words surrounding her, but they had no living focal point. I had not yet created in her the living pulse without which I cannot believe in — I cannot be — the character I am writing. Finally I had no choice but to do what any decent citizen in my situation would do: I sat down and wrote her a letter, in the old fashioned way, with pen and paper. Ora, I asked, what’s going on? Why won’t you surrender?
Even before I had finished the letter, I had my answer. I grasped that it was not Ora who had to surrender to me, but I who had to surrender to her. In other words, I had to stop resisting the possibility of Ora inside me. I had to pour myself into the mold of she who was waiting deep inside me, into the possibility of a woman within me — more, the possibility of this particular woman within me. I had to be capable of allowing the particles of my soul — and of my body too — to float free, uninhibited and incautious, without narrow-minded, practical, petty self-interest, toward the powerful magnet of Ora and the rich femininity that she radiates. And from that moment on she practically wrote herself.
There are extra-literary implications to my discovery of another interiority, a human plenitude, within my writing self. A few years ago, I gave a speech on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. It was late afternoon, the sun was preparing to set. The mountains of Moab behind me, at the edge of the horizon, would soon be painted red, and gradually turn paler until their outlines blurred and darkness finally descended. I spoke about my submission to Ora, and then I turned to the reality of our lives here in Israel — to what we Israelissomewhat grimly call hamatzav, or the Situation. It is a word that in Hebrew alludes to a certain stability, even stasis, but is in fact a euphemism for more than a century of bloodshed, war, terror, occupation, and deadly fear. And most importantly, fatalism and despair.
Perhaps there is no more appropriate place to talk about the Situation than on Mount Scopus, because I find it difficult to gaze at that beautiful landscape in a way that is disconnected from reality, from the fact that we are looking a what is called, in conflict-speak, “Ma’aleh Adumim and Zone E-1.” That location is precisely the point at which many Israelis, including government officials, wish to begin the annexation of the West Bank. Others, myself included, believe that such an act would put an end to any chance of resolving the conflict and doom us all to a life of ceaseless war.
On Mount Scopus our reality seems all the more densely present, containing not only the Hebrew University, with all the wisdom, knowledge, humanity, and spirit of freedom that it has amassed for almost a century, but also the three thousand Bedouins in the adjacent desert — men, women and children, members of a tribe that has lived there for generations, who are denied their rights and citizenship, and subjected to constant abuses, the purpose of which is to remove them from this place. They, too, are part of the Situation. They, too, are our situation: our writing on the wall.
Fifty years ago, after the end of the Six-Day War, in the amphitheater on Mount Scopus, Lieutenant-General Yitzhak Rabin, the Chief of Staff who oversaw Israel’s victory, accepted an honorary degree, and his speech on that day reverberated throughout the country. Rabin’s address was an attempt — a successful attempt — to construct the collective conscious-ness and the collective memory of his contemporaries. I was thirteen at the time, and I still remember the chills it sent down my spine. Rabin articulated for us Israelis the sense that we had experienced a miracle, a salvation. He gave the war and its results the status of a morality tale that almost exceeded the limits of reality and reason.
When we said “The finest to the Air Force,” Rabin said in his speech, referring to a famous recruitment slogan, “we did not mean only technical aspects or manual skills. We meant that in order for our pilots to be capable of defeating all the enemies’ forces, from four states, in a matter of hours, they must adhere to the values of moral virtue, of human virtue.” He continued: “the platoons that broke enemy lines and reached their targets….. were borne by moral values and spiritual reserves — not by weapons and combat techniques.”
It was a breathtaking speech. (It was written by Chief Education Officer Mordechai Bar-On.) It was impassioned but not over the top, although those were euphoric days. God is not mentioned even once. Nor is religious faith. Even the experience of finally touching the stones of the Western Wall is described not in a religious context, but rather in an historical one: “the soldiers touched right at the heart of Jewish history.” Just imagine the florid prominence that would be given to religion, to holiness, to God, in such a speech today.
Rabin also declared that “the joy of victory seized the entire nation. But despite this, we have encountered….. a peculiar phenomenon among the soldiers. They are unable to rejoice wholeheartedly. Their celebrations are marred by more than a measure of sadness and astonishment… Perhaps the Jewish people has not been brought up to feel, and is not accustomed to feeling, the joy of the occupier and the victor,” But as Rabin uttered those words, the embryonic occupation had already begun to grow. It already contained the primary cells of every occupation — chauvinism and racism, and in our case also a messianic zeal. And there also began to sprout among us, without a doubt, “the joy of the occupier” which Rabin believed we were incapable of feeling, and which ultimately led, through a long and torturous path, to his assassination twenty-eight years later.
It appears that no nation is immune to the intoxication of power. Nations stronger and more steadfast than ours have not been able to withstand its seductions, much less the small state of a nation such as ours, which for most of its history was weak and persecuted, and lacked the weapons, the army, the physical force with which to defend itself. A nation that in those early days of June, 1967 believed it was facing a real threat of annihilation, and six days later had become almosta small empire.
Many years have passed since that victory. Israel has evolved unrecognizably. The country’s accomplishments in almost every field are enormous and should not be taken for granted. And neither should the larger saga: the Jewish people’s return to its homeland from seventy diasporas, and the great things it has created in the land, are among humanity’s most incredible and heroic stories. Without denying the tragedy that this historical process has inflicted upon the Palestinians, the natives of this land, the Jewish people’s transition from a people of refugees and displaced persons, survivors of a vast catastrophe, into a flourishing, vibrant, powerful state — it is almost incomprehensible.
In order to preserve all the precious and good things that we have created here, we must constantly remind ourselves of what threatens our future. I am not referring only to the external dangers that we face. I have in mind, first foremost, the distortion that damages the core of Israel’s being — the undeniable fact that it is a democracy that is no longer a democracy in the fullest sense of the word. It is a democracy with anti-democratic illusions, and very soon it may become an illusion of democracy.
Israel is a democracy because it has freedom of speech, a free press, the right to vote and to be elected to parliament, the rule of law and the Supreme Court. But can a country that has occupied another people for fifty years, denying its freedom, truly claim to be a democracy? Can there be such an oxymoronic thing as an occupier democracy?
A hundred years of conflict. Fifty years of occupation. Beyond the details of the political debate, we must ask: what do those fifty years do to a person’s soul, and to the soul of a nation? To both the victim and the victimizer? I return here to the process of artistic creation that I described earlier — the axiomatic sense of a person’s infinity, whoever that person may be. In the context of our present historical circumstances, I summon back the writer’s understanding that beneath every human story there is another human story. I insist again upon the archeological nature of human life, which is composed of layers upon layers of stories, each of which is true in its own way. The imagination of all these layers and truths, upon which the writer relies for the richness of his creation, has another name: empathy.
But a life lived in constant war, when there is no genuine intent to end the war — a life of fear and suspicion and violence — does not recognize or encourage or tolerate this abundance of human realities. It is by definition a morally unimaginative life, a life of restriction. It narrows the soul and contracts the mind. It is a life of crude stereotypical perceptions, which in denying another people’s humanity promotes a more general denial of all otherness and difference. This is the sort of climate that finally gives rise to fanaticism, to authoritarianism, to fascist tendencies. This is the climate that transforms us from human beings into a mob, into a hermetic people. These are the conditions under which a civil, democratic, and pluralistic society, one that draws its strengthen from the rule of law and an insistence on equality and human rights, begins to wither and fray.
Can we say with confidence that Israeli society today is sufficiently aware of the magnitude of these dangers? Is it fully capable of confronting them and contending with them?Are we sure that those who lead us even want to contendwith them?
I began with the literary and I end with the real — with the reality of our lives. In my view they are inseparable. We do not know, of course, who will stand here fifty years from now. We cannot predict the problems that will consume them and the hopes that will animate them. To what extent, for example, will technology have changed people’s souls, and even their bodies? Which dimensions and dialects will have been added to the Hebrew language that they will speak, and which will have disappeared? Will they utter in their dailyspeech the world shalom? Will they do so happily, or with the pain of disappointment and squandered opportunities? Will shalom be spoken naturally, with the ease of the commonplace — routinely, as if peace had become a way of life?
I do not know what sort of country the Israel of the future will be. I can only hope with all my heart that the man or woman who will stand in my place will be able to say, with their head held high and with genuine resolve: I am a free person, in my country, in my home, in my soul.