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Israeli Culture between the Two Intifadas

Israeli Culture between the Two Intifadas
A Brief Romance

An intriguing portrait of Israel’s “Generation X,” and the perceived decline in Zionism among contemporary urban Israeli youth between the Palestinian uprisings that began in 1987 and 2000.

December 2008
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170 pages | 6 x 9 |

Over the past two decades, profound changes in Israel opened its society to powerful outside forces and the dominance of global capitalism. As a result, the centrality of Zionism as an organizing ideology waned, prompting expressions of anxiety in Israel about the coming of a post-Zionist age. The fears about the end of Zionism were quelled, however, by the Palestinian uprising in 2000, which spurred at least a partial return to more traditional perceptions of homeland. Looking at Israeli literature of the late twentieth century, Yaron Peleg shows how a young, urban class of Israelis felt alienated from the Zionist values of their forebears, and how they adopted a form of escapist romanticism as a defiant response that replaced traditional nationalism.

One of the first books in English to identify the end of the post-Zionist era through inspired readings of Hebrew literature and popular media, Israeli Culture between the Two Intifadas examines Israel's ambivalent relationship with Jewish nationalism at the end of the twentieth century.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Bourgeoisification and Its Discontent
  • Chapter 2: Popular Media in a Post-National Age
  • Chapter 3: Etgar Keret: A Dispirited Rebel with a Cause
  • Chapter 4: Romance as a Defiant Escape
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

A native of Israel, Yaron Peleg is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Director of the Hebrew Program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is also the author of Derech Gever and Orientalism and the Hebrew Imagination.


The last two decades of the twentieth century brought profound changes to Israel and opened it up to increasing outside influences. Throughout the 1980s, the country also experienced accelerated economic development and the establishment of a Western, capitalist society, a trend which was expedited by the influx of hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants in the early 1990s and symbolized by the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993. These developments, the addition of nearly one million workers and consumers to Israel's economy, and the first real chance at peace with the entire Arab world, brought Israel much closer to Western consumerist society, exposed it to its popular culture, and began to change it in significant ways. The most notable of these changes was the apparent demise of Zionism, the powerful ideology which, in the span of merely fifty years, gave birth to Jewish nationalism and then to the modern state of Israel.

The weakening hold of Zionist ideology was not necessarily a negative development. Many saw it as a sign of health that marked the country's maturity and signaled the next stage in its evolution. Like any liminal stage, however, it was a period that engendered fear, confusion, and doubt, all of which found concerned expression in the culture's literature. Since its strong ideological beginnings in the nineteenth century, modern Hebrew literature has often been used by readers to take the nation's pulse, as it were, to follow its development and understand its inner workings. This book attempts to do something similar, to examine what contemporary Israeli authors have to say about the alleged decline of a national ethos that united Jews for one hundred years and about the arrival of a post-national age in Israel.


One of the illustrative ways Hebrew literary critics characterized and distinguished literary generations from one another during the past century has been to focus on the common use and function of the narrative voice as an expression of the age. Thus, the anguished and introverted voice of the lonely first-person-singular narrator in many works of the Hebrew Revival came to symbolize the hesitant and precarious beginnings of a new Hebrew culture in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the twentieth century. Similarly, the first person plural of the following literary generation, the Yishuv or 1948 Generation, came to symbolize the next stage in the Hebrew cultural revolution and its success in establishing a cohesive national culture whose members strongly identified with it at the expense of more personal concerns. The turn to a plurality of first-person narratives after the establishment of the State, during what is commonly called the State Generation, marked a break from the group culture of the first native Israeli generation and a rebellion against it. This book suggests the emergence of yet another cultural generation in Israel, which, beginning in the early 1990s, can be distinguished by a new voice, the "first person dual" of the romantic couple. Although the first person dual does not exist as a grammatical category in Hebrew, the sense of the pronominal narrative voice in many literary works from that time is neither that of an individual "I" or of a communal "we," but that of the romantic duo ("{HI0.1}").

Since Gershon Shaked completed his monumental study of modern Hebrew literature between 1880 and 1980, few literary historians have attempted to follow his example. The reluctance to do so can be attributed to a lack of adequate historical perspective, which the proximity to the new literature bred. Another, more compelling reason, perhaps, may be related to the arrival of the so-called postmodern age in Israel at the end of the millennium, an age wary of positivistic studies like those of Shaked, who based his work and organized it according to his professed attachment to Zionism. Instead of a definitive history, then, the proximity in time to the literature in question produced numerous studies that focused primarily on its impressive expansion and diversity, while the attempts to classify it focused on defining that literature broadly as postmodern.

Since both of these observations about literary diversity and postmodernism are expansive and somewhat vague, I would like to draw in the following pages a more specific map of Israeli literature during the last two decades. The chart I suggest here is made more precise by limiting it to a shorter period of time and focusing on fewer writers. The time I examine in this book is that between the two Intifadas, 1987 to 2000, and the writers I consider here are Etgar Keret, Gadi Taub, Uzi Weil, and Gafi Amir. Keenly expressive of the profound changes Israeli society underwent in the last two decades of the twentieth century, these four writers struck a new narrative voice. Instead of the common Zionist "we" of previous generations or the individual "I" who rebelled against it, Keret, Taub, Weil, and Amir adopted an unaffiliated Me and You, an alternative romantic narrative that focuses on coupling and privileges personal love over communal and national attachments.

Characterized by terse narratives that usually unfold in urban settings, the First Person Dual writers seem to have abandoned the grand Zionist story of the past in favor of a narrative that is both smaller and larger in scope—the preoccupation with romantic love as the ultimate fulfillment of the human condition. The works of these writers, unlike those of writers from previous literary generations, appear largely unconcerned with Jewish identity, Jewish nationality, or Jewish history. Moreover, their move away from the particular and the local toward more universal literary themes, and especially the construction of the romantic experience within a capitalist framework, is distinctly marked by the abandonment of the tension between individual and community, a tension that has stood at the center of modern Hebrew literature since its inception. Instead, these writers seek to realize themselves within the confines of a couple rather than in relation to a community.

By the appellation "romance" or "romantic love," which I use freely and expansively throughout this book, I mean the way contemporary culture, as represented especially by the entertainment industry and the mass media, idolizes what it refers to as "true love"—that is, the kind of monogamous coupling based on mutual attraction and sustained by continuous devotion that was first conceived of and popularized during the nineteenth century. Popular phrases such as "soul mate" or "the one," which can often be read or heard in many popular movies, mostly Hollywood romantic comedies, capture this sense fairly well. Peculiarly, the liberal sexuality that the mass media reflects and promotes in the West is also accompanied by more conservative "romantic" values that privilege the kind of faithfulness associated more readily with medieval courtship. A good measure of naivety and often even childishness is required to maintain such simplistic idealizations that go against common cultural practices. Guilelessness and innocence, then, whether genuine or contrived, are also part of the way I apply "romantic" in my analysis.

Surprisingly, it is this quality that distinguishes this group of writers and makes them an emblem of a time that was marked by a burst of literary activity and that witnessed the remarkable growth of a variety of distinct literary voices: women, Mizrahis, gays, the religious, Arabs, and others. Throughout the 1990s these writers were mentioned again and again in the daily press as well as in more academic venues, individually and as a group, as the voice of a new Israeli age, an age that is alternatively called postmodern or postzionist. Their resonance in an increasingly fragmented society and the ability of these First Person Dual or romantic writers to reach across a plurality of voices by constructing a fragile but distinct voice is the subject of this book.

This modest study does not purport to be synoptic. At the same time, although it makes no claim to continue the kind of comprehensive classification Shaked offered, it does something similar by different means. The map I chart here suggests the contours of a cultural "age" by presenting a very small but evocative group of writers during a fixed timeframe. With the exception of Etgar Keret, perhaps, the four writers chosen for inspection here were not the most central literary figures of the decade (a decade whose extraordinary literary ferment and diversity makes such determinations very difficult anyway). Various other writers, especially female writers, may have been more visible and prolific. Some were arguably better. Many of them, like Savyon Liebrecth, Dorit Rabinyan, Yael Hadaya, Tzruya Shalev, Leah Aini, and Mira Magen, also privileged romance and eschewed more national concerns. But while their works underscore the premise of this book, they do not present the kind of emblematic similarities that can be more readily gleaned in the works of Etgar Keret, Gadi Taub, Uzi Weil, and Gafi Amir.


The scant attention modern Hebrew works historically gave to romantic love makes the preoccupation of the First Person Dual writers with it especially intriguing. The development of modern literature in Europe, especially the rise of the novel, is directly linked to romance as an individualizing force, a mode of rebellion, liberation, and fulfillment in an increasingly bourgeois, capitalist, and secular world. The very European term for the novel, romuan (from "romance"), makes clear the extent to which the literary form itself centered on relations between the sexes. Generally speaking, this was not the case with modern Hebrew literature, which waged a different cultural war at its beginning and focused more on reforming the Jewish community and forging new connections between its members that were not based on religion. There were, to be sure, genuine attempts to incorporate romance into modern Hebrew letters. The most obvious example would be the very first modern Hebrew novel, Avraham Mapu's 1853 Love of Zion (Ahavat tzion). Other notable examples come from the Hebrew Revival at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth (Berdichevsky and Gnessin, for instance). But most of these served more ideological than romantic concerns. While Mapu's novel was a maskilic critique of the moribund Jewish community of his day, the precarious freedom that Revivalist heroes won from their traditional Jewish communities often came at the expense of their love lives, which tended to be tortuous and abortive. That is, the failed love affairs of the uprooted young Jew, the Talush, were yet another indication of his existential limbo, stuck between the declining old world and an unknown Jewish future.

More contemporary successors of Revivalist writers, the New Wave writers of the 1950s and 1960s in Israel, used romance in similar ways. Amos Oz epitomized this in his signature novel of the period, Michael sheli (My Michael) (1968), when he endowed the love life of the heroine, Hanna, with distinct national symbolism. The same can be said for New Wave female writers like Yehudit Hendel, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, and Ruth Almog, who, generally speaking, seem more concerned with a feminist agenda than with the potential for romance in their works from that time. The focus of these women writers on physical and psychological interior spaces and on the political dynamics of romantic relationships is especially important for this study because in the long run it legitimized such concerns, leading eventually to the emergence of the romantic writers. This does not mean, of course, that Hebrew literature knew no romance (S. Y. Agnon, for instance). But a comparison to other literatures, certainly English, French, and American literature, which from the 1960s on exercised a growing influence on Israeli culture, will reveal that romance occupied a secondary role that usually served communal, Jewish, and Zionist politics.

One of the peculiar characteristics of the romantic texts in this book is the recurring urban environments they present, whose setting and imagery often seem taken from generic American films and television programs, including bars, gun-toting detectives, nightly taxi rides in the city, and beautiful, mysterious women. In this "capitalist realism," as Eva Illouz calls it in her illuminating study about the connection between love and modern consumerism, romantic love is perceived as inherently liberating and individualizing, a mode of rebellion, escape, and fulfillment in an increasingly alienating world. It is after all a commonplace that romantic love replaced religion in twentieth-century Western culture and has become one of the most pervasive mythologies of contemporary life in the West. But since nationality, not religion, held center stage in Zionism, the closer identification with the West and the eager adoption of its values, especially love, eventually undermined Israeli nationalism, not Jewish religion.

In Israel, this kind of romantic consumerism occurs most conspicuously in the rebellion of post-army Israeli youth, who take prolonged trips abroad, especially to the Far East. These excursions serve a double purpose. The most obvious one is to disengage physically and mentally from a dismal Israeli reality that is still stuck, as it were, in a primitive and anachronistic conflict while the rest of the civilized world is out having fun. Another purpose is to foster a closer association with the West through the consumption of tailored tours to exotic locations, replete with extreme sports and drug parties that characterize youth culture, especially in Europe. Today we know that these changes were not as enduring, and that in many ways, the economic boom and the chance for peace were artificial. But the fictive quality of both, the economy and the peace, was nevertheless alluring at the time, perhaps even more so because they were an attractive promise. This goes directly to the nature of the romantic writers, who perceived these trends and commented on the possibilities they held for a truly Western, civil society in Israel, an Israel that would finally be able to lead the bourgeois life it always craved.

This, essentially, is the sentiment that the romantic writers express in their works, which usurp the grand Zionist narrative of the past in favor of a more Western-universalist one. While the new narrative retains elements of the former, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Ashkenazi-Mizrahi divide, and secular-religious tensions, these no longer hold the same values they held before. As part of a postmodern, post-national literary universe, they are subsumed under and serve a grander romantic narrative, to which Jewish history, culture, and identity are in many ways incidental.


The study is framed between the two Intifadas because that time saw some of the most portentous changes in recent Israeli history, society, and culture, including the chance for a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors as well as the country's rapid economic development and its attendant bourgeoisification. At the time, both of these were perceived as having the potential to change the country in profound and unprecedented ways. The discrepancy between the first Intifada, which was perceived by a majority of Israelis as unjust, senseless, and ultimately a losing fight with the Palestinians, and the unprecedented rise in Israelis' own standards of living brought into question the very foundations of Zionism. The second Intifada, however, marked the end to some of these trends because its eruption against the country's protracted economic slump confirmed the intractability of the Arab-Israeli conflict and resurrected Israel's Masada complex. The romantic writers expressed many of the sensibilities—chances as well as dangers—of a new Israeli era after the first Intifada in 1987. The second Intifada in 2000, however, changed this dynamic by eliminating some of the gap that grew between the political and the personal during the 1990s and, harking back to earlier times of national emergency, drew it closer again.

The following four chapters draw a literary map of the last twenty or so years in Israel. The map proposed here focuses primarily on the literature between the two Intifadas as two symbolic milestones that frame the period and inform it. Chapter 1 looks at some of the profound changes brought on by what has been termed the end of the Zionist era during the 1980s. The chapter examines the critique of the old Zionist narrative, often referred to as postzionist criticism, not only by scholars like Benny Morris and Tom Segev, but especially by writers like Meir Shalev, David Grossman, Orly Castel-Bloom, and Yosef Al-Dror, whose diverse works foreshadowed and heralded a new era.

Chapter 2 continues the examination of this new era by focusing on one of its most immediately visible articulations: the growth of a new press in Israel during the last decades of the millennium. The chapter centers primarily on a local Tel-Aviv weekly, Ha`ir, which became one of the most articulate voices of a dynamic, urban, and sophisticated young and rebellious Israeli generation between 1985 and 1995. The chapter examines the connections between literature and more popular media like Ha`ir, which became a fertile hothouse for most of the writers who are discussed in the next chapters and inspired some of their literary innovations.

Chapter 3 looks at the works of Etgar Keret, one of the best-known and most articulate voices in Israel and abroad, who spoke for a new Israeli generation that no longer abided by many of the old Zionist tenets. The chapter looks at Keret as a representative of an Israeli Generation X, a generation that did not subscribe anymore to many of the old Zionist truisms, refused to sacrifice itself unnecessarily on what it perceived to be a false national altar, and looked for new ways to express and fulfill itself. Chapter 4 looks at three of Keret's contemporaries, Gadi Taub, Uzi Weil, and Gafi Amir, who echo many of Keret's concerns and sensibilities, especially his cultivation of romantic love as an interim solution to the ideological vacuum and confusion of the age.

Finally, the conclusion looks at several works written after the second Intifada in 2000 in order to show how a new generation of young writers returns to some of the old literary paradigms abandoned briefly by the romantic writers. The conclusion makes clear that ultimately, the attempt of the First Person Dual or romantic writers to suggest alternative narratives did not last long. The breaking of the second Intifada silenced their voices and returned many of the old national concerns to center stage. As the new millennium began, the harsh reality of the Middle East announced itself ever more ruthlessly. It erected newer boundaries between Israel and its Arab neighbors, deepened the conflict between them, and returned the old tribalism in more virulent forms.


“Informative, intelligent, never condescending, this book allows outsiders broad insights into Israeli literature and society, even as it provides articulate, nuanced readings of particular authors.”
Naomi B. Sokoloff, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, University of Washington


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