Who Is an Israeli Writer?

Who is an Israeli writer? Israel's dominant language is Hebrew. Its twentieth-century renovation was central to the Zionist project, it is the language of the common culture, and the equation of Israeli=Hebrew is everywhere evident. But for some twenty percent of the country's citizens, their first language is Arabic. Another twenty percent arrived relatively recently from the former Soviet Union. So for a very big part of the population, languages other than Hebrew are preferred for reading, writing, parts of public life, and much of private life.

This condition is mostly ignored by national institutions. In its brief mission statement, the Israeli Ministry of Culture, Science, and Sport makes a distinction between general "literature" and "Arab culture" (though the former does include literary ventures in languages other than Hebrew). The very name of the quasi-governmental entity responsible for encouraging the worldwide publication of Israeli writing (a generous contributor to this issue) limits its mission: The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature thereby dodges the problem posed by a large minority that writes and reads in something else.

This selection of prose, much as it too may appear to dodge the problem, simply recognizes the reality. Everything included here was written (and in one case, drawn) by an Israeli writer who works fully within the mainstreamóa writer that is to say who is published by a well-established house or magazine, reviewed in the general pressóand read in Hebrew. By virtue of language, and regardless of political position or identity, each of these writers is granted a place within the Israeli consensus, which, more or less Zionist, continues to hold, for all of the country's notorious divisiveness. While nothing sacred is left untarnished in these stories and excerpts, it is perhaps also true that nothing sacred is truly threatened, as long as the means of expression is Hebrew. Dissent lurks everywhere, and it may be profound. But delivered in Hebrew, it remains within the fold.