Israeli writers reflect on literature's role in peacemaking

Today's Zaman Yeni Şafak
Weeks have passed since the deadly Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara aid ship. In the period following the attack, many people across the world, beginning with politicians and extending to every occupational group, have expressed their criticism and views of the incident. And in the end, the inhumane blockade of the Gaza Strip was scaled down a degree.

But today it is even clearer that the incident, in which nine civilians were killed and which brought two important states to the brink of war, has dragged the Middle East far from the shores of peace. The attack, which cannot be justified by any means, was a reminder once again that violence cannot be a solution. This critical topic has been addressed by political, economic, military, social and religious circles, but what it needs most is another look from a literary perspective.

Literature and the artisans of literature aren't decision makers when it comes to a solution. Yet it is undeniable that the sway of authors when it comes to getting people to understand one another is unparalleled.

Amidst a period where the political tensions remain high, the Zaman daily's monthly book supplement, Kitap Zamanı, attempted to gain a literary perspective on the Middle East problem. Kitap Zamanı's editor, Can Bahadır Yüce, interviewed authors “from the other side” about this topic in an attempt to aid in the solution process. Leading Israeli authors and publishers spoke with Kitap Zamanı, sharing their views on the Mavi Marmara raid and their thoughts on the role of literature in peacemaking. Perhaps for the first time not just in the Turkish media but in world media, a group of distinguished Israeli writers have come together in one place. Two world-famous writers, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, along with 12 other notable Jewish authors responded to Kitap Zamanı's questions in exceptional depth.

Mavi Marmara attack was a big mistake

Amos Oz describes the raid on the Mavi Marmara as a “big mistake” and argues that Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip is an incorrect method of solving the problem. Oz's autobiography, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” was translated into Turkish in 2006, and his name is frequently mentioned ahead of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He believes that literature has a role to play in the Middle East peace process and says: “What an author can do is to tell the people's story and ensure that people on the other side listen to it. Only in this way can we be saved from stereotypical thoughts.” He added that in order to attain peace, the leaders on both sides must take courageous steps.

Meir Shalev, born in 1948, is an Israeli writer who has been recognized with various literary awards. He is uncertain about how much literature can do about the troubles of the Middle East, but believes that there is one step that must be taken in this regard: separating religion from politics.

“I fear that literature and writers cannot effect lasting political change. Even if it seems that some writers have been able to do this, economics, security and religion are much stronger and more influential. This doesn't disappoint me; the job of writers is to write stories. … The only way in which literature can be of benefit is to allow us to get to know our neighbors from a different view, and to show that while people are similar on some levels, they are at the same time different in interesting and surprising ways -- and this does not constitute a threat,” he says, and adds a message to the Turkish public: “We have to separate religion from politics. … In both Turkey and Israel, like in the Arab world, religion is gaining influence. Not in an ethical, spiritual manner, but in an extremely political way. I hope that in the future, for the sake of our democracies we will be able to succeed in separating church and state -- but I say again, I don't think writers can be very influential in this sense.”

A.B. Yehoshua, among the most respected names in Israeli literature, believes that Turkey needs to take on a more active role in this regard. “Turkey is a Muslim and democratic country and it has an important role between us and the Palestinians,” he said. Yehoshua does not shy away from criticizing the Israeli government when he feels it necessary, and believes that while literature can aid in people understanding one another, it cannot solve problems in itself. Like Oz, he believes that when it comes to problem solving a great deal of responsibility falls upon the shoulders of governments. Turkey has deep relations throughout the region, he said, expressing hopes that the Turkish public will avoid focusing only on the Mavi Marmara incident and work to pursue balanced relations with Israel and the Arab world.

The most radical view of the Mavi Marmara incident came from , who has experienced such pain in his own life. Grossman lost his 20-year-old son, who was serving in the Israeli Army, during conflicts in 2006 between Israel and Lebanon. “This crazy operation shows how much Israel has regressed,” he says. “No explanation can make right the crime committed in this case or absolve it.”

At the same time, Grossman expresses a view “from the other side” vis-a-vis the thoughts of most Turks. “Not all the people on the boat were pro-peace volunteers, and statements by some of them saying that the Israeli state should be dissolved constitute a crime,” he asserted. Grossman, the 2010 winner of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association Peace Award, finds the blockade of Gaza not just “immoral” but also ineffective, and says both sides need to take steps to stop the cycle of violence, revenge and rage in the region.

We can understand each other by reading

The most hopeful words about the role of literature come from the pen of a shining star of Israeli literature, Etgar Keret, who along with Palestinian author Samir El-Youssef wrote the book “Gaza Blues.” “When an Israeli reads a Turkish author's book, s/he can feel what it means to be a Turk, beyond the reductionism of CNN. In the same manner a Turkish reader, by reading an Israeli author's book can learn many things about Israeli society's strengths and weaknesses by looking through the open and sincere window presented by literature.”

The writer says that the discourse employed by politicians should not be full of violence and threats but instead embrace dialogue in order to effect progress. He shared an interesting anecdote with regard to the “future” of the issue: “A few days ago, when my 4-and-a-half-year-old son returned from school he said that he would travel anywhere in the world except Turkey. I asked him in surprise why that was. And he explained that a child at his school said that Turkey had sent five ships full of older kids that wanted to beat them up. I truly think that on both sides there needs to be the procurement of a sense of balance.”

Sami Michael, who published a book in Turkey under the name of “Nabile” two years ago, says that only weapons traders profit from enmity. The 84-year-old writer says that Turkey has never been racist toward Jews, stating: “My great grandfather in Iraq was a fan of Turkey, and my father gave me Kemal as a middle name in the memory of Turkey's founder. No armada tragedy or fights between leaders can erase these deep ties. Even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fundamentally a conflict between unsuccessful leaders, not peoples.” According to Michael, the publics of the Middle East also have a role to play in a solution to the problem. “The Middle Eastern publics have unfortunately not tasted the wonderful experience of democracy. Even if they are fans of their writers and poets, they follow their leaders more -- perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of innocence they accept their noisy verbalism,” he said.

Evan is among the most important translators of Israeli literature into English. He describes in striking language his views of how great a role falls upon Turkey and Turks when it comes to dealing with the “mother of all problems,” the Palestinian issue. “Turkey can always plan an important role in negotiations aiming to establish peace. But like the duty of a mother dealing with constantly bickering children, this task requires superhuman patience, endurance, belief and love. I'm begging Turkey and the Turkish public not to give up on us. Without a mother, it's not possible for us to stay alive,” he says.

Turkish-Israeli relations worth saving

Alon Hilu, an Israeli author known for his historical novels, attributes importance to both literature and the role of Turkey in solving the Middle East problem. “Literature can show readers counter-narratives and tell stories that aren't related in the region. For example, the victims of war and Palestinian refugees' voices can be heard. My latest book, 'The House of Rajani,' has a character who is a 12-year-old Muslim boy who lives in Jaffa in 1895 and witnesses the Nakba. The book presented to Israeli readers the stories that weren't able to be told from the conflict, of what happened on the Palestinian side -- it presented some truths that were sometimes hidden. I think that this is the first step toward reconciliation,” he said

Hilu also looks favorably upon regional neighbor Turkey, saying: “I personally have always seen the Turkish public as a bridge between the Middle East and Europe, not just geographically but also politically speaking. In these days, which are of critical importance in terms of reconciliation and direct communication between the Arabs in the Middle East and the Israelis, we must work together to rebuild the trust between Israel and Turkey. We should not allow for radical and rage-filled voices to prevail in the region.”

Israeli writer Etgar Keret warns against the escalation of tensions in the Israeli and Turkish publics over the flotilla incident, saying: “The conflict is not between the Turkish public and Israeli public, it is between governments and institutions that do not always think about the feelings of the people. The Turkish and Israeli societies are influenced by both West and East, and as liberal religious societies they have many points of commonality. Myself and nearly half of this country is violently opposed to our government and I'm sure that the entirety of the Turkish public doesn't automatically support the decisions of their government, either. Leaders have a tendency to flare up the atmosphere, and it falls upon us to put out these flames, I think. In my opinion the only way to get anywhere is through dialogue, not the violence and threats present in leaders' discourses.”

“The Israeli state has pursued relations with Turkey since the first day it was established,” Sami Michael notes. “A large segment of the Israeli population returned from the Middle East with their memories and rather influenced by the Ottoman Empire. The large number of Israeli tourists traveling to Turkey also reflects this deep friendship. Due to the Mavi Marmara tragedy, shame dominates the Israeli public. It's very upsetting that a single event has led to enmity and hatred between the two countries. My thoughts on the subject are that it was created to develop the demagogies of the leaders in the Middle East. In order to legitimize their own existence, each needs an enemy; from Israeli leaders to organizations like Hizbullah. … While civilians pay the cost of this with the blood of their children and destruction of their homes, those in power get stronger,” he said.

Israeli writer Avrum Burg, a former member of the Peace Now movement, had the following words of wisdom in terms of Turkish-Israeli relations: “A beloved Turkish friend of mine, Mustafa, once shared this saying with me: 'He who seeks out a perfect friend will remain friendless.' Listen, prime ministers Erdoğan and Netanyahu! … None of you are perfect, and we are the ones who perpetuate the friendship between our societies -- and we are determined to protect this friendship.”



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