Culture wars in the Jewish state
IT WAS a red-letter day for Hebrew literature. On June 14th David Grossman, one of Israel’s most celebrated authors, won the Man Booker International Prize for “A Horse Walks Into a Bar”. Also on the shortlist of six was another Israeli, Amos Oz. For a small country whose politicians normally gush over any international accolade, the response was uncharacteristically terse. It took Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, nearly 24 hours to post a single sentence of congratulation.
Mr Netanyahu’s reticence is indicative of a cold war between right-wing nationalists and the country’s left-leaning cultural elite, epitomised by Mr Grossman. The two men clashed in 2015 when Mr Grossman was among a group of writers who renounced their candidacy for the Israel Prize for Literature after Mr Netanyahu tried to remove some judges whom he claimed were “anti-Zionist”.
Mr Grossman received the Booker for one of his least political books. But for more than three decades he has been an eloquent critic of Israel’s policies in the territories it occupied in 1967. “Yellow Wind”, a collection of essays on the condition of Palestinians under Israeli rule published in 1987, is still considered one of the sharpest depictions of the 50-year-old occupation of the West Bank.
Jessica Cohen, who shared in Mr Grossman’s prize for translating the book into English from Hebrew, said she would donate half of her award to B’Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group. It was a pointed rebuke to Mr Netanyahu, who had recently said he would support a law that would prevent such groups receiving money from foreign governments.
Some of Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers offered more generous praise, even if they remain eager culture warriors. Among them is Naftali Bennett, the education minister, whose ministry removed from the state curriculum a novel featuring a romance between an Israeli and Palestinian. Another is Miri Regev, the culture minister, who has backed the exclusion of a play from a theatre festival because it was about Palestinian prisoners. Ms Regev, a former army censor, has also threatened to withdraw state funding from a cultural festival for staging a play featuring nudity, saying it would harm Israel’s Jewish values. Still, at least she tolerates terrible puns. “Grossman is definitely a winning horse,” she said of his book’s award.