Etgar Keret’s missing piece

Israeli writer Etgar Keret recently received an award for “work conveying Jewish values across cultures and imparting a humanitarian vision throughout the world.”

The word ‘humanitarian’ is a tipoff that the award is given to someone who espouses a left-wing, universalist point of view. And that is definitely the case for Keret, who is nevertheless a fine writer.

But he is highly critical of Israel, both implicitly in his fiction and explicitly in his public statements. This led Daniel Greenfield to call him an “anti-Israel author,” a charge Keret defended himself against in a recent NY Times op-ed.

What he wrote in it illustrates two things. First, he has no idea of the special position of Israel in the world, and therefore how damaging it is when he contributes to her demonization. And second, he is missing an important part of his soul.

First, regarding Israel. In his defense, he writes,

We are all familiar with the term “anti.” We understand what it is to be “anti-Semitic,” “anti-gay” or “anti-Communist.” But what exactly does “anti-Israel” mean? After all, Israel is a state, and we rarely encounter someone who is “anti-Switzerland” or “anti-Netherlands.” Unlike ideologies, which we can attempt to sweepingly reject, when it comes to states there are complex, multifaceted, heterogeneous entities, and that much is clear to anyone who sets out to defend or attack them. For example, we can be grateful for the Dutch people who hid Anne Frank in their attic, while at the same time criticizing the Dutch citizens who volunteered for the S.S. We can adore the soccer talent that evolved in that same country, but be less admiring of aged Dutch cheeses.

But the fact that there isn’t anyone who is “anti-Switzerland” is precisely the point. Half the world believes firmly that there should not be a state of Israel. They are opposed to its very being in a way that people aren’t about Switzerland or The Netherlands. This is exactly what is meant by “anti-Israel.” Only in the atmosphere breathed by Tel Aviv intellectuals is it possible to not notice this.

So when Keret writes stories that present IDF soldiers as brutes lacking humanity and suggests that they do not see Palestinians as human beings, and indeed behave toward Palestinians the way Nazis behaved toward Jews, he provides ammunition for the demonization of Israel. And it is this supposed demonic character that is appealed to by those who want to erase Israel from the face of the earth. Erase it from the face of the earth. And his literary participation in this project is why he is called “anti-Israel.”

There are certainly incidents from time to time of soldiers who don’t treat Palestinians as human beings. But how many Ma’alot massacres or Sbarro Pizza explosions are the people of Israel supposed to absorb? We too are only human.

Now about Keret’s soul. He writes,

Why, for example, are people who are appalled by the death of Palestinian children in an Israeli Air Force bombing of Gaza, or horrified when Israeli children are killed in a terrorist attack, moved to these reactions by an unbending support of the Palestinian people, or of the Israeli nation, rather than by a no-less-fervent defense of innocent lives in general?

My theory is that many people on both sides of this dichotomy are tired of earnestly debating the specifics and find it easier to demand a tribal discourse, the kind that essentially resembles a sports fan’s unequivocal support of a team. This denies a priori the possibility of criticizing the group you support, and moreover, if done properly, can absolve you from voicing any empathy for the other side. The “anti” or “pro” appeal aims to invalidate any discussion of tiresome issues like “occupation,” “coexistence” or “two-state solution,” replacing them with a simple binary model: us versus them.

Keret doesn’t grant reality to tribal feeling. He sees any expression thereof as a sophistical device to ignore the specifics of the situation. For someone who thinks complexity is so important, how does he miss the emotional complexity of a pilot who loves the Jewish people and therefore drops bombs on rocket-launchers in Gaza, knowing that there will be civilians hurt but also knowing that the rockets must be stopped? Does he agree with his fellow left-wing writer Gideon Levy that the pilots are robots or video-gamers without feelings?

He is obtuse to tribal sentiments perhaps because he doesn’t experience them himself. This is a defect, not something to be proud of. He is missing an inner voice, no less important than the one that tells him that it’s wrong to hurt innocent Palestinians; the one that says “you, Keret, are a Jew and should care about the Jewish people above all.”

It is possible to have tribal feelings and also have empathy for the other side. They are not mutually exclusive. Empathy for the Other is a praiseworthy thing, but you also need to know which side you are on.

Keret and Levy are not alone. They are joined by others in the Israeli Left, and by liberal Diaspora Jews who sometimes seem to have great reserves of empathy for every unhappy person or group in the world except for Israeli victims of terrorism.

The result is that they end up taking part in the demonization and delegitimization of Israel that is intended to set the stage for her removal from the world.

That’s why they are correctly called anti-Israel.