I have a fantasy in which I tell all of America about William Empson. Yes, there are more pressing topics than a dead literary critic. But every time a political polemicist badly misreads fiction—as the anti-Zionist writer Phil Weiss has misread Israeli author Shani Boianjiu’s short story (just out in The New Yorker) about IDF soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators—the English major in me cries, and I dream again of subjecting the nation to a semester of Remedial Irony. Because even if New Criticism is not exactly news, Weiss’s inability to parse Israeli art points to an intolerance for the Israeli perspective, a hostility to complexity.
Here’s an example of what I'm talking about. Weiss quotes disapprovingly the following line from the story, about a gory photograph of an injured Palestinian in Gaza, “The world said that the Israeli Army had done it with artillery fire, but the Israeli Army knew that the family had been killed by a dormant shell that Palestinian militants had left by the sea.” Weiss thinks that’s Hasbara, but he’s wrong.
Though this is the narrator speaking, she’s sticking closely to the perspective of the protagonist Lea, who is an IDF soldier, and so of course hears the army’s explanation. Similarly, a sentence like, “Route 799 cut through the West Bank, but had been closed to Palestinians since 2002, when the motorcyclists were shot,” contra Weiss, is not an assertion of the whole, objective truth: It’s how Lea understands it. Weiss may have a beef with Lea, but you cannot blame George Lucas for Darth Vader.
Nor is it even clear Lea buys the “dormant shell” explanation. Notice how “knew,” a verb describing mental activity, is ascribed to “the Israeli Army,” a collective noun which cannot “know” anything. Notice also how the totally definite “knew” is played against the doubled “had” phrases (what we critics call hypotactic past perfects), which—especially in a story written in short terse sentences—suggest complexity and confusion. This is pretty blatant irony.
Weiss complains that the plot, in which a few Palestinian demonstrators calculatingly demand increasing violence from Lea to get their photos in the paper, shows the Palestinians as cynical exploiters of the press and soldiers as “follow[ing] strict moral rules.” That’d be awfully soft on the army, especially coming from the author of an absolutely brutal story about initiation into the IDF, entitled “The Sound of All Girls Screaming.” Quite a turnaround, I’d say. Or not, because as Boianjiu explains in an interview with The New Yorker (which Weiss quotes!), the whole premise of the story was to mock the precisely graded rules of engagement:
When I was in the army, one of the things I did was train groups of soldiers to use different means of suppressing demonstrations. The kinds of methods they were to use depended on their distance from the demonstrators: if they were too close to them, some of the weapons at their disposal could hurt or kill people. One time I taught a group of reservists. They were all much older than I was, and they mocked the instructions I was giving them. They thought that the expectation that, in the heat of a confrontation, they could measure their precise distance from the demonstrators to make sure that the tools they were using would prove effective rather than fatal was ludicrous. One reservist asked me if I could imagine a scenario in which soldiers would have time to measure all these distances while at the same time trying to control a wild demonstration. I couldn’t, but I wanted to be able to imagine it. So I wrote this story.
The guidelines, Boianjiu argues, require the soldier rapidly to make impossibly fine judgments. They shift responsibility down the ladder. When someone gets killed, it becomes the soldier’s fault, not the system’s. This is a common trope in Israeli culture; it’s even the subject of a great Hadag Nachash song. So you can read the story as justifying disproportionate force on the part of harried soldiers, or you can read it as critiquing an army that has its soldiers staff a brutal occupation and then expects them to act morally. But you cannot read it as an attempt to depict realistically a protest in the West Bank: The whole point of the story was to be unrealistic.
The thing is, purposeful literary unrealities are easy to spot when you have sympathy for the writer (Weiss asks if it would be acceptable for a story to depict protestors against Vietnam or racism as “wild”: Apparently, he doesn’t care for American Pastoral or Invisible Man). Weiss misses them, I think, for the same reason he cannot bear Boianjiu dwelling in the head of an Israeli soldier. It’s the same reason he thinks “Israeli army literature” is a nasty epithet, rather than just a descriptor.
Nobody likes seeing things from the perspective of his enemies, whether they’re suicide bombers or checkpoint-manning soldiers. It’s harder to fight “The War of Ideas in the Middle East” once you realize that Israelis—left and right—are self-reflective, critical, and smart, and that they care about lots of the same things you do. Things turn out be more ambiguous than they looked (which Empson would have appreciated). But if we don’t read “Israeli army fiction,” we’re shirking the demands of moral empathy. And that’s a lesson that American observers of the conflict cannot afford to miss.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.