Politics and Prose

Not Your Average Zionist

Michael Buckner / Getty Images for AFI

Recently, with Benjamin Netanyahu vulnerable in the polls after his fumbling of the Plessner Committee, Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn called on Ehud Barak to quit the cabinet and forge a new center-left political framework to run against the Prime Minister in the next election. Many Israelis feel that Netanyahu is a "collaborator with the ultra-Orthodox draft-dodgers," and bent on attacking Iran. Barak is the only leader prominent enough to challenge Netanyahu on political experience, American connections, and military know-how—though he is unpopular and faces questions about what his party Atzmaut actually stands for.

Yesterday, he was joined by Yoram Kaniuk, who wrote an open letter to Barak in the pages of Benn's newspaper. Kaniuk is a man whose name might be unfamiliar, but which will soon be associated with the holy trinity of contemporary Israeli literature—A.B Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and David Grossman—when the French, Spanish, German, and English editions of his celebrated memoir 1948 are published this fall. The book, though based on Kaniuk's own experience as a soldier in Israel's War of Independence, was labeled fiction because Kaniuk refused to claim that his memories were wholly accurate.

Kaniuk is best known for his 2011 successful petition to the Israeli Interior Ministry to change his registered religion from "Jewish" to "None," but over the past two years Kaniuk has won Israel's prestigious Sapir Prize and was tapped to be awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of France's most prestigious awards. But literary figures in Israel don't just sit on the sidelines as awards are bestowed; they jump into the fray. Here is an excerpt of Kaniuk's letter:

With horror, I realize that at age 82 it has occurred to me to leave my birthplace, which has been stolen from me by the Zeev Elkins with their meager knowledge. I have a grandson, and he will not be in the command center deep underground. He lives near me and I believe he, his mother and her partner are in great danger, as is my other daughter in Jerusalem. My book "1948" and its reception abroad will allow me to emigrate to Boston, to my wife's family. That would be the worst thing I ever did...

This letter, Ehud, is for you. I don't want to be here when the state is destroyed because of one man gone wild, who will soon be revealed as either foolish or crazy—and we didn't know it. Under the skin of your hands you harbor a great sinner, but also the wise man you once were. And wisdom can sleep, but not die.

So Kaniuk is a man who has disavowed Judaism, but one who also claims that leaving Israel would be "the worst thing" he ever did. Not your average Zionist. But most certainly a lover of Israel.