Was literature, both Hebrew and Arabic, always associated with processes that promoted peace? Not necessarily.
It was frequently associated with those very forces that blocked peace, that disseminated hostility, militarism and defeatism as regards faith in peace. There has also been much literature associated with tribal versions of justice, supporting the continuation of war.
We always foster the illusion that literature is the supreme representative of universal values. Assuming that universal values are not in themselves illusory, it is clear that the assumption that literature always expresses universal values lacks all empirical confirmation. There are indeed wonderful examples to affirm it, such as Schiller's "an the Aesthetic Education of Man" or Jean-Paul Sartre's "What Is Literature?"
Such works strengthen the essential and internal connection between artistic literature, especially stories, and a spirit of mutual understanding, tolerance and peace.
This connection surely exists in the work of many great writers, both in world and in Israeli literature, but in the same measure there also exists an opposite context in which artistic writing, fiction, to some extent stories, and particularly poetry, frequently stood behind the horrors of the twentieth century. Wherever there was a tribal, nationalistic, racist concept, which rejects and hates the Other, it had on its side literature and poetry, and not only by minor literary figures.

Examples at Home and Abroad

That is the empirical reality and it can be proven by quoting from the great poets of this century who backed Italian Fascism or Nazism or Stalinism, not only supporting them, but providing them with those literary myths which maintained tyrannical regimes. This was often done willingly rather than out of external pressure or coercion.
We can find examples in the Israeli-Arab conflict. After the 1967 war, the manifesto of the "Greater Israel" movement altogether failed to see the Arab side in Palestine, or perceived it as peripheral. The movement was considered a stepping stone toward implementing the autistic two ¬thousand-year-old Jewish vision of a "Greater Israel" Yet some of the best Hebrew writers and poets at that time signed the appeal. When a liberal or social-democratic intellectual plays with the idea that, had the political leadership paid more attention to the authors or read more literature, it would have adopted a better political line, it is easy to show that this is a futile idea.
Of all Israeli prime ministers, the one most influenced by literature was Yitzhak Shamir, who knew by heart tens of pages from the poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg.1 In a meeting at the Hebrew University honoring the publication of the first volumes of Greenberg's poetry, Shamir read an old article by the poet, maintaining that even if no Jewish foot ever steps in Gaza, Gaza was always Jewish and will always remain so, because of the biblical tale of Shimshon, because of Nathan of Gaza in the seventeenth century and, in general, because of Gaza's place in Jewish history. Inspired by the great poet, his whole address was dedicated to the idea that we must never give up Gaza. Perhaps politicians who listened not to such literary voices, but to the Israeli soldiers in Gaza, would have been better able to deal with the problem of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. The view that, in general, literature always promotes peace, mutual understanding, tolerance and justice, is an illusion.
It is not only on the Israeli and the Zionist side, but also on the Arab¬Palestinian side that one can perceive great writers creating barriers to peace through their visions. The great Egyptian writer and playwright Yusuf Idris (1927-1991) boycotted Israel, opposed coming to terms with it, and called for its destruction. The contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was not always a great promoter of the peace process and of political accommodation. Neither does Professor Edward Sa'id exactly encourage the peace process in his concepts: he supports what he sees as true peace, but is against the actual Oslo peace process. A writer can enfeeble the peace process, not only in the name of the rights of one tribe over the other, or of one human group against another, but also in the name of invoking a perfect peace rather than the only peace of compromise which can really be achieved.

The Distortion of 'Universalistic Values'

There are many people who like to perceive this as a struggle between the tribal spirit and general values. I am no longer certain even about this. Talk of universalistic values doesn't always assist peace because such values are often perceived as embodied only in a particular people and struggle for those values, therefore, behooves fighting for that people. You can agree, for example, that justice and morality are universalistic values, but also assume that they are primarily embodied in the Jewish people. Therefore, when you fight for the Jewish people as a political reality, everything receives endorsement.
In this spirit, many Germans supported the rise of a man who was to be the worst leader in the history of Europe. They did so for universalistic reasons, embodied, in their eyes, in the German people more deeply than in, for example, the Slavic peoples. So, the inspiration is created from the moment that politics works as the embodiment of values, and this in the name of morality and on its behalf. It is then no longer a matter of prosaic affairs like territorial interests, but becomes part of a vision.
There have been many such failures in the twentieth century. Even great philosophers, like Herman Cohen and Martin Buber, called upon Jewish youth in the First World War to join the German army in the name of morality and culture. It was left to the ostracized Communists, and to Jews like Rosa Luxembourg, to stress the real character of the war.

A Pragmatic Peace

That peace which we hope is now on the agenda was not born, to my mind, from literary inspiration or vision, even if it did receive encouragement from writers from both parties to the conflict. Peace does not come because the spirit takes over men of action or because army generals are moved by a vision. Not surprisingly, it may be these very generals and leaders who strive for a practical peace.
Peace will be the result of pragmatic needs, or of a realistic realization that unceasing and unending bloodshed leads nowhere except to the gradual destruction of one people by the other and the destruction of each people by itself. It is the result of exhaustion, of realism, of the insolubility of a conflict between two sorts of justice or between the relative justice of both sides which is perceived by both as absolute justice.
None of us can today be certain that, in itself, dealing with high culture automatically contributes to desirable political processes in humanistic, democratic, liberal and socialist terms. Writing good poetry, creating good music or art do not necessarily promote peace.

What to Translate?

Now to some thoughts on translation. Translation, both of Hebrew literature to Arabic and of Arabic and Palestinian literature to Hebrew, should not be in any way selective from a political point of view. As an Israeli associated for many years both with the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature and with the peace movement, I want first to recommend giving preference not to translating precisely those works which are acceptable to the other side, like the Hebrew work "Hirbet Hizah" by Yizhar Smilansky (1949).2 On the contrary, there are good reasons for translating those literary excerpts which, at first sight, appear to impede rather than to assist peace.
This means that there will be translations from Hebrew into Arabic of the most hostile elements, those most opposed to peace in Hebrew literature and in the traditional Jewish philosphy and in Zionism. Translations will not come only from peace-loving and humanistic elements which are deeply rooted in the Jewish and Zionist tradition, in philosophy and in Hebrew literature.

Against Stereotypes

However bitter the truth, let the Israeli reading in Hebrew know it through translations of Arab and Palestinian literature into Hebrew, just as the Palestinian and the Arab will know it through an unselective translation of Hebrew and Israeli literature and philosophy into Arabic. This is surely preferable to stereotypes constructed over centuries by ideologies oriented toward war and refusing to rethink or to adapt to an era of accommodation.
For its part, selective translation - selective from a political and not an artistic point of view and regardless of good translation into Arabic or Hebrew - could always serve the war machine. For example, if the Israelis repeatedly feed the Arabs with stories like Yizhar's "Hirbet Hizah," or "The Prisoner,"3 though I support their translation into Arabic because of their artistic value, this could create a false image and be exploited to show that the Jews recognize their "guilt" and accept that the other side is in the right.
The same could be said of a selection of Martin Buber's essays on the Israeli-Arab conflict, or works by A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz or Binyamin Tamuz.4 This is also true of selective translation from Arabic literature. Let us say that one only translates from the Arabic spineless material, Western¬oriented intellectual material or works by Palestinian Arabs with Western inclinations. These express not the depth of rage and anger, but only pragmatic pressures or a position of inferiority toward the Zionist Israeli or the Israeli, as representing Western culture.
Such writing can serve as evidence showing, as it were, that the Arabs "recognize" their need to learn from the Jews, that the Arabs are backward and inferior, which helps to feed the stereotypes. All this leads to the conclusion that what is needed is unselective translation which draws attention to the hardest and bitterest aspects of both people's literatures.
The more we translate unselectively and give expression to all shades of thought, the more can we fight against the "metaphysication" of the Arab¬Israeli conflict and work for a reinterpretation of each party by the other. In the name of this reinterpretation one does not have to jettison the whole of Zionism, just as one does not have to jettison all the ideals of the PLO, on condition that neither will be perceived as the holy Tables of the Law, where every letter is sacred.

First a Political Peace

In conclusion, we have to spread the idea that people, states, nations, sociopolitical movements, are not eternal assets, and that the compromises they make are not temporary diversion from some deep metaphysical will of a tribe or a people or a movement. The "concessions" which peoples make create a prospect of redefining their identity in their own eyes, of renewed compromise with themselves and by themselves: the Zionist Israelis as Zionist Israelis, and the Palestinian Arabs as Palestinian Arabs.
As I see it, the greatest enemy of the peace process today is not only stereotypes, but the perception that there is an essence to Judaism, an essence to Zionism and an essence to the spirit of Islam and to the Arab spirit. According to this, everything else is superficial and pragmatic political matters are meaningless, expressing merely some deep metaphysical factor.
There is a discussion as to whether, in the last decade, Israeli literature has become less Zionist. In any case, over the last century much has been written which makes the process of political accommodation difficult. But, in truth, it is not a matter of psychological accommodation or of literary inspiration that brings political peace. On the contrary, it is the necessity for a political peace process which facilitates becoming acquainted with the other side.
Psychological accommodation will come later. Peace will be born in political compromise and not in love. It is political peace, the result of a realistic balance of forces and an inability to destroy the other side without self-destruction, which creates the possibility of a wider psychological and intellectual affinity. Thus to the political peace will be added a new dimension of a more comprehensive process of accommodation.


1. Uri Zvi Greenberg (1894-1981), one of the greatest Hebrew poets, was originally connected with the Labor movement, but from the 1930s became a militant Revisionist with a mystical-religious and rightist-annexationist outlook.
2. A story on the expulsion of Arab farmers from their land during the 1948 war.
3. How Israeli soldiers debate releasing an Arab prisoner in the 1948 war.
4. Humanistic modem Hebrew writers with a sensitive approach to the conflict.

Adapted from a lecture to the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, published in Tirguma, organ of the Israel Translators Association.