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2019 Annual Assessment

Several distinguished Israeli authors died this past year: Haim Gouri (1923-2018); Amalia Kahana-Carmon (1926-2019); Aharon Appelfeld (1932-2018); Amos Oz, (1939-2018); and Ronit Matalon (1959-2017). Each of these writers represented a different segment of Israeli culture. Oz was the undisputed tribal shaman, the one who mirrored Israel and Israeliness for Israelis and non-Israelis alike. Haim Gouri represented the Palmach generation, a literary and social group that preceded Oz and is identified with Israel’s War of Independence and the founding of the state. Kahana-Carmon came to prominence as a woman writer in a man’s literary world – the likely reason she disappeared from public view relatively early in her career.1 Aharon Appelfeld was the voice of the Holocaust survivor population and wore with pride the label of “exilic” writer. Ronit Matalon, the daughter of Egyptian immigrants, whose disjointed, experimental writing style reflected postmodern influences, belonged to a cadre of authors who conveyed the Mizrachi sensibility at a time when Ashkenazi Jews dominated Israeli culture and society. Matalon’s status as the “odd woman out” in the Israeli cultural scene also hints at the nature of a bygone literary era when a Holocaust writer and a Mizrachi writer could exist side by side, but which was incontestably dominated by Amos Oz, the quintessential Israeli who represented the nation’s cultural core. Or in other words, a writer born in Jerusalem to Ashkenazi immigrant parents, who left Jerusalem for kibbutz life and socialism of the Labor Zionist variety.2

The current literary and cultural period in Israel is marked by far greater diversity and an abundance of voices. There is no dominant center; rather, there are multiple alternative centers, corresponding to the groups that constitute Israel’s cultural periphery – Haredim, Arabs, Ethiopians.3 Later we will provide a few examples of the new diversity in Israeli culture, as manifested in outstanding creative works. We will focus on literature and film, as well as on television, whose cultural status is robust and ascendant, in Israel and abroad. The works to be discussed were chosen for their artistic quality, but also for their effective embodiment of current trends, developments, and the new spirit emerging in Israeli culture.

The television series Shtisel (Yehonatan Indursky and Ori Elon, 2013) tells the story of a Haredi family in Jerusalem and centers around a widowed father and an unmarried son having trouble finding a shidduch (match) that meets his expectations. It has touched the hearts of many Israelis, secular and religious alike. The series, licensed to Netflix, is being broadcast abroad with subtitles, rather than being dubbed. Shtisel’s artistic elements – screenwriting, direction, acting, cinematography – are of high caliber, but the singular charm of the series lies in the human quality of its narrative. Shtisel depicts Haredim as “real people,” preoccupied with matters large and small, subject to everyday pain and hardship. The creators of the series, an ex-Haredi (Indursky) and a crocheted-kippah-wearer, i.e., a Religious Zionist (Elon) have succeeded in blending the unique ingredients of Haredi life into a universal formula. The family at the heart of the story, though deeply embedded in the Haredi world, nevertheless epitomizes “family” as such. The series’ overall approach to the Haredim is candid and non-patronizing. It should be noted, however, that Shtisel is not the first show to have been made about Haredim. It was preceded (and succeeded) by several other major television series and feature films dealing with the ultra-Orthodox community, including: A Touch Away (Ron Ninio, 2007), Shababnikim (Eliran Malka and Danny Paran, 2017), Ushpizin (Shuli Rand, 2004), Fill the Void; Through the Wall (Rama Burshtein, 2012; 2016).4 Also worthy of note are the series Meorav Yerushalmi (Jackie Levy, 2004-2009) and Srugim (Laizy Shapiro and Hava Divon, 2008-2012), and the films Campfire and Time of Favor (Joseph Cedar, 2000; 2004), which dealt with Religious Zionism before the “Haredi wave” got underway.

In the case of Religious Zionism, the relevant series and films predicted, to some degree, the national-religious community’s rise in status within Israeli society as a whole. It will take a few years to determine whether the many television shows and feature films depicting Haredi life will have a similar effect.

The growing interest in Israel’s cultural periphery has also manifested in a more substantial representation of the Arab-Israeli sector. New creative works are taking an in-depth, non-stereotypical look at Arab Israelis. What is more, these television series, books, and films place Arab Israeli figures at the center of the action as protagonists. Author/screenwriter, Sayed Kashua, paved the way with a deeper and more complex depiction of the Arab Israeli in his novels Dancing Arabs (2002), which was adapted to film, and Let it Be Morning (2004), as well as in the TV series Arab Labor (2007) and The Writer (2015). In contrast to the breezily comic treatment of national-societal problems that marked Arab Labor, The Writer is not a comedy; its complex-ridden main character, Kashua’s alter ego, has trouble finding his place not only in traditional Arab society but also in Israeli society, which regards him with esteem and sympathy, but in which he feels like an outsider. The choice of the Arab actor Yousef Sweid, who physically epitomizes “Israeliness,” drove home the message of closeness and similarity between Arab and Jewish Israelis of the same class and social circle. The protagonist’s complexity contrasts with the stereotypical Arabs of earlier Israeli films and television series, which Kashua mocks; it also reflects the ambivalence Arab Israelis feel toward the country’s majority group.

A similar ambivalence is conveyed in the first season of Mouna (2019-), whose eponymous main character, an Arab Israeli photographer, leads a turbulent life in Tel Aviv, and like Kashua’s protagonist in The Writer, struggles over issues of identity and belonging: she is torn between the conservative Arab culture she was born into, and the cosmopolitan world of Tel Aviv. Her love interest is an Israeli Jew. The series is based on the experiences of Arab Israeli actress Mira Awad; Maya Heffner, the screenwriter, has acknowledged being inspired by the creators of Shtisel. Mouna is a very Israeli show, featuring a familiar mix: war and rockets from Gaza, bereavement, the “state of Tel Aviv” with Sderot as counterpoint. However, the emphasis is on the human and feminine side of things, and on the protagonist’s experiences as a young woman in Tel Aviv who also happens to be an Arab Israeli.

And then, of course, we have the most celebrated of all the series dealing with the Jewish-Arab interface: Fauda (Lior Raz & Avi Issacharoff, 2015-) which features Palestinian characters, rather than Arab Israelis. Beyond the series’ success in Israel and abroad (it also appears on Netflix), Fauda is a ground-breaking work. Though marred here and there by stereotypical portrayals – the Arab terrorist, the mista’arev (Israeli soldier disguised as an Arab) – the series transcends them. Doron, the protagonist, has ties to Arab culture which, no less than Israeli Jewish culture, is part of his identity. Arabic and Hebrew are almost equally featured in the series, one of whose major story arcs is the affair between Doron and Shirin, a Palestinian woman married to a senior Hamas terrorist. The complex messages conveyed by Fauda have been absorbed by the Israeli mainstream without the softening humor employed by Kashua, and despite the fact that the series deals with a painful issue – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Ethiopian Jewish community is one of the most prominent groups in Israel’s social periphery, and the subject of Fig Tree (2018), a film by Alamork Davidian. Mina, Fig Tree’s protagonist, is a Jewish Ethiopian girl whose family decides to leave their village, and Ethiopia, and emigrate to Israel. She finds it hard to leave the village of her birth, and her non-Jewish boyfriend. On the small screen, the sitcom Nevsu (Yossi Vasa, 2017) has enjoyed local success and garnered recognition abroad, including the International Emmy Award for best comedy series in 2018. Nevsu is about a “mixed-marriage” household in which the father is Ethiopian and the mother Ashkenazi, and is based on the experiences of actor/writer Yossi Vasa, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1984 and married a non-Ethiopian Israeli. The racism directed at the couple led Vasa to write the series, but he depicts the problems, hardships, and culture gaps with a forgiving smile. No television series or feature film has yet been written about the Ethiopians and the difficulties they face without the defense mechanism of humor.

Before the Ethiopian Jewish community became a presence here, Israel experienced ethnic rifts of other kinds. Several recent works address these rifts – most of which are, however, losing their meaning as Israelization erodes the memory of the “ingathering of the exiles” process. Of particular note in this context are: the film/documentary series The Ancestral Sin (David Deri, 2017); the documentary series Ma’abarot (Dina Zvi-Riklis, 2019); and Eli Amir’s novel Bicycle Boy (2019). While the first of these works is concerned primarily with the discrimination and humiliation endured by North African immigrants to Israel in the 1950s, Ma’abarot and Bicycle Boy take a softer approach that tries to understand the full picture, in all its complexity. Without downplaying the pain or whitewashing the discrimination, the latter two works show that the “discriminators” themselves were also beset by difficulties. Ma’abarot highlights the tremendous logistical challenge faced by the fledgling state as it absorbed waves of new immigrants. Amir’s novel depicts the personal pain of an immigrant from Baghdad, but also shows the character’s pride and sense of belonging to the Israeli society that absorbed him.

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