An Army of Letters

Two new books look into Israel's military-literary complex. The authors, literary scholars at Tel Aviv University, share an irreverent reverence for the subject matter.

In the wake of an autofiction pandemic the worst excesses of which Israeli literature has yet to shake off; on the yahrzeit of Amos Oz, last of the self-appointed tzofim lebeit Yisrael, the watchmen for the people of Israel; in what some hope are the final months in office of a Minister of Culture who loudly proclaims her disdain for that very Culture: It is refreshing to harken back to the bad old halcyon days of Hebrew literature, when poets cavorted with generals, when every volume of fiction aspired to being the Great Israeli Novel, when the written word mattered.

If it is impossible to conduct such time-travel without also facing the ugliness that is part and parcel of every nation’s heyday, then so be it. Two recent major works of scholarship, both published in Hebrew, attempt to deconstruct Israeli jingoism through the lens of the Jewish State’s literary output. The authors, both professors of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University, share a reverent irreverence for their subjects: a radical appetite for sacred cow. But their means, methods, and conclusions are very different.

In the Security Style and the Hebrew Culture of War, Uri S. Cohen sets out on a quest “to understand life in light of literature and within war.” The eponymous Style is the world of Israeli war—inevitable, but also necessary. It’s the language enticing and entwining the individual into the nation’s web, as if by choice. It’s the maker and shaper of Israeli history and culture; the words Israelis use to talk about their history and culture, in pillow talk and memorial ceremonies alike.

Cohen spends much of the book aphorizing about the Style (“it’s the music you hear on the radio in the hours following a terrorist attack, or the songs associated with this or that war”). The Style is such an all-encompassing element of Israeli culture as to be of little interest per se. If everything is the Security Style, then the Security Style is nothing. Cohen’s thesis, though, is more compelling than this. Rather than reflecting militant trends in Israeli society, the Style in Cohen’s telling is a sort of virus, or meme, infecting the Israeli body politic. The bard does not sing of the general’s wars: he instigates them.

Cohen’s Security Style is a sort of blob, with no one master but with multiple voices. Many of these just happen to be the literary lights of the state’s early years: Nathan Alterman and Moshe Shamir chief among them, but also Nathan Shacham, S. Yizhar, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua. A veritable Who’s Who of the country’s masculine canon; guilty, in Cohen’s telling, of making war the chief objective of Israeli politics and escalation its means of policy. Israelis, enamored as they were with the literature of the time, became so immersed in the Style’s martial culture that they never really paused to question it.

Cohen’s project is not limited to elegizing the poetics of war in early-state literature. He’s pinned eighteen theses to the doors of his book. Some—though not all—are compellingly argued in the ensuing chapters. A running theme is the complex interplay between the militia culture of the Yishuv (i.e. that of the Palmach or the Irgun) which preceded the modern State of Israel, and that of the IDF. His close reading of Israel’s War of Independence reveals how the establishment of a regular army hardly constituted a clean break from the underground militias which immediately preceded it. The Palmach, for whom the establishment of the state was equal parts triumph and tragedy (because with victory came its dismantling), simply infiltrated the IDF ethos. Thus the IDF was born—and for a long while remained—as a modern military force possessing the soul of a militia. Think Moshe Dayan or Ariel Sharon.

Militias create culture, says Cohen (the culture that the Palmach created, literature and music primarily, is indeed the beating heart of early Israeli culture). Militaries create history. Their synthesis is The Style.

Cohen’s book is an intriguing attempt to place Zionism’s cultural artifacts under a laboratory microscope (or, in many cases, a coroner’s scalpel). As in any such examination, much is gained. But something is lost, too. Such a study cannot, by its very nature be exhaustive (even though this seems to be Cohen’s aspiration). A withering review by Adam Raz in Haaretz pointed out some of its most blatant omissions. For example, the way Cohen chooses to ignore real debates within the young state’s leadership regarding the merits of diplomacy; Cohen may be more a slave to the Security Style than most of the people whom he writes about. Nevertheless, while it is difficult to imagine that many readers will be entirely convinced by all of Cohen’s mini-theses, stated decisively throughout as facts, the book does work remarkably well as a series of Midrashic meditations on the Israeli psyche. (It is also a well-curated grab bag of literary treats and findings, from Agnon to pulp Stalag literature and back again: it would be delightful, were the mood not so grim throughout.)

Take the way Cohen demonstrates the prevailing militia mentality through the prism of society’s unchanging attitudes towards captivity: shameful to the point of suicide for underground militants, one would assume that soldiers in the Israeli defense forces (IDF), protected by the provisions of the Geneva Convention, wouldn’t be expected to choose death over captivity. And yet a host of rhetorical specimens shows that that was precisely the expectation. Most prominent is Moshe Dayan’s 1955 eulogy for Uri Ilan, the Israeli soldier who chose to hang himself in a Damascene prison cell, rather than risk revealing the secrets of a botched commando operation. A scrap of paper found on his body contained the words “I did not betray. I committed suicide.” Dayan, in his lionizing eulogy, left out the second sentence. The first became the stuff of lore.

The ensuing years and increasingly grisly history of prisoner exchanges have somewhat complicated matters, though Cohen would doubtless consider the horrific Hannibal Directive—preferring zero-tolerance rules of engagement to the prospect of being caught alive—a direct manifestation of Dayan’s mentality (Cohen’s analysis of early Hebrew literature is better at showing the early roots of our complicated relationship with captivity; he uses Agnon to demonstrate Jewish soldiers’ feeling of existential captivity simply by virtue of serving in diasporic armies: the diaspora as cosmic bondage).

If Cohen’s book were to have a protagonist, it would be the poet Nathan Alterman. His early collection, Stars Outside, with its mythic flaneur, is at the core of the Style. Cohen has anointed Alterman the founding father of Hebrew martial culture. If there is any hard proof to Cohen’s theory that culture shaped reality rather than the other way around, then Moshe Dayan’s introduction to another Alterman collection, The Silver Platter, must be his Exhibit A: “We thought that he, Alterman, was expressing us … But the truth is that he was not expressing our feelings but shaping them, creating them, he was the voice and we the echo.”

Cohen tells us that the Alterman collection was published by the Ministry of Defense, given to bereaved families—including Cohen’s own—on the Memorial Day directly following the Yom Kippur War. Dayan continued, channeling his favorite poet: “Death isn’t the end of combat but its peak, and since combat is part of life and sometimes even its entirety, so then death itself, being the peak of combat, is not the end of life but its most powerful expression.” This is not enough to conclude that Alterman was indeed the voice, and Dayan merely the echo. After all, a few notable exceptions aside, poets don’t kill people. Generals kill people. But the relationship was certainly too incestuous for comfort.

Moshe Shamir was Alterman’s counterpart in prose. His early classics—particularly He Walked Through the Fields, with its iconic heroic-suicidal leading man, Uri—feature prominently in Olmert’s book as well as Cohen’s. Shamir wrote of his fallen brother Eliyahu (best known as Elik), in With His Own Hands: Elik’s Story:

“He walked into the gun-fire because that’s our life here. He didn’t want another life. Just as we go to work, because “that’s how life is”, so we walk into the gunfire because “that’s how life is”; and if someone doesn’t return “that’s how life is”. And don’t talk about death. Because we don’t have people who flee from combat here no one discards their weapon and no one runs, here we fight until the last bullet not because the guys are made of iron, but because that’s how life is for us, and that’s how we live here.”

Cohen calls the Alterman-Shamir poetics Empathic Sadism: “Cruelty that takes pleasure in the other’s suffering, accompanied by a deep empathy for his suffering, thus relishing the war twice, an aggressiveness that never ceases to self-victimize.” This is a phenomenon more commonly described in Israel as “shooting and crying”—or, as Cohen prefers, “shooting, crying and writing.”

Israel’s first decade or so evades easy description. Cohen’s take on the state’s early martial years is as insightful as any. The IDF’s militia consciousness begat the policy of “reprisal operations” led by the young officer Ariel Sharon—as though he and his soldiers were partisans in the forests of Europe, and not a mighty regular army in the Middle East. It was revenge against the Nazis, says Cohen. Or at least, it was revenge against the Arabs for sympathizing with the Nazis. Or at the very least, it was revenge against the Arabs for what they would have done to us, had they only been given the chance.

Cohen’s autopsy of the literary politic ends in 1973. Dayan’s expectation, that soldiers should fight to the death rather than risk the shame of captivity, was at the heart of what went so horribly wrong in the Yom Kippur War. The ensuing loss of innocence was the Security Style’s breaking point, at least as far as its association with literature was concerned. But its core message—the inevitability of conflict—remains an axiomatic element of Israeli reality, save perhaps a brief period in the early 1990s. Literature broke free of the Style, but society did not. People just stopped reading books and started watching television. They still hum along with the odd Palmach song on the radio.


Dana Olmert is more archaeologist than coroner in piecing together the oftentimes hair-thin shards that form her mosaic. What’s perhaps most surprising about Olmert’s magisterial work of scholarship, A Barricade of Mothers: Mothers of Soldiers in Israeli Zionist Culture and Literature, is just how hard she had to work to find fleshed-out examples of her book’s central archetype. The mother of soldiers is surely a character with whom a great many Israeli readers have lived experience, each grappling with what Olmert calls the question at the heart of the drama of Israeli motherhood: whether or not to obey the state’s commands with regards to their sons’ enlistment in the army.

May every Hebrew mother know that she has entrusted her son in the care of commanders worthy of the task,” said David Ben-Gurion in 1963, in one of his more quotable moments. Such thoughts are on parents’ minds from day one. Olmert quotes the columnist and author Lihi Lapid, recounting the khaki-colored thoughts that flood every mother’s mind when the ultrasound doctor announces, “it’s a boy.” The lurking fears remain largely unspoken, but the special place reserved for bereaved families in Israeli society, enshrined in law and culture, is a daily reminder.

Hebrew literature, with its historic role in shaping the nation’s consciousness and character, has always been full of soldiers. But their mothers rarely played active roles in their stories. While mothers did loom large in the literary psyches of the soldier-heroes, it was often as projections of the soldiers’ own inner turmoil.

In pre-state stories by J.H. Brenner and M.J. Berdyczewski, young Jewish men began to wrestle with questions of whether to take up arms against pogroms, and how to exercise power. Olmert identifies their mothers sometimes lurking in the background. Jewish men, reinventing themselves as new and muscular Jews, were expected to discard their feminine traits. Jewish women—mothers especially—were the symbolic wastebasket.

To find a mother worthy of more than a side note, Olmert traces her heroines back to their apocryphal and Talmudic roots, the story of Hannah and her seven sons. If the tale of the Aqedah—Abraham’s Binding of Isaac—hints at the ultimate sacrifice expected of the father (Sarah was conspicuously absent from the scene), then Hannah, with her Spartan grit, one-upped Abraham by sacrificing all seven of her boys. In so doing, she became the ultimate “joyful mother of sons” running through our tradition. It’s no wonder that one of the first iconic mothers of Israel’s early years was Rivka Gover, herself dubbed “the mother of sons” after her two sons, Ephraim and Zvi, were killed in the War of Independence. “It seems I’ve nothing more to give,” she wrote, “and that is perhaps the hardest part of all that has befallen us at this hour.”

To be sure, not all Israeli mothers subscribed to this Spartan ideal. But those who did not were marginalized in both the public sphere and in literature. Olmert contrasts Gover with the poet Yocheved Bat-Miriam, who lost her son Nahum in the same war. Bat-Miriam’s literary response to the tragedy, her final written work, was a scathing, heart-wrenching eulogy. It was only published forty years later, after her own death.

In that final essay, Bat-Miriam called for a barricade of mothers to protect their children. She had preempted the maternal protest movements by several decades. A mother’s willingness to play her societal role had always been linked inextricably to her very sanity. But these links began to weaken in the 1970s, in the aftershocks of the Yom Kippur War, and in the 1980s, as the Zionist ethos sank in the Lebanese quagmire. Olmert writes movingly about the rise of the anti-war movements, describing how mothers organized the eventually victorious struggle for the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon. But in the literature of the period, mothers of soldiers were still little more than glimmers—a bit part here, a reference there. Olmert likens them to a mosquito’s buzz in the ears of the collective consciousness; a harbinger of things to come.

It was only in the 1990s and after that the mother of the soldier became a full-fledged heroine in Israeli literature, in works by prominent authors like Orly Castel-Bloom, Savyon Liebrecht and David Grossman. Many of these fictional mothers aren’t activists like the most outspoken of their real-life counterparts. Olmert nonetheless sees them as key partners in the thankless, radical project to dismantle powerful national myths regarding motherhood and nationalism itself. These are mothers on the verge of a nervous breakdown, like Dolly in Castel Bloom’s dystopian Dolly City, narrowly skirting sanity (sanity, of course, being whatever the establishment says that it is).

Olmert ends her book with a chapter devoted to David Grossman’s To the End of the Land. Here, the mother is no longer a silenced figure. Ora, Grossman’s protagonist, carries the weight of the novel’s six hundred and thirty-three pages. She sets off on a cross-country hike, fleeing the IDF messengers who she fears are bringing her the news of her son’s death. Where some see an act of rebellion, Olmert sees escapism. Ora is the embodiment of the middle-of-the-road desire for normalcy which took hold of the country in the post-Lebanon, post-Oslo years (Mandy, the heroine of Castel-Bloom’s Textile, goes even further, opting to undergo endless plastic surgery, accompanied by blissful anesthesia, rather than face reality).

It’s a return to the path, albeit out of surrender rather than acceptance or agreement. Ora is ultimately a martyr mother, even if she would never admit as much. In this reading, Grossman’s novel is almost too good, in that he makes it easy to identify with the conformist, Ashkenazi, only nominally liberal heroine: long resigned to the evils of the occupation, forever apologizing for her occasional “left-wing Tourette’s attacks.” One may not agree with Olmert’s critique, but the well-known tragic circumstances of the novel’s publication—Grossman’s son Uri was killed in the final days of the Second Lebanon War, as his book was nearing completion—certainly confirmed both Ora’s darkest fears and the futility of her attempt to flee them.

The Pyrrhic victory of “normalcy” with which Olmert concludes her book coincides roughly with her father’s term in office as prime minister, between 2006-2009. Much has been written about how the Second Lebanon War and the violent aftermath of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip sounded the death knell for what remained of the Israeli Left. In recent years, Miriam Peretz has assumed the mantle of the national em habanim, the mother of sons, after losing her sons Uriel and Eliran in Lebanon and Gaza. Not only does Olmert’s question—why do mothers continue to willingly sacrifice their sons in Aqedah after Aqedah?—go unanswered, but it is also asked less and less.

Perhaps, as Uri S. Cohen, concludes, the nation’s sons are killed by a deceitful culture, betrayed by the one-eyed man, our very own homegrown Polyphemus. The Cyclops promises us, Nobody, that he’ll eat us last of all.

*Uri S. Cohen, Security Style and the Hebrew Culture of War (Hebrew), The Bialik Institute 2017, 434 pp.

*Dana Olmert, A Barricade of Mothers: Mothers of Soldiers in Israeli Zionist Culture and Literature (Hebrew), Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House 2018, 294 pp.

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