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Spring 2020

The Road

How a classic piece of Israeli dystopian fiction shines a light on the current crisis.
I

t begins minorly, without warning. A bored writer, fiddling with the radio in his Tel Aviv apartment late at night, tunes in to a faint, desperate signal: an emergency broadcast from the “resistance” in Ein Harod, a kibbutz far to the north, reporting an incredible tale of the government fallen, a military coup. He checks: not a word on the evening news; some nut with a transmitter, he concludes. But within hours he himself has become a fugitive, seeking the way to freedom, to Ein Harod, a journey across the land and its bloody history that grows, in a rising crescendo, more and more fantastical and bizarre until it ends with the end of everything, Armageddon.

As the new coronavirus, COVID-19, has upended society, the economy, and daily life in Israel (and the world) over the past weeks, this story, told in Amos Keinan’s 1984 novel The Road to Ein Harod has come frequently to mind. It might seem at first like an odd literary vantage point from which to consider life under lockdown. After all, The Road to Ein Harod is political, not an account of plague or natural disaster. And yet, the current public health crisis is undeniably a political crisis as well: not just because the virus descended after the country’s third unresolved election in less than a year, but because those in power have violated Israel’s democratic norms in the attempt to combat it; one wonders at times as if we are in the midst of a coup ourselves.

The story’s real draw, however, lies elsewhere. Despite its hardboiled narrator—the very model of Israeli sabra manhood—the feeling that pervades Keinan’s novel is rising panic, emotional escalation, and impending doom. It is a feeling of biblical prophecies of destruction bleeding into reality—already in the opening scenes, as the narrator hides out in his apartment’s storage space, he imagines himself the prophet Ezekiel, suffering the punishments God would inflict on the People Israel. It is a feeling of claustrophobic spaces: armored vehicles, caves, bunkers, and cracks in the earth. It is a feeling of bending toward destruction, permanently unfooted. It is just the same feeling one gets reading the news these days, as the death toll rises, jobs evaporate, and the circle of our lives is pulled tighter and tighter. The emotional timbre of the everyday now matches that of Keinan’s fiction. What is the attraction of these visions of destruction?

Keinan is not alone, of course. Apocalyptic literature abounds, from the Bible to Margret Atwood, and it remains one of the most persistent and pervasive literary types. In part, such works allow us, on a symbolic level, to restore order and exact justice in an unjust world. The Book of Revelation, for instance, imagines the destruction of the Roman Empire, the “seven-headed beast” that persecuted early Christian communities, at the hand of the army of God. In the wake of the Islamic conquest of Iran and the fall of the Sasanian Persian empire, adherents to Zoroastrianism, the ancient Iranian religion, clung to similar visions of ultimate triumph. The ninth-century Bundahišn describes the world laid waste and the people decimated by conquerors and invaders, until the savior comes not just to restore the good religion but to banish all evil from the world.

Apocalyptic fiction can also be preparation, a simulacrum of experience that steels us for the worst. The coronavirus pandemic often feels like a movie come to life precisely because there have been so many films and books that rehearse these very themes. Be it disease, disaster, meteors, or aliens, we love to watch how governments scramble to respond, the small heroisms and betrayals, the individual stories of love and loss in the shadow of history.

Most importantly, though, apocalypse is a means of revelation. Religiously, of course—out of the fire a new world is born—but also in less spiritual terms. Sweeping aside society’s veneer of nicety and hypocrisy, cataclysmic events reveal the desires, prejudices, and fears that actually drive us. But even in the most conventional and staid of times, apocalyptic literature is a means of asking who we might really be, unmasked. Keinan had his notion, and it was grim; there is no savior in The Road to Ein Harod, only a steadily narrowing field of vision that finally collapses into blindness.

With that function in mind, one wonders why there is not more of the apocalyptic in modern Israeli literature. The Road to Ein Harod stands out in part because it is unique, almost the only dystopian novel in the canon. As Ioram Melcer discusses in his essay on the lack of Israeli magical realism in this issue, it seems a pity that a whole, rich toolbox has been discarded.

And yet, while apocalypticism as such is rare, a feeling of the end of days pervades our lives and literature. David Ehrlich, the writer and owner of Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom café, a center of Israeli literary life, who died on March 22 in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, tells a story that speaks to just this point. A commuter, locked in traffic on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon freeway, angrily refuses to give way to another driver so he can change lanes and reach his exit home. Stubbornly, the rival motorist keeps attempting to pass, but the commuter keeps blocking him, not giving an inch. The automotive duel continues, now at speed, past Tel Aviv and north along the coastal highway, the minor frustrations of late capitalism transformed into a matter of life and death. Finally, the pair arrive at the Lebanese border and the end of the road. When the two descend from their cars, will it be to kill or to embrace? Who will we be when this plague has passed?

This issue of the Tel Aviv Review of Books, though planned long before the outbreak, might help us see down that dim passage. Dov Rosen’s essay on self-quarantine from the perspective of halacha and moral philosophy addresses the current situation most directly. But the post-corona Israel will be borne, of course, of what came before, of the country depicted in Joshua Sobol’s reflection on the legacy of Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion; Ruth Kara-Kaniel’s unveiling of the tangled roots of two Jewish obsessions, psychoanalysis and Kabbalah; Mati Shmoelof’s Israeli homecoming in German literature; or Payam Feili’s memoir of the isolation and uncanniness of Iranian refugee life in Tel Aviv.

The tragedy of the apocalyptic, pace Keinan, is that we never really reach the end of time, the end of the road. The same social structures, the same conflicts, the same politics, and (Lord knows) the same politicians will be waiting for us on the other side, if changed and changing. To understand that future, and to shape it, we must understand better who we are today. So here is our offering. Stay healthy and safe.

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