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Self-pity and privilege: Etgar Keret and Israel’s ‘liberal left’

Etgar Keret, according to some, is “the most loved and widely read Israeli writer working today.” Hailed as “one of the most prominent Israeli writers on the international literary scene”, Keret has recently published a memoir, his first non-fiction book following five short story collections.

To mark its release, Keret is doing the media rounds, where a recurring theme has been, in the words of The Guardian, “the difficulties faced by the Israeli left.” In fact, the real ‘difficulties’ faced by the so-called Israeli left are all self-inflicted – as Keret himself ably demonstrates.

Keret’s view of the conflict is shaped by an all too familiar false symmetry. In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in July 2014, reflecting on the recent killings of three Israeli youths in the Occupied West Bank and Mohammad Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem, Keret wrote the following:

On the surface, the security situation was stable, but with the peace talks cancelled and the general sense of despair…it was clearly only a matter of time before a murderous act would take place, to be countered by another equally murderous act.

“The security situation was stable”, Keret wrote. In Tel Aviv, perhaps, but in the first five months of 2014, Israeli forces killed 22 Palestinians (of whom 17 were civilians). There is not a single reference to the ongoing military occupation in the entire op-ed.

Keret’s narrative of one “murderous act” countered by another, is echoed in his October 2014 correspondence with his friend Sayed Kashua. Here, he describes the “history of this conflict” as one of “missed opportunities, shows of distrust, and lack of courage on both sides throughout the years.”

Keret yearns for “peace”, but offers no practical steps for how to achieve it – and is vague about what it even means. There is no doubt, however, about his opposition to boycott, which he has described as a form of “arbitrary collective punishment” analogous to Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes.

Extraordinary comparisons aside, Keret is clearly ignorant of the basis of the call for an academic boycott, namely Israeli universities’ well-documented complicity with occupation – institutions he defends as “one of the few remaining bastions of the liberal left.”

Yet Keret has also admitted that he is personally “not willing” even to “boycott settlements” in the West Bank. For Keret, “there’s nothing easier than boycotting. Boycotting is basically saying I’m going to sit on my ass and do nothing.”

Tell that to the Israeli artists for whom boycotting the settlements incurs financial, professional, and even legal, risks. International artists too, join the boycott at the expense of lucrative contracts and a backlash from Israel’s friends and allies.

Despite that, many are indeed joining the cultural boycott, a tactic Keret also criticises asineffective: “When people don’t come to perform in Israel, nobody gives a fuck.” In fact, the Israeli media often covers cancellations and boycott endorsements, while the government and advocacy groups have mobilised significant resources to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Boycotts, a time-honoured tactic whose strategic significance Keret is either unwilling or unable to comprehend, are dismissed on the grounds that they are an ineffective, lazy option. But it is difficult to identify what concrete steps he believes can be taken in order to affect change.

In an op-ed in The New York Times this week, Keret bemoans the fact that an “anti-violence, anti-incitement demonstration” in Tel Aviv failed to attract a big crowd. He does not explain how standing in Rabin Square for a few hours is more effective or less ‘easy’ than backing the Palestinian boycott call.

Last December, Keret advised his “left-wing neighbour” to vote in what he described as “the most important elections in Israel’s history.” But what were the alternatives to Likud? The Zionist Camp, whose leader Isaac Herzog has boasted of being “more extreme than Netanyahu”? The enfeebled Meretz? Or perhaps the Joint List which, for all its achievements, will remain marginalised?

Asked by Newsweek to explain his optimism, Keret reveals that the real hope for change in Israeli society is, in fact, himself. “I have this hubris”, he replied, “that I think if I could get each and every person in this country in a room and talk to them for a few hours, then—I’m not saying they would think what I’m thinking, but maybe I can make them see reality in a new kind of way.”

On another occasion, explaining the rationale for a book co-written with his friend, Palestinian writer Samir El-Youssef, Keret wrote the following, instructive remarks.

But if you can take people who regard the situation as simple and show them something more complex—if you can confuse them and introduce some ambiguity to their point of view—that’s the best you can do. And if it doesn’t help, at least it will make us feel better.

Reading Keret’s op-eds and political interventions, we come to the conclusion that the real crisis is not that faced by the colonised, brutalised, Palestinians, or even Jewish Israeli society in general, but rather it is the crisis faced by himself, the burdened, angst-ridden writer.

Take, for example, his July 2014 piece, penned as Israel’s bombs rained down on the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. Here he boldly declared: “I am willing to fight” – but for what? Not, in fact, for the right of Palestinians to play on a beach without being blown to pieces, but “for my right to express my opinion with the same ferocity that the I.D.F. is now showing in Gaza.”

For Keret, the Palestinians are relegated to the margins, while he, the wry, self-deprecating, author, is at the centre, a discursive displacement that confirms the colonial situation in which he writes. As Udi Aloni wrote last year, “[Keret’s] symptoms are the same as those suffered by most of the Israeli-Jewish left: They don’t see Palestinians as subjects in the struggle, they only see themselves.”

Keret complains that he is “caught between a rock and a very hard place”, and told The Guardian that “in Israel people would boycott me saying I’m a traitor, and overseas people would boycott me because I’m Israeli.” In fact, as was later pointed out, “regularly featuring” on the front of the second most-read newspaper in Israel hardly constitutes a ‘boycott’.

Keret’s books are highly popular in Israel, and he is a past recipient of the Prime Minister’s award for literature and the Ministry of Culture’s Cinema Prize. No wonder then, that Keret is not particularly concerned about being deemed “controversial” by those, he once jestingly put it, who doubt “evolutionary theory.”

Keret’s fiction may well sparkle, but his politics is tired, typical of the bankruptcy of an Israeli liberal-left that has no road map out of the settler-colonial cul-de-sac it has played its own part in creating. His insistence that the “solution” can be found in “compromise” and “dialogue” is not just platitudinous vacuity; it is an abdication of responsibility from a position of privilege.

Keret was born in 1967: a Palestinian born the same year in the West Bank or Gaza has only ever known a military regime. “Although I sympathise with the Palestinians’ fight”, Keretsaid recently, “I can’t say I’m pro-Palestinian. I’m not pro-Hamas, pro-gay persecution, pro-terrorist attack.” It is with sentiments like these that Israel’s ‘liberals’ make the case for a boycott better than anyone else.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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