Can literature disrupt Israel’s identity?

Poetic Trespass: Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine by Lital Levy (Princeton University Press, 360 pp.)

One of the challenges often posed by opponents of a one-state solution for Palestine is that of how, given decades of occupation, violence and trauma, the various peoples involved might live alongside one another.

There are, of course, practical examples of justice and reconciliation processes to which we can point. But tribunals and regulations, while vital, only touch one part of the psyche. Lital Levy’s book Poetic Trespass deals instead with the realm of language, literature and the imagination.

Levy states clearly near the beginning of her book that she is not writing a plea for coexistence or offering some kind of solution to the problems of the Middle East. Thankfully, she isn’t peddling any superficial ideas about culture as an easy “bridge” between peoples, and Levy has an acute sense of the extent to which the writers whose work she tackles — Jews who write in Arabic and Palestinians who write in Hebrew — are divided by huge power differences, even if Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) are marginalized by Israel’s Ashkenazi elite.

Rather, Levy puts forward an analysis of the ways in which literature and language have operated in the dark corners of this power-ridden, unequal environment. In doing so she raises the possibility of these fringes of literature and society exerting wider influence, radically disrupting the exclusiveness of Jewish Israeli identity.

Levy is never starry-eyed about this project. She fully acknowledges that despite claims from some activists about the cultural overlaps between Palestinians and Mizrahim, in many cases the opposite is true. Mizrahi Israelis have often responded to their marginalization by trying to outdo Ashkenazim in anti-Arab sentiments, voting for extreme-right parties and asserting their social differences.

“Hebrew state”

Levy is also clear about the backdrop against which her literary analysis takes place: one in which Hebrew is given enormous state backing, filling the political, cultural and spiritual realms and acting as a marker of ethnic domination. Since the early days of Zionism, the idea of Israel not just as a Jewish state but as a “Hebrew state” has sidelined Jewish languages such as Ladino and Yiddish as well as the Arabic spoken by both Middle Eastern Jews and native Palestinians.

But within this state formulation, as Levy puts it, what does it mean “for the idea of Hebrew as the eternal language of the Jewish people and as the national language of the Jewish state when Palestinian Arab citizens choose to write in Hebrew and Israeli Jewish citizens choose to write in Arabic?”

Levy’s approach is to examine various examples of the use of Arabic in Jewish-Israeli arts and Hebrew in Palestinian literature. These span almost a century of Zionism, stretching from the correspondence between the Israeli “national poet” Hayim Nahman Bialik, with Arabic-speaking Jews from Iraq in the 1930s to a potent critique of Ajami — a 2009 film set in Jaffa — and the colonialist attitudes of Israeli cultural commentators to the Arabic spoken in it.

Among a complex and intriguing range of examples, Levy notes Mizrahi activist Sami Shalom Chetrit’s invention of the term “Ashdodian” for the mixture of Hebrew and Arabic spoken by working-class Mizrahi Jews in the city of Ashdod (known as Isdud in historic Palestine). Related to this is the role of class, and the way in which marginalized and oppressed groups — be they Palestinian or Mizrahi — may choose to speak their despised languages in front of police or government officials who cannot understand them.

The historical scope of Levy’s writing also enriches her narrative, describing how the earliest Zionist colonists in Palestine appropriated local dress in their attempts to tie themselves to the earth they had settled. But the fear of “Arabization” that this evoked amongst hard-line European Zionists brought with it deeply racist, Darwinist ideas about Arab “inferiority” and Arabic as a primitive and enemy language.


Levy’s account of a correspondence between the Israeli Bialik and Jewish writers in 1930s Baghdad illustrates the battles fought amongst Zionist intelligentsia in Palestine before the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of 1948. This is just one facet of the competition between European influences on Hebrew and Jewish culture on the one hand, and models of Jewish identity which connected with the idea of Hebrew as a Semitic language (like Arabic) and Jewish culture as intimately linked to that of the wider Middle East.

Turning to more recent writers, Levy tackles the work of Palestinian citizens of Israel and their writings in Arabic (Emile Habibi, for example) and Hebrew (Anton Shammas), and of Jewish Israeli writers who regarded themselves as “Arab Jews” and wrote in Arabic, such as Samir Naqqash.

Naqqash was an Iraqi Jew who experienced colonialism under the British and was then brought to Palestine as a child. Throughout his life he regarded himself as an exile and is quoted as saying that “Arabic is more beautiful and richer [than Hebrew] by several fold.”

Habibi, meanwhile, was a Palestinian writer famous for his novel Saeed the Pessoptimist but was also a political activist and left-wing member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. His writings, as Levy describes, are full of wordplay in Arabic, Hebrew and even German, using jokes involving mispronunciation and misunderstanding to undermine ideas about power and authority in Israeli society.

Like Habibi, Anton Shammas is seen as a Palestinian author profoundly influenced by his experience within Israel — to the extent of writing in Hebrew. In his work, and that of other Palestinians writing in Hebrew, Levy argues that there is a theme of precariousness and vulnerability, both in terms of their relationship with the Jewish state but also in terms of their very identity and culture.

This is a conceptually complex and sometimes obscure and difficult book. It is also, however, potentially very rewarding for certain audiences: for those immersed in Arabic and Hebrew literature, or for those interested in the workings and philosophies of languages.

Perhaps most importantly, though, for those seriously engaged in the tough work of imagining a post-Zionist Middle East, it offers fragmentary but tantalizing tastes and possibilities.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.