“The Honorable Woman” on TV: an Earnest but Convoluted Look at the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

“The Honorable Woman” on TV: an Earnest but Convoluted Look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

With passions about the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict running at an all time high, the BBC/Sundance channel series “The Honorable Woman” available on DVD is a compelling addition to our televised programming. The British mini-series directed and produced by Hugo Blick gives the spotlight to the issue, rather than using it as a backdrop as in series such as “Homeland” or “24”. It is a shrewd and sagacious thriller where one feels more clever at the end, although not for its wise grasp of the political context.

The story starts with a flashback: the murder by a Palestinian terrorist of Eli Stein, an Anglo-Israeli arms manufacturer who provided weapons and bombs to Israel in the first years of the State. The crime perpetrated in revenge for the Palestinian lives he helped kill is witnessed by his young children Ephra and Nessa, who will be scarred for life, less for watching the gruesome murder of their own father though, than because they feel guilty for what their father embodied. This is not the Oresteia: Blood will not be paid for blood. Instead, Ephra and Nessa lay down the grounds for the elimination of one of the most visceral conflicts of our times.   They build the Stein Foundation, whose liberal goal is to give equal opportunity to Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East region and foster reconciliation. So far, so good.

But when the Palestinian who has just been awarded a major telecommunications contract by the Stein Foundation is found hanging dead in his hotel room, all hell breaks loose. Who killed him? Is it the Israelis? The Americans? M16 starts investigating and the delightfully named Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea)-a witty and high-class inspector Columbo-type leads the way, as Nessa Stein who heads the Foundation finds herself in the midst of a vast and intricate espionage scheme. But the sub-plots (the rivalry between M16 and the CIA) and personal traumas of the characters mixed with frequent flashbacks are often so complex they threaten to obscure the political stakes Blick strives to lay out with mixed discernment.

Newly anointed Baroness for her philanthropic work, Nessa Stein is played with a mix of coolness and vulnerability well suited to her off-screen persona by the American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. She has been praised for her perfect rendition of an upperclass British accent, but I found it a bit contrived. Nevertheless, the affectation ironically befits the stiffness of Baroness Stein. She is the honorable woman, almost too earnest, and I hope Mr. Blick intended some irony in the epithet (but I doubt it). For Nessa Stein has baggage, her personal traumas often obscuring and muddying her political inclinations.

For instance, her relationship with her brother Ephra is quasi-incestuous, while carrying the seeds of a fierce Biblical strife. They are an Abel and Cain pair, and while Ephra (Andrew Buchan) used to head the Foundation eight years ago in somewhat pragmatic fashion, Nessa usurps the title replacing his line with a stauncher idealism that favors the Palestinians. When Israeli businessman and long-time friend of the Stein family Shlomo Zahary-an obvious father figure- hopes to get the telecommunications contract that is once more up for grabs, Nessa holds it back from him because she thinks he has been compromised with terrorists (and perhaps because he is Israeli?). She has to prove her authority, metaphorically killing the father once more.

There are hints and withheld information about a traumatic event which happened to Nessa eight years ago while in captivity in Gaza after being kidnapped by a faction of the PLO. But her ordeal (I wont disclose what it is, although you could guess) which no woman, let alone a feminist in the West would accept with resignation, spurs masochistic feelings in her. She seems to suffer from acute Stockholm syndrome, and I could not help feeling disturbed by her submissiveness. Is it poise or folly that makes her so eagerly defend her executioners?

When at the end of the series, the Palestinian terrorist who admits to having ordered her father’s murder and other tragedies that befell on her confronts her, her answer is shockingly meek: “I deserved it.” One would hope for a little more combativeness in the matter.

The series is often an exercise in Western guilt about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with fairness in the treatment of the conflict mostly obliterated in favor of exclusive Palestinian grievances. It does not help that Israeli characters are portrayed as caricatures (they are steam-rollers and threateningly ubiquitous, or else extremists) while Palestinian terrorists are given noble motives.

Lubna Azabal is a revelation as Atika Halibi, the Palestinian nanny of Ephra and Rachel Stein’s children. The Belgian actress of Moroccan and Spanish descent has a raw beauty that captures beautifully the Palestinian plight: she still keeps a piece of shrapnel from the Israeli bomb that killed her family as a child. She is also superb as a third piece of the erotic triangle between Nessa and Ephra, while Jewish Rachel-Ephra’s wife- is fastidious as a stereotypical British JAP.

And there is no one on the other end of the argument to represent the Israeli claim to the land, or what Israel means for Jews, so it makes up for a one-sided picture. If the series is commendable for tackling an inextricable issue, it is also solipsistic for it fails to place the conflict in historical perspective. While putting up a facade of political sophistication, it actually misses its goal, confusing the personal traumas of the main character with a much wider and more complex conflict that ends up oversimplified, to the point of dangerously obscuring the issue. In the end, this is about Nessa Stein’s Way of the Cross, which is a bit strange for a Jewish character.

There is a fashionable varnish to the series certainly adding to the overall appeal: Ms. Gyllenhaal’s chic wardrobe of Roland Mouret, Stella McCartney and Burberry pieces, leaves all of us women drooling. I also loved Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer), Hayden-Hoyles’ boss- for her no-nonsense feminism. Here is what she says after meeting with her American counterparts at the CIA: “In a room full of pussies, I am the only one with a vagina.” There is a refreshing honesty in her character, unlike Nessa Stein’s bizarre fascination with the other side.

With its oriental notes, the music acts as an ominous lament much as the chorus does in Greek tragedy. It is also an attempt to add a cool edginess to the overall atmosphere, but it is pompous. As Edward Said would have said, it is a fantasy of Orientalism. Consider it a metaphor for the series itself.

“The Honorable Woman”:

Produced by Eight Rooks and Drama Republic for BBC Two and Sundance TV. Written and directed by Hugo Blick; Greg Brenman, executive producer; Mr. Blick and Abi Bach, producers.

WITH: Maggie Gyllenhaal (Nessa Stein), Andrew Buchan (Ephra Stein), Stephen Rea (Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle), Igal Naor (Shlomo Zahary), Lubna Azabal (Atika Halabi), Tobias Menzies (Nathaniel Bloom), Eve Best (Monica Chatwin), Katherine Parkinson (Rachel Stein) and Janet McTeer (Dame Julia Walsh).

Garry Winogrand, Spontaneity and Paradise Lost

photoThe Photographs of Garry Winogrand, Spontaneity and Paradise Lost

On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21

On a recent September afternoon, a visit to the Garry Winogrand’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York could have been the subject of one of his photographs: packed, brimming with an urban fauna of all ages and types, caged-as his photographs often are-in the confines of the Met’s labyrinthine galleries. Its success attests to the popularity of photography as a contemporary art form resonating with today’s museum-goers, and to a shift in our cultural tastes, much like the Alexander McQueen show did a few years ago, as though photography, video installations and fashion had definitively upstaged more traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture.

Garry Winogrand’s photographs feel youthful and bright, spontaneous and impromptu, with an element of (carefully arranged) surprise to them. The angle of most of them is off-kilter-a technique called tilted horizon. It is street photography- photojournalism at its best, in the vein of the fathers of photojournalism-namely French photographers Henry Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. I especially liked the portrait of the starlet Elsa Martinelli smoking a cigarette at the famed El Morocco club in Manhattan: it updates the traditional art of portraiture thanks to the ironic distance of the close-up on her body leaning forward, while retaining a classical, even archetypal quality (the smoking and drinking Goddess). Or the bathers of Coney Island who look like sculptures seen from the back, in an uplifting, aspirational motion. They seem to be aiming for the sky.
I was wondering though if there wasn’t something fairly unoriginal about this so-called “spontaneity” which isn’t in fact one. Remember Doisneau’s famous “Baiser de l’Hotel-de-Ville” whose poster could once be found in so many students’ dorm room (including mine), the wildly romantic kiss of a couple which turned out to be staged.
Admittedly, it doesn’t in fact matter much if an image is truly spontaneous or not. Spontaneity is not by itself an intrinsic value of art. Rather, it is the opposite: it is artifact and composition, which make art. Winogrand himself believed by photographing and framing something one transformed it. This, of course, is an old aesthetic debate, dating back to the Romantics and Charles Baudelaire’s notion that true beauty is in fact all contrived. This show thrives on the following paradox: while elevating the natural, it is simultaneously advancing the cause of the artificial, and the artistic value of these photographs lies in their ability to strike the ideal balance between the fleeting and the eternal.

Although I enjoyed the show, I was also bit surprised by its popularity. Is anything that has been framed art? Does the very fact of framing elevate its subject? Proust once remarked that costumes and historical distance are often enough to exoticize an image and make it seem like art. This is how the pedestrian results in the sublime. It has been noted rightfully that these photographs-all taken in the 50s, 60s, and 70s-reflect our obsession with the Mad Men era: the clothes, the poses, the political context. But one should perhaps wonder why. Oddly enough, although they are so typical of an era, Winogrand’s images seem also cut from their context, extricated from the contingent, perhaps even essential, as though they spoke in and by themselves. In fact, the reason for the show’s success may just be a nostalgia for what they reflect: a longing for a specific time which seems out of time and where even political protest appears controlled, even innocent. As though this was the last refuge in the tormented history of the late 20th and early 21st-century where there was still a contentment, an uplifting energy, a happiness- dare I say. These photographs are our last Arcadia.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker or the Accidental Superstar

Joël Dicker  The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

 Translated by Sam Taylor

Penguin Books, 641pp.

Reviewed by Yaëlle Azagury

What makes literary celebrity?

A few months ago, I attended a reading and book signing by 28-year-old Swiss author Joël Dicker at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in New York. Baby-faced and candid, Mr. Dicker exuded the accidental charm of a neophyte, unencumbered by sophistication or pedantry. Seeming almost surprised to be questioned, as though whatever he had written was entirely coincidental, he was gracious and modest., And I thought his success was in no small way due to this alluring cocktail of innocence and craft, and the way in which he invokes tradition in novel and disconcerting ways. In fact, all good literature is perhaps about unsettling expectations, the transformative encounter between modernity and tradition. It unnerves our habits as reader, unveiling multiple layers and levels of reading.

His 641-page novel The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair (adeptly translated from the French by Sam Taylor, Penguin Books, 641pp., May 27,2014)) was a literary sensation in France when the novel was published in 2013, with almost one million copies sold. It was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina, two prestigious literary prizes, and awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (a less re-knowned Goncourt bestowed by high school students). And it is, precisely, about unsettling expectations. Both a thriller and a parody of one, a novel about America, and a thoroughly un-American novel, it is chiefly a Bildungsroman – a tale about coming-of-age , and a reflection in disguise on writing and literary fame — most fittingly for a bestselling first novel.

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is the story of Marcus Goldman, a young and successful New York writer who becomes afflicted with writer’s block when faced with the looming deadline for his second novel. When his friend and mentor, Professor Harry Quebert, also one of the most respected writers in the country and the author of a famous novel enigmatically entitled The Origins of Evil, is accused of murder, Marcus starts investigating the case to clear his friend’s name, but also, to make a book out of it. Professor Quebert is accused of having killed the 15-year-old Nola Kellergan – whose unsolved murder in New Hampshire dates back 33 years. Marcus is a good friend, a do-gooder. But he is looking out for his own interests, as well . Innocence and calculation are inextricable in Dicker’s universe.

This refreshing and imaginative first novel, written in Mr. Dicker’s effortless and elegant prose, toys with the reader’s sense of anticipation, planting clues for elucidation – both of the mystery of the girl’s death and of the meaning of the book itself – that will eventually turn out to be red herrings.

It is a polyphonic creation wherein the truth is revisited, reversed, polished and fine-tuned as multiple versions of the fateful events of the summer of 1975 are woven into the narrative and various characters each provide a possible but partial version of the truth.  The story grows like a tree with ramifications and multiple branchings out – a fitting metaphor for the Internet age — but also trimmings and cuttings, all leading to the intentional effect of destabilizing the truth.

For instance, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is set in America, and has been hailed as a critique of across-the-Atlantic ways. But at the FIAF signing, Mr. Dicker told the audience the following rather funny anecdote: when the book first came out in France, he was immediately invited to his first Foire du Livre (book fair), a literary event which establishes a writer’s reputation in France. He was automatically placed on a panel with André Kaspi, the eminent French expert on the United States. Surprised, yet ever inclined to embody the ironic misrepresentation, Dicker played along, but he rejects all claims to being an Alexis de Tocqueville for the 21st-century. Having spent all of his summers in Maine as a child, he says he simply enjoyed writing about a place of which he is fond.

In fact, a close reading shows the characters are more universal archetypes than in-depth explorations of an American “essence.” There is the greedy Roy Barnaski, Marcus’ New York publisher, Benjamin Roth, the sharky lawyer, Srgt. Perry Gahalowood, the rough policeman with a golden heart who will help Marcus in the investigation, Jenny Quinn, the blond and voluptuous waitress who is secretly in love with Harry Quebert, her matter-of-fact mother Tamara Quinn, owner of the Clark’s Diner, bossy and relentless; Luther Caleb, an underdog and Quasimodo of sorts whose ominous name and monstrous deformities naturally designate him as the bad guy. Even their appellations sound more foreign than genuinely American. They represent a postcard America rather than America itself.

At times even, characters, especially secondary ones, seem as though they have sprung from the pages of a comic book: There is the starlet Lydia Gloor whose delightful name might also be found in People magazine. Or Marcus Goldman’s mother, a stereotype of the Jewish mother — overprotective, neurotic and eager to find her son a wife. Or Tamara Quinn, another devouring Medea who overshadows her daughter Jenny.

In general, mothers are rather absent in the novel or, as above, caricatured (this is a novel about fathers as I will show later). Yet, caricature often alternates with surprise along the way, and a relative complexity: Luther Caleb is not, it turns out, who we thought he was, neither is the millionaire Elijah Stern, who appears to have had an affair with Nola, nor is Harry Quebert himself, whose many facets slowly unfold over the course of the novel. As for Nola, is she angelic muse or diabolical seductress, as her name, whose quasi-homonymity with Nabokov’s Lolita, seems to suggest? Narrative reversals, volte-faces, impasses and traps are in abundance. Mr. Dicker uses literary tradition (in interviews, he speaks, for instance, of the influence Russian literature had on him when growing up), yet he updates tradition in contemporary ways. Nola is Lolita but she is also the girl next door.

The story, as previously noted, is a thriller, but the writer as detective also becomes a key metaphor for novelistic craft. Dicker’s book is thus a painstaking construction where the novelist’s task is the patient placement of clues leading to a discovery, the slow unveiling of the truth, but also, and perhaps, primarily, of the meaning of literary endeavors. It is a reflection on the architecture of a novel, on foreground and background and, with Goldman himself a writer within the wider framework of the novel, it is essentially a myse en abyme on the art of writing.

The telling of the narrative, for instance, alternates with chapters of advice to the aspiring writer, reminiscent of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write. See whether it has spread roots into the very depths of your heart.” Letter 1).

And here is Harry Quebert’s advice to Marcus Goldman:

“The gift of writing is a gift not because you are an adequate writer, but rather because you are giving meaning to your life. (…) Writers live life more intensely then others, I think. Do not write in the name of our friendship, Marcus. Write because it is the only way for you to make of this minuscule and insignificant thing called life a valuable and gratifying experience.” (my translation)

Because this is a Proustian exploration on how to become a writer, the Truth is also a delving into the notion of fraud. Who is a true writer? Is Harry Quebert a master or a murderer? Both? Neither? Is Marcus Goldman the real thing, even though he seems unable to write a second novel? Significantly, his character is construed to be an impostor early on. We learn for instance how he cheated his way through high school sports, inventing himself as the Formidable, an athletic superstar. Yet, as he overcomes successive hurdles and failures, Marcus’ efforts are crowned at book’s end, with the receiving of advice from his mentor Harry Quebert, who is an obvious father figure. Here is, for instance, what Harry tells Marcus in the book’s final pages: “I have loved you like a son, more than like a friend, Marcus.” Harry gives his talented pupil all the necessary clues to eventually bring about his very own demise, much as a father would do. The novel is about learning how to write and learning how to become an adult. For The Truth is about debunking the teacher, the Father. The mystery revealed at the end may be less about the solving of a murder than simply about learning to grow up. That is perhaps why the Truth resonates better with a younger audience (and may be why it won the Goncourt des Lycéens): there is still both a playfulness and lightness to it that makes it different from say, Donna Tartt’s the Goldfinch, the other thriller of the season, and a much darker and complex work. In some ways, the Truth is still reveling in the marvelous mechanics of writing, showing off meta-narratives and lessons learned. It is didactic, as a first novel often is.

Perhaps the book’s convoluted denouement is its only weakness: We learn who killed Nola –I won’t tell you-, but I wished here complexity had not defaulted to mere complication. I was left somehow with the feeling that a simpler ending is often more satisfying than a labyrinthine resolution. Age and experience often teach you that, but I guess, this is a lesson Mr. Dicker still has time to learn.

The Israeli Paradox

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 9.28.11 PM

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
Ari Shavit
Spiegel and Grau
464 pages; $28

The Israeli paradox
Yaëlle Azagury

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 9.27.48 PM Ari Shavit is a journalist for the liberal newspaper Haaretz, and was once part of the Left’s Peace movement.  But there is little political correctness in this independently-minded and non-partisan look at Israel in his new book “My Promised land”.

Shavit’s greatest achievement in his anatomy of Zionism is to transcend the oversimplified and repetitive clichés of Left and Right.

The author captures in penetrating language the tragic poignancy of the Israeli predicament: “On the one hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people.  On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened.  Intimidation and occupation are the two pillars of our condition”.

Using archival documents, testimonials and interviews, he argues that this duality (“occupation-intimidation”) was at the heart of Zionism from its outset. But while the issue of appropriation of Palestinian land (sometimes conquered, often purchased) was handled with uncanny tact and dexterity prior to the creation of the State of Israel and during the subsequent 25 years, the delicate balance between one people’s imperative need and another people’s indigenous land was shattered in 1973 after the Yom Kippur war.  What happened?

First let me note Shavit is an ardent Zionist.  The most powerful and well-known arguments in favor of Zionism are anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. As Shavit ponders the fate of European Jewry standing on the brink of destruction just before World War II, he notes:  “in 1935, Zionist justice is an absolute justice that cannot be refuted”.

But there is also another argument holding true today more than ever.  Shavit is the great-grandson of Herbert Bentwich, a British Jew and well-to-do lawyer who realized that his tranquil Anglo-Jewish life was endangered, in the process of being softly killed by the dominant culture.  So he decided to forego the comforts of civilized London to set off for Palestine in 1897 for a transformative twelve-day visit.  From that point on he lived in continual dialogue with the Land of Israel until he made aliya three years before his death in 1932.

As Shavit notes, demography speaks louder than words.  Between 1950 and 2000, the Anglo-Jewish community shrinks by a third: “The communities of such cities as Brighton and Bournemouth will dwindle. The rate of intermarriage will increase to well over 50 percent.  Young non-Orthodox Jews will wonder why they should be Jewish.  What’s the point?”

Furthermore, notes the author, a look at American Jewry today should persuade most skeptics.  Given the high rate of intermarriage in 2010, non-Orthodox Jews are drifting away from the center of gravity of Jewish identity. They are evaporating into the non-Jewish space. He concludes: “Benign Western civilization destroys non-Orthodox Judaism.”  In other words, it is death by the kiss.

The Zionist endeavor is the subject of the first half of the book, which borrows in its style and breadth from the noble genre of the epic.  Shavit’s prose is taut and stripped down like Zionism itself, but its rhythms are generous and embracing.

There is a quiet lyricism.  When describing one of the first Zionist experiments carried out in Mandatory Palestine in the valley of Harod in 1921 by the orphans of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 in Bessarabia (now Moldova), there is a sense of awe at all they have accomplished: “The blades of the sun catch the blades of the plow as they turn the valley’s soil, penetrating the crust of the ancient valley’s deep earth.  And as the plows begin to do their work, the Jews return to history and regain their masculinity: as they take on the physical labor of tilling the earth, they transform themselves from object to subject, from passive to active, from victims to sovereigns.”

The community of Ein Harod is, for Shavit, kibbutz socialism at its best and most inspiring.  He praises its communal effort, Spartan determination, and revolutionary spirit transformative of soul and body.

Examining how these men and women conquered a wasteland, crafting an entire country out of nothing, Shavit’s writing has Biblical accents, even though he is himself secular.  It describes the end of the Jew of the Diaspora, feeble and submissive, and with the return to Zion, the birth of a new man.  There is a symbolic moment in the book when the settlement of Rehovot southeast of Jaffa, which struggled against the odds to grow oranges, starts shipping the famous Jaffa citrus to Buckingham Palace in the 1930’s.  The old subordinate condition of the court Jew is rendered obsolete by Zionism’s successes.  Jews will no longer lower their heads in front of foreign kings. From now on they will trade with them.

Zionism got almost everything right in those crucial years leading to the creation of the state.  There were certainly frictions with the Arabs, but they were limited: overall there was yet no Palestinian identity in the modern sense.  Because up until 1917 Palestine was a backward province of the Ottoman Empire, Arabs were often grateful to Zionist immigrants who taught them hygiene, and brought with them medicines and modernizing techniques to cultivate the land.

Later on, in the days before 1967, Israel displayed in Shavit’s words, “a security-mindedness that was not imperialistic.  A patriotism that was not chauvinistic.”  This was exemplified in the building of a nuclear reactor near Dimona to be used solely as a psychological deterrent.  The Jewish State’s nuclear doctrine is both modest and successful: Israel will be a nuclear power but act as if it were not.

The Yom Kippur war of 1973 caught Israel by surprise and caused panic. While Israel ultimately gained the upper hand, it brought to the surface the country’s fear of annihilation, triggering a profound existential crisis that led to the accelerated building of settlements in the territories around Jerusalem and the Golan, which Shavit views as “a futile, anachronistic colonialist project.”

In fact, concludes Shavit, the origin of the crisis is rooted in Zionism’s dual nature, as unmasked most flagrantly by the massacre carried out in the Arab village of Lydda. In the summer of 1948, during the War of Independence, Zionists realize a Jewish State is endangered by the Arab city of Lydda: so 200 people are killed and tens of thousands of Palestinians are forced to leave.  Herein lies what Shavit views as Zionism’s “black box”, its darkest secret.

From 1973 onwards, Shavit chronicles a major shift in Zionism.  Having lost its social glue, it is adrift, incapable of producing a renewed social contract, or of striking that perfect balance of responsibility, audacity and cunning it had fine-tuned until then.  Zionism’s inherent paradox and Janus-faced nature-on the one hand idealistic, on the other, pragmatic, if not belligerent – is blatantly exposed. Consequently, Israel has become a collection of multiple interests with little common ground.

From novelist and peace activist Amos Oz to Sephardi political leader Aryeh Deri to Jewish terrorist Yehuda Etzion, Shavit interviews the protagonists of Israeli life with infinite reserves of sympathy.  They all have their flaws and claims, yet Shavit understands them intimately.  He is kind, generous, a consummate interviewer.

He finds the settlements anachronistic and imperialistic, but he realizes his own Zionism shares more than a few genes with the Zionism of the settlers of Ofra (home of Yehuda Etzion), which he sees in a sense as “Ein Harod’s grandchild.” He considers Shas’ Aryeh Deri inscrutable, lost in a faraway place between identities, but he likes him and understands his plight as a Sephardi whose history was delegitimized by, in Shavit’s phrase, the WASPs (White Ashkenazi Supporters of Peace). He is close to the Palestinian-Israeli attorney Mohammed Dahla [SIC] who co-founded in 1995 the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), but he knows there are great differences in their worldviews.

So if the first half of the book that chronicles Zionism’s rise reads like an epic, heroic and grand, the second half – which traces its unraveling – is like a novel, sympathetic, intimate, but also a testimony to a shattered reality.   Zionism’s post-1973 phase has myriad yearnings and projects, but as an ideology it has become fragmented, and has forsaken its prior cohesiveness.

For Shavit, Israel is on the edge of the abyss.  Because too many fires are burning, Israel has lost sight of its greatest threat:  Iran’s nuclear program. Hardly a hawk, Shavit warns us, however, that this is the state’s most frightening challenge.  We’ve come full circle: the book started with existential fear, and closes with existential fear.

Complex, intricate, sophisticated, Shavit’s reflections are steeped in a love for truth and genuine humanism.  I disagree however with some of them.  For instance, I find his analogy of a Gaza detention camp with a Nazi concentration camp a vexed one.  While I understand his thought process, influenced by Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil – evil preys upon us in banal ways – I believe he creates a flawed moral equivalence.

But Shavit’s historical and theoretical perspective is insightful, compelling.  Here is how he defines the Israeli condition:

First, it is based on denial: denial of the Palestinian past and denial of the Jewish past.  He argues this amnesia was necessary to function, to build, to live in the first decades of the State. But now Israel must retreat from the West Bank, despite the dangers, because if it doesn’t it will be politically and morally doomed: “The need to end occupation is greater than ever, but so are the risks.”

Second, it is based on paradox: Israelis are utopians and pragmatists, “jailers and jailed”.  Even more confusing, their strengths are often their weaknesses: “The secret of Israeli high-tech is bucking authority, ignoring conventional wisdom, and flouting the rules of the game.  The weakness of the Israeli state is bucking authority, ignoring conventional wisdom and flouting the rules of the game.”

We feel somewhat claustrophobic at book’s end: is there no exit? Will this be Israel’s end?  Shavit’s capacity to argue one point from diverging perspectives is maddening, but so are Israel’s choices.

It is the lot of democracies to get caught in the very contradictions they are so desperately striving to resolve.  France, for instance, must always strike a fine balance between its equalizing and its centralizing tendencies. America, as Alexis de Tocqueville once noted with great insight, is pulled apart between its individualism and its conformism.

The greatest test faced by democracies – and the issue is central for Israel because its survival depends on it – lies in their ability to overcome those contradictions.

Yaëlle Azagury is a free-lance reporter who writes about contemporary literature and culture.

Un Prince à Casablanca by Ralph Toledano (in French)

9791091416047FSD’Elissa Rhais à Albert Memmi, La littérature coloniale et post-coloniale des juifs d’Afrique du Nord dessine souvent une opposition simpliste entre l’Orient et l’Occident, le corps et l’esprit, les émotions et l’intellect.  On y trouve un univers exotique à la limite de la caricature, où l’Orient en ressort invariablement lésé, en dépit  de descriptions pittoresques, mais somme toute dévalorisantes.  Le premier roman de l’historien d’art Ralph Toledano, Un prince à Casablanca, évite élégamment ces écueils.

Un prince à Casablanca raconte l’histoire de Semtob, un riche bourgeois juif marocain, et de sa famille au début des années 70, au lendemain de la sanglante tentative de coup d’état de Skhirat .  Au coeur du roman est la question de l’identité: non tiraillement insoluble entre nature et culture, instinct et raison, vulgarité et raffinement,  comme dans le cas des romans orientalistes d’antan, mais substrat multiple, complexe, fait de strates successives que Ralph Toledano saisit avec nuance et subtilité.  Il y a d’abord Semtob, le héro du roman, raffiné, cultivé, d’une grande noblesse de coeur, sorte de pater familias de la communauté juive, dont la famille maternelle vient de Mogador, l’ancien nom d’Essaouira.   Le modèle dominant de ces juifs anglicisés commerçant souvent avec Manchester est l’Angleterre.  Ils se prénomment George, Edouard et Victoria; Par son père, Semtob est l’héritier des juifs d’Espagne, et des grands rabbins érudits chassés par l’Inquisition au 15e siècle.  Nouvelle strate, autre couche.  Ils parlent le haquetia, ce dialecte judéo-espagnol fécondé par l’arabe en terre marocaine.  Leur culture, leur musique, sont riches tout comme leur gastronomie.   Emilie, la femme de Semtob, est algérienne, et incarne pour sa part ces juifs d’Algerie éblouis par la metropole depuis leur naturalisation par le decret Crémieux.

Gilbert, Annie et Betty, les 3 enfants de Semtob et d’Emilie, représentent à leur tour une destinée particulière:  Gilbert, séduit par le projet d’ordre et d’efficacité occidental, qui tombe amoureux de Louise Legrand (dont le patronyme en dit long), la fille d’aristocrates français établis au Maroc.  Elle est la froide amazone au tempérament victorieux, la matérialisation du fantasme blond et lumineux de l’Oriental.

Annie, gaie et superficielle, qui cèdera au rêve americain et a son versant matérialiste en établissant une chaîne de restaurants en Floride.

Puis Betty l’idealiste, peu soucieuse des apparences et de la beauté extérieure, qui s’installera en terre sainte, munie du projet sioniste.

Enfin et surtout, Semtob lui-même, enchanté par Casablanca, la ville blanche, “ce parfait dosage entre l’Orient et l’Occident” qu’il sent disparaître.

Semtob se sent profondément enraciné dans un Maroc immemorial, “a la même odeur de graisse de mouton, de laine lavée, de beurre rance, d’olives, de braises consummées”. Semtob, dont l’ attachement à la monarchie Cherifienne va jusqu’à investir Sa Majesté d’une “pellicule sacrée”, quasi mystique. L’affection de ces juifs marocains  pour leur roi est sincère, réel, respectueux, soutenu par les fondations d’un long passé judéo-islamique commun.   Ainsi, George, le cousin de Semtob, se sent si proche de L’Islam qu’il en rêve de se convertir.

Chacun de ces personages est une projection de ce kaléidoscope d’identités , versatilité caméléonesque propre aux juifs marocains. L’onomastique savoureuse reflète cette diversité jusque dans la parodie, comme en ce qui concerne les Sebaoun, parvenus ridicules qui firent fortune á Paris et changèrent leur nom en Sebond.

Cet edifice sous-tendu par un équilibre délicat évoque l’univers du Guépard de Lampedusa ou Le  jardin des Finzi-Contini de Bassani.  C’est un monde entre-deux-mondes, hors du temps, et appelé á disparaitre.  La vision est en apparence nostalgique, surannée, d’aucuns diront passéiste.

Juillet 1971: un evenement vient cependant bousculer cette tension délicate s’échouant dans les cahots de l’histoire.  C’est la tentative de coup d’Etat de Skhirat, lors de la célébration de l’anniversaire du roi Hassan II, auquel est convié Semtob en tant que notable de la communauté juive. Le roi y échappa miraculeusement indemne. Semtob aussi, mais ces certitudes en furent soudain ébranlées à jamais.

Il comprit que l’identité juive auparavant faite d’une élégante mosaïque, tissée de fils multiples mais au fond tous exogènes, devait accomplir sa destinée dans son propre héritage, dans le Pentateuque ou les Psaumes de David, non chez Chateaubriand ou Daudet. Tel le prophète Moise guidant son peuple en terre promise, Semtob meurt a l’orée de cette épiphanie vers laquelle s’achemine délicatement mais inéluctablement le texte. Vision dynamique transcendant la nostalgie.

“Cultivez votre jardin”, la maxime voltairienne est proclamée énigmatiquement dans Candide et semble ici de circonstance. Car les jardins sont precisement l’un des leitmotifs du texte de Toledano , et la métaphore horticole traverse en sourdine son roman.  Lieux d’harmonie, de calme et d’équilibre, les divers jardins jalonnant le roman sont chacun investis d’ une symbolique particulière:

Du jardin figé et conventionnel d’Emilie, au jardin poétique de la cousine Phoebe, au jardin mystique du grand-père de Ruth la future epouse de Gilbert, au jardin de l’harmonie universelle établi en terre sainte par Gilbert et son epouse , le narrateur nous somme d’ explorer le mystère de l’être, de notre etre. La noblesse authentique, decrète le héro, se situe dans la tradition, dans notre propre jardin, dans l’énigme de soi.

La sagesse est a trouver non dans des poursuites passageres refletees dans les aleas de l’histoire et de la politique, interessant  l’auteur peu ou prou , mais dans le règne de l’eternel transcendant l’ici et maintenant.

Certes, Toledano est historien d’art de formation, et il connait la valeur du detail temporel.  Son ecriture minutieuse et precise sert paradoxalement a liberer la matiere du materiel, et a creuser la realite ad infinitum, en allant de l’apparence a l’essence.

Dans cet emploi du detail, se revele une connaissance intime de Balzac et de Proust, ces maitres jamais demodes du 19 et du 20e siecles, parce que c’est de la nature humaine jamais demodee qu’ils discourent. L’exigence pointilleuse, quasi maniaque du lexique redevient sous sa plume rafraichissante.

Ralph Toledano se situe sans conteste a contre-courant dans notre 21e siècle faits d’instatannés ephemeres, ou l’ideologie et la politique nous sollicitent inlassablement, nous forcant a nous determiner, et ou l’on recule devant la généralisation.  D’ou le charme au parfum parfois désuet mais de toute necessite de son ecriture.

C’est dans cet eloge de la tradition, a la fois litteraire et spirituelle, qu’il faut situer l’anti-conformisme de Ralph Toledano.

James Turrell, Gatsby and America’s idealism

James Turrell, Gatsby and America’s idealism

By Yaëlle Azagury

Great art often starts with the experience of disappointment, with thwarted expectations.  Contemporary art is even more intent in its use of irony.Upon the first minutes of my visit to James Turrell’s light installations at the Guggenheim Museum on view until September 25, I wondered what the hype was about.  As one of the security guards pointed out to a perplexed tourist in front of the second floor installation titled “Ronin” while he was scrutinizing the vertical light at the corner of the room: “this is it, there is nothing else to look for beyond it.”

Yet, as I sat in Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda transformed by “Aten Reign”, Turrell’s latest installation, and shed my urban armor while mentally extricating myself from the crowd’s chatter, I begun to feel subtle transformations running through my veins as the lights’ colors started to shift above my head ( I sat there for a good 10 minutes).  The sensations are not easy to describe, and each of us will probably have a different experience.  My own glided from feelings of oppressiveness, to enveloping warmth, exhilarating freedom, uplifting soaring and finally, detached coolness.

Aside from the sensorial shifts in perception, the experience is also spiritual, and transports the viewer to a meditative realm (admittedly, that state of meditation is sometimes hard to attain these days given how crowded museums have become…).  Light is a quintessentially American element, both literally -in nature, in the American wilderness, light is plentiful, even in winter-, and as a metaphor: light as a lofty ideal bestowed upon the American people by God, or even more directly as a metaphor for God.  Take for instance the Transcendentalist movement in the 19th century, a philosophical movement that advocated a direct access to the divine through nature, which was believed to be a kind of perfect spiritual state.  The Luminist painters (1850-1870), whose paintings are a visualization of Transcendentalist philosophy, depict landscapes bathed in sublime light: Albert Bierstadt’s lofty canvasses are a good example. In contrast, the use of light in English landscape painting for instance in the same period is more dull- take Gainsborough, Constable, or even Turner -, and it is only with French Impressionism and its subsequent migration to southern and sunnier locales that landscape painting start to incorporate more light, but there is none of the religious undertone found in Luminism.

Fast forward a bit later in American history, in the early years of the 20th-century, to The Great Gatsby: the iconic American hero stands every night outside of his West Egg home looking anxiously at the mysterious green light at the end of his beloved Daisy’s East End dock.  The light is both a metaphor for Daisy, and for some higher, unattainable spiritual yearning of sorts.  It is a lofty aspiration to soar, the quintessential American dream.

James Turrell, who is part of the Light and Space movement of the 60s is in my view a direct heir to the Transcendantalist tradition which invests light with a spiritual, even religious significance.  Turrell grew up as a Quaker, and the Transcendentalists were Unitarians, but both religions have in common the belief that every person has direct access to the divine without any mediation from priesthood.  There are other differences too:  the Transcendentalists were awed by Nature, and open spaces, Turrell’s installations are indoors and incorporate both natural and artificial light as well as the latest technologies.  There is also, it seems to me, a playful dimension in Turrell’s installations missing in the 19th-century movement: light cubes placed alternately in different spots of given installations alter our perception of the space, and invests it with meaning. Ultimately, however, a light is just that.

Nineteenth-century French painter and art historian Maurice Denis wrote very matter-of-fact in 1890: “Let us remember that a painting, before being a battle horse, a nude, or any other sort of anecdote, is essentially a plane surface covered with colors and assembled in a certain order.” To paraphrase the Guggenheim’s security guard mentioned earlier on: “what you see is what you get”.  The spiritual dimension of his work is the result of a manipulation of light projection, so it is fair to say the solemnity of Turrell’s art is inseparable from its inherent irony.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in: a new Feminist Path?

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in: A New Feminist Path?

Reviewed by Yaëlle Azagury, Ph.D

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I started Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean in with a negative bias.  I had heard about it in the media, where it was frequently hailed as a new feminist manifesto.  Slightly incredulous, I wondered: how could a businessperson (Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer), no matter how smart or successful, be qualified to give advice, lessons or for that matter craft a theory with something to contribute to feminism?   That requires a thinker, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, in other words an observer and analyst of social mores, not someone immersed in the business of making money.

Sandberg’s own coquettishness about the book’s identity did not help her case, but rather added to the confusion:

“this book is not a memoir, although I have included stories about my life.  It is not a self-help, although I truly hope it helps.  It is not a book about career management, although I offer advice in that area.  It is not a feminist manifesto-okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto…”

Denial being just a crafty form of affirmation, the book’s genre is basically stated in this paragraph’s literary game of hide-and-seek: it is an ambitious project that wants to be all of that.  But by blurring the lines between genres, we are basically getting all of them together, which is another way of getting neither… Its obvious self-help and career management aspects dilute the feminist manifesto side of it.

Collusion between politics and philosophy is frequent throughout history, but not of commerce and philosophy.  They are the antithesis of one another.  Blame it on my elitism, but I do not know of many thinkers who were also tradesmen… And her lessons, precisely because she is so earnest, so intent in presenting herself as humble and down-to-earth (qualities that are often appealing in self-help or career advice books, and valued in memoirs), are at times pedestrian, trivial, sketchy. Her book is a case study for a Harvard Business School M.B.A student turned into a defense and illustration of feminism in the 21st century .  She is selling the cause of feminism.

At the same time, the Lean In phenomenon attests to tectonic shifts in our society, and most notably to the glaring disappearance of the figure of the public intellectual and the simultaneous emergence of a newly found legitimacy for businesspeople to speak up on societal changes.  It is the celebrity factor. Obsolete are the likes of Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan-philosophers and journalists-whose job was to remain above the fray.  Globalization took down frontiers between nations.  Similarly, and perhaps courtesy of the Internet with the subsequent dilution of knowledge it brought with it, we must now live with a new porosity between fields traditionally separate.  It is no coincidence Sandberg comes from Facebook, with its culture of self-proclaimed stardom.

Yet, despite the cause of business somehow obscuring the cause of philosophy, I found several aspects of Sandberg’s book instructive, edifying and even illuminating.

In a nutshell, Sandberg believes (I agree with her) women are often their worst enemies.   I disagree though with a frequent critique taxing her of “having it all easy” thanks to perfect studies, a perfect mentor (Larry Summers), a perfect husband.  She wasn’t always rich and famous.  She had to work hard for her gains, and must be applauded for that.

So here are a few essential observations she makes women should remind themselves when building a career:

-the impostor syndrom: recent studies have demonstrated that women with high academic degrees often feel plagued by self-doubt: “Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are-impostors with limited skills or abilities.”  Given the same assignment than men, women will systematically underestimate themselves.

– negative stereotypes about women in the workplace as illustrated by the Heidi and Howard experiment: a 2003 study shows how given identical data, perceptions will differ vastly if it’s a man (Howard) or a woman (Heidi): “when a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women.  When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.”  These negative impressions end up holding a woman back because she doesn’t conform to social stereotypes of male and female.

-the tiara syndrom: women will be more reluctant than men to ask for a raise or apply for a promotion, because they tend to believe that their good work will be naturally rewarded, and “a tiara will be placed on their heads”.  Sandberg argues we must fend for ourselves rather than wait for an accolade.

-Finally, Sandberg’s device is : “done is better than perfect”.  A working woman who wants to have a meaningful career, a nice house, a caring husband, freshly made food for her family, perfectly organized linen closets, and impeccable children, is doomed to fail, and often-studies show-drops out of the workforce.  Instead, we should aim for “good enough”, rather than perfection.

These crucial points are part of the first half of the book (aside from the fourth point appearing towards the end), which brings in more theoretical aspects than the rest.  The second half unfortunately slips often into cliché talk.  For instance, Sandberg explains how Ariana Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, believes learning to withstand criticism is a necessity for women, and advices them “to let ourselves react emotionally and feel whatever anger or sadness being criticized evokes for us”.  Sandberg reinforces this view by adding in rather unexciting fashion: “allowing myself to feel upset, even really upset, and then move on-that’s something I can do.”

Really? Is this all we are learning from this?

At times, we feel as in a therapy session, as Sandberg advocates for instance a new-agey-meets third-wave-feminism-sort-of-vision: she says for instance it should become okay for women to show their emotions, to cry in the workplace.  She believes this shows their compassion and sensitivity, and argues those will be the qualities of future leaders. She calls for a naturalism of sorts, praising authenticity and idiosyncracies.

Cliches also abound in sections that read more as plain, run-of-the mill business advice: “take risks, it often pays off”, or “grab opportunities when you see them”.

Others are mere life-coaching (which is our modern name for good old-fashioned wisdom of nations): “when looking for a life partner, my advice to women is date all of them: the bad boys, the cool boys, the commitment-phobic boys, the crazy boys.  But do not marry them. (…) Find someone who is an equal partner.”

At times, she is so well-meaning and sympathetic to fellow women, it becomes slightly condescending, and falsely modest: “Sometimes high-potential women have a difficult time asking for help because they don’t want to appear stumped.  Being unsure how to proceed is the most natural feeling in the world.  I feel that way all the time.”

But beyond frequent redundancy and some talk that is often more common sense for the modern world than a new feminist manifesto, my final criticism is we run the risk of injecting gender in every discussion, or reduce everything to an issue of minority.  Bias and discrimination will be detected everywhere.

It is a defining American trait to create communities and sub-communities (Tocqueville observed this more than two hundred years ago) as a counterpoint to its intimidating size but also to its fierce economic individualism, and the subsequent loosening of social and family ties.  But an individual is not only the product of an ethnic or sociological entity, it is also a universal transcending differences in gender, color or race.

At the same time, we should also acknowledge women are different from men, if only because of an important biological difference:  they have the ability to give birth and ensure human reproduction.  So women in the 21st century still face the Sisyphean task of caring for their children and trying to have a meaningful career.

The dream of a fifty-fifty split between men and women in the workplace is a virtuous and unattainable ideal- Sandberg argues eventually men and women should be equally divided at home and in the workplace-but perhaps the seamless interchangeability of roles between genders is a mere utopian (even tedious) fantasy.

Despite a complacent rhetoric at times, Sheryl Sandberg’s book sheds a fresh and surprisingly invigorating light on women in the workplace who should be grateful someone with first-hand experience is voicing legitimate concerns.

The answers should certainly come from women themselves who need to internalize the feminist revolution in deeper ways, but we should also start asking for better social policies and government-based institutions allowing women to better dovetail family and work, rather than imposed by an artificial and imposed equality with its desire to even out gender differences.