The Centenary of the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain pledged support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, has generated new interest in looking at the history of the British-Israel relationship.
Ambassador Daniel Taub offered a new perspective on this relationship, taking off his diplomatic hat and returning to his Oxford studies in literature to present a fascinating history of images of Israel in English literature to the University’s literary society.
Describing the literary atmosphere preceding the Balfour Declaration, Taub noted that the support for the establishment of Jewish home in the British War Cabinet had been presaged by support for the idea reflected in English literature. Among the key novelists who had expressed strong support for the restoration of Jewish self-rule in Israel were Benjamin Disraeli in Tancred and George Eliot in Daniel Deronda. But, as Taub pointed out, these positions did not gain universal approval, Indeed the literary critic F.R. Leavis had tried to publish an edited version of Daniel Deronda ‘liberated’ from its Zionist elements.
Ambassador Taub noted that the description of the Jewish State in these novels was idealized and utopian, as indeed it was in Theodore Herzl’s novel Altneuland. For an early description of the reality of the early settlement in Palestine, Taub turned to in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the main character is described as he considers contributing to the campaign for Jewish agricultural settlement in Palestine.
One of the aspects of Israeli society which attracted a lot of attention in English literature was the kibbutz experience, due to the large number of young Britons who volunteered for periods on kibbutz. Taub surveyed much of this literature, which included humorous and even satirical descriptions of the experience of British kibbutz volunteers.
Turning to more recent trends in English literature, Taub noted that there was more nuance and ambivalence, citing characters from novels by Adam Raphael and Linda Grant for whom ambivalence towards Israel served as a vehicle for channeling rebellion against their families and communities.
Taub also drew on novels by Clive Sinclair and Ian McEwan to chart changing attitudes to Israel in contemporary fiction, and compared Howard Jacobson’s 1993 travelogue Roots Shmoots with his Booker prize winning novel The Finkler Question.
Bringing his extensive survey to a close, Ambassador Taub, who is himself an author and screenwriter, suggested that frequently the representation of Israel in English literature had little to do with the reality of Israeli itself. “The reality may provide the contours of the screen”, he observed, “but the shapes and colors are frequently a projection of the identity of the author”. he said. Creating a literature that meaningfully engages with the true reality of Israel, he suggested, is one of the exciting literary challenges of our time.