Many Israeli writers are still in a state of shock and unable to process Oct. 7



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After Israel’s war with Hamas erupted, Etgar Keret, who writes surrealist short stories, had an idea for a plot: Aliens from another universe come to Earth looking for a power source. They find it in human suffering. Lights on the alien planet shine bright when Hamas attacks Israel. A huge glow appears again during Israel’s retaliatory airstrikes on Gaza.

The narrative is at once evocative and fantastical — a nation inured to decades of conflict and bloodshed experiences a pain so deep it becomes a power all its own.

In a post for Substack, Keret, the son of Holocaust survivors and one of Israel’s most admired writers, suggested early in the war the enormity he and other writers were facing: “Since October 7, I haven’t really been able to write. For me, writing is a state in which you briefly release the suffocating grip of rationality and let your guts speak, but ever since this war broke out, my guts aren’t saying anything.

“It’s not that I don’t feel,” he said. “I feel too much, all the time. But the things I’m feeling — whether sorrow or fury or loneliness — don’t lead anywhere. And when your gut goes silent, nothing meaningful can be written, at least not the way I write.”

The Hamas massacre of 1,200 Israelis and Israel’s bombing and invasion of Gaza, which local health authorities say have killed more than 22,000 Palestinians, is testing how novelists, filmmakers and TV writers will distill a tragedy. For Israelis, it is one that rouses the past and raises existential questions many are unable to fathom.

Avi Issacharoff, a journalist and TV writer, said — like many American writers immediately after Sept. 11, 2001 — it’s too soon for him to find perspective in a war still unfolding. Issacharoff is the co-creator of “Fauda,” a Netflix series about an Israeli undercover unit tracking Palestinian militants, which was eerily prescient about the Hamas attack.

“We will have to wait for the war to end to see what will happen and how we deal with it creatively,” he said. “But we can’t ignore this date. Oct. 7 is with us forever.”

Many Israelis have compared this moment to 9/11 or the pogroms of Europe — events that shook nations and changed all that came after.

The most riveting works to arise from the Holocaust were often stories of singular lives seared into the larger horror, notably “The Diary of Young Girl” by Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” an account of the evils a boy faces in German concentration camps. Intimate perspectives also emerged from 9/11, including Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man,” a tale of grief and alienation around a man who survives the burning towers and becomes consumed by lingering trauma. In his novel, “Saturday,” Ian McEwan explores the dread and anxiety that pervade otherwise happy lives in an age when terrorists slam planes into buildings.

In Israel, war and conflict are not abstractions; their reverberations are immediate and personal. Issacharoff is a former special forces soldier who was wounded years ago during clashes with Hamas fighters in Hebron. His step-daughter’s partner, an Israeli paratrooper, was killed in Gaza in November.

One of Israel’s most prominent novelists, David Grossman, published “To the End of the Land,” a story of a mother who escapes the “notifiers” who might bring news of her soldier son’s death, after his own son was killed when his tank unit battled Hezbollah in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.

Grossman has often explored the Israeli-Palestinian question in essays and reportage. A peace activist and left-leaning Zionist, he believes in Israel’s right to exist but opposes the occupation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank that were seized after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Grossman’s seminal nonfiction work, “The Yellow Wind,” originally published in 1988, was an empathetic portrait of the hardship Palestinians face living under occupation. It was also a warning about the future if the decades of death and conflict that have defined this land were not quelled.

In an updated introduction 10 years later as violence was escalating toward a second intifada, Grossman wrote: “The heart cringes at the thought that we are doomed to endure another round of blood, worse than its predecessor, so we understand there is no choice other than the way of peace, the way we have barely tried. In the coming years — whether negotiations continue … or whether the process comes to a halt — the most fanatical, primal, cruel forces in each nation are likely to break loose.”

They have. The war came when Israelis were more divided than perhaps any time in the nation’s 75-year-history. In January, liberals began months of protests against the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which bolstered the power of ultraconservatives and threatened to undermine the independence of the courts. Israel was heading toward a dangerous collision over its own ideals.

Then came another existential jolt when Israel’s vaunted intelligence agencies failed to prevent Hamas’ October attack. The delusion of invincibility had been broken, and the Holocaust was evoked as images of scattered and mutilated bodies were glimpsed in places like Sderot and Kfar Aza.

No one felt safe anywhere in Israel. There was wailing and calls for vengeance. At night a strange silence fell amid the stones of the old towns; farther south, air raid sirens warned of incoming rockets. It seemed, for many, as if the past from nearly a century ago had rushed in.

“There are stories we all keep in our collective memory from the Holocaust,” said Issacharoff, co-author of a book about Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon. “That’s a very, very sensitive place in the soul of Israelis. It made Israelis stand up and say ‘no more.’” He added: “It was very clear to me that on the first day [after the Hamas attack] the world stood by Israel. But I knew in a few days that would shift. Maybe it was a David and Goliath syndrome when Israel retaliated. Now we’re witnessing pure antisemitism and hate of Jewish people around the world.”

The war and its immediate aftershocks became sensitive terrain for “Eretz Nehederet” (“What a Wonderful Country”), an Israeli version of “Saturday Night Live.” The program stayed on the air during the early days of COVID-19 and was accustomed to using humor and satire to navigate wars, terrorist attacks and other national traumas. But Oct. 7 felt different. The writers spent more than two weeks to find the right balance and tone to pull a show together.

“We were ready to take the chance,” said executive producer Muli Segev. “We had a lot of requests from people that they needed to take a break from the news and the terrible images and the awful stories and the anxiety and the stress from the rockets and the soldiers and everything. To take a moment to take a breath.”

“We were ready to take the chance,” said executive producer Muli Segev. “We had a lot of requests from people that they needed to take a break from the news and the terrible images and the awful stories and the anxiety and the stress from the rockets and the soldiers and everything. To take a moment to take a breath.”

One of the skits focused on the true story of Rachel Edery, who stayed alive for more than 12 hours after militants invaded her home by feeding them cookies and coffee. Another bit parodied pro-Palestinian protests on U.S. college campuses. It featured two students at the made-up “Columbia Untisemity” who said they supported LGBTQH — the H standing for Hamas. The students are oblivious to the sentiments of a Hamas fighter who despises their liberal values and wants toexecute them. One of the students wears a kaffiyeh and says, “I totally simp Hamas, it’s so trending right now.” He explains that he’s “not antisemitic, I’m racist fluid.”

A recent episode satirizes a Netanyahu who appears oblivious to the fact that Hamas has been a longtime enemy. He refuses to take responsibility and tells Israelis: “I decided to take respiratory breathing exercises with my wife to rest from everything that has happened to us.”

The show aims for “small moments of comfort amidst the darkness,” said Segev, adding that it’s a Jewish tradition “to laugh very quickly at trauma. … It’s kind of in our DNA.”

The war and its consequences, said Keret, have created the picture that most people, depending on their politics and sympathies, or whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian, “just take a fragment of.” The challenge is to see and grasp its fullness. He was reminded of when he was a child and came home from school one day: “I told my father, ‘Today we learned the lesson of the Holocaust.’ My dad said, ‘You know, the Holocaust was such a huge experience. Don’t you think there’s more than one lesson to it?’”

Keret, whose short story collections include “Suddenly, a Knock on the Door,” recently wrote a tale about a man who finds transcendence and hope in prayer even after his faith in God is shaken following the Hamas attack. It is a twist of optimism in a dark time. A lot of his writing these days has been short passages “just trying to [record] those little pockets of humanity and confusion and the feeling of uselessness.”

A text he sent to a girl whose father was killed on Oct. 7 reads: “Close your eyes, and allow yourself, just for a moment, to simply feel the pain, to hesitate, to be confused, to feel sorrow, remorse. You still have your whole life to spend persecuting, avenging, reckoning. But for now, just close your eyes and look inward like a satellite hovering over a disaster zone searching for signs of life. A lot has been taken away from you, but you’re still a human being — wounded, bloodied, angry, hurting, frightened, drowning in sorrow, but still human.”

In a recent essay in the Financial Times, Grossman wondered: “Who will we be when we rise from the ashes and re-enter our lives? When we viscerally feel the pain of author Haim Gouri’s words, written during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, ‘How numerous are those no longer with us.’ Who will we be and what kind of human beings will we be after seeing what we’ve seen? Where will we start after the destruction and loss of so many things we believed in and trusted?”

A few years ago, Grossman’s fellow peace activist and novelist, the late Amos Oz, said fewer Israeli writers were exploring the larger questions around Palestinians and Israel’s troubled place in the Middle East. He told The Times in 2015 that in the decades since the country was founded, writers had gradually abandoned the role of prophets that “show the way.”

Israeli writers, said Oz, who died in 2018, “are normalized. They write about everyday life: love, jealousy, solitude, ambition, longing, loss, the great and simple topics. Everyday existence in Israel is no longer … the epic of the birth of a nation. The nation is born for better or worse. So you will find fewer and fewer Israeli writers dealing with the birth of a nation, dealing with the question of where do we go from here.”

That question is still in search of an answer, although it seems likely writers will find that the nation is a looming and inescapable character.

Lidman is a special correspondent.



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