Theodor Herzl 88.
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The World a Moment Later
By Amir Gutfreund
The Toby Press
300 pages; $24.95
"Do you know, Dov, what the purpose of Zionism is?"
"That we may be forgotten!"
"Yes, Dov. Yes, yes. Here is the purpose of Zionism: that we may be forgotten. That there will be no lovers of Jews and no haters of Jews in the world. No anti-Semites and no philo-Semites. That we may be just an ordinary nation, without lovers, without haters. That we may be, in short, a nation in its own land.
"That is why we came here, Dov. Do not let the wasteland and the enemies worry you. The diseases and the ravages. The conflicts and the desperation. That is the labor of Zionism and this is its reward - that we may be an ordinary people, living in its land, forgotten."
Sixty years after independence, that yearning, expressed by Leon Abramowitz, one of the heroes of The World a Moment Later, the latest of Amir Gutfreund's books to be translated into English, still sounds like wishful thinking. In the novel, by means of an alternative history of Zionism, one that takes place in the shadows of the accepted narrative, Gutfreund, the 2003 winner of the Sapir Prize for Literature, takes on the epic question "what are we doing here?"
The debate is one that rages in times of conflict. Taking a TV break to watch the news while writing this review, I happened on an interview with Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison, who in 2005 founded the Metzilah Center, a Zionist think tank, to "address the growing tendency among Israelis and Jews worldwide to question the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism and its compatibility with universal values."
Gavison, who was a member of the Winograd Commission of inquiry into the Second Lebanon War, believes that the consensus surrounding the recent operation in Gaza is an opportunity to revive Zionism from its comatose state.
She says that the country needs to reformulate a meta-purpose to provide the majority of its inhabitants with a sense of purpose and cohesion in the enterprise of the state. Otherwise, she warns we could find ourselves disappearing from the scene like the crusaders.
While Gavison points back to the past as an era when belief in Zionism's purpose was intact, Leon Abramowitz is plagued by doubts, asking, "Wherefore has this endeavor come about?... Why are the Jews standing in the way of history? Why must we too have a homeland?"
Set in a period running from the start of the Third Aliya in the early 1920s through to the end of the '70s, although not in chronological order, the novel unfolds around the life and times of Chaim Abramowitz, an enigmatic, single-minded, ruthless and yet, at times, soft-hearted tycoon who magnetizes all who come into contact with him.
Abramowitz is brought to Palestine by his father Leon, a cultured European journalist, washed up on the shores of the Levant to report on life in Eretz Yisrael. While Leon Abramowitz soon finds himself straying from his initial infatuation and, much to the dismay of his editor, recounting stories of hardship and not heroism, Chaim soon soaks up the nature of the land earning from his father the epithet of a "true Zionist."
Chaim Abramowitz rises from being a citrus grove laborer to organizing gangs who threaten orchard owners, to being an arms dealer and a legitimate businessman. Bored with ideology, he soon decides to forge an independent path, working with all parties, Jew and Arab, and later, in an act of anger, he cuts himself off from the State of Israel, blaming it for the death of his brother, and builds up an estate that refuses to pay allegiance to the fledgling country.
But while Abramowitz is at times a hero and at times an antihero, the novel is populated by a host of characters that are far from his larger-than-life status and live on the fringe of the official narrative, or as Gutfreund puts it, "Not everyone goes down in history."
Chaim Abramowitz's second wife - his stepdaughter from his first marriage - lives off lemons, and eventually divides the estate due to her desire to identify with the state. Yehezkel Klein, an admirer of the Revisionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky, shuts himself in his house after being left out of the history of the underground movement to which he belonged, leaving only to attend the funerals of prominent Jewish figures reinterred in Israel.
Others include Lev Gutkin, a handsome Russian, who for seven years plans to assassinate Joseph Stalin, only for the Soviet tyrant to beat him to it and die of natural causes; Stefano Lerer, an Italian Holocaust survivor, who exacts revenge on the enemies of the Jews in Palestine, but acts alone in battle after having been rejected by the Irgun, Hagana and Palmah because of his excessive cruelty; Gunter Tarhomi, a Jew from the Kinneret settlement - which was removed to Rehovot to make way for the iconic Kibbutz Kinneret - has a photographic memory, countless degrees, a penchant for scientific ruminations and corresponds with Albert Einstein; Avraham Union-United, a kibbutznik who is traumatized by the split in the kibbutz movement over support for Stalin; and Bonhoeffer, an itinerant do-gooder who travels the country finding "temporary solutions" for errant souls.
Each of these characters questions in his own way the accepted narrative of Zionist history. Gutfreund creates these characters with great skill - and the trademark humor of someone who defines suffering as being a supporter of the Hapoel Haifa soccer team - giving the reader the pleasure of a Rabelaisian adventure. However, if the novel does suffer from any weakness it is that these characters sometimes fail to create a whole, leaving the reader somewhat overwhelmed by their diversity.
But since sensory overload is so much part of life in the Holy Land, perhaps this is part of the novel's strange charm.