Despite being ensconced in a garden full of homegrown wildflowers in the picturesque Jezreel Valley, Meir Shalev’s outlook on the future of Israel is far from rosy. He believes that Israel has a leadership vacuum and is disillusioned with the current state of the country.
“I still see myself as a person on the Left, but I admit that the leftist solutions appear increasingly unrealistic,” Shalev, one of the country’s most important writers, tells The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview from his scenic home located a short distance from Moshav Nahalal, where he grew up. “And it’s not my fault, and it’s not the fault of the Left.”
Shalev, speaking in elegant Hebrew, diagnoses the problem as “a lack of a true leader with vision.”
“It’s the fault of leaders, from the Six Day War until today, who were afraid of taking significant action, and by significant action, I mean returning the territories we occupied in the Six Day War to Jordan. After all, we captured the territories from Jordan, and not from the Palestinians.”
Then, being the superb storyteller that he is, Shalev recounts his experience coming back home after the Six Day War – where he was seriously wounded – to illustrate his point.
“I was a soldier in the Six Day War, and I returned home after approximately seven weeks and met my father, obviously in complete euphoria. The whole country was in euphoria. And we immediately got into a political fight.”
Shalev, who was born in Nahalal on July 29, 1948, fought mostly against the Syrians on the Golan Heights, where he said he hardly came into contact with civilians.
“But later our unit moved to Judea and Samaria, where we saw hundreds of thousands of people living in towns and villages,” he says. “On my first break from the army, I told my dad that we had taken a bite of something we would eventually choke on. He was so upset with me that he more or less kicked me out of the house. Not in the sense that he didn’t want to see me again, but in the sense that he didn’t want to continue this conversation. It was the first time I was happy to return to the army after a holiday.”
To this day, Shalev believes he was right, and his Right-leaning father, the prominent Jerusalem poet Yitzhak Shalev, was wrong. He says that what Israeli society experiences today has historical echoes.
“We are, in fact, choking from this bite,” he says. “The problem is that we are slowly reaching a point in which there is no one to give it to. And the evacuation of Jewish settlements is becoming increasingly impossible and that’s something that deeply concerns me. It worries me, I must admit, first and foremost as an Israeli living in Israel. I believe we are causing damage to ourselves that is almost tantamount to the destruction of the Third Temple. That’s my fear.”
Shalev says that historically what has been required to break the cycle is “true leadership.”
“If only there was a leader from the Right who would say, ‘This is ours and I am annexing it’ after the Six Day War, or a leader from the Left who would say, ‘We’ve taken a bite that’s going to choke us and I’m returning it,’ we would be in a much better position today.”
He notes that David Ben-Gurion, after he stepped down as prime minister, and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz both said that Israel should return all the territories it captured, except for Jerusalem.
“I still support the two-state solution, but every minute that passes without doing anything makes the solution harder to achieve,” he says.
Without initially mentioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or anyone else by name, he then declares: “I simply don’t see any leader in Israel today who is capable of standing up to the settlers.
I don’t see a person with the vision and the courage to do it.”
In response to our comment that he sounds very pessimistic, Shalev agrees.
“Yes, it’s happened to me in the last two or three years. I saw that even the disengagement from Gaza they couldn’t do right. So now I don’t know how they can do it. Maybe it can only happen after another difficult war or intifada, or not at all.”
Voicing reluctance to delve into the various scenarios that might occur in the future, Shalev says in his classically incisive manner: “What is clear is that we can’t destroy the Palestinians, and I certainly don’t want to destroy the Palestinians, and they can’t destroy us, and I hope they don’t really want to. So we must understand that either we find a way to live together, which I’m not interested in because it means we will ultimately be another Muslim state in the Middle East, or we live side by side, like normal neighbors. You don’t have to hug and kiss each other.”
Shalev recalls that when Israel made peace with Egypt and later with Jordan, he wrote an op-ed in the newspaper with the headline “Make peace, not love.”
“People got really excited about becoming friends, and embracing and kissing one another. We would eat humous together... etc., and I said we have to forget this way of thinking. We can be normal neighbors. We can have cold relations, and even fight sometimes. We don’t have to immediately build our friendship on love because it later requires great sacrifice.
But at the moment, this whole discussion is unrealistic.”
Laughing, Shalev says several years ago he wrote another article in which he presented the case for Israel becoming a “normal country.”
“I said I would be prepared to make a deal to hand over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall and Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs for the Golan Heights,” he says. “Because the Golan Heights is a normal piece of land. There’s nothing holy there. I want something normal.”
He quickly points out that he means this in a metaphorical and not a realistic way. “Of course I know this is not realistic,” he says. “I would like to see the religious effect on this region dissipate or disappear, which I know is not really realistic. I would like to see Israeli society do what Jewish society did for so many years, and that is to put education at the top of its priorities... And I would like to see a leader with vision: a person who has a picture of the country in 20 or 50 years, and not only in two hours.”
Asked if he sees anyone with such potential in Israel today, Shalev replies: “I don’t see anyone in the Israeli community like that. The only example of someone who lived in our lifetime is really Ben-Gurion. There was also [Menachem] Begin, but I think it was good that Ben-Gurion was our leader when the state was established.”
As we begin the Hebrew year 5775, Shalev laments that he doesn’t see anyone among the Israeli or Palestinian leadership of Ben-Gurion’s caliber.
“I don’t see anyone on the Palestinian or Israeli side who is reminiscent of Ben-Gurion, from the point of view of his vision, his ability to make decisions, and his courage. It is an interesting psychological case: Bibi Netanyahu – a broad-shouldered, good-looking, physically powerful individual, an officer in the Sayeret Matkal [General Staff Reconnaissance Unit], a fighter – compared to Ben-Gurion, a small, short man who never held a gun in his hand. Now consider the courage that Ben-Gurion had to accept the partition plan in 1947 and what political fear Netanyahu shows.”
IN HIS novels, however, Shalev is rarely so brazenly outspoken on matters of politics.
Preferring to let his characters speak out on more emotional – but no less important matters – regarding the conflicts that drive relationships. “I enjoy talking about family and love and loyalty and the complexities of the relationship between father and son,” he explains, but is quick to add that he doesn’t shy away from the political conflicts that lie behind almost every tale in his novels.
“I don’t hide from the conflict and tension that defines this country. There are wars in my novels and people die in my novels, but that’s not the central subject matter in my books.”
As a writer, though, Shalev is far more interested in the emotions and tension between characters during a conflict rather than the conflict itself. He points to the Bible as an example. “Even in our ancient biblical texts, I’m a lot more interested in the tension within Jacob’s house because of his marriage to the two sisters than how this tension affected the nation of Israel.”
Ironically, the Bible has provided a primary source of inspiration for the secular author.
“I acknowledge that I no longer go to synagogue like I used to as a child.
Back then, Simhat Torah was a delightful event to participate in for children. In Jerusalem there were nice synagogues, admittedly Orthodox ones, that were open to all,” he reminisces.
“As for Torah itself, I feel its substance every time I read it, but I don’t celebrate the holiday itself,” he admits.
That reverence for the Bible began at an early age for Shalev, whose father was a Bible teacher and taught him lessons from the Holy Scripture that he is still captivated by to this day.
Growing up, his father served as an unofficial biblical tour guide. Taking Shalev and his sister to historical landmarks across the country. Those trips left an indelible impression on Shalev. “He took me and my sister to places where significant biblical events took place. He would say, ‘Here stood David, here stood Saul and here Elijah who descended from the skies.’” “I still study, advocate for and love the Bible,” he says, explaining that it is our responsibility as Jews living in Israel to understand and appreciate its contents regardless of one’s religious observance.
“I think we have the responsibility to read this text that was written 2,000 or 1,000 or 3,000 years ago and to understand most of what’s written there... I think we need to do all we can to generate public interest in the Bible.”
The array of human emotions displayed in the text that both Jews on the Right and the Left of the political spectrum can identify with should be a source of cohesion within the Jewish people, according to Shalev. “One needn’t be religious in order to grasp the ultimate message, the sociological and psychological messages...
[and] you don’t need to be on the right or the left to understand the politics,” he says.
His collection of essays on the Bible titled The Bible for Now, earned praise for portraying the biblical characters as humans made of flesh and blood, rather than righteous figures who must be revered.
Shalev, though, insists his approach is nothing new. “I didn’t bring forth any new idea here,” he says modestly. “I read the Bible in the same spirit in which it was written. The Bible itself presents its protagonists as humans made of flesh and blood. The Bible does not say of its men that they are holy and that includes Moses and King David. They all sinned and paid for their sins.”
“Even Abraham isn’t depicted in a way where he is without sin. He’s called a liar.
The Bible does not hide these things,” he continues emphatically. “The people who are trying to hide these aspects of the characters are interpreters over the years who censored the Bible and tried to alter the meaning of certain parts in it even though the text is quite clear.”
Shalev started his career as a satirist on television and radio, later moderating the popular Erev Shabbat Friday night television show, and launched his writing career at the age of 40 with his first novel, The Blue Mountain. He has since written eight other novels, six works of non-fiction and over a dozen children’s books. The recipient of the Bernstein Prize in 1989, and the Brenner Prize for his popular 2006 book A Pigeon and a Boy, he is scheduled to be one of 70 prominent thinkers from Israel and abroad who will meet in Jerusalem on October 20 and 21 for the Israel National Library’s inaugural Global Forum.