Israel Prize winner S. Yizhar dies at 89

A prolific career spanning more than half a century included an array of awards, as well as controversy surrounding the writer's critical take on the War of Independence.

s yizhar 88 298 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
s yizhar 88 298
(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)
Prominent Israeli writer Yizhar Smilansky, whose controversial works on the 1948 War of Independence sparked internal debate and soul-searching in the early days of the State, died Monday of heart failure. He was 89. A literary giant and Israel Prize winner whose prolific career spanned over half a century, Yizhar, commonly known by his pen name, S. Yizhar, was born September 27, 1916, in Rehovot to a family of Russian immigrant writers. During his youth, he attended The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and taught briefly at schools in Yavniel, Ben Shemen and Rehovot. He fought in 1948's War of Independence, serving as an officer in the intelligence unit of the military. One year later, he was elected to the first Knesset in Mapai, the party of founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and went on to serve in the Knesset for nearly two decades, until 1967. His pen name was given to him by the poet and editor Yitzhak Lamdan, who in 1938 published Yizhar's first story, Ephraim Goes Back to Alfalfa, in literary journal Galleons. From then on, Yizhar signed his works with his pen name. A great innovator in modern Hebrew literature, Yizhar's writing - which drew upon the works of Uri Nissan Gnessin - characteristically combined rich literary prose and street slang. Yizhar's writing is set primarily in the days before and immediately after the establishment of the State, and reflects on the Zionist experience of settling the land. After the publication of his first novella in 1938, Yizhar published numerous other novels, works which solidified his status as one of the foremost Israeli-born writers even as they generated unprecedented controversy. His first collection of short stories, Hachorsha Bagivah ("The Wood on the Hill"), was published in 1947 and won the Ruppin Prize for literature the next year. Towards the end of Israel's 1948 Independence War, Yizhar published Hashavuy ("The Captive"), which stirred controversy by bringing to light the fate of the Palestinians in Israel's War of Independence. In a controversial subsequent collection of stories, 1949's Hirvat Hizaa, Yizhar gave a wrenching account of Israeli soldiers who took part in expelling Arabs from the Galilee. His most widely known work, Yemey Ziklag ("Days of Ziklag"), was published in 1958 in two volumes containing over 1,000 pages. The novel, a war epic, tells of a week-long attempt by soldiers during the War of Independence to take an enemy stronghold in the Negev, during which time personal anguish and individual desires challenge the army mentality imposed upon on the group. Invariably, Yizhar's protagonists become paralyzed, unable to act as they feel they should, and find themselves yielding to convention and expectation. In the clash between moral individualism and collective authority, it is always the latter that dominates in his novels. After Yemey Ziklag's publication, Yizhar received the prestigious Israel Prize in Literature at age 43, becoming the youngest recipient of the prize at the time. "Yizhar was first and foremost one of the greatest Hebrew writers of all time," said the prominent author A.B. Yehoshua. "He had a linguistic orchestra with varied and diverse tools which could give detailed and suggestive descriptions of nature, of internal feelings during war-time, of voices and of emotion." "Whoever picks up a page of Yizhar's text is immediately inside a world of nature, and of the internal feelings of battle," Yehoshua said. In the years that followed his Israel Prize, Yizhar did not write fiction, concentrating instead on op-ed articles and books about literature and education. But his early works maintained their ability to inflame national sensitivies, with controversy flaring in the Eighties after the public learned of plans by state television to produce a miniseries based on Hirvat Hizaa with public funds. A legal challenge failed against the production failed and the series ultimately aired on Israeli TV. In the Nineties, Yizhar broke his literary silence and returned to the world of fiction, publishing six books that won him an array of prizes and honorary degrees. He served as a professor of literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem until his retirement, and continued to lecture regularly at Levinsky College in Tel Aviv into the late 1990s. In 2002, he received an Emet Prize, a $1 million honor funded by a South American Jewish organization and presented to him by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "For many years Yizhar turned the new Israel into the intellectual homeland of the nation of Israel. There was none like him - [he was] profound in vision and expressive," his friend Vice Premier Shimon Peres said in a statement. "He made Hebrew at once a celebration and a challenge. He saw the depth of things and was a part of them. Since Yizhar, Hebrew literature hasn't been what it was. He created a style, not just literature. He was involved in the true decisions of the nation, loved the nation, its sons, its army and peace. Yizhar gave Hebrew literature a taste that will never dissipate." Yizhar is survived by his wife and three children and will be buried Tuesday at 6 p.m. in Gderot.