S. Yizhar

Israeli novelist/politician
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The Independent Online

Yizhar Smilansky (S. Yizhar), writer, politician and Hebrew scholar: born Rehovot, Palestine 27 September 1916; Professor of Education, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1969-84; Professor of Hebrew Literature, Tel Aviv University 1982-2006; married (two sons, one daughter); died Meishar, Israel 21 August 2006.

The Israeli novelist S. Yizhar was distinguished among his generation of Palestine-born writers, whose main formative experience was the 1948 war known in Israel as the "War of Independence" and by Palestinians as the "Nakba" (the Catastrophe). The author of a number of stories and novels about the conflict, he was one of the first to raise a voice against Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

Born Yizhar Smilansky, he hailed from a literary family of Russian immigrants; his father, Ze'ev Smilansky, and his uncle Moshe Smilansky, especially, were well-known writers. The cultural-political circle to which they belonged shared a taste for keen Zionism combined with a somewhat romantic attitude towards the Arabs.

Yizhar was close to David Ben-Gurion and his ardent "activist" (i.e., aggressive) attitude towards the Israeli-Arab conflict. He joined Ben-Gurion's Mapai Labour party, who were keen to have artists and literary figures represented in parliament, and he served as a member of the Knesset from its founding until 1967.

He was not a very successful parliamentarian and was absent for much of the time, including a whole year spent studying in the United States while an elected and fully paid member of the house. Yet his occasional contributions about nature and conservation were memorable for their poetic language and engaging content. He also supported Israeli belligerence in excited speeches before the 1956 attack on Egypt, and was enthusiastic about Israel's nuclear armament.

At the same time, his writings on the 1948 war, in which he had served as an intelligence officer, were highly critical of Israeli army conduct and the destruction of Palestinian villages. He published the stories "Ha-Shavui" ("The Captive") and "Sipur Hirbet Hiz'ah" ("The Story of Hirbet Hizah") in 1949, and the epic novel Yemei Ziklag ("Days of Ziklag") in 1958. Honest, fabulously written, critical, heartfelt and influential as his writings were, they also contributed to one of Israel's most prevailing cultural, political and psychological trends, that of "shooting and weeping".

This line kept him for many years as a mainstream figure at the same time popular with the left and the intelligentsia for his incisive criticism and beautiful prose. In 1959, he won the Israel Prize at the age of 43, one of the youngest recipients of the prize.

After a few years of intensive and fruitful writing, Yizhar started concentrating on his academic work, and did not produce any fiction for 30 years, until the well-received publication of Mikdamot ("Foretellings") in 1992. In his years of literary silence he was a popular professor of education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and later professor of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University. He contributed comments and articles on literature, politics and society to the Israeli dailies, mainly Haaretz.

In 2003 Yizhar joined a group of other writers who appealed to the Israeli High Court of Justice in an attempt to stop Israel's "targeted assassination" policy, following the assassination of the Hamas activist Salach Shade in Gaza which caused the deaths of 14 Palestinian civilians, including 10 children. The politician Zvi Hendel, a notorious settler and deputy minister of education at the time, called for the exclusion of Yizhar and his ilk "who poison the souls of the children of Israel with their support for the enemy" from the school curricula. Yizhar's writings, regardless, are still predominant in every high-school literature programme in the country.

In recent years Yizhar often commented on Israel's obsession with talk shows and reality television. In one of his last articles he called on anybody who is asked to appear on TV to avoid it at all costs:

Oh people, don't go on television! They invite you only to shut you up; they'll delete you before you get a chance to say a word; they forget you before you even started. They'll promise a taxi there and back, they'll plead with you and flatter your experience and wisdom, but when you sit there with your makeup on, ready to talk, they'll be fed up with you before they've even heard you.

Daphna Baram

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