In This Article Israeli Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Background
  • Literature and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  • Israeli-Yiddish Literature
  • Israeli-English Literature
  • Israeli Literature in Other Languages

Jewish Studies Israeli Literature
by
Shai Ginsburg
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0130

Introduction

The question of what constitutes “Israeli literature” is not only a literary or cultural question, but a political one as well. Israel was established as a Jewish state, and, consequently, state ideology has privileged, and still does, Hebrew—the language most closely associated with Zionist nationalism—as the language of culture. Literature in languages other than Hebrew has been often regarded as calling into question the fundamental ethos of the state. As the primary language of the Jewish majority in Israel, Hebrew is indeed the predominant literary language in Israel. Nevertheless, fiction and poetry in Israel are also written, published, and read in many other languages: Arabic, Russian, Yiddish, Polish, Rumanian, English, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, French, Dutch, Ladino, and Amharic, among others. In particular, Palestinian literature in Arabic, and even more so in Hebrew, has been perceived as a challenge to the state and its Jewish national ethos. The ongoing national conflict between Jews and Palestinians means that any decision as to the status of Palestinian literature in Israel entails a decision about who and what is Israeli, a question highly contested both within Israel and outside it. Consequently, the discussion of Palestinian literature is key to the very definition of Israeli literature. The term “Israeli literature” itself is not commonly used in scholarship, and to the extent that it is used, it is more current in non-Hebrew scholarship. With few exceptions, such scholarship conflates Israeli literature and Hebrew prose fiction and poetry from the late 1940s onward, thus eliding the complex literary reality in Israel. Symptomatic to this state of affairs is that, to date, there is no general survey of Israeli literature that accounts for its plurality of languages and cultures. Whereas Israeli-Hebrew literature has attracted considerable scholarly attention, much less has been written on Israeli literature in other languages, and in many cases there is preciously little or no scholarship whatsoever. In fact, no authoritative historical or thematic survey of any of the literary traditions in Israel other than Hebrew is currently available. Even with regard to Israeli-Hebrew literature, extant scholarship does not address its entire spectrum, and major phenomena, movements, and figures remain uncharted. To address these political, bibliographic, and methodological considerations, this article underscores the plurality of literary production and consumption in Israel to the extent possible by existing scholarship. Alongside Israeli-Hebrew literature, special attention is given to Palestinian Israeli literature, as well as to Israeli literature in Russian and German, about which there is more scholarship, as key to the very notion of “Israeli literature.”

General Background

Language practices and policies have been central the Zionist endeavor in Palestine and to the State of Israel and, in turn, have informed literary practices and production. Any student of Israeli literature should therefore acquaint herself with the history of the divergent languages in Israel. Spolsky and Shohamy 1999 surveys the languages spoken in Israel, at least thirty-two according to a mid-1990s study. Statistical data on books published in Israel in different languages are released annually on the National Library of Israel’s Legal Deposit Department web page.

  • Legal Deposit Department. National Library of Israel.

    E-mail Citation »

    The National Library receives legal deposits of any book published in Israel, irrespective of language. The library produces periodical lists of new Israeli publications and an annual statistical reports of books published in Israel.

  • Spolsky, Bernard, and Elana Shohamy. The Languages of Israel: Policy, Ideology, and Practice. Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 17. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    A useful and clear survey of the question of language in Israel. The authors put into relief the tensions between the hegemony of Hebrew, on the one hand, and social multilingualism and individual multilingualism, on the other, and they sketch the local histories of the divergent languages spoken in Israel.

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