Women in Israel today exist on the periphery. Their marginalization is both actual and imagined. It is a fact of real life, and of reflected life as portrayed in contemporary literature. So maintains Israeli literary scholar Esther Fuchs, author of the recently published study Israeli Mythogynies: Women in Contemporary Israeli Fiction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987). Mythogynies, a term coined by Fuchs, is an obvious play on the word misogyny.
Women in male-authored Hebrew fiction, she maintains, are generally either completely marginal, or they are destructive. And even when women are portrayed in a positive sense, as in the works of women, these writings are trivialized and almost never published outside of Israel.
Fuchs, associate professor of Hebrew language and literature in the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, is also the author of Encounters with Israeli Authors (Marblehead, MA: Micha Publications, 1982), two critical volumes in Hebrew on S. Y. Agnon, and No License to Die (1983, in Hebrew), a book of poetry and short pieces inspired by her experience as the child of Holocaust survivors. A feminist critique of the Bible by Fuchs, Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative, will be published next year. In the past few years, however, her research has dealt with women in modern Hebrew fiction.
Beginning with the literature of the “Palmach generation,” those who fought in the 1940s for Israeli statehood, “one mostly sees marginal, highly stereotypical female characters,” states Fuchs. “Women are generally associated with home and domestic life, their roles defined in terms of their relationship with a male protagonist.”
The female characters in novels that typify the period are romanticized, idolized and, inevitably, trivialized, Fuchs claims. Examples of authors whose works include such portrayals are Yizhar Smilansky (S. Yizhar), Nathan Shacham, Yigal Mossinsohn, and Moshe Shamir.
This trend continued into the literature of the late 1950s and the 1960s. “Women characters do begin to get more attention, to become more central, but they are also more negative. Women are insane or even retarded, promiscuous and dangerous,” Fuchs states.
Woman, in this later fiction, comes to be seen as the “other,” the enemy who drains and deceives. Fuchs points to the fiction of Amos Oz, possibly one of the most popular authors wilting in Hebrew today. In My Michael (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), Hana Gonen, the female protagonist, becomes mentally ill, and “fantasizes about orgies with Palestinian terrorists,” according to Fuchs.
In the literature of the 60s and later, there is an increasing tendency to portray male-female relationships as “an ugly destructive power struggle that leads to atrophy and death. The female character, who was formerly symbolic of peacefulness and security, turns into a pernicious predator,” Fuchs maintains.
Most telling of this phenomenon is the portrayal of female characters within a military or war context. A. B. Yehoshua’s protagonist in “Missile Base 612” (from Early in the Summer of 1970, Garden City NY: Doubleday & Co., 1977), “leaves his continually sleeping wife, with whom he has long lost contact, and sets out for a missile base in the Sinai, only to run into a gigantic grotesque woman soldier who inspires him with fear and repulsion,” Fuchs recounts.
Another popular author Aharon Appelfeld, whose stories take place in wartime Europe, portrays women as afflicted with insanity and mental retardation. “The men are also insane,” comments Fuchs, “but their insanity is somehow redeemable.”
Not surprisingly, one finds far more sensitive portrayals of women in contemporary Israeli fiction written by female authors. In the novels of Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Ruth Almog and Shulamit Har-Even, women characters live meaningful lives independent of male heroes. In Under One Roof (1966, in Hebrew) by Kahana-Carmon, whom Fuchs considers a major writer in contemporary Hebrew letters, the female protagonist is a woman who suffers because she finds herself on the periphery.
In Almog’s The Stranger and the Enemy (1980, in Hebrew), a woman journeys outside of the country in an attempt to find herself. Loneliness (1980, in Hebrew) is a moving collection of short stories by Har-Even, which offer searching portrayals of women in social isolation.
Netiva Ben-Yehuda’s fictionalized memories’s of a woman fighter during the 1948 War of Independence, between the Calendars (1981, in Hebrew) and Through the Binding Ropes (1985, in Hebrew), present a positive image of women fighters.
Even within Israel’s small literary society, women feel they are being ignored or not taken seriously as authors. Kahana-Carmon is Fuchs’ prime example of a talented female Israeli author whose work has yet to be as widely translated or recognized as those of her male counterparts. Yael Dayan, a popular writer whose work has been translated, never received critical acclaim, Fuchs maintains.
“The story of the Israeli woman as a ‘liberated’ woman,” concludes Fuchs, “has not yet been authentically told in Hebrew narrative fiction.”
Patricia Golan is an Israeli journalist temporarily living in Tucson, Arizona.