Interview: Oz Shelach

Picnic Grounds

Writer Oz Shelach has spent much of his life trying to make sense of his native land. Born in West Jerusalem in 1968, Shelach followed the prescribed route from school to military service, then became disenchanted when the first Intifada broke out during his time in the army. Working as a journalist and editor for Israeli army radio at the time, he was involved in “editing problematic material, and sometimes airing lies”—an experience which, along with many others, informs his recently-released first work of fiction, Picnic Grounds.

Picnic Grounds is described as “a novel in fragments”—which, together, form a mosaic of contemporary Israel seen from the view of a jaded-but-nostalgic exile. Shelach’s own disillusionment has kept him away from his country for the past four years. In addition to writing fiction, he maintains a Web site, oznik.com, which keeps a count of Israeli “refuseniks”—both conscientious objectors and those who have refused to serve with the Israeli Defense Forces in the Occupied Territories. Shelach recently spoke to World Press Review about the site, his novel, and his view of current politics in the Middle East.

When and why did you leave Israel?
I moved out in the spring of 1998—those were Netanyahu days, and I felt suffocated. I wanted to get out, and I knew I wanted to try writing in a language other than Hebrew. I thought studying and living in an English-speaking environment would be conducive to that.

Why did you make the decision to start writing in English?
Well, one could say “because it’s there.” It’s the global language, right? So why not? I wanted to reach out to readers who do not necessarily read Hebrew. Also, modern Hebrew was created to serve a national project. It has a built-in ideology that I’m not comfortable with. A friend of mine is now setting up an exhibit in Tel Aviv that shows how the word “home,” for example, does not exist in Hebrew anymore, not in and of itself. It can only be understood on the basis of national interpretation: a Jewish home, a Palestinian home. A structure to be constructed, a structure to be demolished. I wanted to remove myself from that.

Your book, Picnic Grounds, is called “a novel in fragments.” Is its fragmented structure intended to reflect something about Israeli society?
I can’t say that one structure reflects Israeli society better than another, but the fragmented structure reflects my own experience. I tried to connect everything more tightly and to have connecting characters and bind it all in one plot, but that just wasn’t how I thought or told myself the story. Then I ran into a book by an Austrian writer called Thomas Bernard, The Voice Impersonator, which is a collection of short shorts that can also be read as a novel or as prose poems. And I thought, ah, I can write like this, that’s very helpful. So I started collecting fragments and writing the novel that way.

One theme that runs throughout the book is the desire to deny unpleasant issues: We see this in stories about a professor taking his family to picnic at the site of a former Palestinian village, or in one where a bar owner turns up the music in his bar to drown out the sounds of interrogations from the military building opposite. Is denial embedded in Israeli culture?
I think denial is built into the national culture, yes. Let me illustrate this with an example: My cousin’s husband published a guidebook in Hebrew called Fun Family Tours, which is basically an outdoors tour guide with additional games to play with the kids in the car. He took many of the pictures himself, and they’re striking—there’s so much rubble, so many structures that used to be people’s homes, and traces of their agriculture. Of course these are all indigenous Palestinian traces, but they’re described variously as “an abandoned orchard,” “a deserted village,” or “ancient structures.” The people who used to live there are sometimes two miles away in a refugee camp, but they’re invisible.

For me, going with my parents on picnics to places like that, and later getting to know refugees from those same villages, hearing their stories, was an eye-opening experience, it was like a blind spot that I could finally see. And I think that a lot of us in Israel would rather not see it.

Still, the criticisms of Israel in Picnic Grounds coexist with a certain affection for this difficult land and its people. So I wanted to ask you, what do you love most about Israel?
That’s very hard to say. I talked to a friend of mine who moved from Jerusalem to Los Angeles shortly after I moved, and he said that at first there was this big sense of freedom, but afterwards, especially after Sept. 11, 2001, the United States is becoming too much like home—full of nationalism and hatred for Arabs. We ended up agreeing that we miss something that doesn’t exist, that maybe never existed. I miss where I grew up, I miss my own naiveté, I miss being able to feel at peace.

On your Web site you maintain a count of soldiers who’ve refused to serve, either in the Occupied Territories or in the Israeli Defense Forces. Can you tell me about that?
I set it up in the fall of 2000 to report on actions I was organizing with friends in New York, and to distribute information that’s suppressed by the Israeli press, which is really what feeds mainstream American press about Israel.

Did you do military service?
I did. I feel a little stupid about it. I was aware that I had a choice, even though conscientious objection wasn’t in the news then as it is today. But I made a conscious choice, based on a fear of stepping outside of society. Israeli society is so bonded around military service. It was 1986; the first Intifada broke out in the middle of my service. I was a reporter and editor for Israeli military radio, which is one of the most popular radio channels in Israel. That was a strange experience. One was aware of editing problematic material, and sometimes airing lies—and of course, anything to do with the army had to be approved by the army spokesperson’s office. But listeners aren’t necessarily aware of that.

You have a piece in Picnic Grounds, “Suspects,” that takes place in an army radio station: You make fun of the way the army attempts to cover itself in cases of misidentification, by using phrases such as “local inhabitants suspected of being wanted.” The editors at the radio station spoof that by talking about “men suspected of being apparently local.” Is that directly based on your experience?
Everything in the book is true, but it’s a fictional truth. The book isn’t a documentary or memoir, but I feel it’s nice when people ask, Is it really like that? Is it true? The answer is sometimes “Yes,” and sometimes “Just about,” and sometimes, “Not this incident, but there are so many ‘real’ ones like it.”

You’ve also posted a petition on your Web site signed by artists all over the world that calls for a boycott of Israeli art institutions, similar to the somewhat controversial academic boycott started by two British professors. What can such boycotts achieve?
I think it’s important to avoid complacency. This appeal, which a group of us wrote together in New York and in Ramallah in April 2002, wasn’t meant to be used as dogma. I think artists who travel to Palestine and Israel can find their own way to see what is really going on and relate to it. But to entertain one side of the apartheid, or to show work in the Israel Museum, which is part of the state apparatus, and which, because of its location, is inaccessible to Palestinians—that’s highly problematic. Artists of conscience shouldn’t legitimize the coziness of museums and museum-goers. Someone visiting the Israel Museum these days must be aware that they are buying a ticket to a pride piece funded by, and serving the occupation regime.

The politics you’re expressing seem to be increasingly a minority view in Israel, particularly among the young. In the last election, only 1 percent of young people voted for the Labor party, whereas we read a lot about radical right-wing youth movements emerging in Israel. How do you account for this shift to the right among the young, who are traditionally left-leaning?
Actually, I don’t know that the young are traditionally left-leaning. Historically, wherever fascism has arisen, there were masses of youth that followed it. That’s what’s happening in Israel these days. And can the Labor Party be considered as left-wing when it has taken an active part in the atrocities of the last two years, when it occupied the West Bank and Gaza and the Golan Heights in 1967, when it implemented the expulsion of the majority of the population of Palestine-Israel in 1947-48 and established Israel as a state with internal oppression against Arab Jews? If that can be considered “left,” then yes, the left has been weakened. You could say that the elections and the last two years exposed the nationalist and racist biases of bodies like the Labor party, and evidently, people understand that if they want warmongering, the Likud can deliver better merchandise.

But that still doesn’t explain why young people wouldn’t embrace alternative left-wing movements.
It’s very hard to see hope now, not just for the Israeli left, which is not the important thing here, but for Israel and Palestine, and Israelis and Palestinians. One statistic I saw said that of Jews in Israel in the age bracket between 20 and 30, 15 percent see themselves living elsewhere in the next 10 years. It’s not a time when it’s easy to imagine something viable emerging, and it seems like the world superpower is not interested in that.

On the other hand, there’s a burgeoning movement of young people building illegal hilltop settlements, who see themselves as part of a sacred mission and who seem prepared to lay down their lives for the cause.
Presenting the settlers just as religious zealots is something the so-called peace camp in Israel finds easy to do, but perhaps what they’re doing is not so radically different from what the Labor movement was doing in the 1940s and '50s, and after 1967. I’m sure there’s a lot of joy in discovering new terrain and appropriating it, especially if you’re racist enough not to see that the people who own it are human, which is what a lot of settlers don’t see, and what a lot of Israeli ethos is based on.

So in an ideal world, what would you like to see happen with the peace process?
I think we have to learn from the South African model. I hope Israel will be democratized. I don’t see that happening any time soon. Nor do I see it happening any time soon in neighboring countries in the Arab world, where the movement for democracy is harshly oppressed by local elites funded by the West. Right now there are thousands of political prisoners in Jordan, Syria, and Israel. In Israel there are about 2,000 Palestinians who’ve been detained without trial, and a few refuseniks imprisoned on the Jewish side. And of course, there’s Mordecai Va’anunu, who exposed Israel’s nuke factory in the south, and its huge nuclear arsenal [In 1986, Va’anunu, an employee at the Dimona Nuclear Power Plant, gave evidence to the London Sunday Times that Israel had developed a sophisticated nuclear-weapons program—WPR]. He’s been in prison for 17 years now.

Are you saying that Israel isn’t a democracy?
Right now, Israel has been described many times as an ethnic democracy, a democracy for Jews. I guess that’s not democratic enough in my understanding.

Does anything give you hope that one day Israelis and Palestinians could live peacefully side by side?
In my experience, Palestinians and Israelis can exist side by side and be friends; that’s a truism. I think the challenge is to acknowledge the power relations and try to work from there. I think the most important thing is to hear this voice that is entirely absent from discussions of Israel and Palestine, and that’s the voice of Palestinian refugees. Not the Palestinian Authority, not Israeli historians—just refugees. They must have a say in how the refugee problem is resolved. I felt, in writing the book, that I needed to relate to the plight of the refugees on the one hand, and on the other hand that it was not for me to tell that story. It needs to be told firsthand; I can’t allow myself as an Israeli to appropriate refugee narratives and reprocess them. So I tried not to do that. But the absence of that voice is something that runs throughout, in Israeli culture, and this book.

What’s next for you?
My girlfriend wants to move to Europe, where she’s from. It seems I’ll be following her. It’s a big thing to move into Francophonia, having already uprooted from one language. A friend has warned me, “There has to be a limit to promiscuity; please don’t turn into a French novelist.” I’ll try not to be too promiscuous.