December 20, 2020

Shalem Lecturer Assaf Inbari Awarded Israel’s Highest Literary Honor

Shalem lecturer of Zionist thought and modern Hebrew literature Dr. Assaf Inbari.

On May 20, 1948, six days after David Ben-Gurion proclaimed a newly independent State of Israel in Tel Aviv, Syrian tanks rolled up to the gates of Kibbutz Degania, a small farming settlement just south of the Kinneret. Armed with less than a hundred fighters and even fewer guns to go around, the members of the staunchly socialist community determined to hold their border nonetheless. In an act of astonishing courage, a young survivor of the Bergen-Belsen camp, Shalom Hochbaum, ran to the front lines. From there, he hurled a Molotov cocktail, which rolled under the lead tank and exploded into flames.

Fearful of what lay ahead, the Syrians beat a hasty retreat. Behind them, they left the shell of the disabled tank, an eternal testimony to both the bravery of the founding generation—and the miracle of their state’s founding at the same time.

Or at least, that’s what Hochbaum would have had us believe.

Until his death in 1976, Hochbaum was the guide at the official Degania tank memorial, entrenching his version of events in the minds of generations of visiting schoolchildren, soldiers, and tourists alike. Yet unbeknownst to Israeli military historians, four other individuals, all of whom also fought in that fateful day’s battle for the Kinneret’s west bank, insist that it was in fact they who disabled the tank. Absent both a platform and an audience, however, their versions of events have largely gone untold. If not for an author who sought, not so much the story of the tank, but the story that the tank left in its wake, their role in the Battle of Degania would never have come to light.

Assaf Inbari, the celebrated novelist and lecturer of modern Hebrew literature and Zionist history at Shalem College, researched each of the five individuals’ life stories, as well as how they intersected with the larger narrative of their state, for his recent book The Tank. For this literary tour de force, as well as for his first novel, Home, Inbari was honored this past November with the 2020 Agnon Prize, considered the highest literary honor for Israeli novelists.

Calling his writing “a delicate craft, noted for its lyrical prose style, its intellectual and historical depth, and its inclusion of a multitude of perspectives,” the prize’s panel of judges praised Inbari for “combining literary achievement with a clear-eyed perspective on the central values of the Zionist ethos and themes in Israeli society.” Indeed, as Inbari is quick to point out, both The Tank and Home, the story of the kibbutz movement as told through the eyes of its original pioneers, are less history than literary warnings about the perils of forgetting it: In both books, the disillusionment of Israel’s founding generation—whether on account of the collapse of the socialist vision, as described in Home, or in the case of The Tank, the humiliation caused to the foundation generation by the Yom Kippur War—is a pointed critique of the distance Israeli society has travelled from its animating ideals.

It is therefore rather surprising—and to Inbari, encouraging—that both books have been embraced so thoroughly by Israel’s Right and Left alike. Home, for instance, was selected by a survey of tens of thousands of readers commissioned by the right-leaning newspaper Makor Rishon as “one of the 10 best Hebrew books of all time” in 2013; a similar reader survey commissioned by the left-leaning paper Haaretz crowned Home as number six among the top ten books “that every cultured person needs to read”—right after Kafka’s The Trial, at number five. Finally, The Tank was hailed by the late—and famously liberal—Israeli author Amoz Oz in 2018 as “a book unlike any other…actually, the only book of its kind.”

As to which side of the political spectrum his work rightfully belongs, Inbari is resolute: neither. His books, he explains, belong to all Israelis. The purpose of his work, he continues, is not to advance any ideology. Rather, he strives to spur a conversation: about the sense of purpose that once suffused the nation-building project, and which is sorely missing from Israeli culture—and the Israeli classroom—today.

Indeed, it was the opportunity to teach modern Hebrew literature and Zionist thought to the next generation of Israeli leaders that persuaded Inbari to make the trek from his own home in Kibbutz Degania to Shalem College each week. His course, which covers writings from Brenner to Ben-Gurion, and the myth-making of Masada to the poetry of Natan Altermann, is an opportunity for students to engage with their founding texts in depth, and to understand them as living, breathing works that can speak to them across the generations. Whether or not they agree with the ideas those texts contain, says Inbari, is not important. So long as students are encountering them, and encountering the historical and intellectual contexts in which the ideas took shape—he will have done his job.

Finally, as for which of the five individuals profiled in The Tank Inbari believes is the real hero, he laughs at the question. Knowing him, an answer like that was never forthcoming. When we get to the point, he says, where we’re asking not who won the day, but whether we ourselves would find the courage to do the same—then, he smiles, I’ll know my book has succeeded.

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