Meir Shalev and Yehonatan Geffen were Israeli cultural royalty. Their deaths leave a hole on the left.

by | May 18, 2023 | Obituaries

(JTA) — Over the last few months, since the far-right government announced its plans for an overarching constitutional overhaul, Israel’s embattled liberal camp has experienced a renaissance. Unprecedented mobilization on the part of protesting masses, business leaders, and the IDF vanguard has left the government in disarray and, in the wake of a seemingly endless string of electoral defeats, invigorated the left to an extent that it had not seen since the 1990s. The left may be dead, but it is not quite buried yet.

But amid this process of rejuvenation and weeks before Israel celebrated its 75th anniversary, the Israeli left experienced two symbolic blows in ironic proximity when two cultural titans died within days of each other.

Meir Shalev, an eminent novelist, and Yehonatan Geffen, an incredibly prolific journalist, author and songwriter, were also prominent public intellectuals. Both had spent decades dabbling in current affairs as columnists for the mass-circulation dailies Yedioth Aharonoth and Maariv, respectively.

Shalev was 74 when he died on April 11. Geffen, who died on April 19, was 76.

The symbolism did not stop at their premature and almost simultaneous passing. It was, rather, the final chapter of two lives that also began in great proximity: Shalev and Geffen were born a little over a year apart in the agricultural community of Nahalal, the Camelot of the Labor Zionism movement. Both were descendants of Zionist aristocracy: Shalev’s father was the Jerusalemite author and educator Yithzak Shalev, and Geffen’s maternal uncle the legendary general-turned-politician Moshe Dayan. Like many of their cohort, they were groomed for the driving seat of the newborn State of Israel.

Their formidable life’s work, thus, was largely an ongoing attempt to deal with the burden bestowed upon them by their pedigrees. And this is where they differ, despite the eerie similarities in their biographies.

Many of Shalev’s novels, especially the earlier ones, were loving tributes to his lineage. They included A Pigeon and A Boy, which is set during the War of Independence and won the National Jewish Book Award in 2006, and The Blue Mountain, set on a moshav (an agricultural cooperative) shortly before the founding of Israel. Though never overly sentimental and always strewn with a heavy dose of irony, Shalev’s writings were adoring accounts of a bygone generation, complete with their shtick and quirks and foibles.

But while Shalev looked up to his parents’ generation, Geffen blew a raspberry in their faces. He was part of a tight cohort of musicians and artists who grew up in Israel post-independence — a tribe that included David Broza, Arik Einstein, Gidi Gov, Shalom Hanoch and Yehudit Ravitz, all household names in Israel. Geffen’s song Could It Be Over?, featured on Arik Einstein’s 1973 album sporting the deliberately ironic title Good Old Israel, exemplifies the challenging relationship. From the opening line (“They say it was fun before I was born, and everything was just splendid until I arrived”), the song is a mischievous and self-deprecating take on Israel’s founding myths. Enumerating them one by one — the draining of the swamps, the heroic battles for Jewish sovereignty, the nascent Hebrew culture in the pre-state Yishuv — Geffen sarcastically concludes: “They had a reason to get up in the morning.”

More broadly, Geffen was bent on smashing every aspect of the Zionist ethos. In defiance of the image of the Hebrew warrior, of which his uncle Moshe was the poster boy, Geffen was an adamant pacifist as well as, famously, a very bad soldier himself.

Geffen’s counterculture instincts were informed by his great American heroes — notably the Jewish iconoclasts Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce — and this admiration was a jab at his upbringing, characterized by vain parochialism masquerading as self-sufficiency. Geffen felt more at home in New York (where he spent several years) and Tel Aviv than in the fields of the Jezreel Valley; his tools were not a sickle and a plow, but rather a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky.

Shalev, in his political writing, also advocated for left-of-center politics that is sometimes derisively described as “Ashkenazi”: moderate, civil, Western in its orientation, calling to rally around a common good — a type of political discourse that, as recent events show, speaks to fewer and fewer Israelis. “The Israeli public is moving more and more to the right. The war in 1967 may have destroyed Israel,” he told an interviewer in 2017.

Shalev and Geffen were representatives of two distinct streams within the traditionally fragmented Israeli left; the very same left that, despite the current resurgence, seems too often to have more streams than members.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

-Gilad Halpern