Reading Israel, Reading America
The Politics of Translation between Jews
Omri Asscher


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Translating across the Homeland–Diaspora Divide
chapter abstract

Laying out the historical background and theoretical premises of the study, this introductory chapter makes the case that the practice of translation may be paradigmatic for the study of homeland–diaspora relations. Translation is representative of transfer across language and geographical space, two of the mainstays of ethnonational collective identity, and two determinant factors of its textual production. This may be particularly true in the case of the cultural history of the Jewish homeland and American diaspora in the twentieth century. These two Jewish centers, whose communal identities have been separated from one another by a linguistic and geographical gap, nonetheless felt the need to maintain a connection with one another, and to bridge this gap, among other ways, through translation. The features of translation between homeland and diaspora are thus revealing of some of the underlying tensions between these two Jewish collectives.

1 The Zionist Transformation
chapter abstract

The book is divided into two parts, the first dedicated to the absorption of translated Hebrew literature into (Jewish) American culture, and the second to the reception of American Jewish works in Israel. Opening the first part of the book, this chapter describes, by comparing the earlier decades of the twentieth century with the 1950s, the ways in which Zionism transformed major aspects of the representation of Hebrew literature in America. It illustrates a turn from denationalization to overnationalization of Hebrew literature in American Jewish discourse, which reflected the growing Zionist zeitgeist in the US and contributed to it. As Jews felt increasingly at home in America, Hebrew literature, framed as an emblem of Israeli nationalism, served as both a resource for preserving their distinct Jewish identity and as a legitimate way to establish their full belonging to an American national identity.

2 Ethical Conundrums
chapter abstract

This chapter presents a dominant protective trend in the mediation of Hebrew literature for a Jewish American audience from the 1960s onwards. Alongside a tendency by American Jewish agents of Hebrew literature to attribute a self-critical, humanistic image to this literature, translated works by canonical authors such as Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, Yoram Kaniuk, and Aharon Megged were mediated to American readers in ways that, mostly suggestively or implicitly, limited and dulled the challenging traits that were celebrated as expressions of Israeli moral reflection. Such propagandistic principles were expressed in the choice of texts for translation, in selective interpretations in reviews, and in the manipulative translation of ideological aspects in the works themselves. Given that Israel was assigned a quasi-religious role as a mainstay of Jewish American identity, the humanistic image of Hebrew literature had to be bolstered, and unpalatable depictions of Israeli society obscured.

3 Israeli Jewishness for American Eyes
chapter abstract

This chapter argues that from the 1960s onwards, an attempt was made to mediate and adjust representations of Jewishness in novels by Israeli writers such as S. Y. Agnon, David Shahar, and Amnon Jackont that contradicted core values of Jewish American identity. Aspects of the negation of exile were obscured in translated works, and antagonistic representations of the non-Jewish world and the relationship between Jews and non-Jews were mollified. In terms of religion, the desirable boundaries of Judaism reflected by American discussions of translated works corresponded with the image of liberal American Jewry at the time. Together with the previous chapter, this chapter demonstrates that the appropriation of Hebrew literature in the United States can be seen as part of the cultivation of Jewish American identity, an identity in which conceptions of Israel fulfilled a central role during these years.

4 Jewish American Literature Makes Aliyah
chapter abstract

Opening the second part of the book, this chapter elaborates on the intrinsic ambivalence of Israeli literary discourse toward Jewish American authors and their works. On the one hand, there existed a tendency to particularize and "Judaize" universal aspects of works by Jewish American authors, and to take pride in their literary achievements, generally assuming a common destiny with American Jews and exhibiting an affinity with diaspora Jewish culture. On the other hand, the chapter points to a tendency in Israeli literary debates to (over)emphasize the difficulty of living as a Jew in a non-Jewish world, both from a spiritual-intellectual standpoint and a physical-social one, in a way that bulwarked the conception of Israeli sovereignty as the best and perhaps the only true solution for contemporary Jewish existence.

5 "Judaism in Translation"
chapter abstract

This chapter outlines the tradition of Israeli thought on Israel–diaspora translation. It contends that a primary trend in Israeli intellectual and public discourse on intra-Jewish translation is doubt regarding the "authenticity" of Jewish American literature and culture. This approach often drew, explicitly or implicitly, from the ideological conception that Jewish creation could not be expressed in any language other than Hebrew. On the basis of this notion, Israeli thinkers formulated a cultural hierarchy in the Jewish world that positioned cultural and literary life in Israel asmore authentically Jewish and thereforesuperior to that of American Jews.

Conclusion: Entangled Self-Perceptions
chapter abstract

This final chapter summarizes the role that translation processes between homeland and diaspora have played in formulating notions of identity in each community. It argues that the themes—Jewish morality and the Arab–Israeli conflict, cultural hierarchy in the Jewish world, and Jewish/non-Jewish difference—that took center stage in each literary discourse are not only at the heart of the cultural relations between the two communities; they also accentuate these communities' divergent, competing self-definitions as Jewish. The chapter further stresses that were it not for a basic assumption of affinity between the two communities, one would not find expressions of intense conflict and appropriation in the translation processes: each community would not pose a challenge to the other's self-perception if it were not deemed deeply relevant. This continuous friction attests to the productive yet strained interdependence of the two cultures' self-definition.