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Israeli prof. speaks to importance of literature for cultural empathy

Author Ronit Matalon says original languages preserve national identity.

Just over a week after Israel agreed to a cease-fire with Hamas, Israeli author Ronit Matalon spoke on the importance of narratives from minority communities such as immigrants as a counter to Israeli nationalism.

Matalon, a professor of literature at the University of Haifa, has written eight novels and received the Bernstein Prize for Hebrew literature for her 2008 novel The Sound of Our Steps, a novel about immigrants in Israel based largely on her own experience.

Half Jewish and half Egyptian, Matalon spent her childhood frequently moving with her family between Israel, Western Europe, and Cairo. Rather than disrupting her sense of identity, Matalon prized this destabilizing experience for giving her a hybrid national identity that led to her “double awareness” of marginalized groups within Israel.

Matalon’s knowledge of both Hebrew and Arabic heightened her sensitivity to “the others” in Israeli society, namely immigrants. As a writer, she said that she was bound “by the limitations of the other, in whose territory imagination takes place.”

In her own writing, Matalon said that she tries to keep phrases in the original foreign languages of her characters to preserve the barriers that language constitutes for immigrants.

“Otherwise, it would not be honest,” she said. “You are the language you speak.”

“Imagining the other who is not me is the essence of political identity…a withdrawing, an inner emigration, is necessary to understand the familiar,” she said.

She described her own writing as “Examining the ‘there’ of immigrant communities to better grasp the ‘here’ of Israel.”

Particularly in light of a history of Israeli-Arab conflict, she has come to understand her identity as inherently conflicted.

“Identity is never total…it always carries the potential for change. This totally contradicts the Zionist idea of ‘one national Jewish identity,’ which expels anything Arab,” she said.

“I know one home of power, a fortress,” she said, referring to Israeli national identity. “But I prefer a home as a process.”

Matalon regretted that the forced assimilation that has occurred under Israeli nationalism has not allowed clear immigrant identities to crystallize.

She called out mistreatment of Palestinian refugees as outsiders as “a denial of Israel’s own former refugee status” as a young nation. “Israeli nationalists have erased this memory,” she said.

Navigating this identity, Matalon preferred literature to politics and confrontation. “The truth lies between history and invention, between fact and non-fact,” she said. “Only literature is delicate enough to occupy the space in between.”

The talk was the fourth annual Horvitz lecture and was sponsored by the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies.