Hassliebe in the Middle East

The “Canaanite” movement was guided by the belief that the ancestors of the Hebrews and Arabs formed an ancient community of peoples that needed to be revived in the 20th century as an alternative to the Zionist project.

Already in the 1980s, the novel was on everyone’s lips in the West. The famous English writer Graham Greene considered it the best book of the year 1981 in England. But the first Polish edition didn’t appear until 2011. Today, in the context of the dramatic events in the Middle East, “Minotaur” by Benjamin Tammuz is gaining in relevance.

For one of its main threads is the meandering of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. And the term that best characterises these relations is the German word “Hassliebe” (which can be translated as “love-hatred”), or at least that's what one concludes after reading the novel.

Love affair of a spy

Minotaur is first and foremost a novel of manners and psychology. Its protagonist is Alexander Abramov – a Mossad agent and a sublime intellectual who plays the cello. Anyway, music (as well as literature) dominates his imagination. For him, it’s a key to understanding reality.

Alexander’s homeland is Palestine. That’s where his parents settle down in the early 1920: a Jewish entrepreneur from the Russian Empire (now Ukraine) and a Swiss aristocrat. Two decades later their son takes part in the Israeli War of Independence.

Everything in Alexander’s life seems to be arranged. Privately he is a husband to his wife and a father to his children. Professionally, he is a spy, perfectly fulfilling the tasks entrusted to him by the state he serves. But there comes a turning point for Alexander. On his 41st birthday, during a stay in London, he spots a woman (a girl, to be precise, as she is about 17 at the time), with whom he falls in love. He begins a long relationship with her, but only as a penfriend. He doesn’t reveal to his muse who he is. At the same time he spies on her and even interferes in her life (with disastrous results), taking advantage of the opportunities this profession offers him. But he cannot become involved with her on the account of the complications that could ensue.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Here we come to the weakness that characterises Alexander. It is succinctly described by his teenage friend, Nachman. When they are both adults, they establish cooperation. Nachman is an adviser to the Israeli Minister of Defence. After reading Alexander’s file, he notes that while the attached profile is generally correct, the psychologists who examined him didn’t notice one important characteristic – “melancholy, tendency to give up on life, flirtation with death”.
The book was published by “ Wydawnictwo Claroscuro”
This remark by Nachman is a clue to the title of Tammuz’s book. In a sense Alexander finds himself in the creature of Minotaur. Of course he is not a monster, as depicted in the Greek mythology. The man with the bull’s head is merely an allegory. And only in this sense is Alexander something of a hybrid. He is endowed with physical strength, which he sometimes uses brutally (murdering a Beduin), and great sensitivity. This dichotomy leads him to the abyss…

Alter ego of the author?

Is Alexander Abramov an alter ego of the author of “Mintoaur” Such a question is not pointless but let it remain unanswered.

Benjamin Tammuz was born in 1919 in Kharkiv under the name Kamerstein (Kamersztej). His parents emigrated with him to Palestine when he was five. He was educated in descent Hebrew schools. During WWII he was a member of the Palmach Storm Units fighting alongside British troops against the Germans in the Middle East. Subsequently, he participated as a reporter in the 1948 war, which led to the creation of the State of Israel. Tammuz studied law and economics at the University of Tel Aviv, and then – art history at the Sorbonne in Paris. In addition to writing, he was interested in sculpture.

He made a career as a publicist and editor. He was associated with the oldest Hebrew daily “Haaretz” (with which he founded a children’s newspaper “Haaretz Shelanu”). From 1971 to 1975 he lived in London, where he held the post of cultural counsellor at the of the Israeli Embassy in Great Britain. In turn, between 1979 and 1989 he was a writer, resident at Oxford University. He died in Tel-Aviv in 1989.

As a young man, he was briefly involved with the Communist Party active in Palestine. He then joined the so-called Canaanite movement, from which he later distanced himself or simply broke away.

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The “Canaanites” were a Jewish community in Palestine – active in the field of politics and culture in the period when the foundations of Israeli statehood were being formed. They promoted the concept of a Jewish nation – or rather a Hebrew nation – as the heir to the peoples inhabiting the biblical land of Canaan. In this environment, there were opinions that it was a much larger geographical space. A belt of lands in the Middle East called the Fertile Crescent was indicated, which even included the area of ancient Mesopotamia.

The “Canaanite” movement based on the principle that who was a Jew was determined by territorial affiliation, not religious or ideological identity. Diaspora Jews were therefore considered a deracinated foreign body. Judaism and Zionism were treated similarly.

While in the case of Zionism the matter seems clear – this ideology was born in Europe in the 19th century – this approach to Judaism may be surprising. After all, it is a religion that has Middle Eastern origins.

Yes, but in 70 A.D., something groundbreaking happened in world history: the troops of the Roman Empire, suppressing the Jewish revolt, destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Thus, Jewish temple worship ended. The priests were replaced by rabbis. The Jews went out into the world. While abroad, their religion underwent changes that made it completely different from the Mosaic faith professed before the destruction of the Second Temple.

Unlike the Zionists – who were striving to repatriate Jews from the diaspora – the “Canaanite” movement opted for the integration of the Hebrew population of Palestine with… the Arabs.To achieve this goal, however, it was necessary to overcome the barriers that had developed between them over two millennia. And these, according to the “Canaanites”, included Judaism and Islam.

The “Canaanite” movement was guided by the belief that the ancestors of the Hebrews and Arabs formed an ancient community of peoples that needed to be revived in the 20th century as an alternative to the Zionist project.

According to the Israeli linguist Ron Kuzar, “Canaanite” ideas came from the European “far right”, particularly Italian fascism. And it has to be admitted that its adherents, in attempting to reconstruct the ancient past of the Middle East, were in fact following a similar path to the Italian fascists, who in turn were inspired by Roman antiquity.
“Nimrod” by Yitzhak Danziger. Photo by Yitzhak Danziger - Transferred from he.wikipedia to Commons by Faigl.ladislav using CommonsHelper., CC BY 2.5,
The influence of “Canaanism” on the works of Hebrew artists from Palestine at the end of the 1930s is intriguing. For example, the visualization of primitivism present in their work expressing a fascination with the ancient paganism (or, to put it bluntly, idolatry) of the Middle Eastern peoples. An example is the sculpture “Nimrod” by Yitzhak Danziger. For Poles, it may evoke associations with the works of Stanisław Szukalski, referring to nationalist and neo-pagan ideas.

Fruit of an ancient oak tree

Returning to “Minotaur”, the novel echoes “Canaanism” in the dreams of Nikos Trianda. He is a Greek from Alexandria (an Egyptian city symbolizing the cosmopolitanism of the Hellenistic era) who scientifically deals with the cultures of the Mediterranean basin. Once, while in Israel, he becomes suspected of contacts with a Greek Orthodox priest who is accused of helping Arab terrorists.

Nikos is interrogated by Alexander Abramov. One gets the impression that he finds a kindred spirit in him. This is what happens when Nikos tells him about the culinary links between the nations of the Mediterranean basin: “Oil in humus and broad beans, lamb ribs on the fire or pickled grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat, all this was offered to me in Athens, Alexandria, Limassol, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And from what I know, they would also offer me the same in Damascus, Constantinople and Tunis”. Later he adds: “I am not an ordinary Levantine with Greek roots, but a fruit of the ancient oak tree”.

Finally, it is worth quoting fragments from “Minotaur” which reveal Alexander’s “Canaanite” dilemmas regarding Jewish-Arab relations. Here is one of his thoughts: “The Arabs whom I actually abuse because they fell into my hands defeated and bound, who are they if not the same Arabs who worked in the yard of our house; these are the same Arabs with whom I chased hares”.

Then we read about Alexander’s longings: “I would give ten American, English or French friends for friendship with an Arab. I can drink whisky with a European, do business with him, conclude contracts with him, because, after all, the State of Israel is actually a European subsidiary in the East. With an Arab, however, I can return and roll on the ground, inhale the smell coming from the furnace burning with goat dung, collect and chew marjoram, run towards the horizon and find there my own childhood or the meaning of life, which are now almost elusive, also in this place, where the hill from my childhood rises”.

Certainly, the “Canaanite” idea is a historical, retrospective utopia (just like the Polish neo-pagan “rodzimowierstwo” – “indigenous religion”). That’s why its implementation had no chance of success. But what Benjamin Tammuz wrote about Jewish-Arab relations in “Minotaur” isn’t detached from reality. Alexander Abramov’s thoughts are not mere literary fiction. Supposedly, there is much more truth in them than in media reports that reduce the conflict between Jews and Arabs to a simple Western-style story of good versus evil. And this is so, regardless of the roles in which we cast for the two sides in this confrontation.

– Filip Memches

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

Benjamin Tammuz „Minotaur”, z języka hebrajskiego przełożył Michał Sobelman, Wydawnictwo Claroscuro, Warszawa 2021
Main photo: Since the renewed outbreak of conflict in the Middle East, Friday prayers by Muslims in Jerusalem have been held flanked by Israeli soldiers. Photo by AMMAR AWAD / Reuters / Forum
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