Anita Shapira is an Israeli historian. She is the founder of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies, a Ruben Merenfeld Professor of the Study of Zionism and head of the Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism at Tel Aviv University. She received the Israel Prize in 2008.
Shapira was born in Poland in 1940, immigrated to Palestine in 1947 and grew up in Tel Aviv. She studied general and Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, completing her Ph.D in 1974 under the supervision of Professor Daniel Carpi. Her dissertation, "The Struggle for Hebrew Labor, 1929-1939," indicated her interest in the history of the Labor Zionist movement, which was to be a continuing focus of her research. Since 1985 she has been a full professor at Tel Aviv University, serving in 1990-95 as dean of the Faculty of Humanities. Since 1995 she has held the Ruben Merenfeld Chair for the Study of Zionism, and since 2000 she has headed the Chaim Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel at Tel Aviv University.
She has been active in many aspects of academic life in Israel. In 1985-89 she was member of the Planning and Budgeting Commission of the Council for Higher Education in Israel; in 1987-90 she was chair of the board of Am Oved publishing house, and since 1988 has sat on the board of the Zalman Shazar Institute. In 2002-08 she was president of The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. Anita Shapira was the founder of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies and its first director in 1996-99.
In 1977 she was awarded a prize from the Ben-Zvi Institute for her book Hama'avak Hanihzav (The Futile Struggle), and in 1992 the Am Oved publishing house awarded her a prize, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, for the best non-fiction book, Herev Hayona (Land and Power), the English version of which won the National Jewish Book Award in 1993 in the category "Israel" In 2004 she was awarded the Zalman Shazar prize in Jewish History, for her biography of Yigal Allon, and in 2005 she won the Herzl Prize from the city of Herzliya, for her excellence in research on Zionism. Anita Shapira was awarded the Israel Prize in Jewish history for 2008.
Shapira's research focuses on the political, cultural, social, intellectual and military history of the Jewish community in Palestine (the Yishuv) and Israel. Her first book, based on her doctoral dissertation, Hama'avak Hanihzav: Avoda Ivrit 1929-1939 (The Futile Struggle: Hebrew Work 1929-1939), deals with the social and political history of the Yishuv in the 1920s and 1930s, including the controversies on policy towards the Arab population and the conflicts between left and right on the means for achieving Zionist goals.
Her second book, Berl: The Biography of a Socialist Zionist, Berl Katznelson, 1887-1944, was widely acclaimed by the general reading public as well as in academia and was published in Hebrew in eight editions. Focusing on a major figure in the Labor Zionist movement, this book portrays the history, society and culture of the Yishuv from the Second Aliyah to the end of World War II.
During work on a biography of Yigal Allon, Shapira became interested in the role of force in the Zionist movement, initially inspired by a famous article written by Menachem Begin during the 1982 Lebanon War on "A War of Choice." This resulted in a book, Herev Hayona: Hatziyonut vehakoah, 1881-1948 (Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948). In her biography of Yigal Allon (2004), Yigal Allon, Native Son: A Biography, Shapira in fact portrays the development of the entire Palmach generation in Palestine, the first native-born Sabra generation.
In this period she also started investigating issues connected to culture and collective memory, as in articles on Latrun and S. Yizhar's short story "Hirbet Hize," and on the attitudes of Israeli society to the Holocaust and Holocaust survivors. Her book Hatanakh vehazehut hayisraelit (The Bible and Israeli identity) seeks to explain why the status of the Bible has declined in Israeli identity. Issues of identity, culture and memory are also the focus of two collection of essays, Yehudim Hadashim, Yehudim Yeshanim (New Jews, Old Jews), and Yehudim, Tziyonim Umah shebeinehem (Jews, Zionists and Between).
Many of her books have been translated into English, German, Russian, and French.
* Berl: The Biography of a Socialist Zionist, Berl Katznelson, 1887-1944/ Anita Shapira , translated by Haya Galai. Cambridge University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-521-25618-6
* Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 (Studies in Jewish History)/ Anita Shapira ; translated by William Templer. Oxford University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-19-506104-7)
* Essential papers on Zionism / edited by Jehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
* Zionism and religion / Shmuel Almog, Jehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira, editors. Hanover: Brandeis University Press in association with the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1998.
* Israeli historical revisionism: from left to right / edited by Anita Shapira and Derek J. Penslar. Portland, Ore.: Frank Cass, 2003.
* Israeli identity in transition / edited by Anita Shapira. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.
* Yigal Allon, Native Son: A Biography/ Anita Shapira, translated by Evelyn Abel. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-8122-4028-3
Anita Shapira was born in 1940 in Warsaw and speaks fluent Yiddish and Polish. She declines to speak about the seven years that preceded the day when she stood at the Haifa port and quietly watched the British policeman tear open her doll. "I was born at 5 Orla Street in Warsaw. I remember. A little. I don't want to talk about what came afterward. I promised my children that I would write down the whole story sometime. They asked me to. Until I do so, I won't talk about it. All I can say is that I've always been impressed by children's ability to adapt in times of crisis. I look at my grandchildren and I'm happy they won't have to contend with such situations. I have a very good life. I'm lucky."
The historian is happy to talk about her first years in Israel. "We lived on Yavneh Street in Tel Aviv in one room with a balcony, a kitchen we shared with two other families and a bathroom we shared with three. I once saw a three-room apartment with a piano and to me it seemed like the symbol of the aristocracy. Later on we moved to Yad Eliahu, to a one-room apartment with a kitchen and small balcony. My first-grade teacher changed my name to Chana, but in second grade I changed it back."
Shapira is not fazed anymore by the attacks from post-Zionists aimed at her. "How many times can the same mantra be repeated?" she asks. "And really, they're obsolete already. Today there are young people who've returned to taking a critical, complex and sane view."
Perhaps this is why she dedicated her newest work to her grandchildren, "in the hope that they will read the book when they grow up."
In an uncharacteristically emotional analysis of one of the loveliest pieces of Brenner's work, and of Hebrew literature in general - the closing chapter of "Mikan umikan" ("From Here and There") - Shapira elaborates on the traits of the protagonist, Oved Etzot, whom she takes as representing Brenner. Within this analysis is found the crux of her attempt to decipher Brenner: "In this character there are many autobiographical elements: the male element that fails to find satisfaction, the inherent, existential despair, the love for children, the fantasy of becoming a father, the fear of the Arabs, and much more."
In the past, Brenner's readers, she emphasizes, fell in love with his writings for different, maybe even contradictory, reasons than those of contemporary readers. The romance, the liberation from the burden of one's parents, and the hint of the hidden mystery of the Eretz Israel experience is what drew them.
"'From Here and There' exposes with cruel candidness all the shortcomings and weaknesses of the Second Aliyah [wave of immigration]," said Shapira in a thank-you speech for the Herzliya Prize, which she was awarded recently. "Nevertheless, Berl Katznelson, the great leader of the Second Aliyah, called it the ultimate book of the time. Another pioneer, Eliezer Slutzkin, who died in Ein Harod at age 100, was asked when he was already an old man: When you immigrated, weren't you disappointed by the reality you found here? And he answered: No, because I read Brenner and I knew from the start about all the problems here. This is the importance of the writer or the historian, who is supposed to tell the whole truth, without reluctance or fear.
"This has always been the tradition of Zionist criticism: to expose every pain, wound and bruise - but on condition that the criticism comes from within, from what one calls a 'lover's wounds.' After all the critical descriptions, Brenner concludes his book with a sentence, which is also relevant to the Zionist project and to the historian's work: 'The existence was an existence of thorns. The account had yet to be settled.'"
When asked why you write biographies and don't stick solely to academic work, you always say you love biographies because they deal with human beings. But still, here, your focus is largely on the spirit of the time. It seems that the fifth chapter of "From Here and There," which sparked a huge uproar and a deep conflict between Brenner and the people of Hapoel Hatzair, interested you even more than all the literary descriptions.
"The context is always there. It's impossible to understand Brenner's status as an icon without considering the backdrop of the period. At the time there was fierce interaction between politicians and intellectuals and writers, but I never forgot that I was first of all writing a biography of a writer (and now I'm also feeling nervous about what the literary people will say about my reading of his literature), and so I didn't trace the politics of the time as expressed in his writings, but rather the development of the Hebrew culture in the Diaspora and in Eretz Israel."
And in this area, too, Brenner tore apart the consensus of the Hebrew Zionist ethos, as was ingrained in us in school.
"Certainly. Yes, I say some things that have been said before, but I stress: Brenner's attitude toward Yiddish, for example, was very affectionate and sensitive and favorable. Despite his strong 'Hebra-ism'" - Brenner started writing Hebrew at a young age, when he was still a yeshiva student. "He wasn't one of those militant anti-Yiddishists, compared to Ahad Ha'am [Asher Ginsberg], who wouldn't allow his work to be translated into Yiddish, or [Joseph] Klausner, who sneeringly referred to Yiddish as 'jargon.' He [also] didn't identify with the so-called 'brigade of defenders of the language.' To him, both [languages] were akin to the words of the living God.
"Furthermore, until very late in the game, he didn't believe at all in Hebrew as a spoken language. He came from a society that did not speak Hebrew and he only encountered Hebrew speakers for the first time when he immigrated, in 1909. And this is interesting, because when Brenner is sitting in London and writing the play 'Me'ever lagvulim' ('Beyond the Borders'), he has to write dialogues in Hebrew. How do you write dialogues in a language you don't speak? You translate from Yiddish!"
But when he came to Eretz Israel, he didn't talk about immigration. In the chapter that describes his arrival here there's this feeling of traveling back and forth, of open possibilities.
"In the days of the Second Aliyah, the journey to Eretz Israel is a possibility. Not something binding. I cite a 'list of tourists,' such as [Haim Nahman] Bialik, because the Zionist project wasn't yet thought to be for real. The new Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community] numbered 12,000 people, and the entire Jewish population in Palestine at the time did not exceed 25,000. Any large Jewish town in the Diaspora had more people. And Brenner, when he traveled here, hid the fact of his arrival, because it wasn't sure that he would stay. Like Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. The tradition of Eretz Israel as a land of tourists, not of permanent settlers, was legitimate. It wasn't until the Mandate period that whoever 'came on aliyah' was necessarily committed to it, and whoever left was considered a yored [literally, 'one who goes down,' the opposite of one who 'goes up' - i.e., comes on aliyah]."
That's not at all what we were taught in school about "From Here and There."
"But that's how it is. The character that travels back and forth in 'From Here and There' is treated with a drop of nostalgia and pain; Brenner is not critical of him. The son, who abandons the country as an ideological Marxist, he doesn't like, but not because it's 'forbidden to leave the country,' but just because he doesn't like him. The mistake we've made is to project back onto our predecessors the values to which we adhere."
You said earlier that you're nervous about the reactions of the literary world, yet you've dissected the protagonist of your biography on a clearly literary basis, rather than writing a political chronology.
"I'm selective, of course, when I choose what seems to me to be of central importance in his writing. There is, however, a limit to the amount of literary discussion that one can load onto a biography, but I certainly enjoyed abandoning the historical narrative to do an analysis of a literary composition when this seemed to me the right thing to do. But at the same time I was aware of the historical developments - for example, I included the responses to 'Shkhol vekishalon' ('Breakdown and Bereavement') from 1920, and not from 1913 when it was written, because only in 1920 were the responses significant. I'm not a literary critic, but it's clear to me that compared to his other writings, at least some of which is outdated, Brenner's literature is truly great."
You also disagree with the prevalent view that Brenner was primarily moving away from religion, and that his roots were planted deep in Judaism and halakha (Jewish law).
"I think that for years we made a detour, in reading Brenner, from his deep Russian roots to his Jewish roots. I found in his works, like 'Behoref' ('In Winter'), 'Mesaviv lanekuda' ('Around the Point'), 'From Here and There' and 'Breakdown and Bereavement' - and also in some of his short stories - psychological gems and a real grasp of the depths of the human soul. And so it is clear to me, and this is supported by facts, too, that at age 18 he was thoroughly and deeply exposed to writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I don't know how polished his Russian was, we know he was an autodidact and didn't study Russian in an orderly way, but the Russian he studied when he was still a yeshiva student enabled him to open a window to world culture. And he also served for two years in the czar's army, which no other Hebrew writer ever did, and perhaps no Russian writer, either. There's no doubt that he drew his strength from late 19th-century Russian literature.
"This isn't to say, of course, that he didn't have Jewish roots, but compared to Bialik and all the other modernists, there is a deep influence here that also fits well with his personality. There is one place where this is particularly striking: [Gershon] Shofman's visit to the murder scene. Shofman stands there and sees the mosque and the palm trees on one side, and the Russian church on the other, and says: 'Wherever Brenner went, his distant past went with him.' This is not by chance. Anyone who was close to Brenner knew what a deep attachment he had to Russian culture.
"The two years in the czar's army were a formative period. Unlike other Jewish and non-Jewish writers, he was exposed not to the intelligentsia, but to the ordinary people, people for whom going to the army was a step up - they were fed regularly and received a salary for the first time in their lives. For his part, he never lost the view of a Jew observing the Russians and the way they see Jews: getting drunk and running to town to catch a chaike, a generic term for a Jew. But he also got into their soul, understood them, and since this was a literary work, and not reporting, he is also distanced from this soul and can describe it. With this kind of in-depth psychology, which didn't interest his contemporaries in the least, he was definitely way ahead of his time."
From this culture you also derive the definition for this psychological state that Beylin describes in his book, and essentially for Brenner's so terrifically conflicted personality. You use the term yurodivy. What is that - a synonym for a certified lunatic?
"The yurodivy is a Russian archetype - what you might call a 'holy fool.' The 'great Russian soul' is what invented the captivation with the yurodivy. The yurodivy is someone who's allowed to do everything that is forbidden to others because he has such an enormous soul, even if he's totally loony. Pierre in 'War and Peace' is like that, even Raskolnikov, who has been described as 'childlike and pure.'"
Shapira cites several incidents that illustrate Brenner's "yurodivy-ness." The boy Henich Pasilov (Brenner lived in Pasilov's mother's home in Ein Ganim; he was also the inspiration for the character of Amram in "From Here to There") took ill with yellow fever and died in the hospital in Jaffa.
"Brenner," writes Shapira, "visited him there the day before his death and saw him in all his agony ... Ya'ari-Polski writes that he saw Brenner standing and watching while the dead body was cleansed in preparation for burial, and that afterward he burst into hysterical crying and passed out, and it was hard to revive him."
To Shapira, this yurodivy quality is the key to the ascetic, holy image that adhered to Brenner even while he was still alive. "The more his image became identified with the yurodivy image," she writes, "Brenner became a moral guide to the evolving community in Eretz Israel. He did not deliberately don the holy cloak. It spontaneously fell on his shoulders ... It wasn't so much that Brenner sought the holy image, but rather that his contemporaries saw a need to wrap him in it. There was a clear Russian influence here. In Russia, the writer was considered the nation's voice of conscience ... The aliyah pioneers were searching for a moral authority. His persona, which challenged the bourgeois ways of life and thinking, which was skeptical of the rules of polite behavior, which demanded that the truth, no matter how bitter, be proclaimed ... is what made him a symbol."
Brenner admired the Russian soul, the historian continues: "His whole outlook came from there. He was a fascinating mixture of 'Nietzschean-ism' and 'Tolstoyan-ism.' His socialism had a moral-humane basis. He wanted every person to have something to eat. And this is what attracts me to Brenner. There's a spiritual and moral basis here that we've forgotten. With all the ambivalence, or maybe just because of it, with the stubborn refusal to ignore the Arabs and the Jews' other options, there's this beauty of creating something out of nothing, out of an almost mystic faith that a society can arise here.
"Brenner talked about a different type of society - moral, modernist and humane - that would prove that the Jews are capable of being a society-building nation. He detested the expression 'a light unto the nations,' because it was so far removed from the reality. He didn't talk about a state. Berl did, even then he had big dreams, but Brenner found his absolute Zionist optimism threatening and off-putting. Yes, he was fearful, and didn't want to be responsible, but this was all because he really was not a 'politician.' He was a writer."