Davar
Israeli writer Eli Amir (Photograph: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Interview
"People are looking for idealism"

At 83 years of age, famed Iraqi Israeli author Eli Amir, safely tucked away at home, continues to strive for social justice

"The current leadership wants to preserve its rule" | "The Palestinian problem cannot be swept under the rug" | Amir longs for the modesty of times gone by and believes that Israel has a long way to go: "We’re still laying the foundation" | He is also working on a new novel

22.04.2020, 14:49

COVID-19 is not the first challenge Eli Amir has encountered in his life. Amir, Honorary Doctor of Universities in Israel and the winner of numerous literary awards, began his journey in a transit camp, as a new immigrant from Iraq, as a boy less than 13 years old.

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How are you doing these days?

"Like everyone in Israel – cooped up in my house."

How do you pass the time?

"I try very hard to write. I don't leave the house. Sometimes I go for a short walk, a hundred meters and back. But nothing more, there's nothing to do."

What are you writing about?

"I’ve started writing a novel, I've been working on it for two years. As soon as I finished "The Bike Boy" I started writing it. I have to see how it comes along, how it develops. It will take time. "

So, something to look forward to …

"Inshallah" [God willing]

"The Bike Boy"

In his latest book, "The Bike Boy," Amir tells his childhood story as a teenager who moved from a transit camp to the youth society on a kibbutz. At age 17, he attended an evening school for working youth and began working as a courier for the Prime Minister's Office. With his 83 years of wisdom, Amir looks discerningly at Israeli society, which is facing one of the most challenging crises it has ever known.

Will this crisis change us?

"Look, crises don’t create new things; they only accelerate them. If Israeli society is ripe for change, it will change. If it is not ready for change, no crisis will change it. Going back to normal will be hard. It will be difficult for businesses and the middle and lower classes: for industry, production, tourism – it’s a massive crisis for them. The hotels are closed, tourists are not coming in, and the airport is almost paralyzed. Whole worlds that have shut down. But slowly, it will, hopefully, go back to normal."

Eli Amir (Photograph: Chen Leofeld/ Flash90)

"The current leadership wants to preserve its rule"

Amir is very determined, and strives to talk about what is bothering him right from the beginning of the conversation. "Changes will come if there will be a leadership that wants to make changes and influence the direction of such changes. The current leadership wants to preserve its rule, status, and power. It is not inspiring any changes, nor has it in the past. These kinds of changes, so-called "big changes," where you take a good hard look at everything and ask: Where are we headed from here? What do we want to achieve? How ought we plan our lives for the future? How do we exploit this crisis for rebuilding? I have no faith in this leadership."

Are you talking about the political leadership?

"Yes. I am not optimistic. I am very sorry that Blue and White have split apart, and I hope that Gantz will wake up and realize that he has fallen for one of the greatest scams that Netanyahu the magician has conjured up in a way only he knows how. This is how he gets rid of his rivals. I hope Gantz and his friends reunite with Yesh Atid, and become a more sensible, a more seasoned, alternative.

"Any regime, even with the most outstanding of leaders, becomes corrupt. Many years in power corrupts people, power changes something in your head and you think you are omnipotent. And you see it now – the change has to come in terms of politics and leadership, but also in ideology. "

What bothers you?

"Someone needs to get up and ask: ‘What the hell are we doing with the territories?’ How are we going to live alongside the Palestinians? This problem cannot be swept under the rug, it very much exists. We will fall asleep on duty and open our eyes to a binational state and, in fact, the loss of the Jewish state. This is not the dream for which we waited. This is not the dream for which we aspired. A bi-national state is not the state we wish to actualize and dwell in."

And economically speaking?

"The social gaps have skyrocketed, as have the economic. As Shimon Peres once put it: It’s a "capitalist pig." That is what is going on here. There are over a 1.5 million people below the poverty line and this group of people needs care. This population includes underprivileged communities in poor neighborhoods, development towns, the ultra-Orthodox communities, and Arab communities. It's all neglected to the wayside."

What's the alternative?

"We have to protect and fight for the poor and disadvantaged communities of Israeli society. We need an ideological alternative to the Labor Party that once was and is no longer. We are building a society here comprised of olim and immigrants who are different from one another, and we have enormous class polarization. We have got to care about creating a more just, more equitable society, about caring for the weak, caring for the needy, caring for minorities. We are still establishing the state, building a society, building its foundations, trying to develop healthy roots for the Jewish state, a state of immigrants. These are enormous challenges, and someone has got to deal with them."

Who?

"That could be the job of the Histadrut. A huge golden opportunity has been created here. There is a vacuum, and it needs to be filled. The Histadrut is an ideological, social, organization that fights for society. The Histadrut once played a big socio-cultural role as well. It has its own publishing house, thank god that "Am Oved" still exists. But the Histadrut had cultural enterprises, social enterprises. You know, it had a seminar center, among others, near Tiberias as well as in Tel Aviv. And I have been a lecturing there from the age of 25. For five or six decades, for all kinds of workers, nurses, and other staff. Educational programs.

"And there are youth movements that are great ideological and social frameworks that were around at the time and still are today. I was in the Youth Aliyah, but I have often lectured for HaNoar HaOved. These are a group of people with the motivations and the ideology that established and built up this country. As of yet, we have not finished its establishment, nor built its foundations."

Do you think people are seeking change?

“There isn’t a shadow of a doubt. People are thirsty for it. People are looking for an idea to commit themselves to and feel a part of. There's a vacuum here, and it’s a cultural vacuum too. Look at what’s on TV, it is just stupidity. Three channels – how many food programs can people watch? Good god. TV has no good programs and no values. It has no purpose, and it has nothing to show us. There are no meaningful programs. There are a few programs on channel 8 that are about the country and its history, with Mody Baron and Anat Seltzer. These shows are valuable and significant, and such series should also air on the main channels: one two and three! In my opinion, on the commercial channels, consumers, viewers, want meaningful programs as well."

Eli Amir (Photograph: Hadas Frush/ Flash90)

"No champagne, and no-nonsense"

Amir doesn't let COVID-19 preoccupy him too much. He sees it as something that will soon pass. His thoughts are of concern for Israeli society.

“Look, what am I writing about? About the history of this country and the wonderful chapters we have had here. Today it's hard to write about some of the wonderful episodes we're in the process of making, right? Or to say that we are proud of them. And this social vacuum – somebody needs to fill it.

"Listen, I think my latest book, “The Bicycle Boy,” which is about the Israel in the 1950s, from the perspective of a bicycle messenger boy, and it relays the stories of Ben Gurion and Teddy Kollek and Isaac Navon and the debates and dramas of the nation and its ideology, and the great people that were around at that time. It expresses the ideals that motivated them.

“Take Ben Gurion. Ben Gurion wore khaki, drove a small British Vauxhall car, I don't know how his bodyguard could get into it. And he ate [his wife] Paula's food and sandwiches from the canteen, like everybody else. No champagne and no fuss, no nonsense or fine dining or any of the things that we boast about these days.

"Yitzchak Navon, every morning, would come and sit down in front of me, there was one table at the buffet, and we both would have a sandwich. Where do you see that kind of modesty and determination today?"

But there was also racism, you talk about it in all your books.

"Listen, Mapai had its flaws. People forget that we were immigrants. When you move to a new country, read Ilya Kazan's "America" – when you come as an immigrant to another country, you lose all your assets, and the locals of that country have everything, And you essentially have nothing.

"But look at me, who am I? I am a second-generation immigrant from Iraq. There are hundreds of thousands like me. Look at the government ministers today, there are four ministers of Moroccan descent. It takes time to settle in a new country, learn its language, get a proper education, get to know the land.

"It is true, I know, you cannot immediately reach the top. Yes, there was discrimination, and there was belittling and there was condescension, but those who worked hard, who studied and were ambitious and were driven to succeed, graduated from high school, went to university, graduated from university and reached the highest heights. Look at me now. "

And are there others like you?

'At the night school, called "Da’at" [knowledge], where I studied, four writers grew up with me. Unbelievable! One of us, Abraham Zelicha, came to be a professor at Indiana University at the age of 31. The other, Jonah Zabar, turned 35 to become a professor at another university in the United States. Benzion Yehoshua and Or Zion Yishai also studied with me. And these were children who were messenger boys on bicycles or day laborers. I came to be general manager of the Youth Aliyah, which was one of the most important departments of the Histadrut. The same movement in which I spent my young years.

"Sure, we had to overcome a certain condescension towards us, but look at the government ministers today, among the people who make an impact today, there are loads of people from the Muslim countries we came from. This is a time when Moroccan immigrants and their descendants are making it big in art, culture, literature, politics: mayors, heads of local councils. And these were immigrants who had arrived in a new country in which they had to fight for their place, and they succeeded.

"So you have to see that side too, and not just the arrogance. So they patronized us. So what. Then you need to study, develop yourself and prove to them that you are no worse than them and you can even often exceed them. That's the key. "

How is Israel coping with recent immigration?

"I think today, Israeli society is entirely mixed. One million immigrants came from Russia, which I believe is the most blessed immigration this country has had. Yes – without taking away from any other immigrant groups. But it was a massive reinforcement to the State of Israel, of a million people. Among them are great professionals! Incredible! People from all spheres of life have been absorbed into the country and they are contributing to it.

"In no time, Ethiopian immigrants have also reached high positions within society. True, there are many more problems, but there are also lawyers, social workers, educators, artists. It's big! This means that there is some kind of openness to other people. A society is not built overnight."

Eli Amir (Photograph: Hadas Frush/ Flash90)

"You simply must see the good"

The window from Amir's writing room overlooks trees and greenery in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem. He says he has a hard time reading these days: "When you're closed, and you're troubled, you're not focused." He also has trouble writing.

Why is it difficult to write now?

'Because the situation itself is difficult. You can't escape what's going on around you. You have children and you have grandchildren and you have friends and you have concerns. But it’s OK, we get up and keep living, and there is food and water, and thank god… You simply must see the good. I'm constantly looking for the good."

How do you write, with a computer?

"I usually start writing stories in pencil, on paper, and then I move to the computer… Once I would get those notes copied onto a computer, now I copy them myself on a computer, and get to work. But I like the initial process of writing on paper with a pencil and an eraser. On the computer I edit. Here and there I add things. And then continue to edit It’s quite a process."

Before you start writing, does the whole story already exist in your mind?

'It develops during the writing process. You have a general idea and it evolves, that happens during writing. It's a fascinating process, how a story is created. "

Do you sit for hours and write?

'I get up every hour, I drink tea, drink coffee, drink water, and return to the creator's task. I pace in my apartment and return to work. It's hard work. I am a disciplined person. Sitting for ages, and working, taking breaks like I used to when I had an office job. You have to be. It's a type of work that requires you to have strong discipline; without discipline, you can’t produce a thing. In any profession, but absolutely in writing, that’s just what it takes. "

Are you worried about being locked up at your home for a long time?

'No, we needn’t get so worked up about this. OK – we will be prisoners in our homes for another two or three months. You have to see the good. You can see that we’re putting up a fight against this virus; you look at the number of dead, with all the grief for every person who leaves us, no matter their age, compared to other countries. And then you see that the situation is relatively – and I hope I don’t jinx us – under control. You can see that we are fighting it, taking the proper steps. You see that the health system in this country is well-developed and strong, and is capable of dealing with this, and adapting its methods. So there is a lot of room for optimism. OK, so people my age should be more careful, and take extra precautions, and maybe stay home for a certain period of time. Well, that’s not the end of the world. "

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Brought to press with the help of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut

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