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Israel

Entry updated 8 July 2022. Tagged: International.

Israel's traditional orientation towards the West, the initially Utopian character of Zionism – partly inspired by founding Zionist ideologue Theodor Herzl's polemic Der Judenstaat (1896; trans as The Jewish State 1946), and his short novel Altneuland (1902; trans Lotte Levensohn as Old-New Land 1941) – and the country's adherence to its form of democracy ought to have made it a promised land for speculative literature. But, despite the seminal influence of Jewish writers and editors within the international genre, sf has never attained more than marginal stature within Israel.

Survival in a pressure-cooker region has stunted the capacity of many Israelis to contemplate alternate realities and far-flung futures. Indeed, the political, military, and environmental stringencies of survival in the Middle East consumed the energies of Israelis as individuals and as a nation. The ideological expectation was that everyone should contribute to the national effort, writers and poets included. Hence, they were counted on to write realistically about national hopes or day-to-day life in pioneering settlements, glorify heroes, and convert the traditional image of the Jew as a passive, oppressed person into a self-assured, dedicated, and valiant one.

This left little room for flights of imagination. Those authors who did try their hand in speculative fiction were looked at askance, and usually relegated to the children's bookshelves, along with translated books by authors like Jules Verne or Edgar RiceBurroughs. Interestingly, Herzl's Altneuland was preceded in 1892 by another fabulist foray, Elhanan Leib Levinsky's Masa' le-Erets Yisra'el bi-shenat tat ["A Voyage to the Land of Israel in the Year 800 to the Sixth Thousand"] (1892), a Utopia set in a perfected future Jewish state, which some cite as the first novel written in modern Hebrew. An early example of an Alternate History novel can be found in Jacob Weinshall's HaYehudi HaAchron: Sipur ["The Last Jew: A Story"] (1946). The author's association with the Zev Jabotinsky's Revisionist Movement put him at odds with the Yishuv's (pre-state Jewish community) Labor establishment, resulting in the book's publication by a little-read independent publisher.

These authors wrote in Hebrew, the language of Scripture that had been just recently revived for everyday and literary use. It therefore initially lacked many words that have to do with the modern world, particularly those that are used to describe Technology – a significant handicap for those who wished to write sf. Indeed, merely agreeing on a Hebrew term for sf (initially mada dimioni ["imaginary science"] and ultimately, in the late 1970s, mada bidioni ["fictional science"]), severely challenged the semantic abilities of Israel's emergent sf community.

In the 1950s, brief forays by publishers tantalized would-be fans with a few Hebrew translations of novels by Robert A Heinlein and Fredric Brown, before ending in bankruptcy. So too ended three plunges into sf magazine publishing, with Mada Dimioni (1958, 13 issues), Cosmos: Sipurei Mada Dimioni ["Cosmos: Stories of Imaginary Science"] (1958, 4 issues), and Flash Gordon (1963, 7 issues); none published work by domestic authors. The only Israeli sf writer of note in this period, Mordecai Roshwald, published his apocalyptic novels Level 7 (1959) and A Small Armageddon (1962) abroad. Neither has been translated into Hebrew, and Roshwald, whose work remains unknown in Israel, eventually settled in the US. Also unremembered is Nathan Alterman's play Pythagorean Theorem, about an intelligent computer, which was staged, unsuccessfully, in 1965.

The election to power of the Likud bloc in 1977 unleashed a wave of consumerism in Israel that permitted a brief boom in sf. Encouraged by young Israelis' new spending power and the success of such films as Star Wars (1977), publishers embarked upon ambitious schedules of mostly translated sf. By the onset of the prolonged stagflation following the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, nearly 200 of the classic books of modern sf had been translated.

Of several new sf magazines, few survived long, but Fantasia 2000 merits special notice. Launched in 1978, it nurtured a group of local writers and a small, vigorous fan community during its 44-issue, six-year life. Among its writers was Hillel Damron, author of the critically well-received Milchemet haMinim ["The War of the Sexes"] (1982), set in a Post-Holocaust underground colony where a society of sexual equals devolves into full-scale subjugation of males. Fantasia 2000 was only followed by another notable magazine as late as 2002: Halomot beAspamia ["Castles in Spain"] went through 23 issues until 2016. Its various issues included more original stories than Fantasia, an indication of the growth of a corps of writers from within the Israeli genre.

Before the Lebanon War, Israeli sf tended to be reticent on Politics, but the 1982 watershed altered this. Another Fantasia graduate was David Melamed, whose first collection, Tsavoa beCorundy ["A Hyena in Corundy"] (coll 1980), contained a swath of sf stories with little immediate relevance to Israel. However, his third novel, He'Halom haRevi'i ["The Fourth Dream"] (1986) – notable for its nightmare tones if not for its narrative drive – powerfully recounted the travails of an Israeli refugee in Germany after a Near-Future fall of the Jewish state. Similarly, Zeev Ben-Yosef's Shalom al Israel ["Peace on Israel"] (1993) envisioned a Jewish State undone by a joint Palestinian and neo-Nazi military campaign. Boaz Izraeli followed suit with Eyfoh Kulam ["Where Is Everyone?"] (1997). Hanan Steinhart's Kokash Kodash! (2001) attributed the country's demise to an uprising of Galilean Arabs.

Melamed's dystopian excursion followed two other landmark works. In 1983, prominent left-wing columnist Amos Kenan (1927-2009) published HaDerech leEin Harod (1983; trans as The Road to Ein Harod 1984), which postulated a Near-Future military takeover of Israel. It was not his first speculative novel – that being the more surreal Shoah II ["Holocaust II"] (1975) – but it was the only Israeli sf novel ever awarded a (peace) prize by the Palestine Liberation Organization. Although the book embraces well-known sf and Technothriller tropes, Kenan vehemently denied its genre roots, no doubt because of the Israeli literary establishment's low regard for sf. A second significant Dystopia was written by established novelist Binyamin Tammuz (1919-1989): Pundako Shel Yirmiyahu ["Jeremiah's Inn"] (1984) is a broad Satire about an Israel taken over by ultra-Orthodox zealots.

A grimmer version of the future was presented in Mal'achim Ba'im ["The Angels are Coming"] (1987) by Yitzhak Ben Ner (1937-    ), in which a global atomic apocalypse has spared Israel. By the twenty-first century, life within the theocratic state is characterized by street violence, persecution of the secular minority, and widespread alienation. A similar scenario, however, was more presciently intimated in Pargod HaBdolach ["The Crystal Screen"] (1969) by Yehoshua Granot (1934-2004). These fever dreams spilled over in 1998 into Michal Peleg's Ha-Ir HaPnimit ["The Inner City"] and Hedy Ben-Amar's Beshem Shamayim ["In the Name of God"]. Yishai Sarid's The Third (2015), set in a near-future Jerusalem that has rebuilt the Third Temple, inspired considerable public controversy. Moshe Dayan's son, the actor and writer Assi Dayan, published Tochen Ha'Inyanim ["Table of Contents"] (1989). In Mordechai Y Nessyahu's Cosmotism (1997), this erstwhile Labor Party ideologue, who influenced Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in forging the OsloAccords, portrayed a future Israel against the backdrop of a universe teeming with alien civilizations.

In Reuven Rupin's The Jewish War II (1994), the Jews of 70 AD defeat the Romans. Their newly founded Jewish state, however, does not survive the contradictions between state and religion. Tel Aviv (2012) by Yair Hasdiel (1971-    ), meanwhile, posits a world in which the Holocaust never happened, where Poland remains home to millions of Jews, and the Land of Israel bears testament to a failed attempt to create a Jewish republic.

Zirmat Hachamim ["Semen of the Wise"] (1982) and Luna: Gan Eden Geneti ["Luna: A Genetic Paradise"] (1985) by geneticist Ram Moav (1930-1984), about Genetic Engineering of humans, inspired accusations of fascism on the part of the author, who had written these two books while terminally ill. HaTzariach ["The Turret"] (1983) by Ruth Blumert (1943-2014) is a fantasy reminiscent of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy.

After stagnating for a decade, between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990, Israeli sf started reviving with the establishment of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy. It brought together nascent writers and avid readers and started an increasing wave of original genre writing, mainly short stories and novellas. It was helped by the concurrent development of the Internet, with several websites dedicated to the sf, including the Society's. Since 1996, the ISSF&F has published an online magazine, Ha-Meimad Ha'Asiri ["The Tenth Dimension"], as well as an annual volume,Hayo Yihye ["Once Upon a Future"], featuring the best sf/fantasy short stories of the year. Among the more noteworthy Israeli writers published in the magazine are Etgar Keret, Lavie Tidhar, Vered Tochterman and Nir Yaniv. Notable nonfiction work has been included in the magazine from other writers, including Aharon Hauptman, Emmanuel Lottem and Abigail Nussbaum.

Of special mention among other websites is Bli Panika ["Don't Panic!"] edited by Rami Shalheveth, running since 2000 with backing from the ORT Jewish vocational services and rehabilitation organization. In addition to original fiction, it has published hundreds of original genre short stories as well as essays and articles. The ISSF&F now publishes an annual volume, Hayo Yihye ["Once Upon a Future"], featuring the best sf/fantasy short stories of the year.

Quite a few authors have grown up within the genre since 2000. Those among them who had at least some of their work translated into English include Guy Hasson; Etgar Keret (1967-    ) with his several volumes of quirky short stories and novellas; Keren Landsman (1977-    ) with The Heart of the Circle (trans Daniella Zamir 2019); Vered Tochterman; Nir Yaniv with The Love Machine & other contraptions (2012); and more. The best-known among Israeli speculative fiction authors who broke out to the wide world is multi-award-winning Lavie Tidhar. Born on a kibbutz in northern Israel, he has lived most of his life abroad, and wrote most of his work in English; nevertheless, his novels and stories bear an unmistakable Israeli atmosphere, as in his Central Station stories (assembled in his Central Station fix-up 2016) and Unholy Land (2018). Many of his other novels, novellas and short stories take up Jewish and Israeli themes, including The Tel Aviv Dossier (2009) co-written with Nir Yaniv, A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), Lust of the Swastika (2015 chap), By Force Alone (2020) and The Hood (2021).

At the same time, several mainstream Israeli writers started crafting speculative fiction. The first breakthrough came with Haderech leGan Eden ["The Road to Paradise"] (1999) by Gail Hareven (1959-    ), which is a celebrated collection of short sf stories. She was followed by such authors as Nava Semel (1954-2017) with And the Rat Laughed (2009), a time travel novel about the Holocaust, and Isra-Isle (2016), an alternate history novel placing the state of the Jews in the US; on a similar note, Herzl Amar ["Herzl Said"] (2011) by Yoav Avni (1969-    ) locates this state (as would Tidhar) in Africa. Asaf Gavron (1968-    ), another mainstream author, makes occasional forays into usually dark sf, most notably in the novel Hydromania (2008), which posits a vastly truncated Jewish State that has lost much of its territory, including the Sea of Gallilee, its primary source of fresh water. Shim'on Adaf is noted for his lyrical prose, excursions into magic realism, and greater reliance on Jewish mysticism than most of Israel's speculative authors. His Delany-esque novel Kfor ["Frost"] (2010), about Yeshiva students in Tel Aviv some 500 years hence who begin to sprout wings, has been declared a masterpiece. The few other authors who tried their hand in invoking ancient Middle Eastern mythologies include Hagai Dagan (1964-    ) with his Shedim biRhov Agrippas ["Demons in Agrippas Street"] (2012) and Asaf Asheri with the urban fantasy Simantov (2008). Ofir Touché Gafla's work, including Olam Hasof (2004; trans Mitch Ginsbur as The World of the End 2013), is remarkable for its smooth glissandoes among genres and styles. Efrat Roman Asher's Iroshalem (2003) – a variant of the name Jerusalem – reflects the author's pronounced Feminist outlook.

The Russian wave of immigration that began at the start of the 1990s brought alongside a million newcomers at least three authors of note, Pesakh Amnuel (1944-    ), an astrophysicist and renowned sf author who has since published widely in English, Elana Gomel (1961-    ), a noted sf and horror writer of international repute and an academic associated with Tel Aviv University and Stanford University, as well as Daniel Kluger (1951-    ) and Alexander Ribalka. The Russian cohort is characterized by, among other things, a profound love for genre sf.

Some of the authors mentioned above, both mainstream and genre, have written sf/f books for children and young adults. In fact, it appears that this section of the sf/f publishing industry, which mainly includes translated titles, is more prolific than the more "serious" one. A few books have been written with the intention of familiarizing youngsters with scientific concepts and ideas. Most of them, however, hardly conform to genre conventions and have little literary value.

Israel has never been an important center of sf film-making. The most notable foreign production has been the low-budget, Post-Holocaust feature America 3000 (1985) – video release only – produced by Menachem Golan (1929-2014) and directed by David Engelbach (1946-    ) with a cast of comely Israeli and US amazons. Poet and avant-garde film-maker David Avidan (1934-1995) directed Sheder Min He'Atid (1981; vt Message from the Future) about future humans visiting present-day Israel; it is execrable. Avidan would garner posthumous acclaim for his fearless early forays into sf Poetry.. The James Blish-influenced short film Ishur Nehita ["Permission to Land"] (1978) directed by Ricki Shelach (1944-    ) tells of a visiting alien. Both films may have reflected that Sense of Wonder inspired among Israelis by the visit of Egypt's President Anwar Sadat. The 1989 adaptation, shot in English, of Kenan's 1983 novel as Freedom: The Voice from Ein Harod failed to achieve Western distribution. Directed by prolific producer/director Doron Eran (1955-    ) and shot for $2 million, Freedom was one of the most expensive films ever produced domestically, but suffered from the Israeli army's refusal to donate the use of military matériel; the peculiar lead casting of American actor Anthony Peck and Italian model and far-right politician Allesandra Mussolini (granddaughter of Il Duce) also detracted from its believability. In 1990 the Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher (1952-    ) wrote and directed a Los Angeles-shot $7 million technothriller, «Nameless» (vt «Timebomb»), as yet unreleased. Israeli writer/director Ari Folman's The Congress (2013) is a live-action/animated sf film based on Stanisław Lem's "Ze Wspomnień Ijona Tichego: Kongres Futurologiczny" (in Bezsenność, coll 1971; trans Kandel as The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy 1974).

Israeli television produced a noteworthy Alternate History miniseries in Autonomies (2018), which postulated a 1989 civil war between a secular Tel Aviv and an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem that produced the competing sovereign redoubts later existing in both. Let It Be Morning (2006) by the Arab-Israeli journalist Sayed Kashua (1975-    ) was adapted for film in 2020, winning accolades from Cannes, where the Palestinian-Israeli participants nonetheless protested the movie's presentation as an Israeli product. The film was shorn of the book's speculative ending.

Israeli sf/f writers traditionally avoided trucking in Hard SF motifs, gravitating toward the softcore, sociological variant. There have been a few exceptions, though: Yosef Ofer's Zohar HaArgaman ["The Scarlet Glow"] (1970) envisioned a quiet invasion by aliens intent on sewing violent discord and warlike impulses in furtherance of an eons-long colonizing program that results in a Nazi-inspired World War Three. In 1988, Yaakov Avisar (1921-2005) published Anashim MeKochav Acher ["People from a Different Planet"], wherein an Israeli spaceship crew encounters Hebrew-speaking aliens. Haydak Katlani ["A Deadly Microbe"] (1997) by Bo'az Ginsburg, depicts a Mossad attempt to thwart a Hamas plan to wage biowarfare using deadly microbes of German design. Yosef Soyka's Sod HaOlam HaSheni ["Secret of the Second World"] (1998), posits hitherto unknown ancient texts chronicling an encounter between the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and aliens living underground. HaKafil HaVirtuali ["The Virtual Double"] (2009) by Moshe Menasheof (1958-    ) describes a physics experiment that goes awry and creates a doppelganger universe. Yehuda Israely and Dor Raveh published Mesopotamyah (2010 2vols), the first volume being fantasy, the second Hard SF.

A small body of sf criticism emerged in the 1980s, the first regular column outside the sf magazines being former Fantasia 2000 editorial board member and book and film reviewer Sheldon Teitelbaum's in the Jerusalem Post (1981-1985). The vagaries of the sf scene are discussed in "Sociological Reflections on the History of Science Fiction in Israel" (Science Fiction Studies March 1986) by Nachman Ben Yehuda (1948-    ), a Hebrew University sociology professor (now emeritus) and an early contributor to Fantazia 2000. Orzion Bartana (1949-    ), then a professor of literature at Tel Aviv University, published Israel's first critical book on sf: HaFantazia beSiporet Dor Hamdina ["Fantasy in Israeli Literature in the Last Thirty Years"] (1989). Inbal Saggiv-Nakdimon published an MA thesis on Israeli sf at Tel Aviv University in 1999. Danielle Gurevitch and Elana Gomel edited With Both Feet in the Clouds: Fantasy in Israeli Literature in 2013. Keren Omry published a wide-ranging survey of Israeli sf in the SFRA Review in the Fall of 2013; her research is reflected in this entry.

Zion's Fiction is a retrospective anthology sequence published in English, edited by Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emanuel Lottem (1944-    ), with two volumes published [see Checklist below] and a third projected. Teitelbaum and Lottem have provided a comprehensive survey of the field for Elana Gomel's and Vered Weiss's projected book of essays, «Israeli Speculative Fiction».

Israeli authors with entries in this encyclopedia include Shi'mon Adaf, Uri Dan, Yael Furman, Ofir Touché Gafla, Guy Hasson, Eli Sagi, Lavie Tidhar, Vered Tochterman, and Nir Yaniv. [ST/EL]

see also: American Cyborg: Steel Warrior; Menachem Talmi.

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