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“La más antigua de las naciones es también la más joven”: Reading Borges with today's Israel

Einav Grushka reads Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges alongside the political turmoil rocking Israel in 2023

Jorge Luis Borges and David Ben Gurion (from Fundación Internacional Raoul Wallenberg)

The year is 2023. Israel has just celebrated its 75th birthday. 75 years young, but old at heart. This duality of youth and antiquity was a prime dialectic adopted by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in his reflections on the State of Israel. His poems remain vastly understudied: ‘Israel’ and ‘A Israel’, published during the 1967 Six-Day War, and ‘Israel, 1969’, composed after Borges’ first visit to the country at the invitation of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister.

Borges’ fascination with Judaism, Kabbalah, and rather specifically, with the Tetragrammaton – the Hebrew theonym – is evident in his short stories from the collections Ficciones and El Aleph. A non-Jew himself, a question arises; Why such profound magnetism towards Judaism and Israel? Borges is clear on the matter: “I think my passion for Israel comes from my English grandmother. She was a Protestant, which means that she was a reader of the Bible”, adding, “I grew up in a biblical environment, which is to say in a Jewish environment”. For him, Judaism marks “el punto de partido de todo” (the starting point for everything), the root of Western ethics, intellectualism and civilisation, thanks to the multicultural and intellectual prominence of the Jewish diaspora. It comes as no surprise then, that roots and heritage are vital themes in his corpus on Israel.

‘A Israel’ begins with a contemplation: “¿Quién me dirá si estás en el perdido / laberinto de ríos seculares / de mi sangre, Israel? ¿Quién los lugares / que mi sangre y tu sangre han recorrido?” (Who shall tell if you, Israel, are to be found in the lost labyrinths of century-old rivers that is my blood? Who shall locate the alleys through which my blood and yours have navigated?). In this extended metaphor, Borges notes the impossible labyrinthine search for a foundational centre, instead pondering the possibility of a sanguine lineage to Judaism. Addressing Israel as a referent, the poetic voice continues: “sé que estás en el sagrado / libro que abarca el tiempo y que la historia / del rojo Adán rescata y la memoria / y la agonía del Crucificado” (I know that you are in the Sacred Book that spans time, that safeguards the history of the red Adam, as well as the memory and agony of the crucified one).

"Borges connects a rupture from diasporic nostalgia with the establishment of the State of Israel"

The dual allusion to Judaism alongside Christianity marks a clear merging of the faiths, but is more immediately striking is the image of red Adam. In his analysis of the poem, Yizhak Lewis emphasises Hebrew etymology: the name Adam shares a root with both ‘adom’, meaning ‘red’, and ‘adama’ meaning ‘earth’. Thus, the quasi-tautological reference to ‘red Adam’ is indicative of Borges’ attempt to quite literally ground the histories together, marking Judaism as the base of both civilisation and time. On an intellectual level, his fascination grew through his readings of Buber and Scholem. It is, as Lewis recognises, following Scholem’s logic concerning the break of diasporic messianic tradition with the development of a Jewish national imagination, that Israel enters the conversation.

Borges’ political support for Israel was undeniable and unwavering, despite certain ponderings on the nature of its values. A prayer in light of the Six-Day War, referencing the battle in the old city of Jerusalem is heard in ‘A Israel’: “Salve, Israel, que guardas la muralla / de Dios, en la pasión de tu batalla” (Long live Israel, as you guard God’s wall in your passionate battle). Yet, two years later, in ‘Israel, 1969’, Borges expressed a certain fear; that the very element that he appreciated most – the rich religious and intellectual culture of the Jewish diaspora – would be somewhat threatened by Israel’s existence, connecting a rupture from diasporic nostalgia with the establishment of the State of Israel:

“¿Qué otra cosa eras, Israel, sino esa nostalgia, / sino esa voluntad de salvar, / entre las inconstantes formas del tiempo, / tu viejo libro mágico, tus liturgias, / tu soledad con Dios? / No así. La más antigua de las naciones / es también la más joven.” (What else were you, Israel, if not that nostalgia, if not that will to save from the unpredictable shapes of time, your old mystical book, your liturgy, your solitude with God? I was wrong. The oldest of nations is also the youngest).

Across these poems, Borges repeatedly notes the impassioned fight for Israel’s existence, and equally his own desire to witness the Jewish essence flourish. He accentuates the idealistic unification of the Jewish diaspora post World War Two. Here, the politics of old and new, symbolised by fundamentally Jewish and modern Israeli spirits are in constant dialogue in light of the creation of a new national experience. Counteracting the focus on nostalgia, is the anaphoric reference to forgetting diasporic past: “Israel les ha dicho sin palabras : / olvidarás quien eres. / Olvidarás al otro que dejaste. / [...] Olvidarás la lengua de tus padres y aprenderás la lengua del Paraíso” (Israel has announced without words: you shall forget who you are. You shall forget the person you used to be. [...] You shall forget your parents’ tongue and learn the language of paradise).

"Read against the current political backdrop, it is clear that the collective is shattered. Now, Israeli society finds itself divided, broken and bleeding"

If Borges feared that Israel would forget the values that, for him, lay at the centre of everything, he was arguably right. Perhaps it is more a question of the naivety of his idealistic view of the country and its society, noted down creatively in the whirlwind of war. Today that very society is experiencing drastic shifts or rather, hurricanes in the form of strong and unprecedented social and political currents. These storms are what turn Borges’ utopian visions from the 1960s into modern-day fallacies.

Today, reading these heroic-sounding poems stings a little. To use Borges’ rhetoric, you could even say that it is the sting of a certain nostalgia: the nostalgia for the vision of nationhood that Israel represented to the writer. Read against the current political backdrop, it is clear that the collective is shattered. Now, Israeli society finds itself divided, broken and bleeding. Entering the sixth month of mobilisation against the Netanyahu government and its planned judicial overhaul, the country is ablaze, and politicians calling for counter-mobilisations are laying the groundwork for brewing violence. Israel’s current reality is one in which a possibly irreversible wedge is being driven between citizens, and in which the now standardised, even institutionalised incitation to hatred seemingly explodes Borges’ view of a cooperative state from its very centre.

In the heart of the Israeli government, the extreme right is rapidly gaining force. Cries for the implementation of the death penalty for terrorists (the definition of which remains itself problematic), and continued rallies for the construction of settlements in the West Bank take increasing priority over discussions to strengthen national security and ensure political stability. It is unsurprising that warnings of a Third Intifada are rife, that terror attacks are on the rise from the old city of Jerusalem to the beaches of Tel Aviv, and that ultra-nationalist settlers have taken to violence against Arab-Israeli citizens. Israel is internally wounded, this fact in itself posing as an essential catalyst for renewals in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, of which Israel’s military operation in the Gaza strip, ‘Operation Shield and Arrow’ is the latest example.

"What we are witnessing is, ludicrously, the inverted mirror image of Borges’ ideal, a paradox in the making"

Borges was hardly naive regarding the essential issue of security threats that has haunted Israel since its creation. His poems resonate as rather Zionist, despite his rejection of the term. He supported and acknowledged the importance of founding a Jewish state despite publicly opposing the joining of state and religion in other contexts. However, in his Post-War understanding, the state was to merge the shattered fragments of a broken and traumatised Jewish people. The strength that he hoped they would find in unity would allow for the renaissance of the values that he hailed so greatly in his corpus. Israel, as he would have it, would be a safe-haven for intellectual and philosophical prosperity. Today, however, rather than signalling a coming-together, the rising tensions between Israel and its neighbours feed off of its internal fracture and fragility. What we are witnessing is, ludicrously, the inverted mirror image of Borges’ ideal, a paradox in the making.

In ‘Israel, 1969’, Borges associates unconditional fraternity with Israel: “Trabajará contigo tu hermano, cuya cara no has visto nunca” (Your brother, whose face you have never seen, will work alongside you). All citizens as brothers. How disappointed Borges would be to see Israeli society on the cusp of civil war, ‘a war of brothers’ as translates the Hebrew. Now, the battle extends questions of political left and right, and the fissure is also intra-communal, a gap re-carved between Jews of Ashkenazi and Sephardic origins for example, fuelled by public figures and media outlets accused of dispersing fake news. The diverse roots of the Jewish diaspora and the beauty that Borges associated with such heterogeneity, as the source of innovation and excellence, seem somewhat lost. This spreading chaos is tipping the balance on the Israeli political and social scene, as the value of Israeli democracy is also slipping, if not long gone.

Borges writes of the collective Jew as, “un hombre que se obstina en ser inmortal / y que ahora ha vuelto a su batalla, / a la violenta luz de la victoria, / hermoso como un león al mediodía” (a man insistent on being immortal and who has now returned to fight his battle, to the vicious light of victory, beautiful like a lion at noon). Such alliterative glory seems far removed from reality today. For some political agents, the growing desire for the immortality of a unanimous and strictly religious spirit has gone too far, to the point of rupturing values of state and attacking those of secular Israel. It is true that the spirit of Judaism, even to its most orthodox, mystic core, inspired some of Borges’ greatest works such as the short story La muerte y la brújula, a work of detective fiction composed in line with the mathematical logic of Kabbalah. I have no doubt, however, that he would have harshly opposed the attempt to re-model the field by forcing religious values on the entirety of Israeli society today, secular or otherwise.

‘Israel, 1969’ ends on a powerful note: “una sola cosa te prometemos: / tu puesto en la batalla” (Only one thing is promised: your place on the battlefield). Borges treats the Jewish figure as immortal. His past is implicated in a constantly developing future via the ongoing battle for his home and the expression of his faith. The battle of which he speaks persists today. Borges mentions no enemy by name, however clearly, menaces are far from lacking. Reading these works today, the symbolic and visible threat adopts a new face; it is both external and internal. Analysing his poems, Lewis notes, “Israel is an amnesic rupture, announcing a new turn in Jewish existence”, and yet it seems as though today, we need urgently rewind to a time before such memory-loss, only to realise, as Borges did, that no matter where we came from, we are of the same sanguine labyrinth.

Fundamentally, Borges’ vision is unrealistic. It is rather beautiful, but naive. After all, he loved to merge fiction and reality, imagining a rather confusing alter-reality. Edna Aizenberg stated that Borges viewed Judaism as “the antithesis of ultra-nationalism, religious intolerance and xenophobia”, all of which, ironically, are on the rise in Israel today, and I wonder how he would have proposed to restore the balance. I don’t believe that he would see all hope lost, not for society, nor democracy. There is no better demonstration of a people’s democratic essence than the protests spreading across the country each week. A large portion of Israeli society is still vibrating with a thirst for its liberties, all of which fundamentally engender both a striking creativity, and an intellectual fervour of which Borges would undoubtedly be proud. Still, for such vibrancy to flourish, the scale needs to be re-zeroed.

As a final reflection regarding national identity, a vital element is highlighted in ‘Israel, 1969’: “serás un israeli, serás un soldado” (You will be an Israeli, you will be a soldier). Here, Borges alludes to Israel’s law of conscription, one that he views as symbolising a sense of brotherhood or unity. In reality, the question of military service is itself politically divisive, bleeding problematically into the core of the government. Perhaps now the definition of ‘the soldier’ is different altogether, as that soldier is busy fighting other battles, or rather, additional ones to those Borges ascertained. Borges’ assertive voice here is ironic; there is nothing stable about the face of the soldier he alludes to, far less that of the Israeli. And, as for Borges’ future tense confidence… well no one really knows in which direction the country’s face is turned, caught in the current vertiginous crossroad.

The idea of defining Israeli identity is impossible, and made additionally challenging with the country suffering an existential crisis. It is fluid, or as Borges would have it, labyrinthine and endless, perhaps even timeless. A lot has changed since Borges reflected on the identity of the newborn State and now, striving to make a reality of his dream-fiction seems far-fetched. Besides, quite frankly, I think that even he would agree that by now, we are well beyond the point of definitions.


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