What can we learn from alternative Israels?

Earlier this year, I started working on a project looking at manifestations of the Jewish state in alternative history literature. The seemingly intractable weeping wound that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, of course, a product of history, but a history which seems increasingly without any obvious resolution, or rather, one in which the much-vaunted two-state solution appears to satisfy almost no one.

After working on Science Fiction and Catholicism for some years, it seemed obvious to continue that work by examining Buddhist futurism. A book on this will, in the fullness of time, emerge, but for now readers will have to be satisfied with the sole tangible output to date, an article on Buddhist reception in Pulp Science Fiction. (Another on Arthur C. Clarke’s crypto-Buddhism, and one on the Zen influence over Frank Herbert’s Dune are also due to arrive in public shortly.)

But a second offshoot from that work on Catholic Futurism began to take shape in relation to Israel. Specifically, I wrote a chapter in that book on the cultural anxieties revealed by how Anglophone writers dealt with Catholicism through alternative history. The other timelines imagined by those writers were uniformally negative, envisaging retrograde Catholic empires crushing all science, innovation and progress under its clerical jackboot heel, which runs rather counter to the significant amount of support Catholicism has tended to offer to scientists historically.

Indeed, it says much more about how Anglophone writers, and specifically how ENGLAND perceives Catholicism – not as a cultural taproot but rather as a kind of fifth column infiltration which threatens their survival in an existentialist sense. This sentiment, I sometimes feel, is the archeological origin of things like opposition to the EU and the Brexit campaign.

Anyhow, when I began examining alternative history as a mode for exposing such cultural anxieties, it became quickly evident that the alternative timelines different cultures are drawn to evoke are a little like Rorschach blot tests, identifying their cultural anxieties in very clear ways.

As a test case, I chose Israel, primarily because it is in one sense a new nation, in another a very old one. Also, many writers of alternative history are culturally Jewish and this mode of artistic exploration is one that they are often drawn to. I was not disappointed by the results, and have been incorporating this work into my broader research project examining speculative geographies in literature.

Alternative histories about Israel reveal a series of cultural anxieties, from the obvious fear of Jewish annihilation (in early history at the hands of the Babylonians, Pharaonic Egypt or the Romans, but also during medieval pogroms in Europe, and obviously arising from the holocaust), as well as imagined reversals of such annihilation (particularly the fantasy of Judaic global dominance, sometimes by converting the Roman Empire).

There is a particular phylum of these alternative histories which explores other geographic locations for a Jewish ethno-state. This is also real-world history, as the Zionist Council under Theodor Herzl did indeed consider locations other than historic Palestine for the creation of such a state. Actually many locations were seriously considered, by both Zionists and non-Zionists, and some territories were even offered by certain nations, during the interim between the emergence of Zionism as a political movement in the late 19th century and the creation of Israel in 1948.

I’ve been examining the literary manifestations of these real-world alternatives, to see in what way they unveil cultural anxiety about both the conflict with Palestinians and the Jewish relationship with Europe (from whence many current Israelis, especially the Ashkenazim, derive much of their cultural inheritance). This work has identified a strong sense of determinism about the current location of Israel which interestingly is secular and not predicated upon the religious diktat of the Old Testament (though of course the Promised Land of Eretz Israel remains a significant cultural driver within Israel itself, especially among the Orthodox community.)

I hope to publish something on this soon, when I get a moment. But for now, all I can offer you is a slide or two (above) from my latest conference presentation on the matter, which took place at the Specfic conference at Lund University in Sweden last week.

Academic Conference Appearances are like Late Night Buses

In that they offer uncomfortable seating and there’s usually some guy ranting incoherently while everyone else avoids eye contact.

Also, you wait ages for one and then a whole bunch arrive at once.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, relating primarily to parenthood, emigration and writing commitments, I’d not actually been to a conference in over a year, until I was invited to take part in this excellent one-day event on Literature, Cultural Studies, and Translation. It was my first conference held in Cyberspace, so I finally got to experience the Zoom fatigue everyone else has been complaining about for 18 months.

Speaking on Nadsat in translation alongside Benet Vincent.

Anyhow, it was an excellent, eclectic and engaging experience, for which I must thank the organisers at Cappadocia University. And it has spurred me into action to do a few more. Often, one thing which precluded attending conferences was the same reason which rendered them appealing – that you had to visit a different location. The upside to Zoom-fatigue conferencing is the same as the downside – it can and will be done from one’s back bedroom. So, newly emboldened, I’ve re-engaged on the conference circuit and have a few abstracts accepted already for the forthcoming year, primarily on religious futurism topics.

Next up is an especially busy conference, as I’ll be presenting not one but two papers in two days. I’d link to SFRA 2021, except you have to be a member and pay to attend. If that is you, then please pop in to listen to my papers. I hope you find them interesting.

I’ve already mentioned the first paper here, which will examine Israel in Alt-History. The other relates to my long-running SF and Buddhism project and takes us up to the Sixties:

There is, of course, four days worth of exceptional SF research, not to mention roundtables, keynotes and discussion. If you’re not an SFRA member, you should definitely consider joining and (virtually) coming along to the conference. There are too many papers I’m looking forward to hearing (childminding permitting) but most of all I’m excited about my fellow panel members. I’m on two amazing panels, one on Israel and Palestine in SF and one on religious futurisms.

We might even have a little announcement to make too. More of that after the event.

Another Israel is Possible

Once again serious trouble and violence has erupted between Israel and Palestinians. Elswhere there is no end of discussion and commentariat media and social media prepared to offer their speculations and insights into why this is currently occurring.

Also prevalent are the ideas many people have about how to resolve this seemingly intractable problem. Two-state solutions, Eretz Israel solutions, walls… all these and more are being argued across the web.

I’m not intending to replicate any of that. Instead I will simply offer a solution that would work and yet at the same time will never take place, except of course, in another timeline, where it already has.

Next month at the SFRA 2021 conference, I’ll be talking about the Jewish states that Zionism pursued and failed to implement, for one reason or another, and how that has manifested in alt-history literature.

For now, though, all I can do is offer you the frontispiece from my talk:

Middle Eastern Futurism

The MOSF Journal of Science Fiction has produced a fascinating special edition volume focused on what they term Middle Eastern SF (though the inclusion of an article on Iranian ‘theory fiction’ writer Reza Negarestani suggests a somewhat expansive understanding of Middle East).

It’s not especially focused on religious futurism, despite the inclusion of a review of Jorg Determann’s book (my own review of which is pending publication in the next edition of Foundation.)

Nevertheless, there is much of interest here for those curious to know more about Arab futurism, Gulf futurism and the interactions between Israeli and Palestinian SF especially. Highly recommended.