Shifting the guilt

Even though Israeli novelist Agur Schiff’s latest book is meant to be a satirical reflection on the legacy of slavery and stereotypes about Africa, it ends up reinforcing them.

Photo by Andrew Molo on Unsplash.

Reflecting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the former Nazi official who was prosecuted and sentenced to death in Israel in 1961, Hannah Arendt pointed out that there is a difference between political (and collective) responsibility and moral or legal (and personal) guilt. “Every generation, by virtue of being born into a historical continuum, is burdened by the sins of the fathers as it is blessed with the deeds of the ancestors,” Arendt wrote. We assume collective political responsibility because as humans, all of us inevitably live our lives as members of one community or another. “But [this kind of responsibility] is not personal, strictly speaking, and it is only in a metaphorical sense that we can say we feel guilty for the sins of our fathers or our people or of mankind, in short for deeds we have not done.”

Questions of personal guilt, political responsibility, and historical justice and accountability get mixed up in all sorts of ways in Professor Schiff’s Guilt, by Israeli novelist Agur Schiff (translated by Jessica Cohen). With multiple references to the Eichmann trial, this satirical novel follows the travails of Schiff, an Israeli professor whose grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather was a slave trader who also impregnated a 14-year-old slave girl. Upon reading that the remnants of one of his ancestor’s ships were found off the West African coast and transferred to a local “Museum of African Culture” in an unnamed African country, Schiff decides to travel there. He visits the museum, purchases some of the items found in the ship, and is then arrested and prosecuted under the newly enacted Law for Adjudicating Slave Traders and their Accomplices, Heirs, and Beneficiaries.

In a parallel narrative, the novel recounts the events that preceded Schiff’s African journey, in Tel-Aviv. Attorney Melchior owes Schiff money for a screenplay he commissioned. Unable to pay, he instead offers Schiff his African maid. Schiff—who, we are reassured, finds the offer “despicable”—also accepts it immediately. He does so because he falls for the maid, Lucile Tetteh-Ofosu, who captivates him with her “long Nefertiti neck.”After gaining possession of Lucile, Schiff and his wife Tami, who also regards herself as a social activist who cares a great deal about asylum seekers and migrants, decide to attach the maid to Tami’s old and lonely step-grandfather, Grandpa Morduch. Grandpa Morduch is a former ambassador to an unnamed African country as well as a former arms trader—a typical career path for Israeli diplomats in the continent. He asks Lucile to marry him. She accepts.

From accountability and reparations for slavery, through African migration to the “Global North,” racism and orientalism, white privileges and allyship, Western ignorance of Africa, colonial and capitalist exploitation, all the way to Israel’s own dubious history in the continent— countless political issues are thrown around in Schiff’s novel. But the delicate line between intriguing fiction, sharp satire and the implausible, grotesque, or ultimately pointless is crossed early on, as Schiff seemingly attempts to fit into the plot as many ironies, clichés, and references as he possibly can but without bothering to tie them up into a coherent argument. Under the guise of a provocative, daring, and sophisticated satire, what the book offers is an unbaked collection of mundane contrarian statements and a poorly articulated and somewhat swiping critique of contemporary political correctness and notions of historical justice.

For instance, the law under which Professor Schiff is prosecuted is meant to reference the legislation under which Eichmann was prosecuted—the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law, passed by the first Israeli Knesset in 1950. And like Eichmann, Schiff is seated in a glass booth during his trial. Such references will not be lost on any reader versed in Israeli history or transitional justice, but just as other references in the novel, they are so unrefined that it is not clear what the reader is supposed to make of them, if anything. Significant parts of the book are narrated in first person as Schiff’s lengthy monologues in front of the “Special Tribunal,” where his case is adjudicated, full of banal rhetorical questions tinged with a salient tone of self-importance.

Schiff’s research for the book included a trip to Ghana, where the Israeli embassy apparently introduced him to various leaders and intellectuals. To his credit, he gets his clichés right, grounding his fictional, absurd narrative and caricatures in familiar realities and sensibilities. Schiff (the protagonist) and his wife Tami are appropriately annoying as an arrogant and racist couple of liberal boomers from Tel Aviv. Professor Schiff’s impressions of Africa are also exactly what one would expect of his type: “It’s a sad country, where people are always smiling,” he repeatedly tells whoever asks how he finds the place. Within days, he senses a “primordial emotional bond” to the African continent. When Schiff is detained in an old colonial villa, the only thing that really bothers him is the power cuts, which prevent him from listening to Johann Sebastian Bach.

The resemblances between Schiff the novelist and Schiff the protagonist are deliberate, and throughout the book, Schiff (the author-character) repeatedly makes references to the novel he is writing. Toward the end of the story, the protagonist even shares with his investigator a draft of the manuscript. The investigator, George Aboagye, is appalled and advises Schiff not to publish the book. “It is insulting. Disgusting. Ridiculous,” he explains. “There are three elderly white men in your book,” Aboagye adds, “each belonging to a different era, each of whom falls in love with a black woman. These elderly whites are authoritative, wealthy men of stature […] while the black women they fall for are inferior, primitive, and narrow-minded. […] Precisely the stereotypes that drive racists like you, who pose as unbiased observers.”

Defying the suggestion of his own character, Schiff publishes his novel. But this supposedly critical self-reference encapsulates the general thrust of this satire, which hinges on the clumsy conflation of personal guilt with political responsibility while ridiculing both. “The claims against history or against the creators of the present whose origins are in history are unfounded, and that is the main argument in this book,” Schiff explained in an interview with Haaretz. “All of these accounts we are trying to settle with history are not only strange—they are baseless. History has created us, this culture, and it is the outcome of people who operated according to entirely different moral standards. That is it, c’est la vie.” Coming from an author who is a privileged citizen of an apartheid state—one injustice with deep colonial roots that is left untouched in the novel—this argument is unfortunate but hardly shocking.

Unsurprisingly, with few exceptions, the novel received positive reviews in Israel. The primary target audience of the original Hebrew version of the novel was presumably Israeli Zionist liberal elites—a community that has long been preoccupied with reconciling progressive aspirations with racism and relentless support of settler colonialism. For such readers, the political message of the novel (and the lack of references to Palestine) is obviously convenient. Moreover, Israeli popular discourse about Africa is so deeply and blindly steeped in Orientalist tropes, that there is little chance that Israeli readers will find Schiff’s characters and descriptions tiring and stereotypical rather than creative or revealing. Its critical façade notwithstanding, Schiff’s novel ultimately continues a long tradition in Israeli public culture in which (the idea of) Africa serves as a backdrop for self-reflection on the ambiguous racial and moral positionalities of Zionists and Jews in the postcolonial world.

One gets the sense that Schiff wants us to appreciate his willingness to admit his guilt. But his martyrdom is unsolicited, not least because it is merely a rhetorical game. It is neither the foundation for an illuminating discussion of white liberal sensibilities and wilful ignorance nor a call for action. On the contrary: it is an invitation to sit back, laugh, and comfortably acknowledge that things are the way they are and that is it. The outcome, intentionally or not, is a text that confusingly belittles any form of historical justice and perhaps any notion of justice whatsoever as cynical and pointless, from the Eichmann trial to calls for reparations for slavery. Schiff intends it to be provocative and funny. I suspect many will find it entirely superfluous.

Further Reading