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When Literary Censorship Is Not Strictly Enforced, Self-Censorship Rushes In

  • Nitsa Ben-Ari

…plus d’informations

  • Nitsa Ben-Ari
    Tel-Aviv University, The Porter School of Cultural Studies, Ramat-Aviv, Tel Aviv 69978 Israel

Couverture de Censure et traduction en deçà et au-delà du monde occidental, Volume 23, numéro 2, 2e semestre 2010, p. 9-290, TTR : traduction, terminologie, rédaction

Corps de l’article

Consciously or unconsciously, people censor themselves—they don’t need to be called into line.

Pierre Bourdieu [1]


Contemporary usage of the term censorship, especially in liberal societies, refrains from providing an agreed-upon definition; in fact, even the term itself and whether or not it is applicable in art seems to be vigorously contested. [2] This may be the result of blurred lines between formal censorship, embedded in State or religious law, and normative censorship, enforced by means of norms, and between the latter and self-censorship (including, for example, the current tendency to minimize social offense in the form of Political Correctness), at a time when and in a place where formal censorship laws are less strictly enforced. However, if we accept that the key words in most definitions involve the imposedact (suppression or deletion), the object on which it is imposed (any communicative material), and the authority enforcing it (represented by the censor), we have the core of the process covered. Two supplementary elements could then be the public for the benefit of whom censorship is to be imposed and the enforcement mechanism involved in seeing that it is indeed accomplished. The public is always “another”; as Californian writer and critic Joseph Henry Jackson so eloquently put it: “Did you ever hear anyone say, ‘That work had better be banned because I might read it and it might be very damaging to me’?” [3] The authorities that enforce a law, rule or norm may be any social institution that has been given the power to do so by the State or the Community. The time factor determines whether the process is preventive (prior censorship) or punitive (post-censorship), and will have a bearing on the subsequent discussion.

If we understand censorship to be the suppression or deletion of material considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to authorities, which is enforced by the relevant institutions, represented by the censor on whom censorship responsibilities are conferred, [4] then one very common occurrence of censorship remains nevertheless elusive: voluntary self-censorship or self-imposed censorship. Once we rule out the imposed from above element, it follows that censorship can be imposed from within the individual, with the outer and inner censor converging. Self-censorship would be, as the online edition of the Cambridge Dictionary describes it, “control of what you say or do in order to avoid annoying or offending others, but without being told officially that such control is necessary” (Available at: <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/self-censorship> [consulted 16 June 2009]). And the decision to self-censor would result from the implicit understanding of or complete identification with the official censor’s views of what may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the particular public that censorship is supposedly safeguarding. As in the case of formal censorship, benefit or retribution will be expected in exchange for acquiescence or dissent. But since self-censorship involves an implicit understanding of when and what control should be exercised, it is subsequently more subtle: in fact, it is so deeply rooted a mechanism that it has become a term in psychology, meaning the agent in the unconscious that is responsible for censorship (see Miller, 2006, p. xi; Merkle, 2002, pp. 9-18).

As for censorship exercised in translation, Antonia Keratsa offers the following definition: “[all] manipulatory mechanisms used as an assault on original texts in order to alter their meaning and exclude the reader from the choices made in the source language” (Keratsa, 2005, n.p.). While applicable to totalitarian regimes that are the object of Keratsa’s case study, this definition would be too narrow for the general purposes of TS, because of its inherent assumption that the process is essentially “negative” (i.e., the process manipulates, assaults, alters, excludes). It would also be problematic, because selection and manipulation mechanisms (“exclusion procedures” as Michaela Wolf calls them (2002, pp. 45-61)) are inherent to every translation process. The definition would of course also be irrelevant by postmodern post-structuralist standards, where terms such as “the original” and “meaning” have been problematized. By these standards, for almost fifty years now, a translation has come to be regarded as a text about a text or a form of metatext (Tymoczko, 2009, p. 27). The conclusion is that the relationship between censorship and translation, censor and text is too multi-faceted to capture in one elegant definition. Since so many socio-political and socio-cultural contexts are involved, charged with ethical, psychological and nationalistic considerations, it is indeed the accessibility of culture that is put to the test here. [5]

Whereas formal censorship can be traced back relatively easily to a set of (written) laws or rules, how can one pinpoint the origin of the constraints (cultural, political, ideological, historical, religious, economic, aesthetic, gender-driven, psychological) that may have motivated the choices made by the translator, editor or publisher, male or female, experienced or inexperienced, seemingly unburdened by formal censorship? If there are roughly four categories of censorship (self-censorship, preventive censorship, repressive censorship and structural censorship [6]), would the translator start with self-censorship or end with it? Would self-censorship, so deeply embedded in normative socio-cultural conduct, be the starting-point or an end-product? Would self-censorship spring into action to reproduce and consolidate a certain world view or power structure in more subtle ways—to the point of being unconscious—than formal censorship? Is it a question of hegemony, to use Gramsci’s term, secured through constant negotiations between dominant and subordinate groups, or a human tendency to conform to norms? (see Tymoczko, 2009, pp. 30-31)

This essay will take up the issue of self-censorship in literature and, in particular, translated literature in Israel. Though translated literature may in some cases escape the censor’s attention or be treated with greater leniency because it is the product of some “Other’s” culture (Lefevere, 1990, pp. 14-28), such was not the case in Israel, where the beginning, indeed the foundation, of the new Hebrew literature was based on translation. The essay will start with the basic assumption that, in a young multi-cultural state, built on immigration and the ruins of European Jewry, torn between Europe, Africa and Asia, and between conflicting ideologies, and caught up in a constant battle for its very existence, issues of censorship and self-censorship will tend to be even more intricately intertwined, yet elusive. We will begin by briefly describing formal literary censorship in Israel shortly before and after 1948, then proceed with a discussion on the more subtle self-censorship. The reason for this is two-fold: first, self-censorship seems to be a sophisticated, crafty form of formal censorship, and consequently more pervasive and effective; second, since the two are interlaced, studying the latter may enhance understanding of how the first operates.

The first case will illustrate manipulation of translated texts for religious and cultural reasons. I have already described the way Christianity and Christ are dealt with in translated Hebrew literature (see Ben-Ari, 2002, pp. 263-301). Here, I will discuss the way “pig,” as animal and meat, is handled in translated literature, particularly for children and youth. [7] The second case will deal with self-censorship of what is deemed to be obscenity in translated literature. Again, having elaborated on this in previous research (Ben-Ari, 2006a), I will focus here on the mechanism of self-censorship, trying to draw conclusions that may be pertinent to Hebrew culture as well as other cultures. I will conclude with a brief description of a modern case, testimony to the many ways that (self-)censorship mechanisms operate. The case studies will illustrate self-censorship that sometimes emanates from pragmatic gain and loss considerations, but that mainly reacts to strong taboos with roots going as far back as biblical times. Some historical background will be necessary to uncover their otherwise inexplicable force.

Part One: Censorship Laws

While Israel, like the United Kingdom and New Zealand, has no written constitution codified in a single document, it does have a set of Basic Laws, intended as a basis for a future constitution (Available at: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_Laws_of_Israel> [consulted 16 June 2009]). Its legal system is essentially comprised of remnants of Ottoman law (in force until 1917), British Mandate laws (which incorporate a large body of English Common Law), and elements of Jewish religious laws. Over the years, a body of case law has been compiled through Supreme Court rulings which protect civil liberties, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and equality as fundamental values of Israel’s legal system (Available at: <http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Facts+About+Israel/State/THE+STATE-+The+Law+of+the+Land.htm> [consulted 16 June 2009].)

Censorship covering two broad areas was inherited from the British Mandate of Palestine (1920-1948). The first was censorship of military material with an impact on national security, the second, censorship of obscene material. As is the case in British law, the definition of obscene remains vague. However, it is linked in Israel with the wish to protect Holocaust survivors. Consequently, Nazi publications (Hitler’s writings, for instance, or other notorious anti-Semitic propaganda that might be offensive to survivors) come under the definition of obscene. [8]

In the area of national security, Israel enforces media censorship laws, based on British emergency regulations in effect since 1945, that apply to domestic media, foreign newspapers and wire service transmissions from or via Israel. In 1966, the Censorship Agreement was signed between media representatives and the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). The media agreed to abide by the orders of the Military Censor, while the IDF agreed not to abuse its role. [9]

Since the country is deemed to be under constant threat, emergency regulations are the norm. One very common way for Israeli media to circumvent censorship is to leak items to foreign news sources, which, by virtue of being located outside of Israel, are not subject to Israeli law. Once these items have been published elsewhere, the Israeli media can simply quote these “foreign sources.” Other methods have been adopted as well. In 1960, for instance, a science-fiction story for youth was published by journalist Zeev Galili about a quasi-imaginary Nazi named “Rudolf Teichmann,” when in reality it told the story of Adolph Eichmann’s kidnapping and featured Eichmann’s picture on the cover. [10]

Under the prevailing emergency regulations, certain subjects have remained strictly taboo until today. This has a direct impact on translation. Victor Ostrovsky, an embittered Mossad [11] agent (employed for barely two years from 1982 to 1984), published his book By Way of Deception, in Canada in 1990 in co-production with Canadian journalist Claire Hoy, revealing the foreign intelligence service’s infrastructure and activities, and exposing secret agents. Ostrovsky’s book was pre-censored in Israel, for it violated his work contract and could endanger lives. The Israeli government filed law-suits against him in both Canada and the United States and sought injunctions against publication. In a surprising decision that outraged US media, a judge in New York granted the request at a 1 a.m. hearing held in his home. Within 24 hours the New York Supreme Court overturned the decision, but the resulting publicity focused national attention on Ostrovsky’s story and guaranteed international success. [12] The scandal probably contributed to making the book the New York Times No. 1 bestseller of 1990.

Another sacred cow by Israeli standards is any violation of the ambiguity surrounding its nuclear program. Dr. Avner Cohen’s Israel and the Bomb was the first Israeli book to provide a detailed account of Israel’s nuclear history. It was published in the US by Columbia University Press in 1998, after having been rejected by the Israeli censor. The book did appear later in Hebrew translation (2000, Shoken Publishing, Jerusalem), since Cohen was able to prove that he had used material that was available to the public; there was thus no point in keeping it censored in Israel once it was available elsewhere. In a way, Cohen’s story may serve as an interesting case of self-censorship as well, for his attitude has gradually changed, from antagonistic to supportive of Israel’s nuclear program policy. In addition, over the years he developed close contacts with his previous opponents. The translation of Ostrovsky’s book, on the contrary, was not authorized.

British tradition influenced obscenity legislation even before the British Mandatory Rule was promulgated. Puritan values infiltrated Israel when the country was part of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century, with the arrival of the first waves of immigrants from Europe. Thirty years of British Mandate until the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel enhanced its spread, especially with the introduction of the British Obscenity Laws into Israeli Mandatory Law in 1936. [13] Although puritan values seemed to clash with a counter-ideology borrowed from the Bolshevik revolution—sexual freedom and gender equality— they finally prevailed. After the establishment of the State of Israel, British law was readopted, but the penalties were even more severe than before (three years imprisonment, i.e., more than the maximum of two years under British law) (see Ben-Ari, 2006a, pp. 45-53). A series of coalition governments comprised of small parties, including Orthodox parties, created situations which helped maintain the status quo in these matters. As late as 1968, a Committee with Judge Witkon at its head recommended that literature, art and science be allowed to develop freely, at the risk of publishing obscene material. Among its members was Amos Oz, today one of Israel’s prominent writers, then a young teacher. But the Committee’s conclusions did not have any legislative follow-up. The 1977 upheaval that brought the right-wing parties to power only strengthened the influence of the religious factions.

Three comments must be added to elucidate the role of formal censorship in Israel:

  1. The law was very lenient when it came to literature. Whereas two Mandatory laws from 1927 prevented the screening of movies or the production of plays without the pre-authorization of a censorship board (which, despite continuous parliamentary and public debate continued to interfere with cinema and theater until the late 1990s), books were spared.

  2. There is no list of forbidden books in Israel, nor has there ever been such a list. No book is forbidden per se, unless it contravenes the criminal law. [14]

  3. There is no statutory decree that authorizes courts to destroy material considered obscene, as has existed in England since 1857. (Available at: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obscene_Publications_Act_1857> [consulted 16 June 2009].)

These are significant points to remember when analyzing the intricacy of formal censorship and self-censorship operating in Israel. The following case studies will illustrate that the line between them is not clear cut. Since the subject is too vast to explore fully in a short essay, I propose to concentrate on two significant cases.

Part Two: Cases

Case I: Self-Censorship in Children’s Literature: Pig and Pork in Translations

The Hebrew word hazir, literally “pig,” refers to both the animal and the meat. Since it is a forbidden food, Hebrew does not have a specific word for “pork.” [15] Not that Hebrew has elaborated on culinary differentiations such as these in the case of kosher animals. Yet, whereas the general terms bakar (cattle) and of (poultry) have become polysemic by necessity, designating the animal-category as well as the meat, “pig”and “pork,” still taboo, have to make do with one word. Coupled with the fact that no synonyms or derivatives of “pig” and “pork” exist in Hebrew (swine, hog, boar, sow, lard, bacon, ham, to mention but the most common), this has resulted in recurrent translation constraints.

The usage of “pig” as a metaphor for uncleanliness, and therefore also a swear word, exists in Hebrew as well as in many other languages (such as Arabic, since pork is forbidden meat for Muslims as well), yet there are cultures where the pig or boar are considered not only acceptable but even holy. In Hebrew, the word hazir has accumulated a wide spectrum of negative connotations that go far beyond its metaphorical use and Jewish culinary or dietary restrictions.

Why does the word carry such negative connotations in Hebrew, when names of other unclean or non-kosher animals don’t? [16] Prohibition of the pig started of course with the biblical dietary law, according to which “whatever parts the hoof and is cloven footed and chews the cud among animals, you may eat” (Lev. 11:1, 7; also repeated in Det. 14:3-10). In his Moreh Nevochim [17] (3rd part, chapter 48), the renowned Torah scholar Moses Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe Ben-Maimon), who was court physician to the Islamic emperor Saladin during the 12th century in Egypt and therefore may have been deferring to his emperor, who could eat every other meat but pork, explains the law by claiming pigs live in filth and eat filth (excrement). Yet the pig’s penchant for excrement is not a defect of its nature, rather it is a defect of the husbandry of its human masters. Moreover, other animals, such as goats and chickens, are also known to eat dung. Anthropologist Mary Douglas (Douglas, 1966, pp. 36-51) and neo-materialist Marvin Harris (Harris, 1985, pp. 54-71) reject pseudo-medical justifications, providing significant arguments from economics and anthropology to explain why pig husbandry was unacceptable to the tribes of Israel. The fall of the Middle Eastern pig, it is argued, could be attributed to the nomadic nature of the Israelites, and later also to deforestation and the increase in the human population that made raising pigs too costly (ibid., pp. 75-76). At least three other cultures in the ancient Middle East, the Phoenician, the Egyptian, and the Babylonian, were as put off by pigs as was the Israeli culture, thus invalidating the argument that the Israelites were forbidden pork as a means of distinguishing them from their neighbors. [18]

Unfortunately, this attitude to pigs did not stop in ancient times. Jewish aversion to pigs grew over the centuries, when other nations used the animal to oppress the Jews. This accounts for the strong emotional reaction to “pig” and “pork” in Jewish culture today. Claudine Fabre-Vassas cites numerous examples, starting with the time of the Maccabees, in 167 BC, when Jews were martyred if they refused to eat pork and sacrifice pigs on the altar in the temple (1994, pp. 97-193). She examines Christian attitudes towards Jews, particularly during the Middle Ages, when Jews were associated with the pig’s “negative” traits. Studying Christian Europe from the Middle Ages to the present, she discovers an intricate pattern of self-definition in which Christians drew the boundaries of who they were by contrasting themselves to Jews through rituals of eating pork (ibid., p. 147). [19] By carefully detailing folkloric beliefs and rituals associated with the slaughter and consumption of pigs, Fabre-Vassas also illuminates patterns of anti-Semitism that ran deep in Christian villages and towns. She cites wide-spread European legends that associated Jews with pigs, such as when Jesus turns a Jewess and her babies into a sow with its piglets, just to name one. [20] Ever since then, so the legend goes, Jews refuse to eat pork, lest they consume their own offspring. According to Fabre-Vassas, such legends may explain why, in so many European countries, the words “Jew” and “pig” became synonymous. [21]

With this background overview in mind, we move forward to present-day Israel for a brief glance at the status of “pig” and “pork” in Israeli law. In the 1950s, religious parties tried to impose a law forbidding the raising of pigs in Israel, to which the Labor parties objected. The result was a compromise that gave each municipality the right to decide whether or not to forbid or limit pork husbandry within its boundaries. The Supreme Court, however, decreed that municipalities could not make decisions pertaining to religion and faith, and deferred the issue back to parliament. In 1962 a law was passed in the Knesset forbidding pork husbandry. Exempt were municipalities with large Christian populations. The law did not deal specifically with selling or buying pork, and in 1985 there was an attempt to include these activities in it, but the motion was rejected. In 1992, with the re-evaluation of basic laws on the one hand, and increased sales of pork (especially to Russian immigrants) on the other, the law was re-examined, with the result that municipalities could no longer prohibit the sale of the meat. In 2004 the Supreme Court decreed that the sale of pork should be allowed in any district where there was demand for it or where the majority did not disapprove of it.

Hebrew, however, did not catch up with the liberalization of the law. Till today, the words “pig” and its meat seem to need sanitizing. For this reason, Israelis buying it or ordering it in restaurants usually refer to it as “the other meat’ or “white meat.” Instead of creating new Hebrew words for foods such as “bacon” or “ham,” Israelis have borrowed the English words, as a form of xenism, if not euphemism. Most present-day Israelis are not aware of the historical identity-related implications of pork-eaters versus non pork-eaters, nor are they acquainted with the many anti-Semitic legends associating Jews with pigs, yet the need to sanitize the word seems to be pre-programmed.

Hypothetically at least, literature, especially translated literature, should have been exempt from the dietary rule controversies. After all, there has never been a law, decree or rule to the effect that pigs cannot appear in written texts, literary or otherwise, nor is there a law that forbids non-Jewish (or Jewish, for that matter) literary figures to eat pork. Yet, especially in translated literature for children and youth, there is a recurring censorial procedure: while the animal—pig—is usually allowed to stay, pork is eliminated. [22] However, in stories where the pig is the main figure, the book is not likely to be translated. Erich Kästner’s 1931 children’s story “Das Schwein beim Friseur” [“The Pig at the Barbershop”] was translated once in 1964 as “Ha’tayish etzel ha’sapar” [“The Billy-goat at the Barbershop”] by Ya’acov Adini for Yizre’el Publishing. The book has had repeated reprints, but no other, more adequate, translation was initiated, though most other books by Kästner, translated from the 1940s and onwards, were adequately re-translated in the 1990s. The interesting detail about this version is that, although it claims to have the original Horst Lemke illustrations, the original pig “metamorphosed” into a goat. Leipzig-born caricaturist Friedl Stern is said to have made the necessary artistic alterations (Achiasaf, 2008). [23]

A number of strategies are used to eliminate the word “pork.” These strategies range from substituting pork with a different food to total omission of the word, the sentence or even the paragraph in which it is found. If, in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo “thought of himself frying bacon and eggs in his own kitchen at home,” (1936, p. 68) the Hebrew translation from 1976 substituted it with “frying an omelet” (p. 63). And if the children in Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It described their breakfast as “[e]ggs and bacon, and bread-and-milk and porridge and things” (1902, Chapter 1), the Hebrew text from 1974 replaced it with a more kosher breakfast: “bread and butter, egg and tomato, and porridge and things” (p.18). The translator could obviously justify his decision as the desire to replace the breakfast with something more familiar to Israeli children, rather than in terms of expurgation. Nevertheless, the end result is the same. These examples are taken from old translations, but the procedure has not changed drastically over the years. In some translations, however, the concept is partially rendered. A vague Talmudic word kdal or ktal (part of the collocation kdal-hazir), meaning some part of pig’s meat, [24] is sometimes used by itself, designating, so it is generally understood, a slice of pork, perhaps smoked. The (occasional) use of half of the collocation may lead us to suppose that this is not an example of long-lasting prohibition of the word in literary translation, but rather the absence of an appropriate word in Hebrew. In fact, modern translated literature for adults occasionally solves the problem by using the English loan words “bacon” or “ham” when necessary. Children’s literature, however, tends to be more averse to using foreign words. The fact remains that the word “pork” is often deleted from translated literature through a powerful process of self-censorship. Writers and translators seem to assume that they had better use a more appropriate food.

I would like to stress the voluntary nature of such sanitizing processes. Often, a commercial motivation is involved: Why risk offending potential readers? Why limit your reading public? Since Orthodox Jews have their own publications and their own publishing houses, general publishers should, in principle, not worry about displeasing this sector of the book market. If, then, self-censorship is still applied, the underlying assumption is that the general public would be averse to references to “pork.” Who is responsible for this implied assumption? Is the publisher more attentive to his public or to market demand, than the translator is? During my work in collaboration with the publishing industry over many years, I have had no personal knowledge of such explicit demands on the part of publishers. In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, however, publishers and translators who share the same views would seek each other out “naturally” (1984, p. 215). Thus, the one to formulate the demand and actively interfere with the translator’s work would be the editor/reviser, acting as intermediary between the publisher and the reader. [25] In this case, an inexperienced translator may not want to risk opting for a literal translation and would anticipate his supervisor’s wishes. Trying to stay one step ahead of the censor—be it your employer, your public or your potential prize Committee—is what self-censorship is all about.

Case II: Self-Censorship in Obscene Matters: The Case of the Michman-Melkman Committee

When Dr. Jozeph Melkman, the respectable Jewish Agency representative in the Netherlands, was invited in 1957 to move to Israel in order to serve as general manager of Yad Va-shem, the holocaust martyrs’ and heroes’ remembrance authority, he changed his name to the Hebrew Yosef Michman and immigrated to Israel with his family. In 1963 he was appointed Head of the Culture Unit in the Ministry of Education & Culture, where he initiated two major enterprises that still flourish today: “Art for the People” and the “Institute for the Translation of Israeli Literature.” In 1968, he established a Center for the Study of Dutch Jewry, which became affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1972. This valuable information can be found in his biography, included in his report to UNESCO about Israeli cultural policy (Michman, 1973), as well as on his son’s website, [26] among other sources. What cannot be found in the media is information about Dr. Michman’s activity as head of the Ministry of Education’s Committee for the Prohibition of Obscene Literature. The Committee was established in 1963 in order to examine and censor obscene material in literary texts. It organized Israeli publishers, convincing them to voluntarily submit for scrutiny books suspected of containing obscene material. This gentlemen’s agreement between the Ministry of Education and the Publishers’ Association guaranteed that no book approved by the Committee would be charged with a criminal offense, whereas an unapproved book would not be published.

In 1963, the Minister of Education was Zalman Aran, a fervent Zionist activist of the old school. As opposed to Abba Eban, [27] his predecessor in the Ministry, Aran was passionately dedicated and wished to leave his mark. During his last term (completed in 1969), he introduced major reforms in education, particularly in secondary schools. On a personal level, he was exemplary in his modest, if not ascetic, life style. It is possible that the Committee that was to supervise the “purity” of literary production was his initiative; however, all participants knew it as the Michman-Melkman Committee. [28]

Most publishers, big and small, consented to take part in this tacit arrangement. Yet, since the Committee had no legal standing, when specific cases were taken to court, its decisions were nullified. In fact, when a publishing house appealed to the Supreme Court, the latter decreed that the Committee was unauthorized to prohibit the publication of any book (see Rubinstein, 1975, p. 31). In any case, the Committee’s activity was not very impressive: in the first six years of its existence, only 111 books were submitted for approval, of which 45 were disqualified. [29] It is its voluntary character, however, that is intriguing. Were publishers so wary of censorship that they voluntarily agreed to present works for pre-publication scrutiny? This is unlikely. Censorship, in the case of books, was rarely enforced, although, in the British tradition, obscenity violations came under the jurisdiction of criminal law. The number of books and publishers charged with obscenity was rather small (less than 50%), suggesting, on the one hand, that there was general mainstream acceptance of the law and norms, and, on the other, that there was complete mainstream indifference to peripheral publications. The infamous “banned books” [30] were being translated and published by peripheral printing firms, with absolutely no echo in the mainstream. The only case that made the headlines was the Dan Omer case (Ben-Ari, 2006a, pp. 61-67; see also n. 38), where a single writer personally insisted on presenting his book to the Michman Committee, knowing full well that it would be found obscene. Omer’s was one of the few voices raised in protest against censorship. But since, unlike severe pre-censorship in theater and cinema, books were left alone, the question remains: What was behind the puritanical attitude to safeguarding public morality? [31] Did authors and translators share the censor’s ideology or was self-inflicted subordination to normative pressure more beneficial?

This leads back to the intricate question of how self-censorship works, and here is where the pig/pork issue and obscenity issues diverge. When it came to the use of “pig” and “pork” in translation, publishers may have been genuinely convinced that readers needed safeguarding, and that the word was indeed objectionable, harmful, sensitive, and inconvenient. [32] The negative connotations associated with the animal, and particularly its meat, have been branded very deeply into Jewish collective memory, so that editors and translators alike would obey the normative diktat without second thought. This does not hold true, however, in the case of the Ministry of Education versus the Publishers’ Association. The latter was too heterogeneous to be able to arrive at unanimity over such a controversial matter as erotica or pornography. Even if most mainstream publishers would have been puritanical enough to reach a consensus, more peripheral publishers might have had commercial (or other) reservations. There had to be a more pragmatic motivation for exercising self-censorship and complying with the Ministry’s gentle pressure. The notion of “subordinate groups” may prove helpful here, although the identity of those considered to be subordinates may vary. The dominant (and most numerous) group, under the general umbrella of the Publishers’ Association, would perhaps have been willing to consent to the political or ideological pressure exerted by the Ministry for different reasons than those of the smaller subordinate groups. The reasons may have had to do with the status of the Association, as well as with its quest for power and recognition. [33] The bigger faction of mainstream publishers, though fearful that their hegemony was at stake, may have been supportive of the initiative for moral reasons. The smaller publishers, though indifferent to the moral issue, would have had an interest in belonging to the Association, but would nevertheless want to publish best-selling books for profit.

The publishers’ eventual acquiescence could have been obtained because (a) acceptance brought benefits and (b) the subordinate groups preferred to submit on their own accord, rather than be forced to submit. These groups believed that, in the final analysis, their interests would be best protected through an alliance with the dominant culture. Moreover, part of the deal was that the Ministry would also make concessions, i.e., that no book approved by the Committee would be charged with a criminal offense. Even if the Ministry of Education had no legal standing, concluding or rejecting a deal with it could reap benefits or entail retribution. The Ministry was in charge of recommending and buying books for school libraries, ultimately deciding which books would appear on the school curriculum, a source of considerable income for publishers. It determined which publishers would print school text-books. [34] It was also in charge of granting literary prizes. Moreover, the “Art for the People” enterprise that Michman had launched involved sending orchestras, theater productions, new publications, or art exhibitions to “peripheral” audiences who would have traditionally been less likely to come into contact with them. Writers, translators and new books were thus introduced to the periphery. In other words, the Ministry had symbolic and tangible capital that was not to be dismissed lightly. The benefits did not have to be immediate; collaborating with the Ministry could prove beneficial in the long run. Being part of the mainstream guaranteed certain privileges, but also incurred obligations: it was a package deal.

The periphery, less committed to enterprises like Michman’s, was not entirely free of puritan self-censorship either. Uri Shalgi, a successful publisher of cheap paperbacks, told me in an interview (2008) that he knew exactly how “far” to go with his translated and pseudo-translated romance serials. His readership comprised traditional as well as Orthodox women, a surprising fact when one bears in mind that they would have to buy and read the books clandestinely. Interestingly, these women would write anonymous letters to him when the translated story included what they considered to be improper details. He reached a point where he knew the precise dosage of phrases and words his translators should, or should not, use to please his female readership. In books addressed to a male public, he would vary the dosage that escalated to the semi-pornographic Patrick Kim series, in which he would urge the so-called translators [35] to introduce more and more sex. Meir Mizrahi, the biggest publisher in the popular book industry of the 1950s and 1960s, insisted that he refrain from publishing pornography (Ben-Ari, 2006b, n.p.). Once his advisors told him that Harold Robbins’ books were racy, he stopped publishing them, even though the first translations he had published were a commercial success. Uri Shalgi did not hesitate to take Robbins off his hands. [36]

The Dan Omer On the Way controversy (1966–1969) was the most brazen rebellion against the Michman Committee. Omer was the cultural and literary critic of the subversive journal Ha’olam Ha’zeh and his column, “Namer shel Nyar” [“Paper Tiger”], angered many mainstream artists. He had translated poetry of the Beat generation—finding no echo in the Israel of the mid-1960s—and was well-acquainted with Jack Kerouac’s writing. Omer’s appropriation of Kerouac’s model could be viewed as “translation” in the sense that the model, in addition to its subversive function, was transferred into Israeli culture. [37] Omer’s position in culture was secondary, though, and one must therefore not over-estimate the reverberations of his act. Brave as it was, it was a one-man proclamation of the right to freedom of speech. Knowing that the three subjects the Committee would find most offensive were those slandering religion, the Holocaust and IDF casualties in “just” wars, Omer launched an attack on all three fronts, and more. He did not bother to elaborate a plot; following Kerouac’s model, the journey itself was the plot. His protagonist boards a ship and immediately finds a lover, a German model from Karlsruhe. Throughout the journey, marked by incessant drinking and very vocal sex, he calls her his Teuton and persuades her that she is not to blame for the death of his grandmother in Treblinka:

You don’t know what happened to my grandmother? […] She was burned in Treblinka. […] You are not to blame at all. You are too young, you are too beautiful, not all Teutons are to blame, not all Teutons are beautiful.

Omer, 1966, pp. 11-12, my translation

In a torrent of words meant to create a sense of nauseating excess, Omer massacres every sacred cow. He laments the lot of young men who would have to die in endless wars: “We are all pre-dead in these eighty million battles” (ibid., p. 15). He laments the lot of the entire next generation or future generations: “Let’s make love on the atomic monster’s back... fart children the size of atomic pimples” (ibid.). He refers to Yad Va’shem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, as the “Central Indulgence Fund,” selling pardons in exchange for financial contributions (ibid., pp. 126–128). His most virulent attacks are directed at Orthodox Jews, whom he calls “mice with beards and side-locks,” who castrated God (ibid., p. 51).

Financed by his father and the owner of the coffee-shop he frequented, Omer had the book printed by what he provocatively called Golgotha Publishing. Armed with the new book, he now turned to Yosef Michman (former director general of Yad Va-shem, as mentioned earlier), with the demand that the Committee examine the book. Michman tried to dissuade him, but Omer insisted. The book was duly banned, and Omer, in a small tent with his 114 copies of the book, went on a hunger strike in front of the government building in Jerusalem. He managed to sell two copies before the police confiscated the remaining 112 copies and arrested him. The poster next to his tent read: “Away with Zhdanovism.” [38] From 1967 to 1969 Omer’s trial went from the Magistrate Court to the District Court, and finally wound up in the High Court. As the case progressed, the fines and prison times decreased, but the ban on the book was not rescinded. Justice Landau of the High Court held that the book’s distribution ought not to be permitted because it was “so obscene that it went beyond the liberal and lenient criteria to which we have been accustomed in our days. Moreover, it had not even a spark of literary talent to redeem it” (News from the Courts, 28 April 1970). [39] Nevertheless, Omer had made his point. The affair attracted the media attention, young intellectuals flocked to his tent during the hunger strike, and the controversy aroused some interest. He died in 1984, at the age of 44, not bothering to demand that the ban be rescinded. The book is still officially banned, and a researcher may read it only after having obtained the special permission of the National Library Jerusalem. [40]

There are neither “heroes” nor “victims” (Tymoczko, 2009, p. 30) in this account of how translators, writers and publishers internalize social norms or constraints. The fact that only one writer was ready to sacrifice all (money, personal freedom, time) to defend his right to freedom of expression is significant. Yet, his status in literary circles was as insignificant as was his book in terms of its literary value. If bigger forces had been at play, the result might have been different. My aim, however, was to analyze the impact of deeply rooted beliefs, combined with benefit and loss incentives, on self-imposed censorship.

Part Three: Corrective Measures when Self-Censorship Proves Ineffective

I would like to discuss briefly a recent case of religious censorship to illustrate how far-reaching the breaking of a taboo can be in a closed community. The Making of a Godol: A Study of Episodes in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities (2005) is the title of an American book written by Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky, son of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, one of the greatest Orthodox Rabbis in America. The book (1400 pages in two volumes), with rich indexes, notes and references, was the result of years of research, and includes many stories about the lives of renowned Torah scholars. It could be Kamentesky’s magnum opus. The version currently for sale in the US proclaims that it is a second, “improved edition.” The first 2002 edition cannot be purchased unless you are willing to pay black market speculators. It was banned and burned by ten of the major orthodox Lithuanian Rabbis in Israel, led by R. Eliashiv. What prompted the book burning was that, unlike other books on the lives of great scholars, it did not refrain from citing some less flattering traits or episodes in their lives. For instance, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, the author’s late father, allegedly read secular literature (Shakespeare, Pushkin, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle) and was versed in Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hobbes and Lock, taboos in the orthodox community.

The writer, himself a prominent Rabbi, obeyed the ban on the first version and stopped its circulation. He wrote apologetic letters and advertisements promising to censor whatever the enraged Rabbis demanded. He later wrote a book called The Anatomy of a Ban, not available for sale either, where he cited letters concerning the ban. He claimed that the process had been unfair, for he was prevented from presenting his case. Consequently, the Rabbis only heard one side. Moreover, only one of the Rabbis who had signed the ban could read English. The Rabbis, therefore, relied on the opinions of subordinates and on partial citations.

In 2005 Kamenetsky published the corrected censored edition. In spite of a promise made by Rabbi Eliashiv not to ban the new edition without first talking to the author, this edition too was banned. The book was not and would not be translated into Hebrew, and most of the controversy surrounding its publication went on behind the walls of the Orthodox world, with very little information leaking out. [41] It is one of the blatant cases where, for lack of self-discipline on the part of an author, the community was forced to have recourse to censorship, its most drastic weapon, to silence him. As in many fundamentalist communities, the double standard reigns: while the so-called “offensive” information given in the book may well be talked about, it must not be written down and published. This is part of the (normative) Orthodox code with which R. Kamenetsky was conversant and that he had assumed. He broke a fundamental taboo, without, however, going a step further and withdrawing himself from the community. His was a self-defeating act.

This incident seems to be very remote from the other case studies. It took place in a separate world, where State censorship laws do not apply, and where an author not exercising self-censorship and thus rebelling against his community’s normative code, was silenced and severely punished in the way he would have been punished hundreds of years ago. As opposed to cases where exercising prior self-censorship (co-operation with the Ministry of Education, for instance) was to be rewarded, this is an illustration of the “corrective” measures undertaken in the form of post-censorship that resulted from public disregard for the code. And corrective enforcement measures would not stop with a ban on the book. In addition to compromising his career, Rabbi Kamenetsky would have put his family and social life in jeopardy, had he not complied with the decision. For example, he would have found neither a shiduch—a match—for his daughters, nor a school for his children within his community, his world. Despite his surrender, did Rabbi Kamenetsky, in the long run, shake the strict norms his community lives by, albeit in the tiniest way? It is impossible for “outsiders” to judge. The accessibility of culture is literally put to the test here.

One could take up Venuti’s call (1998) for a more activist role on the part of translators and offer to translate Kamenetsky’s text into Hebrew. Yet, this would not be an act of defiance, for outside the Orthodox community there is absolutely no impediment to publishing it. Its intended (Orthodox) reading public would still not read it, while the general secular public would find little interest in the so-called sensational details of the lives of the Torah scholars that are in fact trivial and self-evident.


Self-censorship seems to be particularly effective in closed societies that abide by strict norms, such as the Orthodox community, but it is no less effective in liberal societies. It may serve as a whip in Israeli society that is constantly in fear for its very existence, or as a lure when subordinate groups or individuals feel that working with the dominant group is more beneficial than working against it. Self-censorship is persistent in cases where the concepts to be euphemized or neutralized have deep historic roots, painfully evocative, burnt into the socio-cultural group’s collective memory and that elicit an emotional response (not necessarily controlled by reason). The pork issue illustrates how far back in time one must travel to trace its origins. Yet social conformity seems to run much deeper than these examples have shown, for it appears to be not only shared by the collective psyche, but innate to human nature. This study has attempted to disentangle some of the intricate cultural considerations involved, in particular, in the translating subject’s decision-making process, a process in which a great number of agents participate with varying degrees of awareness, and to which their target publics are (silent) partners. Israel’s particular socio-political situation helps us single out and scrutinize some of the underlying motives for voluntary compliance with the consensus, while Hebrew, in its special position as a language in the process of renewal, provides socio-linguistic insights into the sanitizing processes involved. [42]

There are obviously many more types of self-censorship, and many more reasons why translators, writers and publishers willingly silence themselves. The scope of this paper has not allowed me to investigate cases of self-censorship in interpreting or the media, where it is common practice, or in the translation of minority, feminist or Queer writing. Nor have I touched on the troubled Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli relationship that results, when it comes to translated literature, in what amounts to mutual exclusion. What I wanted to explore was the delicate borderline between the law and norms. The norm, that Cheshire Cat’s scowl, may impact on self-censorship and change or vanish at a much slower pace than the law. It also may prove to be stricter than the law. Gain and loss factors may play a pragmatic role, of course, but even in a modern, liberal and liberated society like Israel, there may be undercurrents that defy pragmatic arguments, charging certain words and issues with an emotional impact that can undermine sensible decision-making or rational analysis.

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