Podcast / Start Making Sense / Nov 22, 2023

Why We Need the Israeli Left More Than Ever

On this episode of Start Making Sense, Dahlia Scheindlin talks about Israel after Netanyahu, and David Kipen reads from California diaries.

Israeli left-wing activists hold a demonstration near the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on November 11, 2023, calling for a cease-fire amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas.

Israeli left-wing activists hold a demonstration near the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv on November 11, 2023, calling for a cease-fire amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas.

(Ahmad Gharabli / AFP via Getty Images)

What comes after Israel’s war on Hamas? The Israeli government seems incapable of thinking about that. Now, the ideas of Israel’s left-wing, pro-peace camp are needed more than ever. Dahlia Scheindlin, a political scientist based in Tel Aviv, is on the podcast to explain.

Also on this episode of Start Making Sense: “California has always been a place to write home about.” David Kipen reads letters and diary entries from Charles Mingus, Vita Sackville-West, Marilyn Monroe, Susan Sontag, Thomas Pynchon, and Mike Davis. David’s new book is Dear California: The Golden State in Letters and Diaries.

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How the Sixties Ended, plus the Endless War in Gaza | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

“1974,” the new memoir by Francine Prose, recalls the year when “the sixties” came to a definitive end, when it became clear that the changes we’d wanted, the changes we’d fought for, were not going to happen. She spent that year in San Francisco, where she got to know Tony Russo of the Pentagon Papers case.

Also: On May 31, Joe Biden declared, “It is time for this war to end.” But the leaders of both Israel and Hamas seem content for the war in Gaza to grind on into the indefinite future. Hussein Ibish explains why.

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Jon Wiener: What happens after Israel ends its war in Gaza? The Israeli government seems to be incapable of thinking about that, but this is the time when the ideas of Israel’s left-wing, pro-peace camp are needed more than ever. That’s what Dahlia Scheindlin says. She’s a Tel Aviv-based public opinion researcher and a political scientist. Her book, The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel: Promise Unfulfilled, was published in September. She writes for The New York Times Op-Ed page, The Guardian, Haaretz, and The New York Review, where her article, “Israel: The Left in Peril,” appears now. We reached her today in Tel Aviv. Dahlia Scheindlin, welcome to the program.

Dahlia Scheindlin: Thank you so much for inviting me on.

JW: The toll at this point, we’re speaking on the Monday evening, November 20th: Hamas killed 1,200 Israelis on October 7th, wounded more than 3,300. As of today in Gaza, the Israelis have killed more than 12,300 Palestinians. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad hold more than 239 hostages, including foreign nationals.

First question: what does it mean to be on the left in Israel?

DS: Thank you for starting with that because it’s not always obvious to people from the outside. For Israelis, these words have very clear meanings and codes. But I think in Europe and in the US, many people hear the terms left, right, and center, and they think of things like big government or small government, raising or lowering taxes, immigration policy, maybe progressive issues like LGBT rights. And in Israel, some of those things are included, but they’re very much secondary. When Israelis hear the terms left, right, or center, they think of one thing before anything else and that is where a person stands with relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Israeli left is primarily still defined by the idea of ending the occupation and reaching a negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, probably in the form of a two-state solution, which involves a Palestinian state next to Israel. And of course, the vast majority of Jewish Israelis, and a majority of all Israelis, consider themselves right-wing, which means taking a hard line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

JW: Let’s talk a little more about the right–the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. “He’s the worst leader in Israel’s history, maybe in all of Jewish history.” Those are not my words. That’s what Tom Friedman, The New York Times columnist, wrote recently. Netanyahu is also the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history, 15 years in power, off and on. How would you describe his current government?

DS: Sometimes we have trouble thinking of new adjectives to describe his government. On the one hand, you have a pair of parties who actually ran together as a single, well, sort of a combined list in the last elections in November 2022, called Religious Zionism. And that party essentially subscribes to really what can only accurately be described as a Jewish supremacist outlook. It is theocratic, it is illiberal, it is fundamentally anti-democratic, and it is annexationist by all measures.  It’s not something hidden. They’re proud to say that they would never want to give up on Israeli sovereignty over all of the historic land of Israel. And probably, in their minds, they would be happy to have the other side of the Jordan River as well, even though that’s not actually in their platform. But they have a very originalist view, shall we say, of Jewish sovereignty.

Compared to them, it is common to think of Netanyahu’s party, the Likud, which as a historic party was only moderately right-wing. But the fact is Likud is no longer a moderate right-wing party. It hasn’t been for a number of years.  Since Netanyahu became the head of the Likud again in the late 2000s and became Prime Minister for his second term in 2009, he has essentially allowed the Likud to take a populist, illiberal, nationalist direction, and Likud has played a very strong role in what has been about a decade and a half of a kind of assault on Israeli democracy and democratic institutions. And so Likud is not really much less extreme at this point than Religious Zionism. The only difference is that it’s not specifically theocratic and there are still some people within it who would support some measure of separation of religion and state. But because they take such a Jewish nationalist approach to things, in a way, the policy distinctions are being erased. For example, both the Likud and those far-right religious parties and the ultra-Orthodox parties we can talk about separately, but all of those parties essentially support permanent Israeli control over all of the historic mandate Palestine. And maybe they come at it from slightly different nuances, but the result is the same. You have a government that is united over that issue and the only question is how to do it pragmatically.

Also, I should say one last thing: it’s not only theocratic, advancing Jewish supremacist ideas, illiberal and annexationist; it also includes a prime minister who is actively on trial for three counts of corruption, and has numerous other corrupt ministers, or people who’ve been convicted or suspected and investigated for corruption. It is a government that includes all of those aspects: not committed to equality, probably even advancing a form of Jewish supremacy, annexationist, theocratic illiberal, and includes numerous corrupt figures, including the prime minister himself.

JW: And of course, before the war, there were 10 months of the most significant biggest political protests in Israel’s history due to Netanyahu’s judicial coup, it’s called, legislation aimed at dramatically weakening Israel’s judiciary, which would rescue him from the three corruption trials that you mentioned. Tell us a little about those pro-democracy protests– and what was the role of the Israeli left in those protests?

DS: Yeah, well, just to give a little more background. Netanyahu’s new government, within a few days of the government being inaugurated, the justice minister who is from Netanyahu’s Likud party unveiled a series of plans that would essentially smother judicial independence, undercut it almost entirely, and leave an essentially, completely unconstrained executive power. The executive, of course, is not even really separate from the legislature. We have a parliamentary system. The cabinet is drawn from the coalition of parties that hold the majority.

And so the executive essentially can control the legislature. There is no other formal institutional constraint on the power of the executive. Israel doesn’t have a formal written constitution. It doesn’t have two chambers of parliament. There is no presidential veto. And suddenly, people realize it’s not just a matter of one piece of legislation at a time that might undermine democracy. It’s destroying the institution that could constrain those kinds of illiberal aims of this government. And so very suddenly, there was a huge, huge outpouring of people within the first week and then they just grew over time. At points, there have been strikes. They’ve managed to really shut down the country.

Now, for the Israeli left, which I argued what the Israeli right stood for, but the Israeli left is primarily still defined by the idea of ending the occupation. They see the occupation as undermining Israeli democracy and I wouldn’t say that’s really a matter of opinion. The occupation is fundamentally an undemocratic policy. Very few people even deny that on the right. But I think the difference is that on the left, they feel that it undermines democracy for Israel’s governance and for Israel’s own citizens as well as leading Israel to a situation where it is essentially one state that is either fundamentally institutionally unequal in a permanent way and loses the Jewish majority, which many of the mainstream left who consider themselves Zionists take very seriously. So for them, there was a natural connection. If there’s a pro-democracy protest, naturally, it should also be anti-occupation. And I think that many left-wingers wanted that to be the center of the protest as a message in terms of the banners, in terms of the kind of rallying cry.

But from the very first week of this protest against the government, each side suddenly realized that there were two sides. The left wanted it to be an anti-occupation protest as part of the preserve democracy, oppose the judicial reform or the judicial coup policies. And the rest of the demonstrators who were, frankly, from the beginning, quite a large portion and very quickly became the majority wanted nothing to do with the anti-occupation message. And the decision was kind of made by all involved, including the anti-occupation camp, that the most important thing now is to stop this government by bringing in as many people as possible.

And to do that, it was kind of understood that the mainstream Israelis, who I’m going to call the mainstream center, could put people and messages and speeches at the front, the forefront of these demonstrations that did not focus on opposing the occupation. They made that compromise in order to make sure that people of all political stripes who oppose this government would show up to the demonstrations and it worked in terms of mass participation. It’s actually, as far as I know, unprecedented in any country that so many people, as a portion of the population as far as we can tell. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of Israelis every single week for what would’ve been 40 weeks on October 7th, taking to the streets sometimes more than once a week. It caused major disruptions in society at points and that would only have been possible with this big tent approach.

But it’s true that all year, people who consider themselves left-wing were racking their brains trying to figure out a.) why Israelis couldn’t make the connection intuitively between opposing occupation, ending occupation, and salvaging Israeli democracy and what they had to do to make Israelis see that connection. And to be honest, I don’t think there was ever one clear silver bullet answer.

JW: And then came October 7th. What happened to the peace groups, the anti-occupation groups, the human rights organizations, and activists after October 7th?

DS: Like everybody else, they were shocked. Nobody had experienced anything like this ever in the history of the country. It was simply a time of complete paralysis, shock, mourning, loss, grieving. In fact, it’s not really over. Everybody’s grieving constantly.

The other thing to keep in mind is that many of the small communities, the kibbutzim and the smaller cooperative communities down by that area we call the Gaza envelope area, that’s what we formally call that region, is full of kibbutzim that are historically secular, oftentimes people who are left or left leaning. In recent years, many of those people have moved to the center, but they still share the basic outlook and worldview of the left. They still basically support peace. And some of them are actually peace activists. And because we’re talking about such a small community, remember, among all of Israeli society, only about 18% of the public considers themselves to be either moderate or firm left. And in the Jewish community, it’s only about 11 to 15%. And so many people know each other, especially if they’ve been involved in any kind of activism. And so there was a very personal sense of shock and grieving and loss like I said before.

There was a very strong sense early on that people simply mourned also the ongoing cycle of bloodshed, the vast scale of devastation in Gaza. Some people have actual colleagues, friends, coworkers in Gaza. And so what we saw is, after some time, between I would say the second and the third week of the war, more and more left-wingers from various pieces of the Israeli left, whether it was human rights organizations, peace organizations, what we call shared society, people who work on Jewish-Arab relations inside Israel or, I should say, among Israeli citizens since there is no real inside or outside Israel when you don’t actually have clear borders.

But all of these kinds of organizations and many individuals, I think, began to find each other and have conversations about what should be done. Do they agree on calling for a ceasefire? I think that was a little bit trickier in the beginning, but one thing everybody agreed on was to try to prevent and stave off or at least reduce the harm to civilians. And that very much, of course, included rallying for the hostages which were being held in Gaza, but a general cry that more violence is not the answer, that there is no military solution, that another aggressive cycle in Gaza, which now has come to seem vastly more extreme than the others. And in the early days, the police had communicated they weren’t going to tolerate demonstrations either of solidarity with Gaza or against the war. So it was very tentative in the beginning, but I think that they are coming out in greater force.

In fact, just this past Saturday evening for the first time, the police actually gave a permit for a demonstration in favor of a ceasefire in Tel Aviv that brought a few hundred people out. And it was a little bit tense because there were many very aggressive counter-protesters from the right, but that would be the first time there was a formal recognized demonstration with more than just a few dozen people that was permitted by the police. So there are activities taking place and, of course, many of the NGOs, especially those that deal with either the West Bank or Gaza, are frantically trying to track what’s going on, take stock of the damage being done, keep tabs on individuals and their colleagues and coworkers, get information out. So everybody’s very busy and as well as trying to cope with all the emotional difficulties.

JW: Now, we’re told something like 84% of Israelis believe Netanyahu and his government should take responsibility for making the Hamas atrocities possible and more than half say he should resign after the war. And of course, the question we’re asking in this segment is what happens then?

DS: In terms of what will happen next politically, well, nobody knows, but I will say this government is in a very, very bad situation with relation to public opinion. You mentioned that about half say Netanyahu should resign after the war. Let me add to that. Another roughly 25% who thinks he should resign during the war. And altogether, you have, well, less than 25%, but let’s say it tops up to about three-quarters – yeah, no, it does reach about three-quarters who want him to resign either during the war or after the war and that’s a pretty stark figure.

So there are reasons to think that Netanyahu will have a hard time lasting, outlasting the war and remaining prime minister, especially given the crisis we discussed beforehand, the fact that he has corruption cases and he was already hemorrhaging support even before this. Throughout the year, I wrote any number of articles analyzing polls, which is actually my day job to conduct and analyze public opinion research. But there was such a clear trend throughout the year of his government losing support, his party losing support, him personally losing support and it has accelerated severely since October 7th. Plus, at many points throughout Israeli history, at least since 1973, Israelis often punished leaders when a war breaks out on that leader’s watch.

JW: Joe Biden and the Americans have been focused very much on what happens after the war. Biden has been consistently arguing that American policy is for a two-state solution. Of course, this is something that the Israeli left has been thinking about for decades. Before October 7th, many on the left in the United States no longer favored a separate Palestinian state. Instead, they supported a single democratic state of Jewish and Palestinian citizens. How much support was there for that on the left in Israel?

DS: Support for that on the left never was that much higher than it was for the total population. So among Israeli Jews, that number of people who support a democratic, single state solution, the kind of one person, one vote that people often associate with how South African apartheid ended, never really got beyond the 25% range, maybe barely scraping 30% if you add in Jewish and Arab population. And it wasn’t much higher among the left. And by the way, it’s almost a mirror image on the Palestinian side. There are more Palestinians who support a single democratic state between the river and the sea in which all Jews and Palestinians are equal, which is sort of how we ask it in surveys, but not a great deal more. Usually, that number reaches into the mid-30% range at best and every time it seems like it might go up, it then goes back down and usually falls behind the two-state solution as a solution.

I should say that when you said that the left, at one time, supported the two-state solution, it wasn’t only about the left. Pretty much every Israeli prime minister from Ehud Barak who was briefly prime minister from 1999 to late 2000. He openly negotiated for a two-state solution. And after that, every prime minister at some point, at least nominally, claimed to support the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel, which we call the two-state solution. The question is what they did on the ground to bring it about, but it’s notable that even Netanyahu, at points early on in his comeback, fairly managed to mouth the words but did kind of commit himself, mostly probably due to international appearances, to something like a two-state solution.

And so the question is really why did it fail? Why did anybody ever fail to get there when there was somewhat more mainstream adoption of the idea? And I should say on the Palestinian side too because increasingly, I can’t separate the two in my analysis, since we had a similar process on the Palestinian side. It became much more mainstream. The mainstream PLO and Fatah leadership supported it and yet, the two sides couldn’t ever agree on it. And I think that’s something that has required a need for update for a long time, which is why there are efforts to rethink the two-state solution.

JW: And you yourself have been involved in those efforts. You belong to a group called A Land for All, which favors a confederation arrangement between two states. How would that work?

DS: They would avoid the hard partition paradigm and have greater mobility, equality of the two sides, even though they both have their own nation state, greater mobility, the ability of people to live as permanent residents on the other side while keeping citizenship on their own side, keeping Jerusalem an open, shared city without a partition between it. And those are the kinds of updates I think are going to be absolutely essential, if there’s ever a chance to get back to something like self-determination for both sides.

JW: You use the phrase “between the river and the sea” to refer to the proposal for a single democratic state, one person, one vote for both Jewish and Palestinian citizens. Of course, this is a very controversial phrase in American politics where the pro-Israeli establishment has defined it as meaning the annihilation of the Jews of Israel. Are you suggesting that’s not the way it’s understood in Israel, from the river to the sea.

DS: In Israel? If you ask the Jewish population, it mostly is understood like that. Some Palestinians would see river to the sea as implying a democratic state where every person is equal. And let’s be honest, some Palestinians see from the river to the sea as a complete Palestinian-dominated state in which Jews would not be equal if they would even be allowed to stay. We know this is true because I test these kinds of things in survey research together with my Palestinian colleagues. We have a joint survey project. I’m talking about my longtime polling colleague, Dr. Khalil Shikaki. We conduct joint public opinion surveys among Israelis and Palestinians, and we ask each side, “Do you support a two-state solution? Do you support one equal democratic state, or do you support a solution in which your side completely dominates and the other side is not given the same rights?” And we know that there is also a portion who support that on both sides, not the same exact portion, but it’s getting closer to the portion of people who support two states as support for the two-state solution declines in both places in a kind of mirror image.

So all of those things are signs of a serious deterioration in what I would consider democratic means of resolving the conflict. Israelis, particularly Israeli Jews, I should say, believe that when Palestinians say that they’re actually calling for the annihilation of Jews, considering that in Israel today, on a graphic level, you will never see a map of Israel that shows Israel between 1949 and 1967. All images, whether they’re formal government maps, schoolbooks, or simply iconic images that you’ll see in commercial settings or a necklace that people wear in the shape of the state of Israel, all of them show Israel as if it’s from the river to the sea. There is never a green line, even on our weather maps, which I think is the great barometer of forgettability. So if it’s on your weather map, it seems completely normal and you will never notice that Israelis only ever consider their country without any semblance of a green line.

So I wish that people realize both in America, among the American Jewish community that thinks it’s supporting Israel by refusing to let Palestinians talk about river to sea, at the very least, they should recognize that Israelis are doing the exact same thing every single day.

JW: So big picture. The left in Israel has not changed its belief that it’s essential to achieve a historic territorial compromise with the Palestinians. Does the Israeli left agree right now with the rest of Israel that the destruction of Hamas as a military force is a prerequisite to whatever comes next?

DS: I think that that is basically true. After what Hamas did on October 7th, it just can’t be justified in any way, shape or form. I mean, listen, the Israeli Jewish left never liked Hamas anyway. Of course, Hamas is theocratic, Islamist party that it does not support anything remotely like liberal values, runs Gaza with an authoritarian hand and is repressive and violent. And so it’s not like anybody on the Israeli Jewish left that I know ever supported anything like Hamas. They hoped, for Palestinian sake, that Palestinians would choose to live in a democratic society. But I think many of us thought that it’s not for anybody to tell Palestinians how to live. But that we certainly believed, and I say “we” because of course I do subscribe to these views that while under occupation and Gaza is still effectively controlled by Israel, has been even since the disengagement in which Israel dismantled settlement. Gaza is still effectively controlled by Israel from the perimeter. It’s just from outside. We believe that there’s no hope for Palestinians to establish anything like normal representative government, democratic or not, of their own free will while they’re essentially under Israeli occupation.

And so it’s not like the Israeli left ever thought Hamas was legitimate. It’s more that I think the Israeli left didn’t think that it was up to Israel to say whether they should have Hamas or not, as long as both sides were trying to advance universal human rights, basic principles and self-determination and therefore, they opposed occupation. But I don’t see anybody truly opposing the idea that Hamas needs to be crushed militarily at the very least.

And then there’s a political, let’s say, a difference of political analysis within the left, I would say, about those who think that Hamas cannot be completely destroyed because it’s so deeply embedded in Palestinian society, especially because it’s kept such tight control for so many years now over Gaza that people, anybody working in the public sector is essentially working for Hamas. And so some people would say, you can’t possibly destroy Hamas militarily because it’s so extensively embedded and it’s just a waste of lives to try.

And then others on the left who say, “Well, I don’t know what else to do.” If we all agree that Hamas has to be destroyed militarily, there’s no other option than for Israel to continue with a very aggressive military approach. Some people on the left have come to that conclusion. It’s very hard for me to break down the numbers of such a small population. I think this is really anecdotal, but those are some of the differences of opinion that I’ve heard.

JW: So last question. The left won’t win elections in Israel anytime soon. It’s basically going to be up to outside powers, especially Joe Biden, to determine whether Israel can move towards negotiations for a two-state solution. But what should the Israeli left be doing in the meantime right now?

DS: Yeah, I think the Israeli left is in a very difficult position because Israeli society is so completely traumatized and miserable that those who did not prioritize reaching a two-state solution before or any sort of political resolution are certainly feeling extremely bitter and angry and many feel thoughts of vengeance and think that there’s no other way but to have this catastrophic destruction in Gaza. And so the left is up against a very, very hostile environment in trying to make any sort of case that looks like it’s a matter of giving concessions to Palestinians. I think the left’s best argument is still a very hard one to get across.

But I think that somebody needs to make the case that Israel has actually never been able to try to implement a political resolution to the conflict, the comprehensive political framework for containing a conflict that cannot be completely solved. There will never be perfect security, not in Israel or Palestine and not anywhere in the world. And that can’t be an excuse not to try to do better. And what we have tried over the last decades is Israel, in one way or another, continuing to expand its control over the Palestinians, prevent Palestinian self-determination. And to do that, Israel has made colossal mistakes. And it was largely Netanyahu who presided over ruinous policy of being so dead set against ever reviving negotiations with a unified Palestinian leadership that he indulged on us, if not bolstered them, by allowing them to have money from Qatar and essentially allowing them to stay in power, satisfying neither the right nor the left at this point because the right says he should have destroyed them years ago. But it was in his interest not to have a unified Palestinian leadership just to head off anything like a peace process. And that is certainly part of the reason why Hamas was able to get stronger all this time.

Now, I don’t want to take any of the responsibility for what happened away from Hamas. They are single-handedly responsible for this barbaric attack on Israeli civilians. And at the same time, unresolved military conflicts will always reach cycles of violence and bloodletting if they are not contained through political solutions. Now, I think that’s the hardest case to make, but somebody has to make it and it’s only the left who has the convictions to be able to make the point that what Israel has done over the last many decades is the opposite.

One of the things that makes this very hard is that right-wingers and left-wingers in Israel can’t agree on what has happened up until now. So for most people in the Israeli mainstream, not just the right but mainstream centrists and moderate right-wingers as well, will say, ‘But we did try. We tried Oslo. We tried peace during Oslo. We tried to negotiate at Camp David in the year 2000.’ These are tough questions and I think that the left doesn’t, again, doesn’t do anybody favors by ignoring them. But I think we have to recognize that what happened historically were not actual attempts to implement a peace agreement that would help deescalate the situation and contain violence. And these are all arguments that the left is the only group capable of making right now.

JW: Dahlia Scheindlin: She wrote about the Israeli left now for The New York Review. Dahlia, thanks for speaking with us today.

DS: Thank you so much for having me.

[BREAK]

Jon Wiener: Now, to step back from Gaza for a minute, we’ll talk about a new book: It’s called Dear California: The Golden State in Diaries and Letters. It’s fascinating and a lot of fun and edited by David Kipen. He’s former Director of Literature for the National Endowment for the Arts, founder of the nonprofit bilingual Lending Library in a storefront in LA’s Boyle Heights called Libros Schmibros. And he’s author of the modern library book, Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018. He’s written for dozens of publications including The Nation. We reached him today in LA. David Kipen, welcome back.

David Kipen: Thank you, Jon.

JW: California has always been a place to write home about. That is your point of departure, and it’s an excellent one. How did you decide what to include in these 500 pages of letters and diary entries? What were your criteria for inclusion?

DK: Essentially, if it made me laugh, if it made me choke up, if it played in some sort of indirect oblique way off of the diary or letter entry next to it, that was always nice. But basically, I am looking for stuff that will help me understand California more fully, and likewise I hope, my readers. And essentially, it’s a gut. This book could have been 10 times as long and it still would’ve been incomplete.

JW: Well, what I want to do here is talk about some of my favorites.

DK: Okay.

JW: And ask you to read some of them. One of my favorites is a letter from Charles Mingus, the legendary jazz bassist who visited the Watts Towers and chatted with Simon Rodia while he was working on building them. Could you read us from that entry?

DK: Yes, but I will clarify. He didn’t just visit them. He grew up a couple of blocks away. Here it goes. Here’s from Charles Mingus. He says, “Mr. Rodia was usually cheerful and friendly while he worked, and sometimes drinking that good red wine from a bottle. He rattled off about Amerigo Vespucci, Julius Caesar, Buffalo Bill, and all kinds of things he read about in the old encyclopedia he had in his house. The local rowdies came around and taunted him and threw rocks and called him crazy, though Mr. Rodia didn’t seem to pay them much mind.”

JW: And then in contrast, Vita Sackville-West wrote from Palm Springs March 28th, 1933, to her longtime friend, some would say worshiper, Virginia Woolf, who had immortalized her in Orlando. What did Vita Sackville-West tell Virginia Woolf about Los Angeles?

DK: “Los Angeles is Hell. The Americans have an unequal genius for making everything hideous. Hollywood, however, is fun. It is pure fantasy. You never know what you’ll come on ’round the corner, whether half an ocean liner or Trafalgar Square, or the facade of Grand Hotel, or a street in Stratford on Avon with Malayan hoodies walking down it. We were taken around by Mr. Gary Cooper.” I should point out that Vita Sackville-West here is falling prey to the age-old temptation of confusing Los Angeles with Hollywood. This is a studio tour, but when she’s writing in such high spirits and she’s doing it to Virginia Woolf, it’s hard to begrudge the woman.

JW: Of course, the story here is not all Hollywood. From the World War II home front, you have included Charles Kikuchi’s internment diary. Fascinating. Many entries. I knew nothing about this. Do you have a favorite?

DK: “April 9th, 1942, dateline Berkeley: Dear Marico, San Francisco Japanese town certainly looks like a ghost town. All the stores are closed, and the windows are bare except for a mass of ‘evacuation sale’ signs. The junk dealers are having a Roman holiday since they can have their cake and eat it, too. It works like this. They buy cheap from the Japanese leaving and sell dearly to the Oakies coming in for defense work. Result, good profit.”

JW: So who exactly was Charles Kikuchi and where did you find this?

DK: I found this in the rare and hard to come by book and manuscript room of the San Francisco Public Library. It has been published though I think it’s long out of print right now. Charles Kikuchi was a college student. He went to Cal, which I gather they want us to call California now.

JW: For football reasons.

DK: Yes, exactly. He went to California, and I believe he worked on the Daily, shall we call it Cal instead of Californian? And he was a very assimilated Japanese American kid. And of course, along comes Pearl Harbor and the roundups begin. And he is the most patriotic American kid you’d ever want to meet. He can’t quite believe what’s going on at first, and they ship him off. I think it’s to the Manzanar camp. And he starts in reporting for and editing the Manzanar paper. And gradually a lot of his illusions about the country start to fall away, and yet he remains defiantly American even behind the razor wire of Manzanar. He’s talking to his friends about how best to vote in the upcoming election, because they haven’t had their voting rights taken away.

And it’s this bizarre universe in which a guy imprisoned by his own country is nevertheless trying to figure out who the best city council candidate for his district in Berkeley is. It’s this combination of naivete and optimism and defiance that I find, frankly, heroic, anything but depressing. And yet looked at in 85 years or so worth of retrospect, quietly horrifying. It’s not written with a sense of outrage. It’s written with a kind of determined disbelief. And at the same time, this was a guy who sort of had his consciousness raised behind the razor wire, and he wound up living up until, I don’t know, maybe 20 years ago, and he died, well, on a peace march in the Soviet Union.

JW: Well, I also liked the letter you have from Marilyn Monroe. It’s like change of key here. It’s about Sigmund Freud.

DK: “November 5th, 1960. Dear John,” and that’s John Houston. “I have it on good authority that the Freud family does not approve of anyone making a picture of the life of Freud. So I wouldn’t want to be part of it. First, because of his great contribution to humanity. And secondly, my personal regard for his work. Thank you for offering me the part of Annie O., and I wish you the best in this and all other endeavors. Yours, Marilyn Monroe.” If she could make one movie with John Houston, probably better it should be The Misfits than Freud.

JW: We should report here that John Houston did make a movie about Freud in 1962. He got John-Paul Sartre to write the screenplay, but that turned out to be eight hours long. Houston cut it and Sartre took his name off the picture. But we are told that many key elements from Sartre’s script survive in the finished film. It featured Montgomery Clift as Freud, and instead of Marilyn Monroe, he got Susannah York to play the character who inspired young Freud to come up with the theory of psychoanalysis. However, Marilyn Monroe has her name slightly wrong in this letter: Freud in his book about the case called her not “Annie O.”, but “Anna O.”

DK: [Laughing] Yes. This is not the Freudian. Oh, yes. Marilyn Monroe thinks she’s doing an adaptation of Oklahoma, and she’s supposed to be playing Annie Oakley or Annie Get Your Gun – and she’s deeply mistaken.

JW: You’ve got to have Susan Sontag in this book, and sure enough, here she is at 16 years old, a high school student in the San Fernando Valley.

DK: “April 8th, 1949. This afternoon I heard a lecture on ‘the function of art and the artist’ by Anaïs Nin. She’s very startling, pixie-like, otherworldly, small, finely built, dark hair, and much makeup which made her look very pale, large questioning eyes, a marked accent which I could not label. Her speech is over precise. She shines and polishes every syllable with the very tip of her tongue and teeth. One feels that if one were to touch her, she would crumble into silver dust.”

JW: This is a high school student in the San Fernando Valley.

DK: This is the sweetheart of North Hollywood High, and what I find delicious about it is like a page away. You’ve got Anaïs Nin herself sharing her impressions of mid-century California. Alas, and don’t think it’s not because I didn’t look, I could not find her diary of speaking that night at UCLA so we could get her side of it and maybe even pick out a striking brunette in the second row, taking notes who might’ve been Susan Sontag.

JW: I want to talk to you about Thomas Pynchon, the famously reclusive genius novelist. Before we look at his entries in your book, Dear California, I should note that I’m pretty sure you’re the only person in America who has published an interview with Pynchon.

DK: You found that, did you?

JW: How did you do that?

DK: Well, I cheated. There’s a magazine in Northern California founded as kind of a folly, but it’s actually had some staying power called Alta. It’s devoted to all things California and the west. It’s the baby of William Randolph Hearst’s grandson Will Hearst, who is a journalist going way back and the magazine turns out to be quite strong and getting stronger all the time. And they have this habit of taking pitches from me that any magazine editor in his right mind would reject. And in this instance, I pitched them an interview with Thomas Pynchon consisting strictly of lines from his own books but organized in such a way that I’m asking this putative Thomas Pynchon about his childhood on Long Island. And the answer becomes a description of Long Island Circuit Thomas Pynchon’s childhood that came out of his first novel, V. And it goes up. Every novel of Thomas Pynchon is quoted right up until the most recent one, which takes place on the upper west side of Manhattan where he is commonly assumed to live.

And so I make this implicit case over the course of this totally spurious interview, that in fact, this man who has guarded his privacy quite closely all these years, and God love him for it if that’s what it takes to write what I consider to be the greatest body of work of any modern American novelist, then by all means wear a Groucho mask 24/7 if you want to. But as Pynchon himself has been the first to admit, autobiography in fiction is inevitable and not even worth trying to avoid. And so yes, there are these moments in his work over the course of all these years that I believe cast an interesting light on his life and vice versa.

JW: And can be taken to be answers to questions posed by you.

DK: Yes, absolutely.

JW: So what is your favorite Pynchon entry in Dear California?

DK: Well, I’m pretty high on this one: “November 25th, 1970.” So Pynchon’s probably working on Gravity’s Rainbow in his duplex a couple of blocks from The Strand in Manhattan Beach, and he’s writing to Arthur Mizener, a rather establishment American literary critic. So what else their correspondence consisted of I have no idea, but in 1970, he writes to Mizener. “The further I get into this wretched profession, the clearer it is that I am doing very little consciously beyond some clerk routine, assembling, expediting, and that either, A, there is some extra personal source, or B, readers are the ones who do most of the work. Hope you are having a good year. This university thing these days must be something of a hassle, but also I would guess a tremendous source of hope. I know I ain’t up to it, but I’m glad there are people who are.”

JW: Nice.

DK: As one academic to another, Jon, nice to see Pynchon circa 1970, having some faith in the college kids. I hope he would have some today.

JW: And last but not least, Mike Davis. You have a wonderful Mike Davis entry about driving through the Ramona Valley east of San Diego after the big fire of 2007.

DK: “In the 1930s, my older sister cantered her Indian pony through my parents’ avocado ranchito in Bostonia, 10 miles south of Ramona and little house my father built with its knotty pine walls has survived every fire. Otherwise, little of my childhood in Bostonia remains. The Barker Family’s 1880s General Store, the irrigation ditches, the Country Western Dance Hall, the gas station that sold cigarettes to 12-year-olds. The Fry’s hardware store, the lemons and the pomegranates all vanished in a whirlwind of growth. What remains are aging tract homes, autobody shops, intractable methamphetamine addiction, and long lines of taillights headed out toward the brave new suburbs.”

JW: Mike Davis.

DK: Mike Davis.

JW: David Kipen’s wonderful new collection is Dear California: The Golden State in Diaries and Letters. David, thanks for this book, and thanks for talking with us today.

DK: Anytime, Jon.

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Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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