A conversation of sorts, took place tonight between A.B. Yehoshua and Leon Wieseltier, at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C. Hearing him introduced as “A.B. Yehoshua” grated on my ears a bit. Even when reading his name in English, I always heard it in my head as “Aleph Bet Yehoshua.” I don’t think a Hebrew writer’s name should be anglicized, but that’s neither here nor there.
One of Israel’s most celebrated writers, Yehoshua has authored a good number of novels, including The Lover, a masterpiece I have recently had the pleasure of reading. Yehoshua, however, is perhaps just as famous in Israel as a political figure. He is not a player in the traditional sense, but a pundit of sorts, a champion of the Israeli left.
Speaking here a few years ago, Yehoshua caused an uproar in the Jewish world by (rightly) accusing diaspora Jews of “changing countries like changing jackets,” and saying it is common sense that “Jewish life in Israel is more total than anywhere outside Israel.” This time, trying to avoid a second controversy, much of the talk focused on literature. Nevertheless, Israeli literature is more than just ink on paper, and a variety of issues pertaining to Israel were addressed.
His father was a Near East scholar, and so Yehoshua said he grew up with Arabs and Arabic, and so the stranger was not all that strange to him. He says, therefore that guilt, over Jewish actions committed to Arabs, does not figure into his politics, and that he holds them responsible as he does his own people. Presuming that Israel’s interest is near and dear to him, I cannot but help ascribe his political views to extreme naivete. His support for the Geneva Initiative, whether or not it is a just solution, assumes the conflict is simply over land. And that instating Arab sovereignty over parts of the land will bring about a peaceful end to the conflict.
The author also put down the Arab reverence of land. He may be right that the Arab citizens of Israel would be better off in seeking industrial, and other, development (uttering what has practically become a magic word – “Hi-Tech”). Nevertheless, by ignoring the importance of land to many, in and of itself, he is just sticking his head in the sand. The Hebrew language, with an abundance of agricultural words, serves a testament to the importance of land in Jewish history. Perhaps if more Jews understood the importance of that small piece of earth, Israel would cease trying to be the political version of a luftmensch.
Still on the topic of Israeli-Arabs, he was right that while they may accept Israel’s existence as fact, they do not recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state. There is no easy solution, but that is precisely the problem. A very serious problem, that we will need to face sooner, rather than later.
Another interesting revelation was that Open Heart (The Return From India in Hebrew), written shortly after Oslo, was a break from politics. Politics were deliberately avoided, the misleading quiet of those years granted Yehoshua the liberty to leave that topic out of the story.
Yehoshua expressed some unease when discussing the next generation of Israeli writers, calling them the generation of the Six Day War, who are critical, perhaps overly so, of the state. While criticism and self-examination can be healthy, many of the writers of this generation lack a basic love for the homeland. There is no true struggle with the basics, he said, and their critique is beyond the general criticism. A certain level of patriotism and concern for the safety of the state is missing, alienation taking its place, along with questioning the necessity of Israel.
Michael Oren was in attendance in the audience, and asked about the prominent place of writers in the public discourse in Israel, often sought after by the press to comment on national affairs. Yehoshua was pessimistic regarding the future of the Israel public’s reliance of literary figures, but was also rather arrogant, saying that “they (the public) need our moral judgment.” I am not sure if this is more of a statement about the public or about Israel’s writers, but as mentioned in the talk, the Jewish nation has long turned to writers for leadership. Herzl was a playwright, and Yehoshua quipped that “perhaps, if he would [have been] more successful with his plays maybe we would have no Zionism [today].”
Of course, in light of the outrage directed at him last time he spoke in Washington, Yehoshua is most intriguing when sharing his thoughts on Israel-Diaspora relations. On the one hand, he said that Zionism succeeded “because the Zionists did not ask permission of the Jewish people.” On the other hand, his political bias showed when he reached out to American Jewish criticism of Israel, calling on American Jews to “be a partner in our discussion… [if you do not make aliyah] at least be a partner from the outside.”
On this last point he is wrong. He was wrong when he expressly said to the American Jewish community “you have legitimacy” to speak out. They do not. Every Jew can have this right, but this is not an absolute right – it must be realized. Until such time as diaspora Jews will decide their fortunes are truly with the Jewish people, at home, in Israel – criticism is a privilege they has not yet earned. Fighting for that right is not euphemism, and the experience of wearing an IDF uniform is what grants one the right to be heard.
Unfortunately, he went further, and when responding to a question about what he would ask Obama were they to meet, Yehoshua said he would ask for American assistance to solve Israel’s conflict with her neighbors. “We cannot do it ourselves today… you (Obama)must help us.”
When it did come to the topic of aliyah, his true political colors showed. He rightly complained that only a few thousand Jews move to Israel from American each year, but he continued, saying that they are only Haredim who move to settlements, in order to exploit Israel’s social security system. He is simply wrong. Haredim do not make up anywhere near the majority of American olim, nor do Haredim generally associate with Yehoshua’s loathed ‘settler movement.’ Yet it was Wieseltier, the product of an Orthodox education himself, who glibly added that only a few thousand Jews make aliyah – “the wrong Jews.”
Still, unlike Wieseltier, Yehoshua is an actual Zionist, and unfortunately that fact alone places him head and shoulders above most Jews. Yet Jewish sovereignty and independence should rely on no outside sources. Furthermore, if American Jews want to have a place at the table, that place is theirs and waiting for them – in Israel.