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A.B. Yehoshua Should Pipe Down

The Israeli novelist and liberal icon regularly disparages Diaspora Jews. So, why do Americans still give him an ear, and a platform?

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Author Abraham Yehoshua attends the third day of Milanesiana 2008 at Teatro Dal Verme on June 30, 2008 in Milan, Italy. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Every few years, the Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua writes an outrageous op-ed or delivers the same ideas in a public speech, invariably directed at an English-speaking audience. The message has been the same for quite some time now: Israeli Jews are “complete” Jews, living as they do in an environment defined by pervasive Jewishness—with a Jewish calendar, Hebrew in the public square, and responsibilities for every aspect of building and sustaining a Jewish civilization. Diaspora Jews—especially Americans—are “partial” Jews, living as they do in a pervasively non-Jewish environment and capable of turning off and on their Jewishness in their local institutions and the sites with which they affiliate. Since he is an excellent author, Yehoshua’s better-developed versions of this stump speech come with memorable turns of phrase; in the most famous version, delivered several years back at American Jewish Committee headquarters, Yehoshua located Diaspora Jewish identity in “a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasing fragrance on Shabbat and holidays.” A more frivolous analogy to Jewish practice, and a more demeaning take on a vibrant Diaspora Jewish community, cannot be found.

Never mind the real relevance of the mutterings of an ornery author as he veers unpleasantly into public policy; I am more mystified as to why American Jews continue to give Yehoshua an audience before which to air these grievances. The AJC example is the best one: Yehoshua’s original speech making this audacious claim about the relative merits of Israeli and American Jewry was by invitation at the centennial celebration of the American Jewish Committee itself. Once the flagship institution of American Judaism and the site of a proud assertion of Jewish political strength in the Diaspora, the AJC celebrated its strength by inviting a polemicist to mock them to their faces. Shocked by the content of Yehoshua’s presentation, the AJC then invited Yehoshua back some months later for a symposium built around his remarks, during which time he exacerbated his critique with the above analogy, even going so far as to say that equivocating between American and Israeli Jewry undermined “the moral significance of the historic Jewish grappling with a total reality.” Put differently: Not only is Israeli Judaism fundamentally and even empirically superior; but it is also unethical to even call this hierarchy into question.

And now again last month Yehoshua gave a similar speech to Diaspora Jews and got the requisite write-up, and more Diaspora Jews—or possibly the same ones who were agitated the first time—are up in arms. So, what is this about for A. B. Yehoshua? And why are we still paying attention?

A generous approach to this ideology—that is, one that seeks to understand its foundations irrespective of its pernicious motives and consequences—finds two classical foundations for this idea. The first and most basic is the fundamental premise of biblical Judaism: Jews were meant to live in the land of Israel, their promised destination and the site at which their covenantal dreams would be realized, and the various destructions and dispersals were painful hiccups that never mitigated this original vision. Accordingly, since the opportunity to “return” has reappeared, this vision becomes once again not only an option for Jews but essential and defining. The failure to do so is just that, a failure; Diaspora was always an inferior state to the ideal condition of living in the land of Israel, and voluntary Diasporism is somewhere between folly and criminal.

The more positive or hopeful approach to understanding Yehoshua and making sense of why this ideology still matters focuses less on its foundations in the ancient Jewish past and more on what a Jewish state actually surfaces as possibilities in the present. A Jewish civilization makes certain features of Judaism possible in ways that Diaspora does not—from land-specific biblical commandments, to a calendar that moves out of the realm of the liturgical to something bigger, and to the most ambitious: a Jewish society that requires and is predicated on Jewish values about politics and ethics. The state becomes a testing ground for a set of ideas and theories that otherwise were merely the fodder for study-house debates and dusty volumes. Yehoshua’s lament about the failure of American Jews to immigrate to Israel stems, in part, from his seeing a failed opportunity to animate a Jewish public conversation with as many and as diverse voices as possible.

Of course, both of these conceptual foundations can be critiqued (and are deserving of it). The critique of the first is that it misunderstands the depth of Jewish wanderlust, and the extent to which whenever there has been land there has been diaspora. Zionism is grand, but ain’t no land big enough for the Jewish people to all inhabit at once—a lesson learned many generations earlier by Abraham and Lot upon their arrival into Canaan. The desire for home has been a stronger literary motif for Jews than actually being at home, which—until now—has never been that successful. What’s more, it is only in the messianic age that the return to landedness goes from being an option to being a necessity; and the brokenness in which we currently live suggests that the messiah has yet to arrive. If Yehoshua is relying on a reading of classical Judaism to critique his Diaspora brethren, he is woefully under-read in the full extent of that tradition.

But if Yehoshua’s argument hinges on the second approach—that living in Israel enables certain possibilities for Judaism that are not possible without sovereignty—then he may actually be right. But he is only half right. The same case can be compellingly made for Diaspora. If a Jewish state is a live testing-ground for Jewish possibility in real time and in real conditions, Diaspora has always been the laboratory environment for the creating and testing of Jewish ideas in so-called pristine conditions. It is no wonder that the synagogue is a Diaspora creation, as Jews had to figure out how they could create concentrated community once the public square was no longer theirs to control. Even to the present, though the American Jewish community is far from perfect, there is something achievable in the realm of the private and in the status of minority that enables Jewish possibilities to emerge that entail an actualization of important Jewish ideas.

So, Yehoshua is right about the possibilities for Jewishness that the state of Israel enables, but it is a mystery as to why it must be a quantitative hierarchy: why one has to be better or more complete than the other. Diaspora Zionism should aspirationally mean the ability to see possibilities for Jewishness that emerge from both a sovereign state and a vibrant minority—and further, the ways in which these can be mutually reinforcing. Ask Israelis who spend time in American Jewish communities, and many of the same people who could not breathe in the conditions of public Jewishness in Israel find comfort and warmth in Diasporic Jewish communal frameworks.

The irony is that Yehoshua’s position actually lets Israel and Israelis off the hook. By pinning Jewishness to just being in a particular place, a Jew needs not do anything to sustain this deep level of Jewishness. Yehoshua can only be right to the extent that Israelis commit themselves to building Jewish values into the fabric of the Jewish state, to be engaged in the rigorous work of building aspirational Israel as the embodiment of the best that a sovereign state enables for Judaism. As now over a million Israelis have left this work of state-building behind, and as Israel’s public Jewish face is increasingly characterized by the ugliness of Judaism’s most fundamentalist elements, Yehoshua’s “total Jewishness based on living in Israel” risks becoming thinner and thinner, code for an ethnic veneer.

And this then should put its own pressure on American Jews to apply the same aspirational rigor to our Diaspora contexts. It is interesting: Part of the reason that American Jews continue to listen to A. B. Yehoshua is that he not only plays into the unspoken ideas of many Israelis about the fundamental superiority of their assertive and public Judaism, but also that he plays into what exactly American Jews tend to like about Israel. American Jewish Zionists often embrace exactly these features of public Jewishness: Street signs in Hebrew! Shabbat is a day of the week! Kosher McDonald’s!

What’s worse, the American Jewish community perpetuates Yehoshua’s hierarchy with its educational agenda. The most widely celebrated innovation in Jewish education in decades—Birthright Israel—aims to foster positive Jewish identity by taking American Jewish kids away from their communities and to Israel, the Jewish Disneyland. Not surprisingly, the program fosters positive feelings toward Judaism and the Jewish people, but virtually no change in Jewish affiliations or behaviors.

Some ancient Jews figured this out and saved on the travel budget. Philo of Alexandria was a proud resident of his auspicious ancient homeland and wrote of his dual affiliation to the metropolis—the mother city—of Jerusalem, as well as his ancestral Alexandria. The Judaism that they produced was radically different in both places, with the Temple defining public Jewish culture in one place, and the ancient synagogue creating community differently in another. What we love about our Diaspora homelands cannot be captured in spice-boxes; in contrast to the laziness that Yehoshua’s passive identity ultimately promotes, Diaspora Jewishness requires ongoing and serious commitment to the affirmative expression of minority values in a majority culture, to the willful preservation of difference.

This is why the indignation over the Israeli Ministry of Tourism’s ads targeted at Israelis and encouraging them to return “home” was such a breath of fresh air: It represented the assertion by American Jews and their leadership that living in America was neither a holding-pattern toward inevitable return, nor a depreciated condition; that it was unfair to assume, as some of the ads did, that in addition to the loss of “Israeli-ness,” residence in Palo Alto or Cambridge meant an automatic loss of Jewishness. Would that the Israeli government ended such ads by encouraging Israelis to visit their local JCCs.


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bennybenben says:

Wow – bravo! This is really well reasoned and thoughtful.

Ranen says:

Kurtzer has it right in terms of the consistency and longstanding nature of the author’s antagonism toward “partial” Jewish identities. What he overlooks is that for Yehoshua this comes down to the overarching question of “responsibility”–that to be truly responsible, Jews need to have an ethical framework where they can exhibit moral agency over every dimension of their lives. That is why he is concerned with the failure of his country to secure genuine borders and that many of its Jews have imposed themselves on the Palestinians in the occupied territories. In other words, his critique applies to Jews inside as well as outside of Israel. And I suspect that he would greatly prefer more of the West’s liberal Jews to make aliya and help bring an end to the hopeless malady of occupation.

MethanP says:

Because most liberals are full of self loathing. If your Jewish, You add to that Jewish guilt. (I don’t know why.) So they read idiots like Yehoshua and sadly shake their heads saying “I/we deserve it” How else does one explain why most US Jews will support a blatent anti-semite like Obama!

Floyd says:

Why should they live in a semi-theocracy? The Israelis (of which I am not one) in Palo Alto come to attend Stanford U and don’t return, I guess. Palo Alto has a vibrant Jewish community.

EigenvectorY says:

Way to go!

An excellent takedown of ABY pernicious thesis. And I say that as a proud Israeli who happens to be living abroad at this very moment (just for a year, and then coming back with a vengeance! :-)

Moshe Blei says:

Yehshua is right. You are wrong. No Talmudic explanation needed. Twisted arguments and even Philo with Josephus will not help you. Make it simple because simplicity is the truth.

Phil N says:

It is even more difficult to understand why American Jews support Obama. He is clearly the enemy of Israel and has associated himself with anti-Semites like Al Sharpton.

Allen says:

Liberal jews from the West are making aliya in much fewer numbers than before.On the other hand, the number of religious nationalist olim from the West has increased. The political culture in Israel is more compatible with the latter group.

arcaneone says:

Speaking as one who was involved with Tablet from its beginning,this is one of the few
issues that was worth what it cost, which is nothing.

Michael says:

Perhaps Mr. Yehoshua should look at the 1/3 of Israelis who will not fast for Yom Kippur, or take a look at the 1/4 of Israelis who did not have a Passover seder and tell us who is not a full Jew.

Also, stop saying Obama is antisemitic. He has hosted a menorah in the White House every Hanukkah, and he’s had a Passover seder every year as well. Jews filled many top positions in his cabinet, and he closely associated himself with many Jews while campaigning for president. Just because he calls Israel out when they’re being stupid doesn’t mean he dislikes Jews.

Categorization is an old habit, as history certifies.
I did respond at the time, in Hebrew.א-ב-יהושע-טעות-בלשונך/#more-71026

It is my well founded understanding that even if we were as socially attentive as Sweden and as divers as the USA Jewish community – still no partial” Israeli here or abroad will be impartial to the Occupation.

I do not think that Yehoshua aims at the Diaspora but at the Israelis opting to leave this horrifying reality we have in Israel. To the best of my understanding, there is not one family here that does not have a good and growing representation abroad. It was so with the kibbutzim: as they became more and more stifling they turned into poor retirement communities. Not a happy prospect and not one to change by injecting adjectives.

Lili says:

Why do u give him an ear? Because u r not thinking. u shouldn’t decide if to give him your attention because of his bullshit. U should do it cause he didn’t write anything good for decades and u go on buying his novels because there is A.B on top (and for the sake of the argument Amos Os or David Grossman). All 3 haven’t written anything impressive so many years. It is their so called ‘liberal’ (= 5th column, unrealistic) political views that attract the american jews. Especially if they support JStraight.
What is the chance of Lea Eini and Gabriela Avigur-Rotem to ‘get you ear’ and ~15$? They are the best writers in Israel, however they are modest. They write. They don’t do politics

Steve says:

The truth is not pleasant to the ear. ha?
I thin ABY is not a fantastic novelist. I don’t think he wrote any good novel for years. I also don’t think that his repeated arrogance and “I know better” is the way tp present his opinion.
Nevertheless, American Jews, Israel is your insurance card. Finally there is a Jewish independent state, that will accept you with open arms, when a meshigener anti-semite president will be elected by your white-trash red-necks majority

Isn’t it time for Tablet to introduce some “moderation” into these comment threads? This constant, puerile name-calling is getting very old. I modestly suggest at least a temporary moratorium on the “Obama is an anti-Semite” trope which is about as accurate as “Obama is a foreign-born Muslim…” Passionate debate and civility are not mutually exclusive.

Carl says:

Personally I don’t agree with him. But it’s very interesting how many of these same American Jews who say that he is wrong, completely agree with Grossman, and Oz and Yehoshua when they address Israeli internal policies. Maybe it’s time to realize that these 3 have written some good books, but they have no more expertise about other issues than you or I.

Tobias Engel says:

Israeli Jews exist because of the financial support of Diaspora Jews. Without it they would not exist. This must be painful to consider, seems to be constantly forgotten, and explains to me Yehoshua’s occasional outbursts — how can one present oneself as strong when one’s strength is borrowed? And, increasingly, for younger Jews outside of Israel, non-religious Israelis from Jewish backgrounds aren’t Jews at all; they are Israelis.

    Jojo Lolo says:

    This is a complete lie. The financial support of the diaspora is not even 1% of the national budget – and even much less. 

Raymond_in_DC says:

“The critique of the first is that it misunderstands the depth of Jewish wanderlust, and the extent to which whenever there has been land there has been diaspora.”
Indeed, there’s a deep ignorance in Israel about the Diaspora experience. Even in late Second Temple times, there was an extensive Diaspora (as distinct from Exile) – from Persia an Mesopotamia to the east, to the far Maghreb and Gaul to the west, to Germania to the north. 

Apropos, in Haifa there’s what locals call the “Doll Museum”, where youngsters with disabilities have created 3-dimensional presentations of Jewish history. From the Garden of Eden, the Flood and Abraham to the fall of Jerusalem. Then there’s an 1800 year period of … nothing, until the 19th and 20th century pogroms, the Holocaust, and the new State of Israel. Either the artists weren’t exposed to that history or don’t understand it. The same could perhaps be said about Yehoshua. 

As to AB’s notion of Jewish existence in Israel being more “complete”, he seems to confuse Hebrew or Israeli culture with Jewish culture. On my last trip to Israel, I spent a week in northern Tel Aviv. On Friday night, I went looking for a synagogue. Taxis and open restaurants I found, but no synagogues. A Hebrew city, yes, but a Jewish city, not so much … Israel is also one of the few countries in the world whose nominally Jewish leaders will tell Jews where they’re not allowed to live.

    Jojo Lolo says:

    Yes, the Jewish existence in Israel is more complete. We speak *our* language, live on *our* land, and are ruled by *ourselves*. And if you are religious you should know that the mitzvoth have meaning *only* on the Land of Israel. And I am not speaking of the dozen of mitzvoth that you can do only in Israel.

    By the way your North Tel Aviv story is absurd. There is no problem finding synagogues even there. And tell me, how is it so much better in a country where 50% of Jews intermarry, and most have not even basic knowledge of Jewish culture and assimilate ? This is nonsense.

Marc Schulman says:

I am cofounded by the criticism of AB Yehoshua by the author.  Yehoshua’s arguments are simply classic Zionism.  Not everyone has to be a Zionist, but if what Yehoshua is saying is not classic Zionism then what is Zionism?

If Yehoshua’s assertion that living in Israel in the only way to be a complete Jew and Israel is the best society that Judaism can offer, does that actually include all those women who actually want to behave like a modern religious human being or Ethiopian, Yemenite etc immigrants whose human rights were and are just kind of trampled and of course there are those uppity Arabs from the western part of the middle east (there is no such thing as a Palestinian of course) whose human rights just occasionally get missed in the course of war and defense and making sure Israelis have the opportunity to live like a rich person in a really nice house with a garage on land captured that they never could possibly afford inside the green line?

Israel is simply the best example of what it is a historically pragmatic place populated with imperfect people who aim high but frequently miss the target with frequent tragic untended consequences, kind of like everywhere else. The only difference being that if you recognize Israel’s many failing and injustices (many perpetrated in the name of Judaism) you are either a anti Semite or a self hating Jew or a liberal apologist or a religious fanatic or a greedy capitalist. So of course I agree completely with everything Yehoshua says being that I am nothing more than a diaspora jew, whose value is limited simply to providing tourism and political support and money but nothing else less we make the Sabras feel slightly less self important and superior.

I don’t think I need Yehoshua (whom I’ve never heard of) or anyone else to tell me whether I am a Jew or not,or indeed where I should live my life. And who appointed him
the supreme arbiter of Jews and Judaism?


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A.B. Yehoshua Should Pipe Down

The Israeli novelist and liberal icon regularly disparages Diaspora Jews. So, why do Americans still give him an ear, and a platform?