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A.B. Yehoshua Calls American Jews “Partial Jews”

A collection of American students shrug him off

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A.B. Yehoshua(Haaretz)

Sunday afternoon at an auditorium in Jerusalem, A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s most famous novelists, walked up to the podium, smiled at the several hundred young Americans in the audience and said, “I’m happy to see so many Americans here. I hope you all become Israelis and don’t return to America.”

Those Americans, currently volunteering or studying in Israel, were all attendees of the Avi Schaefer Fund’s 3rd annual Jerusalem Symposium on “The Meaning and Purpose of Israel as a Jewish State.” Yehoshua’s greetings, which were not tongue-in-cheek, seemed at first to run afoul of the conference’s objective of energizing young American Jews.

Yehoshua, the eldest of Israeli literature’s so-called “Three Tenors” (the other two are Amos Oz and David Grossman), has been riffing off this theme for years: a Jew, he said yesterday, is an “empty definition.” To fill that definition with substance one must live a Jewish life, and the only way to do that fully, he argued, is to be Israeli. “Israelis are the total Jews,” Yehoshua proclaimed. “The empty definition of Judaism fills up simply by being here… Everything around me is Jewish! Just like everything in America is American.” Every ethical question confronted by an Israeli—say, by an IDF soldier at a West Bank checkpoint—is a dilemma as inherently Jewish as a sugya in the Talmud. “Our values are Jewish values, because we live here. It’s not what the rabbis say that defines Jewishness, but what we Israelis do every day—our actions and our values.” With this he reached his now infamous conclusion: “This is the reason I say to American Jews: you are partial and we are total… If you really want to be Jewish, come here. It’s not easy, full of questions, your nice warm Jewish identity in your community will be over. But this is real and not imaginary.”

When he made nearly identical comments eight years ago at the American Jewish Committee’s centennial symposium, he incurred the wrath of what seemed like the entire Jewish diaspora and many Israelis as well. Yehoshua was quick to release an apology, saying that “we are one people, and I have never ceased to stress this cardinal principal.” But this time around, the much younger audience greeted his words with a collective shrug. Several students I spoke to expressed apathy toward Yehoshua’s claim.

Perhaps this is because audiences have come to expect Yehoshua’s provocations. But mainly, it appears to be a sign of maturity and self-assuredness on the part of this young, engaged American Jewish audience. Diaspora Jews who set aside the time to spend more than a week or two here have little trouble finding the flaws in Yehoshua’s argument. Even those “partial Jews” who decide to make aliyah know that in many ways they will be sacrificing parts of their Jewish identity on the path to becoming “total” ones. Israel, with its almost bipolar lack of religious options on the spectrum between orthodox and secular, isn’t always particularly welcoming to Jews of more eclectic flavors. Yes, olim will be surrounded by a miraculously reincarnated Hebrew (something Anat Hoffman of Women of the Wall, who also spoke at the conference, called one of Israel’s single greatest achievements). But even if Israel’s 1950s-era assimilationist doctrine is no longer official policy, the country that banned Yiddish from the public sphere still has a long way to go in its acceptance of non-sabra ethnicities. While there is much to be gained from aliyah, to suggest that the potential sacrifices involved will only make one more Jewish is to grossly equate Israeliness with Jewishness. That equation is just too easy, and allows for sidestepping of “the question Yehoshua desperately wants us not to ask: what is the Judaic significance of the Jewish State?” as Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar succinctly put it.

By shrugging Yehoshua off, the audience called his bluff, and by doing so also called Israel’s: Diaspora life can be just as inherently Jewish as life in Israel, sometimes even more so. The question of how best to lead that life, though, remained unanswered.

Related: A.B. Yehoshua Should Pipe Down [Tablet]

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Yeah, for someone so obsessed with Israeli Jewishness, Yehoshua certainly spends a lot of time thinking about and opining on the diaspora. Compensating much?

pkbrandon says:

My first reaction was that a novelist’s stock-in-trade is fiction.
More seriously, if all Jewish Americans took his advice there would be no Israel, which continues to exist only because of American support.

    Reptilian2012 says:

    America imposed a trade embargo on Israel until the Soviets started making friends in the Middle East and it needed someone to fight its wars in the region- I suppose that was out of solidarity with the Jews as well?

    In present day, the loans that account for a fraction of our GDP could easily be supplemented if we started competing directly with the U.S weapons industry and sell more advanced hardware to China, but unfortunately our leaders do not intend to do that in the foreseeable future.

      pkbrandon says:

      I am not aware of any trade embargoes enacted against Israel by the United States government (unlike those against Cuba). Please provide specifics.
      And you are not taking into account the support of American Jews, both in direct financial support (before and after the formation of the modern state of Israel) and in the form of pressure on American politicians.

        Reptilian2012 says:

        The US forced an international arms embargo against Israel and the surrounding nations up until the 60s. In practice, what ended up happening was that the world kept arming the Arabs but blocked the flow of arms to Israel, with France being the exception.

        There is no denying that American Jews contributed to the founding of Israel, just like the European Jews who actually came here and fought and died for their cause . But the statement that Israel “continues to exist only because of American support” is utter nonsense.

        As far as the “pressure” on American politicians goes, the only thing it supports is the New Antisemitism movement. The intelligent people in DC don’t need parakeets to remind them that having a democratic R&D powerhouse as an ally against terror is a good thing.

    Scott Tennis says:

    Totally clueless. The Israeli contribution to American counter-intelligence and cyber-warfare programs is immense. And Israel is, by far, the powerhouse in its region, both economically and militarily.

      pkbrandon says:

      If you said ‘significant’ rather than ‘immense’ you might have a point.
      Last I heard, Israel had no spy satellites; a major source of military intelligence.
      And while Israel might be a large mouse among mice, it is not an elephant.

        Scott Tennis says:

        Israel has had a spy satellite since at least 2008. If you don’t know that, it only confirms you know nothing.

          pkbrandon says:

          You are correct that Israel has a spy satellite (launched by an Indian rocket). That hardly matches the capabilities of the US network of satellites, which is why Israel is still dependent on the US for military intelligence.

          Disparishun says:

          Well, no, that’s not right either. Every country, including the US, depends on its allies for military intelligence. That’s how it works. But you were trotting all of this out in an effort to show that but for American Jews there would be no Israel, and of course the point you’re trying to make here doesn’t support that at all. The US doesn’t share military intelligence with Israel because of American Jews, any more than it shares military intelligence with Australia because of Australian-Americans, or with Saudi Arabia because of Saudi-Americans. The US shares military intelligence, and enters into “aid” arrangements, because they are in the US’s interest.

Reptilian2012 says:

The Judaic significance of Israel is that there will be Jews left after the next Holocaust.

    Reptilian2012 says:

    Yes, hasbara, the Hebrew word you learned specifically to use against the damn Joos, in the comment section of a Jewish lifestyle magazine. Amazing, Holmes. Simply amazing.

    Israel is in much bigger danger of disappearing than the Diaspora Jews. We already had the same phenomenon almost 2000 years ago. Remember Masada, and in contrast the flourishing Jewish communities all around the Mediterrenian and East of Jordan …

      Reptilian2012 says:

      The Sikrikim did not possess biological weapons. If Israel goes down, it will take those who seek to destroy us with it.

Mihai-Robert Soran says:

He’s just an ethno-religious racist who divides the Jewish people into Herren-Jews and Unter-Jews.
The reality looks very different: Israelis are the Jews who are steadily loosening and losing their ties to the millenary civilization, culture, geography and moral principles that define Jewishness. It is the Diaspora that is the homeland of the Jewish people, at least since Babylonian times …

    Scott Tennis says:

    Your need to use the word ‘racist’ to describe Yehoshua makes anything you have to say on any issue totally worthless and devoid of intellect.

      What exactly would you call people who dislike people of other nations? Nationist? Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

        Disparishun says:

        But he doesn’t dislike people of “other nations”. He believes that those of his own nation have responsibilities that they are not fulfilling. You can certainly disagree with him, but what you are disagreeing with isn’t a stereotype of American Jews’ traits. It is an interpretation of what Jews ought to do to be Jews.

fred capio says:

Yehoshua is right and so was Jabotinsky addressing the Jews in Poland 1937:

“Eliminate the Diaspora, or the Diaspora will surely eliminate you.” (From “Tisha B’av 1937″)

Kind of silly. I feel that Israelis are actually partial Jews. Jewish diversity has been sacrificed in Israel in favor of a melting-pot nationalistic view of the self. I feel that being a Diaspora Jew is in many ways is a more significant, more authentic Jewish experience. Living in Israel means merging of ethnic, religious, and national identities into one Israeli identity, which is unique but not exactly representing the historical Jewish experience.


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A.B. Yehoshua Calls American Jews “Partial Jews”

A collection of American students shrug him off

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