TEL AVIV — When novelist A.B. Yehoshua told an audience of American Jews recently that Jewish life is experienced more completely in Israel than anywhere else, he opened a Pandora’s box of identity politics, with no lid in sight.
Though provocative, Yehoshua’s comments are nothing new in the lexicon of Zionist thought, and in fact his approach even is considered somewhat dated.
Yet the debate his comments sparked exposed how poorly Jews in Israel and those in the Diaspora really understand one another.
“The issue of identity is something no one talks about, but when it happens the discussion can be very painful,” said Eliezer Yaari, executive director in Israel for the New Israel Fund.
Eran Lerman, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel and Middle East office, said the issue has touched off such furious debate because “here is an identity question not of ‘who is a Jew’ but ‘what is a Jew’ — what is the essence of Jewish identity in our time?”
Speaking on a panel earlier this month at the AJCommittee’s centennial celebration in Washington, Yehoshua argued that he drew his Jewish identity not from religion but from concepts of territory and language — in his case, Israel and Hebrew.
“I cannot keep my identity outside Israel,” he was quoted as saying. To be Israeli, he said, “is my skin, not my jacket” — that is, not something that can be changed depending on circumstances.
In a phone interview with JTA, Yehoshua said he was perplexed by the backlash.
“I was speaking about the fact that we are living a full Jewish life and we are confronting all components of Jewish life” in Israel, a country where Jews legislate each other and decide what kind of society to build, he told JTA.
It’s an argument Yehoshua has been making for years. But the firestorm of reaction — both for Yehoshua and against him — made him realize he had tapped into something.
“I was touching a real nerve,” he said.
American-born Calev Ben-David, who immigrated to Israel in 1985 and has written widely on immigration and identity, said Yehoshua’s words should be seen as a challenge to American Jewry to create a more complete sense of Jewish life.
“Anybody who thinks creation of the State of Israel has not fundamentally changed what it means to be a Jew in the world is simply living on another planet,” he said.
He also suggested that American immigrants to Israel might serve as a bridge to help explain the two communities to one another.
As the decades pass since Israel’s establishment, the bonds of language and a shared notion of the Old Country have faded between Jews living in the United States and those in Israel. Identities have begun to diverge against the backdrop of radically different landscapes.
Jews living in Israel are a confident majority culture whose life rhythms are set by the Jewish calendar. Israelis’ character and outlook also have been shaped by the weight of continuous wars and internal strife.
As an increasing number of American Jews intermarry and assimilate, their numbers shrink. In turn, Israel’s Jewish population of 5.6 million recently passed the 5.29 million in the United States, making it the largest Jewish community in the world.
Interested American Jews must seek out ways to express their communal affiliation, through synagogue membership or activity in community centers and Jewish schools. In addition, the American focus on pluralistic Judaism stands in contrast to the outlook among many Israeli Jews, who feel alienated from and even hostile toward institutionalized religion, which in Israel is predominately Orthodox.
Yehoshua thinks American Jews — less than half of whom have visited Israel — have lost interest in the Jewish state as the dramatic events that shaped its history and its image, including the 1967 Six-Day War, are replaced by more chronic struggles such as the Palestinian intifada and poverty.
Many American Jews at the AJCommittee symposium were offended by Yehoshua’s comments and argued for the value of a religious and spiritual sense of one’s Judaism.
In both the interview and a post-symposium essay in Ha’aretz, Yehoshua apologized if his comments seemed overly aggressive. He said he entered the symposium in a bad mood because Israel’s Memorial Day, which fell on the same day, had not been honored or even mentioned at the event — another sign, he said, of the chasm between the two communities.
Since the symposium, Ha’aretz has run a series of comments by politicians, thinkers and Jewish officials under the heading, “The A.B. Yehoshua Controversy.” Many contributors were quick to say that they disagreed with Yehoshua, including Avraham Burg, a former Knesset speaker and former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Burg criticized Yehoshua for taking the “position of the Israeli isolationist, the Zionist fundamentalist,” who “differentiated between Israeliness and Jewishness.” He accused him of fighting an outdated Zionist battle that has been supplanted by the need to tap into Jewish unity, not divide it.
“You are fighting the war of yesterday and inadvertently losing the partners of tomorrow, the strongest elements of Diaspora Judaism, most of whom now represent universalism and humanitarianism of Judaism much better than does most of Israeli society, including its principal representatives, spokesmen and thinkers,” Burg wrote.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in Ha’aretz that Yehoshua’s view of the totality of Jewish life in Israel was compelling, but added that the issue is not so black and white. Not everyone in Israel leads a marvelous Jewish life, Foxman noted, and many in the Diaspora have indeed found a way to do so.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, praised Yehoshua for starting a necessary discussion, but added that he considered the novelist “far more wrong than he is right.”
“As a secular Jewish nationalist, he does not understand at all the role of Jewish religion in the history of the Jewish people,” Yoffie wrote. “He does not recognize that Jewish peoplehood and Jewish religion are intimately related and inextricably intertwined, and it is the interplay between the two — however fraught with tension and hostility — that has maintained Jewish existence for 3,500 years.”
Nachman Shai, a senior vice president in the United Jewish Communities’ Israel office who became a household name in Israel as army spokesman during the first Persian Gulf War, acknowledged that many Israelis are unfamiliar with the fabric of Jewish life in the United States — how the communities are organized, what the schools and synagogues are like.
“We don’t know enough about American Jews,” Shai said. “The personal benefit I have had working with the UJC is that suddenly a new reality was opened to me that I was not aware of … I jumped into a new world and saw tremendously beautiful things there.”
He said the fallout over Yehoshua’s comments reflects the need for a new type of dialogue between members of the world’s two largest Jewish communities.
“When something like this happens it explodes immediately, because there is no permanent forum for things like this to be discussed,” Shai said. “We need to have a place where Israelis and Americans will conduct this dialogue once a year, twice a year, as a way to talk to each other. There is so much in common, but at the same time there are differences.”