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?
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.
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