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?
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.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Most men won’t be allowed to admit this, but the new HBO show is a disastrous celebration of entitlement and helplessness