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]