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A.B. Yehoshua’s Culture War

‘I have grown accustomed to the fact that the world here is wrecked in the morning and blooms again in the evening’

Bernard Avishai
September 09, 2022
Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images
Leonardo Cendamo/Getty Images

On the evening of May 18th, the writer A.B. Yehoshua—“Bulli” to his many friends—climbed onto a Jerusalem stage, heavy on his walker, acknowledging the cheers of an audience that had come out to pay tribute to his work. Three younger writers had just described characters and rhetorical gambits that had inspired them, quoting from among Bulli’s more than 20 novels, story collections, and plays. They implied, but did not have to say, that he was among the preeminent writers who had come into their own in the three decades after the Israeli state was founded—joining the novelist Amos Oz, the poet Yehuda Amichai, and the journalist Amos Elon as custodians of Zionism’s prestige, yet wielding modern Hebrew to address personal, not just national, trials.

Everyone in the room also knew—because he made no secret of this to reporters—that Bulli had esophageal cancer that was fatal and advancing. The moderator, the young novelist Roni Kaban, asked, with an ironic cheerfulness that he must have supposed Bulli would appreciate, how he was “feeling.” Bulli paused and smiled. “I want to die, but it’s not …,” he paused again, seeming to relish the comedy in flunking death, as the laughter in the room nervously swelled and faded. “My books are full of death,” he said. “I am ready. Aval ma zeh? But what is this? What happens? How can we die?”

When, finally, he found out what “this” is—Bulli died less than a month later, on June 14th, at the age of 85—one might well have wondered if he ever gave up trying to find the words. “It was thus that he remembered the moment of her death,” Molkho, the hero from his 1987 novel of the same name, thinks of his wife’s end, a Mahler symphony playing to her on background speakers, “by its exact bars, the repetition of which could recreate at will that final scene in the silence of the night.” Molkho “had never thought much about such things as life after death or reincarnation, had indeed thanked her mentally for shying away from all that mysticism, whose dark unreason would only have been swept away anyhow by her aggressive, bitter intellectuality.”

Molkho’s reverence seems like an anticipation. And the moral tension he exposes—“dark unreason” at odds with “bitter aggressive intellectuality”—comes across gently, as a private rumination. But, as was typical in Bulli’s fiction, it also reflected a public struggle—by 1987, the public struggle. “Unreason” is not much spelled out here, but the danger of a default to religious dogma is implied, as much by the novelist as by his character. Nor was Bulli alone here. In Israel, in 1987, the culture war was gaining force, and his part in it was never far from his mind.

Bulli was by then a lion of liberal, secular Israeliness, committed to salvaging a democratic society by, among other things, ending the occupation and negotiating for Palestinian independence. But things went deeper for him, taking him into contests quite like those that an enlightened Jewish intelligentsia—the maskilim—once had with rabbinic leaders in the backwaters of the Pale a hundred years before. Those contests engendered the cultural Zionism of Achad Haam, Bialik, and the rest. Their challenge was to preserve Jewish texts, legal exegeses, music—the grandeur of Jewish civilization—but not the orthodoxies engendered by ancient revelations or the sages who spoke in their name. Bulli, too, assumed that the Jewish solidarity that had grown up in the Palestinian yishuv, and then in the early years of the state, was a modern innovation: language, territory, conscience, sovereignty—also the “bitter intellectuality” of an open society. It portended his vocation.

By the time he wrote Molkho, moreover, Bulli was alarmed that, for a growing half of the Israeli population—and not always the less educated half—the gains of the 1967 war had seemed redemptive in a way that allowed orthodoxy to make a comeback. Theocratic parties had allied with a succession of Likud governments, which, in turn, fetishized Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and “Judea and Samaria,” while coddling the national Orthodox settler movement (from 1980 to 1988, West Bank settlers grew from about 10,000 to 100,000). The thrill of messianism was in the air. The so-called “religious Zionists” even seemed to have the upper hand in accounting for the advent of the state itself, as if this were merely the culmination of some old liturgical yearning for Zion. Nobody, least of all Bulli, knew how things would end. “I have grown accustomed to the fact,” he wrote me in March 1987, “that the world here is wrecked in the morning and blooms again in the evening.”

Bulli’s cultural Zionism was come by honestly; yet his initiation into it is often obscured by myths about his origins. He was born in 1936 to a father descended from generations of Jerusalem rabbis whose roots were in Salonika, and a mother whose family had come in 1932 from French Morocco. And much has been made, at times by Bulli himself, of these Sephardi origins, as if they were something exotic, or at least distinct from Ashkenazi, European-immigrant friends from Zionist families in and around Jerusalem’s Kerem Avraham neighborhood where he grew up. Given persistent claims by Sephardi politicians and artists—that Ashkenazi elites condescended to them or had pushed them around—Bulli’s Sephardi family gave him a peculiar authority on a sore subject, the right to joke when others couldn’t.

In fact, the course of his youth was hardly different from that of his early friends—not just Oz, but the future novelist Haim Beer, critic Menachem Brinker, and journalist Danny Rubinstein. All were absorbed into the “statism” of the early ’50s, what David Ben-Gurion called mamlachtiyut—celebrating the ingathering, including hundreds of thousands of Sephardim from the Middle East and North Africa, and suffering the rationing, attending secular schools yet enjoying a popular culture reflecting a vaguely biblical heritage. (In the ’50s and early ’60s, the radio played folk groups repurposing the Song of Songs). Bulli and his friends worked, at times, on farming collectives, preparing for army service. They saw themselves in the vanguard of the nation that was proving as novel as Ben-Gurion had planned: people repairing sinks in Hebrew, being cuckolded in Hebrew, earning political scars in Hebrew. (“Bulli was simply one of us,” Rubinstein told me.)

Bulli joined the Scouts, the least ideological of the leftist youth movements, became a paratrooper—he served in the 1956 Sinai War—and then attended Hebrew University. Stocky, gregarious, intense—speaking with a lisp that grew worse in moments of rising passion—Bulli read philosophy and literature, becoming increasingly preoccupied with Western literary experiments, from those of Albert Camus to William Faulkner. He began teaching high school, nursing literary ambitions of his own. (Faulkner particularly resonated with him, he often told me, since Faulkner’s South was a place of aggrieved families, suffering in a parochial culture where obvious moral questions could not be easily raised, and whose reality could be rendered most effectively in disparate voices.)

In 1960, Bulli married Rifka Karni (Kirsninski), known to all as “Ika” after her toddler cousin struggled with her name. She was (so that cousin, Nadiv Shapira, now a semiretired heart surgeon in Delaware, told me) a “smartass”: focused and practical, but also one who also had to be warmly accommodating, since Bulli was preternaturally “rigid,” keen to “get his way.” She was four years younger than Bulli and had just finished her army service. In 1962, after he had published his first stories, he and Ika left for three years in Paris, where Bulli studied French literature and she began to study clinical psychology and psychoanalysis—a time when most first-generation Israelis still regarded therapy as a form of self-indulgence. She graduated, he kept at it. They returned to Israel, and finally moved to Haifa. Bulli became a professor at the city’s newly founded university, and Ika opened a private practice. They had three children.

By the time I met them in 1978—I was then living in Jerusalem, and on a magazine assignment—they seemed partners-in-consciousness. They auditioned newcomers for friendship together, and she was the one who asked about you. Bulli would speak in big syllogisms—Judaism says this, gentiles think that—and build to a polemical climax, while Ika would keep decorum with watermelon slices and a warm, ironic smile, neither of which he could resist. Ika died in 2016. Two years after her death, even in restaurants, Bulli would break into sobs recounting the sudden onset of disease, the truncated time, the lost conversation. He had also lost his first, best reader. It was hard to imagine him portraying characters with the delicacy that he did without her responses, or his anticipation of them. (“The moment my wife died,” he told an interviewer in 2021, “the weight of old age fell upon me.”)

Bulli’s first great protagonist, in his 1962 story “Facing the Forests,” would become a catalytic figure, surfacing thoughts about the Naqba—not uncontroversial in a country still under siege. But arguably, the story’s greatest novelty was looking at iconic Zionist institutions as if these were nothing but settled facts on one’s personal landscape. The story introduces a despondent, unnamed graduate student, craving solitude—unable to focus on writing his thesis on, of all things, short-lived Crusader kingdoms— who takes a job as a ranger in a forest planted after the 1948 war on five scrub hills somewhere between Jerusalem and the sea. Almost immediately, he is empathically drawn to an older Palestinian man—“the Arab”—and his young, comely daughter, survivors from a village now buried under the trees and saplings. (The Arab’s tongue had been cut out during the war—“By one of them or one of us? Does it matter?”) At times, the student witnesses young Israeli hikers jauntily searching for the lost village, or American Jewish philanthropists who’d come to affix their plaques to the trees they had donated to the national project. Starved for sleep, and a kind of catharsis, the student builds bonfires from dry needles and kerosene in the presence of his Arab neighbor, as if demonstrating the possibilities. He thus seems to inspire what comes next: the arson that will burn the forest down. The student finally sleeps, is then fired, and returns, shakily, to Jerusalem. The Arab is arrested.

It was hard to tell (as Bulli himself later reflected) whether the protagonist’s actions were politically motivated or simply reflected the melancholy of a blocked graduate student. In any case, “the Arab” was presented more as an idiosyncratic other than an enemy. And 15 years later Bulli reinforced the point in his first novel, The Lover, which featured among other characters, an Arab Israeli youth and a Jewish Israeli girl, mutually infatuated, having their first sexual adventure. No writer of reputation had hitherto tried to normalize, in Hebrew, cross-national, reciprocal lust. The novel also gave us a young Jewish Israeli man returning from abroad, who, after falling into an affair with his boss’s wife, evades conscription to the 1973 war by escaping to an ultra-Orthodox community. (Ironically, it is the ultra-Orthodox character who is given some of the best lines, doubting the plausibility of bourgeois freedoms.)

In the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, Bulli continued his string of apparent trespasses, experimenting with epic stories, at times told backwards, or, like The Lover, told from multiple vantage points, routinely collecting local and European prizes. He paid his greatest tribute to Faulkner in 1993, in his multiple-voiced, multigenerational historical novel, Mr. Mani; he explored centuries-old antecedents of ethnic disparities in his 1997 novel, A Journey to the End of the Millennium—suggesting a Sephardi religious attitude that was folksy, warm, plastic, as compared with cold, inflexible Ashkenazi scholasticism. Not surprisingly, these novels seemed to qualify Bulli for a robust public life, especially since there was a single state-run television channel, the peace process ramped up, and public intellectuals mattered. Bulli became a leading advocate for advancing the 1978 Camp David Accords. He was a member and vocal internal critic of the sluggish Labor Party under Shimon Peres, who then seemed unwilling to oppose the settlement movement, or the national Orthodoxy that drove it. Like Primo Levi, he excoriated the Likud government for the 1982 Lebanon War. (“That’s when the Italians started noticing me and made my books bestsellers,” he told me.)

One might be tempted to see a line between Bulli’s fiction, in which one encounters deftly drawn subjects—often advocating for ideological and religious views not his own—and his nonfiction essays and public pronouncements, which could seem stentorian. But I think this is a mistake. The fiction was his own best evidence for his public claims, the latter rooted in his youthful cultural Zionism and its democratic ethos; a “Hebrew atmosphere” (as Achad Haam put it) to equip individuals with the means to express idiosyncrasies. I never heard Bulli use the term “cultural Zionism,” or quote any Zionist thinker—anyway, he was usually too impatient to reproduce someone else’s credo when he could directly state his own. (He told a Haifa University audience in 2010 that Zionism had become a kind of perfunctory devotion claimed by all political parties—a “ketchup poured onto every plate.”) Still, especially when he was at the height of his influence, cultural Zionism remained precious to him and even turned into a kind of crusade. This got him into trouble with both diaspora Jews and Israeli Arabs alike: He railed at the former for not adopting Israeliness, and at the latter for presuming to adopt it.

The moment my wife died, the weight of old age fell upon me.

I can testify to his trouble with the first group. The year after we met, I returned to America—for 20 years, it turned out—and would visit Bulli and Ika annually, usually on some journalistic junket. Bulli would interrogate me affectionately—about the peace process, or American politics—but he would always get around to wondering skeptically how happy I could be so distanced from Israeli debates and Hebrew culture. He seemed drawn to me, in part, the way evangelicals are drawn to sinners who had heard the Good News but waver and waver rather than come forward to be saved. When, in the early 1980s, I wrote The Tragedy of Zionism—largely in tribute to him, Brinker, Elon, and other forlorn Hebrew democrats—Bulli read the manuscript, seemed impressed enough, offered a blurb, but told me I should find another, less disquieting title. He liked “Zionism: The Tragedy of a Revolution,” which wouldn’t have been bad, but more important, suggested the contours of his own despair. Real Zionism, revolutionary Zionism, he told me, was being eclipsed in Israel by the old diaspora’s dodgy version of peoplehood: a tribal Jewish people, claiming to be unique and exclusive, yet also claiming a revelation and covenant that presumed itself universal. (“Bernie, this fusion drives the goyim crazy!”)

In 1984, Bulli wrote his most famous essay, “be-zckut ha-normaliyut,” (“In Praise of Normalcy”), in which he celebrated how Zionism had aimed to get past this pretension. A Jewish nation stripped of revelation—secular Israeliness attended by political sovereignty—was arguably a more “total Judaism” that outperforms, and will outlast, the “partial Judaism” of synagogues and commandments. Besides, the God of Israel had become quaint. Israel gave the promise of moral improvement, or at least more thorough moral engagement. (“I have to realize my Judaism in the way I treat the environment, run prisons, put ethical stricture on the defense forces,” he told that Haifa University audience.)

This argument, tendentious on many grounds, was hardly music to the ears of American Jewish audiences (or friends). Could any national experience be thought “total”? Was American liberalism not moral engagement? Was modern Hebrew itself not a linguistic mutt? Yet Bulli drove his point home heedlessly; and American synagogues, deferential to Israeli celebrities and curiously attracted to Zionist foils, kept the invitations coming.

More nettlesome were Israeli Arab audiences. If you are berating the diaspora for missing out on Israel as an upgraded, more holistic Judaism, how do you turn around and welcome in your country’s Arabs—the majority born in Israel, whose Hebrew is articulate, second nature, even, and who claim not just equal citizenship but cultural authenticity? Bulli could seem deaf to the contradiction, or at least resistant to its implications. Like Faulkner, who knew precisely how to abhor the South, but also loved its details too much to see integration changing things “too fast,” Bulli could see how a secular Hebrew republic might assimilate, say, a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union—most of whom had virtually no experience of Judaism—yet he could not imagine how Arab Israelis could assimilate. They might be fit subjects for Hebrew literature, but could they also be creators of Hebrew literature?

The question was no longer hypothetical in 1985, when an aspiring Arab Israeli writer, Anton Shammas, writing in a political journal based in Jerusalem, appealed for a pluralist definition of the Israeli nation—one that would include experiences and voices from the Israeli Arab and Palestinian communities. Bulli, whom Shammas knew and admired, answered in print with uncharacteristic churlishness—that if Shammas wanted “to live in a state with a Palestinian character, an original Palestinian culture,” then he should, “arise, take your belongings, and move one hundred meters east, to the independent Palestinian state that will exist alongside Israel.” Shammas then published his lyrical Hebrew novel Arabesques, which included a rather smug cultural guardian, obviously based on Bulli. In 1987, Shammas and his kibbutz-born Jewish wife moved, not east, but to Ann Arbor.

Shammas and Bulli never reconciled. They “hadn’t been on speaking terms since the summer of 1993,” Shammas wrote me recently. (Bulli was “the wonderful writer of, say, Molkho,” but also the “one-track-minded publicist who couldn’t listen to any voice but his own.”) Yet Bulli’s regard for democratic foibles pressed against this attitude toward Arab Israelis in the public culture, eventually to the point of encroaching on his defense of Jewish national autarchy. Once he recognized a moral imperative, he could not help taking it to its stark conclusion, and he expected the rest of us to do the same. In 2016, despairing of the Oslo process, or victory in the culture war, Bulli publicly argued for Israel and Palestine constituting a single, binational state—a so-called “one state solution.” His last work, a play written in his final months, contains a dialogue among rabbis, one of whom reports on a mysterious proposal—which Bulli obviously took pride in—for a new Jewish temple to be built, not on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, but outside the Old City’s wall, at Absalom’s Tomb, keeping watch on the carpet of gravestones, Jewish and Arab, in the valley below the Mount of Olives. Such a temple would be a monument to the defunct dreams of the dead.

If Bulli’s cultural Zionism drove toward a logical culmination, that was it: an Israeliness enriched by Jewish symbols but not a slave to Jewish pathos; an Israel spacious enough for Arabs, like all citizens, to live in freedom, in Hebrew, and work their way to a consecrated death. Bulli’s political vision was hardly thought through and came out a kind of patchwork confederal architecture. But political structures were no big deal for him, in any case. “We should just take the American Constitution and superimpose it on Israel and the territories,” he told my wife and me when we visited him for the last time in May, a week before his appearance in Jerusalem. We must see, he continued, that a “Muslim can also be a part of the Jewish people”—by which he meant, obviously enough, the evolving Israeli nation.

That vision may seem weird in an Israel drifting, so pollsters assure us, to the right. It is not weird. It is there, among other places, in Haifa. It is there between the lines of Bulli’s novels and literature itself. Some Israelis may slip back into pre-Zionist notions of peoplehood, of divine election, and even call that “Zionism.” They cannot stay there and survive the eclecticism of people. “It’s not moral this union of religion and nation,” Bulli told us. This ancient idea of peoplehood created “a sick people, a screwed-up people”—a product concocted in the factory with a defect. The fix is the idea of Israel, or at least its original idea. “We need a recall,” he said.

Bernard Avishai has written for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harvard Business Review, Harper’s and other publications. He is the author of, among other books, The Tragedy of Zionism and Promiscuous: “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness.

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