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American and Israeli Literary All-Stars on Zionism, Judaism, Liberalism, and Trump

Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Etgar Keret, Jonathan Safran Foer, Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Meir Shalev, Ayelet Waldman, Nicole Krauss, and Bernard-Henri Lévy

Elad Zeret with Liel Leibovitz
July 05, 2017
Photo: Yuval Chen/Yediot Ahronot
Amos Oz & Fania Oz.Photo: Yuval Chen/Yediot Ahronot
Photo: Yuval Chen/Yediot Ahronot
Amos Oz & Fania Oz.Photo: Yuval Chen/Yediot Ahronot

It’s only right that once the People of the Book got around to establishing a modern nation-state, they’d dedicate a week to celebrating books. Even in this age of budding screens and rampant social media, Shvua Ha’Sefer, or Book Week, remains one of Israel’s most beloved traditions, with book fairs popping up in cities all over the country and authors giving talks to share their ideas and their work. Earlier this month, the popular Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot commemorated the joyful occasion by reaching out to a handful of renowned writers—some Israeli, some American Jews, and one a dapper French philosopher—to talk about politics, prophecy, identity, family, and, of course, Donald Trump. Following are excerpts from these conversations.


On Being Jewish

Etgar Keret: Jewish writers have the most fun, especially Jewish American writers. There’s no topic they can’t squeeze absolutely dry. In the time it takes me to write 60 pages, Jonathan Safran Foer writes a 600-page novel.

Paul Auster: I have to admit that all this obsession with identity is one I don’t fully understand. Identity to me is my passport, which has my name and my photograph. I never considered my characters as being in any way confused about their identity. It is true, however, that they’re struggling, and that they suffer from loss or some other hardship and are trying to piece their lives back together, but these are universal struggles, neither Jewish nor non-Jewish. My ambition as a writer has always been to write about the meaningful things in a person’s life—being born, growing up, falling in love, being in love—and the experiences they create.

Nicole Krauss: For the last couple of years I’ve been part of a Jewish study group, whose other members have been meeting together for two decades. We studied Maimonides for a year, and then this past year our subject was exile/Diaspora in Jewish tradition through the ages. Reading the stories of Joseph, Daniel, and Esther in conjunction with rabbinical texts, the idea was to recover the importance of the diaspora in the Jewish psyche and Jewish thought, in opposition to the Zionist historiography whose perspective has dominated accounts of Jewish history in recent times. I’ve found the study of such texts, both in this context and others, to be a very rich source to mine.

A.B. Yehoshua: When you talk about writing and Judaism, it’s important to make it clear that Judaism is a term that dates back to the 19th century. My writing is Israeli. I’m the fifth generation of an old Jerusalemite family on my father’s side. His ancestors arrived from Saloniki and from Prague. On my mother’s side, my grandfather was a wealthy Moroccan who left behind all of his children and grandchildren and made aliya in 1932, when there were 200,000 Jews living here. He came from a Morocco free of anti-Semitism, a religious man who came here because he was a Zionist. So I’m entirely Israeli, and so is my writing. … The shift from being a Jew to being an Israeli is a moral shift, because it means taking responsibility of the entirety of reality and everything that surrounds you. A Diaspora Jew is a Jew who is free when interacting with other Diaspora Jews. He’s neither here nor there, but, really, he’s everywhere. Here, in Israel, you live as one does anywhere else, in a nation that offers mutual responsibility and enforces mutual discipline. You’re tested day in and day out based on what you do, not on what you say. I live inside of Hebrew. I’m an Israeli citizen. My identity is clear. There’s not a single Israeli you can say is an assimilated Israeli, even if he hasn’t read Bialik or the Siddur, just as you can’t say a Frenchman is assimilated if he’d never read Moliere or knows little about French history.

Meir Shalev: Judaism creates its identity from two sources. The first is observing the mitzvot. A Jew is a person who observes the mitzvot, and I’m fine with us having our differences in that regard. The other source is genius, it’s storytelling. Jews are people who know their own stories and who come up with new ones, even it they’re aren’t that good. … More people celebrate the Passover seder than fast on Yom Kippur. Why? Because the story is terrific, and that’s how you create identity. Even secular Jews love the story of the Exodus, even though they know parts of it are total fiction. We don’t just sit around and eat delicious food on Passover. We read a text that is one of the most pitiful texts ever written in Hebrew, but one that is full of little ceremonies that sear the memory right into your brain.

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman: Waldman: For a while we tried to find a Judaism that had to do with the actual religion. My parents raised me Zionist atheist, so I never went to synagogue. There was a hatred for all things Orthodox. But then we went through a period where we embraced Judaism with our family. All of our kids have been bnei mitzvah and there were beautiful ceremonies and they were really meaningful to us as a family. And we celebrated Shabbat, and we even went to the synagogue for a little while, occasionally.

Chabon: For a decade.

Waldman: Yeah, we tried, we did our best. And then at some point, we both looked at each other and we were like, ‘Enough.’ It was the idea of: Here we were trying to force these structures of Judaism into a sort of progressive spiritually meaningful rubric, when it’s like a joke. You know, you can rewrite the prayers over and over again. The real truth is this is a religion that is all about…

Chabon: Chauvinism.

On Israel

Ayelet Waldman: The Jewish community in America is probably the most consistently progressive white community, in terms of abortion rights, civil rights, the constitution, equal rights, feminism, everything from healthcare to foreign policy. And Israel is like for previous generations—my parents’ generation, for example—there was this kind of like carveout for Israel. So they would have these progressive politics at home, they would march with Martin Luther King, but they had like a carveout for Israel, which was, you know, Israel can do what it wants because there’s that kind of anxiety, the Holocaust anxiety. But the youth of America, the young Jewish community, doesn’t have that same sense of carveout. They cannot tolerate the contradiction of politics, of their expression of American politics, and Zionism. The best-case scenario is organizations like J Street, because J Street is overtly Zionist for the State of Israel, and they believe in the two-state solution. The truth that most American Jews experience is a complete disconnect, even Jews who desperately want to have a relationship with Judaism. I always feel like Israel has made this terrible error in vilifying J Street, because J Street is the best-case scenario. The next level is kids like my children, who just don’t want to hear about it. They don’t care, they’re not interested. Their values as Democrats in America cannot be aligned with what’s happening in the occupied territories, and thus they disconnect. We’re bringing two of our younger kids to Israel for the first time. I offered my older kids. They were like, “No.” They would rather go anywhere else in the world. Completely disconnected. They don’t want to hear about it, to think about it, nothing.

Amos Oz: The nationalistic fanaticism is almost all the product of European Jews, not to say Ashkenazim. The fanaticism of Israel’s founding fathers, of some of the people closest to me, to mightily forge here a new man and erase all the traditions of all the diasporas, including Yiddish and Ladino, that’s an Eastern European sort of fanaticism. It comes complete with the adoration of the armed forces and the imperialist aspirations. Similarly, the fanaticism of haredi Jews, the one that dictates that being Jewish means secluding yourself in your ghetto, that, too, is a European import. Middle Eastern Jews were always more religiously tolerant, and were accustomed to living peacefully with people very different from themselves. Fanaticism is a curse that comes to us from Europe, not the Middle East, and my heart breaks to see how the sons and daughters of Jews who emigrated to Israel from Middle Eastern countries are infected and are carried away by that European fanaticism. I wish it was the other way around.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: The extremists are really a minority. But if there’s a fault line Israeli Jews are having a hard time talking about, it’s the chasm between the religious and the secular, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In my book, I explain why the word “Orthodox” isn’t really the best term for these people. Orthodox means belonging to an ossified school of thought, and there’s nothing less ossified than studying the Talmud. These men in black study the holy books, they keep the texts in constant motion. Someone in Israeli politics needs to say that. Israel needs appeasing conversations; that’s something your leadership doesn’t do well, and it makes me very sad.

Paul Auster: I’ve grown very pessimistic about Israel’s future. Each of the sides in this conflict digs its heels deeper and makes no effort to see the other side’s viewpoint. I’m not blaming only Israel or only the Palestinians—I blame both sides. It’s a mutual failure to realize that both sides have a place in this strip of land, and they have to find a way to live there. I can’t stop thinking that if Arafat were Gandhi and the Palestinians had a different attitude, they would’ve had a state 30 years ago. But it didn’t work that way. Instead of nonviolent resistance, they came with guns and bombs. And Israel, on its end, doesn’t seem interested in ending the conflict. I have no concrete suggestions. I don’t know what needs to be done. But I feel that things over there aren’t so promising.

Etgar Keret and Jonathan Safran Foer: Keret: I don’t think Jonathan loses sleep worrying about Israel being destroyed. I think he’s asking questions about the relationship between Israel and American Jews. And the best way to answer these questions is to imagine Israel in real mortal danger and ask how far would American Jews go to defend it. This, at least, is how I read it [Safran Foer’s latest novel, Here I Am]. I don’t know if this is what you had in mind when you wrote it.

Safran Foer: This is what I had in mind. I had questions of identity I didn’t know how to resolve. I tried to understand just how much American Jews care, and you can’t examine how much you care about something without pondering the possibility that you may lose it. The second question that interested me in the book wasn’t specific to Israel, but to the notion of home in general. What’s a home? And what’s a homeland?

On Donald J. Trump

Ayelet Waldman: You know, Jared Kushner is Trump’s pet Jew. There’s always been that character, like there were facilitators in the death camps and in the ghettos too. There’s always the Jew who will facilitate the agenda of the anti-Semite. I don’t think that Trump has a coherent ideology. I think he’s personally an anti-Semite, and you can see that with the things he says. Like when he says, “You people and your money”—I mean, those are anti-Semitic tropes, right? I think he cares only about personal power, and you don’t see anything wrong with striking a bargain with overtly anti-Semitic people. I think we’re lower on his list than Muslims, but I do think that that kind of vicious anti-Semitism now has permission to flourish. I feel safe in California, but I no longer feel comfortable in the United States.

Paul Auster: As far as I’m concerned, electing Donald Trump is the greatest catastrophe that could’ve befallen America. I wake up every morning and ask myself, how could’ve this happened? And how much worse can it get? We elected a madman, the sort of person who should never be allowed to have any political power.

Nicole Krauss: However critical I may be of the Israeli policies, the daily life of my children isn’t affected by them; I can hope and despair from afar. But our lives do depend on the policies of the American government. Reading the news these days, and what passes for news in the form of presidential twitter, it strikes me that never in its history has this country found itself so under the influence of a single man’s psychology. What has been a common thread in the history of most other nations, usually in the form of tyrannical despots—Hitler, Putin, Mussolini, Gadaffi, Mobuto Sese Seko, to name a few of recent infamy—is new on these shores. I am not speaking about evil or even power; I am speaking simply about the influence of one person’s narcissism, grandiosity, impulsiveness, and paranoia, on an entire nation. America has always celebrated individualism, but however far the founding fathers went to protect the individual’s rights in the constitution, they went even further, in the meticulous design of checks and balances, to ensure that any one individual’s effect on the country would be kept to minimum. But every system breaks down with time, and the founders could not have predicted the advent of social media, and a time when the president’s every passing tic and rage could be broadcast, at every moment of the day, into every handheld device of every American. New to our country is the feeling of being a constant witness to and at the mercy of a president’s highly erratic mental processes.

On Prophecy

Amos Oz: I want to repeat something I said 30 or 40 years ago. I still agree with it, and find it nontrivial: In Judaism, any form of Messianism that thinks of itself in the present tense is false Messianism. This is the paradox of the messianic idea in Israel; as soon as it becomes the present, it’s a lie. Messiah Now is a false Messiah.

Paul Auster: I’m bound to my Judaism, both theologically and historically speaking. Judaism is a radical religion, the first one to take into account all people—rich and poor, masters and slaves. Its appearance was a turning point in human consciousness, and there are chapters in Jewish history that have had a great influence on shaping my own worldview. Take the Book of Jonah, for example, the text we read on Yom Kippur. It’s one of the oddest books in the Bible—it’s short, written in the third person, and is kind of comical. Jonah tries to escape his divine destiny. He doesn’t want to be a prophet, doesn’t want to go to Ninveh, which is a sinful town known for its hatred of Jews. It’s a bit like God sending a Jewish prophet to preach in Nazi Germany. And then, when the locals make teshuva and repent, you understand that the book is all about universal justice. Its main message is that if only some people enjoy the benefits of justice, then it’s not justice at all.


Interviews conducted by Tzippy Shmilovitz, Yehuda Shohat, Tamar Sebok, and Ronen Tal. You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

Elad Zeret, who edited the original compendium of these author interviews to appear in Israel, writes about literature for Yediot Aharonot. Liel Leibovitz, who translated this material from Hebrew, is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine.