Esaias BAITEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Esaias BAITEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

A Walk in the Park With A.B. Yehoshua

Talking Zionism and failure with the iconic Israeli novelist, who died this week

by
Gil Troy
June 16, 2022
Esaias BAITEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Esaias BAITEL/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Five years ago, as I was working like a crazy person desperately trying to finish my book The Zionist Ideas, the editorial assistant coordinating an elaborate effort to secure 168 author approvals emailed me: “A.B. Yehoshua is not happy with your selection. He said he would like to speak to the author directly. Here is his number.”

Nervous, I called and surprised Yehoshua by speaking in Hebrew. “But the book is in English,” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. “And where are you, it’s the middle of the night in America.” I said, “I’m right here in Jerusalem. My family and I made aliyah seven years ago.”

“Well, that settles it,” he said. “We can’t talk Zionism over the phone! You have to talk Zionism in person, outside in nature! Can we meet this Thursday in the national park in Ramat Gan at 6?”

When I got there, Bulli, as he insisted on being called, started asking me all kinds of questions: about my wife, our kids, our aliyah, my work. Then he started sharing his own story quite openly. When he mentioned his recently departed wife, Dr. Rivka Kirsniski, he teared up. We sat down and had an unexpected, level-jumping, bonding moment together. But, I soon found out, that was Bulli. He didn’t do guarded or superficial.

Finally, while sitting on a bench in a beautiful grove, Bulli, looked at me and said, “here’s the problem.” I had proposed running an excerpt from his controversial speech at the American Jewish Committee’s 100th anniversary celebrations in 2006, which had triggered a tremendous backlash. “Now let me be clear,” he said. “I don’t apologize for any of my words.” Still, he insisted: “It’s just that I don’t think that lecture fully represents my Zionist vision.”

I was surprised. I had read some of Yehoshua’s 11 published novels. I had read various articles he had written and proclamations he had issued, especially with Amos Oz and David Grossman, Israel’s holy literary trinity. But he usually seemed to invoke Zionism when he was bashing “the occupation” or challenging American Jews.

“I’ve lectured over 1000 times about Zionism in Hebrew and English and French, and written dozens of articles,” he explained matter-of-factly. “While I’ll be happy to have some parts of my American Jewish Committee speech incorporated into your book, I think there’s more to Zionism than that.”

And so, our impromptu outdoor Zionist salon began.

“As a Mizrahi, I can look from the outside and see our failures as Jews more clearly, especially regarding Zionism,” Yehoshua began. “The Jewish people failed. Zionism was such a marginal movement; less than half a percent of 17 million Jews lived in Palestine in 1900. Zionism united everybody in hatred then: the religious, the reformers, the assimilationists, the socialist Bundists, all hated us. Yet Zionism succeeded, although it never received a permission slip from the Jewish people. We seized the moment, then issued marching orders for the rest of the Jewish people to catch up, especially after the Shoah.

“We obsess constantly about our failure to anticipate the Yom Kippur War—which we won. What about that failure to embrace Zionism, or at least anticipate what was happening in Europe?” Yehoshua sighed. “We lost a third of our nation in five years. We pretend we are normal, but we are not. We walk around with an amputated leg, and a broken heart. And still, most of us don’t realize that there’s a direct line from Mount Sinai to Auschwitz.”

Trying to explain the ideological background to his critique of American Jewry, he continued:

“Belonging to a nation is like belonging to a family. It’s not based on faith or other ideas, nor is it based on good behavior; it is unconditional. Now, here’s our old-new Jewish problem: There’s no nation without a homeland. Homeland is a nation’s foundation. Homeland is the territory that defines its inhabitants and turns them into a nation. In Hebrew the word moledet, homeland, is connected to the word ‘birth,’ which is even more primal than ‘home.’ People can change their habits, outlooks, religions, cultures, even their language, but your homeland is unchanging, defining, foundational.

“Alas, because Jacob and his sons leave the land following the famine, and choose not to return, the Jewish nation is not born in its own homeland. Even the Torah, the Jewish people’s spiritual ID card, wasn’t revealed in the homeland but in a no man’s land, the desert. This raises the question whether the national-religious identity fused or was welded imperfectly.

“Moreover, the longed-for homeland is transformed from natural and primal to the Promised Land—received on condition of good spiritual behavior. The divine permission slip to live in exile was already issued at Mount Sinai. That original rupture from Mount Sinai continues to disrupt the Jewish people’s national identity. Minimizing the homeland as an essential ingredient in the national identity poisons Jewish identity. The Jews wander among national identities, popping from hotel to hotel, then happily sing ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ to honor their virtual homeland.

“Only once a murderous secular nationalist antisemitism started flaring at the end of the 19th century did the hotel-hopping Jews start overcoming their disdain for the marginal Zionist minority. Ultimately, the Zionist movement and the State of Israel succeeded. Look around us. Despite all the problems. Look how even the Arabs fit in. Consider that 52% of Israeli Arabs are proud of this country. I don’t know if even 52% of Israelis are proud of our country. It doesn’t make headlines but that’s the miracle.

“But that word, ‘Zionism,’ there’s such an inflation around it these days, everyone, our friends and foes, use it to bless us or curse us, at their convenience. But it loses its meaning with no definitions, no boundaries, it can’t include everything like this tree, that cup of coffee.”

Getting to the heart of his trilingual Zionist lectures, which he delivered to students, IDF officers, students, and fellow academics over the years, he turned to definitions: “Originally, a Zionist was someone who wanted or supported the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Since 1948, a Zionist is someone who accepts the principle that the State of Israel belongs not only to its citizens, but to the Jewish people. The Law of Return expresses this commitment practically.” He added: “If an Israeli doesn’t get that duality, that sense of shared ownership with the diaspora, he can be a good citizen. I can like him. We can drink coffee together. But he is just not a Zionist.”

Tackling a sacred cow of early Zionists, who sought to exorcise the old broken-down yid from within, he declared: “I hate the notion of the new Jew; we have a lot of the old Jew still within us. And it’s not about being a good Jew. I talk about being a total Jew. You come to Israel to upgrade your Judaism, to find your identity, to find meaning, to speak the Jewish language, to wear it fully. If you want to participate in the full adventure and take responsibility, finally, for Jewish destiny, there’s no other place but here.

“Our ultimately weak territorial connection as a people to our homeland—thanks to Mount Sinai—makes me open to solving the Palestinian problem through a binational setup or confederation. But it is my passion to be a total Jew that led to that clash in 2006 about American Jewry.

“Most diaspora Jews living in America and Europe, intimately committed to nationalities of countries with a non-Jewish majority, have already divorced their Jewish religious identity from their non-Jewish civic national identity—the welding at Sinai didn’t hold.

“As an Israeli, by contrast, I am what I am. I have a country. I have a language. I have a people. I have a framework. I have a reality, like the Norwegian, like the Danish. I cannot be Danish.

“If in 100 years Israel will exist, and there won’t be any diaspora Jews, I would say it’s normal. I will not cry for it. Why? Because it’s very natural for Americans to become American.”

Then echoing his 2006 riff, but with less bile, he said:

“Being Israeli is my skin, it’s not my jacket. Diaspora Jews change jackets, from country to country; I have my skin, the territory, the smell of the territory, the smell of the language—all this is my identity, independent of religion.

“This is what annoys me, why I speak with anger. Recently, American Jews declared themselves tired of Israel. They are becoming detached from Israel. After the ‘67 war, they had been so enthusiastic about Israel.

“Israel is not now a nice story. There are so many problems. Diaspora Jews cannot be as proud about Israel as they were 30 years ago, so they detach. They find their Jewishness reading another book of history and going to synagogue.

“The difference between them and me is that I’m married and they, to be nasty about it, are flirting with the idea of marriage.

“We in Israel live in a binding and inescapable relationship with one another, just as all members of a sovereign nation live together, for better or worse, in a binding relationship. We are governed by Jews. We pay taxes to Jews. We are judged in Jewish courts, are called up to serve in the Jewish army, and are compelled by Jews to defend settlements we didn’t want or, alternatively, are forcibly expelled from settlements by Jews. Our economy is determined by Jews. Our social conditions are determined by Jews. And all the political, economic, cultural, and social decisions craft and shape our identity, which, although it contains some primary elements, is always in a dynamic process of changes and corrections.

“This is a totally different kind of context. Diaspora Jews are not making any Jewish decisions. They are simply playing with Jewishness—plug and play.

“The pain and frustration is balanced by the pleasure of the freedom of being in your own home. Homeland and national language and a binding framework are fundamental components of any person’s national identity. For me, Jewish values are not located in a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasing fragrance on Shabbat and holidays, but they are in the daily reality of dozens of problems through which Jewish values are shaped and defined, for better or worse.

“If Israeliness is just a garment, and not a daily test of moral responsibility, for better or worse, of Jewish values, then it’s no wonder that poverty is spreading, that the social gaps are widening, and that cruelty toward an occupied people is perpetrated easily and without pangs of conscience. Being a total Jew, however, means trying to achieve that fusion that didn’t take fully at Sinai, and use our texts, our past, our identity in such a way that will imbue us with greatness, hope, and consolation, now that we are home after a painful national journey.”

As soon as we finished, I sat in the park’s Café Kakao and typed up these notes, both translating from the Hebrew and incorporating some riffs from his AJC speech and elsewhere, which he echoed during our conversation—as all larger-than-life teachers do. I thanked him for such a “great intellectual, spiritual, and personal adventure,” adding, “And you were absolutely correct. The topic was much more suited to a walk in the park.” He, too, said he enjoyed the conversation and would continue trying to “poison me” with his Zionism.

I proposed that we run the text above in The Zionist Ideas, as “A Walk in the Park With A.B. Yehoshua.” He had other ideas. As a man of letters, he wanted the excerpts to be from his writings not his riffs.

A few days later we met in his apartment. Sifting through various articles in Hebrew and English, we put together a powerful essay on “The pleasure of the freedom of being in your own home.”

Today, the world is mourning a brilliant author and prominent internal critic of Israel. I mourn a good friend, a great man, and a true Zionist.

Gil Troy is an American historian. He has written nine books on the presidency, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s and Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky.