Yehoshua’s appeal

Yehoshua, 82, dubbed “the Israeli Faulkner” by The New York Times, is a prolific author of novels, short stories, plays and essays.

A.B. Yehoshua (photo credit: RICHARD HALON)
A.B. Yehoshua
(photo credit: RICHARD HALON)

In introducing Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua at the 40th anniversary celebration of Israel’s English Speaking Residents Association (ESRA) at Kibbutz Shefayim, PR chair Brenda Katten cited his controversial comment to the American Jewish Committee in 2006: “Being Israeli is my skin, not my jacket.”
The remark, which sparked a sharp debate in the Diaspora, suggested that Jews in the US and elsewhere had dual loyalties – to their homelands and Israel – while Israelis have “one skin and one territory.”
Yehoshua, 82, dubbed “the Israeli Faulkner” by The New York Times, is a prolific author of novels, short stories, plays and essays. The title of his 30-minute speech, in English, was “Jewish? Zionist? Israeli,” and he unpacked all three terms in his classically pleasant but provocative style
He argued that the question of “Who is a Jew?” has been debated for more than 3,000 years and will probably never be resolved. Before Israel’s establishment in 1948, anyone who defined themselves as Jewish was accepted as Jewish. But a stricter definition was required under the Law of Return, which granted Israeli citizenship to Jews who could prove they had a Jewish mother or grandmother.
“Believe me, at least half a million Jews killed in the Holocaust were considered Jews only because their father was Jewish or their grandfather was Jewish,” he said. “If they had come here, they would have been stopped by the Law of Return, which would have said they are not really Jewish. But I say, if people identify themselves as Jews, then they are Jewish.”
Despite having ancient roots, Yehoshua noted that “antisemitism” was coined only in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr in Germany, while “Zionism” was promoted by Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl only in 1896.
The vast majority of Jews in the 19th century did not consider themselves Zionist and chose not to move to Eretz Yisrael (British Mandate Palestine), where only 10,000-15,000 Jews lived, even after the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
World Jewry peaked at 17 million in 1939, but by 1945 was tragically shrunk by the Holocaust to 11 million. “If only 5% of the Jewish people had come here before the Second World War, we could have created a state before the Holocaust, and saved one or two million people,” Yehoshua lamented. “This is a big failure of the Jewish people.
How did we reach such a situation despite all the warnings?” he asked, citing Jabotinsky’s 1937 appeal: “Destroy the exile before the exile destroys you!”
After Israel’s birth, “Zionism” took on a new meaning, endorsing a democratic Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael that separates “identity” and “citizenship.”
The Arab minority, representing a fifth of the country’s nine million people, “are Palestinian Israelis, meaning that their identity is Palestinian but their citizenship is Israeli. I’m always proud of the fact that the president of Israel [Moshe Katsav] was sentenced to seven years in prison [in 2010] by a Christian Arab judge [George Karra],” he said.
Yehoshua believes that while all Israelis are equal and last year’s Nation-State Law was offensive to some, the term “Zionism” should now be restricted to the Law of Return. Responding to criticism that the Nation-State Law is racist or unjust, he said, “When the UN decided in 1947 to create two states, one Israeli [Jewish] and the other Palestinian [Arab], it recognized that Israel would not only comprise the 600,000 Jews who were living here but would also absorb all Jews persecuted around the world.”
Israel’s Law of Return is a moral imperative, he concluded, receiving warm applause from the Anglo audience: “Zionism means that Israel is not only a state for all its citizens, but for all the Jewish people.”


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