A.B. Yehoshua rattles the cage again

Novelist repeats claim that Diaspora Jews are only "partial" Jews, while Israeli Jews are "total" Jews.

AB Yehoshua at the ASF Symposium 370 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Avi Schaefer Fund)
AB Yehoshua at the ASF Symposium 370
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Avi Schaefer Fund)
Novelist A.B. Yehoshua created waves once again Sunday evening, telling a group of over 200 American Jews that if they really want to be Jewish, they should move to Israel, since Israeli Jews are “total” Jews, while those living in the Diaspora are only “partial” Jews.
The Israel Prize laureate delivered the same controversial message first to the American Jewish Committee at a symposium in 2006 and has since repeated the speech over the years and in op-eds directed mainly at American Jewish audiences.
There has been no shortage of rabbis and Jewish thinkers who have responded that Yehoshua is wrong and should pipe down, as Dr.
Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, wrote last year.
“An Israeli is, from the question of identity, the total Jew, meaning the things that were empty in the definition of a Jew are filling up automatically and totally by being here,” said Yehoshua, the keynote speaker at the third annual Avi Schaefer Fund symposium held at the Yad Yitzchak Ben Tzvi Institute.
Yehoshua delivered his lecture – titled, “What is the Continuation of the Zionist Revolution?” – in an energetic fashion, hands waving almost constantly and his voice carrying through the auditorium.
“All around me is Jewish,” he said. “Like [all] around Americans is American. The values are not something in a book. The values are the work and the actions of everyday….
The questions of life are Jewish ones.” According to Yehoshua, Jewishness is determined each day by Israeli Jews – by how they speak, the way they behave, the angle at which soldiers hold their weapons.
In a thinly veiled criticism of those “partial” Diaspora Jews, Yehoshua said, “[Jewishness is] not what the rabbis are speaking in synagogue on Saturday about Jewish values,” he said. “The Jewish values are tested here for the good and for the bad.
“[Unlike] your nice warm Judaism of the weekend,” he said, to laughter, “this is real and not imaginary.”
Yehoshua referred to his now legendary AJC speech, defending his main point and claiming that he was misunderstood.
“They were angry,” he said. “I never used the word ‘bad Jew’ or ‘good Jew.’” Diaspora Jews, he clarified, lead active Jewish lives, visit Israel and send their children to expensive Jewish day schools. “You are doing a lot,” Yehoshua said.
But, “all of my life is Jewish,” he said. Just as active American Jews lead more intensive Jewish lives than their secular American Jewish peers, so too living in Israel allows him the same claim, he said.
“I cannot say that my identity is more intensive, more complete [when] I have to decide all the time the question of Jewishness of values?” Jewish values are determined by how we decide to treat terrorists in prison, what are the rules of torture and what settlements to evacuate or defend, Yehoshua said, adding that “all these are making the totality of our life.”
Further, Yehoshua grounded his argument in historical evidence. The first name of the Jewish people from the Bible is Israel, not Jewish, he said. That term was not used until the Jews were in the Diaspora and mentioned in Megilat Esther. The name of the land is Israel, not Judah and not Zion, he declared.
Being a Jew simply means being born to a Jewish mother or self-identifying as a Jew.
There is no religious component to either definition and nothing predicated on belief, speaking Hebrew or living in Israel.
“The definition of a Jew is almost empty,” he said. “In the definition of a Jew, we see two components: emptiness and freedom.”
In summing up his lecture, he concluded, “If you want to be really Jewish, come here. It’s not easy, [it’s] full of questions.”
Professor Rachel Elior, a scholar of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mystical thought, disagreed with Yehoshua’s oftcriticized comments.
“All Jews are equal members in the community of memory,” she said during a panel discussion following his talk.
“There is no such thing as a partial Jew. We should not talk about partial Jews because a full Jew is a Jew wherever they are living, here or elsewhere,” she continued.
“We shouldn’t say there are better kinds of Jews or less better kinds of Jews. All Jews are equal in their responsibility to the past, present and future… You’re a very good Jew wherever you are as long as you identity as one.”
During his lecture, Yehoshua also defined what it means to be a Zionist, a term that has become politically charged in the battles across various divides: the Left and the Right, religious and nonreligious, pro-Israel and anti- Israel. According to him, a Zionist is simply a person who, starting in the end of the 19th century, wanted to create a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.
“Zionism [has] become the heart of the target against Israel” in recent years, he said, adding that audience members, many of whom were American participants on Masa long-term Israel programs, know from experiences on their college campuses.
But “Zionism is not ideology,” he emphasized. “This is a sentence I want you to keep in your mind. Everyone has his own dream.”
Zionism is a platform for different and contradictory ideologies like socialism, fascism and liberalism that all agree on the Right of Return of the Jews to their state. Zionism has nothing to do with borders or territories, he said.
“If Israel will annex the West Bank, it will be no more Zionist than if it will not annex the West Bank,” he said.
Being Zionist and being Jewish also do not go hand in hand, Yehoshua argued, as many Jewish groups in the 19th century did not support Zionism.
“The success of Zionism was due to the fact that the Zionists did not ask permission from the Jewish people. They have done the Zionist revolution outside the Jewish people.”
The Avi Schaefer Fund symposium honors the memory of Avi Schaefer, who at the age of 21 was killed by a drunk driver on the campus of Brown University in Rhode Island, where he was studying.
Schaefer, who served in the IDF after high school with his twin brother Yoav, was an advocate for Israel, peace and dialogue.
This year’s symposium, themed “The meaning and purpose of Israel as a Jewish state,” featured a panel discussion and break-out sessions with Israel Religious Action Center director and Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman; Jerusalem city councilwoman Rachel Azaria; Hiddush founder and CEO Rabbi Uri Regev; Rabbi Nachman Rosenberg, executive vice president of Tzohar; and former Kadima MK Einat Wilf.