Essay: More right than wrong

A. B. Yehoshua may have been onto something when he said the AJC was wasting time in the Diaspora.

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
The Israeli author and novelist A.B. Yehoshua has never been shy about expressing his opinions. Nor was he that when he appeared in a panel at an American Jewish Committee conference held in Washington last week. According to a report in this newspaper, Yehoshua "stirred controversy" by saying "that only the State of Israel can ensure the survival of the Jewish people" and went on to declare: "For me, Avraham Yehoshua, there is no alternative [to being Jewish]…. I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. [Being] Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You [Diaspora Jews] are changing jackets… you are changing countries like changing jackets. I have my skin, the territory [of Israel]." That Yehoshua's "passionate presentation," as the Post report put it, "became the talk of the conference," I can vouch for, since I was a panelist there myself, though not together with Yehoshua. On Yehoshua's panel were the prominent novelist Cynthia Ozick; the author, columnist, and literary editor of The New Republic Leon Wieseltier; and the Israeli religious thinker and Talmudist scholar Adin Steinsaltz. While Yehoshua spoke, Ozick, a small, fragile-looking woman, sat shrinking in her chair as if she were being bludgeoned; Wieseltier stared glumly into space; and Steinsaltz looked on with an impish grin like someone at a boring dinner party that has just been livened up by a stink bomb. The members of the audience fidgeted in discomfit. I sympathized with them. They had come from all over America for what was supposed to be a festive event, the centennial celebration of the founding of the American Jewish Committee in 1906, and here was one of their guests of honor telling them that they had been wasting their time for the past 100 years, and that they were simply play-acting at being Jews when the real thing was taking place elsewhere, in a Jewish state. Yehoshua was being a party pooper and they resented it. They were right to. It was bad manners on his part. There's a time and place for everything, and this was not the time or place for a harangue from the "Diaspora-negating" school of radical Zionism, which most American Jews assume was buried with David Ben-Gurion and his generation, and which the conference's delegates were surprised to discover still alive and kicking in the person of a famous Israeli author. AND NOT only bad manners. There was a measure of ingratitude in it, too. After all, not only was Yehoshua, like me, flown to Washington, put up at a fancy hotel and paid a handsome honorarium, all at the expense of the American Jewish community, he has enjoyed - as has the entire State of Israel - this community's largesse for many years. It has bought his books, invited him to speak, been instrumental in getting him attractive teaching positions when on sabbatical from his post at the University of Haifa. One shouldn't spit in the well one has drunk from, not if one is a single individual and not if one is, collectively, the Jews of Israel. Which is why, on the whole, I've stopped spitting in it, even though I happen to agree with much of what Yehoshua said. Once, I was more like him in this respect. I can remember a national convention of rabbis - it was in Washington too, I believe - that I was invited to address some time in the late 1970s or early '80s. It was a few years after I had published my book Letters To An American Jewish Friend, which was an exercise in Diaspora negation itself, and I was playing the role of the fire-eating Zionist to the hilt. The rabbis wanted me to talk about Israel-Diaspora relations? Well, then, I would tell them what I thought. I thought every self-respecting Diaspora Jew belonged in Israel, and that American Jewry should liquidate itself as soon as possible by moving there en masse. The rabbis, needless to say, were as offended as Yehoshua's American Jewish Committee audience, and they too had every right to be. This was what I had to say to American Jews - that they should all pack up and move to Israel? One expected to hear that kind of message from a street-corner orator on a soapbox, not from a supposedly serious speaker facing a hall of American Jewish leaders. And because I don't really enjoy giving offense, I've stopped talking that way to American Jews. Many of them - certainly a large percentage of those who come to events like the AJC conference - take their Jewishness seriously and work hard at it. They're supportive of Israel and they care about Israel. They deserve to be cared about by Israeli Jews in return, and they certainly don't deserve our ridicule or disdain. Our situation in both America and in the world is far better because of them. AND YET, deep down, I think that Yehoshua, manners aside, is more right than wrong. Israel is the only place in the world in which one can live a Jewish life that is total - in which, that is, there is no compartmentalization between the inner and the outer, between what is Jewish and what is not. It is the only place in the world in which Jews are totally responsible for the society they live in, for the environment that surrounds them, for the government that rules them. It is the only place in the world where Jewish culture is not a subculture in a greater culture but is rather that greater culture itself. It is the real thing and by comparison, Jewish life in America, or anywhere else in the Diaspora, as dedicated and committed as it may be, indeed seems like a kind of play-acting. Why would a truly dedicated and committed Jew want to live anywhere but in a Jewish state? Is there a way of saying this to American Jews without hurting their feelings or making them feel that they are speaking to arrogant Israelis? There doesn't seem to be - which is why many Israelis, though in their hearts they agree with Yehoshua, keep it to themselves. Perhaps this is why American Jews think we all vanished with Ben-Gurion, when all we've really done is become more polite. Politeness is not A.B. Yehoshua's forte. One can censure him for that… and envy him just a little bit, too.