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I love a good spat, don't you? A.B. Yehoshua riled an American Jewish audience with his Ben-Gurionesque remarks about Jewish identity and living in Israel:

"For me, Avraham Yehoshua, there is no alternative... I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. [Being] Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You are changing jackets... you are changing countries like changing jackets. I have my skin, the territory...

We all know, and A.B. Yehoshua knows too, that making such remarks to an American audience is like shouting "I like pork chops" in a crowded Orthodox shul. Early in my Zionist career, I learned to be careful about saying the "A" word (Al-ya) to an American Jewish audience. Those of us who may think that American Jews should live in Israel are generally reticent about saying it too often, since saying it will not bring any Jews to live here anyhow, and might just make them hate Israelis. I love a good spat, but only as a spectator sport.

To make sure everyone got his message, Yehoshua (his middle name is apparently "Buli") explained himself further in a Ha'aretz article:

Jewish identity in Israel, which we call Israeli identity (as distinct from Israeli citizenship, which is shared by Arab citizens who also live in the shared homeland, though their national identity is Palestinian) - this Jewish-Israeli identity has to contend with all the elements of life via the binding and sovereign framework of a territorially defined state. And therefore the extent of its reach into life is immeasurably fuller and broader and more meaningful than the Jewishness of an American Jew, whose important and meaningful life decisions are made within the framework of his American nationality or citizenship. His Jewishness is voluntary and deliberate, and he may calibrate its pitch in accordance with his needs.

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, are judged in Jewish courts, are called up to serve in the Jewish army and 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. While this entails pain and frustration, there is also the pleasure of the freedom of being in your own home.

Or in other words, "My identity is better than your identity. So there." Nonetheless, as an Israeli, when reading the above, I can't help thinking, "He is right." Israelis watch the agonies of Diaspora Jews, especially non-religious Diaspora Jews, over the "identity" question with empathy, but with detachment. We have barchash flies and religious fanatics and hamsinim here and people who blow themselves up in supermarkets, but no identity problem.

Natan Sharansky, who perhaps thought that Yehoshua was resurrecting the "Knaani" (Canaanite) movement of another generation, answered him with There is no Zionism without Judaism":

There is no Zionism without Judaism and there never has been. Just as the Israeli people has never had a right to the Land of Israel. Only the Jewish people. It was the Jewish people that received the Balfour Declaration, and it was they who were granted by the United Nations the legal right to establish a state. It was the Jewish people that returned to its ancient homeland, for which it had prayed and longed for, for 2,000 years. For if we are talking about the Israeli "people" - how is the right of a "people" that has existed for about 100 years greater than or equal to that of the Palestinians, who have been living on their land for about 300 years? What really distinguishes it from other colonial projects that have vanished from the earth?

The difference between Israeli identity according to Yehoshua and Jewish identity is exactly the difference between the fact of existence and the right to exist. The difference is between a group of people that lives on a piece of land and speaks the Hebrew language, and the descendants of a people that is scattered throughout the world, who have returned to their historic homeland.

He is right too. A good answer, but an answer to a different question. Yehoshua was not denying Judaism, nor even denying the Diaspora. As he wrote:

I did not talk about "the negation of the Diaspora." The Jewish Diaspora has existed ever since the Babylonian exile, about 2,500 years ago, and it will continue to exist for thousands more years. The Diaspora is the most solid fact in Jewish history; we know its cost, and we are aware of its accomplishments and failures in terms of Jewish continuity. In fact, the most harshly worded statements concerning its theological negation are to be found scattered in the "core" religious texts; there is no need for an Israeli writer to come to Washington to talk about the negation of the Diaspora.

All of the reports suggesting that I said that there can be no Jewishness except in Israel are utterly preposterous. No one would ever think of saying such an absurd thing.

He is right, no?

For Sharansky, however, there is an issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As he wrote:

The discussion of our right to the land and the war between our narrative and theirs is not a purely philosophical discussion. At least not in the eyes of the Palestinian leaders. When the leaders of Hamas, like Yasser Arafat in his day, were or are prepared to consider recognition of the fact of Israel's existence, but not its right to existence, they are not playing word games. That is why Arafat reiterated over and over again his supposedly historical claims with regard to the absence of the connection between the Temple Mount and the Jewish people. It was clear to him that the historical connection that is anchored and based in Jewish tradition is the basis for the existence of the State of Israel, and without it, the state will disappear, just as it "appeared from the sea."

He is right again, but again, Yehoshua never denied that he is a Jew. Where Natan Sharansky is wrong, is in misunderstanding Yehoshua. Yehoshua was saying that Jews ought to come on Aliya and live in Israel. If Jews don't come on Aliya, there would be no Israel, and no arguments with Arafat or the Hamas -- an obvious point that Sharansky seems to have missed.

Thus far, everything seems clear. But Yehoshua also wrote:

The national minority among us of the Palestinian Israelis, who share Israeli citizenship with us, could also make a contribution to this identity, just as American Jews contribute to the general American identity, and the Basques to the Spanish identity and so on. The more Israeli we are, the better the partnership we have with them. The more we concentrate solely on Jewish spirituality and texts, believing this to be of chief importance, the more the alienation between us grows.

Now it is all unclear. Fist while the Arabs of Israel, some of whom now choose to call themselves "Palestinians," might share in Israeliness or Palestine-ness, they aren't Zionists or Jews. Second, I am a Palestinian Israeli, bar one generation, born of Palestinian parents and grandparents. A.B. Yehoshua is a Palestinian Israeli too, who probably remembers when Barad (ices) was Barad, and not the stuff that comes out of machines today, when the grush (smallest denomination coin) had a hole, who might remember what a "diligence" (carriage) was, and who might, like many of us, have photos of his ancestors in Jerusalem of 100 years ago, or in uniforms of the army of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and family stories about life under the Turks. Our Palestinian-ness is perhaps what makes us better understand and empathize with our Palestinian Arab neighbors. They are Palestinian too, but they are Arabs and Muslims or Christians. Natan Sharansky does not share that.

Our identity therefore has at least four distinct, if overlapping aspects: Israeli, Jewish, Zionist, Palestinian, in addition to other shades and nuances that may have been inherited from all the Diasporas we, or our ancestors, passed through. Identity is not so simple after all.

Third, my Jewish identity does not reside in "spirituality" or Jewish religious texts. If my Jewishness had to depend on "spirituality" it would be in big trouble. The cornerstone of Zionism is that the Jews are a people, not just a religion. The Jewishness of Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud or Bugsy Siegel or Theodor Herzl did not reside in their knowledge of Jewish texts or their spirituality. However, we can understand that Yehushua was alluding to the quest for identity of Jews who turn to such texts.

In general, questions of identity are an interesting pastime, like epistemology and watching girls on the beach, but discussing questions of identity won't solve any problems. People don't usually make life decisions based on such discussions, though they may use such discussions to justify their decisions.

A.B. Yehoshua protests:

"It seems to me obvious that our Jewish life in Israel is more total than anywhere outside Israel...

"I think this is common sense. If they were goyim [non-Jews] they would understand it right away."

He is right. On the other hand, if A.B. Yehoshua and Natan Sharansky were not Jewish, they probably wouldn't be worried about identity at all. The question probably would not occur to them. A Frenchman, an Italian or an Englishman don't agonize over questions of identity. They know who they are. Attempts to define one's identity are part of the Jewish experience.

Not only the concern with identity is Jewish. Having possibly angered all the non-Israelis, I will now add that the Diaspora and its ways have become an integral part of Jewish culture too, and that to the extent that we lose those ways we are probably losing some of our Jewishness as well.

I love a good spat, don't you?
Ami Isseroff

Original content is Copyright by the author 2006. Posted at ZioNation-Zionism and Israel Web Log, http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000060.html where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Disributed by ZNN list. Subscribe by sending a message to ZNN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by e-mail with this notice, cite this article and link to it. Other uses by permission only.

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Replies: 5 Comments

I remember when I was a student at the University of Haifa, AB Yehoshua came to an international conference the university hosted, with Norwegians, Dutch, Americans, Italians, etc. present, with the agreed-upon language was English. And Yehoshua INSISTED on speaking Hebrew. This was HIS country, he said, and he thought a conference at an Israeli university should be one where anyone should be free to speak Hebrew. I thought it was obnoxious and rude to the guests of the university, but AB Yehoshua likes to be a provacateur. He likes to offend people. It's how he gets a conversation going.

I appreciated Ami noting that Israel needs the Diaspora--we help to define Israeli identity. I'm not sure I have much more to add except I've never felt more American than when I lived in Israel!

Wendy Leibowitz, Wednesday, May 17th

Ami: it is a pleasure to read you. May I add that olim have other aspects of our identity: Argentinians, Russians, etc. Our city of origin, etc, etc...

Fabian, Tuesday, May 16th

Checking antispamprotection preview feature

Ami Isseroff, Tuesday, May 16th

We have to separate the wheat from the chaffe in his remarks - a lot of it was "angry old man" done for effect. He did aplogize now.

Ami Isseroff, Monday, May 15th

yehoshua might have not been claiming that you cannot be a jew outside of israel, but he definitely did tell those americans that he was more than a jew than them, which might be true in his case (who cares, actually), but which is very hard to universalise, as he admits himself. dunno, first time i read it i had the feelin he was just after making some noise. when was the last time he wrote a good book, actually?

nullo, Sunday, May 14th

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