IN MEMORY OF ABRAHAM B. YEHOSHUA. ON PARASHAT SHLACH
We used to call them “the Trimurti” of the Israeli literary scene: David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, who passed away last week, may his memory be for a blessing. They were the Israeli writers who come to maturity one generation after the independence. They were translated and avidly read in English as well as in Italian.
Grossman is an Israeli writer, but he is not properly Israeli. His writing is still under the influence of the Eastern European culture of his family. He is a Jewish writer who happens to write in Hebrew. He still belongs to the world of Franz Kafka and of Bruno Schultz, of which Grossman considers himself an inheritor.
Amos Oz’s characters are Israelis. People from the kibbutzim, students in Jerusalem, and even Mossad agents. They live in contemporary Israel. Amos Oz wrote about Israel. But, as it became clear after he published his autobiography, he mainly wrote about himself, and his lifelong battle against his family background. He even changed his family name to Oz — “strength”.
A.B. Yehoshua was a true Israeli writer. He wrote in the language of the Psalms, the most sophisticated religious poetry of humanity, and with that language he constructed novels through the 20th-century literary technique of the stream of consciousness, putting together unrelated thoughts in apparent chaos mode.
Yehoshua has written novels consisting of dialogues in the style of the Talmudic debates. But very peculiar dialogues, of which we read only one voice; so we must imagine what the other person says. These techniques keep you literally glued to the page. Abraham Yehoshua’s novels are true masterpieces.
And the characters. Those novels are populated by Jerusalemite Jews. They have an inner life which Yehoshua narrates with incredible depth. Molcho, the man who tries trying to move over the loss of his wife, and overcome insecurities, while everyone is desperate to find him a new wife, is truly an unforgettable character. Through the members of the seven generations of the Mani family, the reader understands not only the history of the Jewish people but also the 20th Century, the age of totalitarianism and the attempt to get rid of the burden of the past Abraham B. Yehoshua has written in the Hebrew language literary masterpieces that belong to all humanity.
And the politics. Grossman exposed himself to the insults of the antisemites talking about his children serving in the Army. Oz was somehow apologetic, trying to understand those Europeans who expected him to pack his bags and move “back” to Romania, leaving the kibbutz’s properties in the hands of the Arabs.
Not so Abraham B. Yehoshua. You cannot say to the third-generation Jerusalemite, son of one of a historian of the city, that he is a colonist. That original inhabitants have been displaced to make room for him. You cannot tell someone who uses to speak Hebrew in the market that his native tongue is a fake language, invented to better dispossess the original Arab inhabitants. You cannot say that Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine to a Jew whose family lived in Jerusalem well before Palestinian nationalism was invented.
And indeed, Left-wing antisemites, like the followers of Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Greenstein, enjoyed tormenting Grossman after his son was murdered by Hezbollah (always lovely people). They mocked Amos Oz’s socialist inclinations. But they always avoided any public debate with A. B. Yehoshua. They knew that with him they could easily lose any argument. There’s no chance that this line of reasoning could work with Abraham B. Yehoshua.
This brings me to this week’s Torah portion. You know the nativist antiZionist rhetoric, so familiar to us, the one that says “The Arabs were there before”? Or, in the more elaborate form: “The Land of Israel is beautiful, but it is already inhabited — hence, there is no room for the Jews.”
This is not a new line. We find it already in the Torah, in this week’s Torah portion, in the episode of the spies.
Let me recap what happens. God told Moses to send explorers to scout the land of Canaan, and Moses sent them out. They returned and reported that the land was beautiful, but the inhabitants were giants and much more robust than the Israelites. The whole community broke then into crying, railed against Moses and Aaron, and -as always- only the intervention of God will keep the leadership in place.
When we hear the favourite anti-Zionist argument, “the land is already inhabited,” we actually hear a variation of this old Biblical motif. No one tells anymore that the original inhabitants of the land are giants in the physical sense. But Palestinians market themselves to the Western audience as moral giants, and the status of victimhood that their leaders claim for themselves gives them a free pass.
No one dares to remember how corrupt are the cronies like the so-called moderate Abu Mazen, a man elected in 2005 to serve as President of the Palestinian National Authority. The mandate was supposed to expire in 2009, (that is 13 years ago), yet he’s still in power. In his PhD dissertation, he maintains that the number of Holocaust victims has been inflated by the Zionists. At the United Nations, Abu Mazen gave a speech stating that Jews in Europe were massacred for centuries because of their “social role related to usury and banks”. Yet, he wears the mantle of victimhood, making himself a giant. So he is free to air the worse antisemitic rhetoric, to avoid the nuisance of elections, and above all to pocket money from international aid.
This victimhood card cannot work against A.B. Yehoshua. Neither works against hundreds of thousands of Jews who have lived in Jerusalem well before 1948. And the many Jews who throughout history could not move to Jerusalem. They wished, but they could not, because some external power -the Ottomans always, and often the English- kept the Jews out and favoured the Muslims instead.
I find irritating, if not worse, how easily we Jews in the Diaspora fall into the trap of Palestinian victimhood. How often do we ignore that line, we are constantly abused with: “There are other people, and they are giants, and there is no place for us”, this line is already in the Torah! And it has been already dismissed there as misleading.
In the Biblical account, these reports were given by explorers, who were prominent members of the most eminent Israelite families. Their only interest was to keep the leadership positions. They feared they could not continue to rule once the people were settled in that land beyond the Jordan River. So plainly and simply they discouraged the people to cross the river and settling in the Land
A.B. Yehoshua did not have time for this kind of Jewish leaders and their so-called humanitarian rhetoric. He was a man of the Left, a supporter of the conflict’s solution based on the Two States principle. He envisioned a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But first and foremost, Yehoshua was a Zionist. To him, the Diaspora was over. He thought that authentic Jewish life could be lived only in Israel. In any other place in the world, he thought, it is fake. And the pretext evoked by Jewish leaders to distantiate from the Zionist enterprise was an expression of neurosis, of fake Judaism, of fake human sensitivity.
Over the last few days, I discovered that people with whom I disagree on many issues, share my fascination and admiration for A.B. Yehoshua. Even if his radical Zionism could be irritating (he publicly enjoyed excoriating Rabbis…). Contrary to Yehoshua, we do not wish to see the Diaspora disappear. Neither do we think that Israel is the only place in the world where one can live an authentic and fulfilling Jewish life.
I personally see things in terms of a partnership. Israel benefits from the successes of Jews in the Diaspora, and the Diaspora needs Israel to be strong (if anything, to take refuge when and if required). But such a partnership does not work if we always judge, and only in a negative way, the large Jewish community of the world: Israel. To be partners of Israel, we should not take the side of its enemies who pretend to be moral giants while. They are not.
They are -as in the biblical story- Amalekites. They are enemies of the Jewish people; they cannot be persuaded with the language of reason or by showing them how “useful” the Jews can be as allies. So let us stop paying attention to the noises from the antisemites. Instead, let us read some of the great masterpieces by A. B. Yehoshua.