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A.B. Yehoshua on Jews and Jewishness

Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua recently appeared at the University of Maryland College Park, sponsored by the Gildenhorn Institute for Jewish Studies, and Jeff and Martha Landaw were there to report for Read Street. Here's their take on Yehoshua's topic: "Jew, Zionist, Israeli: Refining the Definitions":

Zionism, says Yehoshua, is "a kind of ketchup that you put on every plate."

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Yehoshua, the author of "A Late Divorce," "The Lover," "Mr. Mani," "A Woman in Jerusalem" and many other works, won the Israel Prize for his work in 1995 and many international awards, but he is almost as famous for his political opinions as for his writing. Like almost all Israeli intellectuals, he is on the left politically, supporting territorial compromise with the Arabs, but he has also said there is no future for the Jewish people outside Israel. In 1979, he called the "Golah," or Diaspora (exile from the Land of Israel), a "neurotic solution;" in 2005, he accused Jews outside Israel of "changing countries like changing jackets." But speaking in College Park, his talk, like his smiling appearance, rattled few cages, waved few red flags.

Changing his culinary metaphor, Yehoshua says of Jewishness, "Everyone is doing his own salad of identity." Identity requires a "rigorous definition," just as the definition of a chair takes in all chairs that ever were or will be, concentrating on the essential characteristics of a chair rather than side issues like its style or materials.

"Who is a Jew?" Yehoshua says, is a "most disturbing question that is repeated all the time. ... It is a sin that this people of 3,000 years did not have enough time to resolve this problem." David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, asked "sages" in and out of Israel, secular and religious, how to deal with it, some of whom said to "take your hands off this question." But Israel was "obliged against its will to define who is a Jew," and it has changed its Law of Return, guaranteeing citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world, three times in 63 years.

Jewish identity is not necessarily connected with being religious, Yehoshua says, although until about 200 years ago with the penetration of the Enlightenment into the Jewish world, "99 percent of all Jews were religious." But the first religious definition was established by the rabbis after the destruction of the First Temple about 500 BCE and the exiles' return from Babylonia about 70 years later: "A Jew is the child of a Jewish mother."

It is "unbelievable how empty is the definition," Yehoshua says; it doesn't include speaking Hebrew, commitment to a Jewish community or even belief in God. A non-religious Christian or Muslim is a contradiction in terms; a non-religious Jew can go to a rabbi, "burn the Bible in front of his eyes," and if he asks whether he is still a Jew, the rabbi would have to answer, "unfortunately, you are Jewish." The right way to speak of Jews as a people among other peoples: "Danish, French, Jewish and Chinese." If Moses had been asked what he was, Yehoshua says, he wouldh't have said he was a Jew, he'd have said he was an Israelite.

But the complications don't end there. A Jew can leave the Jewish people by conversion, Yehoshua says; the Jews are "the most easiest people to get out and get in." (The Orthodox, however, hold that a Jew is a Jew, even when he or his ancestors have converted, an opinion to which anti-Semites, climaxing with Hitler, gave a terrible twist.) When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE there were 4 million to 6 million Jews in the world, Yehoshua says; by the beginning of the 18th century, there were only 1 million. Religion in the ancient world was a sign of identity, where today it is possible to assimilate. And, Yehoshua says of converts, "I respect their will," not their enemies'.

A later definition makes a Jew "a person who identifies as a Jew," echoed in the first 10 years of Israel's Law of Return, which defined a Jew "according to his declaration." That definition is "problematic, chaotic, even anarchistic;" anti-Semites find it easy to project "their demons onto Jews" because "the Jew is not clear," something that isn't likely to change in the next 100 years.

But "for the first time in history there are people who want to be Jewish," and that, Yehoshua didn't have to mention, has created a problem for Israel.

The question, especially in Israel, of who is a Jew is tied to the question of who is a Zionist; Yehoshua says "Zionist" is "a very simple term" misused in a "disturbing" way in the conflict between Israel's left and right. People don't understand "where Zionism starts and stops."

When Zionism began as a response to anti-Semitism in 19th-century Europe, a Zionist was, and still is, Yehoshua says, "a person who wants to establish a Jewish state in [the land of] Israel," and the key word is "state."

A state belongs to all its people, however they identify. Arabs and Druze have Israeli citizenship; the president of the court that convicted Israeli President Moshe Katzav of rape and sent him to prison was an Arab. Some day Israel will have an Arab foreign minister, "and why not?" France has a Jewish foreign minister "working for the identity of France;" he hopes Arabs will work for the identity of Israel.

The question of Jewishness in Israel is not simply about membership of a state but a "total obligation," making "constant decisions" that define Jewish values today.

A religious Jew in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, is different from a religious Jew in New York, Yehoshua says, because the Jew in the Knesset has to decide on "thousands of new questions Jews never had to ask: Bomb civilians in Gaza? Sell arms to an African dictator?" What about gay marriage and the status of children? A "total Jew" is not a "good Jew;" he says; "I have only one criteria: good man, bad man."

"It's not easy, this totality," Yehoshua says. In Israel, a Jew can be sent to the army or to prison by other Jews, so many Jews leave Israel to "be free from the other Jew." Asked about Jews in America and elsewhere in the Diaspora, Yehoshua says he knows only what he hears and reads, that even religious Jews are becoming "more detached from Israel," stressing religion and ritual more than Zionism. The American Jewish establishment should encourage Jews to "relate more and more to the totality," starting with learning Hebrew; and he hopes Israelis are starting to feel their identity "as a skin, not a jacket." A majority of identified Jews, he says, now live in Israel.

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"The country is imposed upon you" as soon as you move there, Yehoshua says. It's more a burden than a joy, "but there is some satisfaction." The Israelis' "Jewishness" is a side issue: The RAF fighter pilots who saved Britain in 1940 might not have known the names of Shakespeare's plays, but nobody questioned their Britishness.

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