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Is There a Way to Defend A.B. Yehoshua’s Miserable Display?

by Shmuel Rosner

June 2, 2014 | 3:11 am

Photo courtesy of the International Writers festival, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem.

I wasn’t planning to write about my evening with authors A.B. Yehoshua and Nicole Krauss. My role in this evening was a secondary one – I was asked to moderate a conversation between these two as one of the highlights of the Writers Festival in Jerusalem last week. And it was pretty clear that I wasn’t there for my exceptional literary skills – I’m not a novelist (not yet), not an editor of prose, not a critic. I was there to talk about the Jewish world, or rather to make the two distinguished authors talk about their views of the Jewish world.

I wasn’t planning to write about this evening because something about it felt uncomfortable. It is not that the crowd didn’t have a good time – judging by the number of laughs and cheers, and by the number of people who reached out to me by phone and mail to respond, this was a successful evening. A memorable evening. Yet I’m not certain it was memorable for the right reasons: I get the sense that most attendees remember it as a combative, violent display of Israeli bluntness. I get the sense that most attendees remember it as an evening we would have done better without. Some of them, Israelis, told me they were embarrassed.

So I was going to let it pass, but I realized that letting it pass won’t do. There were too many writers in the room – it was really a large tent – that will write about it anyway. Two of them called me in the past few days to ask questions. Another one, Reuven Namdar, wrote without calling.

In Tablet, a very short account of the “drama” appeared. Here’s a description of what Yehoshua told Krauss and how she elegantly dodged his provocations:

“What’s happening here in Israel is the real Judaism. We don’t live through texts any more, the texts have no significance,” he [Yehoshua] lectured her. “We are living in reality.” Krauss, taken aback, blamed the translator: “I’m sure you didn’t actually say ‘the texts have no significance,’ the translation must have come through wrong! I don’t think that’s really what you’re saying.” She later refused to take the bait, patiently explaining to Yehoshua that there is more to Judaism than just Zionism.

Namdar was also at the event. I can testify to that because we spoke briefly just minutes before it began. Namdar is a New York-based Israeli writer, and that biographical detail might be relevant. Namdar’s latest novel tells the story of a Jewish American professor who is haunted by visions of Jerusalem and the holy Temple. The character Namdar describes, Andrew Cohen, is, well, a Cohen – namely, a descendant of the Jerusalemite priestly class. That is to say: Namdar is a man that lives between the worlds of Israel and the Diaspora, and is an author preoccupied with themes of Jewish nationality, religiosity, continuity. That his judgment of Yehoshua’s performance in the Writer’s Festival is harsh is not much of a surprise:

Among the numerous pleasant encounters between Israeli writers and their overseas counterparts, an ugly interaction stood out. This was a conversation between A.B. Yehoshua and the young and successful American Jewish writer Nicole Krauss. Yehoshua let loose, without any provocation from the smiling and mild-mannered Krauss, with a blustering and surprisingly rude frontal assault on his interlocutor. 

Namdar is right: Yehoshua was aggressive. He came across as disrespectful. I don’t think he meant to be rude. But, considering that this incident was preceded by other similar incidents, there is probably something that he just doesn’t get about the right way to behave in such occasions. As he was talking to a younger, more elegant, and very American author – that is to say, to a much more polite counterpart – Yehoshua’s in-your-face truth-telling manner was misplaced. And that is a gentle way of portraying his conduct.

Yehoshua, at some point, told Krauss that she was using “clichés” – that was the one time that I think she was actually taken aback by his brutal style. But in fact, we were all a cliché, and for that matter quite an old, outdated cliché. A cliché of 'an Israeli meets an American'. Had this been a humorous skit about Israelis and Americans from the Seventies, we could all laugh about it, feeling superior and more sophisticated than our former selves. Had this been a satiric description of the Israeli establishment as it attempts to convert Jewish Americans to be more Zionist, we could all cheer while secretly hoping that nowadays even the Israeli establishment is more stylish (it is, in fact). 

But this was not satire. This was a great Israeli author putting his foot in his mouth – and not because he doesn’t have a point worthy of consideration. Here Namdar and others don’t judge Yehoshua justly, as they mix style and content.

Yehoshua’s attack was confused and his arguments unfounded… He totally rejected the possibility of leading an authentic and significant Jewish life outside the borders of this country and the Ben Gurionist-Zionist paradigm… He rejected in one sweep any non-Israeli Jewish literature…

I disagree. Yehoshua’s attack was much too aggressive, and indefensible. But he is not confused. In fact, he has a well-thought-through worldview. It is not a worldview Namdar must accept. It is not a worldview the sophisticated crowd at Mishkenot Shaananim really appreciated. But it is a worldview. Yehoshua believes that living Jewishly in Israel is living one’s Jewishness more fully, a point he has been making for quite some time – in a way that keeps annoying his audience:

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.

Many Israelis would agree with Yehoshua. Many Jewish Americans would not. That's obvious. It is also obvious that no Israeli should make this claim in a way that comes across as disrespectful. When Yehoshua presents his case in an ill-mannered way he does not serve a goal that I can understand or identify with. He alienates Jewish Americans, and also quite a few Israelis, instead of having a fruitful conversation with them. That is indefensible.

But let me try and also say something in Yehoshua's defense.

As members of the Krauss and Namdar camp criticize Yehoshua, their task is the easier one - their worldview is the trendier one. He sounds like the voice of the past, while they sound like the voice of the future. He sounds like a dinosaur, while they sound urbane and classy. As it happens, I tend to agree with their view on many of the matters under dispute and to feel uncomfortable with Yehoshua’s Zionism-on-steroids displays.

Maybe that’s why I feel an urge to put a good word in defense of the badly behaved Yehoshua: Because he is the one who has taken upon himself a more burdensome task of expressing a worldview that is not even slightly fashionable. He is the one who is in risk becoming a target of ridicule and mockery, and yet he isn’t willing to let that diminish his passion for his claim. That is a commendable position for an author.

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