The writer’s message – Jews need to vote not only with their hands but their feet
By David E. Kaplan
The passing last week of A.B. Yehoshua – described in The New York Times as “a kind of Israeli Faulkner” – brough back memories of my exclusive interview of him in 2010 as editor for Hilton Israel Magazine. That year, the movie of his critically claimed A Woman in Jerusalem was receiving rave reviews and widely expected to be in the running for an Oscar nomination in the Foreign Film category.
Sitting down in the lounge of a hotel on the Carmel in Haifa, the writer’s hometown, I quickly discovered how scintillating and physically animated A.B. – or Aleph Bet as he was commonly called -was in conversation. The more intense he wanted to make a point, the more he enlisted his entire body to join in the discussion!
Having received many prestigious awards for literature both in Israel and abroad, I asked whether he had any aspirations of one day standing on the coveted podium in Oslo? After all, The Village Voice – in praising A.B.’s writing -wrote that:
“Nobel Prizes have been given for less.”
“I am most proud in the meantime to have made the much shorter journey to Jerusalem to receive the Israel Prize. Let me explain. While for the sciences the Nobel Prize is a true measure of the laureate’s contribution to his or her discipline, this generally has not proved the case with literature. If you look back over the past 110 years or so since the Nobel Prizes were awarded, some fifty percent of the recipients for literature were mediocre writers who have either been forgotten or made little impact beyond the parameters of their national readership. Even more astounding, some of the greatest writers of the 20th century – Virginia Wolfe, Robert Musil, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka and Leo Tolstoy to name a few – were passed over.
Think of it, Tolstoy, possibly the greatest writer of the 20th century did not receive the Nobel! I am compelled to ask: What are the criteria when minor writers were so honored and the great literary luminaries passed over?”
His face broadening into a wide smile, he concludes:
“One would be among no less illustrious company if one did not receive the Nobel than if one did!”
It was said by one critic of your book ‘The Liberated Bride’ that you explore human relationships – husband and wife, parent and child – exposing thoughts that people are often too embarrassed to admit. That you have the ability to reach into people’s minds. Your response?
“Relationships are journeys that by their very nature are coloured with clashes and tension. However, it’s not all tempestuous – there is also the beauty of love and friendship. I differ from many writers, who present relationships focusing mainly on the storms, leaving little room for the sunshine to shine through. I, on the other hand, while exploring the interpersonal conflicts, never lose sight of the underlying inter-personal love and friendship that exists between my characters and that is what frequently finally triumphs.”
To what extent does your fictional writing reflect the realities of life?
“I’m a far cry from say the 19th century French novelist and playwright Balzac [Honoré de Balzak 1799-1850 one of the founders of realism in European literature] a wonderful observer of reality who depicted life in his society so precisely in his writing. I on the other hand, while I explore and express reality, I mesh my narrative with allegory, symbolisms and fantasy. As a young writer, I was influenced by Kafka, the abstract writings of Agnon [the Israel writer S.A. Agnon, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966], Camus, Sartre and Faulkner. Of course, over time and with accumulated experience, ‘the reality’ permeated more into my writings.
While the themes of my book are imbedded into the modern Israeli landscape, its history and its people, my writings are not autobiographical. Many writers like to tell their own story in their writings – this is not the case with me. That is not to say, that life’s experiences have not shaped my writing.”
On this point, did your experiences as a paratrooper in the Israeli army in the mid-1950s impact on your work?
“Sure. While my first-hand experience of jumping out a plane gave me the insight to write about a German paratrooper in my book Mr. Mani, it was my military service in the period culminating in the Sinai Campaign of 1956 that gave me credibility when I campaigned later for peace. When I argue for making the necessary comprises to achieve peace, I’m doing so from someone who has experienced war. It is much easier to take a public stand or write on contentious and critically existential issues when you have taken personal risk on the very issues you are espousing on.”
In the mid-1960s you served as Director of WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students) stationed at its world headquarters in Paris? How important was this experience?
“Very important. My wife was studying for her doctorate in psychology at the Sorbonne while I was organizing seminars, workshops and conferences for young delegates and participants from Jewish communities from all over world. At the epicenter of global Jewish student life, this experience presented me a window of opportunity to understand Jewish life in the Diaspora.
It was during this period that I began to analyze the phenomena of the Diaspora. Since those early days I have been trying to understand the nature of antisemitism which I set out in an essay in 2008, called, “An Attempt to identify the Root Cause of Antisemitism”.
Jean Paul Sartre who too would have been in Paris at the time you were there, also wrote a piece on antisemitism where he came to the conclusion that antisemitism is an enigma that defies rational comprehension. What conclusion did you arrive at?
“I approached the subject from the prism of Jewish identity. And here lies the problem. Jewish identity is unclear, even to Jews. You ask today “Who or what is a Jew?” and you will not hear a definitive answer. What’s more, it’s no clearer today than it was over a thousand years ago. Is Judaism a religion, a nation, a race or people or an amalgam in different proportions of all these elements? Jews do not speak the same language; are scattered around the world and differ in appearance and culture from one place to another. A Jew from Yemen is totally different from a Jew in Russia, as is a New Yorker from a Jew from Kazakhstan or Addis Ababa. Because it is so difficult to determine the nucleus or core component of Jewish identity, antisemites are free to project their own demons and frustrations onto the persona of the Jew and create an identity sustainable for their own designs. Incidentally, the converse is no less true. Positive perception too may be projected onto the persona of the Jew with different results.”
Nevertheless, you don’t see religion as the core element in your analysis?
“The mistake I believe is that people were trying to understand antisemitism mainly through the question of religion; this approach is a cul-de-sac. The antipathy towards Jews has emanated from other religions as it has from secular national ideologies like Nazism. The fact that it precedes Christianity, led me to analyze the subject not through religion but the notion of identity. My conclusion is the abstract nature of the Jewish persona invites others to impose their failings and insecurities upon the Jew’s unclear identity leading to cataclysmic consequences. Ambiguity works against us.”
Of your nine novels, Mr. Mani published in 1990 and adapted for television in a five-part series, has probably received the most critical acclaim. Why is that?
“I see this book as my finest achievement.”
How is it different from your other novels?
“First of all because of its composition – the structure is original. The book is arranged in the form of five “conversations,” with the speech of only one of the two speakers present on each page. The reader has to imagine what the other would say and therefore is drawn into the narrative, not as a passive observer but as an active participant. Throughout the book, the reader is compelled to remain cerebrally alert.
The dialogue opens in 1982, going back to 1848 tracing dark domestic dramas occurring against the backdrop of historical events. It mirrors pivotal moments in Zionist history with the history of the Mani family where decisions, both national and familial, were made leading to dramatic consequences. Although Mr. Mani is never one of the speakers, the conversations always concerned a Mr. Mani – the father, the grandfather, the great- grandfather and so on going back generationally.
The speakers include a contemporary Israeli woman, a Nazi soldier stationed in Crete during WW II, a British Jewish soldier in Palestine before the Balfour Declaration, a Jewish doctor in Galicia and a Jewish merchant in Athens.
Threaded throughout this work is one of my fundamental concerns and which brought on the controversy when I addressed Jewish audiences in the USA saying that for all the successes of the Jewish people, we have been a failure.”
What do you mean by failure?
“The Jewish people have journeyed through history blind. The red lights were time and time again flashing, warning Jews, and yet, we ignored these beacons walking into one life-threatening calamity after another. For me the Shoah – the Holocaust – is totally unacceptable in another fundamental way. We lost six million, a third of our people, wiped out for what? For nothing, this is why I say ‘failure’ – not for religion, not for ideology, not for territory – for nothing. How could we as a people, have allowed this to happen because, as always, the signs were there.
The thread in ‘Mr. Mani’ is that the State of Israel could have been established in the 1920s. My ancestors came to Palestine in the middle of the 19th century. If they could come, why not thousands of others – en mass? Can you imagine if a half a million Jews had come – the difference it would have made? The Holocaust if not averted at least Jews would have a place of refuge. Sure there were the Zionist Conferences but we needed greater commitment – Jews to vote not only with their hands but with their feet.”
Explain the controversy that ‘erupted’ with American Jewry was when you addressed a symposium in Washington saying Judaism over the last 100 years has failed and that the future of Jewish people rests on Israeli identity and not on religion?
“Yes, they never really understood me in way that those Jews who have come to live in Israel would. As I told them, my identity is Israeli and territory and language – not religion – is what creates my identity. This upset them countering that the Jewish religion, culture, texts and literature have been with us for 3000 years, why should I narrow it down to ‘Israeliness’? My argument is that one’s identity is crafted by one’s environment and the land he lives in. A Jewish Israeli is not the same thing as a Jewish Frenchman; every Jew has an identity linked to the territory he lives in. We, who sit in Israel and daily make the fateful and relevant decisions for the continued existence of the Jews, are the ones ensuring Jewish continuity.
Anyway, if they were angry in the beginning – no more – now they are inviting me to repeat it.”
You are a strong and vocal supporter of the peace movement and attended the 2003 signing of the Geneva Accord. Does your involvement here and thinking on these issues manifest itself in your writing?
“My involvement in the Peace Movement is separate and I freely air my political views in essays and interviews. In most my fictional writing, I try to present the humanity of the Arab character, particularly the Israeli Arab through their encounters with Jews in Israel. In this way I try to foster understanding as well as encourage the pursuit of peace.”
While A.B. Yehoshua’s work’s (much of it published in translation in 28 countries and been adapted for film, television, theatre and opera ) reveal so much about the human condition, this published quote revealed much about this late celebrated writer as a Jew living in Israel:
“Diaspora Jews change nationalities like jackets. Once they were Polish and Russian; now they are British and American. One day they could choose to be Chinese or Singaporean..
For me, Avraham Yehoshua, there is no alternative… I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. Being Israeli is my skin, not my jacket.”
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