A. B. Yeshoshua's Hollow Nationalism

Toward A. B. Yehoshua's forcefully Zionist speech to the American Jewish Committee, I feel mostly negative. Yet, toward the announcement that Israel's Jewish population has overtaken the American one and is now the largest in the world, I feel very positive, almost ecstatic.

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P. David Hornik

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Sometimes, when I know my thoughts about an issue to be complex, I look to my emotional reactions for clues to what I really "think".

My reactions to two recent, fortuitously connected events, however, seem to contradict each other. Toward A. B. Yehoshua's forcefully Zionist speech to the American Jewish Committee, I feel mostly negative. Yet, toward the announcement that Israel's Jewish population has overtaken the American one and is now the largest in the world, I feel very positive, almost ecstatic.

What was wrong with Yehoshua's speech?

1. Its nastiness. Confronting an audience of American Jews that represented, presumably, the minority that does care a lot about being Jewish and makes personal sacrifices for it, like sending their children to expensive Jewish day schools, there was no point in Yehoshua's berating them as fly-by-nights who would take off for China tomorrow if it became more powerful than the US. The more committed American (and other Diaspora) Jews are exactly the ones with whom Israel should cultivate a relationship, who may make Aliyah in the future, and who meanwhile will fight anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish propaganda by America's growing Muslim community and others.

Yehoshua's derision also ignores the fact that, after all, most Israelis were born in Israel, while most American Jews were born in America. A little humility, Mr. Yehoshua. To get the Jewish advantages of living in a majority-Jewish, Hebrew-speaking country in the Land of Israel, Israelis just have to stay where they are; whereas, American Jews have to emigrate. I did it and am glad of it, but it's not easy. There are also American Jewish couples in which one person would make Aliyah, but the other refuses; the frustrated member of the couple is often a particularly committed Jew within his or her parameters.

2. His overrating of land and language. As other commentators have noted, there is an implicit political dimension to Yehoshua's claim that land and language are the main things ensuring Jewishness in Israel, while the Jewish religion is unimportant. Clearly, it would be useless to point out to him that the Oslo debacle was brought upon Israel predominantly by secular Israelis and was opposed by most religious Israelis. If he hasn't realized it by now, it is safe to say he will never realize that the Oslo Accords had something to do with an inability to recognize anti-Semitism in the shape of Yasser Arafat and his PLO, and with despair over the Arab siege - to which a more secular, land-language identity was not, for many, enough of a counterweight.

One also doesn't expect Yehoshua to address the fact that, statistically speaking, national-religious Israelis show greater Israeli commitment, by volunteering in considerably higher proportions for more demanding roles in the IDF, or by having larger Israeli-Jewish families. Strutting his "total Jewishness", Yehoshua wants to throw out much of Jewish culture and does not contemplate whether what is left will be rich enough to sustain us.

3. Ideological hollowness. Celebrating the "normalcy" of his national Jewish identity, Yehoshua fails to consider what people with "normal", secure national identities often do - leave their country for another country, often for economic reasons. There, in America, where he gave his talk, he might have noticed the phenomenon all around him. People not infrequently reduce their original national identity to an ethnic-nostalgic one, while working to adopt a new national identity, because of perceived advantages for themselves and their offspring. Indeed, in the US, Yehoshua could not have missed the large numbers of Israelis there who are doing just that.

Yehoshua's "normal" nationalism can give Israelis who have left Israel, or want to do so, no compelling reason why they shouldn't. Yehoshua himself may exult in his Israeliness, but not all Israelis do to the same degree. A national identity is not necessarily the most precious thing to people; they are often willing to give it up for other values. Yehoshua cannot tell Israelis why they should not become part of the American Jewish community he so despises. If, in his view, that will essentially make them American, then what's wrong with that?

The answer to Yehoshua is that there has to be something special, not entirely "normal", about Israeli-Jewish identity to give us enough strength and desire to live here. It is because I feel the Israeli-Jewish identity to be special that I exult to see Israel become the largest Jewish community. Yehoshua is right, of course, about the importance of an ambience of Hebrew and the Land of Israel, but it would be no more important than an ambience of Spanish and the land of Mexico, no more a reason not to seek greener pastures for economic or other reasons, if not for the profound Jewish connections of Hebrew and the Land of Israel.

Something - whether religion or a peculiarly intense sense of belonging - is needed beyond Yehoshua's simple, factual, value-free nationalism. Considering his passionate involvement with the issue, I suspect Yehoshua shares in the "something", but can't admit it.


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