20 July 2011


Orde Wingate
AB Yehoshua
Alef Bet Yehoshua spoke to the Fellows and the Amitim (the Israeli Fellows) yesterday at Haifa University, as he usually does, and created the performance that has arisen to the level of steady perfection, namely, that a Jew is only fully complete living in Israel.  It's an argument made in a perfect circle, the borders of which are set by Yehoshua, and he gives the address each year with an amused smirk on his face as some listeners nod in agreement; others scribble notes in an agitated way, impatiently waiting to pounce on his line of thinking; and still others simply disengage.  Said one Fellow afterward, "Whatever."

With precision, A.B. Yehoshua attempts to define "Who is a Jew," "Who is a Zionist," and "Who is an Israeli."

Who is a Jew is for Yehoshua a relatively empty definition.  He considers devoid of meaning.  While the State and the Rabbis and the Denominations duke it out, he calculates that Jews will continue to define themselves as they wish, and the leadership and the law will tangle over whether or not a collective definition can ultimately emerge.  "That your mother is Jewish" is an halachic definition, valid for those for whom halacha is valid.  Like Gershom Scholem before him, Yehoshua posits that with the return of the Jewish people to their land and their destiny, the Diasporia glue of Jewish law must give way to new, civic, historical definitions of Who is a Jew.  Yehoshua argues we'll eventually figure it out.

Who is a Zionist is simple:  One who believes in the right and necessity of the Jewish people to create a Jewish state.  Here he was quite amusing about various attempts to paint the name of Zionism black, as it were, demonizing the word in political discourse for the purpose of delegitimizing Israel.  There were no Zionists until the 1890s, he said.  My grandparents came from Saloniki in the 1870s, he continued.  They weren't Zionists.  They chose the Land of Israel as Jews.  But those who decided to build a state, a modern political entity, were Zionists.  Effectively, it's a neutral definition.

I teach that idea all the time.

Who is Israeli was his most interesting and "controversial" of all.  Citizenship, Yehoshua argues, makes a Jew a "total Jew" in a way the Diaspora never can.  Moving from Diaspora Jew to Israeli Jew, the Jew, Yehoshua argued, moves from partiality to totality.  "To go to a class with a rabbi on Thursday to talk about Judaism is partial."  Living in Israel--with or without an adherence to Judaism, he argued, is a totality.

Argument ensued.

Does culture, literature, sacredness, God, need to be present for the total Jew?  The Fellows wanted to know.  "The British pilots who were praised by Churchill for their heroism likely never read the plays of Shakespeare but certainly knew the players on Manchester United!"  (Great line.)  "The Frenchman who makes CHEESE never reads Moliere or Racine--is he not FRENCH?"  (Another good line, particular his gnome-like grin and emphasis on the word "cheese.")  Along these lines, he proudly extolled the notion of Arab citizenship.  Of course an Arab can be an Israeli; he will only lack the totality of Jewish identity but why should he concern himself with Jewish identity?  He has a Palestinian identity.  It's that simple.

In the heat of day afterward, we debated and arrived at precious few conclusions.

In the main, it seems Yehoshua's main concern is, essentially, that Jews ought to live here in Israel.  And his argument is logical in its emotion but certainly open to a critique.  For instance, I don't believe he has fully considered what has happened to identity construction in general -- particularly in the last generation -- and he might consider spending some time exploring that among the many Israelis and Americans he'd meet who are not forming their identity in either/or constructs but in multiple identities.

On the other hand, perhaps one can say that demographics don't interest him.  Jews living here does.


We rode from Haifa University through the Carmel Forest (devastated by fire last year) and into Yemin Orde, a youth village devoted to the rehabilitation of more than 500 kids from traumatized, abusive, orphaned backgrounds.  Yemin Orde is named for Orde Wingate, a non-Jewish British army officer who was an ardent supporter of the Zionist cause.  He trained Haganah fighters; his support for the Zionist cause led to his being transferred by the British where he fought with the Ethiopians against the Italians in the Second World War and eventually died in Burma in 1944 when his plane went down. We heard stories of unbelievable heroism, generosity and triumph.

A very inspiring place I hope to support and bring people back to.  One of our presenters was a young Ethiopian social worker who I spoke with.  She was 9 years old when her family emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel and I told her that in 1985, while at Hebrew University, I was part of a delegation of students that brought food and drink to the Ethiopians who were staging a protest in front of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, over the issue of forced conversion for these new immigrants.  Her father had joined those protests, saying, "If you're going to make me convert, buy me a ticket and put me on a plane back to Ethiopia."

He had come here, you can say, for the sake of his total Jewish identity.

No comments: