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A.B. Yehoshua by mtkr CC BY-NC 2.0
Literature and Political Theology

Remembering A. B. Yehoshua

The Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua died on June 14. We invited scholars of Jewish studies, literature, and politics to reflect on Yehoshua’s significance and legacy.

Yehoshua perfected a literary multilayeredness that allowed him to project religious dilemmas and historical references upon a microcosm of Israeli life. At first glance, this microcosm of Israeli life appears to be absurd and often humorous—a family man pursues his wife’s lover to push him back into the wife’s arms; an expatriate Israeli musician returns temporarily to Israel and obtains employment as an “extra” in the film industry—beyond this, we find a sober examination of Jewish life resonant with cultural history and symbolism. More extensively than any other Jewish writer, Yehoshua’s multilayeredness takes the form of a dialogue between members of different cultural groups in conversations staged in Israel and abroad that open up bridges of communication between Jews, Christians and Muslims, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, the elderly and youth, religious and secular people, men and women, straight and gay. Yehoshua never loses track of the historical contexts and geopolitical implications that permeate these cultural meetings. This is because, for him, the present is an historicized juncture that entails crucial new choices that have far reaching responsibilities and consequences.

Yael Halevi-Wise
Chair, Department of Jewish Studies
Associate Professor in the Departments of English and Jewish Studies  at McGill University

Literary giants are gifts to human civilization. They take our lingua franca and weave it into fantasy, myth, dreams, story, and saga. They are also often tragic figures. Think of Melville, Dickens, Joyce, Hemingway, even Phillip Roth. A.B. Yehoshua was a literary giant. His fiction inspired numerous generations in multiple languages. But he was also a public intellectual.

Yehoshua really had one issue that filtered through his literary work and public persona: Zionism. Zionism, Zionism, Zionism, all the way down. Yehoshua was what one might call an “old school Zionist” like his close friend Amos Oz. While Oz was more emotive, malleable, and more of a socialist, Yehoshua was more ideological and strident. He was a leftist, avowed secularist, and an unrelenting proponent of “negation of the Diaspora” Zionism. He got himself into trouble many times, intentionally — for example, when he told a group of American Jews at a General Assembly meeting in Washington DC that Israel was on the stage (of history), and American Jews were merely the audience. Diaspora Jews were incidental, he argued, their Jewishness facile and fleeting. Only in Israel can one truly be a Jew. He was surprisingly unapologetic and unrelenting in these matters.

The tragedy of Yehoshua is that his Zionism today seems mostly obsolete. A secularist—believing religion was perhaps Israel’s biggest problem—collectivist, and a leftist, Yehoshua sometimes seemed to be chastising the present with an echo from the past. Large Israeli diasporas exist in Berlin, New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. The ethos of the kibbutz movement (Yehoshua was an urban dweller while Oz was a kibbutznik) no longer drives the country; now it is settlements that seem to increasingly dominate the culture. Yehoshua did not quite seem to understand this, and he certainly did not accept it. Listening to Yehoshua, one feels nostalgic for a Zionism that no longer describes Israel’s globalized economy and rising religious intensity. It no longer quite accepts Yehoshua’s belief that Zionism is, in fact, the new Judaism. But his literary output remains deft, nuanced, and inspired, even as it is driven by a world that only still seems alive in his imagination.

With the passing of Yehoshua and Oz, a generation of Israeli giants who were born at a time when, with the founding of the state, everything seemed possible, when the desert turned green, and when Jews, having recently suffered a horrific genocide, felt their dream had become a reality. With a new language, born only decades before his birth, Yehoshua mastered it like a painter masters her colors. He believed what he believed with every fiber of his being. And he shared it generously with anyone who would listen. He was a great man, a great Israeli, native to the core, even as his views could be maddening to many of us. With his passing we mourn not only the man and his literary work but, in a way, we mark the passing of a dream that has changed.

Shaul Magid
Dartmouth College

The fiction of A. B. Yehoshua invites readers to think about modern Jewish history in light of relationships within families, a perspective that brings to history an awareness of instinctual drives and the workings of repression and repetition. The effect is to displace the manifest record of public events through the disclosure of dramas of unconscious motivation. Yehoshua’s fiction works a double effect: on the one hand, it acknowledges such deep components of our experience of narrative as the need for secure definitions and coherent accounts of origins and differences, while, on the other hand, it prompts us to confront the denials and forgettings that go into the maintenance of those ostensibly stable constructs. Each new novel probed further into the narrative function of deeply rooted assumptions concerning gender, body, and national identity. We have lost a great writer.

Anne Golomb Hoffman
Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Fordham University

“The Knife in the Air”

Israel’s eminent author A. B. Yehoshua (nicknamed Buli) was a dear friend greatly missed, a passionate and challenging national auteur, and a natural cultural mover. One of the many upheavals he caused in his rich life still stands out in its relevance today.

In the early 1990s, Yehoshua brazenly proclaimed a personal vendetta against a traditionally hallowed Jewish trope, the Aqedah — the famously aborted “sacrifice of Isaac” of Genesis 22. In his own words, “this powerfully important and terrible myth is the cornerstone of the religious covenant […] that hovers over our history like a black bird.” Moreover, “since one can never be sure that the knife would continue hovering in midair and not strike home instead, we must try to extinguish the mesmerizing magic or even the very life force of this foundational story.”

This dramatic warning came as a startling surprise. For the average reader, the biblical story stands not for child sacrifice but rather for its last-moment prevention — a perception reinforced by a long tradition of visual representations by artists, who, from ancient Jewish art through the Italian and Dutch Christian Renaissance, immortalized the dramatic moment of staying the knife in the air.

Twentieth-century Jewish and Israeli artists, however, often ignored the heavenly angel. This visual gesture of omission illuminates an excruciating textual dialectic, which Yehoshua creatively mined in Mr. Mani, his most accomplished yet controversial novel, the one that occasioned his “scandalous” declaration against Isaac’s near-sacrifice. In this novel, Yehoshua turned on its head a celebrated biblical trope, having his eponymous character, Abraham[!] Mani, aid and abet, if not outright act out, precisely that filicidal ritual that scripture had categorically proscribed.

One can readily imagine the uproar caused by this rewriting of Genesis 22. Portrayed here on a sweeping novelistic canvas, with broad allusions to Greek mythology (and subtler gestures towards Christianity and Islam), this imaginative twist duly triggered public protest. Casting Abraham as a “Laius,” the filicidal father of Greek mythology, seemed to have gone too far.

This outcry prompted Yehoshua to write a “Postscript” to the novel, provocatively titled “Undoing the Aqedah by Acting It Out” (In the Opposite Direction: Essays about Mr. Mani, 1995, 394-398). Here he openly attributed his alarm about the always-almost enacted sacrifice to the ramifications of the first Intifada (1987): “By enacting the threat to bind the son who wants to go on being a son but does not want to give up his brother Ishmael, Avraham Mani reverts the story back to its point of departure” (ibid., 398).

Yael S. Feldman
Prof. Emerita, NYU
Author of
Glory and Agony: Isaac’s Sacrifice and National Narrative (Stanford UP, 2010)

Tunnel and Vision: Regarding A.B. Yehoshua

A.B. Yehoshua’s death at the age of 85 underscores the complexities of a writer’s life wrapped up in political engagement, once seen as moral and principled, but now, in our times, blandly centrist at best, chauvinist and racialist at worst. Still, in measuring a life’s work we are reminded of the missteps and pratfalls of long-distance runners — and should have the wisdom to reflect with grace.

Yehoshua’s politics were stridently Zionist in an old-fashioned way: a Zionism that emphasized the Hebrew language, the necessity—even obligation—for Jews to move to the State of Israel to live an authentically Jewish life, the fear of—and hostility to—Arab States and Palestinian terrorism, the love of the Land and the Jewish People, the indifference to religion. However, reading Yehoshua’s essay from the early 1980s, you can discern what, for the time, were arguments unacceptable to mainstream Zionist discourse, especially in the U.S.: that the Palestinians were a people, not merely a “sliver” of the larger Arab nation; that, while justified, the Zionist project was not underwritten by religious or historical rights; that the Palestinians as a distinct national group also need territory and security. Yehoshua insisted on a moral right, “the survival right of the endangered” (Between Right and Right, 78), for Jews to seize some land, even by force. But such a right was in tension with those of the Palestinians, displaced by the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

Yehoshua, though not of Ashkenazi descent, exemplified the Ashkenazi-tagged liberal Zionism that, since 1967, also insisted on a two-state solution, the rejection of the settlement projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where “land for peace” was seen as the compromise made by the vulnerable, if noble, Israeli soul, rather than a position proffered by the dominant colonizer. In the 1980s, his essays were decidedly on the left of the spectrum, calling, along with writer Amos Oz, for a resolution that was both Zionist and Humanist. To today’s generation, these brave stances, moral, conscience-bound, that garnered them accolades for their boldness would not pass muster on any college campus or protest march — Yehoshua rejected the framing of Zionism (before 1967) as colonialism and was more fearful of Hamas rockets than Gazan corpses. For years now, AIPAC activists and Israeli diplomats can also declaim, verbatim, those “brave stances” without courting controversy; the matrix of control over Palestinian space and Palestinian lives are unaffected. 

Yehoshua’s fiction has, at times, been compared to William Faulkner, for whom he acknowledged influence. We also hear in Yehoshua’s decades-long public statements echoes of Faulkner’s chaotic public non-fiction stances and slurs. Consider the uncharitable parade of horrible statements made by Yehoshua on display in Yitzhak Laor’s The Myth of Liberal Zionism. In this way, Yehoshua’s once-nuanced positions were punctuated by bellicose rhetoric, chauvinist representation, and blinkered narration of Israel’s past, the Arab interlocutor, the Palestinian enemy. Though not a perfect parallel, substitute those nameless Arabs for nameless Blacks and we might see Yehoshua and Faulkner as more alike, pained moderates, haunted by past violence.

Yet an artist’s life of public controversy within a vector of political regress, of episodic close-to-home ethnic violence, cannot be assessed easily. Laor and others who would dismiss Yehoshua, or condemn him to some reductionist label, do themselves a disservice. Yehoshua’s novels weave the intimacies of personal life with a larger, complex political reality and exceptional history. In them, too, we see intimations of possibility for, if not justice, at least new configurations within the Israeli psyche.

In A.B. Yehoshua’s last published novel, The Tunnel, Zvi Luria, a retired engineer whose life work was in designing the roads that would facilitate the State of Israel’s expropriation of “unclaimed” lands, finds himself suffering from memory loss and early-onset dementia. He gets mixed up in one last roads project, aimed to help a Palestinian family evade danger in the Palestinian territories and take on new, Israeli, identities. Throughout The Tunnel, references are made to early Zionist leaders who believed that the Palestinian Arabs were actually Jews who had, over the centuries, been converted to Islam. As Luria tells a IDF tracker: “Ben-Gurion thought that you, the Bedouins, are actually Jews who forgot they were Jewish.” Hamid the tracker replies “And if we forgot, so what? That’s a reason to torment us left and right?” (320)

If Yehoshua often made statements that underlined the radical distinction between Jews and Arabs, between friend and enemy, between absolute authenticity within national borders, this last novel takes mincing steps toward the idea that perhaps the tragicomedy of peoples always gives ways to the intimate, the conditional, the admixture — identity beyond the binary and beyond the boundaries.  

Still, in The Tunnel, the steps go mostly one way with Bedouins and Druze working for the IDF, and vulnerable Palestinians being forced to live with indignity with new, Hebrew, names, sheltered, absurdly, in a Nabatean hidey hole. Not justice, but new possibilities.

However, Yehoshua, in his final years, shifted his positions. Judging that the two-state solution was no longer viable given the settlements foreclosing a fair distribution of geography and sovereignty between Jews and Arabs, he toyed with plans for a one-state between the “river and the sea” with a gradualist invitation for Palestinians to be Israeli citizens. Up until the last years of his life, while ill, he quixotically sought back-door meetings to push this new vision, a fair one-state, under Israeli auspices, to save the soul of Zionism and to reduce the suffering of Palestinians.  

As he said in a documentary, The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua, “We should forget more…that rummaging through the past, with the past, is paralyzing. The whole country should get dementia. The Arabs should get dementia. We should get dementia.”  

If liberal Zionism would be defined by the dedication to a two-state solution, we now face its demise within a range of one-state plans. But the tragedies and losses along the way are not easily forgotten. Yehoshua will be remembered for his fiction, and his quirky stances in defense of a Zionism now anemic and anathema, both to the decolonial left and the emergent feral right—both contributing to its burial.

Elliot Ratzman
Religion Department, Earlham College

In the introduction to his 1998 collection of essays on the ethics of prose fiction, The Terrible Power of a Minor Guilt, Yehoshua wryly observed that “there is a significant difference between the way in which literature creates moral catharsis and the activity of the media.” He was writing in a time very different from ours: relativism in art was the order of the day, whereas the media was taking over art’s role as the main arena for moral debates. Long before social media, Yehoshua foresaw the danger. He staked his claim to the enduring moral role of literature on his distinction between media’s superficial “sensitivities” or “political correctness,” on one hand, and literature’s demands of empathy and identification, on the other. Whereas media efficiently represents social forces and interests in the aggregate, he argued, literature does its “moral work” always and only on the personal level. It helps you to visualize that, as Ian McEwan later wrote, “other people are as real as you.” And it helps you to ask what their reality might mean for your own. We need his distinction between sensitivity and empathy more than ever. When I find myself drawn into an ersatz debate in some monetized bubble, I’ll try to remember Yehoshua’s words that “morality is not some far-off shining star suspended in the sky of our lives.” Not in a satellite, not in heaven, but in our hearts – so that we may do it. Zikhrono livrakhah: may his memory be a blessing.

James Adam Redfield
Saint Louis University

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