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A.B. Yehoshua: ‘I will not have someone else define my identity for me’

I find the notion of letting non-Jews formulate a definition of ‘Who is a Jew’ morally intolerable. I will not have someone else define my identity for me

If I were not to hold back and speak my mind, I would say that nothing in particular makes us Jewish. What makes us Israelis? You have an I.D. card, army reserves card, income tax file and obligations to fellow Israelis. What makes me Jewish today? Nothing more than my wish to identify myself as Jewish.
What did two Jews like Trotsky and Rothschild hold in common? There is no Jewish trait that these two men shared. Trotsky was chief of the Soviet Red Army, who wanted to lead the revolution. If he had become leader of the U.S.S.R rather than Stalin, it is likely he would have been even more ruthless (if such a thing were possible). He might have driven his army all the way to France, and would have murdered Rothschild and the Chief Rabbi at the drop of a hat. This is Trotsky. He never denied he was a Jew; therefore he was one. That is all there is to it and this is where the problem lies. There is infinite vacuity and infinite freedom when it comes to defining Jewish identity. Needless to say, in real life there are Jews who feel deeply about their Jewishness. But if you look for a common denominator among all Jews, you will not find anything apart from their desire to be Jewish.
On the other hand, I find the notion of letting non-Jews formulate a definition of "Who is a Jew" morally intolerable. I will not have someone else define my identity for me. Hitler is not to define who is a Jew. To lend him the power, the authority, is simply unacceptable in my eyes; yet Jews do this when they say that anti-Semitism defines Jewish identity.
Many people want their life to be about more than these questions of identity and this is why assimilation is of such staggering proportions! An intelligent person might say – what constitutes my Jewishness? I’m an American; I work in America; my entire life, all of my problems, are American; I worry about America’s future and I identify with my fellow Americans. Why should I preserve this Jewish component if it gives me nothing?
I do not think that texts may serve as the foundation for a national identity. There is no such thing. This is a Jewish invention: Jews were inactive in other areas and therefore they became so absorbed in their texts. And within our textual tradition so many texts contradict and even stand in diametrical opposition to one another. One text, the Ten Commandments, says, "Thou shall not kill," while the next chapter decrees not to spare a single soul in the Land of Canaan and have no compassion for other nations. What is text? Because I write texts, do I have the answers? People are what truly matter. Who reads the Talmud other than the select few who study it? Will those texts tell me how to battle against unemployment? These texts were composed because there was nothing else to do! Because Jews could not erect cathedrals or build fortresses, they did not occupy a territory and did not engage with life at large.
Did those texts help Jews foresee the Holocaust that was about to be unleashed upon them? They blinded them! Those texts did not provide Jews with any real help, not against assimilation, not against pogroms, not to remain in the Land of Israel, not to understand the Holocaust and the hatred of others toward them. Auschwitz is not a text, and yet it is paramount to the shaping of Jewish identity. An entire people, six million, are wiped out like bacteria, with and without the texts, those who’ve read them and those who haven’t.
There are texts that are significantly more pragmatic and relevant to real life. I would say – read the State Budget and understand how it is structured. Look at the Israel Defense Force’s ethical code and study it. Read Supreme Court rulings and discern what can and cannot be done.
Yet I must stress that what I say is in no way intended to be disrespectful of the written Jewish tradition. What I do wish to say is that other texts must be respected as well. I am not attacking the Jewish bookshelf, but I cannot agree with those who claim its authority over life as a whole. The Jewish bookshelf can be part of our lives, albeit in a different way. I think that art can mediate textual traditions quite successfully. My novel, A Journey to the End of the Millennium, follows the journey of a Jewish merchant from Tangier to Paris at the turn of the first millennium. This business trip becomes a personal quest for self-justification after the local Jewish community disapproves of the merchant’s marriage to two wives. I contextualized the human drama by citing from the rabbinic texts that framed Jewish reality of the period.
The work was not only published as a novel, which was read by many, it was also adapted into an opera. Suddenly, the texts in the Jewish bookshelf, in small part, were granted modern, actual, contemporary and artistic meaning and context. Art usually makes this connection successfully. It has the power to take the dry words out of the bookshelf and turn them into lively, relevant things with the mediation of human experiences.
This is how art functions for every nation, by the way. The famous story of Martin Guerre, documented in 16th century French legal annals, was used by novelists, filmmakers, and scholars in works such as the film, The Return of Martin Guerre. They brought to life an incredible story that people easily connected with. Thanks to art, you return not only to the ancestral bookshelf, you also return to your ancestors’ wardrobe and kitchen.
A.B.Yehoshua, described by The New York Times as "a kind of Israeli Faulkner," is one of the best internationally known Israeli authors. He has published numerous novels, short stories, plays and essays, which have been translated into 28 languages. His literary work has earned him prestigious prizes both in Israel and abroad. Yehoshua, who studied Hebrew literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is a professor of literature at Haifa University.

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