The Blindness of the Israeli Intellectual Left

A writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away.

George Orwell, Critical Essays

There is no question that Abraham Yehoshua is one of the premier Israeli writers of modern times. Such works as Mr. Mani, A Journey to the End of the Millennium, Five Seasons, and The Liberated Bride stand out as major accomplishments, not only in Israel but on the international stage as well.

His most recent novel, Friendly Fire, for which he was awarded the 2008 Premio Roma Prize, is a typically rich Yehoshuan product, delving into the “friendly fire” debate between Israelis as to the nature of Jewish history and the purpose of the Jewish state. It is an incendiary subject, for friendly fire, as we know, can be lethal, although in the novel the major characters emerge unscathed and the pivotal issues remain unresolved. Should Jews forget or remember? Can they find solace in the diaspora or must Jews work out their destiny in the Holy Land? These are important questions and Yehoshua is to be lauded for raising them.

Politically, however, given the influence that accrues to his celebrity, he has in my estimation done much harm to Israel’s prospects for an integral future, not so much in his fiction -- though his A Woman in Jerusalem reconsiders the status of Israel’s capital -- as in his newspaper articles, interviews, public activities, and doubtlessly in his lectures at Haifa University, where he is a professor in Near Eastern studies. Yehoshua is (or was) convinced that the Palestinians do not wish to destroy Israel but only to live in harmony and justice within and alongside the Jewish state and that Israel must surrender territory to achieve the elusive goal of mutual accord. He is an ardent supporter of the various peace movements -- including the so-called New Movement that endorsed the electoral prospects of the left-wing Meretz party -- parties which, fueled by noble but impracticable sentiments, have been clearly detrimental to the well-being of the country. Yehoshua had no compunction against publishing an op-ed in Italy’s La Stampa (January 20, 2008) calling on the U.S. to withdraw its ambassador from Tel Aviv and deploring the power of the “Jewish Lobby.”

I devote some time and thought to Yehoshua because I know him personally and grew enormously fond of him during our encounter at the New Writing Worlds symposium held at the University of East Anglia in Norwich in the summer of 2005. Our relationship prospered over the next year via email and telephone as we embarked on a “friendly fire” exchange of views, until the eruption of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, of which our budding friendship was one of the lesser casualties. The fire was not so friendly. Our disagreement over Israeli policy was decisive, Yehoshua lobbying strenuously for an immediate end to hostilities, leaving Hezbollah in place, while I believed that Israel should take advantage of the opportunity to finally crush the terrorist mini-regime which would otherwise continue to threaten the country’s security.

I have long felt that many of the finest creative minds in the literary world, whether poets, dramatists, or novelists, must be taken cum grano when they see fit to pronounce on political issues. Not all, of course, but perhaps most. It is as if they are occupationally prone to conceiving the political arena as part of an aesthetic framework, susceptible to snug resolutions, rather than the messy and often insoluble dynamic that it is. They tend to confuse, in the words of E.M. Forster, plot with story, the necessarily coherent with the unsatisfactorily inconclusive. The imagination seeks to dominate the empirical domain, especially when the former coincides with an unflinching and tenderly nurtured ideological commitment. It strives to impose an ideal order upon a resistant world and, in so doing, reaps the consequences of a fatal disjunction.

One thinks of literary frivolents like Louis de Bernières or José Saramago, whose condemnations of Israel are founded on neat, Manichean dichotomies that have no bearing on reality. More recently, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who accepted the 2009 Jerusalem Prize for foreign writers, delivered a reception speech implicitly comparing Israel to a wall and Palestinians to eggs broken against it. In this tidy, fabricated scenario, Murakami, apart from churlishly insulting his benefactors whose award he should honorably have refused, forgot that there were 20,000 “eggs” in Sderot broken against a “wall” of Palestinian rocket fire and that thousands of Israeli “eggs” were smashed post-Oslo. He emerged from this simple-minded fiasco with egg on his face, plainly unable to differentiate truth from fiction.

But Yehoshua represents a different case in point. He is not a foreigner but an Israeli writer whose ancestry, political engagement, and proximity to actual events should, one might assume, have freed him from the web of fantasy in which the literary mind is so easily snared and served to alert him to the structure of reality.