AB Yehoshua: The border guard

Israel's violent present and uncertain future are the constant subject of the country's leading novelist, AB Yehoshua. He spoke to Johann Hari
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"It was not by chance that the Holocaust happened. Itwas a direct result of Judaism and the ideaspropagated by Moses," A. B. Yehoshua says in hisquick-fire English. We are sitting in the tea-room ofa genteel London hotel, and our waiter gives me astrange look. Yehoshua does not notice, but I want torun after him and shout, "It's okay! He's Israel'smost distinguished novelist!"

He continues, "Yes, at the heart of anti-Semitism liesMoses. He made a catastrophic error, a terriblemistake, and all anti-Semitism for two thousand yearsstems from his misjudgement. Moses said we Jews couldremain a people without having a land. He said wedon't need territory to hold onto our Jewish identity.This was a disaster. It placed us in constant conflictwith the world. It led directly to the pogroms and theShoah. This is why I am a Zionist: because Diasporaleads to hatred and the Holocaust."

Yehoshua has a small, round body and a pugnaciousface. He is - along with his close childhood friendAmos Oz - Israel's greatest author and the leadingintellectual force behind Peace Now. We launchimmediately into politics, and discussing the MiddleEast with Yehoshua is like leaping into a tornado. Heis in London as part of Jewish Book Week, and headmits he feels a slight discomfort with many of hisaudience members. "I admit I think it is immoral forJews to live in the Diaspora. Now that Israel exists,there is no more excuse for that existentialscizophrenia which gave birth to the formula of Exile.It has made all Jews into neurotics, into people withdivided selves. Jews outside Israel live in permanentcontradiction. I think they should come home."

He addresses British Jews with a barely suppressed anger, because he seems to believe they are keeping alive a system that leads to the slaughter of Jews. "Why do so few Jews acknowledge that it was the Diaspora that caused the Holocaust? They are like a person walking down the middle of the road who, when he is run over by a madman, naturally blames the driver and continues to walk down the middle of the road, only to be run over again."

"Don't they see that the Holocaust is the final decisive proof of the failure of Diaspora existence?" he asks of British Jews. "It proved to us the danger of the non-legitimacy of our presence among the nations. It was easy for the Nazis to destroy us because our status in the world was not legitimate. We were outside of history. We were not like all the other nations - we had no country, no land."

I shift awkwardly in my seat and try to formulate myresponse. Isn't he skirting dangerously close tolegitimating anti-Semitism? It's not hard to imaginehow delighted the BNP would be to hear one of theworld's most distinguished Jews describing Anglo-Jewryas essentially guilty of dual loyalties. "Look, theresponsibility of non-Jews for anti-Semitism is veryclear, we all know about it, and I condemn itutterly," he says. "But Jews need to understand how wepushed ourselves into that corner too." But I havemany relatives and friends who are both Jewish andBritish and I see no contradiction between theiridentities. "Then perhaps you are neurotic too," hesays with a half-smile.

He explains the background to these radical ideas. "For me, the Holocaust makes it necessary to examine Jewish history from the beginning. I see the Holocaust as mainly our failure, and after such failure we have to understand how it happened." Several of his novels - particularly his 1989 masterpice 'Mr Mani' - ask if there was ever a different path Jews could have taken to avoid disaster. "We need to understand that exile was not imposed on us. That is a myth. We as Jews foisted it on ourselves. There are many, many times in history when Jews could have returned, ended exile and founded a state, and yet they chose not to."

"Our disasters stem from this," he continues, before talking about millennia-old history as if it happened last week. "On the eve of the destruction of the Second Temple, half of the Jewish people were already scattered among lands other than Eretz Israel! If they had all returned from exile, the Temple would not have been destroyed. If Jews had come to Palestine in the early twentieth century, we could have provided a haven for victims of the Holocaust, or perhaps even prevented it."

The Jewish-American novelist Philip Roth has attacked Yehoshua's Zionism. In his 1993 novel "Operation Shylock", a Palestinian character - voicing views similar to Roth's own in interviews - rants, "These victorious Jews are terrible people. I don't just mean the Kahanes and the Sharons. I mean them all, the Yehoshuas and the Ozes included. The good ones against the occupation of the West Bank but not he occupation of my father's house [in Israel proper], the 'beautiful Israelis' who want their Zionist theivery and their clean conscience too. What do they know about 'Jewish', these 'healthy, confident' Jews who look down their noses at you Diaspora 'neurotics'?"

He continues, "Here they are authentic, here, locked up in their Jewish ghetto and armed to the teeth? And there, you are inauthentic, living freely in contact with all mankind? The arrogance is insufferable! Yes, they are the arrogant ones, the Yehoshuas. Who do they think they are, these provincial nobodies! Jailers! This is their great Jewish Achievement - to make Jews into jailers and bomber pilots!"

Yehoshua will not be drawn on Roth - "I haven't read the novel and I don't want to" - but he repeats that he believes militantly in Israel in Israel as a Jewish state for Jewish people. It might sound odd to some British ears, then, to point out that he has also been one of the leading campaigners - for over thirty years - for the creation of a Palestinian state. "How dare we say that our national consciousness entitles us to a state but the consciousness of Palestinians does not, when they too have a common language, a territory, and an intense shared history?" he asks plainly.

"Since the day after the Territories [Gaza and the West Bank] were taken in 1967, there have been Israelis who said, 'There is a Palestinian people. You will not be able to dominate them or chase them away. The settlements will be a disaster.'" There have always been Zionists like Yehoshua who acknowledged the equally legitimate right of Palestinians to a state between the Mediterranean Sea and the JordanRiver.

The novelist, who is Professor of ComparativeLiterature at Haifa University - a city where the Araband Israeli populations live together in relativepeace - explains, "You must never forget that in 1947Israel acknowledged the existence of the Palestinianpeople and recognized their right to have a state oftheir own. They sought the division of the land; theywanted justice for Palestinians, and the Arab leadersrejected it. The tragedy is that the Israeli rightignored the wishes of the country's founding fathersfor division of the land and in 1967 entered into thedelusion that Israel could have all of the land, notjust some of it. Now, after 36 years, the OccupiedTerritories are Israel's drugs. The country isaddicted to the Territories," he says.

For Yehsohua, Zionism's moral legitimacy is strippedaway if it denies Palestinians a parallel right to ahomeland. "The moral basis for the creation of thestate of Israel is clear. A nation without a homelandhas the right to take, even by force if necessary,part of the homeland of another nation, and toestablish its sovereignty there. I call this thesurvival right of the endangered. But if we extricateourselves from the terrible position of not having ahomeland by creating another people without ahomeland, then our right to survival will crumble inour hands. We have a right to part of the land - butonly part."

Normally at this point in an interview it would be appropriate to sprinkle in a few neat biographical details, to break from the endless quotation for the reader to take a breath. But that is not how this interview was. It was relentless and intense. So no break.

Yehoshua has long documented Israel's crimes against the Palestinians. A recurring theme of his writing has been a desire for Palestinian nationalism to develop. In 'Mr Mani', one of the characters implores the Arab peasants of the region, "Awake, before it is too late and the world is changed beyond recognition! Get ye an identity. And be quick!" All over the world people now have identities, and we Jews are on our way, and you had better have an identity or else!" The tragedy of 1947 is, in part, that the Palestinians did not have a fully formed identity that could lead them to claim their half of Israel/Palestine.

During the first Intifadah in the 1980s, he declared himself "extremely happy with the riots" because it was "a belated collective act of self-creation of a Palestinian national identity." He explained, "Only the First Intifadah could have pushed Israelis to understand the despair and the terrible situation of the occupied Palestinians." His message to the Settlers is clear: "Are you completely insensitive to the terrible price you and we pay in the flesh of Palestinians? For the sake of you we hold hundreds of thousands of people under occupation, without civil rights, without freedom."

From 1967 to 2001, Yehoshua was one of the leadingdefenders of a negotiated peace: swapping occupied land forrecognition of the Israeli state. Yet the nervousbreakdown of the Israeli left since the collapse ofthe Oslo peace process has affected him too. In hismost recent novel, 'The Liberated Bride', Yehoshuaseems like a liberal Israeli intelligence in freefall,a peacenik whose categories are collapsing and whosecertainties are crumbling.

He no longer believes in a negotiation. "It is notpossible any more to ignore the irrationalities ofsome parts of the Palestinians. I said to so many ofthe Palestinians I know after the Second Intifadah,the terrible Second Intifadah that has killed some ofmy friends: we had a peace process. Why did you startthe Intifadah? Why? For what reason? We were so close.Why pick up guns then? They never gave me an answer.Never."

"I hate Arafat from the bottom of my heart," he sayssuddenly after a long pause. "The dream we on theIsraeli left have been trying to realise since 1967 -the establishment of a Palestinian state - fell apartbecause of him. We were so close at Oslo. A majorityof Israelis wanted the peace process to work and thePalestinians to have their own homeland. He threw itaway."

'The Liberated Bride' is shot-through with a fear thatthe Palestinians are fundamentally irrational, thatthey cannot be drawn into Enlightenment politics, thatit was a liberal delusion to believe they could bepartners for peace. One character - not entirelysympathetic - is a "skull-capped [academic] departmenthead" called Ephraim Akri. He "simply had arrived atwhat he believed to be a scholarly conclusion: thatthey could never understand - let alone respect,desire or implement - the idea of freedom. It's thepurest egotism on the part of bleeding-heartleft-wingers to treat the Arabs as our clones whoshare our values and hopes." To Rivlin, the centralcharacter, "this smacked of racism" yet he alsoentertains it in his most despairing moments.

Professor Rivlin spends the novel investigating the roots of the Algerian crisis, where fundamentalists have slaughtered over 100,000 people in the past decade. He is haunted by the fear that Algeria is the natural state to which 'the natives' will regress - an idea Yehoshua knows is obnoxious yet seems to be drawn to, almost against his will.

Rivlin says of a late colleague (also a peacenik), "While he did his best to conceal it, he was fearful that we Jews, having failed catastrophically in Europe, were about to fail again in the Middle East - that the new homeland meant to be our final destination had in fact become a bloody trap. Despite his natural optimism, he felt torn, as Israel's leading Orientalist, between his responsibility to warn his colleagues of the pitfalls of wishful thinking and his reluctance to sow despair by declaring, 'It is hopeless to try to understand the Arabs rationally.'"

Yehoshua - when he entertains these doubts - seems to be moving towards his father's position. He was an Orientalist, and an expert on the Palestinian Press in the early twentieth century. "He was thoroughly acquainted with the Arab world and had many Arab friends," his son explains. "He was not dovish like I am. It's peculiar. Even though he had extremely warm relations with Arabs he used to say I was naive about them. "You don't know what you're saying," he would tell me, 'you don't know the mentality of these people.'"

In part because of these fears, Yehoshua has becomeone of the leading exponents of unilateral withdrawalfrom the Occupied Territories. "At last the state ofIsrael has a chance to clarify its borders. Theproblems since 1967 have been because there has been apoisonous break-down in borders," he says. Indeed,'The Liberated Bride' is a study of what happens whenboundaries implode, both nationally and within thefamily. "Withdrawal will mark the beginning of theseparation between two national entities. Theintermingling has become intolerable. We are differentcountries and we want to be separate."

The idea that peace can be imposed unilaterally ? and not as part of a negotiation is a significant departure for Yehoshua. "A handful of us on the left saw what Arafat did at Camp David and the suicide bombings and reached the conclusion that all we can do now is disengage," he says. "The old concept of the Left that we had promoted for more than thirty years - that you swap land for peace - had died. In 2001, we had arrived at the great surgical operation on peace but the patient was bleeding terribly. Something was clearly wrong. We had to stop the operation. If we carried on, the patient would have died. We have to go to unilateral move of disengagement in order to stop haemorrhaging. We have to implement a unilateral withdrawal immediately."

In the absence of seperation, he warns of "a secondHolocaust." "There could be atomic terrorism againstIsrael if we do not clam the situation down. Nobody isthinking about this today, just as in the thirties andforties nobody was thinking about the Shoah that wasonly a decade away."

He is cautious about Sharon's plan. He says thebiggest danger is that "we might not separate fully.We might remain entangled, half-in, half-out. Thatwill be a disaster. We need borders. The mistake since1967 has been to blur our borders." He adds, "Oncethere is separation, it is far easier to deal with thesmall minority of Palestinian terrorists. It's simple;we control the electricity. If there is shooting atAshkelon, we can cut off the electricity in Gaza foran hour or an afternoon or a day. If we do that, thenthe Palestinians will bring their own militants undercontrol."

Yet some figures on the Israeli right say that, by renouncing the idea of a negotiated peace, he is showing they were right all along. They have been arguing for decades that is was naive - or even treacherous - to negotiate with the Palestinians. "They say I am naive? They, who went and built settlements in the heart of Gaza? They, who led us to this? No, it is not the Israeli left who have been naive. We have always said we must live alongside a Palestinian state. It is the right who were naive, wildly naive. They imagined the Arabs would go away! Or could be driven away. Or would accept occupation. Naive!"

"Once there is separation," he says, "it is far easier to deal with the small minority of Palestinian terrorists. It's simple; we control the electricity. If there is shooting at Ashkelon, we can cut off the electricity in Gaza for an hour or an afternoon or a day. If we do that, then the Palestinians will bring their own militants under control."

I balk slightly at this idea. For all Yehoshua's obvious horror at the repression of the Palestinians, there seems to be a hole in his picture and a hole in his compassion, and at this moment it occurs to me what it is. He has never written about - or openly discussed - the creation of the state of Israel itself. 1948 is one of the few seminal years in Jewish history that does not appear in his writing.

'Facing the Forests', a stark short story written in 1962, is the closest Yehoshua has come to describing the War of Independence - experienced by Palestinians as the 'Naqba' (catastrophe). A frustrated, depressed Israeli graduate student is hired as forest ranger to guard a Jewish National Fund forest. While his studying the Crusades in a sullen mood, an elderly, mute Arab caretaker sets the forest ablaze. He has had his tongue cut out - by Israeli forces, it is hinted - and lets the fire speak for him. In the ruins of the forest, the remains of the old Arab's village, destroyed in the Naqba, emerge.

Yehoshua hints here at ethnic cleansing and the creation of Palestinian refugees, but he has never returned to the subject. Surely even the divided land proposed in 1947 would have required a degree of transfer of populations? Isn't this original sin at least something that must be discussed? Yet an unflinching account of 1948 remains taboo in Israel society, and Yehoshua steers me away. It is nearly the end of our interview, and there is another journalist waiting.

The intensity of our conversation is broken, and he sips his tea - surely cold by now - for the first time. As I leave, I look back at him and he is greeting the woman from the Times with the same anxious concentration. For Yehoshua another Holocaust may be hissing away in the near-future, and he has Jews to call home. He does not respond as I wave goodbye.

'The Liberated Bride' is published by Peter Halban (£10.99). To order for £9.99 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897 or post to: Independent Books Direct, PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP