The British and Israeli novelists Howard Jacobson and A.B. Yehoshua discuss the new wave of anti-Jewish rhetoric with Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson
Daniel Johnson: One of the points, Howard, you make in your recent article in the Independent is that the memory of the Holocaust has now become something that the critics of Israel want to take away from the Jewish people – it’s as though you’ve forfeited the right to have this sacred remembrance. Where is this coming from, this extraordinary hostility, this attempt to deprive the Jewish people of its unique suffering?
Howard Jacobson: I can tell you what it is, but I’m not sure I can tell you where it comes from, because it comes from many sources; from outside Jews, and also very crucially from within Judaism. Lots of Jews are up to this trick, or whatever we call it. I see it as a new and much more sinister kind of Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial we can deal with now. Most of the world knows about it. We recognise the look of the people who do it and we know the nonsense of it, we just leave them alone and let them get on with it. But this is much more sinister and much more appealing, this one goes: “It was a terrible thing that happened to the Jews. We all know what a terrible thing Auschwitz was. Look, we concede it, you poor Jews.” It’s necessary that they demonstrate their degree of empathy for us. But what follows the sympathy is an analysis – a psychoanalysis – that is far from sympathetic: “You were traumatised by the Holocaust into visiting a Holocaust of your own upon the Palestinians.” It’s like the abused child who grows up and abuses the next child. We are now described as abusing the Palestinians in exactly the same terms as the Germans abused us – “abused” for God’s sake! And in this way, we are actually made to pay for the Holocaust itself. I talk about it as a kind of retrospective guilt for the Holocaust. It’s almost as if we’ve turned time the wrong way round, that because of what we are now doing to the Palestinians, we lose the right to the dignity of the Holocaust, if you can call it dignity.
This is a very sinister move. It’s at the heart of the Caryl Churchill play [Seven Jewish Children, performed at the Royal Court Theatre] and you get a lot of it at the universities, because it’s appealing in its neatness, it’s vaguely post-modern, you can mention Freud, you can chase around the names of several fashionable intellectuals. It is also very sinister, because it begs the question of what Israel is in fact doing or not doing to the Palestinians. Jewish trauma elides into Palestinian trauma, the cruelty Jews suffered into the cruelty Jews now dispense. It is not only that unequal things are equalised, but that the equalising settles the question of what is happening between the waring parties. Accept that the done-to have become the doers and the issue is settled: Israelis are the new Nazis, the Holocaust in Europe becomes a new Holocaust in the Middle East, Gaza is new a Warsaw Ghetto – never mind that one side of Gaza was open to the world and it could never have been a Warsaw Ghetto, never mind that the Ghetto was exterminated and there is no sign whatsoever of any Israeli intention or desire to exterminate.
A.B. Yehoshua: In the Warsaw Ghetto there were no rockets. When the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, spoke about Yassir Arafat as a Nazi, I was totally against it. I don’t think that Arafat, the terrorists, Hamas and the jihadists are Nazis. This is a national fight for territory. If the Jews went to Australia, for example, to build a state, there would be no jihad, no Hamas, no land would be occupied. So you can never use those terms. So all the comparisons with the Holocaust from Israel’s side, or from the anti-Israeli side, are totally false and unjust. People were saying in the intifada that we had been behaving like the Nazis, but I say that during the four years of the intifada there was a very sophisticated army, with sophisticated arms, with tanks, with aeroplanes etc, fighting against Palestinian militias with explosives. During the four years approximately 1,000 Jewish civilians were killed, compared to 4,000 Palestinians. The Nazis would kill 4,000 civilians in one hour.
HJ: I agree. But of course those who want to speak in those terms accuse the Jews of employing the Holocaust for pity. I don’t know a single Jew who does that, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that somewhere or other there will be some Jews who would say, “We can do what we want” – though they would never put it like that – “because this was done to us.” The only thing that I think that you can say that the Jews learned from the Holocaust – which was not a lesson, the Holocaust was not there to teach us lessons – the only thing that you could see the evidence of Jews having learned in Israel is that we are a people very much on our own. That anything can happen and that we have to look after ourselves, and when we say, “Never again”, we mean many, many things, but one of the things we mean is, don’t go defenceless into the world.
ABY: Yes, it is immoral to go defenceless, this is the reason why we thought that the Diaspora was immoral, sitting among nations without really having the possibility to defend ourselves. It was immoral to be without arms. And this is why the entire world supported Zionism, because they said that if the Jews are going to take responsibility for their reality, this is a moral act. So we had the support of the world and especially of the left wing, and even in a subtle way the right wing. The anti-Semites were saying, “OK, let’s get rid of the Jews,” but the Left were always pro-Zionist, because, as I say, this is taking responsibility for your reality, for your entire life, and this we respect as an act of morality.
HJ: Until we took responsibility, as they saw it, too far, and won. While we were brave little Israel battling against the world, I remember it vividly, what it was like to be a Jew in the Diaspora before the ’67 war, we were young enough and strong enough to fight. Everybody wanted to fight in what seemed a just cause – Jew and Christian alike – but the minute Israel won, the whole complex changed, partly because of the occupation. I understand that.
ABY: We have to be honest with ourselves. When there is criticism – I supported the war in Gaza, but of course there are evils that Israel is doing in the West Bank, with the settlements and the continuing occupation. So when people cannot make a distinction between what Israel is doing wrong and what Israel is doing right, this leads to confusion, because when they see the settlers taking land, and enlarging the settlements, and putting up the barrier, they think, “Terrible Israel!”
And then when Israel fires on Gaza, they say, “This is the same Israel, and this is the same thing.” So this is what we ask from people – to differentiate what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. I’ve been criticising Israel for 42 years about the settlements. I would say, OK, there can be occupation, until the Arabs are ready for peace, until they are ready for it we can stay there with our army. But don’t build settlements, it is wrong – the Palestinians are left with only one-quarter of Palestine, in the 1948 war we took three-quarters of Palestine – of course, a great part of it is the desert, but still, they are left with a quarter of Palestine. Don’t touch a bit of this quarter, don’t take one inch of land from this quarter. You can stay with your army, you can fight terrorism, you can say to the Palestinians, “We are waiting for your recognition,” but don’t put civilians there.
When we pulled out from Gaza, finally [in 2005], they could be proud, Hamas and the Palestinians, they had chased us out of Gaza. We said, “OK, we have dismantled the colonies, we have dismantled the military bases, now we are out of Gaza.” We showed the world we had left without any conditions, they had chased us out, like the Vietnamese chased out the Americans, without any conditions. So did the Palestinians then say to the world, “Now Israel has left, we are building, we are flourishing, we are even an Islamic state, we are on our own”? No. Instead, they have been firing rockets for three and a half years. Why?
HJ: What the Left say over here is that this was because we imposed an economic blockade – that order of things is all wrong, but you’ll find it very hard to get people over here to accept what you’ve just said.
ABY: They don’t have a blockade, they have an open territorial passage to Egypt. We are not responsible for Egypt closing the border checkpoints. Why do they have to smuggle all their things through tunnels? Because Egypt closed the borders. Now why has Egypt – a country of 70 million Muslims, Arabs, who are brothers, who were fighting for the Palestinians for such a long time – why have they closed the passes? All the material could come from Egypt, this was a territorial open border. So if you understand why even the Egyptians, their brothers, their friends, the most important Arab country, have closed the borders to Hamas, you can understand what type of organisation it is.
So are we responsible for the checkpoints? If they say, “We want to destroy Israel, we are launching rockets,” do we then have to open borders? Morally, why do we have to do it?
HJ: With other Israeli writers, who think not dissimilarly from you, like Amos Oz and David Grossman, you have your differences, but I think essentially we see you as the three great literary sages of Israel. It’s so terribly important, I think, for everybody to read you, because you make something possible for Jews: you make it possible for Jews to hold a complex of feelings, a complex that it’s almost impossible to feel here. It is wonderful to hear someone who is such a refined moral critic of Israel, a refined ethical critic of Israeli actions, who at the same time can say, “But the Gaza action is another thing,” taking one issue at a time. It’s so hard for Jews who themselves feel that to say it here, because the minute you accede to any criticism of Israel, you accede to the whole bundle, because the whole bundle is that Israel is vicious in everything that it does, and no one will distinguish them.
Of course, what’s so wonderful is for an English Jew to hear these distinctions being made by an intelligent Israeli Jew. You Israeli Jews don’t have to prove each time your Jewish bona fides – that’s sorted. So when you criticise Israel – it’s grotesque the thing they call “criticism” here, as though they’re posting the most subtle and reluctant demurrals, but let’s just use the word – you are able to criticise it with a great deal of freedom, secure in your Israeli nationality, secure therefore in your Israeli Jewishness. Over here, we have to keep proving it all the time, we don’t feel that we have the right and every time that we criticise Israel we have to say, “But at the same time we are for Israel,” and that’s what the critics then latch on to: “Ah, you’re for Israel are you? What about this? What about that?” And the critics, as they call themselves, as though they’re engaged in some refined Arnoldian practice, have this selective anthology of quotations – Ben Gurion said this, this one said that, in 1948 this happened – everyone has his own little package of quotes, proving that we’ve actually been swine from the very beginning.
ABY: Exactly, and this is the reason why it’s so good to be an Israeli: I’m free, I can say whatever I think. For 42 years, since the Six Day War, I, and others too, of course, have been arguing for the legitimacy of a Palestinian state. We failed in the beginning, for the first 20 years after the 1967 war, but now the majority of Israelis believe in it. I was the first to sign the petition to recognise the PLO. And I was one of the first to hail the Geneva Accord as it was signed between the PLO and the Israelis. And I was saying with Amos [Oz] and with others, we are going to have to speak with Hamas, if they want to speak with us we must speak with them. I have said all these things. But when they shoot at us, what do you think that I should do? What do you want me to do?
HJ: “Be nice to them,” they say here. “Be nice to them, speak to them.”
ABY: But they are not nice. I said to Gideon Levy [a prominent left-wing Israeli journalist], with whom I had an exchange of letters, “You are protecting the Palestinian cause all the time, explaining how we are criminals of war. Now the Palestinians who love you will come to you and say to you, ‘We want the checkpoints open, or we will shoot.’ You’ll say ‘No, don’t shoot, don’t shoot!’ You advise the Palestinians not to shoot, but when they shoot, you defend them.” This is absurd.
HJ: But of course what they say here is that those rockets that they were sending in were tin cans, they were nothing, they didn’t kill, they were toy rockets, they didn’t kill enough Israelis.
ABY: This is absurd. There are rockets, and they are falling on houses. The problem is that they are falling on kindergartens. These are the same rockets as Hizbollah’s that have killed 60 or 70 civilians. If they are useless, then don’t fire them. Just say, “We love the Israelis, give us food, give us a say, open the borders.” This is what is so absurd – the combination of viciousness and stupidity. Rockets were targeted only at civilians. Rockets were falling on kindergartens or schools but our “problem” was that our children were in shelters and we didn’t have enough deaths to justify the “morality” of balanced casualties.
HJ: I think that’s a propaganda mistake. We’d have done much better in the propaganda war had a few more Israelis been killed.
ABY: Exactly. This is the criterion: “Why do they have so many casualties and you have less?” What’s happening? You have to balance the casualties. What do you mean by the balance of casualties? We are a people of six million. There are 200 million Arabs around us. So perhaps we will balance the casualties, when we are 200 million. Fight with Hizbollah, balance the casualties, fight with Gaza, balance the casualties. What is this idea of balancing the casualties instead of digging shelters for their people in Gaza? Instead, they were digging tunnels in order to fight better by taking their fighters from one place to another.
HJ: There is no comprehension of this. When the demonstrators walked through the streets, almost every day, certainly every weekend, during the weeks of Gaza and for a couple of weeks afterwards, there was one banner that they carried: “No to the slaughter and massacre.” “Slaughter” and “massacre” only work rhetorically as long as there’s an imbalance of numbers. You certainly can’t say “slaughter” and “massacre” if they’ve also been slaughtering and massacring you. So the numbers are very, very important. They suggest an imbalance of power and a heartlessness. This makes a rhetoric of heartlessness – “the Jews are heartless, they kill indiscriminately” – as though there is something discriminate about those wonderful rockets that Hamas is sending over, picking out their targets with a fine precision. They don’t even know where they’re going or which direction they’re flying in.
ABY: Yes, they were paralysing one million people who had to be in shelters because of these rockets. This idea of balance – how many British were killed in the Second World War? I don’t know how you don’t have the numbers, we remember all the numbers of our casualties from the beginning of Zionism. But I think there were about 400,000 and 10 million Germans. Now where is the question of balance in that?
HJ: Ah well, we can say we had right on our side.
ABY: The question is if we have right or we don’t have right? Leave the question of casualties: do you have the right to defend yourself when Hamas is firing rockets from Gaza, after you have pulled out?
HJ: Abraham, I wish you and other Israeli writers would write more often for the English. We don’t hear your voice unless we are novel readers who know your books and are therefore attentive to what else you say. What we are told is that anyone in Israel who stands up against the cruelty of Israeli policy is persecuted. People who don’t know anything about it, who think Israel is an intolerant monolithic entity, assume there’s a secret police waiting to pounce on anyone who speaks out. So the real heroes, we are told, are the historical revisionists, the ones who argue that the 1948 war was in fact a cruel dispossession of the Palestinian people and nothing else. The only Israeli Jews we hear inveigh against Israel are those who have virtually washed their hands of it. We don’t hear enough of those voices of Jews who live there, who are sympathetic to the country because they cannot be otherwise, for whom that land is their land but who take severe issue with many things. We don’t hear the criticisms of Israel from those who love Israel.
ABY: In a moral judgment, I always say, I can judge what is happening. For example, the first war between America and Iraq in 1991 was justified. They had taken Kuwait, so they had to fight, they had to liberate Kuwait. The second Iraq war wasn’t right. I was totally against the first war between Lebanon and Israel. It was profoundly unjust, and then the second Lebanese war I was for. You have to examine everything in moral, objective terms, Kantian terms.
But I have to add something else. I think that beyond all this there is, perhaps among the British especially, a resentment against Zionism in general. “The Jews went to Palestine, they took part of Palestine, they didn’t have the right to do it, we have helped them by giving them the Balfour Declaration, they didn’t have to do it, the Jews didn’t have a right to go.” And this is an argument, of course, because of historical rights: “I don’t believe in historical rights, you cannot keep historical rights to a land you abandoned 2,000 years ago and you cannot come back to it.” And for the Palestinians this is the reason why, I think, this conflict has stayed on the agenda of the whole world for about 120 years.
HJ: Well, the other reason it’s preoccupying the world is that the world knows that while on the one hand it says, “We cannot bear Zionism, we cannot bear what’s happened to the Palestinians, you cannot wander into another country just like that,” that same world knows that its actions made the creation of Israel inevitable. I am astonished sometimes at how the people of countries that said to Jews, “Get out,” can in the next breath say, “But don’t go there. Get out, but don’t go here. We don’t want to know anything of you, but we retain the right to have views about where you settle.” So they carry a burden of weariness and guilt of which they wish now to be rid. There’s a wonderful statement by the philosopher John Gray in his book Straw Dogs about how impossible people find it to forgive those who have suffered “irreparable wrongs.” The Holocaust is a case in point. “When will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust?” he asks. Meaning never.
Many in Europe have developed a strategy for not having to forgive the Jews for the Holocaust. They know they cannot deny it altogether, or tell the Jews they had it coming, but they can say, “You have proven yourself to be unworthy of it, by not turning out to be that exceptional people you were meant to be. Having suffered the Holocaust, you were meant to act as no other
human beings had ever acted on the face of the earth, ever. You were meant to give everything back, you were meant to be” – I think it might be from you that I heard this phrase – “you were meant to be magnanimous in conquest, you were meant to do what no conqueror has ever done, and return every scrap of what you’d won in war.” And the moment Israel was not as no victorious country has ever been before, the rest of the world was able to say, “Ah, you are the same, you are no better than anybody else and, in fact, because this was done to you, you’re actually worse than anybody else because you of all people should have learnt this lesson.” So, yet again, the Jews are made an exceptional people. They are an exceptional people in that they should have nowhere to live and they are an exceptional people in that they should have learnt lessons that no human being has ever learnt.
ABY: And of course we are not better than the others. I want to be judged in a relative way and when I am wrong, I am wrong and when I am right, I am right. And I have to say the question of coming to Israel, to Palestine, at the beginning of the 20th century, is a problem for me. I can say one thing in our defence: by coming to Palestine in the 1920s, we saved another 300,000 Jews from the gas chambers.
HJ: You have said, had more people gone to Israel earlier, had more people seized the opportunity of Zionism, European history might have been different.
ABY: What I hear all the time from my Arab friends is, “You didn’t have moral legitimacy to come here.” This is the most basic thing that even my dearest Israeli-Arab friends say to me: “We can accept you as a fact but never will we give you moral legitimacy.” I was writing this essay about what is the moral right and I said that I cannot recognise the religious right, I cannot recognise the historical right, I cannot recognise anything but the right of the person who does not have a home and is condemned to death and who comes to take a room in my apartment, to save his life. This was our right – the right of the distressed, the right of the hungry men who had to steal.
HJ: And it wasn’t any person’s apartment either, it was an apartment that we had visited before, many of our family were still in that apartment.
ABY: Of course we had emotional and historical ties to Palestine but this did not give us the right to take part of it, only the fact that we were a homeless people did. If there had been in those times a kind of a United Nations, a kind of just organisation, it would have said: the Jews will take a part of Palestine, the Palestinians will be compensated by a part of Jordan, Jordan will take a part of Iraq, Iraq will take a part of Pakistan, and then we’ll take back Turkey and then England and every country. When there is a person who is on drugs, let’s say, in the street, what do we do for him? Every one of us pays £1 to make a home for him so that he will not be homeless. So does all the world, because the problem of the Jews was the problem of the world, not only of the Palestinians. The Palestinians say, “It is not our problem.” But you are part of the world – the Palestinians – so this is the problem of the world and everyone has to contribute something in order to help this difficult, difficult people with this problem.
They are very problematic, the Jewish people: they went into the Diaspora, they could come out of the Diaspora. Like the homeless man – you can blame him for all these things and say, why have you come to this situation? Yes, of course he is guilty of this and that, but we have to find him a home again and into a regular life. So this is the reason why I think there is so much concern for the Palestinians because they think they’ve paid for the guilt of all the world, so we have to compensate them, we have to help them a little bit with this philanthropic thing. Instead of helping them, the rest of the world puts them constantly in misery, in dependency, helping them so much by giving money to the refugees, instead of saying to the refugees, “Come back to work, we’ll build factories, we’ll build all these things in order to pull you out of this situation.” So the guilt feeling towards the Palestinians has finally done more harm to them, you see, and now even in Gaza, instead of saying, “OK, put buildings up immediately, put factories up immediately, we’ll give you the opportunities,” they’re sending food. The problem is not food, the problem is how to put them to work again.
HJ: That’s because they won’t view the Palestinians as actual people with needs. I think the Palestinians are emotionally abused in this country: no distinctions are made, they are this piteous mass and anything they do out of this piteousness we must forgive because the Jews have forced it to happen. So the only way in which we can turn this pitiable mass into something that we recognise is when they become soldiers. For suicide bombers in this country there was an immense romantic sympathy. Every time a suicide bomb happened, you’d have some of the most eminent people in the country saying, “I understand.” But it was an understanding that flowed in only one direction.
DJ: Can I ask a really difficult question? Will Israel, as a Jewish state, survive?
ABY: I think that the question between us and the Palestinians can be solved because the two sides, I would say not emotionally but reasonably, know that the only solution is a two-state solution. This is the only solution and we have to come to this, but the two sides are unable to do it by themselves. Israel is not able to pull out all the settlements without pressure from outside, without a guarantee also, by the international community, that the security of Israel will be guaranteed after pulling out. The most important words that were said during the Gaza operation were from Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], the president of Palestine, who said, “Hamas is gambling on the blood of our children.” He was saying it, not a Jew or an Israeli. This is the reason why there were few demonstrations of sympathy in the West Bank, not even among Israeli-Arabs, because they know Hamas is vicious, because they know Hamas is gambling, they are an agency of Iran, they get money for firing rockets against the interests of the Palestinians, which they have done instead of encouraging Israelis to pull out of the West Bank. Now the Israelis say, “We pull out from Gaza, and we have rockets from the south, so when we pull out from the West Bank, we’ll have rockets on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.” So they have harmed the Palestinian cause, this is the most painful thing, I think, for a person who has been fighting for the Palestinian state for 42 years.
DJ: But do you really think that Hamas actually cares about the Palestinian people? Aren’t they part of something different, a jihadist global movement, for whom the Palestinians are merely a pawn on the chessboard? With Hamas it is impossible, surely, to negotiate?
ABY: I always consider myself as a left-wing person, but what is the difference between Left and Right? The difference is that the Left believes in human beings’ capacity to change, while the Right thinks about destiny, mentality, repetition. Both sides are right but still I am on the side saying: we will change. What happened in Gaza was a blow to our optimism. If you wanted to have real slaughter with such ammunition, with air raids, we could have killed 20,000 or 30,000. What was done by the British and Americans in Fallujah? Maybe 6,000 were killed there, and the insurgents there didn’t fire on Washington and London. Yes, you can say, “The attack on Gaza was brutal,” and there were many people in Israel who were a little shocked by this brutality. And I know the brutality happened because the Israeli Army was afraid after the failure in the second war of Lebanon in 2006, when we really demonstrated our weakness – we could not conquer a village in the south of Lebanon with all of the army and all of the tanks. And the Israelis were afraid in Gaza because of the warning to all of us: if you enter Gaza you will be hated by Hamas. There will be suicide terrorists, you will see that this will be a disaster. I remember a debate with my friend Amos Oz, who said: “This will be a disaster for us, we will not be able to pull out, there will be hundreds of Israeli soldiers killed.”
So we were afraid, and that was why the shooting was so intensive: in order to save the lives of Israeli soldiers, and especially to hit the places from which Hamas were involving civilians. Because for Hamas, the killing of the civilians is a benefit. They want to paralyse Israel with the shooting of civilians. I remember how cruel the PLO were and how extreme they were for so many years and how difficult it was with them. And they have changed. So I believe that Hamas can change too.
HJ: Amos Oz said something similar. We actually feel differently away from the Middle East – it’s so different being there. Away from Israel, I think Jews are probably more alarmist. We can’t be certain how well you can protect yourselves. We can’t be certain what it is that you feel confident that you can do, because we need your confidence. At one and the same time, we want to feel that you believe you are impregnable, because we want you to be impregnable. But on the other hand we don’t want you to be haughtily or cruelly impregnable. And we think, my God, the next stage is going to be Iran, and then where are we?
ABY: I don’t know. If you’re asking me about the survival of Israel, then of course Israel can survive militarily. Iran is a different kind of question. This has to be handled by the whole European community and is also a problem for the Arabs themselves who live near Iran, so they have to deal with it. I don’t believe that Iran will fire nuclear missiles, because they can be destroyed too.
HJ: I feel that it is a shame for Standpoint readers, who might not have read your novels, to know you just politically in this way. Because to read your novels, to read something about what it’s like to be in Israel at the moment, and you’re very delicate in that way – to me, your latest novel, Friendly Fire, is a Tolstoyan novel, in that it knows that the truth of anything lives in the moment-by-moment details of a life. You do an almost impossible thing in that novel – you do many wonderful things – but you do something about a lift engineer at the heart of the novel. The novel has two hearts actually, or two halves of one heart. One half of the heart is about a lift engineer. And you talk in immense detail about lifts, and what lifts are like, and what they’re like when they malfunction, and as you read you think, “I don’t think I want to know any more about lifts.” But you go on, and then you discover that what you’re actually reading is the story of a practical man living in Israel with all sorts of the issues we’ve been talking about impinging, and then not impinging. And it makes such a difference to read them – you’re a novelist, so you will feel what I feel – that in the end, there is a truth that can only come to you from art, that can’t come to you from all the political discussions in the world. And for me to read those is to have a better sense, an optimistic as well as a melancholic sense, of what it is like to be an Israeli, what it is like to have an Israeli conscience, what it is like to be Jewish in that world. Anybody who hates Israel should read these novels, more than listening to everything you have to say politically, wonderful as it is. In the novels, one gets that sense of the sheer emotional complexity of it. What it is to love Arabs, what it is to be frightened of Arabs, what it is to feel day by day that you are involved in this conflict, but also that you live a life which is very unlike the life that we who are not involved in this conflict live day by day. That’s one of the great things that an artist can do.
ABY: This is what I want the complexity for: so people don’t make a quick judgment. When something is Israel’s fault, say it very clearly. You have the full right to criticise Israel. You have to be free. The thing is that the Jews and the non-Jews can do it: feel yourself free.
HJ: But you give us that, partly, you give us that. To British Jews, that freedom has to be a gift from you, because we are guilty about not being there. This relates very much to something you’ve talked about a great deal – about the difference between the Jew in the Diaspora and the Jew in Israel. And although I’m very interested in everything you’ve said about that, completely fascinated, because for me the whole issue of being Jewish is always what kind of Jew to be. It’s never actually been: should I be there or should I be here? It has always been: what kind of a Jew am I, to be here, in the full knowledge of everything that’s been said for hundreds of years about the incompleteness of the Jew as somebody who lives in the Diaspora, without his own country. I am in love with being incomplete. This for me is how I understand being Jewish.
ABY: You want to be a complete husband or a partial husband?
HJ: I want to be a complete husband and want to be a complete Jew as well, but not to be completed, because I want my story to go on in the Diaspora because I’m now in love with being a Diaspora Jew, with the strange sense of being one. In the 19th century, Zionism gets going in the non-Jewish mind politically before it gets going in the Jewish mind. It is the Christian evangelists who are talking about empty countries here. They’ve got their own agenda. They want the Jews to go to Palestine long before the majority of Jews do, politically anyway. But among Jews, a body of criticism of Diaspora Judaism is forming. Look what’s happened, they say: here are the Jews, these people who see a great destiny for themselves – they’re living in poverty, they’re living in somebody else’s country, in a shtetl [village], in the mud, in the dirt, they’ve got no money, they’ve got no food, they’re obsessively reading and rereading their texts, they’re finding their Jewishness in the texts, because, as you’ve said too, where else does Jewishness exist? If you don’t have a country, it’s in the words of the sacred texts, so our religion is kept alive.
As for the Jews clever enough to see this about themselves, they live in a state of permanent contradiction. They make jokes about it. We all know that no one makes jokes about themselves in the way that Jews make jokes about themselves. It is a perfected art. Anybody who wants to make a joke knows that they have to learn from a Jew how to make a joke. Essentially, there are Jewish jokes, and then there are other jokes trying to be Jewish jokes that don’t quite make it. Because only a Jewish joke has got that smell of blood in it, that twist, that joke that turns upon the teller, turns upon yourself, and yet then turns upon the hearer as well.
But they are saying, these critics of Jewish life without Israel in the late 18th and 19th century, that Jews have turned Jewish life into a kind of permanent sour, sardonic witticism, making a virtue of the intelligence in never being quite at home anywhere, never feeling entirely safe, having to be quick on one’s feet because one never knows when the next blow is going to fall, but always turning it into comedy.
I suppose what I am saying is that the Jewish literature made out of that self-punishing comedy is more familiar to me than Israeli writing. As a Diaspora Jew I am in love with living and reading about the Diaspora experience. As a writer I don’t believe I could ever function in Israel. I wouldn’t know who I’m fighting. I don’t feel that I have an intellectual fight with the Arabs. Now I can fight with other Jews over here, I can have a playful kind of argument with Gentiles, which is sometimes savage and sometimes not. And yet at the same time I feel that I’m completely gripped by your argument, that the proper place for Jews – because you say that too, essentially, no value judgments made – is Israel.
ABY: With all the difficulties, with all of the decisions, with all of the moral decisions, you cannot just escape this.
DJ: Why is it that whenever Israel is discussed, and here we are talking very much about Israel as a cultural phenomenon, as a literary thing as well, that the very existence of Israel seems to be questioned? I mean, we don’t question French literature, we don’t question Russian literature, English literature, and yet somehow Israel is always seen in this provisional way, as though it might not be there next year. How do you live with this feeling that the rest of the world is not treating Israel in the same way as any other country, as a normal country?
ABY: The way in which we are under question is first of all because there is another option of Jewish life and after 2,000 years people ask, “Why do you have to be in Israel?” You see Jews around the world, they are living there quite happily and there is no threat of the Holocaust being repeated. So the Jewish Diaspora is the first threat to our existence. The second thing, of course, is that the Palestinians don’t want to forgive the injustice. They want to make peace with you, but they want a just peace. Not a compromise, but a just peace, and the question of justice is affected by the things you’ve done to us. Even by your existence, by your coming to us – not as the Jews, because if you were Norwegian it would be the same thing, and the hostility against the Jews as Jews developed afterwards – but because you have come and taken a bit of our land.
And people don’t forget. You know how many wars are fought for a bit of land – Alsace-Lorraine, Kosovo. So there must be a time for the whole world to come to the Palestinians and to the Israelis and to say: the 1967 borders, this is the only thing recognised. Don’t touch anything of the Palestinians. We’ll make an offer of peace that will be protected by us. The Arab League’s proposition is a very good proposition, too.
HJ: You’re talking now, Abraham, about what might happen. But the question was about existence, wasn’t it? About why there is now an attack on Israel’s very existence – that’s the new move.
ABY: Because from the beginning the existence of the Jews in Palestine was a question mark by itself.
HJ: But what’s clear now, in the questions that are raised all the time – will the Jews have a right to be there? Does Israel have a right to be there? Will it exist? Will it go? I see, more and more, almost declared now by a lot of people in this country, a longing for Israel not to be. This saying it might not exist, this danger of existence, is a way of saying, “we wish it not to be”. And some at least have got the nerve to come out and say, pretty well, “we wish it not to be”. “We wish it away”. It’s as close to saying, “we wish the Jews away”. In fact one of the things that Israel has enabled people to do, enabled anti-Semites to do – and there are lots of anti-Semites, even ones that don’t know it – is say that Israel and Jews are not the same thing. Forgetting that one bleeds into the other, they now don’t have to say “we wish the Jews away”, because they’ve got another final solution: wish Israel away.
ABY: We had the benefit at the beginning that the anti-Semites were against the Jews but pro-Israelis. Now it is the reverse: they are for the Jews but against Israel. They cannot attack the Jews after the Holocaust, it is impossible to speak against the Jews, and say that the Jews are doing all these things. So it is diverted to Israel.
HJ: And they’re already preparing for when they’ve finished with Israel, to deal with the Holocaust. They’re whittling away at the Holocaust and they’re doing more than that with Israel. And one day, if they have their way, whoever they are, these people, there will be no Holocaust either. No Holocaust. No Israel. No Jews.
ABY: You are very pessimistic. I hear it from time to time, but I’ve never met an anti-Semite in my life, I’ve never had a real anti-Semite in front of me. If you know one, give them to me and I would like to speak to them.
HJ: I have a tame Holocaust denier I could introduce you to. You would be beguiled by her company. You’d be surprised at how much biblical knowledge she has. I tell you how you know the anti-Semites or the Holocaust deniers (who are of course just anti-Semites by another name) – you will know them because they know more about the Jewish religion than you do. As soon as you meet one of those, and think, by God they’ve got a lot of quotations, by God they know everything about Jews – then that’s what they are. And what cheers me about all this, is that your true anti-Semite, like your true Holocaust denier, is doomed to a kind of Dante-esque hell of living among Jewish things, Jewish books, Jewish artefacts. You can see them in the library, they’ve got the Talmud up here, and they’re burrowing away to find more and more evidence against the Jews. Few Jews live a more perfect scholarly Jewish life.
ABY: You know what the solution is? This you have to read. I will send you my essay “The Continuation of the Zionist Revolution”. It will happen when we definitely separate religion from nationality and when among the Jewish people there are Christians and Muslims. It can be done here and in Israel already we have non-Jews, Christians, who are part of the Israeli nation like you are part of the British nation. But we need to extend the normality to its end, like it was in the First Temple, when people who worshipped pagan gods were part of the Jewish nation. When we go further than this, then you will see people – not Arab Muslims, but Christians and Muslims like we have now Christians coming from the ex-Soviet Union – as part of the Israeli nation, this will be a confusion that the anti-Semite will not know how to deal with.
HJ: : It’s wonderful, it’s a wonderful dream, and of course you’re right – that can only happen in Israel. That’s a luxury that Jews can’t have outside Israel.