Israeli Culture, Jewish Culture, and the Future

By A. B. YEHOSHUA

The following is excerpted from the address Mr. Yehoshua presented at the 2003 Koret Jewish Book Awards ceremony held at the Harvard Club of New York on April 7th, 2003.

I think we all agree that the last two and a half years have been most difficult for everyone. By 'everyone,' I mean the population of Israel as well as Jewish communities all over the world. As one who tries to be aware of history and to maintain a sense of proportion, I know, of course, that there have been far more dangerous and difficult periods than the past two years in Jewish and Israeli history, particularly in the last century. However, these two years presented a new difficulty, leaving us with the taste of a saddening withdrawal from things we felt we had achieved It is this sense of regression that has created the atmosphere of malaise now so prevalent in Israel and the Jewish world. An atmosphere felt by leftists, rightists, the secular and religious, Zionists and non-Zionists.

Two and a half years ago there was a clear feeling that we were close to the end of the bitter conflict with our neighbors the Palestinians, a conflict that has lasted for over a hundred and twenty years. Then suddenly, we were landed with an incomprehensible, violent, and suicidal refusal on the part of the Palestinians that pushed both sides into a brutal, fierce and bloody confrontation which swept the entire Moslem and Arab world venomously along with it, with renewed threats of Israel's annihilation, threats that are not entirely unreal in a world of terror and unconventional weapons. In the Western world, the old-new anti-Semitism is reviving and, apart from varying assessments of its strength and prevalence, it has succeeded in raising old and new ghosts and seeks to question the actual justice and legitimacy of a State for the Jews, a legitimacy we have long regarded as absolute and decided.

Where do these new developments leave Jewish culture and the wealth of its manifestation in the sciences, the arts and research in Israel as well as abroad? Has Jewish culture met its obligation to correctly evaluate new realities? Does it contribute enough to Jewish insight to enhance their perception of themselves in the current conflict? Does it still expect to have the moral authority to examine and assess Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora?

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Every national culture has at least two components, in my opinion. The main component is essentially explanatory and attempts to be an exact, true expression of national life in all branches of research and the arts. The second component is often below the surface, more secret and woven into the first. I would call it the value component, in which the national culture judges the national reality by moral criteria, predicts its course, and also attempts to direct the national and human society to more worthy goals. Culture, in the classical sense of the word, means change and improvement. Therefore, as I see it, national culture is not tested only on its achievements and level of expression, but also on its ability to correctly discern the diseases, the subterranean streams within the national reality, in order to give warning of lurking dangers.

We are all familiar with the mighty achievements of German culture in research and the arts over the last three hundred years, achievements which have won much admiration throughout the world. In retrospect, however, it has become clear to all of us that this magnificent German culture had many blind spots, many weaknesses and distortions, which prevented it from immunizing the Germans against the Nazism that brought down horror and destruction on the world and, ultimately, on themselves.

Did the splendid Russian culture of the nineteenth century do enough to predict (and perhaps warn and immunize) the nation against the murderous dictatorship that would be born in its midst in the twentieth century? Did the pastoral tea drinking and idle chatter of Chekhov's characters at the beginning of the century contain an early, correct awareness of the Stalinist terror that would erupt some twenty five years later?

Doesn't the inclination to addictive violence in America's high culture further legitimize the elevated level of violence in American life compared to other Western cultures, and call for penetrating moral clarification?

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[With the creation of the State of Israel,] as Gershom Scholem said, we returned to history. All at once, a totally new Jewish reality was created, with its own clear borders, in which everything was Jewish, at least in the first nineteen years of its existence. The territory, the language, the army, the police, the framework of life and, above all, sovereignty and responsibility. Israelis were no longer required to concern themselves with the question that had so preoccupied Jews in the Diaspora, the question of the borderline between them and the non-Jewish reality into which they had joined. Such as: in what were they Jewish and in what were they French, what was French in their Jewishness, how integrated were they and how were they different, etc. The Israeli questions were, from the start, the deep and difficult questions of life itself. Starting with a Jewish answer to the level of unemployment payments, prison conditions, public sector salary policy, and the distribution of resources, questions of attitudes to minorities and foreign workers, the question of the legitimacy and limits of torture in order to extract important security information and, of course, battle morality and government policy.

Israeli culture, in all branches of research and the arts, is expected to describe, judge, respond to and, if possible, direct it all.

In the first years of statehood, when American or European Jaws would visit Israel, they would wonder if Israeli culture was actually Jewish. When they strolled the streets of the big cities, listened to the music, saw Israeli movies and read translations of Israeli novels, they doubted if they could identify what they regarded as "Jewish" characteristics; types of neurotic emotions and anxieties, memories of anti-Semitic traumas accompanied by attempts to conceal or struggle with one's identity, etc. As if only such things could be considered to be Jewish, whereas a Jewish architect designing a building with pleasure on the Sabbath is not living the Jewish experience.

However, Israeli culture, which is total Jewish culture by definition, is expected to cover everything, to use a range of tools and various aesthetic forms whether realistic or naturalistic, surrealistic or abstract to ponder the whole of life around it. Just as everything done in the framework of America, by Americans, is American by definition. And nobody will say that Raymond Carver is less American than Faulkner, or that Thomas Pynchon is not as American as Hemingway. Americanism was created the moment the American framework was created and George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, whose American identity was so young and delicate in terms of years, are in no way less American than Clinton or Bush.

Even religious Israelis despite the fact that, with their sidelocks, beards and mode of dress, they strongly resemble their brothers in Brooklyn or Antwerp - are expected to significantly broaden their religious Jewish world and give answers to questions they had never before been asked as Jews. For example, in order to wipe out a dangerous terrorist in a residential building, is it legitimate from a religious point of view to kill innocent citizens in the surroundings? Is it or is it not right to sell arms to non-democratic regimes in Africa in order to prevent unemployment in the Israeli arms industry? And so on and so forth.

All this broadened and stimulated Israeli culture, which has pervaded Jewish life as a whole without losing touch (like other national cultures) with the regenerative mood and style in the salons of world culture. Israeli culture has earned the objective esteem and acknowledgement of many big and small nations by virtue of its problematical vitality as well as its close contact with new developments in the world of research and the arts.

By comparison, Jewish culture in the Diaspora is facing the contraction of its natural sphere of life in some respects. The borderline between Jews and non-Jews is becoming less dramatic and conflictive in these multicultural times, when 'foreigners' are becoming a natural part of society and the migration of Jews is no longer considered an emotionally loaded experience, compared to the migration of Africans and Asians who come from far greater cultural distances. Since the Middle Ages, the Jews have been and still are experts in globalization and the crossing of borders, which further dulls and confuses the self-identity of Jews who have not anchored themselves in a territory that is clearly Jewish and in a distinct linguistic identity. Secularization and the abandonment of religion are not dramatically emotional these days, when the orthodox religious run international businesses. Historical forgetfulness plays its part and assimilation continues to gnaw with all its might. In spite of Jewish research and study activity in universities and research institutes, encouraged by funds donated by rich Jews who still believe that study will commemorate them more effectively than anything else, there is and excuse me for saying so a feeling that Jewish culture in the Diaspora, particularly in the arts, has recently been working within a steadily diminishing Jewish reality.

But also Israeli culture, in all its wealth of activity, pressured and squashed in the tangle of existential problems, seems chaotic and bewildered of late, moving between virtual postmodernism inspired by affluent society in New York or Berlin and blood and land struggles of the most primitive kind. Out of this confusion has arisen recently a discernible weakening of the moral and historical compasses that guided us not so long ago. Anyone daring to state, even wishfully, that the State of Israel will be a 'light unto the nations,' will be considered an absolute fool.

And here I come to the bottom line of my reflections: Is it possible to refresh the connection between Babylon and Jerusalem with new content? What can Israeli culture give to the Diaspora and vice versa? What conditions must exist for this mutual giving to have validity?

On the one hand, Israeli culture can bring a living, complex reality, endless problems, real fears, dramatic situations and moral dilemmas to Jewish art and culture in the Diaspora. If Jewish intellectuals and artists in the Diaspora would feel it necessary to acquire even partial knowledge of the Hebrew language, the way intellectuals until the twentieth century felt it necessary to master Latin, their contact with Israeli culture would be infinitely more alive, rich and real than it now is through English, which, however international, cannot serve them as a true, inner language of communication with Israeli reality.

On the other hand, Diaspora Jewish culture can reinforce historical awareness in Israel culture, can from time to time remove it from present turmoil and give it a historical perspective, whether general or specifically Jewish. It could also attempt to dissolve the trap of the mythical thinking and identity to which Jews are attracted, and try to exchange it for historic thinking, which always sees the other person and believes in change.

The historical work being done in the Diaspora must therefore be strongly reinforced in both research and the arts.

Last but not least: moral sensitivity, the moral testing of what is being done in Israel. Western Jews born and educated in countries where democracy is established, where human rights, concern for the welfare of the individual and equal opportunities grow and widen over the years, Jews who have internalized good values and defend them, as individuals and as a national minority, must be more sensitive to what has been happening lately in Israel. They have every right to influence and strengthen the awareness and moral sensitivity that have been severely weakening in Israeli culture over the last two years.

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Culture, in research and certainly in the arts, has both the strength and the obligation to overcome boundaries and limitations. It has the right to express opinions on everything, on condition that it does so from knowledge and responsibility.

Homo sum: humane nihil a me alienum puto: I am a human being and nothing that is human is alien to me, said the Romans. All the more so among us, Jews and Israelis. If we wish to nurture one another, to strengthen one another, we must do so out of equality and trust and not out of vagueness and evasion. We must dare to touch upon the big, difficult questions about the essence of our identity and how we conduct ourselves in history, without fearing what others on the outside will say about us. These bad days have placed a double obligation on us.