I was pleased when famed Israeli author and iconic peace-camp patriarch A.B. Yehoshua agreed to a candid, filmed interview.
For more than two generations his vocal antipathy toward Israeli communities in Judea-Samaria/ the West Bank, known by most as settlements, has shaped much of his public persona. Fortunately, the recent shift in his political outlook is now paralleled by a fresh approach to the very nature of progressive dialogue. Though he chose not to deliver a presentation in Ariel, the Israeli consensus city farthest beyond the Green Line and deepest into disputed territory, he invited me – a “settler” – to his suburban apartment in Givatayim for a heart to heart. We met in preparation for the launch of TALK17, a series of weekly TED-style talks over the course of 2017.
This year marks 50 years since the Six Day War, which ushered in the current era of Israeli control over Judea-Samaria, and 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, marking the centennial of Western engagement in what would eventually become the Jewish state. Whereas both pro-Israel and anti-Israel advocacy groups see this year as an opportunity to further intensify their tired tactics, Yehoshua and I share a less traditional, more optimistic approach. Though our points of departure couldn’t be more disparate, our respective objectives converge at the point of innovative conversation.
I arrived at his home with the modest goal of discovering whether he had had a change of heart or of mind. Is his reconsideration of conventional two-state-solution wisdom motivated by a shift in his personal values and principles or by realpolitik calculations? I was encouraged at the prospect of uncovering thoughts and perspectives that are normally hidden beneath the veneer of geopolitical issues. It was his reference to “the malady of the Jews” that gave me a glimpse into the foundations of his worldview.
“The malady of the Jews,” he clarified, “is that they don’t see territory as part of their identity.”
He explained that, according to scripture and tradition, the Jews are a singular case of a people being created outside of their land. The Jews became a nation in Egypt and received the Torah not in Israel but at Mount Sinai. This puzzling historical account resulted in an irrational and dangerous disconnect.
It made way for the superiority of the divine directive in our people’s identity, at the expense of an attachment to a homeland. There were advantages to this national posture, allowing us to survive as a people for millennia despite an extensive Diaspora across civilizations, cultures and countries. There were also tragic disadvantages to our adaptability and relative sense of comfort on foreign soil, including, for example, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. For Yehoshua, a people without a land is an unnatural and highly undesirable situation.
Though we saw eye to eye in describing the abnormality of the Jewish condition, we differed in our assessment of “the settlements” as either a pathological symptom of that condition or as a long-awaited remedy. Yehoshua regards anything beyond internationally recognized Israel to be the land of another people, and the presence of Israeli communities there a classic example of Jews making themselves comfortable in a land that is not theirs. He is dismissive of Jewish historical ties to the land, driven instead to define borders based upon the realities of today. For Yehoshua, the departure from the two-state solution is merely a recognition of its impracticality; he sees partial Israeli annexation of disputed land and the possibility of a binational state as pragmatic alternatives to an overly protracted conflict.
Many Israelis living in Judea-Samaria consider Yehoshua’s policy reassessment music to their ears.
They are an admission of defeat, proof that the nationalist Zionist enterprise has succeeded. But I hadn’t come to Givatayim for tactical pragmatics; I came for meaningful dialogue. I was intrigued by the breadth of his critique, and drawn to further explore the very core of his concerns.
I began to address the moral underpinnings of the Jewish raison d’etre, but he interjected. I made a case for the fair representation of authentic Palestinians voices, but he saw the democratization of our counterparts as unrealistic and unnecessary. I tried digging deeper, but Yehoshua seemed disinterested in reexamining the roots of his position.
After generations of witnessing political theory come and go, he wants a solution, and he wants it sometime soon.
By listening attentively to one of the pillars of modern Israeli culture and allowing him to guide the discussion, I’m afraid that we exchanged an opportunity for genuine analysis with all-too-common references to endgame policies. We didn’t discuss whether the Jews’ reunification with the land of their heritage indicates that they are indigenous or colonialist, foreign or sovereign. We didn’t consider the possibility that an Israeli locale such as Ariel was established specifically to ensure that the Jewish state remains a defensible haven for a people that has nowhere else to go, thereby resolving, at least in part, the historic drawback of Yehoshua’s malady paradigm. Similarly, we did not address the question of what added value a Jewish presence in the region might present; in the long run, are we an awkward societal mismatch for our neighbors, or perhaps the bedrock of a sustainable model of coexistence? I thank Yehoshua for his sincerity and honesty, and appreciate the time that he dedicated to our first living-room chat. With an eye toward the next 50 years of Israel’s unfolding story, the world will eventually discover whether “settlements” and Zionism are modern expressions of a chronic Jewish malady, or, perhaps, the initial stages of an historic healing process. Whatever the long-term outcome, there’s something we can already agree about; 2017 is a year for surfacing these questions and developing a new, refreshing conversation about Israel.
The author is the executive director of American Friends of Ariel and the founder of TALK17