I have great respect for Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua; I have enjoyed many of his books immensely, and benefited greatly from conversations with him. But I disagree with him about what it means to be Jewish and the relationship of Jewishness and Israel. In particular, I take issue with his claim that Jews who do not live in Israel are, as he lately said, partial Jews. I disagree not in order to be nice and politically correct towards Jews in the US or elsewhere in the Diaspora, but because I diverge from A.B. Yehoshua's conception of human identity in general, not just in terms of Jewish identity.
Pessach is the Jewish holiday defined by the transition from slavery to freedom; this is therefore a good moment to ask whether we should accept A.B. Yehoshua's thesis that to be free as a Jew you have to live in Israel. This seems to be implied by several statements in which he described Jewish Diaspora existence as neurotic and incomplete.
"They are partial Jews while I am a complete Jew," Yehoshua said, referring to American Jewry. "In no way are we the same thing -- we are total and they are partial; we are Israeli and also Jewish. In recent years, my friends and I have needed to defend Israel against the matter of the state, as if it is merely an issue of citizenship, while Israel is the authentic, deep concept of the Jewish people ... in no siddur is there a mention of the word 'Jew' but only 'Israeli.' The name of our country and the territory is Land of Israel -- and it is about this deep matter that we must defend against a Jewish offensive."
I have a fundamental problem with the notion of "the authentic, deep concept of the Jewish people" or any other people for that matter. I assume that A.B. Yehoshua, whose worldview is liberal, would never say that there is only one way to be fully French, a woman, Christian or Muslim. So why should that be different for Jews? Would A.B. Yehoshua see anything partial in the life and identity of Danny Cohn Bendit, who was one of the leaders of the 1968 student uprising?
Cohn Bendit is a French-born son of a German-Jewish writer who today serves as a member of the European parliament for the Green party. As I know Cohn Bendit, he would look at any claim that he is a "partial" French, German or Jew as anachronistic; he would not accept the claim that he needs to commit to one of these identities completely, and that he is not free to define his identity by his own preferences. I think that he lives a very authentic and productive life and contributes enormously to European politics.
I personally do not know what it means to be a complete or a partial Jew; moreover, I reject any demand that I need to live a full rather than a partial Jewish existence. This is a demand that many orthodox Jews (even though by no means all) feel entitled to make. I am sure that A.B. Yehoshua rejects their definition of 'full Jewishness.' But why should his own definition of 'full Jewishness' as living in Israel have any more claims to legitimacy than that of the ultra-orthodox or the national-religious that you cannot be a full Jew outside Orthodox Judaism?
There is in Yehoshua's argument also an ethical claim: that an authentic way of living needs to be connected to a particular national or national-religious collective; that any way of life that is not defined by a historically rooted narrative in national or religious terms is shallow or inauthentic.
This is precisely where I disagree completely, along with thinkers like Indian-British Economist and Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen and Ghana-British-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. They have in important writings argued for a position called "reflective individualism," and please bear with me for a brief foray into philosophy.
A human being can be a woman, black-haired, a lover of French cuisine, a social activist, an economist, French, a tennis player, Christian and a fan of Apple products a member of the Green Party and European. Reflective individualism claims that she has the right to choose which of these (and many other characteristics) are most definitive of her identity.
Reflective Individualism rejects the idea that a French co-national could tell this woman that she is inauthentic and just a partial French if, for example, she feels that being a European social activist is most central to how she lives, and to what matters to her. Similarly, it would reject the claim of a Christian that she is a partial Christian because she does not feel that Christianity plays a deep role in her life; or the claim that she is a partial or incomplete woman because she doesn't put motherhood in the first place of her self-definition, even though she takes her parental responsibilities seriously.
The core of classical liberalism is that humans have the right to determine their identity. This does not mean that we can invent who we are: all of us have been born into particular families and ethnicities; and we are, mostly, citizens of one particular country. But we have the right to determine, what meaning and weight we give each of these determinants in shaping our lives and what matters to us.
I live in Israel by choice, in the same way as I have chosen to leave Orthodox Judaism behind and to live as a secular humanist. Orthodox Jews of course criticize the latter choice as a betrayal of the Jewish people and of history. In discussions in the media, they ask me to this day in what sense I am Jewish. As a matter of principle I refuse to answer this question, because its subtext is that I am not a "complete Jew," or that I am required to put my Jewishness into the center of my existence, identity and choices. In the same way I think that Jews who live in the Diaspora have the right to refuse the question how they can be complete Jews. Israel's mission is to give Jews a place where they can be safe, and free for cultural self-expression; but Jews as individuals must also be free to choose whether this is the collective to which they want to contribute.
The achievement of the classical liberal tradition is precisely to give individuals priority over the collective -- all collectives; and I see no reason why the Jewish collective should be different than any other in this respect. To move from Slavery to freedom in 2012 does not mean to accept any exclusive definition of what full Jewish existence can be. The claim that Jews must make any other aspects of their identity subservient to their Jewishness belongs to a tribal notion of identity that we should leave behind.
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