Hard Talk

The sensitivity we show, in a very profound way, in regard to someone who has been abducted, is much greater and much more pronounced than in their codes," writer A. B. Yehoshua offers an example to illustrate the sharp contrast he finds between Jews and Arabs.

They carry out abductions in order to get back prisoners who are in our jails.

"No, no, forgive me, but that's not why they abduct people."

So you're saying that we're more sensitive to human beings?

"We have our moral codes, for better and for worse, and they have their moral codes, for better and for worse. I'm not going to get into their system of codes now. They can send people to blow themselves up."

And we can't?

"No. I don't think that in the Holocaust, anyone would have said this to his son. And I'm not even talking about going to kill German children, but even going to blow yourself up among the German army that wants to kill you. We don't want to destroy them, and meanwhile they give out candies in Gaza. After they see that they killed children and old people, they give out candies?! Their suicide doesn't stem just from here. You see it in Iraq, you see it in all kinds of places. They're killing their brethren, they're killing their own people."

The truth is that he doesn't want to talk politics. Yehoshua implored us to devote the conversation to literature. But after 20 minutes, as we were sipping the espresso he made, he suddenly tensed and announced, of his own accord: "The thing that worries me most now, the real basis of my worry, is that the Arabs don't really want two states.

"And this has to be prevented," he adds. "We came here, Jews from Yemen, from Vilna, from France, from America, we gathered the remnant of the Jewish people after the Holocaust, we came here to live with ourselves, to see if we can live with ourselves. We don't need to enter into a symbiosis with the Arabs, just as we don't need to enter into a symbiosis with the Ukrainians or the Americans."

But why exactly is a binational state a bad thing?

"Because these are two completely different peoples - in religion, culture and language. These are two entities between which there is an economic abyss. Both are also tied to the outside - the Palestinians are tied to the Arab world and we to the Jewish world. A binational state is a recipe for the annihilation of the Israeli state."

As we were meeting in Givatayim, in the high-rise apartment building where he stays every weekend to be with his grandchildren, we suggested that he draw on his literary talents to imagine that in a binational state, a Palestinian family would be living in the apartment below. What would bother him then?

"On Yom Kippur," he quickly replies, "I couldn't force him not to take out his car or turn on the radio and all that kind of thing. It's his right to do that."

But you're secular.

"What does it matter? Yom Kippur is very important to me."

It's important to you that no cars be traveling outside?

"It's important to me that Yom Kippur should have a certain character - also within the Jewish community. It bothers me that I'm in a community, and this community has a character of its own, it has a memory of its own, it has holidays of its own, while the other has holidays and a character of its own. I think binationalism would eventually lead to destruction and a daily war everywhere because the core of identity would begin to be trampled upon. I think that what would happen is that Jews would flee from here and the Palestinians would come. So you're essentially totally destroying the fabric of life and the desire to even be a part of your community, of your state, your identity, your symbols. I have a lot of things in common with the moderate religious here in Bnei Brak."

Much more than with a Palestinian from Nablus?

"Certainly."

With people from United Torah Judaism you have more in common than with Mahmoud Darwish?

"Certainly. Mahmoud Darwish lives according to different Muslim codes. I'm not against them, I respect them."

Yes, but you're both secular intellectuals.

"But there are secular intellectuals in Cyprus and Greece, too. That's not the problem, the intellectualism. The problem has to do with the fabric of life and the foundations of the identity, with the flag. You'd first of all have to change the flag."

So the flag will be changed, is that so important?

"Gentlemen!"

Would another national anthem frighten you?

"Definitely. Another national anthem would frighten me."

We haven't yet lost hope

This week, Yehoshua's new book, "Ahizat Moledet" (Hakibbutz Hameuchad Press) is in the bookstores. It is a collection of essays he has composed and lectures he has given in the past few years. Some deal with his literary work, such as the article on his novel "Open Heart," in which he charmingly explains how one can write about India without having visited there. Another part deals with national issues: the attempt to solve the riddle of anti-Semitism, for instance, or Ehud Barak's request for forgiveness from Mizrahi Jews.

Yehoshua, 71, is a generous host. He pours the drinks, serves strawberries and nuts, permits his guests to smoke. He puffed on his last cigarette during the Six-Day War in 1967, when he swore never to take up smoking again until peace comes. He regrets that this won't be happening any time soon. For him, the crisis with the Palestinians began in 2000, he says, "after Clinton sat there for two weeks poring over every map and every village in order to finish the thing and Arafat came out with a crazy intifada. Now it's the job of the Arab League and of Europe to restore faith in the idea of two states for two peoples."

Among the explanatory material sent to us in anticipation of the interview, several corrections Yehoshua made by hand appeared to indicate something about the man who in 1976 called on Israel to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization. In one of them, he decided to remove the adjective "brutal," which had been appended to the word "occupation." "I don't know if it's a brutal occupation," he explains. "I crossed it out because, in my opinion, there is also a proportion to occupation. I'm not about to equate the occupation with Nazism. Look, there's one measure anyway. During four years of the second intifada, one of the most sophisticated and strongest armies is facing militias, and 4,000 or so Palestinians are killed and 1,000 or so Israelis. You want to say that this is Nazism? Nazis would have killed 4,000 in an hour! Things have to be put in a historical context, as they are, and to describe us as Nazis is totally filthy and despicable."

And what about our guilt? A few weeks ago, during President George W. Bush's visit to Israel, Yehoshua published an article in the Italian newspaper La Stampa in which he suggested that Bush recall the American ambassador in Israel for "consultations," in order to pressure the Olmert government to evacuate the illegal outposts. "I was just stunned," he explains. "For three years we've been promising to take down the unauthorized outposts. Arik Sharon said it, Olmert said that it's a disgrace. The outposts are unauthorized by Israeli law, it's not that America says they're illegal. So I say: You want to help us? Are you truly our friends? If you would exert some simple pressure, by means of the most minimal thing, recalling the ambassador for consultations, would have helped. Olmert isn't doing it and the government isn't doing it out of fear."

Fear of what?

"Of the settlers. We're getting into a situation where after the disengagement the right is making a threat, and by its logic, it can say as follows: You carried out the disengagement, you demolished settlements, overall everything went smoothly. But you think you can keep on with it? Look what happened - the Qassams keep on coming. But no one thinks about what happened before the Qassams, what happened during the four years of the intifada in Gaza: 40 people were being killed in a year. Families and soldiers were being killed there at a time when settlements and the army were there. You remember the soldiers who had to search for the body parts of the soldiers who were killed in their tanks?

"So the Qassams have to be dealt with in a radical way and we have to see what can be done about that, and I'm in favor of rationing electricity and fuel; and at the same time I'm in favor of a call for a mutual cease-fire with the Gazans. Soon, I and a group of writers are going to issue an appeal for a cease-fire, before there's a major operation and more blood is spilled on both sides. But it's impossible to say that our security situation has become intolerable and that when we were still there it was okay. But they say: Now you want to remove settlements in Judea and Samaria, in a place that's much more ideologically significant? We won't let you. And that's why the government is scared."

Yehoshua is concerned that it won't be possible to evacuate the settlers from the territories, not even with a final status accord. "There has to be a Jewish minority within the Palestinian state, since we're not going to start now uprooting Ofra and Beit El and all that. We'll propose to them and to the Palestinians: You want a state? We'll give you the maximum territory on condition that you also accept a Jewish minority within it. Like we have a minority of 20 percent, you'll have a minority of 2 percent, even less. I think that a disengagement now would just be so problematic. You saw what it was like to remove 8,000 settlers from Gaza, what sort of effort it required? And that was still somehow under Sharon's authority. Now you're going to go and uproot 200,000 Jews from Judea and Samaria? All kinds of other ways have to be found. Particularly, a solution in which Jews will be able to live as Palestinian citizens within a state of Palestine, and that would immediately solve the whole uprooting problem, which could turn into hell."

And is Olmert capable of this?

"I think so."

After his good friend, the writer David Grossman, in his speech on the eleventh anniversary of the Rabin assassination, denounced Olmert and company as a "hollow leadership," Yehoshua called him up to complain. "I love Grossman like a brother, but after that I said to him: You should know, Golda wasn't hollow, Dayan wasn't hollow, Sharon wasn't hollow. These were not hollow leaders and they did the biggest damage to the State of Israel, more than Olmert has done. Hollowness is not the problem."

He was taken aback when he found out a couple of weeks ago that Ehud Barak had no intention of bringing down the Olmert government. "The Labor Party wasn't responsible for the war? It wasn't a partner to it? Barak cannot say: It's all Olmert. The party had a defense minister, it was involved."

The defense minister was Amir Peretz, whom you strongly supported before the elections.

"Oh, what a terrible disappointment that was. A disappointment not because he was defense minister, but because he abandoned the social issue."

Why do you feel such an urgent need to publicly support politicians? In the most recent Labor primary, you called on people to support Ami Ayalon. Is this a kind of infantilism?

"Yes. I'm infantile. What can I say? It's really a lot of nonsense. But what would have been better - for me to support Barak?"

When you, Grossman and Amos Oz call for a cease-fire, as you did toward the end of the Second Lebanon War, do you really think anyone cares? Aren't you living in a bygone reality?

"I'm not sure. I know it was still a big deal. I think that part of this debate about the 60 hours was also built on our call then for it to stop. People say to me: 'You're up there in your ivory tower, you don't get involved.' Do you have any idea how many times I turn down requests for a statement? On the other hand, you say: You have a certain responsibility, you've acquired a certain popularity, so what are you going to do? Just sell books?"

At the start of the war, Yehoshua was squarely within the consensus, and supported the attack on Lebanon. "I definitely supported it. A military organization that doesn't control a state, that hoards thousands of rockets and declares that its objective is to destroy the State of Israel, abducts two soldiers, kills eight, unleashes a barrage of Katyushas. What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to do?!"

To hold back, to take it. Maybe that's part of the price you have to pay in this region.

"No, no. Not to just take it. No. Absolutely not."

But what came out of this war in the end?

"Good things came out of it overall. There's an international force situated on the border. So your army is weak? So you suddenly discovered serious problems with the army? Well, you can say: Fortunately, it was discovered during a limited war like this one. But the essence of the response is to say to the Lebanese government: Gentlemen, it's unacceptable that there is this organization that you don't control. I mean, you're sitting in Beirut and playing there in the casino and everything's very nice, you have these wonderful cabarets and everything, and here you also have this maniac organization. Just imagine if we were to say to the Arabs: Look, we're a peace-loving country, but we have this air force that's kind of crazy and every so often they take out their airplanes and fire at you?"

That's not symmetrical.

"Yes it is symmetrical. What is this? Either you take sovereignty or you don't take sovereignty. I ask the same thing of the Arabs that I ask of myself. Sovereignty, responsibility for the territory."

Don't you think Olmert should have quit after the war? Wouldn't that have helped our political culture?

"I think that if he would have up and quit, it might have helped. But does anyone think that the moment you get rid of a prime minister, who by the way was not responsible for the army, who received the army as a given, who was prime minister for just a few months and for whom the army was not his field of expertise, so the moment you get rid of him - do you think you've solved all the problems?"

Partial Jew, total Jew

In the past two years, Yehoshua has stirred the ire of diaspora Jewry, particularly in the United States and France, after he voiced a sharp distinction between them and the Jews who live in Israel. "I'm a total Jew because I live in Israel. You are partial Jews," he admonished them, and he repeats this assertion in his book.

What exactly do you mean when you cite this difference between the partial and the total Jew?

"The Jew in the disapora is essentially a free Jew, he's free from another Jew, while here we are ruled by Jews. Jews can send us to prison, and Jews send us to war, impose taxes on us, Jews evict us from our homes. All of these things that are completely new elements in the 2,000 years since the destruction of the Temple. I'm just saying: You are partial Jews on this level in which I contend with the totality of the reality and I am in a binding relationship among Jews, while you - no Jew can touch you, no Jew can impose anything on you, can compel you to do anything. It's all basically up to you. That's the point."

So you're not a partial Jew because you're not religiously observant, let's say?

"No, no, that has nothing to do with it. Jewishness is not connected at all to religion. Jewishness is a people. In the diaspora, too, they don't think that a Jew who is not religious is not Jewish. After all, the term 'Jew' is a term that connotes belonging to a people."

The Orthodox might not agree with you.

"I think they would agree with me, since in the end, they can tell me - You ought to do such and such, but an Orthodox Jew would never deny my essence as a Jew. I can go against all the religious precepts and he'll still tell me: You are a Jew. And if, after I've denied everything I should fall fainting at his feet and say, 'Help me,' he'll help me."

But he won't agree that you are a total Jew.

"Look, there are also people who will say: If you're not against the occupation, you're harming your Jewish soul. Or someone could say: If you're against Greater Israel, you're hurting Judaism. But these are all matters of will, it's not the same thing. The fundamental things are related here to the very framework of life, that we live together, that this is a binding framework, as with any other nation. If tomorrow you were to travel to Ecuador and fall into some canyon there, then I, with my tax money, am obligated to send a rescue team to save you. It's my duty, there's a binding system here, and this is a new thing, and it's what creates the totality of these things."

But, historically, without diaspora Jewry, it's not clear that your existence here would have been possible. The injection of funds during the 1950s, for example, was like vital oxygen at the time.

"It's possible that they really did help us a lot. What I'm saying is that if our entire existence is dependent on them, then it's an existence that is problematic at its core. We needed their help, because we made this state for them, too. Their contribution was not simply an act of kindness. They knew that this state, if they ever find themselves in trouble or want to come here, that this state will automatically open its gates to them, and from this perspective, this is just what my Zionism is."

Yet today this place is the least safe place for Jews. This is the paradox of Zionism.

"Is Bangladesh a safe place for Bangladeshis? This concept that the Jews are searching for a safe place for themselves is essentially a concept that stands in contrast to the basic concept of a homeland. I can tell you that in 60 years, 22,000 people have been killed here, which is about equal to the daily quota in Auschwitz. England wasn't safe during the Blitz, either. So does that mean you're going to say: England is not a safe place?"

Do you feel anger toward diaspora Jews? If your children were to decide tomorrow not to live here, to live abroad, would you be angry at them?

"I'll say one thing: If you go somewhere else, then identify with it fully. If an Israeli leaves Israel and moves to New York, then go ahead, now Harlem is your brother, you pay taxes to the Americans, you live with them, you're responsible for all the American issues. Take the Americans and identify with them completely."

Are you angry with some of American Jewry for their part in nurturing the settlements?

"Yes. I expected American Jews, who were raised on democracy, to know very well that the moment there are settlements here, it will eventually lead to an apartheid state. They should have naturally, as Americans, because of their democratic American identity, been against this thing. I was dumbfounded that they were so quick to give up on these democratic values. The problem is especially with liberal American Jews, who knew quite well that this was not okay and not good, but because they were so loyal to Israeli politics and the Israeli government, they subjugated their values for the sake of some kind of unconditional solidarity with the State of Israel."

The forgotten music

Two of the most important essays in the book deal with a subject Yehoshua has addressed in many of his novels: multiculturalism in general, and the encounter between "East" and "West" in Israeli culture in particular. While in the novels Yehoshua seems to deal with these subjects in a very original way, these essays are fascinating not because they contain such thrilling insights, but rather because of the contradictions and paradoxes encapsulated in them, contradictions and paradoxes that manage to capture the most profound questions of identity in Israeli society.

For example, Yehoshua makes frequent use of the terms "Western culture" and "the culture of the West," without it being precisely clear what their meaning is; he creates an equivalence between "Israeliness" and "Western-ness," but protests the cultural injustice done to "Mizrahi-ness"; and, above all, he evades the question of how the definition of Israel as part of "Western culture" affects its geopolitical situation, and also his personal life.

In your article about multiculturalism, you divide Israeli society into five subcultures: Palestinian, religious, Mizrahi, Russian and "the secular Israeli culture." Why don't you call the fifth subculture "the secular Ashkenazi culture"? Why is it just "Israeli"?

"The Israeli culture system is built upon the Western system, since most of the Jews who were here before the state's founding were what are called 'Western.' You have to understand something about the demography of the Jewish people: Until the Holocaust, 93 percent of the Jews were Ashkenazim, so to speak, in other words - Jews that came from Christian lands. This should really be the definition: Jews who came from Christian lands, as opposed to Jews who came from Islamic lands. If you take the Mizrahi element and make it the dominant one within your cultural system, or the religious element, or the Russian element, then you can talk about it as a separate element. They're all Israelis, but within Israeli culture, these groups have a uniqueness, an additional aspect that is found within that subculture and sets it apart."

What is your culture?

"My personal culture is Western culture. When it comes to music and art, it's Western culture that I'm connected to, as others are connected to it. When you talk about 'Ashkenazi-ness,' you're basically talking about Western-ness. And when we're talking about a Mizrahi, we're talking about someone who came from the Islamic lands. Which means, it is not Mizrahi versus Ashkenazi, but Mizrahi versus Western."

Do you personally think that Western music, say, is on a higher level? That Mozart surpasses Umm Kulthum?

"Without a doubt, when you get down to it, Western music is the more complex, the more important, but that doesn't mean that the other music should be denigrated."

In what way are you connected to Mizrahi culture?

"I'm connected to Mizrahi culture at a fairly low level. There are writers, most of all, whose work I like to read, like Sami Michael and Eli Amir, for example."

But you're also a "Mizrahi" writer.

"Not in the sense that you mean."

What's the difference between you and Sami Michael?

"He comes from those codes. I never knew those codes. I didn't know them, I didn't grow up in a Mizrahi society at all. I also studied at the Gymnasia, I went to school in Jerusalem, I lived within a typical Western system."

Your father was Sephardi, and your mother was born in Morocco.

"My mother's Moroccan roots were meaningless amid the reality she lived in. She lived in a society where the vast majority was Ashkenazi. She grew up in a Jerusalem that at the time was a Jerusalem that was not Mizrahi at all. There certainly were no Moroccans there. They spoke French. She read in French and was connected to French culture. Her whole life, she read books in French. As to your question, it's possible that she was embarrassed by it. At a certain point in her life, when she was identified with the other, supposedly lower, Moroccan groups, she may have been embarrassed by it."

So perhaps the Mizrahim were actually a lot more "Western" than the Westerners?

"In her case, yes, but not others."

And your father?

"He was an Orientalist, a mizrahan, as were many Ashkenazim. The entire group around him was mainly a group of Ashekenazim who came from Europe and who studied Arab culture. As an Orientalist he came into this business. By profession he was an Orientalist, and he came from a Sephardi background."

So when you write admiringly of Ehud Barak's request for forgiveness from the Mizrahim ("Sorry for the music that was taken"), where exactly are you situated between the two sides? Are you or your parents on the side that needs to ask forgiveness, or on the side from which forgiveness must be sought?

"I was the old Yishuv, I was the absorber, not the one who was absorbed. I absorbed the Ashkenazim, we absorbed Ben-Gurion. My father did."

On behalf of the absorbers, Yehoshua regrets, as noted, the fact that in the early days of the state, Mizrahi music was not given expression. "The Mizrahi culture should not have been disparaged and ignored, without working hard to persuade its owners to adopt another kind of music, too, out of free will," he says.

They should have gone to the transit camps with Beethoven and Chopin?

"You know what? If they had done that, then I think that maybe today you'd have less Shas."

What does what happened in the 1950s have to do with the birth of Shas?

"There's a direct line. If Arab culture, not necessarily Arab-religious culture, but Arab culture itself had received legitimacy within the fabric of Israeli culture back in the '50s and '60s, there would have been less regression toward Shas-style religiosity. If they had come with Arab culture from Morocco and Tunisia and these things had acquired status; if they had acquired power and a place within Israeli culture, there would have been less need for a regression to the religious components."

Beyond the peak

Yehoshua devotes one extensive article to the connection between the development of modern democracy and the novel and its decline during the 20th century. It's not a personal assessment, he says. He doesn't feel that his latest novels are less good than the earlier ones. "I'm talking about the weakness of the novel generally. If you could convey 10 novels from the 20th century to the 21st century, the 10 novels I'd take are from the first half of the century - Joyce, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Proust. You have these periods of literature that are just tremendous. Take French literature, for instance. Can you really tell me that in the past 50 years anything significant was created there on a par with what Balzac, Flaubert or Proust did?

"Personally, I think my novels are well-received, but it's totally clear to me that there are peaks I've already reached. The problem is not the peaks, the problem is what is the line of retreat - is it steep or not? Faulkner wrote all five of his great novels within a certain period, and you know what happened afterward. Here it's a struggle over each and every novel."

Do you feel that you're past the peaks now?

"I think that 'Mr. Mani' was a kind of peak that I'll never reach again. But you know what? That doesn't mean anything. As far as I'm concerned, I have to keep on and I'll write as long as I have something to write and a desire to write."

Are you writing another novel now?

"Yes, I have a desire to write more. But the problem is that every day you're measuring yourself against your past. With an artist, after the first stage of creativity, comes the second stage, when he's not yet completely self-aware but has already mastered the technique and isn't doing immature things like he did in the beginning. This is really the strongest period. Afterward, the self-awareness kind of messes things up."

Amos Oz reached a kind of peak with "A Tale of Love and Darkness." Is an autobiography something you would consider?

"In order to write an autobiography, there are two conditions: One, that you feel a tremendous self-importance and, two, that there was really some trauma. With Amos, there was the matter of the trauma with his mother."

And self-importance, too.

"Okay. And with me these two things are missing. I mean, I've had a pretty simple and harmonious life without any special troubles. There was no trauma, and I also don't consider myself that important."

Does the question of the Nobel Prize concern you?

"Why? Not at all. Fifty percent of the people who receive a Nobel Prize - you don't remember them. Tolstoy didn't receive a Nobel Prize, Joyce didn't get one, Kafka didn't get one, lots and lots of people didn't receive it. Come on, what is it, a halo that you put around your head? The real problem is my struggle for recognition here. Here."

Here in Israel - that's what's matters to you most?

"Yes, that's the most important."

If you didn't sell any more books here, but you sold all over Europe, that wouldn't be good for you?

"Here. Here. What they write about me in the 'Sefarim' book supplement [of Haaretz] is more important to me than five good reviews in The New York Times. Here, this it where it has to stay. In the National Library. That's the place that's important to me. For musicians and painters and so on, there is really more of an international system. But with us it's the national system that really judges us. No one knew Alterman or S. Yizhar outside of the country, but they are so significant in Israeli culture."

Are you the same person when you sit down to write an essay as when you sit down to write literary prose?

"There's a difference. There's a part of me that wants very badly to understand and to fix things. I have that from Zionism, which thought we could repair the Jewish people. A group that was just half a percent of the entire Jewish people established everything that we now have here. It's incredible. And they did it outside of the Jewish people. If the Zionist party had run in an election in the early 20th century, it would have received only 6 or 7 percent of the Jewish people's vote. A majority of the Jewish people was against this thing. They went ahead and made this project. There was something sort of omnipotent then that is still with us today. So I have this side that wants to understand and wants to change things, and therefore sometimes I also give advice on what to do with this or that, out of the feeling that it is possible to fix things. I believe in constant repairing. Maybe that's really the most fundamental motto for me, and in my self-definition as a leftist. This matter of anti-Semitism, which is really the heart of the story, is an attempt to understand this infrastructure that continually repeats itself. Not what the Jews are guilty of. The Jews aren't guilty. But within the structure of Jewish identity there's this thing that could have made such outlooks possible. And therefore I'm out to correct Jewish history, that's all. To correct it and not just to continue it."W