Joshua Sobol on the Suicidal Tendency of Judaism

Playwright and author fears Jewish fanaticism could turn his grandchildren into refugees.

Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

How are you?

Relatively all right.

Why relatively?

Relative to the state of the country.


We’re on a plane whose pilots are suffering from vertigo. They think they are soaring, but actually they’re plummeting toward the ground at dizzying speed. Which usually ends in disaster.

How do you see the disaster?

I see that the nations of the world want to take action against us. They’ve already begun to hint at what they want to do: Ambassadors will be recalled, then trade agreements will be canceled; perhaps additional sanctions in the guise of a demand for Israelis to obtain visas to visit Europe, up to imposing a real boycott against the country. There have been such cases.

During my most recent visits to England and the United States, I heard very harsh criticism of Israel. We’re not really aware of it, that world Jewry is already on the verge of not identifying with Israel. And here they’re encouraging complacency, on the deck of the Titanic.

How do you understand that?

I have long been of the opinion that Judaism has a very strong suicidal tendency. We’ve already managed to do it twice.

Is there an alternative to the present leadership? What do you think, for example, of Shelly Yacimovich or Yair Lapid?

Yair Lapid declared that [Yesh Atid] is a party of people for people. Which is like saying nothing for nothing. There’s no definition there. “We’ve come to change.” To change what? There’s a flight here from thinking that involves commitment. What exactly do you want to change? Just throw some people out of the Knesset and bring in others who will warm the same seats?

I also have something against the young people who joined the Labor Party and are now remaining silent. They were scolded by the kindergarten teacher and they don’t dare open their mouths because she won’t give them a part in the Hanukkah play. Those people have to make themselves heard, to say what their peace program is. And they’re refraining from that entirely, and by doing so helping the right to sweep up the votes.

Who’s to blame for the fact that nobody is willing to make commitments? Or is it because nobody will say anything definite that no leader is arising here?

I think, as Marx said in his day, that the situation determines awareness, and we’re in a situation of an occupying nation that is ruling over another nation and profiting from it. The settlers are living and benefiting at the expense of another people. People say to themselves, “What’s wrong?” They pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Anyone who is located west of the Green Line and votes for the right is, in effect, giving his vote, money and taxes to those living east of it. That’s the division. We’re living in a sectocracy; each sector takes as much as it can. The settlers’ sector has managed to dominate the consciousness, the coffers and everything Israel can place at its disposal.

Do you think it’s hopeless?

No. I think there will be a very difficult crisis, which is already in the offing, because the world is tired of the threat that a war will break out in the Middle East and set the entire planet on fire. If I were English or French or American, I wouldn’t be willing to have my life threatened because of some stinking hill east of Jerusalem. It’s clear to me that that’s how they see it, and they’re right. They understand very well that Israel can exist in complete security within its borders. The world is tired of serving the interests of 300,000 or 400,000 people who are driving the whole world crazy.

Our leadership doesn’t seem to be impressed by international public opinion.

I don’t know. They mobilized 70,000 reservists and didn’t do anything with them, because they received an ultimatum. That’s clear. That’s why Operation Pillar of Defense was concluded without results.

Look, the left has never really ruled the country, but it did succeed in changing things. In the final analysis, we reached the point where an Israeli prime minister stood on the White House lawn and shook the hand of [the late Palestinian Authority Chairman] Yasser Arafat. And now we’re in a similar situation. A situation of stagnating and foot-dragging, until they force us to recognize the Palestinian state, and we conduct peace negotiations with it. It will happen. There’s no escaping it.

Have you ever thought of leaving the country?

The truth is that sometimes I have. But I can’t permit myself to do so. It’s not logical, what I’m saying now. Logic says, what do you have here? You see they’re pulling you in the direction of disaster. But so much has been invested here that it’s impossible to abandon it. To give up now. To get out of here.

Oy vey! I really didn’t mean to bring you to tears.

That’s all right. Leaving means to leave all this activity being carried out by irresponsible people that will bring certain destruction. That’s the only reason I’m staying here. And just because I belong to a minority, a minority in which every voice is important, I feel a responsibility.

What else ties you here? Your family?

I have a wonderful family. But that’s not it.

So what is “it”?

First of all, I’m an atheist. All the justifications for our being here because of God’s will are worthless. So I have to explain to myself why I’m here.

And what do you tell yourself?

That this place, in the final analysis, saved my parents’ families. They were saved thanks to the fact that they were Zionists. My mother’s family fled from the pogromists in 1922, and my father’s family immigrated from Poland in 1934 because they realized that the ground was burning beneath their feet and they had to get out of there. So the tie to this place is actually historical – because my parents were atheists like me. What they did: building a place that saved them and saved their lives, and I feel obligated to continue what they did.

A tie of gratitude.

Yes. You could say that. And I’ll tell you something else. I think we have an obligation to prove that there can be Judaism that isn’t cannibalistic and barbaric and racist. It’s a battle, in effect, to rescue Judaism from the hands of those who are devouring it. When they say that “thy destroyers ... shall go forth from thee” [Isaiah 49:17], I see the people who presume to carry the banner of Judaism, and in my opinion are its destroyers. And I see the task of people like me as rescuing Judaism from them, proving that it doesn’t have to be Teutonic barbarism.

You know, I remember a statement of yours from a few years back you said that you don’t feel at home anywhere.

I’m the type of person who can be anywhere, but no place requires me to be in it. I do 90 percent of my work outside Israel. The international success of my plays enables me to live there. I’ve already tried it. I lived in London for four years. “Ghetto” was a huge success at the National Theater; I had loads of offers, I received prizes. At the end of that period in England they asked me, “Do you want a British passport?” I said no. They looked at me as though I were crazy.

This uprootedness you describe is related to another of your statements. That you’re alone in the world. Do you still feel that way?

Yes. You’re born alone and you die alone. No one will do it instead of you.

And beyond the philosophical aspect? Why do you think you feel alone?

Because of what happened with my father, in whom I really believed. He was very strong – both physically and in his character – and he suffered an attack of depression and had a breakdown when I was 8 or 9 years old. Suddenly I understood that there is no one to depend on. I remember it as though it were today; it’s a formative experience of my life: that my father is a human being, he isn’t superior; he’s a weak man, with every possible weakness and with all his strong points he had a lot of strong points and that’s that. I can’t depend on him to stand between me and desolation. And today, too, nobody stands between me and desolation, I stand exposed before it and that’s that.

Seeing your parents in their weakness, that’s the most painful milestone of growing up.

True. Afterward I was drawn to existential philosophy.

Of course.

Of course, because that’s what provided the explanation of why I feel so alone in the world. I understood one thing: freedom obligates you to responsibility. If you’re a free man and you have no God, you’re responsible for everything for yourself, for what you convey to others, for the human race. That’s the source of my willingness to fight with my meager strength against this murky wave that is washing over us.

What do you regret?

Not encouraging my parents to talk more before they passed away. And they died when I was relatively young. I never really talked to them. I was unable to get them to talk, and apparently I gave up. And that bothers me.

How do you understand the decline in the status of the left?

I see it from the direction of my work in the theater. Theater is an art that expresses what’s happening in the soul of society. Ibsen, Molière, Shakespeare – they all confronted all kinds of social struggles. In our present situation, in the theater we should be shouting out loud. Ringing a warning bell, rather than serving up denial and repression. Something very bad is happening in our theater. Every evening the auditoriums are full, and the audience receives entertainment or boredom.

The theater managements don’t initiate materials that will confront the audience with our situation. On the contrary. They prefer to keep recycling. I think it’s not right. In the Israeli theater, when there were plays that demanded a certain level of thinking and confrontation from the audience, the audience did respond.

Isn’t that a somewhat naive or remote perception of the theater? Does theater really have such a role?

And how! It depends how it sees itself. If it sees itself as a provider of entertainment, whose objective is to get as many backsides on seats as possible, that’s one thing.

Isn’t that the situation now?

Yes. That’s the situation, and it’s a very bad situation: when culture no longer reflects what’s happening beneath the surface. We are people who are walking around with diseases and don’t want to know about it. That’s how our society lives in a state of denial, repression and an unwillingness to know. But we live in a very dangerous neighborhood.

Instead of being sensitive to this danger of the Arab countries, we’re in denial. Ehud Barak talks about a villa in the jungle. I claim that it’s not a villa in the jungle; it’s an idiot in the jungle. Barak is considered a great analyst, and I think his thinking is very simplistic.

He’s mainly cut off. He has no idea how it feels down here. In the streets.

True. In material terms, I know what my parents were able to give me, and what I can give my children. I no longer know what they’ll be able to give their children. There’s a middle class here that denies the fact that a very, very gloomy future is in store for them. And it’s a foolish middle class, which is unwilling to open its eyes and see that it’s sliding into poverty. There’s no question about it.

And that is also related to the role of the left. The left is supposed to function as the body’s nervous system. The nervous system is a minority in the body. It’s almost weightless. But without it, the entire body is worthless. It warns of dangers. While the right is fat and muscle, the left is the nerves. And that’s our role here. Sometimes a nerve wants to be a muscle, but it can’t be. It has to remain a nerve.

The leftist wailing has already become a cliché. They whine more than they act; they wonder more than they decide and move.

I always try to be active. I’m far from young, but I don’t give up. I try to be active in every area I can in education, in my membership in Meretz whatever they call on me to do, I do. I also write for 10 hours a day.

Every day?

Every day. This morning I got up at five.

You often write about the soul, but you do so in a very rationalistic way. Your thinking is analytical, based on the intellect. Where’s the emotion?

You’re asking about emotion in my life? Your question as to whether I would be willing to leave the country simply destroyed me.

You touched on a place where today I’m in conflict with myself.

You have tears in your eyes now, too.

Now too. Yes. I’ll tell you why. Because I’m fearful for the fate of my children and grandchildren, and I wouldn’t want Jewish fanaticism to turn them into refugees of a disaster.

Do you think your perspective has changed with age? Have you softened?

Very much so. Today I live in a perspective of several years ahead five? Ten? I feel that death is walking alongside me. I see friends of mine who are no longer with us. That feeling strongly reinforces the temporary nature of existence, that profound feeling of the extent to which we are all here on borrowed time, and how easily life can be destroyed.

My grandchildren, delicate creatures, still don’t know what kind of world they have come to. And the question that penetrates deep is what did we do? What are we leaving them? I’ll get a handkerchief.

It’s very good that you moved me. I ask myself if I’ve done enough to leave a safer, more humane place.

Better than what you had?

Like what I received.

And what did you receive?

In the village where I grew up, Tel Mond, there was no atmosphere of arrogance and supremacy, there were good relations with the Arab villagers. It was a very humane society. We can be different. And this country can be different. And it all stems from the attitude toward the other.

Levinas based his entire philosophy of ethics on the attitude toward the other. The commandment “Thou shalt not murder” is not written only in the Tanakh, but on the forehead of the other. We have deteriorated. We’ve become a society that is hard as stone. How easily we kill. Our mirror is Hamas. If we want to see how we look, we have to look at Hamas.

Because we created it.

We created it. That golem. We’ve created a Palestinian society that mixes chauvinism and religion, that demands rights over the entire country in the name of religion, and that is based solely on force. And inside it is cruel, just as we would like to be, but we still have some inhibitions.

Verbal violence within Israeli society, if I look at the [Internet] talkbacks and the right’s statements against the left: it’s a violent language, just like dragging bodies in the streets of Gaza. When I saw that picture I said, “I’m looking in the mirror.” What they’re doing to their brothers, that’s in effect what we’re doing to them.

Joshua Sobol.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Sobol's living room.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Sobol's living room.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Sobol's living room.Credit: Ilya Melnikov



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Election ad featuring Yair Lapid in Rahat, the largest Arab city in Israel's Negev region.

This Bedouin City Could Decide Who Is Israel's Next Prime Minister

Dr. Claris Harbon in the neighborhood where she grew up in Ashdod.

A Women's Rights Lawyer Felt She Didn't Belong in Israel. So She Moved to Morocco

Mohammed 'Moha' Alshawamreh.

'It Was Real Shock to Move From a Little Muslim Village, to a Big Open World'

From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid's Journey: From Late-night Host to Israel's Prime Minister