A.B. Yehoshua's Final Wish: Finish What the Occupation Started

The Israeli novelist, who passed away this week, was obsessed with the Zionist issue, right up until his final days. This is what he wanted me to tell former PM Benjamin Netanyahu

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An illustration of late Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua.
An illustration of late Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua.Credit: Aron Ehrlich
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

In my final serious conversation with Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua, who died Tuesday at 85, he expressed the desire to meet before his death with Benjamin Netanyahu and explain to him his last political will and testament. This was borne of the realization that the opposition leader was the only person in the current political system capable of understanding and relating to it, or parts of it, with all due seriousness.

He wanted to tell Netanyahu to loosen his grip on Diaspora Jewry and to concentrate his efforts on growing closer to the nations in the region. And in regard to the Palestinian problem, to implement a creeping annexation of the West Bank.

The meeting never took place, but the intention itself indicates how caring a person A.B. Yehoshua was, and how obsessed he was with the Zionist issue – which for him was never just a public relations shtick, unlike many of his peers both living and dead.

During that phone conversation, I didn’t want to believe that the days of my interlocutor were numbered as his passionate manner of speaking was completely unaffected. In fact, he eventually acceded to my request that he speak at a cultural evening, sponsored by Haaretz, that I was moderating in Tel Aviv.

MAN OF BOOKS: A.B. Yehoshua at his home in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It was a stormy winter day. The cabdriver sent to collect him from his house got stuck in a traffic jam and Yehoshua waited patiently for him on the sidewalk, bent over his walker. In the room adjacent to the one where he delivered his lecture, Galia Oz spoke about her memoir “Something Disguised as Love” – that terrible indictment of her father Amos Oz, the man who was perhaps Yehoshua’s closest friend. I asked him about the coincidence. He refused to say anything about the book or the scandal surrounding it.

I have no doubt he had strong views on Galia Oz and her father. If he didn’t express them aloud, it wasn’t for reasons of caution or tact, but because in a profound way these private matters didn’t interest him as long as they had nothing to do with the public matters with which he was obsessed – first and foremost, the future of the State of Israel and Zionism. To him, everything else was a distraction.

These issues are also ingrained in his writing, as he himself attested. I believe there isn’t a single sentence in his work that is not related to the urgent necessity for the Jews to jettison their exile mentality and truly practice their Zionism – something he thought had never really occurred.

His greatest and most sophisticated book, “Mr. Mani,” in which he reached his apotheosis as a writer, is a saga that describes the national fate as in an ancient history book, with each of the characters representing a sect to which parts of the Jewish people streamed to their destruction or redemption.

He later published in the Haaretz literary supplement the plan he had formed when he came to write “Mr. Mani” in the late 1980s. In general, he happily revealed the mechanisms behind his writing – as if to say that the work of a real writer is technical, but what makes it great is not tinkering with style or the narcissistic mannerism of the writing but its ideological and moral passion.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech at the Knesset, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In terms of passion, Yehoshua remained the same until the end. His penultimate novella “The Only Daughter,” which I particularly like, is set in Italy and warns of the absence of a way out, the absence of authenticity of the exile mentality and the exilic Jew – and is written with the same freshness with which he preached an identical message decades earlier in “Mr. Mani” and other novels.

One of the motives for writing this work (it is published in English later this year) was undoubtedly the trend of Israelis returning to Berlin and acquiring European passports, and deceiving themselves that they are Europeans who ended up in the Middle East by mistake.

I clearly recall Yehoshua’s friend, the late writer Yehoshua Kenaz, telling me when one of Amos Oz’s books was published: “Of the four of us [referring to Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, Yeshayahu Koren and himself], Buli [Yehoshua’s nickname] is the only one who really knows how to construct a novel. He’s in it for the long haul compared to us; we’re capable of writing short stories and stitching them into a novel later on.”

Nonexistent stairs

If there is a great artist to whom I would compare him, it is Jean-Paul Sartre, who devoted a large part of his mind to the idea of man’s authenticity and inauthenticity. Yehoshua imposed this idea on the Jewish people: the only authentic life for Jews is in the context of Zionism, he believed. The distractions of inauthenticity are numerous, and he had a single term for all of them – “the exile mentality,” which he considered a curse.

Another writer to whom I would compare him is Balzac, who, like Yehoshua in our generation, saw the novel as a tool for conveying social and moral messages, and wasn’t ashamed to expose the backdrop for his writing and the preparation and research that preceded it.

A.B. Yehoshua, center, with fellow writers David Grossman, left, and Amos Oz in 2006.Credit: Alon Ron

Yehoshua would consult experts in the fields he wrote about, and never concealed the fact. On the contrary: he only regretted that he didn’t consult them enough.

An interesting detail in this regard, which he talked about at every opportunity, is the opening scene to his novel “Five Seasons” in which the protagonist Molkho’s wife slips on stairs at the Berlin State Opera. Yehoshua invented those stairs and didn’t bother to check if there were actually any there – until he discovered that there aren’t any at the entrance to the new Berlin opera house. A German writer consoled him by saying, “There should be stairs there.”

I believe he also admitted to several medical errors in his 1994 novel “Open Heart” (aka “The Return From India” in Hebrew).

With that same unpretentious honesty, he once explained to a group of students I had brought to his home – shortly after the death of his beloved wife Ika in 2016 – that there is a peak and nadir in every writer’s life. A writer reaches their peak at that stage in their life when they stop being influenced by the styles of writers from earlier generations and develop their own voice. Later, for lack of choice, this voice becomes more rote and they write out of routine. In his case, he admitted, he reached his peak in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

With the same marvelous frankness, he confessed to the narrow horizons and the lack of any literary education that characterized the members of his generation until they came to study at university, where they became familiar with American and European literature thanks to their great teachers – first and foremost Lea Goldberg and Simon Halkin. Initially, they wrote in imitation of the great novels they learned about in class, and then slowly but surely developed their own personal styles.

A.B. Yehoshua addressing a peace conference in Beit Berl a few years ago.Credit: Rami Shllush

Boiling point

We can’t talk about Yehoshua without mentioning the key role played by his wife Ika (Rivka) in enriching his characters. Ika, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, shared with him the secrets of the subconscious. But Yehoshua’s characters are never particularly deep and he was not interested in delving into them too much, because what interested him was their behavior in life itself, shaping their individual fate and later on their national fate – whereas psychoanalysis is often an excuse for the lack of authenticity.

At the Metula Poetry Festival three years ago, I invited Yehoshua to participate in a round table on the subject “Who will turn on the light at the end of the tunnel?” tied to his novel “The Tunnel,” which had just been released and dealt with dementia. I asked him if he meant to say that the Israeli spirit is entering the dementia stage and his novel was trying to stop the slide.

Also participating in the discussion was journalist Ya’akov Ahimeir, and the argument between the two men reached such a boiling point that the discussion was brought to an end amid mutual apologies.

Yehoshua was unwilling to accept populist right-wing claims regarding the injustices committed by the Ben-Gurion-inspired establishment. Today, I understand why: because he was willing to give himself for the righteousness of Zionism – and to a great extent, he really did so.

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