Last week I had the privilege and pleasure of participating in the International Writers Festival, held in Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem. The festival was enriching and exciting, but overhanging it was a cloud that dampened the enjoyment, in the form of the international boycott that is slowly solidifying around Israel’s cultural life. Several of the international participants related to the boycott as an established fact that everyone except us, the targets of the boycott, is aware of and accepts as part of the new global reality.
Among the numerous pleasant encounters between Israeli writers and their overseas counterparts, an ugly interaction stood out. This was a conversation between A.B. Yehoshua and the young and successful American Jewish writer Nicole Krauss. Yehoshua let loose, without any provocation from the smiling and mild-mannered Krauss, with a blustering and surprisingly rude frontal assault on his interlocutor. Krauss is a thoughtful and interesting writer who, despite a busy schedule, made time to attend and assist the festival, in addition to her vigorous efforts to counter the international boycott that threatens us.
Yehoshua’s attack was confused and his arguments unfounded, and I cannot restate them in full here. He totally rejected the possibility of leading an authentic and significant Jewish life outside the borders of this country and the Ben Gurionist-Zionist paradigm which he espouses. He rejected in one sweep any non-Israeli Jewish literature, taking particular aim at the giants of American Jewish literature of the previous generation, such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Yehoshua claimed that he was “unimpressed” by them since they failed the test by not comprehending the grandeur of political Zionism by not opting for it as the sole path for a continued Jewish historical existence.
Yehoshua’s strange behavior demonstrated an unpleasant mix of a threatened and weak yet overblown ego, of provincial feelings of inferiority together with an unjustified sense of superiority, also provincial in nature. To Krauss’ credit she was not drawn in by this ugly and needless provocation, made by the Israeli writer she admires most (it was said at the festival that she initiated this dialogue out of respect for his work). She insisted on talking about other topics, making interesting and complex arguments while maintaining her dignified pose, which stood in increasingly stark contrast to the tasteless aggressiveness of her partner in dialogue, which only became worse as the conversation continued.
I was shocked. I had never witnessed such behavior on a public stage. Israelis around me giggled forgivingly. They are used to this kind of behavior by Yehoshua, whom they insist on calling by his childhood nickname “Buli.” Unfortunately, this sounds close to the English word bully, the neighborhood thug who bothers helpless children during school recess and on the playground, threatening and striking them for no reason. Apparently his behavior is a well known phenomenon. Jewish organizations in the United States invite him to conferences and events supporting Israel and he attacks and slanders his hosts, declaring their Jewish lives incomplete and inauthentic, negating their efforts to live a significant Jewish life and to maintain the increasingly eroding affinity they have with Israel.
The masochism that makes these organizations continue inviting the neighborhood bully to their identity-searching playground is a topic for another article, but one must question what passes through Israel’s head when it allows him to represent it abroad, taunting and insulting and pushing away any remaining friends in an increasingly alienated world? Perhaps the problem is larger and more worrisome than that of the irrational lashing out of this unmannered writer? Maybe the show put on by Yehoshua truly reflects the new face of Israel, whose complacent and thuggish insensitivity has caused its long-standing friends to express reservations, to distance themselves and finally to boycott it?
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