Power and Pity
Described by Saul Bellow as one of Israel's world-class writers, A.B. Yehoshua has provoked fury at home and abroad with his controversial views on Jewishness and the future of Jerusalem. Interview by Maya Jaggi.
The writer AB Yehoshua was 50 pages into a new novel, about an unclaimed corpse in a Jerusalem suicide bombing, when a friend was killed by a bomb at the Hebrew university in 2002. Though shocked, he says, her death "persuaded me that I was writing something real". He was further spurred by the targeting of a seashore restaurant he frequented in Haifa. "Two Arab waiters I used to have conversations with were killed in a terrible bomb, with a whole [Jewish] family," he says. "I went to their funeral at an Arab village in the north."
Yet the casualty in his novel, published in Hebrew as The Mission of the Human Resource Man (2004), is neither Jewish nor Palestinian, but a Russian Orthodox temporary resident, Yulia Ragayev, a cleaner whose body lies unidentified in a Jerusalem morgue until a bloodied payslip links her to a major bakery. The owner, shamed by a journalist's jibe of callous indifference, resolves to atone for their neglect by having his human resource manager escort the corpse home for burial. The bureaucrat's journey, on which he appears to fall in love with the dead woman, becomes a pilgrimage to restore lost humanity in circumstances where "pedestrians were routinely exploding in the streets".
"I took the most anonymous, most marginal death," says Yehoshua, who feels Israeli society is unable to honour civilian casualties. "We're used to soldiers dying, but the problem is how to mourn civilians dying in the city streets - Israelis, Arabs, foreign workers. What's the meaning of someone drinking coffee who's killed in a café, or a housekeeper on a bus? We have to give meaning to this absurd death, instead of trying to repress it." In the face of what he sees as a growing heartlessness and indifference to death on both sides, he says, "as a writer, my ethical duty is to use my pen to pierce the black plastic shroud, to open the heart towards death, with love and pity."
The novel is published here as A Woman in Jerusalem: A Passion in Three Parts (Halban), translated by Hillel Halkin. Yehoshua's eighth, it appears after he was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Booker International prize last year. He also writes short stories (collected in 1999 as The Continuing Silence of a Poet), and is a playwright, essayist and, at 69, retired professor of comparative literature at Haifa university. Saul Bellow named him "one of Israel's world-class writers". As its leading Sephardic author, a fifth-generation Jerusalem-born descendant of Jews expelled from Spain during the inquisition, he argues for Israel's Mediterranean, rather than purely western, identity, and for a common history, in part, between Jews and Arabs.
Some of his arguments have provoked fury. He was in London after telling the American Jewish Committee in Washington DC last month that he owes his Jewish identity to being Israeli, not to Judaism or religion (he is secular). Israeli identity, he believes, is the "full, complete Jewish identity". As he said at London's ICA earlier this month: "You [in the diaspora] are partial Jews and we're total Jews. You can't be fully British and fully Jewish - only partially Jewish." A heated debate continued in Ha'aretz, and led Yehoshua to apologise, without altering his views, "to anyone whose feelings I have hurt". He also espouses what he terms an "old-fashioned Zionist premise" that the failure to establish a Jewish state in Eretz Israel after the Balfour declaration of 1917 was a tragically missed opportunity, and that, "indirectly, the Jewish people itself was responsible for its own terrible fate" in the 20th century.
In Israel he is identified with the peace camp, arguing for withdrawal from 80 per cent of the territories occupied in 1967, long before Ariel Sharon contemplated disengagement from Gaza ("I was against the settlements, which were a great obstacle to peace; in money and blood, a disaster"), and for recognition of the Palestinian right to a separate state ("Now the majority [of Israelis] recognise that as a solution"). He sees moves in Britain for an academic boycott of Israel as "unjust and discriminatory", not least since "so many people in universities are peace activists". He adds, "I'd have understood it 20 years ago, when Begin was in power, but Israel is changing its policies."
A Woman in Jerusalem was written in the "gloomy days" after the second intifada broke out in 2000. But the preceding novel, The Liberated Bride (2001), emerged from "more hopeful days" in the late 1990s, after the Oslo accords. As Yochanan Rivlin, a Haifa professor, researches the roots of Algeria's civil war of the 1990s, and pokes his nose into the mystery of his son's sudden divorce, he bumbles freely across boundaries between father and son, husband and wife, teacher and student, Jerusalem and Ramallah, Jewish and Palestinian homes.
The doting, sometimes explosive, relationship between the meddling professor and his wife, a judge, was modelled, the author admits, on his own 46-year marriage to a psycho-analyst, Rivka ("I get free analytic treatment every day for 14 hours, without pay or permission to question"). The couple, who live in Haifa, keep a flat in Tel Aviv to be near their daughter and two sons (and three granddaughters). But Rivlin draws partly on Yehoshua's father, an Israeli Orientalist. Rivlin abhors as "racist" a colleague's contention that Arabs could "never understand the idea of freedom". Yet Yehoshua approves of Rivlin's own quest to understand the "Arab mind" and "Arab soul" - a project critically dissected in Orientalism (1978) by Edward Said, whose disciples are said in the novel to be "terrorising the academic community". Yehoshua says: "I was proud my father spoke Arabic fluently - his father sent him to learn Arabic from a sheikh - and we had Arab friends. His task of understanding the Arabs - not only politics but poetry - was very important; he took it as a vocation. We're living with the Arabs; we have to understand them ... Through knowing the Arabs, you know yourself better."
Avraham Yehoshua was born in 1936. "I come from two parts of the oriental community - Jerusalemite and north African Jews," he says. His paternal ancestors came to Palestine at the beginning of the 19th century. His father's histories of Sephardic Jerusalem fed what some regard as Yehoshua's masterpiece, the novel Mr Mani (1990), which traces six generations of the Sephardic Mani clan, and Jewish identity, through conversations ranging from a 1980s kibbutz to 19th-century Greece. Yehoshua's mother came with her family from Morocco in the 1930s. His maternal grandfather, a wealthy trader, inspired A Journey to the End of the Millennium (1997), a novel about a 10th-century Jewish merchant who arrives in monogamous Europe with two wives and an Arab business partner. An operatic version, for which Yehoshua wrote the libretto, premiered in Tel Aviv last year.
He lived in Jerusalem as a child when it was under siege in the 1948 war, and studied Hebrew literature and philosophy at the Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He spent four years in Paris before serving as a paratrooper in the six-day war of 1967. In his view, 1967 was a "just war", while the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was "unnecessary and unjust". His first novel, The Lover (1977), was set partly during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. With its alternating narrators and grandmother on her deathbed, it has been described as a Hebrew As I Lay Dying, while his second, A Late Divorce (1982), owes more to The Sound and the Fury. Along with the influence of Faulkner, Yehoshua cites Kafka ("I learned how he handled metaphysics") and the Israeli Nobel laureate SY Agnon.
Yehoshua belongs to the "generation of the state", Israeli writers - including Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld - who came of age after 1948, and chart growing tensions between humanism and Israeli nationalism. "We put more emphasis on the individual and the anti-hero than the generation who went through the war of independence," he says. The fragmentation of marriages and families in his fiction echoes national unease.
He sees Israel as a multicultural and multifaith society in which Israeli Palestinians, a fifth of the population, are a "national minority". Yet he draws a distinction between identity and citizenship (Israeli Palestinians are citizens, but "have their own identity", though they "participate in Israeli life"). A move from citizenship to identity, he says, depends on progress in peace. At least one reviewer of A Woman in Jerusalem, Primo Levi biographer Carole Angier, questioned why the author chose to make his symbol of the alien Other a Russian Christian rather than a Palestinian. "Jerusalem doesn't belong only to Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Jews, but to the world," Yehoshua says. "We can't solve the conflict without Jerusalem, but we can't divide up the holy place and cradle of monotheisms, or say it belongs to one country." He advocates that a square kilometre of the old city be run as a "kind of Vatican" by representatives of the three religions, while the rest of the city is partitioned between Israel and Palestine. "Christians should say, 'enough of your quarrels - holy Jerusalem belongs to all of us'."
As for his remarks in Washington, the diaspora, he clarifies, is not irrelevant to the future of Jewish identity, but Jewish values are "made in real life, not in theory". Alluding to an Israeli high-court decision last month to uphold a law denying Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza married to Israeli citizens the right to live in the country with their spouses and children, he says: "You can't talk about justice while you're not giving an Arab the right to bring his wife to Israel; it's a violation of human rights. You can't just speak about values - you have to test them ... My Jewish values are not located in a fancy spice box to be opened on Shabbat. I'm judged every day on my Jewishness. Do we want to hasten economic growth at the price of greater poverty, or to sell arms to bloody dictatorships to increase employment? These are ethical questions that determine our identity."
In his essays, The Terrible Power of a Minor Guilt (1998), Yehoshua argued that modern literary criticism had abandoned moral judgments, but ethical questions are vital to his own fiction. While his conception of identity can be problematic, his impulse is partly to reinvigorate moral debate. Exasperated by what he sees as uncritical backing for Israel, he says, "The US could have been a better peacemaker, but it didn't stop the settlements - as it could have 30 years ago. The diaspora [in the US] was following what the government of Israel was doing. I said, 'you have the right to full criticism of Israel, even if you're not living there. As I criticise you, you have the right to criticise me'."
A Simple Story by SY Agnon
Short stories by Franz Kafka
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Concert for Orchestra by Béla Bartók
Fifth Symphony by Prokofiev
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006