An Interview with Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai earned himself a few enemies with his book The Tragedy of Zionism (1985), a chronicle of the competing anachronistic impulses that were continuing to govern Israel. It was a useful corrective for American Jews whose romantic notions of their homeland couldn’t explain how the same electorate could switch from David Ben-Gurion to the crudely nationalistic Menachem Begin. Still a cover on The New Republic called Avishai, a Zionist’s son bred in Mordecai Richler’s Montreal who had first come to Israel in 1967, a “Jew Against Zion.”
Twenty-three years of depressing history later, Avishai has published something of a sequel, The Hebrew Republic. In it, he asks what Israel would look like if it was, as much of its business elite hope it will eventually become, a member of the European Union. Simply by asking such a question, he assumes a certain amount of optimism absent from his earlier work, published three years after the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Avishai calls for a secular democracy joined to the global service economy that guarantees first class rights to all its citizens, regardless of religion, but which demands an allegiance to the Hebrew language.
Think of Avishai, a former consulting editor at the Harvard Business Review who has taught business at Duke University and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, as a Thomas L. Friedman who reads poetry. He spends much of his book wondering how Israel can integrate into the global economy even as it continues to enmesh itself in an internal and external conflict, but his journalistic instincts take him not just to Arab entrepreneurs and Israeli politicians, but to the great living masters of the Hebrew language, Aharon Appelfeld and A.B. Yehushua.
Avishai is a citizen of Canada, the United States, and Israel and he splits his time between Wilmot, New Hampshire and Jerusalem, where his wife teaches literature at Hebrew University. He keeps a blog at bernardavishai.blogspot.com. At the moment he is writing a book about Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. We spoke by phone at his home in New Hampshire on the evening of September 5. We paused the interview to watch Barack Obama’s appearance on The O’Reilly Factor. But we didn’t bother to listen to John McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republic National Convention which came later on that night.
Israel is commonly thought of as a “Jewish and democratic” nation. But you note in The Hebrew Republic that Israel didn’t officially declare itself as such until 1994.
People would speak in offhand ways about Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state for a generation. When I first came to Israel in 1967, people would say Am ivri which meant “Hebrew Nation.” Medina Yehudit would be the “Jewish State.” And whenever they said social democratia it meant social democracy like it was the social democratic state. The idea that there is a formal way of describing Israel as this Jewish and democratic state became much more common in the ‘80s as an expression that was used by the increasingly urbane and Jewish Israelis in Tel Aviv. I think the first time it was actually incorporated into a law was in 1994 with the Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.
And therein lies a contradiction. In any democracy that includes more than one religion, which accounts for virtually all democracies in the world, you can’t enshrine one religion as the religion of the state. There is no state in the world that defines itself as Christian and democratic. There are political parties that are so identified, but no state.
The thing is that most Israelis that use the phrase “Jewish and democratic” have a very layered meaning of what you mean by “Jewish,” though a simple understanding of what you mean by “democratic.” So let me start with Jewish. Sure, there is religion involved, but the religion was seen as a precursor to the national life. And the national life was seen as this thing embodied in the people, these Hebrew-speaking Jewish people inside historic Eretz Israel. So Israelis have this vague idea that this people exists here and now and it’s distinctive. And there are those who feel that “Jewish and democratic” means, “We [Jews] are the majority here. And so it’s Jewish and democratic.”
But then there are those who are more subtle about what “Jewish and democratic” means. There’s a way in which you can have a Jewish and democratic country. And there’s a way in which you can’t. But it depends on how you define the phrase “Jewish and democratic.” You can have a Jewish and democratic country if what you mean by “Jewish” is what the French Canadians mean by “French.”
Namely the language.
Right. [If you base it around language] it can be democratic because language is inclusive. Anyone who wants to can acculturate to the Hebrew language of the Jewish people. In Leon Uris’s Exodus, [the American nurse] Kitty slings a rifle over her shoulder and goes off with Ari Ben Canaan. If you can join the Jewish people by embracing the Hebrew-speaking community, [you have the basis for] a democratic country. No one ever asked Kitty if she was going to convert.
And so under your formulation, any Israeli Arab who speaks Hebrew as a first language should be a first-class citizen of the state of Israel.
That’s right and I would say is in a way Jewish. Jew-ish as Jonathan Miller said. An Israeli Arab who speaks Hebrew, who works on the staff of Hadassah Hospital, who reads Haaretz in the morning and goes to Hebrew plays is Jew-ish. In just the same way, I, by living in America, reading John Stuart Mill and Shakespeare and Milton am Eng-lish. And there’s a big part of me that’s Christian. When I swim in this water and go see Robert Duvall get saved at the end of The Apostle, I’m in tears. Does that make me Christian? Well, a little bit.
But what happens to Israel if Israeli Arabs remain second-class citizens?
A big part of what my book is raising is the un-sustainability of the current situation and particularly the alienation of Israeli Arabs. I think Israelis are going to be skeptical of any deal with Syria, because they think that until you make a deal with the Palestinians any deal with Syria will unravel. There’s a similar thing going on with the attitude toward the Palestinians and the Israeli Arabs. A lot of the Judeans say, “Why should we cut a deal with the Palestinians and give up our homes all over our historic homeland? We can’t have peace, because we want a Jewish state here and the Israeli Arabs don’t want a Jewish state. So we’re just going to have a fight to the finish.”
You seem to believe that Israeli Arabs will fall into a situation similar to African-Americans in places like South Central Los Angeles?
It’s because Israeli Jews are saying, “I want this to be a Jewish state.” And they’re defining Jewish in a way that they know in advance that no self-respecting Arab could adopt for himself. So this is why this sort of lack of clarity and the lack of democratic rigor in getting to what “Jewish and democratic” means is really stalling the peace process.
So far you’ve described the opinions of Israeli Jews pretty generally. Who are the natural constituents in Israel for the ideas in your book?
There is a class of people in Israel who kind of get it. They haven’t really taken power yet. But they are the people who work in global corporations and are really part of the process of globalization. And they’re a much more cosmopolitan generation than the leadership of a generation ago. The cultural heroes in Israel today are the entrepreneurs who are doing so well in the global economy. In the ’70s the cultural heroes were the settlers. That’s not true today. And you have this increasing split between those in Jerusalem who see themselves as wards of the state, who believe in a kind of command economy and who want to see Israel tighten its grip on these territories on the assumption that there could never be a peace. And then there’s this much more cosmopolitan group on the coastal plain who see themselves as having their back to the Arab world, and who see themselves as facing Europe and who want to be part of that world. And they see themselves making partnerships with India, Southeast Asia and China. They just have a completely different view of Israel’s place in the world. It’s more recognizably democratic in the European sense.
There is a strange schizophrenia among many liberal American Jews, who are committed to the old civil and labor rights traditions, and who see themselves not just as an oppressed minority but a particularly noble one that wants to make the society within which they live a better place. And these are often the same people who develop a weirdly belligerent, muscular allegiance to the state of Israel. I’m thinking of Joe Lieberman. That stance seems to require a willful ignorance of the situation on the ground in Israel.
I think your phrase “willful ignorance” is really critical here. I think most of us believed in the early ’70s and even back to the late ’60s that our conception of liberalism in America was actually complemented by our Zionism. Israel standing up after the Holocaust was seen as a kind of Spain of the ’50s. And the wars that Israel fought were like the Spanish Civil War of the ’30s. We saw Israel holding up a conception of the dignities of the rights of man. And doing it against backward forces. It’s true there was a certain amount of embarrassment about the attitude of Israelis toward the Palestinian refugees who would not be permitted back. But when we weighed that against all the refugees coming from the European camps and from the Arab countries, we had this idea that these were desperate times. We had a huge population exchange and without that population exchange we wouldn’t have had a critical population of Jews who could defend themselves and create the Hebrew culture that would allow the Jews to thrive. Israel standing up for itself during the 1967 war was the signal experience of our young lives. This poor benighted country was a refuge for so many people who had been pushed around for so many years. Even more importantly, this country was developing a conception of Jewish modernization through the Hebrew language that our own world could not compete with in the slightest. This Hebrew world which would allow us the kind of individual freedom and artistic license to experiment, to have bodies, to have erotic individuality and yet still be Jewish. That conception of Israel seemed completely consistent with liberal ideals that American Jews had. At that level of principle, that level of abstraction, that [pro-Israel attitude] still seems completely plausible.
The problem is this willful ignorance. In order for American Jews to sustain this resonance between their own liberalism and their conception of Israel in the region, they have got to not let in some things.
You describe an amazing meeting you set up between Philip Roth and Ehud Olmert in 1988. It struck me because it sounded like Roth had a real world encounter with an arch right-wing figure that he had described a year before in his novel The Counterlife in which Nathan Zuckerman meets a semi-fascistic settler.
The fellow who Zuckerman meets in The Counterlife was in real life Elyakim Haetzni, who was a real settler creep. Ehud Olmert was not. He was a backbencher and a bit of a glad-hander. He came into the Likud from a more liberal wing, and was always a bit of an outlier, always a bit more of a centrist than an ideologue. He didn’t become deeply ideological until the 1980s when the settler movement was riding high. And when he became mayor of Jerusalem [in 1993] of course he had to pander to the Orthodox groups. He’s a politician, Ehud. Dick Morris would completely understand him. So when I brought Philip to meet him I wanted him to meet someone in the Likud who I thought would be more fun, a little more open-spirited, which normally Ehud is.
After that meeting happened I never talked to Philip or Ehud about it. I only saw Ehud once or twice afterwards anyway under very rushed circumstances. And I didn’t realize how much each had remembered it. I asked Philip about this about a year-and-a-half ago. He said he remembered it quite well. The whole thing had started off when he had asked Olmert, “How do you really expect to hold on to these territories?” because the first Intifada had just started. And Ehud answered, “We are holding them as a trust for the Jewish people. If American Jews would only come in their millions we could have these territories.” And Philip said, “How could you possibly imagine that American Jews would come?” And that’s when this thing unraveled. They both started shouting at each other, accusing each other in a sense of not respecting the authenticity of the other’s experience. In this case, Philip was much more with it than Ehud was. Philip was saying, “Who are you to tell me who I’m supposed to be in the world?” And in some sense Ehud was saying, “My being able to tell you that is part of my Zionist identity. How could I not do so and live with my Zionist identity that makes these claims on these Jews of the Diaspora? How could you miss out on the cultural revolution of a lifetime?” And Philip’s answer is, “I’m having a very nice life on my own thank you.” It was a really interesting standoff in a way. For Philip, I think it was a moment where he thought, “Enough is enough. My curiosity about Israel is reaching the point of exhaustion.”
Ehud, on the other hand, told me when I interviewed him in February 2007 for the book, “I remember that meeting very well and from that moment on,” he said, “I began to look at American Jews differently. Because if a cultural leader of the Jews like Philip Roth was not going to come…” I thought that was very funny because it shows the degree to which Ehud completely didn’t get it. He probably hadn’t read any of Philip’s books. But he probably thought of him as the “American Jewish Amos Oz.” (laughs) And if even [the American Jewish Amos Oz] is not interested in coming, then Olmert would have to re-evaluate the settlement project.
I’m not sure how true any of this is. There’s part of me that really loves Ehud Olmert. But I don’t know if this is stuff he really believes or stuff that he’s teaching himself retrospectively. Or something he’s just saying to me because I happen to be the person in the room and he would say something different to someone else. It was a kind of interesting moment, and it wasn’t just an entertaining story to tell in retrospect. It really did seem like a place where tectonic plates rubbed against each other.
You write about the ambience of Hebrew. I once read an essay by an author I don’t remember who claimed that if the patriarch Abraham were to travel 6,000 years into the future he would be able to understand 75 percent of what his own children were saying. So there’s a great sense in speaking Hebrew of being a part of a great history.
I think that’s very touching and something I think I feel too. Ultimately, the Jews are the people of a book and it’s really quite a remarkable book. And we are a people which have carried that book, read it, debated it, fought over it, disagreed about it, but always have been in some ways inspired by it because it’s a chronicle of our -- and I use the term “our” not restrictively, any human being who reads the Torah can be included in that “our” -- struggle to make sense of the material world on one hand and make sense of the transcendent on the other. And the book feels true. It’s an extraordinarily subtle, detailed, dramatic book. As I say in The Hebrew Republic when I first read the Book of Genesis I read it alongside the reader with Fun With Dick and Jane and See Spot Run and there was just no contest. It just felt to me like a book where I could see my own family and my own fear of death and my own curiosity about metaphysical questions. The Jews are nothing if not the people of this book.
The Hebrew language, even the modern Hebrew language, at its best, at its most innovative -- there is, of course, a lot of very coarse Hebrew as well -- is riffing on that book. The poet Yehuda Amichai is a wonderful example of it. And I sometimes feel the whole Zionist project is justified if only to produce a poet like Yehuda Amichai. The ambience of the language is on the one hand very practical and quotidian and is interpenetrated with American English which in many ways saves it because it interjects oxygen into the language and lets young Israeli kids breathe the world through the Anglicizations and so on. But it’s still a language in which the ricochets of the nuances of the Torah and Torah culture are constantly with you. And it’s delicious.
Could Israel have developed along similar lines if it had been based around the Yiddish language?
The answer is probably yes but it’s just hard to play these historical games. The Yiddish language was more than just a raft of vocabulary. It was nuanced, it has an ironic sense of humor. When I read -- and I can only read them in translation -- Yiddish writers, I feel like I’m being transported into a world which is a little like the world of blacks singing the blues. Could blacks who sing the blues create a tough national movement? We know that it’s possible. Look at the Black Panthers. People who sing the blues can be after some generations in a different space and a different experience and could use that language to reflect that different experience. But the Zionists always thought the Yiddish language would not lend itself to this.
It was the language of weakness.
Exactly. I remember Menachem Begin was filmed in an unscripted moment after he came to power in 1977. He was sitting around with a bunch of friends. I don’t know if he realized he was being filmed but I don’t know if he would be embarrassed if he knew he was. He was explaining how you could never run an army in Yiddish. “Could you imagine even if we had the Hebrew phrase Amod Dom (‘Stand at attention’) in the Ashkenazi pronunciation: Amoid Doim.” And he burst out laughing at the idea that these bent-over Ashkenazi, religious Yiddish types could ever conduct war in Yiddish. We know from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that of course they could have done so. So what Begin was reflecting was the whole supercilious attitude of the Zionists toward the whole Yiddishkeit. Because they saw themselves as the solution to Yiddishkeit. So you are asking me could a national life have evolved around Yiddish? Yes. Could it have been a tough national life? We know that it could under certain conditions. Was Yiddishkeit likely to produce the kind of national movement Zionism became? Well the answer is that it didn’t. It created the Bund and it created left-wing organizations, because it was a language that embodied the Jews as this sort of pushed-around minority culture around this larger framework.
Israeli Jews often seem to have much more in common with their Israeli Arab neighbors than they do with their American Jewish counterparts. I wonder if that springs from a shared sense of insecurity.
Do Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs have more in common with each other than either of them have with American Jews? It’s ideologically embarrassing to say so, but it’s undoubtedly true. But the thing that brings them together is not a common sense of tragedy, whereas Americans are full of a sense of comedy. I know lots of Israeli Arabs who love the comedy of American Jewish writers and comedians. The common experience of Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews is really at the level of the elites. And it comes from the fact that they read the same things, go to the same classes, eat the same breakfast cereal, read the same newspaper, go to the same movies, root for different teams in the same football league.
When you get out of the elites that shared experience breaks down very quickly. I’d say 50 to 55 percent of the Arab population lives in a kind of isolation not really dissimilar from the isolation of the Jews of Poland at the turn of the last century. They speak their own language, they have their own religion, they go to their own schools, they pay taxes to the tsar (laughs)… I mean the Israeli Finance Ministry. But they live in a world of their own. And they feel more connected to Arabs across the border in the same way the Jews of Poland felt more connected to the Jews in Galicia than they felt to their Polish neighbors.
Does this alienation pertain in the same way to the experiences of Arabs in the cities?
It’s not true of the experiences of Jews and Arabs in the cities. But the urbanization of the Israeli Arab population is not going nearly as fast as it should, which is partly the result of racism, and partly the result of the natural conservative tendencies of Arab families to build their children houses in their own family compounds. Once Israeli Arabs go to universities -- that makes up about 10 to 15 percent of the Israeli Arab population -- the process of integration is much more palpable and successful.
There have been polls that show that 45 percent of Israeli Arabs feel closer to Israeli Jews than they do to Palestinians. Why? Hebrew has been their instrument of modernization, the way German and French were the instruments of modernization in Europe. Hebrew is the language in which Arabs learned to talk about sex, talk about their parents, talk about democracy and talk about personal ambition. Hebrew is also the channel through which they learn about global English and global culture. So Israeli Arabs by no means want to join a Palestinian state. They want to join Israel. And I don’t think American Jews understand this well enough. They still think of Israeli Arabs as a rump group of Palestinians living across a border. That’s not true. These are people who have been born in the Hebrew culture for three generations. And they have a very different view of themselves. And the Palestinians have a very different view of them than what American Jews understand.
You describe the writer Aharon Appelfeld’s views of his Jewishness as being “either a transcendent form of liberalism or a recalcitrant form of tribalism -- or both at once.” You can see this tension in a lot of Irish writers during the Troubles, who were trying to reconcile two very competing impulses.
And I told him the same thing. His definition of Jew sounded to me like James Baldwin’s definition of black. I agree that the Jews as being distinctive for their restlessness is a very fetching idea and there’s a great truth in it, but it also makes what’s distinctive about being Jewish almost entirely a function of the Jews as a persecuted group. It’s almost like Aharon is counting on the world to take these feelings of restlessness and give them a shape in a place. I don’t think he’s really reconciled about this in his own heart and soul. Aharon resists being drawn in to something I take for granted which is that this Hebrew revolution is a positive thing. For Aharon, it’s not that he doesn’t love the Hebrew language, which he writes in and is a master of to some extent. But he doesn’t like the whole Zionist clash that received him as an immigrant. He didn’t like the superciliousness of it. He didn’t like the way in which Jewish life and intellectuals in the Diaspora had been dismissed and sort of ridiculed by the Zionist bureaucrats who received him, gave him a home and set about remaking him in their image. I think Aharon is a kind of unique voice in this sense.
How different is what Appelfeld claiming to what A.B. Yehushua claiming?
Bulli [Yehushua] is a true Zionist. For Bulli, the Jewish people became the Hebrew people. Their religion was somehow welded to this national life. “And we are distinctive and we will make ourselves what we will be.” Bulli is a true democrat, but his real bête noire are the American Jewish intellectuals who talk about Jewish collective existence but don’t marinate in the cultural instruments that will allow Jews to develop a distinctive life. He doesn’t like the idea that American Jews have anything to say about Jewish national life. He likes to believe that anyone who wants to participate in Jewish national life puts his shoulder to the wheel, pays taxes, runs for office, does the things that you do to make a community viable.
But his blind spot is that he can’t accept an Arab thinking of himself as, as you said, Jew-ish.
Well, he can’t on Saturdays, Tuesdays or Thursdays. On Wednesdays and Fridays he’s sort of open to it. It really depends how you pose the line of questions with Bulli. I think he creates distinctions and barriers within Israel because he’s trying so hard to insist on a distinctiveness to the Jewish national existence. It’s not so much that he’s unwilling to absorb Arabs into [Israel], than that he’s so sick of American Jews claiming a Jewish national existence without acknowledging what makes it distinctive.
You’ve written a lot about Barack Obama on your blog. One of the reasons for his appeal is that he’s the first American politician of his stature in decades to speak and write the American language so well. You’ve written so much about the importance of the Hebrew language to the Israeli state. And you’ve written so much about Hebrew novelists and poets and musicians, but I don’t know if there have been any Israeli Obamas or Israeli Lincolns that have excited the public for their ability to use Hebrew as an instrument.
It’s an interesting question. The history of Zionism is full of extremely eloquent people, but that was a revolutionary generation. In the last 25, 30 years it’s been very rare to find a political leader who is able to elevate the conversation very much. The most trusted people were really the military people who could somehow persuade the center that they could be trusted to keep people safe. And I would say that if there is a kind of Václav Havel in the Israeli political landscape right now it’s David Grossman. David published a kind of open letter to Ehud Olmert about six months ago. It’s very poignant because the letter called for something like a government-in-exile, a kind of shadow government of intellectuals and people of independent achievement that would create an alternative vision of the country. Obviously it had something to do with his son’s death [in the final hours of the 2006 Lebanon War], but Grossman had a strong resistance to Olmert’s leadership. He told me that in the wake of that column he got dozens of calls and e-mails imploring him to go into public life. And whether he actually does it himself or simply advises a younger generation to get involved, I don’t know. But what’s interesting is not his eloquence, but the tremendous vacuum in Israel right now and a tremendous opportunity for young politicians who have a kind of global consciousness and who see Israel’s security and position in the world requiring a new language and a new way of thinking about its future.
I’ve only read one of Grossman’s books, The Yellow Wind, which is his one book everyone reads. What struck me about the book and much of what you just said is that there is a deep big-hearted humanity in the man. He refuses to dehumanize anyone, no matter how violent or bigoted. I wonder if it is in that sense that he’s filling a void in Israeli political discourse.
Well, I suppose we could speak endlessly about David but I think your question is really raising a larger question. What chance does anyone who’s willing to look at Israel’s conflict from all sides have in a political landscape where so many people resort to a demagoguery that rallies people to a very present vendetta culture that has a lot of rage going for it? I think that I wouldn’t have written my own book if I didn’t believe there was a tremendous exhaustion people feel towards the vendetta culture. And it’s a resistance that has grown largely as these things usually do grow because of how obvious it is that the vendetta culture is leading nowhere. The critical moment for this was the 2006 Lebanon War where Israelis finally understood that they basically have all the military power to defend their borders and they will never have the military power they need to determine their future unilaterally. No matter how many stealth bombers they will acquire or how much training their tank commanders go through, Israel cannot any longer protect its own borders because of simple missilery. In some ways it’s clear that Israel cannot be invaded successfully, because of its air superiority which is only growing as years go by. But at the same time Israel cannot defend itself from missile barrages on the one hand and ultimately from Intifada terrorism and resistance on the other. There’s simply no defense against a missile and no defense against a suicide bomber or a person going berserk with a bulldozer. You can’t stop that. And finally, the longer this goes on the more conspicuous the ultimate danger becomes: the fundamental alienation of Israel’s Arab population.