A nation that knows no bounds
by Ari Shavit
(Ha’aretz 3/19/04)

There's something optimistic about a trip to Haifa. The azure sky, the blue sea, Mount Carmel. And on this first sunny morning after a rain-soaked winter, the feeling is that of a very relaxed Israeli port city. A mixed city, a working city, a sane city. So it's perfectly obvious what attracted him to this place. Why he migrated from Jerusalem's tangled dimness to the light-bathed Israeliness of Haifa. Why he left behind the twisting casbahs of the Jews and chose this simple enlightenment, this Mediterranean enlightenment.

He opens the door, gray-haired, gray-trousered, and wearing a gray checked shirt. The writer A.B. Yehoshua is not tall, is not lean and is not captivating in his external appearance. But there is something potent and concentrated and goodhearted in his high-relief face. And as he milks the coffee out of the espresso machine and carries in the fruitcake from the kitchen and asks the interviewer about his life, there is something very winning about him. And again when he begins to talk. It's captivating in its existential intensiveness, its conceptual fecundity, its depth of feeling.

His wife, Ika (Rivka), is an inseparable part of him. She's a psychologist - her clinic is in the apartment opposite - and her presence is pervasive. When she has time between one patient and another, she joins the conversation in the most natural way. There are no secrets between them. No barriers. What's his is hers, what's hers, his. And when the writer Yehoshua feels sufficiently free to say things that merit caution, the psychoanalyst Yehoshua hints to him gently that that's enough. Not past this point.

In the center of the shelf above the television set is a hefty red tome: Merck, the Complete Medical Guide. Indeed, the concepts Yehoshua uses are in large part medical ones. He decodes the Jews and the Israelis, the Arabs and the Muslims, the Christians and the Europeans in terms of pathology, derangement. He is especially interested in identity disturbances, situations of lunacy that are created by identity chaos. Because of an inability to stabilize tranquil spaces.

In the present terror war the Yehoshuas lost a close friend. Dafna was killed two years ago in the terrorist attack on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Yehoshua's new novel, "The Mission of the Human Resources Man," is dedicated to her memory. The book tells the story of a female foreign worker whose body is found at the site of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. In the present terror war the Yehoshuas also lost two friends, who were killed half a year ago in the suicide bombing at Maxim restaurant in Haifa. Nevertheless, as he gazes out the window from the quiet living room that overlooks the pines of Mount Carmel, Yehoshua tries to maintain some sort of rational optimism. He addresses the pain and the terror with analytic sangfroid. He places a positive interpretation on the shifting political situation. He believes that beyond all this, surely lurks hope. He believes that, despite everything, sanity will return in the end.

The passion of
Israel

Your new novel, "The Mission of the Human Resource Man," is a book of the era of the terrorist attacks. It's about the body of a foreign worker who is killed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. Did you find it difficult to write it? Is it difficult to write literature in a time of cholera?

"It was difficult to write. There was something macabre about it: to go with a coffin. To carry a coffin in writing. And I didn't want it to be a horror story. I wanted it to be aesthetic. So I had to be very careful to ensure that the book would be clean; I had to watch over the language very closely.

"Look, I have always integrated the personal and the public, the individual and the national. I never sat alone in my corner. And here we are undergoing something, something is happening to us here which I felt obliged to address. Because, you know, we are closing off this whole terrorism thing with some sort of strong patina of repression. In this book I tried to open it up a little. I tried to clarify it."

We have been living in a surrealistic reality of terrorism for more than three years already. What is this doing to us? How is it affecting our collective consciousness?

"On the one hand there is the feeling of being a victim. You're a victim in the truest sense. On the other hand, you also see what's being done to the other side and you say, `I am not only a victim, I am also a murderer.' On your right side you wonder how we can let these things happen. After all, we are not protecting our children, or the most innocent civilians: passengers on buses, innocent passersby. But on your left side there is nevertheless guilt vis-a-vis the Palestinians; and because of the suicides, there isn't even anyone to take revenge on. You're in some sort of state of emotional helplessness. And everything is totally arbitrary. Everything has become incomprehensible.

"That's the reason for the repression. That's why we sweep off the street immediately; clean away the blood; remove the bus. And within an hour we're told on television that life has returned to normal. Within an hour life has returned to normal. Only the victims are transferred to Abu Kabir [the forensic institute in Tel Aviv].

"This Abu Kabir thing is interesting. There's something in it. Of all the Arab names that existed in this country, why is it that we have left precisely this one? After all, no one says he's going to Sheikh Munis [the name of the Arab village on the ruins of which Tel Aviv University now stands]. Yet here, here of all places, that name was kept. We don't say the Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv, we say Abu Kabir. We say that he was taken to Abu Kabir. Which is also the meaning of the name: the tremendous father. A kind of semi-hellish meta-entity. Abu Kabir.

"So, as I say, I decided to open it, this sealed bubble. And I tried to do that by means of the body of that foreign worker and through the guilt feelings for her."

You call the book a "passion." Why that term?

"A passion is a story of torment, of death, and also of desire. Well, here we have death. There is a corpse. And there is the moving of the corpse from Jerusalem to the village where the woman was born. I felt that there is here a passion of the torments of this foreign worker. A passion of the torments of us all."

Is it a religious story?

"I'm not a religious person. In the deep sense of the word, I am not religious. But a certain religious energy erupted in this book. And through this beautiful foreign woman I also tried to restore meanings that we have lost. The meaning of
Jerusalem. The spiritual meaning of Jerusalem. Suddenly I noticed that Jerusalem has become rather tattered within the Jewish-Arab conflict and that both we and the Palestinians are completely losing its global spiritual dimension.

"I have to say that I believe that the conflict here will not be resolved without a resolution in
Jerusalem. And a resolution in Jerusalem means upgrading it to a spiritual level. It means restoring the city's original spiritual depth. Without that, we are condemned to tear away at Jerusalem by means of terrorist attacks and house demolitions and the building of strange walls. Without this dimension, we will destroy the city completely and wear ourselves down to nothing. So in the book I try to say something about this subject."

The wrong fence

You are actually the forerunner of the unilateral approach, aren't you? In the very first stages of this intifada you maintained that we had to convert the aspiration for immediate peace into aspiration for a border. You believed in the fence. Long before the term was transformed into a government plan for disengagement.

"I didn't believe in this fence; I believed in a fence along the [1967] Green Line. I see the fence that is being built as a despicable one, which is entering villages and entering the Palestinian territory and distorting the whole idea of the fence that I talked about. But it's true that in a certain sense I am the prophet of the unilateral approach. I wasn't alone in that. We were a small group. We saw the Palestinians' behavior at Camp David and we saw these suicides and we reached the conclusion that we had to disengage. We realized that the old concept of the left, of territories for peace, wasn't working.

"I remember a discussion held by the left at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha in 2001. The participants were Yossi Beilin, Yair Tsaban, writers and intellectuals. I said at that time that we had arrived at the great surgical operation on peace but that the patient was bleeding terribly. Something seems to be wrong. Maybe the patient isn't ready for this operation. I am not ready to accept what Yossi Beilin said: We'll wrap this up and wrap that up and be done. We'll go to Taba and we'll go to Geneva and be done. No, I said, we have to stop the operation. We have to go to a unilateral move of disengagement in order to create a border. Not to go by force to the big peace."

The Beilinist left disagrees with the idea of unilateralism. Beilin is still suspicious of Sharon and is not enthusiastic about the disengagement plan.

"Yossi Beilin built a sort of clock. He knows just where every wheel will be placed in the peace clock. And the unilateral pullout suddenly undoes all his work. I respect him. He has a world view, he has presence of mind. But there was something dogmatic in the way he steered the process. There was something overzealous in the way he wanted to take it to the very end. Meanwhile, I came to the conclusion that it was time to draw conclusions from what had happened. We must understand that it's no longer possible to ignore the irrational elements in Palestinian behavior. And that it's impossible to impose geometric solutions ...

"Look, I went to
Geneva. I adopted that. And I still think it's right for something like that to be poised on the horizon and say, `Look, it can be done.' But Geneva [the Geneva Initiative] cannot be implemented. It's not practicable. From the point of view of both the Palestinians and the Israelis it's not practicable. There is no trust now. There is no partner. And there is no time, either. So we have to understand that the peace agreement we dreamed of is not a realistic possibility at this stage and we have to understand that the insistence on a comprehensive peace agreement is costing us in blood. And we have to stop the hemorrhaging. We have to implement a unilateral partial withdrawal immediately."

What sort of withdrawal are you talking about?

"The entire Gaza Strip and 80 percent of the West Bank, something like that. Not the large settlement blocs. Not a withdrawal to the Green Line. As for Jerusalem, there's nothing at all to talk about now. The Palestinians are unable to make concessions in Jerusalem at this time. We have to understand that if we weren't talking about Jerusalem but about Oslo and it had to be divided between Sweden and Norway, it's not certain that it could be done. Not even the Swedes and the Norwegians would be able to do it. They would suddenly find all kinds of memories from the period of the Vikings. So here it's all the more so:
Jerusalem is an extraordinarily delicate matter. For such a small city to be the capital of two such problematic states, each of which is connected to a different world, there has to be a situation of ripeness. And it needs the padding of the whole world community. Today it's impossible to conceive of a Palestinian police force being stationed one kilometer from the Knesset."

So you stand more or less with Ariel Sharon. What you are talking about is not so different in principle from the rhetoric of the prime minister, is it?

"I'm willing to give
Sharon credit. I think there's a good chance that he really will take us out of Gaza and really will dismantle settlements and maybe even take us out of part of the West Bank. He'll do it in a serpentine, wily way. He'll drive us all crazy until he does it. But in the end, this person, who is the father of the settlements, is the one who will take us out of there."

Do you really believe that
Sharon will become the Israeli de Gaulle?

"I think he will do something at the de Gaullist level. At bottom, his DNA is the DNA of the Labor movement. What characterizes him is this warm approach to the land. He's a kind of farmer-general figure ... And I believe that history has shown us mercy in that precisely this man of the land, precisely this man who inflicted the disaster of the settlements on us, will be the one to lead us into a new reality. A reality that in the first stage will not yet be one of peace but the reality of a border. Nation opposite nation. Sovereignty opposite sovereignty."

When the disengagement plan is formulated and brought to the cabinet for approval, will you support the left's joining Sharon in the establishment of a national unity government?

"Definitely, I think the left has to give this move concrete support. True, generous support. And I also think that the left has no chance of finishing this story on its own. It has no chance. Only Sharon's authority vis-a-vis the right can make it happen. Therefore, I will be in favor of a national unity government. Just as a national unity government was in office during the Six-Day War, a national unity government has to terminate it."

Beyond the political argument, there are those who say that a unilateral withdrawal could trigger an eruption of violence, maybe even a full-scale war.

"I don't think so. They tried to scare us before the withdrawal from Lebanon, too. It's possible that there will be a war with the Palestinians. It's not necessary, it's not impossible. But if there is a war, it will be a very short one. Maybe a war of six days. Because after we remove the settlements and after we stop being an occupation army, all the rules of war will be different. We will exercise our full force. We will not have to run around looking for this terrorist or that instigator - we will make use of force against an entire population. We will use total force.

"Because from the minute we withdraw I don't want to know their names. I don't want any personal relations with them. I am no longer in a situation of occupation and policing and B'Tselem [the human rights organization]. Instead, I will be standing opposite them in a position of nation versus nation. State versus state. I am not going to perpetrate war crimes for their own sake, but I will use all my force against them. If there is shooting at Ashkelon, there is no electricity in Gaza."

The right to choose an identity

You yourself are a Jerusalemite. You were born and raised in Jerusalem and you have written about the city. Yet Jerusalem oppressed you, didn't it, and you fled to Haifa.

"I am a fifth-generation Jerusalemite. My father's forebears arrived in the 1830s from Salonika. My mother's father arrived in the 1930s from Morocco. So I am a pre-Zionist. I am native-born. My attitude toward the country and toward Jerusalem is a completely primary one to the homeland. An unconditional attitude. But Jerusalem is my father's Jerusalem. He wrote 12 books about its Sephardi communities. And he implanted the city very deeply within me. But just because of that, it held a certain oppressive weight for me. It held a certain threat. I had to get away from it, and being far from it was good for me."

What is the threat posed by Jerusalem? Religious? Ethnic? Jewish?

"There is no doubt that there is a metaphysical threat in Jerusalem. The city is too symbolic. Whenever I visit it I feel its meta-layer weighing me down. And there is something not-Zionist about it, not-Israeli. Take note that people like Berl [Katznelson, a pre-1948 Zionist leader] were quite ill-disposed toward Jerusalem. They grasped that there was something in the city that posed a threat to the enterprise they wanted to establish. And from my own point of view, it also held out some sort of familial threat, a threat of intimacy, of a certain kind of Sephardi Jerusalem that I didn't want to drown in."

Was there something about your father's Sephardiness that endangered you? Did you feel a need to leave that world behind?

"There was something latent, something old in Sephardiness, something that wasn't aligned with the Israeli reality. But I always lived that Sephardiness in a diminished way. We didn't speak Ladino at home. We didn't wax nostalgic over the way of life that [entertainers] Yossi Banai and Yehoram Gaon and [former president] Yitzhak Navon describe. From the age of six I attended Gymnasia Ivrit [a well-known secular school]. And my mother, who arrived here at the age of 16 from Morocco, was a complete stranger in Jerusalem. She didn't live either the Ashkenazi connection or the Sephardi connection. As such, she directed me and my sister into the Israeli lifestyle. She as much as told us, from a very early age, to go out, to enter the dynamic Israel. Not to live the life of the weak minority but to make for the center, to go to the majority, to the hegemonic."

In other words, you grew up with some kind of very powerful imperative to leave the past behind you - not to give yourself over to it, not to let it hold you back?

"I get a little angry over these kinds of questions. As though, if you were born Sephardi, you owe something to Sephardiness. After all, if you're Polish, no one asks you to be loyal to Polishness. No one every came to S. Yizhar [the doyen of Israeli writers] with questions about his family's Russian past. What I'm saying is that there is a tacit assumption here that if you come from a weak minority you are not supposed to leave it. You mustn't betray it. Well, I don't accept that. I simply don't accept it. Ever since I can remember, my libido was completely part of the Israeli way of life. The attraction was to Israeliness. The ideology was Israeli. I never thought that there was some sort of special mission or special responsibility in regard to my group of origin."

Did the mass immigration of the 1950s of Jews from Arab lands endanger you?

"It endangered me in terms of my identity. As a result, I had to sharpen the Israeli element and posit it in the clearest possible way. Nor did I feel myself to be Moroccan. The fact that my grandfather arrived 30 years earlier from Morocco didn't make me a Moroccan.

"I especially remember how astonished my mother was at the time. The Morocco she was familiar with was the Morocco of the elites. And suddenly these more popular groups started arriving, with which she had absolutely no connection. She was afraid that people would associate her with that group. And that people would associate me and my sister with that group. That frightened mother terribly. All at once you had the dichotomy that the Shas party talks about to this day. True discrimination emerged. The Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent] were marked. I had no desire to be marked within the Mizrahi group."

So what you are saying is that you yourself created your identity, that you, with a clear mind, created A.B. Yehoshua the Israeli?

"Yes. Yes. I think it's a primary right of a person to create his identity. Identity is something you decide on. Something you choose."

Don't you ever get identity panic? Don't you sometimes have the feeling that the new Israeliness that you and the others forged is superficial, a bit flawed, not completely stable?

"There are moments of identity panic. Especially when I now see a million Israelis trying to get Polish passports. That depresses me so much. Sometimes I'm afraid that I will remain alone here. They of all people, who came here with that whole horrific Holocaust, will go back to being Europeans, while I will remain here alone, with ancient Jerusalem. With Jerusalem of the Old Yishuv [the pre-Zionist, largely Sephardi Jewish community of Jerusalem]. That makes me so mad I want to die.

"But all in all, I believe in Israeliness. I think it's stronger than we imagine. Look how it absorbed the Russians into it. And I believe it can absorb the Arabs into it, too. If we arrange the matter of the border and create a defined reality here of a country and a border and a language and a state framework, a normal national identity will take root here in the end."

Your Israeli model is actually quite republican. You are attracted to the French Republic. You believe in a quasi-French fusion of modernity, enlightenment, secularity and centralism, do you not?

"True, true. For example, I was very happy about their decision concerning head coverings. I think that is an exceptional decision. Because if people want a head covering, let them wear it at home. But in the state schools there are norms, there are codes, there are certain values. A woman's face should not be covered. I believe that thanks to that decision, the French will digest their five million Muslims. I believe in their centralistic tummy.

"It's the same here. I don't accept the criticism about what was done here in the 1950s [in regard to the Mizrahi immigrants]. The melting pot was the right idea. There was no choice; you had to take the new immigrants from the countries of the Near East and subject them to modernization and place them within rational systems. Possibly it was done a bit brutally, but at bottom it was a correct move. It's precisely in the melting pot that you find solidarity. Precisely in the melting pot there is a dialogue of all the groups with one clear center.

"And as I see it, it's no coincidence that the gaps here have been increasing ever since people here started talking about multiculturalism. Because the fact is that multiculturalism and pluralism and the legitimacy of feeling affronted and inflated are harmful to the Mizrahim. When you let everyone remain in his world, you are actually saying that the strong will be strong and the weak will remain weak. Instead of building a cohesive society, you are creating a reality in which there are weak, backward enclaves that are incapable of coping, and that give themselves over to weeping and wailing."

The great failure

Beneath your passionate Israeliness, I discern a large fear: a fear of the Jews.

"I have a fear of the partial identity of the Jews. Of the ability they have developed to enter into the fabric of others' lives. To live without borders, without taking responsibility. To be both here and there. Neither here nor there. And to maintain some sort of elusive existence. Without a clear identity. I think that's dangerous. I think that by our entering deeply into identities of other peoples we threaten them. Something about our way of life agitates them. Our unclarity and our flexibility and our intrusiveness frighten them and cause these sick interactions between them and us."

Last year you wrote a long article about anti-Semitism which will be published in another few months in a special issue of the periodical Alpayim. Would it be correct to say that in the article you effectively try to understand the anti-Semites and show that hatred of the Jews is not illogical?

"I do not justify any anti-Semite. And I also do not try to understand the anti-Semites, but the anti-Semitic mechanism. But I do see Jewish history as a great failure. I think about the Holocaust every day. I think the time has come for us to draw conclusions from what happened to us. The time has come for us to understand that the unclarity of our identity is what led individuals and collectivities possessed of identity chaos to make us the target of terrifying projections. Our combination of religion and nationalism confused our neighbors and drove them crazy."

What you really think is that there is something intolerable about Jewish existence, isn't that so?

"It's not from malice. We didn't set out to drive them crazy. But the ambiguous situations we create have a way of arousing horrible things in problematic people. Identity chaos like Hitler's latches on to the Jewish unclarity and creates the greatest disaster that has ever befallen any people."

You are personally acquainted with this thing about identities that threaten one another, and possibly also the need to lay down clear lines to protect weak identities.

"Possibly. I truly believe in clear identities and in clear boundary lines between them. I think that one of the reasons for the current outbreak of anti-Semitism is the fact that Israel has blurred its borders. The moment Israel becomes unclear it drives the Jews crazy and drives the anti-Semites crazy; drives the Arabs crazy and drives the Christians crazy."

So there is a connection between your belief in the fence and in a border, and your need for clear and defined identity spaces. You flinch from the identity disquiet that is caused by vague or complex situations that are in large measure Jewish situations.

"Look, when I started to talk about a fence I was assailed by both the right and the left. And that is perfectly clear: after all, this phenomenon of the settlements, of embarking across the border, is a Jewish one. Only Jews could think that they can live in Hebron, surrounded by 150,000 Arabs. But on the left, too, there was a certain flinching from the fence. Good friends of mine such as [the writer] David Grossman said that a fence is a ghetto. Because the left is still thinking these nice thoughts about open borders.

"As I contemplated the criticism from the right and the left, I thought to myself that it was so Jewish, so Jewish. At its deep level, the debate was Jewish in character. Because Jews don't want borders; Jews want everything to be open. So it will be possible to move from here to there. So things won't be defined. And that is exactly why Zionism, to me, means that we will finally have a border. Ben-Gurion understood that and placed the issue at the center, but [Shimon] Peres and [Moshe] Dayan betrayed him. They gave up the idea of the border: they left us without a border."

Is it right to say that you see this terrible period we are going through as some sort of encounter of identity derangement, with the Jewish identity derangement nourishing the Arab identity derangement, and the opposite?

"There is no doubt about it. We have hooked our circulatory system to that of the Palestinians and the two nations are poisoning each other. We have a tendency to blur borders and toward identity unclarity, whereas with them deep suicidal elements are now erupting. Irrational elements. Arafat embodies all this. He is the most destructive thing that has ever happened to the Palestinians. He is a selfish being who is causing immeasurable damage. The worst thing of all is his need for anarchy. So we have to avoid entering into his anarchy and instead disengage from it. That is the key to our mental health. Disengagement is not only a government plan, it is a need to disengage from our life amid other peoples and with other peoples for 2,500 years. It is the need to free ourselves of our dybbuk of latching on to other nations, and to regroup in our territory.

"I want to tell you something about the Palestinians. We have to understand that they underwent an experience that is unexampled in human history. Suddenly some nation which had previously been considered a religion shows up and tells them, `Your country is actually our country.' Imagine if someone were to come to Haifa tomorrow and say that it's not Haifa at all, it's Abu Bakr. They underwent an experience that is outside the natural order. The experience is confusing them, and it can also drive them mad.

"Therefore the treatment of the conflict must be sensitive and special. The Palestinians have to be helped to emerge from the confusion that we are causing them - because of our lack of borders. And we must understand what a terrible thing we did in establishing the settlements. You see, after they were left with only 22 percent of Palestine we came and took all they had left [the Hebrew phrase, `took the poor man's lamb,' refers to 2 Samuel 12:1-4]. Because what did we do in planting the settlements? We told them, `You will forever remain without citizenship in your homeland. You will not get what even the starving Indian on the sidewalk in Calcutta has: an identity card.' Think how cruel that is. What a terrible wound it is. How we wounded them."

The sweet death

You've been writing for 40 years now - seven novels, three short story collections, plays, articles. Aren't you sick and tired of it all? Aren't you weary?

"Sometimes I feel sick and tired. Sometimes I say: Enough, pension. Pension, pension, pension."

But do you really see yourself no longer writing?

"Provided that all the horses around me also stop writing. If Amos [Oz] and Joshua [Kenaz] and all the others pledge to stop, then maybe we'll enter into a non-writing pact and we'll finally have quiet. But on the other hand, because I don't play golf or go fishing, I'll turn into a testy old man if I stop writing. So maybe, on second thought, it will be to everyone's benefit if I keep writing."

Isn't you r constant pairing with Amos Oz annoying?

"No. As a matter of fact, it's very calming. It's a true friendship that has been tempered during a great many years of constant dialogue."

Is there envy?

"The envy exists, it undoubtedly exists. But it's mutual, so it's balanced. The friendship between us and between the two families makes it creative and not swamp-like. Sometimes I think about the raging envy that would burn within us if we weren't close. It's fortunate, very fortunate that we are friends."

There is a great deal of death in your new novel. Is death closer to you now than it used to be?

"Death is always with me. I accept it as an integral part of life.