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.