A.B. Yehoshua and Zionism’s identity politics

Acclaimed Israeli novelist uses identity politics as a way to absolve Israel of responsibility for its actions

A.B. Yehoshua, the acclaimed Israeli fiction author, has an opinion piece in today’s Haaretz where he addresses a fundamental question: why has the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gone on for so long. For Yehoshua, the answer is simple; identity. He writes:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a question of territory, as in the case of many historical conflicts between nations, but a battle over the national identity of the entire homeland – every stone and every part of it.

Identity is a prevalent theme of Yehoshua’s political and fiction writing. In 2006, Yehoshua created a controversy with comments about the Jewish identity of Diaspora Jews. He argued that Diaspora Jews lack a ‘Jewish civic identity’ which prohibits them from a truly Jewish ‘skin’ like those that live in the (Zionist) state of Israel. The implication is clear; Zionism is the only legitimate expression of Jewish identity. Diaspora Jews are deluding themselves into thinking otherwise. Naturally, Diaspora Jewish groups condemned the comments as outlandish.

Yehoshua argues in Haaretz that the conflict is intractable because of an identity which necessitates a claim to the land for both Israelis and Palestinians. His position does not take into account any historical or current fact. He ignores the occupation and a history of settler colonialism which contributes directly to one of the Palestinian’s primary grievances in the conflict.

The Jewish people thus quickly ingathered from all corners of the world. They did not want to expel the Palestinians, and certainly not to destroy them, but neither did they want to integrate them into Jewish society as other nations did with the local residents. Moreover, there was no attempt here to impose a colonial regime, since the Jews had no mother country that had sent them on colonial conquests, as in the case of Britain or France.

For Zionist thinkers, identity politics has always been the preferred avenue of debate regarding the conflict. Not only does the question of identity, as you can see in Yehoshua’s opinion piece, highlight the legitimacy of the Zionist claim to historic Palestine, it also ignores facts on the ground. In other words, if we understand the conflict in terms of Zionism (i.e. identity of the Jewish people, claim to the land, historical justice, etc), then we can forget about the unmitigated aggression of Israel in its maintenance of its military occupation of Palestinian land.

The Palestinians merely become another people which have similar claims to the land. There is little discussion of our interaction with them and no discussion of our occupation of them or their land. We are able to talk about the conflict in abstract terms which imply intractability as identity conflicts often are. In essence, Yehoshua absolves Israel of responsibility for its violent crimes against Palestinians by focusing on the identity politics of Zionism.

The German Jewish writer Gustav Landauer once wrote of socialism, that in order to save it we must move past it in our minds and our hearts. Yehoshua would be wise to follow this advice in reference to Zionism. In order to save the Zionism which he is fighting for, he might have to move past its arrogance and ignorance. Only then, will Yehoshua and the other defenders of Zionism be able to approach the conflict with a clear head.