Who Needs the Diaspora?

Some historians divide the history of Israel into two periods: before the Yom Kippur War and after it. But as a matter of fact, a longer dividing line between the two periods begins in 1967 and ends after 1973. Between the Six-Day War to the years following the Yom Kippur War Israeli society changed beyond recognition. Dramatic historical processes came into fruition in these years, completely transforming the nature of Israel.

The brilliant military victory of the Six-Day War fully validated the idea of the “New Jew,” the fundamental  Zionist ideal: a strong person who knows how to defend himself, a person of action, who takes his destiny into his own hands,  and who is not a slaved to money. Prof. Shmuel Eisenstadt, a prominent Israeli sociologist, argues that “in fact the first years after the Six-Day War were portrayed, both in Israel and abroad, as the ultimate fulfillment of the Zionist vision, as the best evidence to its validity and vitality” (Eisenstadt, Israel Society). Israeli society was caught up in euphoria, feeling that the danger had been eradicated; its heroes were generals and brave soldiers – not intellectuals. Around the world, Israelis were perceived as brave people, and Jews living outside of Israel, the Jews of the Diaspora, seemed weak and passive.

But this feeling of power and security was shattered in an instant with the start of the Yom Kippur War. The unexpected military attack demolished the New Jew’s excessive belief in his strength. The physical threat and the fear that Israel would not survive the war changed the attitude of Israel to the Diaspora: no longer was it contented and condescending; now life in the Diaspora was often envied. Eisenstadt claimed that “in fact, the Israelis’ attitude to the Diaspora changed completely. In Israel’s first years they used to emphasize their ’natural superiority’ over Jew from the Diaspora[…] but this changed completely towards the end of the seventies.” A couple of years after the war the self-perception of Israelis completely transformed. The Jew of the Diaspora was no longer a derogatory term.

The Lover by A.B.Yehoshua was published in 1977, four years after the Yom Kippur War. The book is composed of monologues of six characters: Adam, a successful auto repair shop owner, his wife Asya, a graceless teacher, Dafi, their teenage daughter, Na’im, a young Arab man who becomes Adam’s personal assistant,  Gabriel, an Israeli who left Israel years ago to live in France, and Vaducha, his grandmother. Adam, the protagonist, was born and raised in Israel, his economic success the result of hard work and perseverance. Bearded, short and sturdy, he is powerful and impressive. After years of marriage and having lost a son killed in a car accident, he cares deeply for his wife but isn’t attracted to her. Into his large garage in Haifa walks Gabriel, who used to live in Israel and who returned to collect his inheritance after the death of his grandmother. To his great surprise, he finds she is still alive.  Adam is very fond of Gabriel; he invites him into his home and persuades him to be his wife’s lover.

But then the Yom Kippur War breaks out. Adam suggests to Gabriel that he inform the army that he is visiting Israel, positive that he will be released immediately. But Gabriel disappears and can’t be found for six months. Adam goes looking for him, trying to locate his wife’s lover. After several months he discovers that Gabriel was drafted into a military unit on its way to the Egyptian front. With the help of some Orthodox Jews coming to pray with the soldiers, he flees the front line and becomes the driver of a rabbi in Jerusalem.

The Lover is a rich, multi-layered novel – but the crux of the plot is Adam’s search for Gabriel. Adam is the New Jew: a manual worker, strong, both physically and mentally, determined, successful and impressive. He actively shapes his life, establishing and operating the auto repair shop. Unlike him, Gabriel has almost the precise features of the idea of the Diaspora Jew: moving from one place to another, finding all sorts of jobs, pale, weak, wearing a suit though he can’t stand the Mediterranean sun. Motivated by his hankering after money he returns to Israel, and he is now waiting for his grandmother to die. When he finds himself on a battlefield, he quickly escapes. But unlike Adam, he has an intellectual bent, reading and sometimes editing; he is a refined, spiritual soul. And though the image of the Diaspora Jew was born in the minds of European thinkers, Gabriel is a Sephardi Jew, indicating that Diaspora Jews reside in various places and aren’t necessarily Ashkenazi. The heart of this character is Gabriel’s weak, but delicate, nature.

Well, then, why is the New Jew in search of the Diaspora Jew? Why does he drive around for months searching for him? Why does he need his wife’s lover so badly? The answers can be found in the historical circumstances depicted in the novel: the crisis that the Yom Kippur War creates, the existential fear it generates, the sense of confusion, all these drive the New Jew to seek the empathy of the Diaspora Jew. He needs his gentle nature, his spirituality, perhaps even his passivity, drifting from one place to another.

So who needs the Diaspora? We do, says A.B.Yehoshua. Not as a negation of Zionism, but as a feeling that important Jewish qualities have been lost in the Zionist struggle. Power, activism, and self-preservation are not enough; Adam finds himself longing for tenderness, for an intellectual bent, for someone not as determined as himself.

The portrayal of Israel tends to focus on Left and Right. But even today there is more than a choice between these two fundamental images. Every Israeli places ermself on a spectrum: on one side is the strong, determined but somewhat elemental New Jew, and on the other, a vulnerable and passive, yet refined and spiritual Diaspora Jew.

About the Author
Emanuela Barasch-Rubinstein is an author, academic in the Humanities, and a blogger. She wrote Five Selves, a collection of five stories published in the UK. Her academic books deal with cultural interpretations of Nazism. She runs a blog on cultural themes and Israel: onourselvesandothers.com
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