Baggage Carousel: conversations with George Steiner and A B Yehoshua on Jews and home


The American writer Nicole Krauss wrote in the New Yorker a couple of years ago that ‘for certain Israeli and American Jews, Israel has always been the strongbox of Jewishness, the place where the most vivid, authentic strain of its modern existence has been unfolding for the last sixty-five years, and there has been a constant stream of American Jews passing through Ben Gurion Airport on their way to imbibe this heady brew from the source.’ For sixty-five years this vision of the symbiotic relationship between Israel and the communities of the diaspora, the idea of the ‘authentic’ Jewish experience in Israel that is nourished by a constant flow of charity and unwavering political backing from the diaspora, has been vigorously promoted.

Of late though, this narrative has taken a bludgeoning, with a younger generation of diaspora Jews increasingly unwilling to back unreservedly the military might of Israel as it batters the Palestinian population of Gaza, and a dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora that has become increasingly fractious.

Indeed, in a book published in 2007, New Jews: the end of the Jewish Diaspora, David Schneer and Caryn Aviv claim that the traditional Israel-Diaspora dichotomy no longer exists. They argue that the cultural, religious, and geographic hierarchies encoded within the concepts of ‘Israel’ and ‘Diaspora’ are no longer meaningful for many younger Jews outside Israel, who are constructing positive identities no longer based around the polarities of Israel and antisemitism. As one of the authors, David Schneer, said in these pages, (JQ winter 2008) Israel is no longer necessarily the Promised Land for Jews living outside the country. ‘For sixty years, Jews in Israel and the diaspora have organized themselves around the notion that the state of Israel — as opposed to the metaphoric Zion which Jews have been yearning to return to for thousands of years — is the centre of the Jewish people. Everything and everyone else is something we have called “the diaspora,” an idea suggesting displacement, dispersion, and the inability to lead a full Jewish life.’ Now, writes Schneer, ‘We have entered a new post-assimilationist, post-Soviet, post-Zionist world in which individual Jewish identity has come to rival collective Jewish peoplehood, and a new map with multiple Jewish homes is replacing the Israel-diaspora model…. [Younger diaspora Jews] are less and less interested in Israel and the Holocaust as constitutors of their Jewish identities…[whilst] Israeli Jews themselves have become among the most mobile, global, and transnational people on the face of the earth as they trek in places like India, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, and study and settle in places like the United States and Europe.’ But reading Schneer today, a few short months after the murders of Jews in Paris and Copenhagen, with a slew of highly charged if slightly hysterical newspaper articles about the future for Jews in Europe appearing alongside alarming accounts of attacks on Jewish students on American campuses, it is hard not to wonder if he and Aviv were not optimistically slightly ahead of themselves.

Of course, the rejection of the notion that Jewish identity finds its apotheosis in Jewish nationalism is not a new phenomenon. Professor George Steiner, Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge – where we met at his home – and one of Britain’s most illustrious public intellectuals, has long been an outspoken critic of Zionism and a passionate advocate of a Jewish diaspora identity. ‘I have always been persuaded that the future of Judaism is in exile,’ he tells me. ‘As the Bal Shem taught us, truth is always in exile. It’s a wonderful principle. I have organised my whole life by it.’

Steiner positions himself in a continuum that found its intellectual apotheosis in a particular strand of post-Holocaust European thought, embodied by thinkers including Hannah Arendt, Edmond Jabès and Zygmund Bauman. Arendt, taking her inspiration from the 19th century French journalist and anarchist Bernard Lazare, developed the notion of the Jew as ‘pariah’: ‘During the 150 years when Jews truly lived amidst, and not just in the neighbourhood of, Western European peoples, they always had to pay with political misery for social glory and with social insult for political success.’ Arendt believed that this unconditional outsider status had the potential to confer on certain Jews the possibility of transcending ‘the bounds of nationality and [of weaving] the strands of their Jewish genius into the general texture of European life.’ Steiner posits a similarly passionate vision of the Jew as perennial outsider: ‘I believe that the peculiar and deep genius of the Jew is to wander,’ he says. In ‘George Steiner’s Jewish Problem,’ a long and thoughtful essay in the magazine Azure (issue no. 15, Summer 2003), Assaf Sagiv explains the influence of Heidegger’s Being and Time on Steiner. For Heidegger, man is thrown into existence at birth, and must regard his place in the world as one who is ‘dwelling in a house of which he is, at his rare best, a custodian, but never architect or proprietor.’ According to Sagiv, Steiner was ‘utterly persuaded’ by Heidegger’s words, embracing and amplifying this idea with respect to the Jews: ‘All of us are guests of life. No human being knows the meaning of its creation, except in the most primitive, biological regard. No man or woman knows the purpose, if any, the possible significance of their “being thrown” into the mystery of existence.’ The idea of Jews as being “guests-in-life” is one that he has reiterated in his writing. Now 86, having lived a long and fruitful life in different countries and several languages, Steiner tells me, clearly alluding to this idea but perhaps thinking of it a little differently with age, ‘When you come to a house as a guest, you must try and leave the house a little nicer than you found it.’

Moving on is a constituent part of Steiner’s story. Born in Neuilly sur Seine, just outside Paris, in 1929, he and his family left France for New York in 1940, but not before he had glimpsed a little of the horror that was to come. ‘My father was extremely calm about these problems and when the first anti-Semitic demonstrations happened where we were living my mother wanted to close all the shutters. But my father took me to the window and said, “You must see what’s going on, it’s called history. And you must never be frightened.” That was a decisive moment in my life.’

Perhaps because of his own experiences – he has lived and taught in France, the US, the UK and Switzerland – he is remarkably sanguine about the challenges that face those Jews who, victims of anti-Semitism, must leave their homes: ‘When the time comes and you have to get out, keep your bag packed. The whole world is interesting. I can’t imagine any place that isn’t fascinating. I can’t imagine a language I wouldn’t want to learn… Often your hosts don’t want you. It is part of the genius of Jewish adaptation, that where we go we have had a chance to create, to teach, to learn. It’s terribly interesting, wherever you go. I can’t imagine how it is possible to be bored. Existence is the contrary of boredom. It is the continual challenge, a continual provocation.’

Steiner has met with a huge amount of hostility (misplaced, in my opinion) throughout his career for his vocal opposition to Zionism and his criticism of Israel, but when we meet he strikes me as more melancholy than fierce on the subject. ‘When Israel is in danger we all become Zionists. Temporary, honorary Zionists. That I can fully understand. They are after all our brothers and sisters. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with them. And it does not mean that I feel I should go… Many years ago I was offered one or two major posts in Israel, and I had to think about it. Yes, I had a little Hebrew from my bar mitzvah, but I did not continue with Hebrew, I plunged into Greek and Latin, the other road. Perhaps that was a great mistake. If I had learned Hebrew properly maybe I could have contributed to making Israel a more liberal, a more humane place. But I have forfeited that chance, and I have no right to criticise where I am not prepared to take the risks and to contribute. And the risks are of course enormous in Israel. But that does not mean one has to agree with their policy.’


The Israeli novelist A B Yehoshua has also garnered opprobrium for his insistence on distinguishing between the ‘partial’ Jewish identity of the diaspora Jew, and the ‘total’ Jewish identity of the Jew who is a citizen of Israel, which he considers to be ‘the framework for an actualised ethics of Jewish contemporary life.’

In 2006 Yehoshua sparked controversy at an American Jewish Committee symposium when he claimed that diaspora Jews are merely ‘playing with Jewishness’. The reaction to his presentation, both in Israel and America, was extremely negative. He was accused of failing to recognise that American Jewry is serious about its Jewish future and that the vitality of American Jewry is essential to the security and wellbeing of Israel. Yehoshua insists that he was misrepresented in the debate, although his explanation to me struck me as no less judgemental: ‘The refusal of diaspora Jews to accept this distinction between Israelis and themselves emanates, in my opinion, from the perception that there is an implicit value judgement in what I suggest. It is as if the Israeli Jew is better than the diaspora Jew. I have never used the term good Jew or bad Jew, or good German, or bad German, but instead have employed the concept of a good or bad person in accordance with universal ethical values that don’t relate to national identity. Therefore the difference of total or partial is only a difference in situation, and not in quality.’

Yehoshua has been widely, and erroneously, quoted as telling the AJC audience that Judaism outside Israel has no future. ‘The diaspora has been around for over 2,500 years, and there is no reason that it shouldn’t last for another 2,500 years. I believe that just as there will be settlers in space and on Mars, there will also be Jewish communities who will still sing “next year in Jerusalem”. I am not as certain, I am sad to say, that the state of Israel will last another hundred years, if she doesn’t find a reasonable modus vivendi with her neighbours in general, and the Palestinians in particular.’

Yehoshua reserves his harshest criticism for young Israeli Jews choosing to build lives outside Israel, suggesting that Israelis moving to Berlin are shirking their moral responsibilities: ‘I am very distressed,’ he tells me in an email, ‘over every Israeli that leaves the Land and relinquishes his encounter with his Israeli identity that struggles over its values and principles…. If an Israeli wants to be a German, and to identify with the German experience, that is his right, but if he wants to abandon his nuanced Israeli identity that struggles for its status and its values in favour of a Jewish identity that is based on holiday dinners hosted by Chabad in the diaspora, I would feel great pain in my heart.’ Steiner, by contrast, sees the revitalisation of Jewish life in Europe after the Holocaust as a ‘crazy miracle! In some places there are more Jews now than before the Shoah. This is a scandal, a wonderful scandal! I insist on the word scandal. After the Shoah how could we go back? There are more Jews in Berlin now than before the Shoah. Can you imagine! Just think of the paradox, of the way we have an alliance with life. The Jewish nature and history is to try and make a partner of life, this strange, fantastic vitality’.

Steiner is nonetheless deeply troubled by the widespread political disengagement that he perceives in young people today. There is ‘a kind of abdication from the political process…. The crisis now in Western democracies is that the young are not interested. The crisis is a kind of apathy of the soul, in front of the political process. When I was at Oxford, when I first came to Cambridge, the most gifted hoped to go into Parliament, the civil service or politics; today first you make your millions in the hedge funds or the City, or you teach, or you do social work – but not politics. The abdication of the young from the political process is probably the biggest single danger that now faces the west. There is contempt for the political process… We have never [had that] before in Britain – and now we do.’ Yehoshua senses something similar in the young Israelis who are moving away from Israel and ‘removing themselves even more from the true burning ethical dilemmas that test the Judaism of today…In every democratic country, citizens are forced to act in tandem with the will of the majority, but this, unlike in the diaspora, is at the heart of an Israeli’s Jewish identity, that is formed by these decisions.’ Israelis who choose to live in the diaspora have, he says, chosen to release themselves from the obligation of grappling with the ‘reality of mutual commitment.’ I wonder. Many of these young Israelis, surely, have decided to turn their back on not so much on the reality of mutual commitment, but on the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a government so obsessed with security that the struggles of ordinary citizens are simply not on the agenda. Perhaps, as Yehoshua says, they are ‘just tired of life in Israel.’

In spite of the radical differences in their conception of Jewish identity, what Steiner and Yehoshua do have in common is a piercing nostalgia. Steiner is nostalgic for a kind of exilic discomfort that he believes is the source of what he calls Jewish genius. He wonders if Jews in Europe and America are too ‘comfortable’ nowadays, as though for that genius to flourish, we must never forget our status as a ‘guests’, with our bags packed so that we are always ready to leave. ‘Those lovely Jewish homes,’ he says sadly, ‘with great cultural traditions, are no longer. Literature, art, music – when you think what a Jewish home was, in Vienna St Petersburg, Warsaw, Paris – when you think that books were the centre of life. Do we Jews deserve another crisis? Yes, to come and educate us.’ Yehoshua, a fifth generation Jerusalemite, appears deeply nostalgic for an era when Zionism was purer of principle, when Jews came to Palestine, and later Israel, because of a burning desire to be part of the Zionist project and a passionate belief in the Herzlian ideal of the normalisation of Jewish existence in their own state.

But perhaps the most important thing that Steiner and Yehoshua share, with their enormous eloquence and learning and in spite of the deep ideological chasm that divides them, is an idealised conception of secular Jewish identity that is anchored in a profound, humanistic fervour for knowledge and ideas. Sadly, I think they have reason to be nostalgic for that too.


Published in the Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2015 issue