“My identity is Israeli,” Yehoshua told participants in a Washington symposium marking a century since the establishment of the American Jewish Committee. The author added the Jewish religion does not play a role for him and said the territory and language is what creates his identity as an Israeli.
During the forum held in the United States Library of Congress building, the Israeli author purported that the past 100 years were a failure in terms of the development of the Jewish people. He argued that one’s identity is crafted by his environment and the land he lives in. A Jewish Israeli is not the same thing as a Jewish Frenchman; every Jew has an identity linked to the territory he lives in, Yehoshua said. Whoever sits in Israel and daily makes dozens of fateful and relevant decisions for the continued existence of the Jews, he is the one ensuring continuity, he added.
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, rejected Yehoshua’s statements. Yehoshua is taking the concept “Jewish” and narrowing it down to mean just Israeli, Wieseltier said. The concept of Judaism existed long before Israel was established.
"There is Jewish religion, Jewish culture, Jewish literature, texts that have been with us form 3,000 years," he argued. “Why do you insist on narrowing it down to Israeliness?”.
The audience in the auditorium was astonished by Yehoshua’s statements, and a few of the panelists and guests referred to the tireless contributions and efforts of American Jews towards the State of Israel in rejecting Yehoshua’s statements.
The panel moderator, news anchor Ted Koppel, was also ruffled by the comments and told Yehoshua that the great contributions of Diaspora Jews to the continuity of the Jews as a people could not be disregarded.
"There is something very very special, universal and easily identifiable among all Jews; it is beyond territory, it is something we all have in common," Koppel said.
Executive Director of the AJC David Harris described Yehoshua as very impassioned, but subscribing to a classical Zionist viewpoint which considers the Diaspora as marginal and irrelevant to the future of the Jewish people.
Yehoshua was not granted much support by the audience, Harris said. On the contrary, he pointed out, many in the audience were insulted by his words, which cancel out their own role in helping to shape Judaism’s future.
The AJC’s yearly forum opened Monday in Washington, hosting speakers from 52 countries and culminates in a gala ball on Thursday, to be attended by United States President George Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.