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​The feminist revolution is not over

· Dialogues ·

Abraham Yehoshua is one of the best known living Israeli writers in the world: interviewed for Women Church Worldon Jerusalem, on the issue of women and on the current significance of literature, he has condensed his answers in three texts which exemplify the subject and style of his novels in which an experiential content narrated in a subdued manner refers to powerful and universal demands for meaning.

Elena Buia Rutt, Francesca Bugliani Knox


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lately become ever more prominent if it is interpreted at a religious level. It is a conflict which is gaining strength between radical Islam and the religious fanaticism that is ever increasing in some circles of Jewish society. In this complex constellation one ends by forgetting the Palestinians of Christian faith, both in Israel itself and in the West Bank occupied by Israel.

The Palestinian Christians belong to a lineage which has been present in the Holy Land since antiquity. Even after Christianity became separated from the Jewish nation and St Paul’s Gospel took flight from the Holy Land to address all humanity, the Jews who had converted to Christianity stayed faithful to the land of Israel as their historic homeland. They received a special status which not only sees them as custodians of the holy places, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth, but also confirms that Christianity does not deny Judaism but on the contrary broadens and enriches it with an important and innovative human content which is not subservient to the precepts established by the Torah and by the Halacha (the body of Jewish religious norms).

It is true that at the time when these Jews converted they ceased to belong to the Jewish people but, from my point of view, the Christian Palestinians have great importance in the historical memory of the Israelis with regard to the Land of Israel. The Jewish archaeological sites that have survived in Israel to our day, those dating from both the period of the Second Temple and the subsequent centuries, are few and far between. By contrast, it is precisely the monasteries and churches, built over the course of the many centuries in which the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel was scant, if not totally absent, together with the Christian presence in the period of the Crusades, that confer on Israelis, today intent on forging their identity through the Hebrew language and the territory itself, a source of riches and a further advantage. Therefore the Christian symbols in the Land of Israel are becoming part of a national identity which is being renewed and it is not surprising that in many Israeli artworks and in much of the literature of the past century the figures of Jesus and of the other disciples re-emerge. Indeed, in the Land of Israel the Christian Jesus is not an enemy of the Jews, as he is in the diaspora, but rather, as I have explained, a part of their inheritance which is being renewed in the language and in the territory.

In Jerusalem, especially in the Old City which has a total surface area of one square kilometre, Jews, Muslims and Christians live in close contact. And in this square kilometre, more than in any other place in the world, the majority of the sacred places of prime importance are to be found in close juxtaposition. I might add that whereas the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Sepulchre are beautiful and imposing sites, the Wailing Wall, in other words the ruins of the outer walls that surrounded the Second Temple, is a site which to my mind is lacking in depth and religious beauty, whose significance lies wholly in the memory of the destruction of the Temple which will never be rebuilt.

Israel controls Jerusalem and Jewish and Muslim fanatics are in a never-ending conflict. Therefore the Christians, and it doesn’t matter whether they are Catholics, Maronites, Orthodox or Protestants, must join forces to invite the other two religions to a different type of cooperation, not on an ethnic but on a religious and spiritual basis, to seek to liberate this demanding place in which contradictions and conflicts exist that can still flare up into serious violence, to the point of resulting dramatically in a tragedy capable of involving the entire region.

Only Christians, above all Catholics under the Vatican’s guidance, as partners not involved in the heart of the ethnic-religious conflict with regard to the Temple Mount and to the destroyed Temple, can claim and impose a more authoritative voice with the support of the strong Catholic countries of Europe, South America and Asia. Theodor Herzl, father of Zionism also known as the Visionary of the Jewish State, already said at the end of the 19th century that Jerusalem belonged to no one because it belonged to everyone.

The United States Evangelicals, moreover, are no help. Indeed they sometimes pour more petrol on the fire because of a distorted concept on the basis of which Jews must fight Islam for the Christian Messiah, who will not only save the whole world from suffering but will also convert the Jews into Christian believers. So much is this the case that in the current political situation in the United States Evangelical Christians, who have great influence in the circles of the Republican Government, are being transformed into supporters of fundamentalism and of Jewish supremacy over Jerusalem.

For many years Vatican Governments refused to recognize the State of Israel and to establish relations with it. Now that these relations are solid and productive, the Vatican has a full right to claim from Israel, which has supremacy over Jerusalem, that it hold off the ethnic-religious fundamentalists and attain a coexistence respectful of all three faiths. Still today a destructive potential is inherent in the Old City of Jerusalem – in which the sacred places are located – which is the source of bloody conflicts and must therefore receive a different status, even after Trump has recognized it, including its Palestinian part, as the capital of Israel, since it is clear to all that Jerusalem itself will never be further divided and that it will not be possible to have an international border within it. The world’s Christians, and especially those of Europe, must emerge from the passivity with which they have recently approached this issue and make themselves guardians of the holiness and the fair balance between the three great religions. I hope that the Pope is not cautious on this subject but rather that he is daring and takes the initiative, not only with declarations but also by advancing concrete and assertive requests to Israeli Governments.

The “people of Israel” (I prefer this original title to the “Jewish people”) is a people of ancient origins which for thousands of years did not live in its own land. Therefore its identity exists thanks to religious and national myths, linked above all to books, which it why it also calls itself the “people of the book”. It is of course hard to preserve a national identity through books alone and so most of the people have undergone a process of assimilation over the generations and, from three million at the beginning of the first century AD, the people of Israel notably decreased in number until at the beginning of the 18th century they numbered only one million. The late return to the renewal and building of the national identity also though the territory, that is, the return to the Land of Israel, for the most part natural for other peoples, was instead revolutionary and complex for the Jewish people. If the old myths, in particular through religion, still continue to be important for their historical identity, in addition to the fact that half the Jewish people still live in the diaspora, it is also true that in the ancient-new territory new historical horizons have unfolded. In this way today in Israel two forces work in parallel; they are sometimes marvellously amalgamated with each other and at other times clash: on the one hand there is modernity, the source of great inspiration for all that concerns the army, industry, medicine, the government, etc., and on the other hand an attachment to the ancient biblical myths from which stems the continuation of the Palestinians’ occupation of the West Bank, something that creates serious ethical and existential problems both within Israel and beyond its boundaries.

From my point of view if we were to separate ourselves from the myths that are found in the sacred books in order to concentrate on a new and creative analysis of the reality around us, we could transform the Zionist revolution, whose meaning is the return to “national normality” into a correct and more just normality for a world that is constantly changing before our eyes.

As I see it the “feminist revolution” was the most important revolution of the second half of the 20th century: it is not over and still faces many obstacles but there is no doubt that the sign of openness has been given and an awareness of the discrimination against women over the course of millennia is permeating public awareness. There is no doubt that the slowing of development in a large part of the Muslim world, in particular the Arab world, stems from the status of inferiority of women who are still subordinate to men. Just as there is no doubt, for example, that the incredible progress of China derives from women’s liberation and from the improvement of their social condition.

I have personally lived with great contentment and fullness a marriage that lasted for 56 years with my wife who is now dead. I think that the key to such joy and harmony lay in the fact that right from the start it was clear to me that I should establish full equality regarding our reciprocal rights and duties. This was particularly because in my parents’ home I witnessed that my mother, in spite of having a strong intellectual and practical potential, was forced to give up her own fulfilment in order to be only a housewife. I felt urged not only to encourage my wife to build a career for herself, but also to assume with full rights and willingly the duty of supporting de facto the advancement of this career in collaboration with her, that is, concerning myself with looking after the house and our children, sometimes even to the detriment of my own work.

The key word is equality. For obvious reasons it is very easy to violate it while to be faithful to it is equally difficult. Therefore, when I describe conjugal life in my short stories and novels, I seek as far as possible to show its positive potential, despite difficulties and quarrels. Unlike the relationship with one’s own children or parents, where the bond is based on an undeniable biological relationship, the conjugal relationship, however enduring and happy it may be, can be destroyed with a single blow. I do not of course accept the position of the Catholic Church which firmly denies divorce, but I am in agreement with opposing any easy and immediate break-up of the marital union. My wife Rivka, of blessed memory, who was a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, in times of crisis always fought beside her patients to save their marriages. It is easy to destroy and difficult to build. In addition to the fact that in many cases, following separation, both parties subsequently reproduce the same model of problematic relations.

Many studies on feminism have been published and it continues to be a burning topic of public interest. It oscillates between two visions: one that sees women as completely equal to men and therefore does not expect from their political, social, managerial or academic conduct anything which uniquely distinguishes their work and their abilities from those of men, and another vision in which women, in the guise of guides in politics, economics or law, succeed in drawing from their own femininity capacities different from those of men, pouring out and channelling the traditional female nature into the new roles that they have taken on. The revolution of course is not over, not only because in many cultures women are still subjugated in various ways, but because even in countries in which the formal, long-awaited equality seems to have been truly achieved, it is still necessary to investigate it and to deepen knowledge of its aspects, so that it is not perceived as uniquely formal to the detriment of the nature, needs and specific characteristics of each sex.

In Israeli religious society there is still an obvious discrimination against women which is justified by obscurantist and fundamentalist rabbis. Thus the feminist revolution must be concerned not only with the women present in economic or academic sectors but also first of all with its ceaseless and daring struggle for freedom and equality in the Jewish religious world. Unfortunately, because of the never-ending conflict between right and left, the religious milieu ends by acquiring a political content which neutralizes general national interests.

Lastly it seems to me that literature, the cinema and the theatre have recently lost some of their importance in public discourse; an importance considered significant in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th in particular. The production of literature, novels and stories, as well as the increasing blossoming of films and television series, has become “easier” in comparison with the past. Modern technology has made the possibility of creating books and films far more economical. The channels of communication have notably increased, people have more leisure and so can “consume more culture”. Nevertheless – but perhaps I am looking at reality from the viewpoint of an old man who does not fully understand the new – it seems to me that all this abundance of creativity and art, despite the sophisticated public relations, does not give rise to the same emotional, ethical and political charge which emanated from the excellent works of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th. In the context of a journalistic interview, I do not wish to go into all the details of this question, but in my opinion literature, and in a certain sense also the cinema and the theatre, have given up the need to put ethical dilemmas of good and evil on centre stage, as for example did Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, and the works of Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Pirandello and others. Psychology has repressed ethical judgement, on the basis of the patient principle of “understanding means excusing”. The legal system in the modern and democratic world has become the ethical authority which establishes that everything legal automatically becomes ethical. Although with their speed mass media carry out a task of verification and sometimes establish tribunals, making judgements on what is good or bad, they are no substitute for art’s ability to give life to an experiential ethical workshop in which the reader or spectator, through their capacity for profound interiorization and identification, sifts through ethical situations, old and also completely new, to refine their perception and comprehension. Literature has ultimately renounced both the centrality of the ethical debate on its works and the taking of definite ethical positions, because of the suspicion of disregarding, even only partially, the post-modern theories which deny human beings the authority to establish “superior” ethical rules, or in the face of the concept of the “politically correct” which causes a whole series of new sensitivities to emerge, which cannot be examined within well-defined ethical categories.

In conclusion, I believe that literature, the theatre and the cinema must return to expressing, at least in part, the need to raise new and bold ethical dilemmas, putting them in the forefront. When I taught literature at the university I selected and examined various works solely from the ethical point of view. This means that I was not concerned with the psychological, historical, linguistic or biographical aspects but referred only to the ethical aspect present in them. And then came the revelation to my students of new and revolutionary implications which one would never have expected.

I therefore propose to the readers of this interview that they examine for themselves the story of Cain and Abel. The narration of the first homicide in the Bible ends in a way in which not only does the homicide go unpunished, but on the contrary the personal situation of its perpetrator improves. What does all this mean? Why can only a deep ethical examination reveal the serious theological problem that is concealed behind this event?

Abraham Yehoshua

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