Politically incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea

This is my review of  Politically Incorrect: Why a Jewish State is a Bad Idea  by Ofra Yeshua-Lyth

I came to read this book through being so intrigued by a third generation Jewish Israeli journalist who felt impelled to write such a provocatively titled memoir. Her assessment of the errors which she believes will cause the ongoing “inner crumbling” of Israel in its present form are refracted through article-like chapters on her life and that of her family members back to  the economic need or desire for freedom from religious control which led them to emigrate to the land of Israel before it became an independent state.

Ofra Yeshua-Lyth does not  condemn the existence of Israel as such. Two weeks after the end of the Six Day War, she set off without a qualm on a family tour of the newly occupied West Bank. When Egyptian President Sadat  recognised Israel in his historic meeting with the right-wing leader Menachem Begin, she wrote optimistically of her country finding “its true vocation, which is to become an integral part of the Middle East” without the intercession of “meddling” foreign diplomats, distorting issues and restricting “the power of the imagination” through translating Hebrew and Arabic via the medium of the English language. These views are not surprising, since as a child she was taught how her grandparents  had come to the country and built it up from nothing, and that she had a responsibility to continue their work in a unique but vulnerable Israel. “The only Jewish state in the world was small but brave, poor but just”.

Perhaps the experience of being half-Yemeni, in a racially prejudiced Israel initially dominated by white east European Ashkenazi Jews, made the author more sympathetic to the growing plight of the Palestinian Arabs dispossessed  of the their lands. Certainly, by the end of the book she is advocating dismantling unauthorised settlements in more than a cosmetic exercise and getting out of lands illegally settled under international law. In what she insists is “not mission impossible”, the author argues that the land which Ariel Sharon claimed could take 15 million residents should be one where Jews and Palestinians agree to “live in a normal state as equal citizens living in one territory”, rather than one reserved for those with “the right religion as an entry card”.

This is why her initial and most polemical focus is on the negative implications of the alliance which has grown between the government and deeply religious Orthodox Jews who maintain the raison d’être for an exclusive and expansionist state.  She describes the heavy state support for the lifestyles of the Haredi, whose menfolk devote their lives to studying religious texts, exempt from national service, and massive subsidies for the settlers of the occupied territories, “easily identifiable by their uniform of yarmulkes and bearded faces and by their battered vehicles overloaded with children”. In addition, she lambasts the increased Orthodox influence on state education,   and its controls on marriage to non-Jews, weddings, funerals, and the practice of circumcision even for secular Jews, not to mention kosher food, all of which serve to maintain a sense of  inward-looking separation and superiority.

This book is often wordy and long-winded, assumes a good deal of prior knowledge, sometimes seems too subjective, slapdash or stilted in style. I imagine it will enrage many of the author’s compatriots, but in its  frankness and heart-felt sincerity, it is also a very informative, thought-provoking, insightful with wry humour, evocative, fascinating read.

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