Progressives in the United States often make the mistake of believing that a person who embraces one set of left-leaning values must embrace them all, that there are no pro-abortion socialists, or avant-garde fascists, or gay neocons. Wrong. Social, cultural, and political values do not always imply each other. Zeek talked with Yossi Avni-Levy about the intersection of his three identities: gay man, cutting-edge novelist, and long-time civil servant in the Israeli Foreign Ministry where he has served under both centrist Tzipi Livni and arch-rightist Avigdor Lieberman.
Zeek: You are an unusual man, a diplomat who is also a novelist. Tell me about A Man Without Shadow, which has not yet been translated into English, but which I understand is being made into a feature film in Israel.
Yossi: I hope it will be a great film. The book is based on a true story, about an Israeli diplomat Yonatan, based in Berlin. He meets a handsome East German guy who turns out to be a spy. The hidden love affair turns into a conspiracy story where the KGB, MI5, the CIA, even the Mossad are all involved. It’s a true story–I got it from a German guy I met in Berlin.
My most recent book, An Ode for Sins, which tells the story of a young Israeli guy, Boaz Shaashua, who comes to Poland to find the imaginary diary of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish head of the Lodz ghetto. Rumkowski was collaborating with the Germans, trying to save the young and strong in the ghetto, but he failed. This collaboration with evil is one of the main topics of the book.
It’s also part of my question, why am I, Yossi, the son of immigrants from Iran and Afghanistan, so magnetized by the Holocaust?
Zeek: You say often in interviews that you became fascinated with the Holocaust as a child. Looking back, do you think that interest might have come partly from feeling different from other Jews, maybe persecuted, as someone who was gay?
Yossi: That is an interesting question. I always knew that I was gay, my family knew. But I wanted to protect the religious members of my family. So I invented for myself a pen name, Yossi Avni. In my first three books, my stories revealed tales of loneliness, looking for love, finding a path to freedom and self-expression. They were about trying to find a way to live with myself in peace.
My two last books were written under my new name, Yossi Avni-Levy. Levy is my real family name. Now, I feel more confidence and achievement. Coming out of the closet let me remarry myself, the separate parts.
To your question, I don’t think there is a linkage between identifying with persecuted Jews and the Holocaust because I was never persecuted. I am proud to be Israeli. In spite of all the problems–in spite of the situation, terrorism, Jihad–Israel is one of the most liberal countries. I, a gay diplomat, am walking proof of that.
Zeek: You are a Sephardic Jew. Does it trouble you that Shas, the political party associated with Sephardi Jewry, has been so homophobic? I’m thinking of Shlomo Benizri’s statement that the 2008 earthquakes were caused by homosexuals. and the Shas party’s active efforts to block gay adoptions. Also, the party of the current foreign minister, Yisrael Beiteinu, your boss’s party, has opposed recognizing gay civil unions even while calling for recognition of straight civil unions. What happens when your personal and political lives clash?
Yossi: I don’t see a clash. You live your dignified life. The fact you are gay doesn’t play a role in your career. I represent Israel abroad and at home. I had five posts abroad and three posts in Israel. And I have colleagues who are also gay.
Zeek:Doesn’t that bother you when the party of the Foreign Minister appears to be homophobic?
Yossi:I don’t recall any instance of that. But I don’t belong to any party. I have no membership in any party. I keep my own political views to myself. I am a civil servant.
Zeek: I want to keep on the question of politics if you don’t mind. I read in translation a scene from your book, Auntie Farhuma Wasn’t a Whore After All. One of the characters is going to the doctor to diagnose a problem and the doctor puts up his stethoscope and says, more or less, you suffer from a longing, and that “the bad kind of nostalgia has no cure.” That made me think of Norman Finkelstein, who argues that the obsession with the Holocaust is a bad kind of nostalgia. Do you think your obsession with the Holocaust has really been a bad kind of nostalgia?
Yossi: My so-called obsession with the Holocaust has followed me since childhood. That quote from Auntie Farhuna was not about the Holocaust though—it was related to my longing for things that never happened. I miss things that never happen, to be in places I’ve never been. To feel longing for events that I purify and sanctify that never really happened—I fight against it through writing.
I ask myself many times, why I am magnetized by this horrible years? I have no family connections. My family was Afghan and Persian. In my high school I invented a distant aunt who was drowned in the Black Sea by the Germans, I wanted to be like others in my high school class. This interest in the Holocaust led me to a strong identification with the Jewish people, it led me to the ministry, and led me to protect human rights. I love my country very much. I am so proud of our achievements. We are not perfect but we are far from the bad image some are trying to portray. There is an intolerable discrepancy between the image of Israel in certain circles and the truth.
Palestinian homosexuals find shelter in Israel, escaping their relatives who would kill them for just being gay. If you are pro-gay you must be pro-Israel. Show me a gay Arab diplomat! If you are for freedom, you must be for Israel.
Zeek: Thank you.
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