The Jerusalem-based author and journalist spent 11 years writing his previous book, “Like Dreamers” — which told the story of Israel’s evolution after the Six Day War through the lives of seven paratroopers who fought to reunite Jerusalem. By contrast, Klein Halevi says, “Letters” spilled out of him in what felt like 11 weeks. It was a book waiting to be written, he believes, a book he had spent his 35 years in Israel — half the lifespan of the modern Jewish state — preparing to write.
Its goal is nothing less than to explain to our Palestinian neighbors — some of whom he can literally see out of the window of his home in northern Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood — who we Jews are and what we are doing here. With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas working assiduously to delegitimize the Jews’ presence here, the imperative could hardly be more pressing.
In an earlier book, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” Klein Halevi spent time with Christians and, far more dramatically, with Muslims in the Holy Land, listening, learning and trying to understand them. With this new book, he hopes that they will listen to him.
Unprecedentedly, however, Klein Halevi, 64, does not envisage this volume as a one-way street. His declared goal is for the book, with its chapter-letters, to prompt a dialogue with these Palestinian neighbors of ours. Therefore, it is being translated into Arabic. It will be made available online — on The Times Of Israel’s Arabic website – for free downloading. The author hopes that Palestinians and others across the Arab and Muslim world will respond to it. If they write, he promises, he will respond in kind — initiating an ongoing conversation, enabling our conflicted sides to better understand each other, and, thus, one day, perhaps even to accept and live peaceably alongside each other.
Klein Halevi takes pains to emphasize that he comes from the political right, that he is no naive believer in the possibilities of peace in the foreseeable future. But buoyed by his experiences in recent years heading a remarkable program at Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute that teaches visiting groups of American Muslim leaders about Judaism and Israel, he rejects the idea that the Arab world “hates us and always will hate us” as self-defeating, especially when he feels we Israeli Jews have made no real effort to tell our story to them.
Hence the book. Hence the weight of responsibility.
But that’s not all.
Despite the title and the key imperative of explaining Judaism and Zionism to our neighbors, Klein Halevi says he’s also written this book for us — for us Jews and Zionists who, he believes, have lost sight of central elements of our own story. We do ourselves and our cause a terrible disservice, he argues, by misrepresenting modern Israel as a story founded in European Jewry and the Holocaust; in fact Zionism patently failed to save European Jewry. What we should be internalizing, and explaining to others, is the unique fulfillment of what he calls the “Zionism of longing” — the “half-forgotten story of how we managed to preserve the centrality of the land of Israel in Jewish consciousness, in every corner of the globe where Jews lived” for thousands of years. “It’s one of the most astonishing stories in human history.”
I’ve known Yossi Klein Halevi for most of his 35 years in Israel, worked with him as a journalist, documented his groundbreaking Muslim Leadership Initiative at Hartman, interviewed him numerous times. He is one of the most articulate of thinkers, and one of the most insightful, graceful and careful of writers. What follows here is a transcript of a conversation we had in his Hartman office a few days ago, before he set off to the US to begin promoting this book.
Reading over our interview, I’m struck by the wisdom in almost every answer he offers to my questions, and by the originality of much of what he says — formulations that seem so necessary and obvious once you’ve read them, but that others have not managed to produce before.
As you’ll see high up in our conversation, two of his previous books were cursed by poor timing. Given those dark precedents, and given the immense potential benefit of Klein Halevi’s “Letters” for Palestinians, Israelis and anybody else who seeks a wiser, better world, one has to hope that this new book is blessed.
The Times of Israel: The book is due to come out when?
Yossi Klein Halevi: May 15.
And the Jerusalem embassy of the United States opens on?
Okay, and this is a fortuitous set of circumstances, you think, or underlines why the book is so important, or…?
My mother-in-law said I should give the world fair warning before I publish another book. (Laughs)
Remind us: Because your book about your teenage membership in the Jewish Defense League came out around the time of the Rabin assassination…
“Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” my first book, came out two days after the Rabin assassination. My second book, “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden,” which was about a journey I took into Islam and Christianity, came out on September 11, 2001. My last book, “Like Dreamers,” managed to avoid historic disasters.
Your second book presumably informed this new book, and maybe gave you the confidence to write it. And then there’s your work with Imam Abdullah Antepli and the Muslim Leadership Initiative at the Hartman Institute. Did that work give you the confidence that this book would not be a condescending and ignorant outreach to your Palestinian neighbor?
I see this book as a kind of sequel to the book I wrote about my journey into Palestinian Islam. That happened in the late ’90s, just before the Second Intifada, when it was still physically and emotionally possible to make that kind of journey. I spent a year in Palestinian society, listening to people’s stories, trying to see the conflict as much as possible through their eyes. And trying to experience something of Muslim devotional life, because that’s what interested me as a religious Jew, to see whether we could create a shared language for reconciliation that drew on our religious traditions.
This book is a belated sequel, almost two decades later. A lot has happened in the interim – especially the Second Intifada, which transformed Israeli society. The wound of the Second Intifada wasn’t just that we got the worst wave of terrorism in our history, but that the terrorism followed two Israeli offers for Palestinian statehood. And that shut me down, exhausted my capacity for outreach to the other side.
The Second Intifada brought the right back to power and nearly destroyed the Israeli left, something the international community still hasn’t internalized. Today our political debate isn’t between the right and the left anymore, but between the right and the center. The Labor Party, the founding party of Israel, is no longer capable of winning an election. That’s all a consequence of the Second Intifada, whose impact on my generation of Israelis was similar to the impact of 1947-48 on the founding generation of Israelis: It convinced us that there was no possibility for finding partners for partition among the current Palestinian leadership.
Presumably after writing your second book, you became deeply disillusioned with the chance of peace, because of the Second Intifada and all that has since played out. So does this book represent some kind of tentative revival of optimism, or would that be too strong a word?
This book isn’t about optimism or pessimism but an attempt to explain the Jewish and Israeli story to our neighbors – why the Jewish people never gave up its claim to this land even from afar, why I left my home in New York City in 1982 to move here. In my previous book I tried to listen to my neighbors. In this book I’m asking my neighbors to listen to me.
In all these years of conflict, no Israeli writer has written directly to our Palestinian neighbors, and to the Arab and Muslim worlds generally, explaining who we are and why we’re here
In all these years of conflict, no Israeli writer has written directly to our Palestinian neighbors, and to the Arab and Muslim worlds generally, explaining who we are and why we’re here. We defend our story to the whole world, but we don’t bother explaining ourselves to our neighbors. We’re rightly outraged by the daily attacks on our history and legitimacy that fill the Palestinian media and the Arab world’s media. But we’ve never tried to tell them our story.
This book combines the two commitments of my life: explaining and defending the Jewish narrative, and seeking partners in the Muslim world. The Jewish people is divided into two camps. One is defending the Israeli narrative, the other is fighting for peace. The argument of this book is that the two are related: Peace won’t happen so long as our narrative is negated by the other side. You can’t make peace with a country that has no right to exist.
Does this book not mark you out as some kind of inveterate optimist? That after all those years when you were too battered by reality, the optimism has resurfaced?
I live in the Middle East. I look around at my borders. I see Hezbollah, Hamas, Iranian Revolutionary Guards. I see a Palestinian national movement that still doesn’t accept the Jewish people’s right to define ourselves as a nation, as a people — and that’s true for all parts of the Palestinian national movement, from Fatah through Hamas. I don’t know any Israeli who’s optimistic about the immediate future.
We may well be heading toward war and peace simultaneously
If anything, we’re most likely heading toward war in the coming period, because of Iran’s growing military presence on our northern border. But at the same time we’re also seeing an unimagined shift in parts of the Arab world in attitudes toward Israel, thanks to a shared fear of an imperial Iran. Who would have imagined even two years ago that Saudi Arabia would be reaching out to Israel? This is the one unintended positive outcome of the disastrous Iranian deal: It brought the Sunnis and the Israelis together, against the deal. So we may well be heading toward war and peace simultaneously. This creates openings for us to tell our story.
In my writing and lecturing, going back to the 1990s Oslo years, I’ve warned about the delusions of a one-way peace process. My public life has been devoted to upholding what I consider an essential realism about Israel’s dilemma – that we can’t permanently rule another people but also can’t make peace with a Palestinian national movement that denies our right to exist as a sovereign nation.
Now the Middle East is radically changing – we don’t yet know how. But we need to be smart and flexible in our approach. We need a combination of the openness of the left and the wariness of the right. That is what I would call a centrist sensibility.
My experience in teaching Judaism and Jewish identity to Muslim American leaders over the last six years has taught me that the Muslim world generally doesn’t understand the relationship in Judaism between religion, peoplehood, land, and national sovereignty. The elements that we take for granted in our identity are almost entirely misunderstood in the Muslim world, where Jews are seen as a religious minority, rather than as a people with a religious identity, which is how Jews have traditionally seen themselves.
My book tries to explain the elements of Jewish identity, what our 4,000-year story means to me. This is my personal take on our story. As a Jewish writer living in a time when our story is under growing assault, I felt it was my responsibility to try to offer a Jewish and Israeli narrative.
The notion that Judaism is more than a religion is a revelation to Muslims. That a Jew can be an atheist seems to Muslims inconceivable. If you’re a Muslim, or for that matter a Christian, you can’t be an atheist. So Judaism works differently than the other monotheistic faiths, because of the foundational identity of peoplehood.
What does it mean that we’re a particularist faith rather than a universalist faith? Christianity and Islam believe that in the end of time everyone will be Christian or Muslim. Jews never imagined remaking humanity in our literal image. We believe that we have a universal goal that we’re working toward, which is the manifestation of the Divine Presence for all of humanity. That’s the vision of Isaiah: We’re a “peoplehood strategy” for a universal goal.
This lack of understanding of Jewish identity has direct bearing on the Muslim rejection of the legitimacy of Israel, the expression of the Jewish people’s national aspirations.
The elements of our identity that we take for granted are exactly what we need to explain about ourselves: Who are we? What is our relationship to this land? What does it mean that we maintained a kind of vicarious indigenousness with this land through 2,000 years of exile? What is Zionism? What is the relationship between Zionism and Judaism? Why are we the only people in history that managed, after thousands of years, to return to its land? In short: What is our story? And for me, the essence of Judaism is its story. I would define the Jews as a story we tell ourselves about who we think we are.
Our current prime minister and maybe some of his predecessors, however politely, would deride that approach. Netanyahu would say, you can explain until you’re blue in the face, and you can strive for morality, which is a lovely thing, but the only reason that we have survived, and the only way we will survive, is by being strong and exuding strength. It’s not about having them understand our narrative. It is about projecting strength. Sadat only made peace because he didn’t defeat us in the 1973 war…
I would agree with everything you’ve said except one word — “only.” The basis for our survival in the Middle East is our ability to defend ourselves. Beyond that, though, how are we going to navigate our relationships with those in the Arab world who may be prepared, for whatever reasons, to reexamine their relationships with us?
This notion of “they hate us and always will hate us,” when we haven’t made any real effort to explain our story, strikes me as self-defeating
For us to sit back and say, What’s the point in bothering to explain ourselves to our neighbors? They will never understand us” – it goes against what I’ve learned teaching American Muslims. This notion of “they hate us and always will hate us,” when we haven’t made any real effort to explain our story, strikes me as self-defeating.
So your book is directed not only at your Palestinian neighbors but the Arab world, the region, ideally?
Very much so. The book is being translated into Arabic. As you know, it will be put online — on The Times of Israel’s Arabic website – for free downloading, and that should be ready around the time that we release the book in English. And I am inviting Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims to respond. I will have somebody translating letters that come in response, and I will do my best to respond. I’ve already begun showing the book to Palestinians and getting written responses. If the responses are interesting enough, I may publish the exchanges as a sequel.
And I will try to bring this to Arab media, to start the first public conversation between an Israeli writer and our neighbors about who we are, why we see ourselves as indigenous to this land, and what is our shared future in the region.
Did you ever think about doing a program, similar to the one you do for American Muslim leaders, for Palestinian Muslim leaders?
Outside of my window, on the edge of my neighborhood in French Hill, is the separation barrier – a wall. That wall is both concrete and metaphorical. In the State of Israel, there are many efforts to bring together Jewish and Arab Israelis, but beyond that, it’s hard to initiate Palestinian-Israeli engagement on any level, let alone create a program for Palestinians that will teach Judaism and Jewish identity. We are occupying the Palestinians, while their national movement doesn’t accept our right to exist. I’d be delighted to do a program like that. But that is certainly premature.
In a way, the ideal version of this book would be a joint book, by an Israeli and a Palestinian author. You write about two states for two narratives. Yours is one of the narratives. Would you want to be able, five years from now, to publish the second edition of this, which is actually the two narratives?
I initially wanted to do a joint book, and I had a few Palestinian partners in mind. In the end I decided against it. I felt the need to have my own space to tell our story, to counter the assault on our narrative. What is happening to us in the twenty-first century is that the Jewish story of the twentieth century is being turned into its opposite – not a story of courage and faith and persistence but of evil. And so I needed to tell our story on its own, as a first step.
But I see this book as only a first step – an opening to a project that will be a conversation with our neighbors. In order to start a conversation, I needed to set out my beliefs: This is who I am. This is why I live in Israel. This is why my people returned home. This is how mainstream Israelis understand what happened here in 1948, in 1967, in 2000. And I needed to say that on its own, without being engaged at least initially in a debate or even a dialogue. All that will hopefully follow.
And where does this project go five years from now?
I’m open to taking this in any direction. Maybe there won’t be any substantive response and this will go nowhere. But I sense that this is a conducive time to test the waters.
We’re marking 70 years of Israel’s existence – and also 70 years of siege and delegitimization against Israel. Zionism’s great and irreversible achievement is to have re-indigenized the Jewish people in this land. We’re here to stay – and so are our neighbors. Can we begin the long and painful process of finding a new language in which we can speak about the conflict and about a solution?
Where does leadership fit into the context in which you wrote this book? Essentially it’s an indictment of failed leadership — on the other side, I would say.
On both sides. On the Palestinian side, the failure has been consistent, since the conflict began. There is no national movement that I can think of, anywhere, that has rejected more offers for statehood than the Palestinian leadership.
On our side, I fault our current leadership for not continuing the policy of previous governments, which was to state without equivocation to the Palestinians: We’re serious about a deal, if you are. A Palestinian state is a standing, ongoing offer, and we’re not going to undermine it by expanding settlement building into areas that we say, in principle, would be part of that state, whenever conditions make that possible.
Like most Israelis, I don’t believe a Palestinian state can be created anytime soon. The most likely result of creating a Palestinian state now would be a Hamas takeover, creating another hostile entity on our border – our most sensitive border. With one Arab country after another self-destructing, we need to proceed with extreme caution.
My model for how the Jewish people should interact with our neighbors comes from the biblical patriarch, Jacob. When Jacob was facing his brother Esau, and he wasn’t sure whether Esau was coming in peace or in war, Jacob divided his camp into two. One camp brought gifts, and the other camp was armed
But we also need to not take steps that will prevent the possibility of a two-state solution. And we need to make efforts to strengthen the Palestinian economy, to reach out to the wider region to involve Arab countries in an eventual arrangement.
My model for how the Jewish people should interact with our neighbors comes from the biblical patriarch, Jacob. When Jacob was facing his brother Esau, and he wasn’t sure whether Esau was coming in peace or in war, Jacob divided his camp into two. One camp brought gifts, and the other camp was armed.
Our relationship with the Muslim world is going to largely determine the physical safety of the Jewish people in the 21st century. It’s astonishing to me that we haven’t seriously begun to think about how do we live with 1.7 billion Muslims. Are there people in the Muslim world who might be open to a new kind of relationship with us? Shouldn’t we be exploring that possibility?
You write: “Israelis need to recognize the deep pain we’ve caused in pursuing our security needs…”
I’ve tried to create a language for reconciliation with our neighbors that centrist Israelis like myself can feel comfortable with. I have forced myself to go past my anger and resentment that is the legacy of the Second Intifada, and to try again to see my neighbors.
What I learned during the Second Intifada was how not to see them. I look at the hill outside my window every day — Palestinian villages on the hill just beyond the wall. I taught myself to see over them, to the desert view past them. That was an emotional protection during the years of suicide bombings. Without forgetting the bitter lessons that we learned during those years, without forgoing the deep necessity for wariness and self-protection, I am trying to teach myself how to see again, trying to teach myself how to be empathetic with my neighbors’ suffering, without sacrificing the integrity of my Israeli narrative.
I understand why Palestinians hang maps without Israel, because my internal map doesn’t have the word “Palestine”
This book is an attempt to explain how Israelis experience this conflict, how I experience this conflict, why I think peace hasn’t happened, and yet, why I still believe in the need for a two-state solution, as bad as that solution is.
My starting point in thinking conceptually about our conflict with the Palestinians is the same as the settlers’: All the land between the river and the sea belongs to us, by right. But I also acknowledge that there’s another people between the river and the sea that believes that all of this land is theirs. I understand why Palestinians hang maps without Israel, because my internal map doesn’t have the word “Palestine.”
My question to all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, is: What is our endpoint? We share maximalist claims to the whole land. But if the maximalist claim is a starting point and not the endpoint, then we can talk.
Partition has been on the table almost from the beginning of this conflict. It is not a good solution. Creating two states in this one little land – it’s a nightmare for both peoples. But the alternative – a one-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians devour each other – seems to me worse.
If there’s going to be a two-state solution, it has to come from a place where both sides understand that the other has sacrificed something essential in its historic claim. For Israel to give up Judea and Samaria is an amputation. I grew up on the right. As a teenager I wore a necklace with a silver map of the whole land of Israel according to the old Revisionist Zionist plan – both banks of the Jordan River. That’s my emotional legacy.
If you look at the dynamic of how peace has been made in this country, so far it has only been the right that has succeeded in withdrawing from territory. That’s because the public trusts the right — not only for security reasons, but for emotional and historic reasons. If I’m going to have a prime minister who will cede territory, I want that leader to say, I’m giving up something that belongs to me. Before I celebrate peace, I will mourn the loss of parts of my homeland.
Being very practical, then, do you think that Israel’s current prime minister would be prepared to make that amputation?
I once would have replied with a cautious yes. Netanyahu was never an ideological right-winger. At crucial moments in our history, the most important divide politically hasn’t been between left and right, but between the pragmatic right and the ideological or religious right.
The great threat to the religious right has always come from the pragmatic right. Think of Menachem Begin in Sinai and Ariel Sharon in Gaza. The settlers have been wary of Netanyahu too, and for good reason.
But the political tragedy of Netanyahu — there are other Netanyahu tragedies — is his failure to fashion a pragmatic right in his image. On his watch, large parts of Likud have turned hard right. If he would try to enter into a substantive peace process, much of his party would revolt. And so no, I don’t think he can do it, even if he wanted to.
The bigger “but,” of course, which is why you wrote the book, is with whom would he be entering a peace process?
There is no Palestinian leader I can see who can or would give us what we minimally need for a deal, and that’s agreeing to confine Palestinian “right of return” to a Palestinian state. In the absence of that concession, there can be no deal. So I’m writing for the long term.
Aren’t you writing to try and create a climate in which…?
I’m trying to model a Jewish conversation with Palestinians that is both empathic toward their suffering and affirming of our story.
I’ve written this book because this is the story I had to tell. And I hope there’ll be people on the other side who will hear it. What the results will be… You write and let it go.
One of the bittersweet experiences of writing a book is that as soon as it appears, it’s no longer yours. You sit with this creation in the privacy of your room, nobody sees it, and you can imagine all kinds of outcomes. But as soon as you release the book, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. I almost never go back to my other books. They’re strangers to me in a certain way. Every so often somebody will tell me something that they’ve read in one of the books, and I’ll say, Oh yeah, that was a good line! (Laughs.)
Writing this book was an interesting experience. “Like Dreamers” took me 11 years. This feels like it was written in 11 weeks … It’s a much shorter book. I call this the Twitter version of “Like Dreamers,” which was a very long book. I never imagined that I could just sit down and write a book quickly, but this one poured out. I couldn’t keep up with it. I’ve never had that writing experience before. I’m a very slow and plodding writer. So, in a way, this book wrote itself.
But in another sense, I’ve been writing this book for years. Along with celebrating the 70th anniversary of the state I’m marking a personal milestone — my thirty-fifth anniversary of moving to Israel, which is to say that I’ve lived in Israel for half the life of the state. This book really took me thirty-five years to write.
Thirty-five years of living in Israel.
Unbelievable. When I first came I thought I’d missed the story – the rest would be anti-climactic. Looking back on the Israeli roller-coaster of the last 35 years, that seems pretty funny.
What have you learned about our story?
One thing I’ve learned is that we’re telling ourselves and the world an outdated story. We’re still speaking about Israel as essentially a European Jewish story. Zionism begins in response to the pogroms and culminates in the Holocaust, which leads to the creation of Israel. That story already became obsolete to a great extent when Israel became a Mizrahi-majority state, which happened in the 1950s.
We’re just beginning culturally to absorb that fact. And it’s time for us to absorb that in our narrative as well.
Zionism largely failed to save the Jews of Europe – but it did succeed in saving the Jews of the Middle East
The more we continue speaking about Zionism only as a European movement that rose in response to European anti-Semitism, the more we feed the anti-Zionist narrative which depicts Israel as a Western colonialist project. If we keep relying on the Holocaust to justify Israel’s existence, we leave ourselves open to accusation that the Palestinians and the Arab world paid the price for what Europe did to the Jews.
The narrative that we need to start telling is much more nuanced and more faithful to what Israel actually is. It’s a narrative that needs to take into account that, yes, while political Zionism did rise in Eastern Europe as an attempt to try to prevent the disaster we now call the Holocaust, in fact Zionism largely failed to save the Jews of Europe – but it did succeed in saving the Jews of the Middle East. Can you imagine if there were still large Jewish communities in Aleppo, in Sana’a, in Baghdad, in Benghazi?
Let me play devil’s advocate: Yes, but they only became threatened because of this foreign, colonial enterprise called Israel, planted in the midst of the Middle East.
Look at the fate of almost every minority in the Middle East today. What would the fate of the Jews of Syria or Iraq have been if they’d stayed? The notion that Zionism ruined the lives of the Jews of the Middle East is a 20th century story told by Israel’s enemies. The story we need to tell in the 21st century is: Thank God that Zionism extracted the Jews from societies that were going to implode 60-70 years later. It’s only in the last few years that we can fully appreciate Zionism’s rescue mission of the Jewish communities of this region.
We’ve half-forgotten the story of how we managed to preserve the centrality of the land of Israel in Jewish consciousness, in every corner of the globe where Jews lived. It’s one of the most astonishing stories in human history
Another example of how the old 20th century narrative does us a deep disservice is how we downplay the Zionism of longing. Zionism was the meeting point between need and longing. We have told the story of the Zionism of need. But we’ve neglected the story of the Zionism of longing. We’ve half-forgotten the story of how we managed to preserve the centrality of the land of Israel in Jewish consciousness, in every corner of the globe where Jews lived. It’s one of the most astonishing stories in human history. This book tries to retell the story of the Zionism of longing. That’s a story we need to tell our neighbors. It’s also a story we need to tell ourselves.
Do you think Zionism’s salvation role is over now? Or when you look at parts of Europe and maybe even America…?
I hope it’s over. I hope that Jews will come to Israel not because they’re fleeing persecution or threat but because they want to join the most amazing experiment in Jewish history, which is the recreation of a people after two thousand years of dispersion and shattering.
The exile didn’t end in 1948, with the creation of the state, but only in 1989, with the fall of the Soviet empire. With the fall of Communism, there were no longer large Jewish communities that were forcibly denied the right to emigrate, the right to choose between life in the Diaspora or Israel. Since 1989, almost every Jew now has that choice, for the first time in 2,000 years. There is no exile anymore.
I not only celebrate our national rebirth, but also thriving Jewish communities around the world. We’re a very strange people. We lived with the centrality of the land of Israel in our consciousness, in our faith, and yet we lived as a people outside the land for most of our history. So diaspora is no less a part of us than homeland. To be a healthy people, we need a creative tension between these two parts of our being.
Still, I wonder whether Jewish life in Europe is sustainable anymore. We’re being hit from so many directions there – the Islamists, the far left, the far right – that we may be seeing the last generation of European Jewry. The post-Holocaust European Jewish rebirth was a brave experiment, an act of trust in the new Europe. I fear that that experiment has failed.
And the United States?
One of my nightmares – Israelis have a list – is the disintegration of the American Jewish-Israeli relationship. We’re not there yet, but we seem to be heading that way.
Our dilemma is that the tactics we need to use to keep ourselves relatively safe in the Middle East are undermining our moral credibility among many American Jews, and that’s a different kind of strategic threat
To some extent the tensions between our two communities are an unavoidable function of geography. American Jews live in the safest, most accepting diaspora in history, and we live in the most dangerous region on the planet. And so each community has developed a strategy that makes sense for its geography. American Jews have become flexible and open to their environment. Israelis have become the toughest kid on the block. Our dilemma is that the tactics we need to use to keep ourselves relatively safe in the Middle East are undermining our moral credibility among many American Jews, and that’s a different kind of strategic threat.
My fear is that each community will take on the attributes of its geographical circumstances. That we will become brutal, and American Jews will become what my father, a Holocaust survivor, used to call “stupid Jews” – Jews who have forgotten the instincts of survival. I think my father, who died many years ago, would have been appalled by Netanyahu’s cynical manipulation of desperate African asylum seekers. And I don’t have to imagine what he would have said about those American Jews who have publicly sided with Linda Sarsour. Why is it so hard for some Jews to understand that decency and self-preservation aren’t mutually exclusive?
One of the reasons I sit at the Hartman Institute is because I am committed – unconditionally – to the American Jewish-Israeli relationship. Sometimes I get furious at American Jews, just as they get furious at us. During the Iran deal, which I see as an existential threat to Israel, I was so angry at American Jews for failing to stop it that I wrote an op-ed essentially saying what some American Jews have been saying to Israel: I’ve had it with you, I can’t continue this relationship. Fortunately I never published it, and my fit passed.
Each side can find lots of reasons to be disappointed with the other. But I don’t have any other Jewish people. We need to stop obsessing only on the failures of each community and also celebrate each community’s remarkable achievements. The emergence of either American Jewry or the State of Israel would have been enough to change Jewish life for centuries. The simultaneous emergence of these two great Jewish experiments is unprecedented in Jewish history.
What can help American Jews and Israelis get to a more mature relationship – a relationship among Jewish grown-ups – is to remember that we live in one of the most interesting and fateful moments in Jewish history. Most of the dreams and fears of our ancestors have been fulfilled. For 2,000 years, Jews carried two great dreams and one great fear. The two dreams were that we would return home, or that we would find safe refuge outside our homeland. And the great fear was that the hatred against us would reach a tipping point and our non-Jewish neighbors would finally destroy us. Those dreams and that nightmare were realized before we were born.
The only great dream that hasn’t yet happened is the coming of the messiah, and of course some Jews argue that we’re now in the messianic era. We live in a moment of profound confusion in Jewish life. That confusion is an entirely appropriate response to the reality we’ve inherited. I see our greatest challenge as understanding and re-adapting our story to these radically changed circumstances.
What does it mean when some of the most significant elements of our story have been fulfilled? What do we do with that? What is our purpose in the world as a people? My intuition is that we have something urgent to say to the world about survival.
This is the first time in history that humanity has the ability to destroy itself. The Jewish people is history’s great survivor. Our job is to figure out what is the Jewish wisdom we need to share with the world. But for that to happen, we need to start seriously thinking about the meaning of our story.