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Yossi Klein Halevi: What’s Next: The Future of Liberal Zionism

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, about what it means to be a Zionist and a Jew post-October 7.

Since Simchas Torah, we’ve spent lots of time airing our political differences with others. What might be harder, though, is asking the uncomfortable questions about our own beliefs. Our guest today has decades of experience with this kind of soul-searching. In this episode we discuss:

  • What is our relationship to the State of Israel, and how seriously must we take our participation in the building and rebuilding of the nation we envision?
  • How might we maintain a sense of empathy for and kinship with the Muslim world and the Palestinian people? 
  • Why is it so important that we continue to have a Jewish state?

Tune in to hear a conversation about the tensions that come with trying to uphold the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians. 

Interview begins at 6:54.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, he co-directs the Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), which teaches emerging young Muslim American leaders about Judaism, Jewish identity and Israel. Halevi’s 2013 book, Like Dreamers, won the Jewish Book Council’s Everett Book of the Year Award. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. He writes for leading op-ed pages in the US, including the Times and the Wall Street Journal, and is a former contributing editor to the New Republic.

References:

What Israelis Fear the World Does Not Understand” with Ezra Klein and Yossi Klein Halevi

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi 

Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation by Yossi Klein Halevi

Arab Strategies and Israel’s Response by Yehoshafat Harkabi 

David Bashevkin:

Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month, we explore different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re continuing our exploration of the war in Israel, and we are asking, “What’s next?” This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big juicy Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asked by many people who maybe are not representative or are looking to find messaging for communities that are not the core part of 18Forty, either for work or corporate events, or I have family who, while they listen to 18Forty, are looking for other voices and perspectives to really understand and process. And I rarely ever do this, but I have been recommending podcasts that are not 18Forty. Gasp. But there is one conversation that not only have I been recommending, but I actually shared it on social media. And that is a conversation between Ezra Klein in his New York Times podcast and Yossi Klein Halevi.

I do listen, not that frequently, but I do listen to podcasts other than my own. Another gasp. And the reason is, is that sometimes you’re looking for other ways, windows, personalities, to help you really understand things. And I listened to this and it resonated in ways that I cannot even describe. It was the first time that I heard somebody really articulate, in really powerful ways, why October 7th feels so qualitatively different than any of the other tragedies that I’ve lived through in my lifetime related to Israel. I lived through the Second Intifada, I have seen horrific acts of terrorism, whether it was the bombing in Sbarros or bus bombings, I’ve seen wars that have taken place in Israel, but there is something about October 7th that feels qualitatively different. And it has woken up many, and we’ve seen this in the world in ways that I think our language that we’ve been using to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simply cannot contain with our old language, and we knew new language to confront what exactly is at stake here.

And I was really introduced in a very meaningful way. I’ve read his books, I’ve heard of him, but this was the first time I heard him. But when I heard him speaking to Ezra Klein, I said, “This is a voice and perspective that I really feel like we need to center now.” Because I feel like he’s describing the magnitude and the stakes of this event in ways that I have not previously heard before. So I reached out, and I had a few people who connected me, and I’m so grateful to all of them, to our guest today, Yossi Klein Halevi. You may know him from one of his books, whether Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, or his other book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation. He’s somebody who honestly, in the last year, in some ways, I felt more distanced from because he has been one of the most vocal protesters against judicial reform, an issue that I never fully understood honestly until this very day.

And I felt like we had very different visions of what Zionism in the State of Israel can and should mean for the Jewish people. All of that really changed after I listened to him in conversation with Ezra Klein, which again, I am recommending that everyone should go ahead and listen to. But this conversation is really different. It is specifically to our community about some of the questions that we should be asking ourselves about what is next, and some of those questions are uncomfortable. He is very involved politically, and some of the political priors, I imagine that many of our community hold are going to be challenged. And honestly, I think that’s a good thing. If you are coming out of these events and you are not asking uncomfortable questions, then I don’t think you fully grasp and realize what exactly the stakes are, not just for yourself and your Shabbos table conversations, but what the stakes are for the Jewish people and the future of the State of Israel. He’s one person who is not afraid to confront the existential question of what it means to lose the State of Israel.

And to me at least, and I’ve been saying this over and over again, I think that is what October 7th has forced us to confront. What would it mean, God forbid, chas v’sholom, to lose the State of Israel? And he writes in Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, “Today, though we live in the aftermath of the shattering of Jewish faith, brought on in part by Western secularism and the Holocaust, whatever faith has managed to survive our experiences in the modern world would be tested to the breaking point by the destruction of Israel. Few Jews, I suspect,” he writes, “would accept another narrative of divine punishment, even for many religious Jews, this would be one punishment too many.”

That’s a sentence that had I read it before October 7th, I don’t think I would’ve fully understood why he’s speaking so gravely because I never fully appreciated, and I’m talking personally about myself, about how important or how serious we need to examine what the relationship is, not with Eretz Yisroel Israel, not with Amcha Yisroel, and all of the euphemisms I used and have used on 18Forty when we spoke about Zionism only a few short months ago. But the question we need to ask is what is our relationship to the State of Israel? How seriously do we take it? And how seriously are we participating in the building and rebuilding of this vision? And that is why I asked Yossi Klein Halevi, who self-identifies as a liberal Zionist, to reapproach this question and examine what is next for liberal Zionism. I was not deeply involved with the question of judicial reform. I am very close and we’ve had on as a guest, people who championed the opposite vision, the vision that he essentially protested against. But we spoke about some very serious issues about what is next for liberal Zionism.

It’s a word that I have not heard many within the broad tent of my community, self-identify as liberal Zionists. People certainly identify as Religious Zionists or a Zionist, what does it mean to be a liberal Zionist now after October 7th? And I think whether or not you self-describe in that way, it is a question that I urge you to pay close attention to, to grow and become more mature as a people, so our future conversations about what next can be with one another, not at one another. And there’s no one I can think of better for stewarding this conversation than Yossi Klein Halevi, who has been an outspoken leader in asking all the right questions, and really articulating the urgency and the stakes of this moment. So it is my absolute privilege and pleasure to introduce our conversation with Yossi Klein Halevi. I will admit myself, I am a late blooming follower of yours. I listened to your… And I never ever… The rule number one of podcasting is don’t promote other podcasts.

I listened to your interview with Ezra Klein of the New York Times, and it was one of the most real, heavy, and really changed the way I’ve been thinking and the language I’ve been using about what is at stake. And I wanted to open up with really a question that you’ve dealt with in many different ways, and it is a basic question. I grew up in the 1990s, I was born in ’85, I grew up in the 1990s, and I’ve seen the Second Intifada, I’ve seen terrorist attacks, I have a sister who lives in Israel, and I’ve seen a lot, and October 7th instinctively feels different. It feels bigger, and it feels like the question that it is posing to Israel and global Jewry is quite different than anything that I have experienced in my lifetime. And I wanted you to explain, right in the beginning, why do you think the events of October 7th and the terrible terrorist attack by Hamas, why is it different? Why is the question that this is posing to Israel and to really global Jewry? Why is this question different?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Well, on the most superficial level, we can begin with the numbers. In four years of suicide bombings of the Second Intifada from around 2000 to 2004, about a thousand Israeli Jews were killed. 1200 Jews were killed in one day on October 7th, but we all know that there’s something deeper than the numbers.

David Bashevkin:

Correct, it doesn’t feel like numbers. In fact, the numbers are not at all what animate, at least for me, the urgency of the moment.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Yes. Yeah, for me too. And what really, I think, is hitting the Israeli psyche, and I think Jews all around the world, is the way in which 1200 Jews were murdered in Israel, their hands bound behind their backs, burned alive, mutilated in the most grotesque ways that Jews have ever been murdered, but this happened in a sovereign Jewish state. It wasn’t supposed to happen here. The whole point of Israel, the ethos of Israel, is that we will never again be helpless. And yet on October 7th, we were helpless to protect 1200 of our fellow Jews, fellow Israeli citizens. Almost 50 years ago, the government sent Israeli commandos halfway across Africa to free a hundred Jews who had been hijacked in an Entebbe Airport in Uganda.

David Bashevkin:

Sure. We watched the movie Operation Thunderbolt.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Yeah, and we all grew up on that. October 7th was the anti-Entebbe moment. It was the moment when we couldn’t save Jews who were right within reach, we didn’t have to have any dramatic commando attack, and we couldn’t save them. And so what October 7th represents, I think for Israelis, is a violation of Zionism’s promise to the Jewish people to create a safe refuge. And this goes to the heart of the Israeli ethos. And what I see in the Gaza war, one of our main goals, I would define the Gaza war as having two goals. One is internally directed to the Jewish people, the other is directed to the region. The first is to restore the credibility of the Zionist covenant with the Jewish people, to create a safe refuge here. As things stand now, Israel is the most dangerous place in the world to be a Jew. Nowhere else in the world can one conceive of 1200 Jews being gathered up and burned alive, it’s not possible anywhere else.

With all the rise of antisemitism, nowhere else is it possible to imagine that an antisemitic regime would kidnap 240 Jews and hold them for ransom. And so we are fighting for the survival of the credibility of the Zionist promise to the Jewish people, that’s the first goal of the Gaza war. We need to remove a genocidal regime. The regime that did that to the Jewish people cannot be allowed to continue to exist on our border, so that’s the first goal. And that message, again, is self-directed, it’s directed to ourselves, to the Jewish people, to Israeli citizens. The second message is that we need to restore the credibility of our military deterrence, which was also shattered on October 7th, precisely because Hamas was our weakest enemy and our weakest enemy dealt the most decisive blow in Israel’s history, and so the credibility of our deterrence was lost on October 7th. And that’s what we need to restore, the message to the Middle East, the message to Iran and its allies is, “Don’t think that October 7th is the new norm.”

It was an aberration, we are now in the process of restoring the balance to the way things were on October 6th. So to frame it that way, David, what we lost on October 7th were two forms of Israeli credibility. The credibility of Zionist promise of a safe refuge and the credibility of our deterrent power in relation to our enemies, those are the two goals of this war.

David Bashevkin:

I really want to dig down a little bit on that first goal of that Zionist promise, the Zionist covenant, and I’ve been thinking so much about this, and I have different ways of phrasing it. You’ve self-described yourself as a liberal Zionist, I imagine that you and I have very different visions of what the promise of Zionism is and was. And in this moment, I fully agree with you that something has been shattered and needs to be restored about what Zionism and global Jewry’s relationship to the State of Israel is. But I’ve been haunted by the following question, which is I fully understand, in many ways, the hesitance of early… And I don’t want to use the word anti-Zionist, but figures like the Satmar Rav, early figures who oppose Zionism.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Anti-Zionism is a fair characterization.

David Bashevkin:

Correct, but the reason why I’m not using it is because I don’t want it to be confused with the anti-Zionism that we see in the West, meaning it was an anti-Zionism that privileged Jewish life. It was an anti-Zionism that their question and commitment to Jewish life was unquestioned, even an inch. Where in many ways, their opposition to Zionism was pragmatic. It was saying that you are putting more Jews at risk by establishing a Jewish state than if we don’t have a Jewish state, we can go to the United States, we can live together. And by establishing a Jewish state, and there were many objections, there were theological objections, but one of the pragmatic objections was the fact that if we become a religion that has sovereign state power, we are putting global Jewry at risk. And that was something that I always dismissed, I always was like, “Okay, that doesn’t make sense to me. We could talk about the theological issues, but certainly to have the horrors of the Holocaust, everything that happened, we need to protect ourselves.”

But right now we are in a moment, and the moment is the world is basically saying, and I almost imagine if the United States and the UN came together and they said, “You know what? This has been a wonderful experiment of 75 years, it’s been a good run. It’s not going to come at any loss of Jewish life, zero loss of Jewish life, but we’re going to have to end the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and we’re going to have a one-state solution that will be a multi-religious cosmopolitan country, and the Jewish State of Israel is going to end.” Now, I realize that even posing this question… I’m not the first to pose it, I know in tradition I’ve quoted many times, there was an author named Gary Epstein who wrote an article in 1976, Could Judaism Survive Israel? And it caused a controversy. It has a warning before it like, “This is an upsetting article.” But my question is, specifically for you, you are a liberal Zionist.

You’re not a Messianic Zionist, as far as I understand, and maybe I’m wrong, I don’t want to paint you in ways that you wouldn’t describe yourself. I understand Messianic Zionism, why that would be catastrophic. I also understand the opposition, the early opposition to Zionism of the Satmar Rav, of other leaders. He wasn’t alone in this, of saying, “This is going to raise the ire of the non-Jewish community.” It’s the middle ground that I am struggling with, which is, why is it so important that we have a Jewish state? Is it because that we don’t believe that a multinational body could protect the Jewish people, that we could coexist? We have it in the United States, so what is it that is so important that we retain a Jewish state? I know this is strange for me to be asking you, and I’ve become an ardent Zionist, especially in the last couple of weeks, but I wasn’t raised in a typical Zionist home, I was raised in a more Yeshiva-esque home.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Where did you grow up?

David Bashevkin:

I grew up in the Five Towns, but my father worked in Borough Park, probably quite close.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

So that’s where I grew up.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

I grew up in Borough Park.

David Bashevkin:

Exactly, I know that. But I’m asking you this not, God forbid, in an accusatory way, but to help explore the language and philosophy of why in this moment, a Jewish state, where our safety, global safety, seems to be worse than it was before. What is the philosophy of liberal Zionism right now of why it is so important to insist that we have a Jewish state rather than… And you could say, “Because we don’t trust them, we don’t believe them.” But why, in your mind, is this so important right now?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

You’ve raised a lot of really interesting issues, and I would like to unpack them.

David Bashevkin:

Please.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

So let’s go back to where your starting point, assuming that it were possible, the UN, the international community would come to us and say, “Okay, you had a good run.”

David Bashevkin:

“It was a good run.”

Yossi Klein Halevi:

That’s right, “The food was great. We had a lot of laughs.”

David Bashevkin:

“We loved it, cherry tomatoes.”

Yossi Klein Halevi:

“The music was just out of this world. And okay, it’s time now to have one big happy state with the Palestinians.” October 7th was the glimpse into what a one-state solution would look like, and I used the word solution with a great deal of irony, and with all the resonance of modern Jewish history that that word has. So let’s put that aside. You raised the really interesting question about Satmar and other groups within the Haredi world that were hostile to Zionism. I think today, most of the vehement anti-Zionism has faded in the Haredi world, and with Satmar and a few others. The [inaudible 00:17:41] in Jerusalem, Neturei Karta, of course.

David Bashevkin:

I’m deliberately not talking about Neturei Karta, those are a couple of lunatics, but people who… They either live in Israel but they treasure Jewish life, that is unquestioned.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Yes, the distinction that I wanted to make between Satmar and Neturei Karta is that Neturei Karta has joined with Israel’s enemies, with groups and regimes that advocate murdering Jews. Satmar would never do that.

David Bashevkin:

Ever, correct.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

And Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow are more on the Neturei Karta line than on the Satmar line.

David Bashevkin:

Correct.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Now in terms of the traditional opposition of Satmar and other groups to the creation of a Jewish state, you mentioned the theological reasons, but let’s leave that aside and concentrate on the issue that you raised, that a Jewish state would endanger world Jewry. First of all, what I would say to Satmar is, “It’s too late. The argument is over. You lost. The world’s largest Jewish community, is the State of Israel, almost 7 million Jews. What do you propose? You propose dismantling the state, what happens to those 7 million Jews? You’re going to leave them at the mercy of Hamas? What’s the plan, Satmar? Are you still arguing abstract theology?”

David Bashevkin:

I want to jump in because I don’t want you to direct the argument, because I don’t think Satmar is even proposing this. It’s the quiet thoughts that I have, which is maybe they were right. Maybe that initial hesitation was right. There’s nobody in mainstream Satmar who’s calling for one Palestinian-Jewish State, as far as I know, but I have doubts sometimes. I listen to the Palestinian plight, and I sometimes have in quiet moments in my car, where, “Would we be better off if we just had one state?”

Yossi Klein Halevi:

We would be vulnerable to the point of risking our existence, risking the lives of 7 million Jews. October 7th would be the norm and not the aberration without a Jewish state. So look, I understand the hesitations, I understand the questions, and it’s inevitable. After 75 years, the luster of the creation of Israel has faded. And we look at not only the successes, but the formidable challenges, the failures, and that certainly has helped give birth to anti-Zionism on the Jewish far-left. But in terms of asking the question, “Would we have been better off?” I’m working on a book now about the meaning of Jewish survival since the Holocaust. And the book begins the day after the end of the Shoah, and it focuses, at least at the early part of the book, it focuses on the displaced persons camps that were created in Germany and Austria after the war. The survivors who had nowhere to go, because all the doors were closed, including the doors of America. And this is after the Holocaust.

And when you see the intensity of the Zionist fervor in the displaced persons camps, all of our retroactive questions become irrelevant. A Jewish state arose because it had to arise, there was no choice for the Jewish people. And what’s really interesting is to look at the reactions of the Charedim in the displaced persons camps, who for the most part, were as passionately opposed to the British and supporting a Jewish state as the secular survivors. So how things look to us now is not how things looked in 1945. There’s a reason why virtually the whole Jewish people embrace Zionism, and there’s a reason why synagogues all over America put the American and Israeli flags on the bimah, at the most sacred geographical space in the synagogue, flanking the aron kodesh, because the intuition of the Jewish people was that these are the two symbols of the Jewish rebirth. “This is how we survived the Holocaust, through this alliance between Israel and American Jewry.” And so I can’t afford to ask those questions. First of all, because I’m living this reality minute by minute and I can’t afford those kinds of demoralizing questions.

And also because having immersed in the history of the immediate post Holocaust era, I realized that Satmar lost… It wasn’t a theological issue, they lost because history was against them. And so even if they had a point, of course they had a point. And look, when I was growing up, and maybe when you were growing up too, the State of Israel made Jews feel secure all around the world. Today, that’s no longer the case. Today, Jews feel insecure because of Israel. But if you’re in a marriage, your relationship doesn’t depend on whether you’re blessed or not at any particular moment, you made a commitment, and to abandon Israel when the going gets rough. I’m only in it for Entebbe, when there’s an Entebbe rescue. I’m only in it when you give me naches, the Six-Day War. You give me this thrilling feeling, and I could hang up a poster in my college dorm room of a Hasid with a Superman uniform, that was the famous poster after the Six-Day war.

Well, love is a very complicated relationship, and Israel has given enormously to world Jewry, world Jewry has also given an enormous amount to Israel. It’s been a wonderful reciprocal relationship, for the most part, a relationship of mutual empowerment. We’re going through a very bad period now, but you don’t turn away. You don’t turn away from someone or something you love.

David Bashevkin:

Many people have pointed out that leading up to the massacre of October 7th, there was an incredible amount of divisiveness, specifically around the judicial reform, and you were incredibly outspoken about the judicial reform. You had mentioned you would rally and you would protest against it. I’m curious what effect, in your mind, that very conscious objection to the direction of the State of Israel. Obviously, right now there’s a major distraction and something existential. When we emerge from this and revisit these issues, do you think people are going to be speaking about them differently? Do you think the solutions to those underlying issues have changed at all?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

So first of all, what you call judicial reform, and I call an attempted judicial coup, because the government really intended to neuter the power of the Supreme Court. And just as an aside, most Israelis agree that we need judicial reform. But what this government was proposing was not reform, it was the destruction of any checks and balances. Israel has almost no checks and balances, except for the court. And that’s why the judges overreached, because there was a vacuum. They were trying to protect the balance of power and they made many mistakes, but this government would have destroyed any credibility to Israeli democracy. And so what we were trying to salvage was the ability of very large numbers of Israelis to feel that they have a place in the State of Israel. And there’s no question that the morning after this war ends, we’re going to resume the debate. The first item on the agenda will be getting rid of Netanyahu, and the country right now… I just saw a poll today, something like 87% of Israelis believe that Netanyahu… The word in Hebrew is ashem, not achra’ei.

Achra’ei means responsible, ashem means guilty. 87%, which means the overwhelming majority of Likud voters as well. Now did the debates… And it was much more bitter than a debate, there was really this feeling that we’re on the verge of a civil war, that was really the feeling, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis were speaking seriously about immigration. It would have been the first mass immigration in Israel’s history for ideological reasons, and Israelis don’t leave this country because of the security situation, some Israelis have left for economic reasons. This would’ve provoked the largest mass immigration. This feeling that, “My Israel no longer exists. The decent Israel that I gave my life for, that I bound my life to, is being remade in the image of a coalition of extremists.” Ultranationalists, fundamentalists, to say nothing of a group of corrupt politicians. And so what was being fought over this year, for people like myself, was a feeling that this is an existential issue. We are fighting for the survival of Start-up Nation. If the judicial coup would’ve succeeded, Start-up Nation would’ve collapsed.

David Bashevkin:

My question though is when this resumes, do you think the tenor, or the intensity, or even the very focus of the debate is going to be different?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Absolutely, absolutely.

David Bashevkin:

How?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

The other day, a group of leading rabbis from the Religious Zionist community, including some real hardliners, went to visit the volunteer operation of the organization called Achim Laneshek, Brothers in Arms, which was the leading organization behind the protest movement, a group of reservists who led the demonstrations in the streets. And immediately after October 7th, Achim Laneshek pivoted and used its substantial resources and network to help the survivors in the south, providing food, clothing, even psychological care. The government was nowhere to be seen, the government completely collapsed, one more symptom of this disastrous failure of a government. And so the protest movement stepped in, the Religious Zionist rabbis went to visit them to pay homage to them and to say, “We need a new way of speaking to each other.” We’re not going to agree the morning after, liberal Zionists and Messianic Zionists, are not going to agree. There’s a whole host of issues. But what we relearned on October 7th is that what we have in common is ultimately more important, and that’s the power of the Israeli response to October 7th, we reclaimed our ability to come together.

Now it’s coming together in a very different way than in the past because none of the bitter issues have been resolved, beginning with the fact that Netanyahu was still prime minister. The bitter debate will resume, the question is how bitter will the debate be? And my strong sense… You should look up the clips of this meeting, they were very powerful. The leaders of the protest movement and the rabbis were speaking as brothers. It was an extraordinary thing to see after this past year. And the issues are still there, but what I feel Israeli society wants now is some new way of dealing with our divides, and that has to begin with a recognition that one half of the country does not have the right to impose the totality of its agenda, its ideological agenda, on the other half. Now that works both ways. The Oslo process was the left’s attempt to impose its grand worldview on the other half of the

 country that saw this as an existential threat, and I think they were right by the way.

And I was with them, I voted for Netanyahu in 1996, precisely because I felt that the left had made a disastrous mistake in negotiating and empowering Arafat, but even more so in the way they went about it. They basically stole votes from the right-wing block, they bribed one or two Knesset members, and drew them away and had a fake majority. Now this government has 64 seats, that’s true, and that’s a real majority. But this government did not win the popular vote, it won 49% of the vote. And according to the rules of the game, coalition politics, they won, and they certainly have the right to bring in their policies. What they don’t have the right to do is to fundamentally change the identity of the country, to move us from the liberal democracy, which was always a consensus issue from Labor to Likud. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir. When Meir Kahane used to get up to speak in the Knesset, Yitzhak Shamir walked out and led the whole Likud faction out of the plenum. Arik Sharon, every leader of the Likud, including Netanyahu, until he got into trouble with the law.

Every leader of the Likud was as committed to liberal democracy as the left. And Benny Begin, Menachem Begin’s son, spoke at one of our rallies and said, “My father’s Likud was a national liberal party, Netanyahu’s Likud is a nationalist anti-democratic party. That’s the difference.” You have no right, after 75 years without winning a strong popular majority, to come to the country and say, “We’re going to change the ground rules, because the Prime Minister is in trouble with the law, and we’re going to neutralize the power of the courts.” That’s not the way we can conduct business in the State of Israel, because if you do that, you’re going to drive half the country out. That’s what you’re going to do. Just as what we learned in the 1990s, it’s that if you impose Yasser Arafat on the other half of the country that saw Oslo as an existential threat, and you do so without having a solid majority of the public behind you, you’re going to lead the country to disaster, and it ended in a political assassination. The balance of power between the different groups that compose Israeli society, it’s too fragile.

You can’t have an attitude of winner take all, and that’s what we heard over the last year from the government, “We won, get used to it. Winner take all.” That’s not democracy. Democracy is a delicate dance between the rights of the majority and the rights of a minority, whatever that minority is, and so that’s what we need to start rethinking in how we relate to each other. You cannot have an Israel where either the left, or the center, or the right, religious Jews or secular Jews, Mizrachim, Ashkenazim, and for that matter, Arab Israelis, who are full citizens. You cannot have a state in which parts, significant parts of your population, feel that they have no oxygen, feel that the country has been stolen from them. They look at the government, they see the antithesis of everything that they believe, that model has to go. And the left was as guilty as the right in this, and that’s what has to change.

David Bashevkin:

It is very profound and I hope that we are able to see it. I’m curious to talk a little bit about the role of the United States and even more specifically, diaspora Jewry. There’s something very urgent and existential that is binding Israel together in this covenant, because it’s not the idea of Israel, it is their homeland. And I’m curious, in your opinion, what do you think global Jewry, specifically in the diaspora, what are the questions they should be asking in terms of their relationship to the lands of Israel? Should that change in any way pre-October 7th, post-October 7th, or it’s just like, “Oh, we’ll keep sending money, and we’ll mobilize, and we’ll come out on trips?” Are there any new questions that emerge for diaspora Jewry in the wake of October 7th?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

The question that I hope left-wing American Jews and right-wing American Jews are going to ask themselves is, “What is the Israel that we should be contributing to strengthening?” And I’ll start with left-wing Jews, because mostly when I go on lecture tours, I find myself speaking before liberal American Jews. And my challenge to them all these years has been that yes, engage us, criticize us, but acknowledge our vulnerability. Don’t pretend that we have a simple choice of land or peace, choose Israel. You either want to continue with occupying 2 million Palestinians or peace, that October 7th proved that that was never our choice. Our choice is not land or peace. And the fact that so many liberal left-wing Jews in America glossed over Israel’s security threats and pretended that we were already beyond existential problems, and it was only a moral issue, it was only Israel’s moral failures. I believe that we do have moral failures that we need to address, and the fact that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are sitting at the heart of Israeli power is a historic disaster for Zionism, for the State of Israel.

But we have been in a regional war for 75 years, don’t reduce this conflict to Israel versus the Palestinians. It’s true that Israel against the Palestinians, we’re Goliath and they’re David, but there’s also the whole region. There’s the Arab and Muslim world, and if you widen the lens, suddenly we’re not Goliath anymore. Zoom out, and suddenly the balance of power looks very different. And so what I want to see liberal American Jews ask themselves in their relationship to Israel is to do a kind of al chet, to do a penitence. How could we have been so glib about Israel’s existential threats? That’s on the left-wing side, now let’s get to the right-wing, which I imagine is more relevant for most of your audience. And there I would like to see a different kind of al chet, and I’ll start with my upbringing in Borough Park. In the late 1960s, early ’70s, I was a follower of Meir Kahane. I was a teenager, the Holocaust that happened only 20, 25 years before, the Six-Day War had just happened.

David Bashevkin:

Your parents were survivors, correct?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Yeah, my father was a survivor, and the Soviet Jewry movement was just getting going. And so there were understandable psychological political reasons for why a son of a survivor would gravitate to Meir Kahane. When Kahane moved to Israel in 1971, I continued to support him. And in fact, I was a student in Israel in 1973, the year of the Yom Kippur War. And initially, I volunteered for his first Knesset campaign, I worked with him. And what I saw there was the beginning of the transition from the America Kahane, who was defending diaspora Jews. Whether one agreed with his tactics or not, let’s leave that aside for now, and he segued to becoming the leader of the farthest right-wing extreme, and became a champion of violence, and hatred, and racism, and I left him. And most of the people who had been with him in the JDL, in the Jewish Defense League, left him as well. He had almost no carryover from JDL to Kach, the movement that he created.

And much of the Orthodox community has remained, or even grown, in its appreciation of Kahane rather than shrinking in horror at what Kahane did to Israeli society, what he gave birth to, Baruch Goldstein. Yigal Amir is an indirect product of Kahanism and the hatred of the far-right, not only to Arab Israeli citizens, but to fellow Jews. And there’s a poison that has seeped in to the Orthodox community. This moment where in Israel we’re trying to figure out how do we get back together as a people, this moment calls for, I believe, some soul-searching in the Orthodox community as well.

David Bashevkin:

It’s so interesting because it is like a double-edged sword. Give me more of an argument, because I have heard more, and you see the famous phrase, “Kahane Tzadak,” Kahane was right.” Why are people who look at October 7th, and their immediate reaction is, “Kahane was right.” What is the difference between what you are saying, in terms of our need to prove our military might, the need to really assert ourselves, and not what Kahane had in mind, but as interpreted, what seeped in. I grew up in probably a very similar religious community that you did, you know the world and the universe that I inhabit, explain a little bit more, why is October 7th not the ultimate vindication of Kahane?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Kahane’s position was that the Jews are totally alone in the world, and we need to free ourselves of the illusion that there are any non-Jews who are our friends. And not only that, we need to do acts that are so provocative, that are so outrageous, like blowing up the Dome of the Rock on the temple mounds, like expelling millions of Palestinians from their homes in order to provoke the non-Jewish world. And Kahane said that that would show that we are [foreign language 00:38:39], we’re a people of faith, that we’re throwing ourselves on God’s protection and we’re deliberately provoking the non-Jews, the goyim, and it was a theology of madness. You can’t run a modern state on the basis of an apocalyptic theology. And I look at Israel today, our situation, it’s very difficult. Look, I’m very involved in dealing with the media, in trying to explain and defend Israel. This is something that I’ve done my whole life as an Israeli for the last 40 years, and now it’s even more intensive because the need is so desperate.

So I have no illusions about the difficulties, I encounter it every day, but we’re also not friendless. Look at Biden, look at Congress, look at the polls of American public opinion that still, despite the moral atrocities of what’s happening on campuses, we still have a majority of Americans who are for Israel.

David Bashevkin:

For now.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Okay, for now. It’s always for now, everything is for now. And even in Europe, we’re seeing some changes. Not enough, nowhere near enough, but there are some changes. And India, India happens to be the world’s largest country solidly for Israel. So this notion of the Jews of Israel being alone, and we have to embrace isolation, that is the politics of insanity, that’s the politics of self-destruction. And so why do I need Kahane to say that I need to destroy Hamas? I have an army, thank God. I don’t need Kahane and his band of thugs to defend the State of Israel. I have Zahal. All right, Zahal is not a perfect instrument, we saw that on October 7th. But the IDF made a very impressive turnaround on October 8th, and is fighting in a way that many of us wondered whether the army still had it in it, and it does. And look at the morale of the soldiers. We haven’t seen anything like this since the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago.

So this notion that we need the radical right, they’re going to save us, is a childish idea that comes from our condition of pre-state powerlessness. There is a part of us that still doesn’t understand what power is and how to wield power. Part of the effectiveness of our power comes from our moral credibility, which is what allows Congress and Biden to support us. Part of our power, a great deal of our power, comes from the fact that left-wing centrist and right-wing Israelis can all come together in the army. Now look at Ben-Gvir, Ben-Gvir didn’t do the army. Smotrich basically evaded the army, he did some symbolic service, he didn’t really do the army. And so the leaders of the far-right have no military experience, and don’t have that sense of the ethos of what holds us together. They think of power in the most narrow terms. Power is also economic power, and what would’ve happened if this far-right government had prevailed and destroyed the Supreme Court? The people who are holding up high-tech Israel would’ve left, would’ve fled the country. That would have been an existential threat to our power.

And so there’s this childish notion that just looks at power as, “Oh, what are we not doing? Kill more, let’s flatten more of Gaza.” I think we’re doing a pretty serious job in Gaza, I don’t need Ben-Gvir’s advice. And you’ll notice that Ben-Gvir is not sitting in the war cabinet and neither is Smotrich, because the people who really know how to run a war don’t want these clowns messing up the plans. So when I think of Kahane, Kahane was right. Okay, Kahane said that we face existential threat. Of course he was right, he wasn’t the only one, that’s a normative idea in Israel, since the Second Intifada, even most of the Israeli left knows what we’re dealing with. And look at the polls, look at the polls in Israel. 90-plus percent support, not just support the war, but want the war to continue until Hamas is destroyed. That means that most people who vote left and center are no different than the right in their goals here. Now that unity is precious, don’t destroy that unity by indiscriminate murder of civilians instead of what’s happening now is a tragedy, but it’s an unavoidable tragedy.

What the far-right would do would be to turn us into what our enemies say we are, and we’re not that, but that’s what they would turn us into.

David Bashevkin:

When I was in fifth grade, I came home with a joke that I heard from one other kid. I remember the kid, unfortunately… Actually fortunately, I don’t remember the joke. The punchline of the joke that I came home with, and I told it to my mother, the punchline was something derogatory about Arabs. You’re thinking, and I was in fifth grade, it was about 1995. It’s probably right at the beginning, Second Intifada, things are getting worse and worse in Israel, if I have the dates correct. And I told my mother this joke, and my mother… And God should bless her because this is absolutely her style, and she would always correct me. She said, “Our fight is not with the Arabs, the punchline of this joke…” And she said, “You could rework the joke, but the punchline should be Hamas and not Arabs.” I hadn’t even never heard of Hamas before. It’s the first time I ever heard of Hamas, and she made a distinction between Arabic people, probably referring specifically to Palestinians, and Hamas. And my question for you is, should that still be correct?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

It’s a great question.

David Bashevkin:

How should Israelis, and specifically Jews, divide? Because we see there is not an insignificant amount of support for Hamas, and we know what that entails. Yet those who are really students of history do know of a time where perhaps, and maybe we were wrong, it was not quite as vitriolic. What should our relationship be to sympathy, to empathy, to any sense of kinship with the Palestinian people, in your mind? You wrote a book about this, obviously, and my question is, can that still remain intact after October 7th? Do we still need to rewrite our punchlines?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

I think that what we’ve seen on the Palestinian side, and in the Arab and Muslim worlds, generally was a near total breakdown of moral credibility in their response to October 7th. There were brave voices in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and even in Palestinian society, a few who condemned it, something like 70 or 80% of Arab citizens of Israel in poles condemned it. But on the whole, what we saw in the Arab and Muslim world, was even the condemnations where, “We condemn it, but.” There’s always the terrible “but.” So we’re all carrying tremendous rage, but I make a distinction between rage and hatred. Rage is a, not just understandable, but necessary response. Hatred is never a good response, and this is what your mother was trying to tell you. And vast generalizations are never a useful response, even on a pragmatic basis. Look at what’s been happening in the Middle East in the last few years, look at the Abraham Accords. The fact that Saudi Arabia is considering a peace agreement with Israel, which would be a game changer in the region.

And by the way, MBS, the Saudi Crown Prince, not only called for a ceasefire, but also called for the release of the hostages, which is more than the kids demonstrating on campus do. So we’ve seen changes in the Arab world in the last few years, this is essential for Israel. When I spoke earlier about Israel not being alone in the world, in some ways, we have a brighter future with parts of the Arab world than we do with parts of the West, and that’s a really surreal reality. Look, I was in Morocco about a year ago, December, a year ago, and I walked around with a kippah. And I went to Morocco to recruit and there was no problem. And I told people there, “I feel safer wearing a kippah in Marrakesh and Rabat, than I do in Paris, or London, or maybe even Brooklyn.” And I went there to recruit young Moroccan leaders for a program that we were going to sponsor at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to teach them Judaism, Zionism in Israel, and we had a long list of people wanting to come. So something is opening up.

My partner in this work, Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University, has been spending time in Saudi Arabia at the government’s invitation to teach state imams about Israel and Zionism. Now we’re living in a different world, so that’s one part of it. The other part of it is it’s the same old world. It’s Hamas, it’s atrocities, it’s half the world chanting, “From the river to the sea.” So we’re living at a very complicated moment in Jewish history, where on the one hand it feels like nothing has changed, and that Zionism and the promise of Zionism has failed. And on the other hand, we’re seeing still all kinds of possibilities that are percolating. And so a wise people will know how to deal uncompromisingly with its enemies without alienating its friends, that’s our challenge here.

David Bashevkin:

You have been a very articulate spokesman for the need of a two-state solution, of the need to allow, and even… I don’t know if the right word is empathize, but to really understand the Palestinian plight, so to speak. And to allow for a second state. And this is similar to some of the things that I’ve been asking, but I’m curious for you and people with your political outlook, do you feel like you will ever be able to trust a Palestinian state inside of the heart of Israel again? Meaning, has your trust been so eroded that it’s just not something you can imagine? We need to find some other way or some other way out? How do you envision restoring some sense of trust that we could live peacefully side by side, state by state?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

So here’s the thing, my trust in the Palestinians was destroyed even before the Second Intifada. It was destroyed during the Oslo process, when Arafat proved to be duplicitous, speaking peace in English and Jihad in Arabic. I regard the Palestinian national movement, in all of its factions, obviously Hamas, but also Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, as incapable of making peace with us, because there isn’t a single Palestinian faction that accepts the legitimacy of a Jewish state in any borders. And that’s what I’ve been saying all these years, and that’s what I wrote in my book, the Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor book. I’ve said two things. The first is that we must have a Palestinian state, because to continue ruling over another people indefinitely will erode us from within. As a Jewish state, as a democratic state. So on the one hand, we must have a Palestinian state. On the other hand, we can’t have a Palestinian state. We can’t take the risk of Gaza being replicated in Judea and Samaria.

And Judea and Samaria isn’t somewhere far away from where I’m sitting. I’m looking out at the lights of the west bank on the next hill, that’s Judea right there. It’s 2000 meters away from where I’m sitting, I live in literally the last row of houses in Jerusalem toward the desert, and I’m looking out that there it is. And if that becomes a Palestinian state and Hamas takes over, what happens? So this was always the complexity that I was trying to explain, and that is very much a centrist Israeli political position. It doesn’t come from the left, I never identified with the left, I don’t identify with the left now. And part of the difference between a centrist position and a left-wing position is exactly what you said, “Are you disillusioned?” Leftists are disillusioned, I’m not disillusioned because I didn’t have expectations. When I wrote that book, and began outreach to Palestinians, it was an experiment.

And I wanted to see what happens when an Israeli writes a book that explains Zionism to Palestinians, to Muslims, translates the book into Arabic, puts it online for free downloading, and offers it to Palestinians, to the Arab world, and that’s what I did. It’s a Zionist book for Palestinians. Very tough audience, by the way. Maybe not as tough as Columbia students, but tough. And so I was looking for Palestinians who would engage with me in a model conversation, where both of us would agree that there are two indigenous peoples in this land, and each people should have the right to sovereignty. That’s the principle, and I believe in that principle. Whether it’s applicable or not, whether it’s realistic or not, is a separate question, and we’ll get to that. But the principle, and this is what makes me a liberal Zionist as opposed to a right-winger, I believe that the only way out for us in the end is to somehow extricate ourselves from ruling over the Palestinians. Now, is it possible? Not now it isn’t, not in the foreseeable future it isn’t. Am I disillusioned with the Palestinians?

I didn’t have expectations, but what I can say now, what has nevertheless changed, and something’s changed for all of us. What’s changed for me is when I talk about a Palestinian state, I make clear that what the Palestinians lost on October 7th is any possibility of an Israeli withdrawal that would include the army. They lost the chance for a genuinely sovereign state on October 7th. It’s not going to happen, it doesn’t matter who’s in power in Israel. The question is, “Is ruling over the Palestinians healthy for Israel?” And if you are asking me about a two-state solution, a two-state solution is a disaster for Israel. But the alternative, which is a one-state, which means incorporating three or 4 million Palestinians, including, if you listen to the far-right in Israel, including reoccupying Gaza, and absorbing Gaza into the State of Israel. Do I want to live with 2 million Gazans as part of my society? And so what the far-right is really saying to us is we’re going to absorb Gaza and we’re going to expel the Palestinians. Now, good luck with that.

Good luck trying to remain part of the democratic community of nations and expel several million Palestinians. The rules have changed in the international community, what was possible in 1948 is not possible anymore. And if you want to just make your own rules, you’ll find yourself living in Meir Kahane’s glorious, splendid, isolated Jewish kingdom. That’s not in Israel that I dream of.

David Bashevkin:

There is a lot of talk about younger Americans, Jews in the diaspora, moving away from Zionism. And you see you’ve mentioned a few times the calls for ceasefire, which you and I completely agree, are very misguided and they don’t understand. And I am worried, as I jumped in earlier in our conversation. We have American support, and I said, “For now.” My question for you is, is there anything Israel, we, you and I could be doing to restate the case for why Israel is important to the younger generation? To young American Jews who are coming up now, who are really questioning, they’re really articulating the question that I began with, why do we need a Jewish state? We didn’t live through the Holocaust, we’re living fine in America, and all we see is the plight of Palestinians. What should mainstream Jews, like you and I, and relationship to Zionism, even with our differences? And I don’t even know if they’re so pronounced, and I don’t think they are. What should we be doing to restate the case to these Jews?

Should we just keep hand waving and saying, “Oh, they’re a fringe minority. They’re the assimilated Neturei Karta, secular Neturei Karta. That’s what we’ve been doing to Neturei Karta, and I’m fine with that.” Should we be taking a different approach to this emerging generation of Jews who are questioning the need for a Jewish state?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

So let’s distinguish between the hardcore far-left, IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the legitimate struggles of many young Jews about Israel. Those who have crossed the line into dogmatic, hateful, anti-Zionism should be quarantined from the Jewish community, they have no place among us. That rule is what I apply to the groups as collectives and to their leaders. I would treat individuals differently, there’s always place for shuva, the door always has to be open. We’re talking about sons and daughters of some people who I know. So I make that distinction even among the farbrente, the hardcore anti-Zionists. But then you’ve got a vast number of young Jews who are questioning. Now, there are some in the Jewish community who think that we can continue to apply the old approach that worked in the 1960s, to some extent, in the 1970s. By the 1980s, it was already wearing thin, which is to pretend that Israel doesn’t have serious challenges, doesn’t have serious moral challenges. And that may be comforting for some people, but that’s not going to work anymore for the vast majority of American Jews.

And the work that I’ve done all these years is to try to hold on tight to the majority of American Jewry. I can’t see writing off 70% of American Jewry.

David Bashevkin:

God forbid.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

God forbid. But Netanyahu did, in fact, and he said it. He said, “The liberal American Jews are not my allies, the Evangelicals are my allies.” Now I’m very grateful for Evangelical support, I think most Israelis are, but not at the expense of Klal Yisroel. And there was a mean edge that’s taken over parts of the Jewish, a contempt and, “Good riddance. Good riddance to all of you.”

David Bashevkin:

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Yeah, right, right. And what we’ve seen since October 7th is that Israel means a lot more to liberal American Jews. Not all, but that not only that we Israelis thought, but that they themselves thought. Part of what’s so moving about what’s happening among liberal American Jews is that there’s a reawakening of this realization that Israel really does matter to them. Because what we saw on October 7th was a miniature glimpse into, God forbid, what the destruction of Israel would look like. Total chaos, Jewish helplessness, and Jews in the diaspora got it. They got it. And so this is a moment to be reaching out to them, and not to be dismissing their questions or their criticisms, but to be embracing them, and to have a conversation with them. Look, I’ve spent years speaking on campuses, and I wrote my book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, in part as a letter to a young American Jew. That was the second audience I had in mind. I initially intended to write a second book called Letters to a Young American Jew, but nobody would read a book called Letters to a Young American Jew.

David Bashevkin:

Now they might.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Yeah, now they might. And I was hoping that young liberal, progressive American Jews might be interested in reading a book called Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, and it really did work. I’ve had a very large number of my readers are young liberals and progressives, it’s exactly the people I was hoping would read it. So how do we address them? What I tried to do in that book, I was speaking to Palestinians and speaking to the Muslim world, but I was also indirectly speaking to young American Jews and saying, “I hear your concerns. I understand how difficult it is that the Jewish state is ruling over another people.” Two things. I don’t minimize the necessity of the occupation. And by the way, I use the word occupation in a very specific way. We are not occupying any part of the land of Israel, Jews are not occupiers in Judea, but we are occupying a people that lives in this land, and we need to own that. We need to acknowledge it. So on the one hand, I believe we have no choice but to continue for the foreseeable future with the occupation of the Palestinians.

And on the other hand, I believe that we must own the moral complexity of that situation. And not say, as I hear from too many Jews on the right, “There’s no such thing as an occupation, and there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people.” I know there’s such a thing as an occupation and a Palestinian people, because I occupied. As a soldier in Gaza, I occupied Palestinians. I was in and out of their homes, I know what an occupation looks like. Now again, I affirm the necessity of the occupation. That’s a question of survival for us, but that doesn’t absolve us of the need to continue to be, first of all, aware of the moral consequences, and to struggle as best as possible to limit them. And so if I have anything to say to young American Jews, it’s that I need your moral voice in the Jewish conversation, but don’t forget October 7th. Don’t forget how vulnerable the Jews are, and David, if I could just say one last thing about this moment, in terms of the American Jewish-Israeli relationship.

David Bashevkin:

Please.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

I think this is a very precious opportunity, because for the last decades really, we’ve been on a downward slope, and we got to the point where we were actually speaking about a divorce between a majority of American Jews, God forbid, and Israel. And that, at least temporarily, is off the table. What’s happening today is that for the first time in the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, both communities are feeling vulnerable, it didn’t happen before. Israel was vulnerable, American Jews were not, and then progressive American Jews started to believe that Israel wasn’t vulnerable either. What we’ve learned since October 7th, what both communities have learned, is that neither of us are as secure as we thought we were, and that creates an opening for a new kind of empathic conversation between Israelis and American Jews. We can’t shut that down with the same old rigid, dogmatic approach, where any questioning of Israel is treason. And for me, the crucial moment was the recent demonstration in Washington, and the line there for me is who was there and who wasn’t there.

Those who were there, whether we like what they believe or not, are part of the big Jewish tent. Now, who was there? J Street was there, T’ruah was there. I’m an AIPAC Jew, that’s where my center is, but J Street and T’ruah, by showing up in Washington and by refusing to call for a ceasefire, neither group did. They’re not part of this abomination called Rabbis for Ceasefire, they are part of the pro-Israel community. Whether I agree with that… And I deeply disagree with J Street on so many things, but if they invite me to speak, I will go to them. Just as if Agudath Israel invited me to speak. I don’t think they will, but if they would, of course I would go.

David Bashevkin:

We’re living in wild times, and I think if there’s one thing that could get you to maybe come over to the Messianic Zionism world, it will be when you are speaking at the next Agudah, and then I think we’ll have the clearest proof. But truly, your defense, your passion, your thought, and your empathy in this moment really touched me to my core.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Thank you.

David Bashevkin:

I’ve been reading you, I’ve known about you. Our paths crossed maybe once, I think we met in person, but really is a privilege to speak. I’m so grateful. I always end my interviews with more rapid fire questions or three questions. My first question, you mentioned your books, and I would urge any listeners, if you haven’t already, to read your books, and really listen to your voice because I find it so incredibly comforting. I’m wondering if there are any books that are maybe not the classics, that you find particularly informative in this moment, that you would recommend to our listeners? We just did a series on Zionism, we covered a lot of the classic books of Israeli history. Is there a book that you think is understudied, maybe ignored or not really on people’s radars, that people should pick up and take a second look at? Or first look.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

That’s a great question. Looking at my library now, there was a book that was published in 1976. It was written by Yehoshafat Harkabi, and it was Arab Strategies and Israel’s Response. Yehoshafat Harkabi was one of the legendary founders of the Israeli Intelligence Community, and he wrote a book before Sadat came to Jerusalem, laying out Israel’s predicament in the Arab world. And he said, “The Arab world does not accept our existence.” That’s our starting point, but it’s not our end point. And then he said something really interesting. “The Arab world has concluded that it can’t destroy Israel through war, so it’s going to try to use negotiations to whittle us away and get territorial concessions, and leave us bereft and then continue the war,” which is, of course, was Arafat strategy. Then he said, “Okay, let’s accept the fact that the Arab world does not accept our existence, and will use peace negotiations to try to undermine us, but we can use peace negotiations to trap them into a web of relations.” Now, I thought a lot about Harkabi’s thesis over the years. Did it work with Egypt? Yes and no.

The fact that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty endured all these years, even when the Muslim Brotherhood temporarily rose to power, is an extraordinary achievement and it vindicates Menachem Begin. On the other hand, Harkabi’s vision of… The language he used was we would “entrap” our Arab peace partner in a web of peaceful relations from which they can’t extricate themselves. Egypt managed not to enter into people-to-people relations or trade relations, so the Harkabi thesis was always a question mark for me. It was vindicated with the Abraham Accords, which were the first genuine normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries. And when the Saudis, God willing, come into the peace process, that will be the final indication of Harkabi. That book was very important for me. What I loved about it was his realism, he wasn’t coming from a left-wing utopian place that peace is imminent, but he said, “We can work with this situation to our advantage.” And we are living in a Middle East, which is at least in part, moving toward Harkabi’s vision.

David Bashevkin:

God willing, we’ll continue to unfold. My next question. If somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical, go back to school and get a PhD in a subject that you maybe have never studied before, what do you think the subject entitled that dissertation be?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Well, I wouldn’t waste my time in academia. I mean that.

David Bashevkin:

That’s become a very popular answer the last several weeks.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

I always hated academia, I went into journalism.

David Bashevkin:

But if you weren’t writing about Israel, and Palestinian-Israeli relationships, what would you be writing, studying about instead?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

I’m very interested in world religions. I’m especially interested in the religions of the East, Hinduism. What I find so interesting about Hinduism is that Hinduism and Judaism are the two root religions of the world’s major faiths. Out of Hinduism came Buddhism and out of Judaism, of course, Christianity and Islam. These are the five great religions, and Hinduism and Judaism have a lot more in common than we know. We think of Hinduism as idolatry, but there is in fact a strain in Hinduism called Vedanta, which is monotheistic and goes back thousands of years. We don’t know each other, and the fact that Israel and India have developed such a powerful strategic relationship, opens the way for the beginning of a civilizational discourse between these two great civilizations on either end of Asia that are discovering each other, now, for the first time. I always wanted to write a book about Israel and India, and so that’s what I would do. I would actually study Hinduism.

David Bashevkin:

Okay, maybe we planted a seed. My final question, I’m always curious about people’s sleep schedules. I know we’re talking late in Israel time now, what time do you go to sleep at night, and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Oh, that’s a sore point though. That’s really…

David Bashevkin:

That’s been my toughest question yet, yeah.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

It really is. Especially since October 7th, I managed to get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Sometimes I’m asleep by 10:00, 11:00, and often I’m up for the night by 1:00. It’s as if somebody has shaking me awake.

David Bashevkin:

1:00 AM?

Yossi Klein Halevi:

1:00 AM, 2:00 AM. And I get up, and I suddenly remember where I am, and what’s happening. I think of the hostages, I think of the war, I think of what we’ve been through in the last year, the deep schism. I think of the fact that I have a government that I can’t trust in the most basic way with the wellbeing of Israel. I think of what’s happening to Israel in the world, how we’re being put on trial and accused of everything that our enemies are doing to us, we’re the ones who are doing genocide. And the night is over, that’s it. And then I’ll make myself a cup of herbal tea, and either try to do some writing, or some meditating or some breathing, and hope that that will get me back to sleep, and it usually doesn’t. Sometimes I make it till 4:00, 5:00. That’s a gift.

David Bashevkin:

Yossi Klein Halevi, I really appreciate the gifts of your scholarship, your voice. If I could give you one recommendation to find that calm, that soothe, it’s listening to you.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

Thank you.

David Bashevkin:

It gives me a great deal of comfort, and I’m so grateful for the time you gave speaking with me today. Thank you again.

Yossi Klein Halevi:

David, it was truly a pleasure. Really good to be with you.

David Bashevkin:

Whatever you self-identify as, whatever labels you use to describe your relationship to the State of Israel. My only hope, and honestly, my bracha to all of us, a blessing, it is an opportunity, is that we are all able to ask the uncomfortable questions, not towards one another, but asking the uncomfortable questions of ourselves and our own beliefs, and that is why I am so grateful for this conversation with Yossi Klein Halevi. Every community has soul-searching to do, every community has very tough questions that they can and should be asking of themselves. It’s not enough to point across the aisle, it’s not enough to point to another religious community, another aspect or segment of the Jewish community. Everybody has questions that we should be asking of ourselves. And before we point towards others, it’s important that we build the capacity and the language to ask these questions to ourselves and of ourselves. Because if we have any hope of really rising to the moment and asking what’s next for our collective, it’s going to begin with that individual soul-searching each individually, each community, looking in the mirror and asking, “How can we be different?”

How can we confront those uncomfortable questions of what we’ve been clinging onto, holding onto? Because change is never easy, change is never comfortable. And I believe that in large part, we have a roadmap for what the stakes are, how urgent and important, and exciting this opportunity of this moment is. And that if all of us are able to ask, as uncomfortable, and as difficult, and scary it sometimes seems to be, if we’re able to look into that mirror and not rest on the accolades of our communities each respectively, but able to ask each in their own respective community, “What is next? How do we do differently? How do we emerge differently? How do we confront the magnitude of this moment, that I remain as optimistic as ever, that whatever comes next will be more hopeful, more optimistic, and more resilient? That we’re able to emerge from this rebuilding from the horrors of October 7th with greater resolve, with greater unity, and with an even more all-encompassing vision for the future of Klal Yisroel, the collective Jewish people, to usher in that ultimate redemption for each and every one of us.

So thank you so much for listening. This episode, like so many of our episodes, was edited by our dearest friend Denah Emerson. If you enjoyed this episode or any of our episodes, please subscribe, rate, review, tell your friends about it. You can also donate at 18forty.org/donate. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. You can also leave us a voicemail with feedback or questions that we may play on a future episode. That number is 516-519-3308. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18forty.org. That’s the number one eight, followed by the word, “Forty” F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can also find videos, articles, recommended readings, and weekly emails. Thank you so much for listening, and stay curious my friends.