Naama Cifrony Interviews Yossi Klein Halevi
Israelis have changed: they no longer have an existential need to define themselves as cut off from Jewish civilization in the Diaspora, and they no longer divide clearly along a left-right fault line. Yossi Klein Halevi points out that the present Jewish communities in Israel and the United States would have been viewed as miraculous a hundred years ago.
He explains why the potential in this period following the bursting of illusions cannot be realized until these two Jewries achieve a more accurate understanding and deeper appreciation of one another.
Yossi Klein Halevi was born in Brooklyn in 1953. As a child, he used to imagine himself inhabiting a hole like the one in which his father survived in a Hungarian forest during World War II. As a teenager, he was active in the Soviet Jewry movement (including a sit-in at the Moscow emigration office during Pesach of 1973, followed by arrest and detention that was brief, thanks to the visit of a group of American senators in Moscow at the time), after which he graduated (“or devolved,” in his own words) to the Jewish Defense League. He writes about this period in his recently re-released book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist (1995), whose unfortunate publication date, two days after the Rabin assassination, “ensured its quick death, even though the book documented a complete recovery from the extremist mentality.”
In 1982, Yossi and his wife Sarah moved to Israel, where he continued writing for the Village Voice and Moment Magazine. By 2000, he had become a devoted analyst of post-’67 Israeli society. His pursuit for over a decade of the characters who participated in the conquest of the Temple Mount and their spiritual and social worlds, culminated in Like Dreamers, which won the 2013 National Jewish Book Award. The book’s heroes – including Hanan Porat, founder of Gush Emunim, and Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, the movement’s dissident, poet and songwriter Meir Ariel of Kibbutz Mishmarot, artist Avital Geva, one of the founders of Peace Now, and Arik Achmon, CEO of Arkia Airlines, represent the right- and left-wing sides of the contemporary post-’67 Israeli political debate.
During his years researching the biographies of these archetypal Israeli protagonists, Yossi lectured widely on Israel in various U.S. communities. His back-and-forth between the Israeli and American Jewish scenes has afforded him a unique angle for examining the relationship between these Jewries.
Naama Cifrony of Eretz Acheret interviews Yossi Klein Halevi about what the American and Israeli Jewish communities can – and must – learn from and about one another.
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What does American Jewry look like to you, and what do its members want to know about Israel?
Maybe I’ll take it a step back and first speak a little personally about my complicated relationship with American Jewry. I grew up on the fringes of the American Jewish community. I was in the right-wing Beitar Zionist youth movement as a kid, and of the entire American Jewish community, there were maybe 100 of us in Beitar. After that, I joined the Jewish Defense League, which was really the fringe of the fringe. I always saw myself in opposition to the mainstream American Jewish community, both as a militant Zionist and son of a survivor. My father was a very angry survivor, angry especially at American Jewry. He blamed the American Jewish community for betraying the Jews of Europe for not pressuring President Roosevelt to try to save them. So I grew up with all of that baggage, and when I made aliyah in 1982, it really was with the feeling that I’m not going back . . . that emotionally, I’m really cutting off my ties.
But things didn’t quite work out that way for me, for several reasons. For one, I realized that my audience is primarily American Jews. When I came here I was still writing for the Village Voice and Moment Magazine, two publications identified with the left, and later, for The Jerusalem Report, and I took upon myself the mission of explaining to liberal American Jews about the “new” Israel created by Menachem Begin’s coalition with Mizrachim, settlers, and Haredim.
The books that I’ve written have also been primarily for an American Jewish readership. And so I found myself deepening my relationship with American Jewry, and I’ve come to love the American Jewish community with its creative powers, and to deeply appreciate its pluralism and its openness to other Jews and to the surrounding non-Jewish environment. There’s something paradoxical about my having developed a relationship with the gamut of the Jewish community – its varied elements and diverse positions – only after I left.
In the year 2000, with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, I began lecturing to American Jews about Israel, and it was very frustrating. Until Sept. 11, 2001, when terror landed on American soil, it seemed that many American Jews didn’t have a clue as to what was happening here. Suicide bombers were blowing themselves up in Jerusalem, and many American Jews related to it as a slight delay on the way to the signing of a peace agreement.
During that same period, we were going through a historic turning point here in Israel. Our faith in the other side’s willingness to accept us in the region was broken. The events of 2000 reshaped how most Israelis feel about the Middle East and our relationship to the Palestinians. Much of the American Jewish community didn’t get it. I would speak in different communities and the questions I was asked made me realize that we’re not conveying the reality of what we’re going through here. I remember that Yankele Rothblit, who wrote “Shir La-Shalom,” the song whose lyrics sheet was stained with the blood of Yitzhak Rabin and became the symbol of the Israeli peace camp in the 1990s – this same Yankele Rothblit gave an interview to one of the Israeli papers saying he saw no chance for peace. It was an abrupt, historic change in Israeli consciousness.
Eretz Acheret published its second issue, entitled “The Messiah Isn’t Coming,” to which I contributed a piece explaining that this is the moment when both right and left are exposed as failures. I tried to explain this to American Jews; I felt compelled to act as a simultaneous translator between Israeliness and American Jewishness.
In some ways, this lack of understanding continues. When I speak to American Jewish communities, I often feel that I’m living in a time warp. When I speak to right-wing Orthodox communities, I feel it’s the 1970s and the 1980s: Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir are still the prime minister and it’s the good old days of Eretz Yisrael Ha-shleymah (Greater Israel) and all we need is the determination to claim what’s ours. I try to explain to these communities that the First Intifada of the late 1980s was the moment when many realized that there is no such thing as an enlightened occupation, and if you have a civilian population that is in revolt against occupation, you will have to be brutal to suppress them. And I explain that most Israelis came out of the First Intifada convinced that the price for a “Greater Israel” is too high.
When I speak to liberal Jewish communities I find myself in the 1990s, and it’s the optimistic years of Oslo, and all we need to do is to stop building in the settlements and sign a peace agreement. It’s as if the Second Intifada never happened, which was when a majority of Israelis realized that Peace Now is no less of an illusion than Greater Israel. So I try to explain to American Jews that the majority of Israelis today are neither left nor right – we’re a mixture of both, of both “lessons” of both Intifadas.
That was indeed the meaning of “The Messiah Isn’t Coming” issue, the title that we of course borrowed from Shalom Hanoch’s song “Mashiach Lo Ba.”
Precisely. What was conventional wisdom here in Israel 15 years ago, for many American Jews is still a big revelation. It’s very frustrating for me to explain to them years later that the left-right schism that dominated Israeli public opinion until the year 2000 no longer works. For Israelis who identify as centrists – and I think we’re the majority of the country – the left-right schism is no longer the dividing line between rival camps; it is the fault line that runs straight through each and every one of us.
I have a friend who used to say, already in the 1980s: “Every day, for five minutes, I think like Yitzhak Shamir.”
That’s exactly what I say to them. There are mornings when I wake up and it’s a left-wing morning. And I say to myself, “All we have to do is to just get out! We have a fence, and we’ll manage somehow with the missiles that will land on Tel Aviv.” And there are other days when I wake up and it’s a right-wing, Shamir morning. I say to myself: “Are you crazy? Look at what’s happening in the Middle East! Look at our borders!” That’s where most of us are at. And it also explains the mystery of Netanyahu’s success as the second-longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history after Ben Gurion. It’s unbelievable – a prime minister whom nobody likes – not even the people who vote for him. And I think the reason is that Netanyahu reflects what most of us want in a prime minister today. We apparently want an Israeli prime minister who agrees to a two-state solution but is in no hurry to carry it out.
And what don’t we know about American Jews?
What we don’t know about them is at least as much as what they don’t know about us. Let’s look at the big picture. The situation of the Jewish people today is unprecedented in its success. We have two extraordinary communities. We have a sovereign Jewish state whose public space we’re responsible for shaping. And in the United States, we have the most successful and accepted Diaspora community in Jewish history, which is welcome by the non-Jewish majority to help shape the public conversation and to bring Jewish values into the non-Jewish public space. Either one of these two success stories would have been seen by Jews a hundred years ago as miraculous. And the fact that these two communities emerged more or less simultaneously makes this time the most exciting and most potentially rich period in Jewish history. The problem is that these two communities don’t know each other. And each has developed a different kind of Jewish life that the other desperately needs. What we’ve developed here is a Jewish culture of a majority that does not suffer from a “minority complex.” And that is creating new expressions that are unique in the Jewish world.
How is this reflected in music, for example?
One senses layers of influence in the music being created today in Israel. You especially feel it in the new Jewish spiritual music – Medieval Spain, merged with Hebrew rock. This is music that can only be created here, in a kind of hothouse of poetic and musical motifs, where Bratslav meets piyyut [liturgical poetry]. This music mixes Jewish cultures from many Diasporas and periods, and then merges this rich diversity into new, Israeli directions. The music created here during the classical Zionist period was meant for Israelis only. There was no room around the campfire for Diaspora Jews. It wasn’t their music. In contrast, the music of Berry Sakharof and Ehud Banai, of Maureen Nehedar, who is merging Persian piyyut with her own compositions, or of Peretz and Mark Eliyahu, who brought the music of the Mountain Jews from Dagestan to contemporary Israeli music – all of this is essentially world Jewish music that belongs to every Jew. We are absorbing thousands of years of Jewish culture and transforming it into contemporary expression.
Let’s return to my earlier question: what do we have to learn from American Jewry?
American Jewry has been able to experiment with new forms of religious life – for example, feminism, which has transformed American Jewry in ways that Israelis can’t even begin to imagine. Increasing numbers of congregations are women-led. Women are the rabbis, the cantors and the presidents of many synagogues there.
The Jewish scholar Ari Elon once told of a conversation among his children that he overheard shortly after they’d returned from several years at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. After visiting a Jerusalem synagogue, perhaps the Orthodox synagogue of Elon’s childhood, one child turned to his brother and said: “But he’s a man. A man can’t be a rabbi!” In contrast, an Orthodox rabbi from the US told me that the reason that women aren’t counted in a minyan or included in religious ritual is that if this were permitted, men wouldn’t have any reason to regularly attend synagogue.
What’s happened is that the feminist revolution has saved liberal Judaism in America – because many Ashkenazi males reached the end of the road of their Jewish vitality. The feminist revolution has given half of the Jewish people, which never had a chance to express itself fully as Jews, the opportunity to act. Something else we can learn from American Jews is to take responsibility for shaping our Judaism: that each individual can create a Jewish and religious identity that suits him or her.
Here in Israel we have the depth of Jewish history, while they have the expanse. Each has an advantage and a disadvantage. The disadvantage of depth is that it can be very narrow. The image that I have of Judaism in Israel is a well – a deep well of living water that is sometimes also narrow and dark. And the disadvantage of expanse is that it can be very thin, very superficial. Our challenge here is to widen our Judaism. Deepening is the challenge of American Judaism.
How do you perceive the anti-Zionism brewing on America’s campuses?
It’s really quite dismaying to see a strong strain of anti-Zionism emerge among Jewish-identified young American Jews. While it’s still marginal, the margins are vocal. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, the New Left in America was heavily Jewish, but most did not identify actively with their Judaism. The anti-Zionism was usually part of an assimilation process. What’s happening today is that some young American Jews see no contradiction between anti-Zionism and a positive Jewish identity. In fact, the opposite – they see anti-Zionism as an expression of their Jewish identity and their anger at Israel is because they perceive us as sullying Jewish ethics.
Would you say it’s because of a glorification of the Diaspora?
I think there are a few reasons for it. One is that the State of Israel has helped American Jews feel proud and secure in their Jewishness. My generation knows that the reason American Jews feel secure is because of Israel. Younger American Jews today don’t know that – they take that sense of Jewish security for granted. They don’t remember a time when Jews were stigmatized as cowards. Growing up, I used to read books with titles like, “Jews Fight Too.” Can you imagine publishing a book like that today? The problem today is that the world thinks that we fight too well. No Jew has to prove that Jews can fight. In the Soviet Union – so my friends have told me – until the Six-Day War, the stigma was that the Jews purportedly all fled from the front during World War II.
With all the generals and the medals?
Right, with all the medals. Jews were generals in the Red Army. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fought in the front ranks of the Russian army, yet the stigma was that all the Jews were hiding in Tashkent during World War II. The Six-Day War was the moment when Diaspora Jews overcame their inferiority complex. Young American Jews today don’t know that, and I feel that they are guilty – often involuntarily out of ignorance, but guilty – of a deep ingratitude to Israel, which changed the image of the Diaspora Jew. In effect, it is Israel that has made it possible for American Jews to feel American, to feel fully accepted in America. The irony is that the reason that anti-Zionism disappeared after the Shoah is that the anti-Zionist world was literally destroyed. There’s something ahistorical, a kind of amnesia quality in this new wave of Jewish anti-Zionism.
Before I ask you what we need to do about this, I want to tell you about my recent experience reading Days of Ziklag by S. Yizhar. My daughter was studying for her college entrance exams, and suggested that rather than memorize vocabulary from the practice book, we read Days of Ziklag together. We had to look up three words on every page. Reading the descriptions of the heroes and heroism in the book, which represents the ethos of the War of Independence, I got the impression that left-wing Israelis, like the paratroopers you describe in your book, are no longer able to bear the demand for sacrifice – what we mockingly call the “silver platter” – and the injustice inflicted on those who lose; and on the other hand, the Haredim and other anti-Zionists can’t stand – perhaps because they are jealous – the powerful vitality of the first generations of Zionists. How can we navigate between the mythos of sacrifice and its attendant injustice, and the power of vitality?
As a young American Jew I was jealous of Israeli vitality, and my solution was to join Israel. But before I answer your question, I’ll say that my generation of American Jews fell in love with an Israel that we didn’t understand. We had some idealized image of Israel in its early years, but Labor Israel of the 50s and 60s was much less democratic and pluralistic than Israel of today (I’m of course referring to Israel within the Green Line). My fear is therefore that American Jews are falling out of love with an Israel that they don’t understand. You talked about vitality. Israel today is one of the most vital places on earth. I once interviewed the writer David Grossman, and he said that he gets all kinds of offers for sabbaticals abroad, and he refuses to take them because he doesn’t want to deprive his children of a year of vitality in Israel. Now, of course, when we know that one of his sons fell in Lebanon, it takes on a particular poignancy. But I never forgot that. And somehow we’re not conveying that spiritual vitality to American Jewry.
I’m told: “There’s no pluralism in Israel,” and I answer, “It depends how you look at it.” It’s a different kind of pluralism than in American Jewry. In American Jewry you have religious pluralism. Here, we have ethnic pluralism. We have Jews from dozens of countries. We have such extraordinary Jewish diversity. And I believe that we are beginning to develop religious pluralism here as well – Israeli Judaism. For me, the promise that “Ki mitzion tetze Torah,” Torah will go forth from Zion, means that we will be creating forms of spiritual renewal with deep roots. Israeli Judaism reads our sources in their original language and creates a culture in response to the needs of a Jewish majority with self-confidence in a sovereign nation. I chose to live in Israel because this is where I believe ultimately the Jewish story is going to be determined. But we can’t do it alone. We can’t do it without American Jewry. Especially if we’re talking about a spiritual transformation. American Jews are our partners in that revolution.
This may be the first time we have an opportunity to create an authentic and mature relationship between American Jews and Israelis. In the past we were committed to a project that excluded the Diaspora. In fact, that was in direct opposition to the Diaspora. The Zionist cultural project very much saw itself as creating a new Jew who was meant to be cut off from the Diaspora.
And now we need to create the new “new Jew”?
We’re done with this notion of cutting ourselves off from Jewish civilization in the Diaspora. We now see ourselves as the continuation – not just of Biblical Judaism but of uninterrupted Jewish history, including Jewish life in the Diaspora. My worry is that interest in Israel among American Jews is declining. Are we going to miss each other again? I’m concerned that without a close relationship with the State of Israel and Israelis, American Jewry also will not reach its full potential. For the first time we can create a real relationship. What an amazing, extraordinary moment. But we need partners for that – serious partners.
This article is one of 17 important perspectives on the current state of the Israel-Diaspora relationship published in a special issue of Eretz Acheret magazine, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and available free of charge to Times of Israel readers. Access the full digital edition at:
Come let us reason together