Roy Siegelmann
Roy Siegelmann

Interview with MK Yossi Shain

MK Yossi Shain (Credits: Noam Moskowitz)
MK Yossi Shain (Credits: Noam Moskowitz)

Highlights from the interview with Yisrael Beytenu MK Yossi Shain:

  • The current coalition is has no particular gravity of power, and as such has immense contributions to Israeli society.
  • The Likud and other members of the Opposition were stagnant and corrupt, and thus needed to be replaced.
  • The Ultra-Orthodox issue is one of the most major facing Israel, due to demographic changes.
  • There is an inherent weakness in liberal Jews in the Diaspora, namely their lack of ethnicity and rejection of the Jewish tribe.
  • Afghanistan marks a major failure on the part of the US, but Israel is no longer dependent on the US, having connections with Russia, India, and China among others.
  • Connections with the Diaspora are crucial, and Israel should focus more on being a homeland for all Jews, reaching out around the world.

MK Shain, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. Please briefly introduce yourself to the readers.

My name is Yossi Shain. I was born and raised in Israel and served for many years as an academic – a professor – both at Tel Aviv University and Georgetown University. After having a completely Israeli upbringing, I did my graduate school in the United States, at Yale, and from then on launched my academic career. I came to Yale as an Israeli, so I basically also acquired my English while I was in America – I was not raised with the language, and acquiring the language was a major factor in my development, I think. I raised a family in the United States – I married an American wife who was also in the PhD program at Yale and my kids grew up in America. We got divorced, but my two kids grew up in America and eventually moved to Israel, which I always say is my greatest achievement, that my kids reside and live here in Israel.

I had an interesting career – I was dividing my career in the last two decades between Georgetown and Tel-Aviv University where I held dual appointments. I was the founding head of the School of Government in Tel-Aviv University, and in Georgetown, I was a full professor of government and diaspora politics. I was also the founding director of the Center for Jewish Civilization, which became quite an impressive institution.

I was always involved in the life of Israel emotionally speaking, even when I never wrote books about it in the early days because I thought I needed some distance from my homeland, and wrote books on other subjects and was involved for years in research in other subjects.

I became very imbued in American culture and even wrote a book about America, Marketing the American Creed Abroad, [about] how Diasporas relate to their countries of origin and how Americans relate to their countries of origin. I was involved from time to time in policy both in Israel and abroad, advising governments, the United Nations and the Foreign Minister in Israel among others on many things related to public policy. I was trying to combine a very rich academic life – traveling abroad, being a professor in Oxford and Princeton and Sciences Po Paris, many places. I think I always had a drive to do something for society, to be engaged – I was a member of the Israeli Consul of Higher Education for three years, I volunteered as President of the Galilee college for a year, and I was engaged in other projects in Israel and abroad along the way.

In the last few years, because of my encounter with Mr. [MK Avigdor] Lieberman, whom I met for the first time when he was the Foreign Minister. I was involved in Policy regarding the Corona crisis, Religion and State and Foreign Affairs, an activity which led me to eventually join him in the political arena. As an MK I’m doing lots of work on domestic and foreign affairs – serving on the Committee of Education, in the special Committee on the Basic Law (Headed by Minister Gideon Sa’ar) – and on the Security and Foreign Relations Committee (and its important subcommittees). These are great responsibilities.

We also spend many days and nights in the chamber. As an MK I’m combining my academic knowledge, on foreign affairs, the Israeli scene, and the Jewish Diaspora with my passion for the Israeli academy – remember I’ve been a professor for 32 years at Tel-Aviv University already. Indeed, I’m absolutely thrilled with the opportunity which has been presented to me now – I’m turning 65 next month – to do something as an elected official and I find it remarkable that I’m here. I didn’t plan it this way, but once it happened, I jumped into the water – some people say into the pond, but I think it’s a beautiful water – and swam around, trying to do good. As you can imagine, there are many more details, but this is basically the big picture.

Coming from an extended background as an educator and an academic, how do you see the relation between the work you did as a professor and the work you are doing now as a Member of Knesset?

Obviously, one can imagine different worlds. One is the world of ideas, the world of detachment, of the ivory tower, as we say in academia. But you would be surprised how much knowledge this world of ideas lacks, sitting and learning and educating myself in the Knesset, and seeing how much I don’t know, is wonderful. I feel like a constant student in the last two months.

I love learning and studying, so I can educate myself quite quickly. On the other hand, I have been a professor of political science and international affairs, so what I am seeing in the political arena is not foreign to me. Remember I also worked on the Council of Higher education. In the Knesset, I see first-hand the intricacies of public policy and I see the complexities of decision-making processes, which for me as a political scientist are a natural fit. It’s like I’ve come home, I don’t feel foreign in the Parliament. Every morning I drive to Jerusalem with joy, just like how I used to drive to the office every day to write. It’s wonderful energy – I get to meet new people and speak to a lot of local leaders. In the past, I served for four years as the honorary President of the Municipalities’ annual conference, so I’ve done work with decision makers in the past, but Israel has changed remarkably in the last two decades, and we are no longer a small country, our population is exploding. I’ve also been familiar with some people in the Foreign Ministry, so clearly the subject matter of security and foreign policy isn’t entirely foreign to me. And, yet I learn every day. Every day, when I sit in Committees, I also talk to myself, saying to myself “listen”, and I do listen to all the voices, which are quite fascinating in the Israeli parliament.

There is much to be learned, and I’m glad to have an opportunity to be a legislature and help in the shaping of policies. I also bring with me a broad, theoretical perspective to the table. Because of my nature of loving people and talking to people – not to mention that many of my former students are fellow Members of Knesset, which is beautiful to see – I see this as quite a remarkable transition which I was lucky enough to have.

From a political science view, the current coalition is very interesting, with different aspects cobbled together. Are there any particular things which can be learned from the way the new coalition is handling itself, whether from its speed bumps or successes?

I think that many people will write about this coalition in the future. This is a coalition that has no particular gravity of power. This requires from its partners to understand the critical moment in which the coalition was established and govern. There is as special meaning to this broad coalition – it serves to heal the country and its democratic institutions, and its special contributions are immense. Assembling people from a variety of positions, perspectives, and ideologies into a unified body is almost a miracle for our society. This coalition is unique and the working relations among its parts is quite amazing. If one asked me what trait embodies this government more than any else, I would say it is that you really see people working with no ego. Not completely without, they are politicians after all, but lowering their ego, taking a step back and seeing things in a different light, knowing that they defend and protect each other in this coalition. They are also familiar with the other side – the Opposition – and understand why the alternative is so much worse for the country than this coalition.

To me it’s quite fascinating to see how it works, seeing that people from the Left, like Mossi Raz and others, will sit with Bennett and Shaked, understanding that the alternative is much more problematic to the wellbeing of Israel, for the sake of Israeli culture, for the questions of State and Religion, for the relations between Jews and Arabs, and from what they consider to be the values of a Jewish, democratic and a modern society – which they cherish. This is an important juncture. This juncture is also good for the Opposition – which became arrogant and stagnate in power; even corrupt. As Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Some in the Opposition are quite shocked about what happened to them, and how fast it happened. But they get used to their new position and will have to assemble their forces and redefine themselves. I see this process on a daily basis, and I have good friends on the opposition.

Today, for example, I was sitting with the ultra-orthodox – five ultra-orthodox members who showed up to the Committee on Education, to discuss Haredi education. And this is at the time when the Knesset is on vacation, and they came to the committee because the ultra-orthodox education is the key in their agenda. I myself consider the ultra-orthodox education, as one of the most important challenges to Israel’s future. Today we saw the data again: 26.4% of first graders are ultra-orthodox [in ultra-orthodox schools]. This is mindboggling when you think about the future. Keep in mind that in the Mamlakhti school system [secular state schools], there is only 38% or so, and this is changing so rapidly. For me to have this discussion with [UTJ MK Moshe] Gafni, who says “we have a system which is a contradiction by nature from Mamlakhtiut”, and I say how can it be? If you are soon in the majority and the state sponsors you, how can you say you are in contradiction with the state itself? Where are we going? These are core issues, which are not theoretical. These are related not just to money, to schools, to the way cities are being fashioned, our economy our ethos, our entire Zionist project. When [UTJ MK Yaakov] Litzman spoke today about Arad, he said that Arad is being depleted by the growth of the ultra-orthodox, and said – I don’t know where he got the data and I can’t verify the data – that 73 daycares are empty in Arad because of emigration, but that the ultra-orthodox cannot get seven daycares because the mayor won’t give it to them. The numbers don’t matter exactly, but it is this transition by which Israel is being shaped, and it is something which concerns me every day. How we will build Israel, what are the threats, what are the challenges, and how we can reorganize it in a manner which does not explode in our faces.

These are big issues which I work on, which I write about, and here I see it on a day-to-day basis from the people who speak on behalf of these communities. The question is who speaks on behalf of the Jews, with what authority, and who listens. These are questions I have been asking during my entire research on the Diaspora, and now I see who speaks on whose behalf and why, and this is a big issue for me.

MK Yossi Shain (Credits: Noam Moskowitz)

Turning precisely to your research on Diaspora, let us discuss your new book, which is supposed to be coming out soon in English.

The book is an attempt to understand what happens to the Jews when sovereignty becomes paramount. What happens when the State of Israel, in particular at this juncture, becomes the majority of the Jewish population, will basically decide what will happen with Jews in the future and also redefine their past. Think about what is happening today between us and Poland: this will determine how we envision our past, the way we rewrite – or do not rewrite – Jewish history, and the way in which Israel writes Jewish history is completely different from the way in which it was written since Josephus Flavius in many ways. There were of course writing of Jewish history in the 19th century and other historians, but this is a new chapter. This is a major chapter in the Israeli Century, and is something I don’t think we have known since antiquity from the time of King Josiah and the Second Temple, which to me is a fascinating phenomenon, to see how quickly it evolved.

I try to draw analogies from the past to the present, and to see what has happened, to see how many issues are lingering and what new issues are coming to the fore and how they reshape the Jewish people and Judaism itself, especially in light of the fact that there is also a depleted nature of Diasporic life. This is a particular challenge of American Jewry and of the conflict between Israeli and American Jewry. This is what I do in the book, trying to see how the Jews have shaped societies in which they dwelled, and now into the Israeli century, where sovereignty is becoming so dominant, the home of the Jews as a homeland and a place where all other options are suffering. As I did this work, I was sitting in France, I was sitting in Great Britain, trying to understand all the other alternative models which have basically been reduced in significance, and have been reduced in their impact vis-à-vis the Israelization of Judaism. I think people understand this. French intellectuals are writing about it, such as Pierre Birnbaum the French sociologist, who says that my thesis is the thesis. I think people understand that this is what is happening, not to conclude that this is a triumphant moment, but rather that this is a fact from which we must learn many lessons. Therefore, when we talk in the Knesset – think about when Bennett gives a speech, or Netanyahu gives a speech, or whoever – we always make it in references to our history. The lessons of history are so critical to the way we behave, and particularly the way we understand the relation between religion and state. These are all current issues, but are completely informed by our history, and I try to draw analogies from both our history and those of other nations. This is why it took me seven years to write it and work on it, to see what this coherent historical narrative is, as opposed to others which can be written.

Particularly with the most recent operation in Gaza, but also as a trend for the past number of years, there has been a concerning influx of American Jewry joining the anti-Israel and pro-Hamas crowd, which seems to be growing daily. There appears to be a crisis in the US and in the Western world more generally with Israel’s connection to Western countries, and particularly Western Jews. How do you believe this will proceed, and what should be done?

First of all, my perspective is that this North American Jewish liberal or Progressive emphasis on what they call the “failings of Israel” is the result of their own inability to find content as Jews in the Diaspora. Those who feel ‘uncomfortable’ with Israel criticize us as a way of trying to reshape their own thin Judaism and to be the “Universal Jew”. This happened before, particularly toward the beginning of Zionism – Moshe Hess talks about this in the 19th century in “Rome and Jerusalem”. But in the 19th century, Germany Jewish ethnicity was evident for “assimilated” Jews, not so in today’s America when 70 percent intermarry. When [Jeremy] Ben-Ami, the leader of J-Street, was here some years ago, after a previous round of fighting with Hamas in Gaza, probably around 2014 or so, we met in a dinner. He said, “I am going to meet with the leader of Hamas”, and I asked him “Mr. Ben-Ami, what other Jewish activities do you have?” and he was upset. So be it!

Many years ago, after the Second Intifada and the terrorist attacks of September 11th in the United States, I was invited to lecture a group of Jewish Women from the organization B’Tzedek v’Shalom, – if I remember it was in Seattle; the leader of this group I believe was Marsha Friedman. Their mission was to collect money to have settlers leave the West Bank. This seems to me so odd, and I said cynically “What a noble cause, What other Jewish activities do you have?”. They regret inviting me. But in my opinion they did not have enough ethnic connection anymore. Jewish ethnicity is a key to Jewish peoplehood – we are Zera Israel after all, not only Zera Hakodesh – and since ethnicity is so reduced in many circles in the United States and even attacked by Jews themselves – who think that ethnicity is illegitimate; this is a tragedy. They see Jewish ethnicity as a sign of White Supremacy which is a ‘disease’. This is so absurd. The fact that Jews adopt the Black Lives Matter’s idea that Jews are white supremacists is absolutely crazy.

So they criticize Israel as a way to enable themselves to have a more universal message, of Tikkun Olam, which once you stretch it the way it has been stretched in many parts of the United States, it has nothing to do anymore with the Jewish people – with the ethnicity of the Jews – which we cherish as a nation. This decline of ethnicity – as illegitimate – in the United States, is quite new after years of multiculturalism which gave ethnicity an important role. In Israel of course, we have our natural basis as Israelis who speak Hebrew, who live together with patriotic nationalism, our love of our country. This element is present among many American Jews but it’s also the basic weakness of the Diaspora. Nevertheless, I never debunk Diaspora Jews or claim they are unworthy to be listened to. We are only three-generation after the Shoa! And yet I always question whether they come with an intention of doing well for their kinship ties, or whether they are already out of the game. For me, as a Zionist, if they are not out of the game, and they see the Jewish past and the Jewish future through the prism of what [Rabbi] Soloveitchik calls “Brit Goral” [a covenant of fate] and “Brit Atid” [a covenant of future], then they are still in the game. But if they no longer see it, or they say things like “everyone is doing Tikkun Olam, it has nothing to do with ethnicity anymore”, they are pushing themselves out of the tribe. And Jews are a tribe after all.
For me, Judaism is a tribe, nowadays a national tribe above all. This tribe was for many years homeless and dispersed. I am very troubled, by anyone who is attacking Israel, such as BDS and so on, and I have little patience for this.

I have lectured all over the world, and I wrote on the Israelization of antisemitism, which is in a way much easier to deal with. But I see the level of antisemitism in America, and I write about it as well. I also have little patience for those for moralizing us without love, the Judith Butlers and so on. Their understanding of Judaism and Jewishness is shallow, let alone understanding the needs of Israel, the challenges we are facing, the dramas which we are experiencing, or even our actual faults – certainly we are far from perfect.

Nevertheless, we Israelis have a core, which is protecting the homeland, protecting the nation, the kinship ties, and understanding the gravity of a nation-state and sovereignty in a modern entity. Today many Arab Israeli understand it and are trying to be an integral part of the Israeli model. So many Arab Israelis say they are proud to be Israelis! This is amazing and this is how I see it. I can be accused of being an overly passionate Zionist, but yes, I am in many ways.

As of yesterday, Kabul fell to the Taliban, and going forward they are anticipated to proclaim the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, toward which China has announced their support. What effects do you see this having on the geopolitics of the Middle East and Islam, along with Israel’s relations in the region?

Every time that the nemesis or the hostile forces toward democracy, liberalism, and America gain momentum, we are in bad shape. Every time America does not function as a country that defends the core values that it espouses, we are in trouble. The weakness of America to shape the world is well known. The big question is who will contain the radicals or stop the rise of hostile forces, be they Islamic radicals or others. We as Israelis are always called upon to support open societies, and hope that Democratic America will be strong. Yet, we are no longer a powerless nation. We are a nation that has power and many other allies. We have relations with Russia, we have excellent relations with China, with India, et cetera. But we also understand that in the Middle East, the lack of involvement by America creates a vacuum, and when it creates a vacuum for forces like the Taliban, who have been espousing murderous, extreme Islamism which puts women in burkas and sanctions rape, we know that something bad will come to the fore.

At the same time, we have new alliances and peace with Sunni states against the extreme Shiites; so many new things are happening. The Middle East has gone through numerous reshapings in the past four or five decades. Think about Afghanistan collapsing in the late 70s and the Russians coming in with Communism, and Najibullah. Then Najibullah and the Russians could not withstand the Islamic forces – supported by America at the time – and then they collapsed, and then Al Qaeda came in by force. There are many waves of this, and we have to watch it and be very careful. We have to understand that our fate is in our own hands, which we understand as part of the Israeli Century. We take our fortune seriously into our hands. It’s not that we don’t trust the Americans, but we see how the Americans time and again do not have the desire or the staying power for long-term initiatives, since they always oscillate between isolationism and exporting their values, and they always let these things come to their doorstep. So when Al Qaeda came to their doorstep, they [America] came back to the Middle East, and later on with the Islamic State, they came with trepidation, and they came to Lebanon with trepidation, and every time it forces them to be involved.

This is something which is very worrisome to me, whenever I see Americans lacking in determination, lacking in vision for the future, and lacking in power. We saw in the time of Obama the failure in Syria and the mayhem which ensued, the killing of hundreds of thousands in this vicious genocide. As a political scientist, I can see other things which are happening in the region. The Pakistanis will be much more cautious this time, since they don’t want to repeat what happened in Peshawar. The Indians are watching, along with the Chinese and the Russians. It is disheartening to see how people who believed in America suddenly have to face this very harsh reality of the Taliban coming and America withdrawing without any plans. Americans are saying ‘what are we doing here’ because Americans are also forgetting. In just a few weeks, we will mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and Americans are forgetting – not that they forgot September 11th, but there is a new generation which does not have this traumatic memory as I did, living in Georgetown and seeing what happened in the Pentagon and in New York, driving to pick up my kids from school in this very eerie moment when America was attacked. They don’t have this memory, or this memory faded, they don’t feel the present danger, they have other issues pertaining to the challenges in America with Trump or Biden or so on. All of this is certainly worrisome – it weakens America, and whenever America is weakened, we cannot be happy, we have to worry about it. How this will occur, whether it will embolden America’s enemies or perhaps will strengthen the forces in Washington to say “let’s take a step back, be more cautious vis-à-vis Iran, and not compromise any more the security in the Middle East because we have to assemble the forces” is unclear, it can go both ways.

My assessment is that the bells are ringing in Washington – and I know Washington quite well, having been there for 20 years or so – people are saying “we need to be careful next time, we cannot afford to lose another stronghold”.

MK Yossi Shain (Credits: Noam Moskowitz)

With the Biden administration’s muted response – Biden being away and Psaki on vacation – do you think that this will force Israel and its new Sunni allies closer together?

Look, Iran is very leery about what is happening in Afghanistan, don’t underestimate the fact that these are not Shiite allies of Iran, these are forces that created Al Qaeda, Sunni extremism. Certainly, extremism will grow from it, but it can perhaps be contained to Afghanistan, which is an unruly country. This all depends on how much it will reverberate and whether they will once again allow Al Qaeda’s forces to foster and grow there.
As I said, the Americans gave up on Syria a long time ago, though they played a minor role recently when Trump attacked with 38 tomahawk missiles, but still allowed the Russians to settle the issue and contain the Iranians. The Americans took a step back in Iraq too, and the question of oil is much less important in the Middle East, so the investment that was here thirty years ago in the first Gulf War with Kuwait is of a different nature. The Saudis, the Emirates, and Israel are in a completely different position, and people are watching how this proceeds.

Navigating foreign relations is a challenge, and I can certainly tell you that I will always give my input to the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister. What I think needs to be done is to embellish and strengthen our position, to work with all the elements, since things can be very dangerous around the situation with Afghanistan, and yet I myself have conducted discussions with people in Pakistan who wish to have relations with Israel, which is quite remarkable. Many things will happen soon in the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is something to be watched.

Do you have any recommendations or advice for American Jewry who are looking to connect with Israel?

I think, first of all – and Americans know this – that Israel is a fascinating place, an incredibly dynamic place which varies from Halakhic state to the most modern, open state. They can tap into this arena and can draw lots for their own identity, and they do. It’s not just Birthright Israel, they come and see, whether it’s Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, or whatever is in between. Many American Jews understand that Israel is complex, we are no longer a small country. We will soon be a country of ten million people, and are the fastest-growing population in the Western world, which is quite remarkable, partly because of the ultra-orthodox but not entirely. We also have issues pertaining to minorities, to the relations between Arabs and Jews. But you can see that people who come here are absolutely enamored by what is happening here. They see that it is exciting and that they will really have a good life here. They see that there is high tech in Israel, they can become engaged in the startup nation. At the same time, they can draw lots of things from the tradition and religion, depending on where they want to go. I would encourage American Jews and organizations to be involved and engaged, since the more you are engaged with Israel, the more you sustain your own Jewish identity.

Having a personal Jewish identity without Israel is becoming more and more difficult. On what would you draw, if not on your religiosity – if you are secular – or your ethnicity (if you are an assimilated American, among which there are 70% intermarriages).

I certainly call upon them to be engaged and upon us to become proactive. We cannot give up on one another – it is absolutely not right. We can and must certainly draw on our joint strength and connection to Diasporic Jews. There is still a family here. It is a troubled family, but the Jewish American family is very troubled at times, dysfunctional even. We also have some dysfunctions, but there is still warmth in Israel, you feel that you belong. Every Jew who comes to Israel belongs. You may feel uneasy, but you belong.

This is what I would do: I would not give up [on the Diaspora]. I’m having a conversation with [Minister of the Diaspora] Nachman Shai soon, and with Elazar Stern about this since I am somewhat of an authority in this field. This is not something we can overlook or give up on, this is something in which we must invest smartly, and see the question of religion and state. We must face head-on all of these tremendous challenges which we have vis-à-vis the Diaspora, especially the American Diaspora but not only.

Just last week, the Committee of Education made a decision about Na’aleh, which brings in many immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The Diaspora is not something in the Israeli Century which has been erased – it still has a tremendous room and will always have.
We must understand that [particularly now that] when other nations are cherishing their diasporas, we should not give up on ours. This is a trend I write about. Just at the time other nations are celebrating their diasporas – I was recently advising the Mexican president on the relation with Mexican Americans – we in Israel seem to not remember that we are part of the same tribe, which is something we must work on.

Right now, Israel seems to be at its zenith perhaps – not that it will disappear or diminish – but we have a responsibility as a homeland of the Jews towards everybody else in the Diaspora. This is how I see it, and I see myself always as an ambassador of doing so, someone who is invested in this, not only as a scholar but passionately, and someone who traveled both worlds and is familiar with them.

MK Shain, thank you so much for your time.

Thank you!

About the Author
Roy is a Johns Hopkins graduate student in Applied Mathematics. Jewish Zionist and political enthusiast. He loves America and Israel, and is an active campus advocate for a moral, just society and the underprivileged.
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