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Does Israel Still Matter?

The following is a transcript of Episode 50 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors. 

Donniel: My name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Hartman Institute’s iEngage project.

Ladies and gentlemen, listeners. This is the 50th edition. Yossi, could you believe it? The 50th edition of For Heaven’s Sake? On behalf of Yossi Klein Halevi, Elana Stein Hain, and myself, I want to thank you for being with us and joining us on this journey. 

We don’t see each other, but you have become important parts of our lives. Every two weeks, thinking about what we should discuss, thinking about what you would want us to talk about, being with you, and actually in a very deep way and talking to you, has become an important part of all of our lives personally, and a critical catalyst for our growth into what we hope are more open, nuanced, tolerant, and reflective people. Our hope is that this podcast plays a similar role in your lives. 

I also wanted to let you know about a new, very important way that you can help the show. We are in the middle of expanding our podcast offerings, and we have some exciting things in the work in order to make more shows, we need to know more about you, dear listeners, whether you listen to every episode. And of course you do. 

Or if you just drop in occasionally, which you shouldn’t do. In order to do this, we’ve prepared an easy survey, which you can access easily from your iPhone or a computer or so my tech people tell me.

It would really help us a lot. So please take a second and fill out the survey today. The website is Shalom backslash survey. 

So let’s continue our journey. Our theme for today is, 

Yossi: Well you know, Donniel, I uh, I was uh, sorry to 

Donniel: oh, I was in the schmooze Yossi. was in the schmooze. You interrupted me, but go.

Yossi: After 50 episodes, you know, I, I’m just sitting here doing the math. Now my math is a little slow, but 50 episodes for a biweekly podcast means we’ve been doing this for just about two years. That’s, that’s pretty amazing. I thought we’re just test running this thing here.

Donniel: Sh. Don’t tell everybody. Sh. That’s our secret, Yos. Just you and I. This is, we’re still figuring out what we want to do here, but that’s what makes it so much fun. It’s a constant, uh, dynamic process as, as you and I, a bunch of old fogies, and Elana, the modern one, well, like we’re trying to figure out this new technology.

So. But as I said beforehand, it’s, it’s really been quite a journey. And, uh, really for me personally, it’s been a very, very meaningful part of my life.

Yossi: Oh for me too. And this is, you know, in some ways I feel that my work has just gone in, in a new direction and it’s been so rich and satisfying, and I want to thank you and Elana and our listeners because I’m just very grateful for this process.

Donniel: Wonderful. And unfortunately, Elana won’t be able to join us today. So it’s just going to be me and you Yossi. 

Our theme for today is, does Israel still matter? And after 74 years is the question legitimate? Or in another version of it, why Israel? What’s the justification or how do we think about that? Why be in relationship to Israel? 

We have just celebrated Israel’s 74th birthday with the 75th, just around the corner. One of the strange paradoxes is that as Israel becomes more of a reality, a major player in the international stage, more people are questioning or denying its basic legitimacy.

Some of these anti-Zionist sentiments are nothing more than extensions of antisemitism. Today, don’t worry, Yossi. They will not be our concern. Instead, this episode will focus on those within the mainstream of the North American Jewish community who are just simply increasingly asking why Israel, not in order to dilegitimize, it, but as part of a question of, why should I have a relationship with Israel? Why should I care? 

In today’s podcast, we want to analyze this question. Does the fact that Israel exists make the question irrelevant? Why did our parents not ask it? At least my parents never did. Or if they did, why does their answer no longer seem to work for increasing numbers of young Jews? All three of us, Yossi, Elana, and myself are in the process of thinking about these questions, both personally, and in preparation for our summer programs here in Jerusalem, where we will talk about this further. 

But before we get to answers, I think it’s really important that we have a deeper understanding of the question and its parameters. What is the significance of this question for those still seeking a relationship with Israel? Which approaches might be helpful and which ones not or less so? 

So Yossi, when you hear the question, why Israel, what does it do to you? Like where does it meet you? Intellectually, psychologically. Cause it’s a complicated question. And remember our parameters for today are the person who says, why Israel, who is in the Zionist camp. Who’s not looking to de-legitimize, but truly wants to understand. How do you understand the question? Where does it meet you? What happens to you when you hear this question? Could be conceptually, emotionally, however you want to handle it. What does it do to you when you hear the Jews getting up and saying, why Israel?

Yossi I, I really appreciate the way you’re framing this and focusing the question on, uh, what we call at Hartman the trouble of committed. Because if you’re not committed to the story, if you were to tell me that being a Jew is really a meaningless part of your identity, my response is, okay, you know. We live in a time of personal autonomy. We, we create our own identities. I have no argument with someone who opts out of the story. 

But if being Jewish is an essential part of who you are, then my starting point is Egypt, slavery, and the Exodus. We’re a people with a very long memory and, uh, for 3,500 years, we’ve been holding on and nurturing and being shaped by an ancient memory.

Now consider that we were sustained in exile for 2000 years by an extraordinary dream of return to the land of origin that we lost. Really an absurd dream if you think about it. We’re the most powerless people dispersed in every corner, somehow we were going to get this together and do what no other people had ever done before.

And we knew that this was such an absurd dream that we gave the job to the Messiah to do. Only the Messiah could handle this. Then, not only do we actually return, but we return under circumstances that are themselves so literally unbelievable that it’s as incredible as the dream itself. And all of this happened 74 years ago.

Now, if we were a normal people with a normal memory span. Okay. But for people that measures time in millennia, we haven’t begun to probe this story. We haven’t begun to ask truly what the story means to us spiritually, religiously, even culturally. And on one level, when I hear that question being raised, why does it matter? My response is Egypt 2000 year old, 3,500 years, 2000 years. What is 74 years? We’ve just begun this story.

Donniel: Yossi, I really appreciate your answer. And there’s a sadness that I hear. And, and maybe it’s a sadness that I feel also, because part of the question, when people ask why Israel, is for me, it is so self-evident, as I think it is for you, where I’m so invested, it’s such an integral part that part of me doesn’t ask why Israel, it just is.

And it’s not that I don’t have an answer. I just don’t articulate an answer. It’s so meaningful and filling in my life. But that said, I think there’s something really interesting and important about this new question. You know, you referenced Egypt and in many ways, what you were saying is, if we Jews could have kept the story of Egypt alive for 3,500 years, after 74 years of a murder of a miraculous moment, you’re already asking why?

Can’t you wait like 200 years? Give me a little more time. But I think part of the question is indicative of a challenge that we’re facing, which might not be different than the challenge we’re facing when it comes to Egypt.

And that is that the answers that we’re giving are not as compelling. You know, there’s founding answers that work at the moment of a revolution or a moment of excitement. And as time goes on, they just don’t seem to work. Like go back to Egypt a second Yossi. Cause I love that analogy and I I’m gonna, I want to think a lot about it. I think it’s really, really important. The Jewish people who left Egypt, what did they say when they left Egypt, do you remember?

Yossi: We wanna go back. 

Donniel: I wanna go back. I wanna go back. So, I wanna go back. What happened? What happened was, it takes time for you to get your memory in place. 

Yossi: It’s a great insight. It’s a great insight, Donniel. 

Donniel: You see, cause I think what they’re saying is we don’t yet have the memory down. You want me to take it for granted, but it’s just not working. 

Let’s play a little exercise together. Let’s look at the different answers that were given. Cause when someone is saying, why Israel, they’re basically saying the stories that I’ve heard, don’t work for me anymore. And let’s leave aside what could be an answer. What is this question teaching us about the way we talk about Israel?

So let’s, let’s start with the biggest answers, the classic, number one answer of why Israel, and that is because we, the Jewish people need to and have a right to be safe. And without Israel we’re not safe. And without Israel, we wouldn’t have a place to go, if and when the Holocaust will happen. But even if you don’t go, it’s just, Israel is connected to safety. 

Now I think the first critique of why Israel is to say that answer doesn’t touch me anymore. You know, that Holocaust-centered answer is not a story that I could continue to tell. Now. Are they right? Are they wrong? And I’m thinking a lot about how the memory of the Holocaust, is it still relevant to Israel or not? But I want to hear your feelings about it first.

Yossi: It’s a very complicated moment because on the one hand, antisemitism is back in an overt and sometimes violent way. It’s on the minds of most Jews, certainly in the diaspora. So in one sense, the question of Jewish safety and refuge is as relevant, uh, as it’s been. On the other hand, there’s an open question, how safe is Israel? Is this story really going to work out? Is Israel really the destination? You know, so in a way, what we’re really experiencing today on the Seminole Zionist defense is, well, on the one hand. And on the other hand. And so people are choosing between these two approaches. Israel is a safe refuge or Israel is not a good bet, based on their, their ideological, um, inclinations, whether, whether they think is 

Donniel: Yossi, I, I don’t think it’s just a perspective of which side or which, which take you have on this. I think the reality of North American Jewish life, as we speak about very often, is just not precarious enough on the one hand, despite anti-Semitism. And the reality of Israel despite its immense power and victory is just not safe enough.

So it’s not certain. And we’re talking only for North American Jews, that the question, if we play reverse jeopardy, what is Israel? Where the question would be, the place that Jews need in order to be safe. It’s just not that answer. And so the fundamental experience, that core question is saying to us, give me something else. Give me something more. Does that make sense to you?

Yossi: Not only does it make sense, but I think that that in a way, that’s the sensibility that shapes all our work at the Institute. We don’t want negative answers on Israel. After 74 years, the Jewish people needs to go a little deeper. We need to be thinking about this story in a more creative, in a more sustaining way.

You can’t live off of threat and refuge and antisemitism forever. So in a way, Donniel, the crisis that this question poses, and we always say this at the Institute, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to go deeper and we’re not going to be able to come up with instant answers. There are no instant answers.

And, you know, we live in a very strange time. Everyone expects instant and we’re an old people. Our story’s complicated, and we need the patience to take this question seriously, respect the question. It’s lifetime of work life. This is generations of work and we need to begin it. 

Donniel: You know Yossi, I hear you. I hear you. And I had a really interesting experience this last Shabbos and I take the caution that you’re challenging us to have. I had an interesting experience because my nephew, we were having Shabbos together and my nephew who’s now in the pre army program. 

They couldn’t go to Poland because of COVID. So the kids in the pre army program decided on their own to have their own Poland trip. Wasn’t scheduled by the school. It wasn’t scheduled by the mechina, the pre army curriculum. On their own, they decided, we need to go to Poland. And they went to Poland and I asked him, what did you feel? And he said, it was the most important trip of my life. Because now I know why Israel is important. 

Now, when I listened to him, I was ready with my Hartman Institute answer, oh, you idiot. You know, like I was, I, no, excuse me. Let me take that back. That’s not a Hartman Institute answer. A Hartman Institute answer is, I really respect what you are saying, and I’m sure it has tremendous depth, but maybe you haven’t thought about…

Now, when I was listening to him, I heard something else for the first time. And it might be self-evident to you, but you know, the nature of epiphanies is that you get to see something that everybody else knows, you know, you better you’re very rarely ever, but, but part of this epiphany was, it’s not that I need Israel to be safe.

Because if not for that, I would be in Auschwitz. He knows that’s not true. But Israel is an answer, not to Jewish danger, but to the experience of Jewish powerlessness. For the experience of Jewish hopelessness. As he’s recounting, just the, seeing how helpless we are. It’s, it’s not a

Yossi: How helpless, how helpless we were. 

Donniel: We were. It’s not a, a cause and effect, here it was Jews are in danger. Israel is going to save you. That just doesn’t work. Or if it does it really fits to what you were talking about, as we’re just victimizing ourselves and ignoring our power. I think it’s different than that. I think one way of looking, or maybe retelling the story, using your caution, saying we need time, is we don’t have to throw away the Holocaust answer. 

We just have to adapt it. After the Holocaust, their feeling was, I’m not safe in this world. There’s no place for a Jew to be safe. I feel an imminent danger that somebody might come after me again. And I want a place to be. But maybe a more nuanced as we’re moving forward is to say, Israel is an answer to a people who’ve experienced profound helplessness and powerlessness.

And we don’t want to experience that anymore. Now I’m not saying that this power is going to make me safe. Maybe it won’t, but either way, if you asked me, what do I choose? I choose power. I choose agency. I choose to be able to shape my destiny. And so maybe, our challenge, as we think about this question, why Israel, is to go back and ask what was the real experience that Israel is the answer to.

And maybe there’s a 2021 answer to that question, which is very different than a forties, thirties, forties, and fifties answer. But it’s, they’re connected in a different way. 

Yossi: Well, where this hits me is in a very visceral place. And the work that I’m doing now, the writing that I’m doing now, is really an attempt to redefine us as a survivor people. And by survivor people, I don’t primarily mean the people that went through the Holocaust, but the people that overcame the Holocaust.

And that’s the story for me of not only Israel, but of the American Jewish community that was born after the Holocaust. And one of the most extraordinary stories of 4,000 years of Jewish history is the simultaneous emergence of the two most powerful, freest Jewish communities we’ve ever experienced immediately after the abyss.

And that’s the story that we need to start owning. And we need to own it not only politically, because really, I think we’ve done a fairly good job of defining this story politically, but we need to go deeper. We need to define this spiritually, for me, religiously. Historically, what does it mean that we pulled off the greatest feat of survival after that?

And so what I’m really urging us to begin to internalize is that nearly a century after the rise of, of Nazi-ism or we’re, we’re approaching a century to 1933. It’s time for us to start owning our victory. And that means shifting. It doesn’t mean forgetting the Shoah, in the same way that we don’t forget the slavery of Egypt.

But look at the Torah. How much space does the Torah devote to the slavery and how much to the Exodus. And that’s the balance that we need to redraw in our relationship to our 20th century story.

Donniel: Could I do a commentary on, let me tell you how I understand what you just said and tell me if you think I understood it right. Because it’s really, really interesting. The old way of looking at Israel was the, you know, this answer that we’re analyzing was that Jews were in danger and Israel equals safety. 

And so that question, that dichotomy, that’s not an answer, why Israel. But if we change what we’re talking about, it’s not danger equals safety, but if it was death versus survival, that Israel is not an answer to Jewish insecurity, it’s the response to a people saying we aren’t dead, we aren’t over.

Yossi: That’s it. That’s it. 

Donniel: And so that experience, that experience is very, very powerful. And then Israel, when you ask why Israel, what I love about your answer. And I really, I have to think about it a lot, is that it’s not why Israel as distinct from America. See, the old answer was the Holocaust is death and Israel gives you safety and then ah, but if I could be safe in America, then I don’t need Israel.

What you’re saying is that a Jew in America and Canada and in Israel could actually embrace the meaning and the importance of both of our experiences, because why Israel? Why America? Both of them are about a Jewish people who survived and who for every reason in the world should have disappeared, are now standing.

And so Israel is a witness to a new modality of Jewishness, but it doesn’t, it’s not an exclusive one. And so the why Israel doesn’t need to be exclusive. It’s pushing us to the domain of, it just has to be meaningful. It doesn’t have to be exclusive. Just needs to be meaningful. That’s my commentary on you. 

Yossi: It’s, so much, I want to give a commentary on your commentary because, uh, 

Donniel: This is getting too far, but okay. Go.

Yossi: Because, because when we keep the story focused on Israel as safety, we’re still in a Holocaust mode. We haven’t yet become a survivor people. We haven’t yet owned our, our victory. When we take it one step further and say, this was a project, not just of Israel.

This is a project of the Jewish people. And this was our response to the abyss and we not only did we survive the abyss, not only did we create a space of safety, but we turned the abyss into the peak moment of Jewish history. Our peak moment of importance on the world stage, our peak moment of cohesiveness as a people, however dysfunctional we are as a people. 

Still, we are functioning as an integrated people in a way that we haven’t for at least 2000 years. All this comes as a result of being a survivor people, not a people that endured the Shoah, but a people that defeated, defeated the Shoah.  

Donniel: So, here, here, Yossi, we’re going to have to think about this, this, I think there’s something very profound going on here, about these other layers of looking at, from Shoah to rebirth in Israel and the shifting of it, from death to life and safety, to maybe powerlessness, power, helplessness, autonomy, death, survival. And then Israel bears witness to something remarkably powerful that we should celebrate.

But this brings me to the second part that I want to pose before you, and this is the second challenge and many ways the Jewish people started to celebrate Israel after 1967. Israel began to be, or play the role of the most exciting thing in Jewish history. It provided a thick total Jewish life of celebration, and it demanded 365 days of attention. It challenged my mind. My heart. My soul. My religious, spiritual, culture dimensions. It touched me on so many levels and we are now offering another way to be excited about it. But I think part of the problem of, again, if we go back to the why Israel, you know, we’re a couple of decades into the 21st century.

That sense of Israel being the most exciting thing in Jewish life, that sense that Israel makes me feel proud, excited, connects me to life, vitality, all that, that is being clouded. I would say that I don’t know if the principal experience of Jews in North America, when they think about Israel, is that excitement anymore.

Now I think we have to play with, could we reclaim it. But the reality of Israel is we talk about occupation. All, you know, all the problems that I don’t want to get into right now, but the list is long. Even if it doesn’t make you uncommitted, you’re still the troubled committed.

It’s just not that meaningful anymore. It just doesn’t change my life. And so the second part of why Israel is asking us, is there a way to reclaim a mission and excitement of vitality. And here there are numerous problems. How do you do that with with political differences and moral challenges?

Even Egypt is not so exciting anymore. You know, even we kept it alive. The nature of things is, you know, you keeping, it’s a story, you know, it’s a story, it’s this, but it’s not like, oh my God, I it’s like, so, I think the second dimension is there was a vitality and excitement, a depth and a content that Israel provided for Jewish life around the world, which was more exciting frankly, than a synagogue or kosher or Shabbos.

It gave content, meaning, and energy to Jewish life. And I think the why is asking us, and this goes back to your answer. Don’t give me a death life because that’s not exciting. That does, not only does it not work. It doesn’t fill me with meaning. Is there any way for Israel to reclaim that, in light of the realities of Israel, in light of Israel’s policies, I think we’re going to be facing a harder climb right now. 

There’s a very big difference between people who live in Israel and people who don’t live in Israel and the ability to feel that vitality from six to 10,000 miles away is getting harder. And I don’t think we yet have an answer, or if there is an answer on how to crack this question. 

Yossi: So, you know, first of all, I think that, that the fact that growing numbers of American Jews are questioning the overwhelming centrality of Israel in diaspora life is a good thing. I think that, 

Donniel: Interesting. 

Yossi: that American Jews need to have the space to create an American Jewish Renaissance. There are signs of that happening. Maybe not enough, but certainly there are serious people working on revitalizing American Judaism. 

Israel took up too much oxygen. And I say this as a Zionist, I say this as an American Jew who chose to live here, but for the vitality of the American Jewish community, a little bit of space asking this question, is, I think, necessary and a sign of maturity provided that you don’t come to the point where you lose that organic connection.

And for me, I think about the two flags on the bimah of most American synagogues and that’s something, you know, we all grew up with those two flags and, and it was banal and we all took it for granted. Today I’m in awe of the intuition of American Jews in the forties and fifties to sacralize these two flags and to put them together at the holiest space in the synagogue.

And what they were saying was this is the core, when the Torah tells us, choose life, this is how the Jewish people chose life. And we need to rethink the relationship between the two flags and what they represent. We need to give each other space, we’re very different kinds of Jewish communities, but I deeply believe that the intuition of American Jews in that transitional moment, when those flags were put on the bimah, is what we need to carry, wherever this conversation goes, we can’t lose that connection between those two flags, 

Donniel: That’s a prayer, not an answer. That’s an expectation. Now what you’re saying though, is, Yossi, maybe there is though, a direction that you’re pushing us to. Maybe we’re expecting too much. Maybe some of the why Israel, that what will satisfy us, is a why Israel, that has to go back to Israel as the center.

Maybe what you’re saying is the why Israel needs to be part of a why be Jewish. The intensity of why Israel needs to have another, another level. You know, as you were talking about the synagogues, one of my favorite synagogues in America is B’nai Torah in Boca Raton.

I visit it every year and it’s like one of my closest friends and what I think, one of the finest rabbis in America, David Steinhart, and it’s just a phenomenal synagogue. And part of his genius is to recognize that a synagogue has to combine both intellectual and musical experiences in its services.

And he spends an equal amount. For so many of us, it’s an either or, so he spends a huge amount on the singing and the vocals. Now, there’s something that I, I’m not speaking lashon harah cause I’m telling you what I told him. 

Every time I go to his shul, there is after Musaf, before I speak, there’s the prayer for the well-being of America and the prayer for the wellbeing of Medinat Yisrael. The prayer for the well-being of America is read by the rabbi. You know, our father who arst in heaven or whatever it is, please grant wisdom or whatever, and blessings to the president and the vice-president.

And we read it. And we, let us all say amen. And then, there’s almost a drum roll. And we start with the prayer for the state of Israel. And that prayer. It is literally. I would pay the price of a concert ticket to listen to that. It is a 15 minute production of beauty and depth, which is just remarkable. It just literally blows you out. It just, but maybe what we’re saying is that that’s too much. Maybe we have to lower some of the volume on Israel and elevate the volume on America. And then the why Israel could be achievable. Maybe we are just expecting too much from the why Israel right now.

Does that make sense, Yossi?

Yossi: Uh, it makes sense. But again, you know, I think that we’re on very, um uncertain ground because yes, on the one hand, American Jews need some oxygen. On the other hand, don’t take this too far. Don’t make the opposite mistake. You know, where, either it’s all about Israel.

Donniel: But you don’t get to control it, Yossi. 

Yossi: Well, I know I don’t

Donniel: No, it’s not. 

Yossi: I don’t get to control it, 

Donniel: I’m with you. 

Yossi: but I, but I can certainly say what I think. That’s why we have a podcast. So, you know, my anxiety, my anxiety in this conversation is that American Jews will substitute one mistake for another. In the past Israel could do no wrong.

Israel is the center of the Jewish universe. And now we discover after 74 years, the problems, the reality. Let’s slow the whole process down and let’s take a deep breath. You know, look, my starting point for the Israel conversation is gratitude, simple gratitude, gratitude for affirming the wisdom of Jewish survival.

That’s what Israel in partnership with American Jewry, and I think it’s really important for us to emphasize that. And this is, I wanted to pick up actually on something you’d said earlier about how the old Zionist conversation was really about two things. It was about safety and it was about negating the exile, the diaspora.

Neither of those two pillars of classical Zionism, speak to us anymore in quite the same way. And if you shift the perspective to post Holocaust, to the fact that we are a people that is now ready to own what we’ve achieved. Then I think that creates a space for the kinds of creative and spiritual insights that until now have been overwhelmed by the politicized conversation on Israel, which is a conversation about safety and about the centrality of Israel.

These are questions that are not compelling for us anymore. And I think that’s a good thing.

Donniel: You know what, Yossi. It’s, I hear you Yossi. And, uh, as we said at the outset, you know, we started to offer some direction, but most of what we’re trying to do is try to create parameters for a healthier conversation. But at the end of the day, answers are going to have to be given. But if we create more space, recognizing also the need to reinterpret the story and to offer new ways of looking at it, then maybe, the type of vitality or a sufficient answer, yes. And it, you’re right. It is scary, Yos. It’s very scary. 

You know, it’s easy to say, don’t ask the question, have patience. But that’s not what you’re saying. You’re saying, ask the question, but allow a complexity of an answer, but we’re still going to have to earn it at the end of the day.

And maybe one of the great gifts of the question is to challenge us, to think about how we earn it. 

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Gareth Hobbes and mixed by Corey Choy at Silver Sound NYC. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after the episode airs to find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at 

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Please remember, I want to give you a reminder that we need your help in answering our surbey. Go to Shalom backslash survey, to answer a few questions, to help us develop more podcasts, see you in two weeks. Thanks for listening. 

Yossi, a pleasure to be with you. And may we be well, may we be well and healthy. Next time Elana will join us. To the next 50, Yossi.

Yossi: Amen. 

Donniel: Amen.

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