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How Can We Talk About the Conflict Now?

The following is a transcript of Episode 66 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors. 

Donniel: Hi, 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. Major support for For Heaven’s Sake comes from the Diane and Guilford Glaser Foundation. Our theme for today is, how do we talk about the Palestinians now, and we’ll expand later on on what does “now” mean.

In each edition of For Heaven’s Sake, Yossi Klein Halevi, senior Research fellow here at the Institute in Jerusalem, and myself discuss a current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world. And then Elan Stein Hain, director of the Hartman faculty in North America, explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue. Let’s begin.

Donniel: When we decided on the topic for this week’s podcast, it was before the murderous attack on Friday night in Neve Yaakov, outside of a synagogue. And what we wanted to talk about is how at this moment do we talk about the Palestinians, and our desire was to point to a relative absence of a conversation. And what had inspired us is the slow and steady increase in violence in Judea and Samaria, ongoing increased attacks, and very, very significant military intervention in the middle of Jenin. This week, nine, uh, people, most of them terrorists were killed, or maybe all of them. One person was not. 

We wanted to talk about the Palestinians because there’s a sense of a powder keg that we’re sitting on, and we’re not talking about it right now. With this new government, we’re talking about a lot of other. We’re talking about how we feel about the government. We’re talking about how we feel about Israel. But this core issue of what’s happening, how are Israelis and Palestinians getting along? How do we even talk about a future is something that was off the table and we felt we have to put it on the table because this is not gonna go away.

But I know for myself, and I’m sure Yossi and Elana, the same, talking about Palestinians, talking about conflict, talking about occupation, talking about future, it sort of gets shelved the minute somebody feels that it’s in their political or religious vision to murder Jews. It’s part of what we Israelis do all the time. We shut down. And then again, there is no conversation. And the celebration of these acts in certain segments of Palestinian society or the Arab world. 

And so after Friday night, our conversation today about how do we talk about the Palestinians is gonna change. That’s what I meant by now. How do we talk about the Palestinians on the one hand now, do we wanna do? What are our thoughts about a future? Is it the same? You know, it used to be that when we wanted to talk about the Palestinians, we said, you know, we want the two-state solution, but we don’t have a peace partner. So it’s complicated. And that was more or less it. 

The conversation was what are the different features that make it complicated? But it’s changing now because the Israeli government, or the current government has a very clear policy to move against a two-state solution and to even make a two-state solution impossible by legalizing settlements, by expanding settlements, and for some even annexing area C, either de facto or de jure. 

But now, with this increased violence, that’s also part of the now. The now is the current political environment and now is the increased violence. And you could see with the current minister in charge of Homeland Security, the language, the rhetoric, if it was explosive beforehand, it’s getting evermore explosive. How do we understand? How do we think? How do we frame? And how do we talk? 

Yossi, Elana, it’s wonderful to be with you. So let’s talk. Let’s talk about how we feel. And part of our job is to try to talk about today and to talk about tomorrow. Conversations that don’t happen don’t go away. They’re just not dealt with.

So Yossi. Let’s start with you. Where does this meet you right now?

Yossi: It meets me in my study, uh, which is overlooking the Palestinian neighborhood of Anata, of the Shu’ufat refugee camp where the, uh, attack on the synagogue was greeted with fireworks and celebrations that lasted through the night. We were hearing it all night, all the next day. 

And the distance between my study and the next hill is quite close. And the distance between Sh’ufat and Anata and Neve Yaakov is also quite close. Neve Yaakov is on the other side of the hill. And so this is all very intimate. 

So when you’re asking, how does it hit me, it hits me, first of all, viscerally, that my Palestinian neighbors are celebrating the indiscriminate murder of their Jewish neighbors at a synagogue.

And I don’t want to think of the situation if it were the opposite, how that would be received and, God forbid, and that’s one of my nightmares, you know. So there’s so many conflicting feelings, Donniel, there’s so many conflicting emotions. And there’s despair, on the one hand, there’s rage, and there’s fear about where this government is taking us, and how do you disentangle one from the other?

And just one last point, which you and I shared. And that is, the night after the attack, Saturday night, you and I both faced the same dilemma. We were planning to go to demonstrations. I was in Jerusalem. You were in Tel Aviv. To protest the government’s intention to, to what I regard is a fatal attack on Israeli democracy. Do we go to a protest while the funerals are happening? And we both decided to go.

I was so glad that I went because I, I’d like to hear from you how it was in, in Tel Aviv, but in Jerusalem, we had a few thousand people. It was a smaller crowd than in previous weeks. But what we did was we sang. It was one of those Israeli moments where you, you channel your sadness through song, and we all sang these beautiful, sad Israeli songs. 

And we were in mourning on multiple levels. In mourning for the Jews who were killed. We were in mourning for where this government is taking us. It was an opportunity to be with people who were as conflicted as we were. It was a very powerful moment.

Donniel: You know, when we talked about it, one of the reasons why, cause I felt that this wasn’t the evening to demonstrate against the government. But soccer games were going on that night. So if soccer games weren’t stopping, in Israeli society, life was going on. So part of me said if I could go cheer for a soccer team, why can’t I go to a demonstration?

And I was on Shabbat in Tel Aviv and I went and I’m always ambivalent to go to the Jerusalem demonstration or the Tel Aviv one. I was in Tel Aviv, and one of the interesting things at this demonstration is that there’s a group of Orthodox Jews who are calling themselves Orthodox Zionist Democrats who converge together.

I’m on some WhatsApp group now and it’s driving me nuts. I, I need to leave it. I need to leave it, but I don’t wanna be, like, I feel like I’m betraying. They’re writing me all the, like they, I feel like I’ve been being invaded. Like they have now over a thousand, they have to open a second WhatsApp group cause this is 600.

Yossi: It’s, it’s the most in it’s WhatsApp groups are the most insidious creation of social media. 

Donniel: It just, it’s, it’s, I, I don’t like, I don’t, I don’t know the politics, cause I’m not on social media and I feel like I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but they’re writing and each one is talking about. 

But in any event, about six, over hundreds and hundreds, of Orthodox Jews marched as a group because you remember our feeling, Yossi, when we were in Tel Aviv, I think there were four kippas, you and I were two of them. You and I were two of them. And here there were hundreds.

Yossi: I think I counted you twice.

Donniel: Right. But it was very interesting, as this group was marching, the crowd split and started to cheer. So it was a very interesting moment. It was really an interesting moment. But part of what was is, you know, I hate demonstrations. And what I hate even more than demonstrations is I hate the speeches at demonstrations. They just always seem to me not to be to the point. But the most beautiful thing in the demonstration is the people, like the people, these aren’t people who came out because there they care.

And there was a camaraderie. There was a kindness. People were looking out for each other. 

Yossi: Do you know what was beautiful in Jerusalem, Donniel? There were no speeches. They suspended speeches.

Donniel: Ah, so that was my, oh, so that, you know, someone had sechel. In Tel Aviv we had the same speeches, so it was a little, you know, it’s a strange moment, and it’s part of our challenge in Israel, is how do we not allow today to change our focus on tomorrow, and at the same time knowing fully well that as Israelis, as Jews, we don’t ignore today. There was something unjust. So, so it was, I really appreciate what you did. 

Let me, uh, Elana, I know, one of the things about you is you’re always very sensitive about, especially at these moments, about the difference between what Israelis feel and what American Jews and Canadian Jews feel. And it, and a big part of your Torah is both aware of, being sensitive to, but at these moments, it’s very far. So as we’re about to talk about this conversation, where does all of, where does now, like, you know, how do we talk to Palestinians now? Where are you now?

Elana: Yeah so, first of all, listening to the two of you talk about mourning and being at protests is just an important window, I think, for Jews who are living abroad, to actually be able to hear what that feels like in 24 hours. Or Yossi, your neighbors, the neighboring village or town. That’s very powerful. And I would say that one of the reasons why I like our conversations is because I actually like listening to the two of you a bit and hearing where you’re coming from. 

I’m gonna share, where I’m coming from, is, the pictures of those seven people, aleihem hashalom, of blessed memory, are rolling in on my social media feed nonstop. I think that as Jews who are Zionists and connected to the people of Israel, we recognize that the people of Israel pay a debt for something that we benefit from all the time. 

And I know for myself, there’s a feeling of, I wish I could be there and help in some way, and also a recognition that I’m not. And I think that moments like this, they emphasize that kind of distance and the different prices that people are paying. So that’s the first thing. 

And then I would say the second thing is I, I often think in these moments of this great Heschel quote that I read just, I don’t know, something like five years ago, but it’s really stuck with me where he talks about a metaphor of people who are fighting off snakes in a pit and, you know, everybody’s batting off the snakes, the immediate danger, and there’s one person who’s standing at the side seemingly doing nothing, people go over to that person and say, why aren’t you helping us fight off the snakes? And the person says, I’m trying to figure out a way to get us out of the pit. 

And I really feel that that’s kind of what you’re discussing right now, which is how do you deal with the immediate dangers and the immediate concerns and the immediate mourning, and also ask for the long horizon, you know, where, where are we going?

So I, I, I really hear, I hear the depth in what you’re talking about.

Donniel: Thank you. So, so, Yossi, where, let’s follow up. Where are we going? Could we even talk about where we’re going now? Is that even a relevant conversation? And, you know, we all live, you know, in two continents. Elana, maybe we, a little, your heart is in the east.

But we work in both continents very much. And there is a huge discrepancy between Israel and North American Jewry. On the prominence of conversations about Palestinians, whether it’s even relevant to have it, whether you call it an occupation or you don’t call it an occupation, you call it West Bank, you call it Judea and Samaria, all that.

But there’s a place where the conversation is alive and, and central, to the challenges of Israel. And there’s such a silence. So, could you talk about getting out of the pit now, Yossi?

Yossi: You know, I think one of the differences in the conversation here and what I often encounter when I speak in the US, especially on campuses, is that almost no Israelis will say the terrorism is a result of the occupation. We make a clear distinction between the occupation and terrorism for a very simple reason: there’s always been terrorism as long as, as Jews have been coming back to this land over the last a hundred years, there’s been terrorism. 

And so there is a very deep recognition among Israelis that, uh, terrorism is not a result of the occupation. It’s a result of our presence here. And certainly the widespread celebrations in parts of Palestinian society have really reinforced that attitude. 

One of the things that I think American Jews who want to be helpful here should understand is that it’s not helpful to be connecting a terror attack to the occupation. The occupation has to end because it has to end, not because there’s more terrorism or less terrorism. Because it’s a long term, or not even long term anymore, it’s becoming an immediate, uh, threat to Israel’s wellbeing, morally, spiritually, demographically on so many levels. 

And what makes it so difficult to speak specifically about this moment and the government and you said this in the beginning of the podcast, Donniel, is that, we’re fighting on so many fronts here. We’re trying to save the Supreme Court, the judicial system. We’re pushing back against ultra-orthodox coercion, the rise of ultra-nationalism. 

This government has opened so many simultaneous fronts against liberal Israel, that what we’re really in danger of missing is what’s slipping beneath the radar, which is that this government has very much in mind a systematic plan to change the status quo on the ground to the extent where it may not be possible four years from now to even conceive of a two-state solution. 

And so how do we fight this incremental invisible move that’s happening, in the territories, while we’re out on the streets, while we’re under terror attack, that’s the context in which this conversation is really happening.

Donniel: Right. Yossi, I want to try to thread a needle, and I know I’m gonna fail, so I’m gonna want you to correct me. Okay, because I think we’re letting ourselves off the hook a little bit. 

I don’t associate at all this terrorist attack with this government. This is not Ben Gvir, like crap like that, this, this is not a response to this government or that government. These attacks happen regardless of which government. 

I also don’t believe that a settlement policy alone inspires this type of terror. This whole rise of Islamic Jihad, in particular in Jenin, and their ongoing attacks. I have a general rule, which I’ve mentioned here on the podcast, that I don’t try to explain the root causes of anti-Semitism. It’s evil. I don’t try to explain the root causes of terror. If you are murdering somebody, it’s just evil, however,

Yossi: You know, Donniel, during, during the peace process, before you get to the however, during the peace process in, in the Oslo years when there were waves of terror, what did they tell us? They’re trying to derail the peace process. So there’s, there’s terrorism when we’re trying to make peace, there’s terrorism when we’re not try to make peace.

So let’s just say the murder of Jews is the murder of Jews. Full stop.

Donniel: Full stop. And I don’t know if there’s, what’s more insidious? A pizza store, a cafe, outside of synagogue, you know, this is getting high on that level. 

But now now I wanna disagree with you a little bit, because I feel that part of what we’re doing and, and it has to relate to, how do we wanna talk about the Palestinians, to claim that we have no responsibility for the promulgating of hatred. I think it’s wrong. 

If there isn’t a direct correlation, this person who wakes up that morning, or a parent who says, my dream for my child is to be a martyr. You know? But I think part of what’s happening in Israel is that we’re not taking responsibility for an environment that we’re creating. And these terror attacks just enable us to get even more dug into that perspective. 

And it’s like we have this perpetual get out of jail card. There is a terror attack. You see, I told you. There’s nothing. We’re not causing in any way, the despair, the lack of hope. And I think to disconnect that completely, not as a motivator, like Islamic Jihad and Hamas. They’re evil, but we’re talking about, and I think part of what we need to talk about, is instead of talking about a solution right now, like if the theme is how do we talk about Palestinian, is that I, I, I don’t know how to talk about a solution right now, but one of the things I think we need to talk about is we have to talk about the despair and the pain that’s on the ground.

And I think there’s such a huge gap between American and Canadian Jewry, or especially American Jewry and Israeli Zionists. Such a huge gap. And in general, you know, I’m a big believer that we have a lot to learn from each other. I’m not interested in American Jewry in determining Israeli policy. But when someone talks, I want to hear.

And I think part of what Israelis need to begin to listen to is that there’s certain things that we’re responsible for. I don’t know what I need to do in order to create a peace partner, so I don’t wanna get to a solution, but we can’t, there’s too much self-righteousness going on amongst Israeli Jews right now that I feel that right now, it’s a dead end.

You know, I make a big difference distinction between someone who says, I want to pursue a peaceful solution with Palestinians, but I can’t. And somebody who basically says, I don’t even want to, oh, I want to like, it’s called peace, but it’s peace where I’m in complete dominion and control. It’s not a peace of equals.

And so there’s those who say I can’t and those who say I shouldn’t. And I think we’re entering into a discourse now of I shouldn’t. And we have to, we’re accountable. There’s something that we’re doing here.

Yossi: Well, this is a government, this is a government of I shouldn’t.

Donniel: Now, I’m not saying that they’re responsible.

Yossi: No they’re not responsible, I’m not saying that, what I’m saying

Donniel: Right, so did I succeed in threading the needle or how? Or how, how

Yossi: Partly, partly. I think that you’re still leaving open, I don’t think you intended to do this, but you’ve left open the possibility that maybe we are responsible or even partly responsible, uh

Donniel: Should I tell you, we’re not responsible for the individual. We are responsible for an environment in which terrorism and evil could grow, and to deny that.

Yossi: Let’s compromise, let’s compromise that we’re, we’re partly responsible and we have non-peace partners in this war.

Donniel: Fair enough. I’m game with partially. I’m not here to say we are solely responsible. I’m the only one. Like, and that’s like, you know, the, if only we would do this, then everything would change. No, that’s like, that’s irrelevant.

But part of what we have to talk about, you know, and as we see Israeli army attack, moving into Jenin, like it’s our kids, you know? And now my kids are a little older, but it’s, I have some, my closest friend’s child is in Duv Devan. And every time there is one of these operations, I know exactly where he is. These are our children. And I am so grateful because I know each one of these groups that they attack, that’s another 15 terror attacks that have been stopped. 

But at the same time, we need to, we, we have to talk and, and this is not, we, we have to talk, not about a solution, but we do have to talk about, how do we live with another people right now? How do we do that?

Yossi: So the, you know, Donniel, the hope that I have, and it’s, it’s a slender hope, but nevertheless, it’s, it’s a hope that, that I didn’t have a few years ago, and that is that our, our growing relationships with parts of the Arab world is going to force us out of our self-righteousness and bring us into a wider conversation of how do we see our future in this region?

And this government believes it can make peace with the Arab world by entirely circumventing the Palestinians. And it’s not true. 

I was in Morocco last month and had lots of conversations with, with people in government. I had some public events, some medi, media events. And over and over again, I was struck by two things.

One is Morocco has, and I’m speaking certainly about Moroccan elites, but also people on the streets that I were speaking to. Morocco has made a strategic decision to make peace with Israel. But at the same time, they’ve also made an emotional decision to reaffirm their support for the Palestinians.

And we saw that in the World Cup when, uh, the response of the Moroccan team in their victory was to wave the Palestinian flag. And, and Moroccan fans in the, in the stadium were waving Palestinian flags. And I remember when that happened. Lots of people here and in Israel, and, and, and I initially felt that as well, wondered, is that a sign that Morocco is weakening in its enthusiasm for peace with Israel. And it was not at all. We misread that. 

What I was told over and over again in Morocco was when we think of the Israelis and the Palestinians, we don’t think of either/or. We think of and/with. Yes, peace with Israel and with the Palestinians. And I said to them, in these media interviews that you need to continue with that policy. We need to hear that. We need to hear that this is not a zero-sum game. 

And, and I said to them, you know, there’s more wisdom here about how to solve the conflict than there is on many American campuses where it is either or you’re either with the Palestinians or you’re, or you’re against them.

And so, what really gives me some sense of hope is that even this government is not going to have the chance to entirely evade the Palestinian issue. If we’re serious about a relationship with the Saudis, with deepening the peace with those countries that are already in the Abraham Accords process. And so that for me is really something that I’m holding onto, and it was reinforced by what I experienced in Morocco.

Donniel: Beautiful. Before we turn to take a break, I just want to maybe reiterate something that I said beforehand that moved me very deeply. You know, maybe one way that I would wanna reiterate it would be there are things that are complicated and there are things that are not complicated. How we solve the conflict is complicated. Recognizing that we are partially responsible for the current reality shouldn’t be complicated. 

And part of the challenge of these murderous attacks on motzei Shabbat is that for us average Israelis, it’s just, okay, another bunch of months are gonna pass before anybody’s even willing to think about Palestinians. It’s so upsetting how successful terror could be. That’s what’s so amazing. And maybe from six to 10,000 miles away, it’s harder to understand the psychological impact of what this does to you. But, you know, let’s use your Moroccan model. It’s an and/and. and an Israeli society today, there is so little and/and. 

And by the way, it’s not just amongst the le it’s the center. It’s everybody except for the, the extreme left. And, you know, we need to talk about it and we have to find ways for Israelis to start talking about it. And it’s one of the conversations, if we have a hope for an engagement with Israel and Zionism between Israelis and world Jewry, Palestinians, just like in Morocco, it’s part of that conversation. 

Let’s take a short break and then Elana will join us. 

Hi Elana.

Elana: Hello. 

Donniel: Is there some Torah that could give us a window onto where you’re thinking.

Elana: So there is some Torah. I also, I just wanna, I wanna share a little bit of a parallel experience in terms of how terror and one-sidedness actually makes people dig in deeper. And I, I really see that right now in American conversations. Just those conversations you’re talking about on campuses, Yossi, but it’s not just campus.

I mean, I was literally talking to a group of Presbyterians yesterday and their general assembly, you know, this is a while ago already, their general assembly adopted a resolution about Israel’s apartheid with no mention of the humanity of Jews, with no mention of terror, with no mention of wars, with no mention of violence, with no mention of security concerns.

And it was like, well, what? I was kind of a head scratcher in the sense of, first of all, if you’re actually trying to make peace, you have to consider the humanity of both sides. And if you’re actually morally serious, you have to consider the humanity of both sides. So it’s just, it’s very different obviously from experiencing a terror attack, but it’s that strategy of thinking you’re gonna paint someone into a corner and that’s somehow gonna help. It’s not. 

The Torah that I wanna share is a Torah that I think cuts in both directions of self-defense and of building a society that has a better future, I guess. And I’m gonna go with the verse in Leviticus 18:5, which says, you shall keep my laws and my rules by the pursuit of which human beings shall live. I am God.

Right, the key words, by the pursuit of which human beings shall live, and you shall live by them. And of course, the Talmud in Tractate Yoma 85B, suggests that this idea of keeping God’s rules and living by them actually suggests that the most important value is life. What is the source, the Talmud says, that teaches that saving a life overrides the Shabbath? Rabbi Yehuda says, in the name of Shmuel, as it is written, and you shall keep my laws and my rules, by pursuit of which human beings shall live, meaning they shall live and they shall not die. 

And I think that to an extent this has been an important impulse in terms of Jewish self-defense, right? The, the actual first example that we have in Jewish history of violating Shabbat to save a life was not violating Shabbat. It’s in the case of the Maccabees where people said, oh, people are making war against us on the Sabbath. We can’t fight back. And they were massacred and they realized, no, no, no, no, no. V’chai bahem. You have to live by them. You have to live by them. Sometimes you have to override. 

But there’s a deep message here that isn’t only about self-defense, and I think that Maimonides really pulls that message out in his laws of the Sabbath. Chapter two, section three, he says, and he’s talking about saving a life on the Sabbath. He’s talking about that same idea of saving a life, but he generalizes it to what are the values that are here? And he says, it is forbidden to delay in violating the Sabbath for someone who’s in mortal danger, as it is said that a person shall do and live by them, live through them, different translation.

This teaches that the laws of the Torah are not vengeance in the world, but mercy, kindness, and peace in the world. Right, the laws of the Torah, Judaism is not vengeance. It is kindness. It is peace. And he adds the heretics who say that this is a violation of the Sabbath, you know what scripture says about them? 

Well, there is actually a verse that talks about what does it look like to live a culture that isn’t good. Ezekiel 20, verse 25. Moreover, I gave them laws that were not good and rules by which you cannot live. I think the idea of being able to look both internally of we want a culture of v’chai bahem, where we can live, which means self-defense. It means fighting back. It means taking care of yourself. That is part of living. That is important. 

But also the question of ultimately, what kind of ethos of v’chai bahem, of life rather than vengeance, of kindness and mercy, is even possible in this region. I think that’s the biggest question mark for me. Like what’s even possible?

Donniel: Thank you. I love your reading of v’chai bahem. Because so often, it’s focused on self-defense. But what you’re saying is that it’s focused on the value of life and the value of life is contagious. It’s contagious. It doesn’t stop at the parameters of your community alone. It gives you a right to defend, but it makes you also responsible for life period. 

Um, that’s part of the “and” that Yossi was mentioning beforehand. It’s those two sides, you know, we haven’t resolved. And thank God, you know, if we ever in this podcast resolve some major issue, shoot me. No, not literally. You know, it’s not our, it’s, these are issues that we just have to live with. That’s maybe v’chai bahem, living with these issues. So thank you very much for that. 

Yossi, last thoughts?

Yossi: It’s very difficult to face ourselves, to face our responsibilities when we’re caught in an emotional cycle of anger and despair. Sometimes the anger is justified, but the despair is never justified. And maybe that’s a good place to begin is to push back against despair.

Donniel: Thank you. It’ll be interesting to see if, as the demonstrations continue, if the issue we’re talking about today enters into the public discourse, or whether it remains something that there is a broad consensus not to talk about. I think that liberal Zionists, whether on the right or on the left, who care about issues like, of Elana, of life, of our life, and of the value of life, we have to start talking, and thinking. So thank you both. Thank you for providing me an opportunity just to, to think.

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman with support from Michal Taylor. It was edited by Gareth Hobbes and Corey Choi at Silver Sound NYC. And our music was provided by Socalled. Our managing producer is M. Louis Gordon. 

Major funding for For Heaven’s Sake is provided by our friends, the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation of Los Angeles because of our shared commitment to strengthen the connection between Jews and North America and Israel. 

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after it episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online We wanna know what you think about the show. You can read and review us on iTunes to help more people discover the show. You can also write to us at forheavensssake, Subscribe to our show everywhere else podcasts are available. 

See you in two weeks. Thanks for listening. Yossi and Elana, an honor and a privilege to be with you. Thank you.

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