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Israel at War – A State of All Its Citizens

The following is a transcript of Episode 93 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: Hello, this is Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi at the Shalom Hartman Institute. And this is the Hartman Institute’s podcast, For Heaven’s Sake, our special edition, Israel at War. And today is day 37. And our theme for today is the state of all of its citizens.

Yossi, you and I, we’ve been sharing our thoughts and our feelings. We’ve been trying to offer a window into the experiences and struggles, reflections, hopes, challenges of Israeli society. But we’ve only been talking about 80% of Israeli society.

Israel has a 20% minority. Israeli-Arab-Palestinians. And even the name, we don’t even have a clear name, are they Israeli Arabs? Are they Palestinians? So I choose all three, to make sure that I am respecting the complexity of their identity. My fellow citizens. 

But in the name lies the essential challenge. Because they’re Israeli Arabs and they’re Palestinians. And as we Jews, American Jews, Canadian Jews, Australian Jews, British Jews, they inherently, as a result of their complex identity, also have complex loyalties, which are very natural. It’s ludicrous to assume that they’re not gonna have complex feelings, and a byproduct of that complex loyalties, and even complex identities, is very often a suspicion on the part of Israelis.

This has been a very, very difficult time for Israeli Arab Palestinians. I know many Israeli Jews who are challenging, demanding loyalty statements, many are losing jobs, they’re silenced. We have to talk about this. We have to talk about, how does a large segment of our society go through an experience, that we’re all experiencing, going through it from a different perspective. What do we Jews want from Israeli Arab Palestinians? What do we want during a time of war? How do we create a society which sees all of its citizens?

This is a major, major challenge for Israel, a major challenge for Zionism. And it’s also a major challenge that we at the Hartman Institute have embraced, because we at the Hartman Institute have determined that Zionism is going to be tested by how it treats its minorities. Israel as a liberal, Jewish, democratic state is not just going to be tested on how we treat liberal Judaisms, but how do we treat other citizens, who aren’t Jews?
And in a time of war, where loyalty and group-thinking gets even stronger, this issue has to be talked about and struggled with, and I turn to you, Yossi. Where does this dual loyalty complexity in Israeli society reach you? 

Yossi: So this will sound counterintuitive, but my commitment to full equality for Arab citizens of Israel comes from my upbringing on the Zionist right. I was a member as a teenager of the Beitar youth movement, which was founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and headed by Menachem Begin in his day.

And we used to sing a song, it was one of our anthems that Jabotinsky wrote, envisioning the future’s Jewish state as a place where every citizen would be embraced and be afforded full equality. Ben-Natzrat, ben-Arav, uv’ni, the son of Nazareth, the son of Arabia, and my son.

And I grew up assuming that this was a normative Zionist position. And it was for Menachem Begin, even for Yitzhak Shamir. And something has gone wrong. Something went terribly wrong on the Zionist right. It’s not the right that I grew up in. And so for me, this is a no-brainer, Donniel. 

As you point out, this is the test for our decency as a society. And it’s also a test for our wisdom as a people in embracing our own self-interest to accommodate 20% of our own citizens, most of whom, the strong majority of whom, want to be part of us in one fashion or another. I’m not saying it’s easy. I know it’s complicated. But it’s in my self-interest. I’m not doing anyone a favor by granting them equality. And so that’s where this hits me personally. 

And one of the things that makes me the most proud, Donniel, of what we’ve done at the Institute in the last few years is transform it into a structure that reflects the reality of Israel. We don’t only deal with Jewish Israel anymore. And the profound changes that we’ve made in how we see ourselves and who we see ourselves as responsible to as an Israeli Jewish institution, that for me is really in some way a microcosm of what I’m hoping for in Israeli society generally.

Donniel: See, it’s what you’re hoping for, but where are Israeli Jews? Where are Israeli Jews at this moment? Where are they? 

And let’s even just reflect on this for a moment, because when you undergo a trauma, or let’s use the imagery of what we’re supposed to do when a missile, when you hear a siren. And if you can’t get into a protected room, you’re supposed to lie on the floor and put your hands over your head. It’s like, imagine it for a second, like you cover yourself. When we go to war Israeli society, we start covering ourselves and we don’t look at other people. 

Yossi: It’s a great image. Yeah.

Donniel: And so who’s ourself? Who’s at war? So there are stories and it’s, they’re beautiful. You know, the bombs and the massacre of October 7th, didn’t just kill Israeli Jews, it also killed Israeli Arab Palestinians. And some of the great heroes who saved lives were Israeli Arab Palestinians and Bedouins, and we tell the story. 

But the reality is it’s still, the vast, vast majority of those who are in Gaza are either Jews or Druze. The Druze are also different. They are dying with us in the battlefield. But Israeli Arab Palestinians aren’t. And they also have a different formal identity as Palestinians. And there are I don’t know 10-20 Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza. That means there’s family members in Gaza.

And so their natural inclination is also to feel mournful. They’re mourning the deaths in Gaza, not just the children, they’re mourning it as family, it’s natural. And Israeli Jewish society has great difficulty with anybody talking about their mourning, which is not the mourning of the massacre of Jews on October 7. It’s not the mourning and fear for Israeli military casualties. 

And so we have been witnessing this confrontation in which Israeli Arab Palestinians, what are they going to say? How do they give expression at this moment as Israelis are hunkering, covering, are looking into ourselves, for someone who says, yes, I’m Israeli, but I’m also Palestinian. 

And the nightmare that Mayor Koch used to speak about when he spoke about dual loyalty, he said, of course I’m loyal to Israel, but when Israel attacks the United States, I will defend the United States. Well, we all smiled about that, but here that’s Palestinian reality. 

Now, they’re not defending, they’re not fighting on the side of Palestinians, but they’re mourning, they’re torn. And Israeli Jewish society has great difficulty with that dual loyalty. 

Yossi: So there’s really two questions here, Donniel. There’s what our Arab citizens are going through and how Jewish citizens perceive the Arab population. Now, my sense is, and this is really what worries me, is that the reaction to Arab Israelis among Jewish Israelis is basically divided into two categories.

There’s one group, and this is probably the majority, maybe even a large majority, that isn’t paying attention, isn’t asking the question. We’ve turned inward, and I love your image, where we’ve covered our heads, and we’ve contracted into our tribal core. The tribal core of Israeliness is Jewishness.

And there is another part of Israeli society that is very much interested in Arab Israelis and how they’re reacting, but not in a positive way. And that group is led by our Minister of Interior, of Internal Security, Ben Gvir, who has been arming groups of Jews all over the country, under the radar. We’re not paying attention. We’re busy with the war. We’re mourning, we’re grieving. We’re not paying attention to what he is doing and how he’s reshaping the culture of the police to focus on Arab Israelis as not just a potential fifth column, but as an actual threat from within.

There are more and more stories of Arab citizens being taken in for detention, in some cases even being charged with the treasonous accusation of siding with the enemy in times of war, because they expressed on social media pain or identification with civilian casualties in Gaza.

Now, when I speak to Arab Israelis, what I hear are basically three reactions. The first is unequivocal horror for the massacre. And that was true for 80% of Arab Israelis, according to the polls. The second reaction is agony for the fate of innocent Palestinians in Gaza. And the third reaction is profound fear for their place in Israeli society. 

And I spoke with our friend, Mohammad Darawshe, who is one of Israel’s leading activists for integration of Arab Israelis into the mainstream. And he said, you know, we’re not going out of our homes. We’re afraid. We’re certainly not going into Jewish areas. And he said that my fear, I’m quoting Darawshe, my fear is that we’ve already been set back 20 years in our coexistence work in our efforts to integrate into the mainstream. 

And he said, he fears that Ben Gvir’s goal is to reestablish some form of military rule over Arab Israelis. We had military rule until 1966 in this country of Arab citizens. And so something is happening outside of our emotional radar which could set us back decades and this terrifies me, terrifies me, as an Israeli, as a Zionist.

Donniel: See here influences the way I look at this issue. I’m not worried about Ben Gvir. I think the hourglass has turned. His time in Israel in a position of influence is coming to an end. And the winds of the political, whatever, there is some winds going on in politics, are shifting, he too is going to be moved aside. I’m less fearful of the extreme.

Yossi: Can I just interject for one moment, what I love about the divide between us, it’s not political, it’s emotional. And it is a divide between an optimist and a pessimist. And just listening to you talk about Ben Gvir, that’s what hit me, Donniel, because I am terrified of his growing influence. But okay, please go on.

Donniel: I used to be, I’m not terrified at all anymore of Ben Gvir, and I see him and his supporters as fringe, and that’s not our problem. 

Actually, our problem is, I believe, the 80% who you mentioned first. The 80% who aren’t thinking, ostensibly, about 20%. But when 80% don’t think about 20%, you end up abusing 20%, because they become transparent. Their experiences become transparent.

And as you yourself said, you know, we’re not seeing, but when you don’t see somebody, they’re experiencing as Mohammad Darawshe and here as my conversations on an ongoing basis with all the Israeli Arab Palestinians at the institute, their fear, they feel that Israeli Jews are looking at them differently. They don’t say hello. They don’t say hello. They don’t say, oh, that’s a beautiful dress you’re wearing. The small talk has changed. 

There is a fear growing out of individuals whose children are at war. That’s what they’re looking at. And what they want to know from Israeli Arab Palestinians, are you as nervous about my child as I am? And they can’t be. The nature of dual loyalty is that it is a mess. Now, we Jews have been accused of dual loyalty our whole lives, our whole history. That’s been the core accusation. You know, you go back to Napoleon and the challenge, who are you? We’re gonna offer you citizenship. Are you Frenchmen or are you Jews? Pick. Pick who you are. 

I don’t want any of this vacillating anymore. And Jews, we never could pick. We never could. And if there’s any people, and that’s why there’s an inner Jewish conversation that has to happen. If there’s any people who have to allow for dual loyalty, it’s Jews. 

Now, dual loyalty doesn’t mean the crap that you see, and we’re gonna have to talk about it, that October 7th is AI generated pictures and all. I’m not talking about the anti-Semitic stuff. But someone who says, of course I’m abhorred. Of course this is a crime against humanity. And I am mourning for my family in Gaza. Israeli society has great difficulty making room for that.

And Israeli Arab Palestinians are frightened, not just from the Ben Gvirs. Mohammad Darawshe are frightened from the Ben Gvirs. The Israeli Arab Palestinian who walks the street, who has friends, is frightened because our story doesn’t know how to deal with the complex reality of Israeli Arab Palestinians.

Yossi: I think there’s a deeper issue here, Donniel, which is what do we mean by Israel as a Jewish and democratic state? For the last year, hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated every week to affirm Israeli democracy. But in practice, what does that mean? 

And the Jewish component of Israeli identity is so powerful, the mythic Jewish framing of Israeliness is so overwhelming that we really have to fight to create a space in our identity for those who aren’t part of the Jewishness of the state. 

And what this war has done is push a majority of Israeli Jews, even those who are in principle, who affirm Israel as a democratic state, it’s taken our attention away. And it’s left the Arab Israeli community at the mercy of those, again, who are paying attention to them in a devastating way. 

Donniel: You know, Yossi, maybe a way to frame this is. because I don’t know if it has just shifted our attention and without doubt it has. Because now we’re in war mode. We’re not in human rights, democracy mode. But October 7th was a pogrom against the Jewish people. There were some Israeli Arab Palestinians, but we didn’t see it as a pogrom against Israelis.

Yossi: Right, that’s right.

Donniel: We speak about it. What is the language that we use? More Jews died on October 7th than at any time since the Holocaust. It reinforces what you just said, that the dominant experience of Israel is a Jewish one. The murderers who came out of Gaza were yearning to it “liqatl alyahud,” to murder Jews. It wasn’t an attack against Zionism. It was an attack against Jews.

Yossi: And it certainly wasn’t an attack on the state of all of its citizens, at least in the Jewish perception, even though 19 Arab Israelis were murdered.

Donniel: That’s correct. So when that happens.

Yossi: But it’s not part of our consciousness. No.

Donniel: This is a Jewish story and part of what the purpose of today both is to share this, but it’s, when you go to war, it is predominantly, this is the reality. Our wars are Jewish wars and until we don’t change the makeup of our army and public service, it is a very much a Jewish story, and 20% of our society suffers and we have to work harder.

It’s the people who feel transparent. It’s the people who feel frightened to go outside because the 80%, those who are for liberal Jewish, aren’t fighting for them right now. They’re actually very suspicious of them. They don’t know what to do with them. They don’t know what to do with this dual loyalty. Last thoughts, Yossi?

Yossi: We were on our way, at least it seemed so, until about a year ago, to a whole new era in Arab-Jewish relations. For the first time, we had a government, the Bennett government, that included an Arab party. We had just gotten through COVID, which was an incredible experience of shared citizenship, of Arab doctors and nurses taking care of Jewish patients, and the consciousness in this country had really been transformed.

And in a way, what does give me hope, as grim as this moment looks, is that just as we shifted so drastically and abruptly from that hopeful scenario to one of the darkest periods in Arab-Jewish relations, the opposite move can happen as well. And in Israel, you can never freeze the frame and say, this is Israeli reality. This is one of the most fluid countries that I know of. 

And so, those of us who are committed to a decent Israel, an Israel that fulfills the promise of Zionism, need to hold on to what’s already been achieved and to believe that we will have the ability, once this war is over, to resume the process of integration of 20% of our citizens into us. Because they are us, even though they’re not, and they are. That’s what makes this so complicated, so interesting and so moving, really.

Donniel: I won’t hold you to this, Yossi, but I did hear a little bit of optimism in your voice.

Yossi: You did. You did. 

Donniel: But maybe a good place to end. When you started with Beitar, just this morning I read in Yisrael HaYom, in Israel Today, which is the largest newspaper and the right-wing news. It’s the opposite of Haaretz. Our English-speaking audience won’t know it as well. 

Their lead editorial was, the next government has to include Mansour Abbas.

Yossi: Really, really.

Donniel: And they argue, he’s earned it. And he has earned it. And I would argue that part of what we Jews have to realize is that Israeli Arab Palestinians have earned it. They’ve earned it by holding on to their dual loyalty and not shifting the way so many people have shifted in the world. We have partners here. We just have to see them and enable them to be seen.

This is For Heaven’s Sake — Israel at War — Day 37. For more ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute about what’s unfolding right now, sign up for our newsletter and the show notes or visit

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