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Israel at War – Shifa

The following is a transcript of Episode 94 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: Hi, this is Donniel Hartman and Yossi Klein Halevi from the Hartman Institute, and this is For Heaven’s Sake, our special series, Israel at War. And today is day 40. 

And before we get to today’s theme. I just came back from a few days in North America, and I heard of this demonstration going on in Washington, and I knew I had to show up. I had to go. I wanted to see. Also, I got used to demonstrating, so I don’t miss a demonstration. And I was very excited.

I was so happy I went. YossiI was so proud of North American Jewry. And I want to tell our listeners, you know, everybody wants to know what we could do. You know, we’re the altacockers now. You know, like we’re, we sit and we watch our children and our friends’ children and the younger generation fight this war for us. And we’re watching. And everybody tries to do whatever they could do. 

And it’s tenfold when someone lives 6 to 10,000 miles away and you see your people. And there’s such a, there’s anger and frustration at what I could do. And to see close to 300,000 people show up and to say, we love Israel. We’re standing here with Israel. And I felt proud of them.

And I felt as an Israeli and I follow, just like you, everything, how this was reported in Israel. And there is one Jewish people and we’re standing. And with all the noise, and there is noise, and there are people on the fringe with various alphabets, but today the Jewish people were standing in such a powerful way.

And it was exhilarating, but even more that it was deeply moving. And maybe because I’m also getting a little older, I feel very proud. I feel very proud of our brothers and sisters and family and community all across North America. Yossi, from Israel, how did you experience this demonstration? 

Yossi: Well, like you with tremendous pride, and also there was a personal dimension here because you and I have devoted years to nurturing this relationship. And we’ve gone through the pain of worrying. Are we losing the thread? Are we getting to the point where the two communities aren’t able to emotionally feel each other?

And this is a moment of realizing that the Jewish organism is alive and well. And we need to figure out ways, Donniel, of how to come together not only in grief, but also in celebration, also in appreciating each other’s rich Jewish lives.

Donniel: You know, Yossi, as I hear you talk, when we return to For Heaven’s Sake and not Israel at War, I think the first subject that you and I and Elana have to engage is how do we understand? How do we grow? What did we do wrong? And this demonstration showed a tremendous amount of love and care. And how do we build on it? 

And so let’s put that as, this is a core issue we have to talk about. Because everybody’s been eulogizing, it’s not. It was powerful, something is alive, but we have to see also, what prevented it in the past. 

But returning unfortunately to Israel at war. Today on day 40, day 40 is Shifa. Shifa, you almost don’t have to say what Shifa is. Shifa is a hospital, but Shifa is much more than a hospital. Shifa is the paradigm of the war. Shifa is the nightmare. Shifa is where we are attacked. Shifa is where there are huge differences between Jews and our critics. Shifa is where we’re misunderstood. Shifa is where from an Israeli perspective we are, it’s the essence of what we are and how we’re supposed to fight this war. 

So I want to, I feel an existential need to unpack Shifa. For myself, for our listeners, I would just start by saying just before the war, Shifa was the unattainable. Whenever we spoke about Hamas, whenever we spoke about Gaza and wars in Gaza and limited operations, it always was, well, we can’t get to Shifa. Shifa is where the leadership has their bunker. This is where they’re managing the war and they know we can’t touch them in Shifa. It was the unattainable. It carried the deep frustration of Gaza.

And now we’re there. And now it is also the focus of those who are our enemies and also a vision of where we are, both militarily in the present and where we are in the future, which I want to further unpack. What does Shifa mean to you, Yossi?

Yossi: Two things. The first is the determination of Israeli Jews virtually across the spectrum that this time Hamas has no immunity. The Hamas leadership will not be able to hide behind their human shields and also our human shields. There are hostages. For all we knew, there were hostages in Shifa, in the tunnels underneath, and yet we went in anyway. 

And so, the determination, as you put it, to get to the Hamas leadership, even if they’re under a hospital, represents the profound turnaround in the Israeli public in relation to fighting this war. That’s first of all. Second,

Donniel: So let’s stop there a second. Yossi, just, because I, the willingness to capture Shifa is Israel post October 7th. This is, it almost symbolizes a completely different mindset.

Yossi: Yes, that’s right. Yes.

You know something, I was thinking about something that Menachem Begin said in 1982 during the Lebanon War. And when he said it, then I cringed. And you’ll remember this, Donniel. He said that as the Israeli army was moving toward Beirut and encircling Yasser Arafat’s bunker, he felt like an ally general moving on Hitler’s bunker.

And at the time I felt this was a violation of the memory of the Holocaust, this was Holocaust abuse. This time I don’t like Holocaust analogies, but I’m less uncomfortable with it. And I realized that, and again, I’m not speaking intellectually now, emotionally. It’s, there’s something about Berlin 1945 that is in the Israeli psyche as we’re moving against the Hamas leadership. That’s what October 7th did for us. 

And again, one can argue, and I do, that this is not, we are not in the 1930s, let alone the 1940s. It’s very dangerous to go there. But emotionally, something deep has changed.

So that’s the first thing, Donniel. The second thing is really what you’re laying out here, which is the elusiveness, the maddening elusiveness of fighting this kind of war against that kind of enemy under these impossible circumstances, where Hamas, they’re among the civilians, they’re not among, where are they? They’re nowhere and they’re everywhere.

And we have made a commitment as a society, an explicit commitment to defeat Hamas, whatever that means. And I think each of us will answer that in a different way. For me, it means getting the Hamas leadership, making sure that by the end of this war, the Hamas leadership is either dead or in exile in Qatar or Turkey. But where are they?

And so, we’ve shown our absolute seriousness in entering Shifa. We are determined to restore the credibility of our military deterrence. We are determined to restore the credibility of Israel as a safe refuge of the Jewish people and not allow that genocidal leadership to remain on our borders. That’s what it means to go into Shifa, but they’re not there. So what does that mean, Donniel? What does that mean?

Donniel: Oy. I want to come back to that because I just finished, you know, I just landed and I got my two hours of Israeli news into my veins. I have to breathe again as an Israeli. And you could sense the frustration because Shifa was the unattainable. It became the flag really, the goal. This was gonna be our Entebbe moment, and it’s not. 

You know, we had a session together, you know, I don’t even remember when, feels like a lifetime ago, which we called the hospital. And there we were dealing with the fear that there was an errant shell, an Israeli errant shell that bombed the hospital, and whether that means the end of the war.

And so the issue of the errant shells was one issue. Here, we went after Shifa. This wasn’t, oops, we targeted Shifa now, but we didn’t bomb Shifa. And we took our time and we gave them notice and we gave a whole bunch of things. And as a result, they’re not there. So I’m sure tomorrow we’re going to have videos of bunkers and chairs and food supplies and ammunition. And pictures of where they hid and where they functioned from maybe we’ll even have command and control infrastructure that we could show even though they probably bombed it up. And we’ll show pictures and who’s it gonna convince? 

So at the end, Shifa is a huge victory on the one hand. But it’s a very, like, what did we achieve? You know, so there’s that side of it, which is a big side of it. And this war is exhausting, my friends. It’s just exhausting. For many of us, Shifa was the mountain that we had to climb.

Yossi: And we had to overcome our own psychological inhibitions about attacking Hamas under a hospital.

Donniel: And the fear of what it would mean for Israeli casualties. The whole story, we overcame it, and there’s, you know, it’s like I run marathons, and one of the, there’s the T’veria Marathon. There’s a turnaround point.

Yossi: Yhe world famous T’veria marathon.

Donniel: World famous, it’s actually the lowest marathon in the world, so you get really good times there. I said I run marathons, I should more accurately say I ran marathons, but there’s a turning point where you turn around and go back again. And like, it’s psychologically, I compare it to New York. There you’re just keeping on running. Here, you know, you’ve come to half, and you say, oh, half, and you have to do the whole thing all over again. 

I feel that after Shifa, it’s like, we’re not even close. We’re not even close. And the weight of the journey ahead is a huge one. But if I can, I wanna shift the discussion on Shifa for a moment. Because Shifa is not just an inner Israeli story. Shifa personifies for those who are the deepest critics of Israel, everything that’s wrong with Israel. 

It’s not an errant missile, regardless of who fired it. You went into a hospital. And so we’re showing, oh, but we brought in medical personnel and we brought in incubators. We went into a hospital, and so from an Israeli side, this is a military target, and others, you went into a hospital! This, are hospitals military targets? And for those who are our biggest critics, Shifa is the case, case closed.

Yossi: So, Shifa, if you expand the metaphor of what Shifa represents, Shifa is a litmus test for how you relate to this war. From an Israeli point of view, what we say is, look at the nature of the enemy we’re fighting. They will deliberately set up their headquarters in a hospital and according to the IDF. There are 18 hospitals in Gaza, and under every one of those hospitals, there’s some form of Hamas presence. 

So for us, what Shifa represents is the evil nature of our enemy. For our critics, as you point out, Shifa represents what’s evil about us. You’re going into a hospital. And we say, we have no choice, of course we’re going into a hospital. We waited patiently, we evacuated, we gave time for evacuation, and then we went in. And we didn’t go in full force, we went in surgically, to use a metaphor. And so each really how you relate to Shifa, it’s a perfect litmus test for what one thinks of the war.

Donniel: This, I really appreciate, you know, it’s such a simple word, but as I hear it, I feel things getting clarified. This word litmus test that you used, I think is perfect, because it’s true. And part of the frustration for both Israelis, friends of Israel around the world, and for our enemies, is that this is the story. This is the story. And if you’re going into this hospital, you could believe anything. 

BBC famously reported just today that Israel is attacking Shifa and its troops are targeting Arab speakers and medical personnel. And it came, that was a coherent thing to report. It was clear, you’re attacking a hospital. This is what you’re doing. You’re looking for terrorists. So this was that it was even a coherent thing to discuss, to talk about. 

Then an hour later, and again, I’m not talking whether, who listens to what, and I’m not talking about the public relations dimension. They said, oops, we made a mistake. It’s not that Israel is targeting Arab speakers and medical personnel. It’s that its forces are accompanied by Arab speakers and medical personnel. 

So here it is. This is the test. You could believe anything about Israel right now. And just like Shifa is this paradigm of frustration for us in Israel, it’s also gonna be a paradigm of frustration for friends of Israel around the world. Because this war, everything is being said about us. And anything is being said about us. And we have all the answers. 

As I was in North America for a few days. The first, like, look, don’t they see? Don’t they see we came with incubators, we did this. We know our story, but it’s the wrong story. We have to tell that story. But just like Israel, we’re turning the half marathon and it might actually be an ultra marathon. 

Also our friends around the world, those for whom this is proof of the barbarism of Israel, they’re gonna believe anything, and it’s gonna be a long haul. Shifa is this, is what’s gonna be quoted and misquoted. It’s the paradigm, I believe, from now on.

Yossi: Yeah, when as we were approaching Shifa, as the IDF was approaching, I realized it’s deep breath time. And this is the moment where each of us who supports this war and who supports the goal of victory, not just of delivering a blow, but bringing Hamas down.

We need to own Shifa. We need to own the moral responsibility, the moral consequences of being committed to victory in Gaza, in the circumstances of Gaza, and what that war is forcing us to do. 

And so I felt this enormous weight and the need to be honest with myself and say, okay, this is what it means. You know, we talked in previous podcasts about the need to fight evil. And I believe that with my whole being, I believe that we are fighting evil in Gaza and we need to fight it relentlessly.

But look at the cost. And not to look at the cost, is to do a kind of violence to one’s own moral credibility. And so this is a moment, Donniel, where, and I’m really glad we’re talking about this. I didn’t, the truth is, as you know, I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t feel I was ready to talk about it, because I’m so focused, as almost everyone in this country is right now, on victory.

But this is a moment where we need to stop and say, let’s understand the full consequences. And I’m still committed to victory, but I have to pause and own it.

Donniel: You know, I was afraid that you were going to come up with some platitude about how I mourn the casualties on both sides. 

Yossi: I can’t say that now. I just can’t. You know.

Donniel: I know, but I was afraid. I know. So I was afraid, Yossi. And I was going to have to nod meaningfully. No.

Yossi: Which our listeners can’t see.

Donniel: But at the same time, the fact that you didn’t say it, I have to say something. 

Yossi: So I will nod piously now.

Donniel: Because, because this is, because Shifa is also, it embodies both the frustration, the difficulty, the, the impossible nature of it.

But at the end of the day, we had to go into a hospital. And Hamas forced us to do it. But that’s part of what this war is about. And there’s a real price. And we look. So many Jews around the world think that there’s some PR gimmick that we’re somehow missing. If we just had a different spokesman.

Shifa also personifies the inadequacy of public relations. Gaza, it’s not public relations. This is a war against evil, but which is also forcing us to take over hospitals with all of its consequences. And the people who think the worst of us, they have, there’s, you took over, it’s there, you are attacking hospitals.

So we’ll tell our story. And it’s important that we tell our story. And it’s important that we do not just tell a story, that we try to fight Gaza the way we fought Shifa. Because the way we’re fighting Shifa is different than the way we bombed in the first two weeks. The way we fight, we have to tell ourselves, what did we do? 

But to know also that the story’s changed, and the pictures of October 7th are going to be replaced by hospital pictures. Just go to the New York Times today. There’s new pictures, so now it’s pictures. It’s a long haul. This Shifa, now we’re hearing maybe our troops are out, maybe they’re not. Shifa, instead of being the high point, is just a comma. But it’s a comma with profound moral, political, and psychological consequences. 

This is For Heaven’s Sake — Israel at War — Day 40. 

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 shalomhartman.org/israelatwar. 

Yossi, it’s a long haul. And I hope we have the strength, moral fortitude, and everything that’s necessary for the long journey ahead.

Yossi: And I’m glad that you and I are seeing this through together, Donniel.

Donniel I know. Love you.

Yossi: Love you too.

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