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Israel at War – The Politics of Fantasy

The following is a transcript of Episode 111 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 Shalom Hartman Institute. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, our special edition, Israel at War. And today is Day 117. And our theme for today, as many of the themes that we’ve picked, like we don’t even pick them, they force themselves upon us, our forced theme is Gaza and the far-right.

This week there was a celebration, a party of sorts in Israel, which unto itself is very strange, counter-cultural, even unaccepted in the midst of a war, where there is so much unity. People are living and gone back to living, but there’s a solemnity to life. You might go out to eat. You go to a wedding, you might go to a movie, but there aren’t celebrations. This is Israel at war. This isn’t a time for celebrations. 

But there’s no other way to describe the gathering of what was extensively the far, far right of Israel to declare a desire to return and rebuild Gaza, and with a bunch of other agendas for Gazan citizens, civilians, which we’ll talk about shortly, including transfer, by choice, in brackets. 

But it wasn’t a political event in which a political position was articulated. It really was a coming-out celebration. There was dancing. The Hasidic Rabbi was Itamar Ben Gvir with the people dancing around him. I thought I was at some Hasidic tish, a Hasidic meal with the Rabbi and their students. There was a levity.

We have to understand this, because while they were celebrating, so many of us in Israel were nothing short of aghast. I don’t know if we were shocked. We probably shouldn’t have been shocked. Because the truth is, in Israel, nothing should really shock us anymore. But we were surprised. We looked at it, I’m trying to find all the words, incredulously, I hope that’s close enough.

Yossi: I think we were shocked by the numbers, you know, that there were thousands of people there, leading, and how many cabinet ministers were there? Eleven?

Donniel: There were 11 cabinet ministers, 16 members of the Knesset, members of Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s party, but also mainstream Likud ministers. We were trying to understand, and I imagine many of you, our audience from around the world, who were also, what’s happening here? Especially right after the ruling in the “Hag,” or the Hague. We never know what to call it. In Hebrew it’s called the Hag, in English it’s called the Hague. 

And I know soccer is not necessarily the sport of many of our listeners, for some it is, and for those who it is, it’s probably better known as football. But we were given a yellow card by the Hague, a warning. Within a month, you have to report. 

And Yossi, you and I, we analyze this. You’re supposed to report, how are you, we’re not stopping the war, but what are the limits? And how do you understand your moral responsibilities, in particular, to Gazan civilians, and in particular, to not uproot their ability to rebuild their lives, which, even though it’s counterintuitive, is in fact now part of the official definition of genocide, it’s not just mass killing, it’s also undermining the ability of a community or a nation or a group as such to survive and to live and to continue their life. 

And in the midst of that, just two days, three days later, there’s a celebration calling for the renewal of settlements in Gaza.

Poll, majority of Israelis are against it, but 38% are for it. Amongst the right wing, that means the members of the coalition, I think it’s something like 68% are for it. This is stunning. 

Yossi: It’s actually stunning.

Donniel: So Yossi, we’re not going to be shocked. Because nothing could shock us. But we have to understand. And I want us to talk today about what this means, where is this coming from, and then what does this mean for the future of Israel, for the relationship of the world to Israel, world Jewry to Israel, the political divides in Israel. Let’s start unpacking. 

So, Yos, turning to you first, start unpacking as you understand it.

Yossi: So this is it. Unpacking is the right word because there are layers of motivation here. And some of what’s motivating this movement is unconscious. These motivations are entwined, and not all of those who support this are fully aware of, I believe, of what’s motivating them. 

The first level is, we could call it the ostensibly rational, the political. And that is that supporters of a return to Gaza argue, with a certain amount of credibility, that the withdrawal from Gaza resulted in an unmitigated disaster. Israel lost its buffer of the settlements in Gaza that were protecting the state. And October 7th was a consequence of the destruction of the settlements.

And the argument here is that a healthy people—and they always use this language of a healthy people—when it has the power to undo a terrible mistake, a crime that it committed against itself, it takes itself in hand and it has the courage and the power, to right its mistake. That’s the first layer. 

The second is something I would say that’s more amorphous, but I believe is hovering over the spirit of this movement. And that is that the essence of Zionism is return. The essence of Zionism is that what was destroyed is never permanently destroyed. That’s the whole basis of recreating a Jewish state. 

And so the language that they’ve used, they use the language of chorban, of destruction, which of course is the language of the destruction of the temple and of ancient Jewish sovereignty. This time we inflicted a chorban on ourselves, and so the return will be a tikkun, a correction of the destruction. 

The final layer is messianism. The withdrawal from the settlements in Gaza was above all a self-inflicted wound on the messianic process. The messianic process is the fulfillment of the longing for wholeness, a whole universe, a tikkun of this broken world. And the land of Israel is the template where wholeness and brokenness is worked out historically. 

And so, if we can return to Gaza, we are restoring the wholeness of the land, and that brings us much closer to fulfilling the wholeness, the process of messianic wholeness.

Donniel: I really appreciate the three levels and one of the reasons why I think it’s so important to mention all three is that we’re facing a coalition that can’t be catalogued as crazies. 38%, 60-something-percent of those who see themselves on the political right-wing, supporters of the Likud, these aren’t unrealistic, naive, religiously motivated. It’s a much more complicated story, but the three layers helps to explain the coalition. It’s not three layers of why. It really is, it’s three parties of the coalition. 

There’s the security party. There is, they call it the proud Zionist party, who don’t wanna deny that Zionist. And the third is this religious Zionist messianist. 

Yossi: Who are leading, they’re actually leading the movement.

Donniel: Right, leading, right. This was, it was their party and a lot of other people, their party meaning that political evening which I’m calling a party, celebration. I want to concentrate on the third for a moment because this messianic element, which has always been a part of religious Zionism, since 2005 and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, has been very intelligently hidden by the religious Zionist community, or by their right-wing messianic group, because the religious Zionist community, like all communities, has many diverse dimensions to it. There’s an ultra-Orthodox dimension. There’s a modern Orthodox dimension. There’s a right-wing messianic dimension. There’s also an ultra-nationalist dimension. And sometimes they dovetail, and sometimes they don’t. 

But in 2005, one of the fundamental lessons of the religious Zionist community, which saw themselves for decades as the leaders of the Zionist movement, they felt they lost. They didn’t just lose the settlement in Gaza. They didn’t just lose the messianic, almost inevitable journey. They lost the hearts of Israel. They were speaking about the holiness of the land as an essential feature of the ultimate redemption of Israel, that we are on this trajectory now of bringing back the Messiah and the ultimate victory of Israel and the redemption of the world, and the key component to that was settling the land of Israel. That was the key. This key was going to activate God’s return after 2,000 years of exile to bring about this messianic moment. 

But when the majority of Israelis, and a large majority of Israelis, unlike when it came to Oslo, here, the majority of Israelis from the right, center, and left voted for the withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantlement of the settlements. The juxtaposition was what do you care about? Do you care about the land of Israel, the holiness of the land, or the holiness of the Jewish people?

And the holiness of the Jewish people was A, preserving a Jewish majority, and B, not sacrificing our soldiers, because nobody wanted our soldiers to die protecting the settlements, the 8,000 to 9,000 settlers. People just didn’t want to send their children to serve there anymore. 

So what do you want? Is it, do you love the people of Israel or do you love the land of Israel? And religious Zionism realized that it lost. And very intelligently, what it did is it started to hide its holiness of the land and its messianic ideology. And they started to just speak security. And when they speak security, Yossi, they are basically competing for who loves the people of Israel more. Are the people of Israel protected by withdrawal, by searching for peace, or are the people of Israel protected more when we see the enemy for what it is and we have a defense position? 

We’re defending Israel. We’re defending Israel by getting rid of these false compromises, the false messiahs of the left, paradoxically, who think of peace. And so they re-emerged in Israeli society by separating themselves from their messianic ideology. What we saw this week and what Gaza has unfolded is a community which has become very mainstreamed, not just in the government.

A third of the Likud party come from the religious Zionist community. There may be 10-12 % of the society, but their ideology and their leadership since 2005, they’ve worked in politics, in journalism, in the arts, in music. We’re not on the fringe, we are here. This was their coming out party, but coming out of the messianic ideology which we hid, we don’t have to hide it anymore. After Gaza, we don’t have to hide. Everything is broken.

Yossi: Exactly, exactly. If you pay attention to the language that they’ve been using since October 7th, they’re back to an explicitly spiritual terminology. And they are framing the return to Gaza as a spiritual uplift for the Jewish people. This is going to restore us to ourselves.

Did you see that clip, it was about two months ago, a military chaplain with a big knitted kippah addressing soldiers. And he says the following—I just saw it again the other day, it’s something extraordinary—he says, you know, if you leave aside all those who’ve been killed on October 7th, and you just focus on the spiritual meaning of this moment, he said, this is the happiest time of my life. Now he was tremendously criticized for this.

Donniel: That’s great. It was a remarkable, remarkable statement. So why was it the happiest? Explain to our audience.

Yossi: And he goes on to say, because he says that as a result of October 7th, the people of Israel have awakened from a kind of a dream, a dream of normalization, of secularism, we’re coming back to ourselves, we know we’re a special people, and we’re going to return to the land. And he was one of the very first to publicly say, this is the war that’s going to lead us back to Gaza, which, by the way, has echoes of the Six-Day War, because in the weeks before the Six-Day War, there was this ferment in the religious Zionist community that this is the war that’s going to take us back to Jerusalem. And so there’s a direct messianic link in these people’s minds.

Donniel: Minds. Now again, now the reason why it’s coming out, because messianism is a word, let’s unpack it for a moment. Messianism is a spirit which you turn to when you can’t handle reality. Messianism is, the search for redemption is deeply connected to the pain of exile. October 7th brought back an exilic brokenness, a brokenness that this could happen.

Yossi: Mmm, nice, that’s great.

Donniel: You speak about this, that this was, October 7th was a so-called diaspora moment for Zionism, a breaking of it. But we need to be redeemed. Don’t you want to be redeemed? And so their spirit, it’s like, we could now rectify, you know, in religious Zionism, they speak about the fact that life in the diaspora broke the national spirit. It anesthetized the national spirit, the national consciousness. And that consciousness is only rebuilt through war. 

This is Rabbi Thau, one of the major leaders of the religious science. War, conflict, is what brings about this rebuilding. And they looked at the aftermath of October 7th and they saw this is what’s happening. And so this celebration, this celebration is the culmination. Now they’re saying to Israel, we don’t have to hide our messianism anymore and we’re gonna lead. 

And what October 7th said is that there’s a lot of people, that coalition of the three layers, are there, and what we now have to talk about is what does that mean for Israel? And then what does it mean? Within Israel and what does it mean for Israel around the world?

Yossi: Well, it’s a really important insight that you’re offering here, because what we’re seeing is an outbreak of Jewish fantasy, the kind of fantasy thinking that Zionism set out to correct, to free us from. Zionism was going,

Donniel: Right. Right. Could I stop you for a second, Yossi? Because it’s so important. When we’re talking about messianism, it’s not just correction, it’s not just its fantasy. And that term is so critical for us to stop on because it’s gonna shape so much of our conversation as we go, so much of Zionism.

Yossi: And Donniel, fantasy thinking is anti-Zionist. It is antithetical to the Zionist revolution, which was to restore us to the real world, to deal with reality. But as you say, reality has now become so unbearable since October 7th that a return to fantasy is almost a rational response to October 7th.

Donniel: It’s intoxicating. And secular Zionism, which was anti-Messianic, all the while that it also had its own Messianic fervor because it believed that we could solve all of our problems, but they were always grounded in realpolitik. 

Right now, you have a leadership in Israel from Netanyahu down, who basically aren’t giving us a vision of the future. They’re saying words, but everybody knows they’re lying. They’re talking, but what is your plan? What’s your plan? 

And along comes this group of people and say, we have a plan. We have a plan. Nobody offered an intelligent, counter-realistic plan. What do you really want to do in Gaza? That’s, by the way, we don’t, we move into Gaza and have no plan on what we intend to do with the civilians, other than to move them out of the way of our bombs. But really, what do you plan to do? So then we say, UNRWA is the enemy, they’re Hamas, and now an Israeli official says, and we’ll talk about this another time, no, don’t dismantle UNRWA right now. I want to dismantle UNRWA after the war, but we need UNRWA now. 

So you don’t have a plan. You’re moving into a densely populated space. You don’t have a plan to how to deal with the civilians. You don’t state your plan for the day after because you’re negotiating hostage deals and then saying you’re not negotiating them. It’s all, there’s this cloud, and along comes a group of people and says, here, life is going to be perfect. We are going to go back to 2005. Who would not want to go back to pre-tunnel, pre-Hamas Gaza? 

And they’re giving you a plan and it’s clear. And when one side has a plan and one side has a vision, and that vision, your word fantasy, it’s exciting, and the other side is not offering anything other than, okay, we’ll talk about it when the war ends. Of course, which side do you want to be on? Where, here, this one has a future and you’re not offering me anything.

Yossi: The better analogy than to the one that I offered earlier about 1967 is actually the Yom Kippur War, 1973, because that’s really when the settlement movement emerged as an organized force. It came about at a moment of despair and confusion. No one knew what to do post-’73. The would-be settlement movement comes along and says, we have a plan. We have a vision. And they use the same language. We’re going to raise up the spirits of the people. That is how Gush Emunim, the settlement movement, really launched itself. 

Now, we’re talking about fantasy, and the more that I listen to these people, and now let’s really segue into the unbelievably destructive nature of what these people are trying to unleash, the definition of madness is to be detached from reality. When they say, we’re going to lift up the spirits of the people by re-establishing the Gaza settlements, which people are they talking about? 

Certainly the 38% that support this will feel uplifted by this, maybe, maybe. 

Donniel: In the short run. 

Yossi: But the majority of us—yes, right, in the short run, until we all have to start paying the price for it—but the majority of Israelis are so profoundly disoriented and outraged by this outbreak of bizarre celebration, and this fantasy politics, when we’re fighting for our lives, there’s nothing that can divide this country more, in war, than to start seeing groups of would-be settlers slipping across the border, and we’re going to see that. That’s the plan, by the way. They are actively planning to repeat what the settlement movement did in 1974 or 75.

Donniel: See, what you have here is a reverse of the last year with the judicial reform, where the anti-judicial reform had a cause which brought the masses into the street. 

Yossi: Good one, good one, Daniel. Yes. That’s a good one.

Donniel: Now, they, and the right-wing, it’s another good one, right? Could I just pat myself on the back for a moment? Because just listening to you inspired me. And the right wing didn’t show up. Right now, they are banking that we will uplift the spirit of Israel, because we’re going to give you hope. We’re going to give you hope. But here, 

Yossi: Their hope is my despair.

Donniel: It’s your despair. That’s correct. That’s the divide. And so they’re going to try to rebuild. And the other half is going to be on the streets calling for elections now. And we have a very, very difficult moment. But in many ways, what this event put forth, and it’s a despair for you, and it’s profoundly alienating for world Jewry, it’s bizarre for the friends of Israel around the world who are looking at it and wanted at least that Netanyahu should at least just condemn them. This is what, what did the what did the court and the Hague say? That if somebody is calling for the transfer or for the removal of Gazans, that should be illegal and you shoul prosecute them? And these are your members, your cabinet men, and you didn’t even remove them from the cabinet?

Yossi: They’re giving the court the smoking gun of the motivation for this war as a war of genocide. That’s what they’re doing to us.

Donniel: Of course, but when you’re messianic, you actually want it, because you want to move the conflict outside of the of the domain of international politics and put it into the domain of theological politics. God will reemerg.

Yossi: And you want to push events to the ultimate, the breaking point. That’s right.

Donniel: Because you believe that God will never leave you and you’re basically you’re forcing God’s hand in many ways. But there’s gonna be a very important line which is going to, we’re gonna have to see how it plays itself out.

As we don’t know, politics have permeated our life in Israel. And it’s very strange being at war and engaging in politics simultaneously. It’s almost as if the war is now secondary to the political discourse around the war. It’s strange to say that, but honestly, it feels that way. We’re doing our politics while there’s a war. It’s not the war, number one. We almost have to start counting differently soon.

But I think one of the critical lines that’s going to have to take place, and you see Netanyahu is silent. He is silent because he knows this is not the path. This is not Netanyahu’s legacy. This is not his ideology, nor is this the idea.

Yossi: Oh, do you really want to open that door of his legacy right now?

Donniel: No, it’s not what he wants to be, his legacy. Let me just talk. Well, you know, I’m just gonna talk. Don’t go to Netanyahu today, because it’s minor, it’s really not our issue. 

But the right wing in Israel, the center-right, the center-left, and the right, are responsible. They’re aware of the significance of international opinion, of world Jewry, of our coalitions, of the governments who are standing with us, including all the governments who stopped funding UNRWA. And all that we’ve been doing has been to be connected to the world and ultimately with, as we spoke about, the Sunni coalition, they’re aware of it. That’s what they want to do. 

So we’re going to have a line, and in many ways, the next election, or the political discourse in Israel, is going to have to be on whether this messianic right leads the right or whether the center-right leads the right into a coalition with the center and the center-left. 

But that could only happen, Yossi, it could only happen if the center starts speaking about its plan, its fantasy, imperfect. Not its messianism, not how we’re going to resolve this and how everything, because it’s wonderful, everything’s going to come out great. We’re going to have settlements and we’re going to be back in October 6th and nothing will have happened. We’ll be back in 2005. 

What’s our plan? If we don’t start competing ideologically, Yossi, then the Messianic ideology is going to be very powerful. It has 38% right now, but it really only belongs with 15%. Even some of the Haredim showed up at the celebration. That’s not where they are. They’re not Messianists. Haredim are the ultimate realpolitik people. They always have been.

Yossi: Well, that may be true for a majority of the Haredim, but I think there is a growing minority in that community that sees its connection to Israeliness as coming through the far right.

Donniel: I know. So this, if we want to talk, there is a clear majority, not 51-38. It’s a different majority. It’s a 70-75% majority. But that majority needs a leader. And so far, Gantz is leading by making sure that he doesn’t say anything so that nobody has a reason not to vote for him, even though he did come out, but he’s not coming out strong enough. 

What we are talking about, we’re not just picking a theme to talk about today. In many ways, the future of Israeli politics, and for me, the future of Zionism, in Israel and around the world, is going to depend on how we intellectually, spiritually, morally, and emotionally marginalize this messianic vision that has been unleashed upon us. Last word, Yossi?

Yossi: Look, I think that that’s right for the long term. There’s a much more immediate agenda now, and that is to explain to the Israeli public how these people who are speaking in terms of rectifying the chorban that was done, are, in fact, threatening us with a different kind of chorban. If they proceed, they will destroy the fragile unity of the Israeli public, they will fatally undermine our case in the Hague and, as you put it, among our friends. 

So I think that immediately, we need to be focusing on ways in which to make a very clear case about the dangers, the imminent dangers of the politics of fantasy. And at the same time, we need to be thinking long-term about what our vision is and how do we present a genuine vision to uplift the Jewish people post-October 7th.

Donniel: Right. We need, people want to have a feeling that the day after Gaza is going to be okay. Messianism gives you that, and we have to give people another vision. But what makes it difficult, and I bring it full circle back to the way you started, you’re three layers. Part of the challenge is that you can’t just attack the Messianism without offering some responses to the security and the true Zionism answers. Because otherwise the Messianics, they’ll reach out to their coalition. 

We have a lot of work to do. Like, you know, welcome. Never is boring. Never, you know, we thought a war was one challenge. There’s so many challenges and so many things that we have to struggle with. It’s day 117. This is For Heaven’s Sake, Israel at War. A lot of work, a lot, a lot of work lies ahead.

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