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Israel’s War and the Diaspora

The following is a transcript of Episode 161 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Maital: Hello, this is Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Maital Freidman, executive producer and vice president of communications and creative at the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode of Identity Crisis is sponsored by Jennifer and Michael Kahan, members of Hartman’s new giving society. They support our work engaging young people in exploring the biggest challenges facing the Jewish community today, and empowering them to lead Jewish communities in North America and Israel, into the future. 

This week, instead of inviting a guest, we’ve decided to flip the script, and share with you an interview of Yehuda Kurtzer conducted by Chanan Weissman, director of SAPIR Institute. The SAPIR Institute explores the future of the American Jewish community and its intersection with cultural, social, and political issues. 

This interview, from October 25th, is a part of SAPIR’s live conversation series addressing this critical moment in Jewish history. Yehuda and Chanan discuss Yehuda’s recent trip to Israel, the painful realities we’re witnessing there, and the effects of the war on Jewish communities in North America. Here’s their conversation. 

Chanan: Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening. I really appreciate the the hundreds of you, and especially those of you in Israel, for joining us today for a special SAPIR conversation on Day 19 of Israel’s war with Hamas.

Now, as many of our listeners know, we’ve revamped up here kind of changed it on a dime, for now, from a publication that produces a journal of essays every 3 months to one that produces a weekly rhythm of content online, and hosts virtual conversations with people of note who can really help us make sense of our present moment.

Now that moment began on October 7th, or its Hebrew equivalent, the 22nd of Tishrei. It’s a it’s a now and forevermore infamous date on the Jewish calendar kind of etched into the collective psyche of Jewish communities in Israel, in the United States, and around the world.

Now, when I woke up on that morning of Shemini Atzeret to the news of the massacres, I felt like I woke up to a Jewish reality that was not my own, that was from a vastly different era. One, perhaps, that I read about in textbooks in school, or memorialized in synagogue, sitting on the floor during Tisha B’Av. 

But this, what transpired on October 7 didn’t happen then. It happened now. And it didn’t happen in a distant land. It happened in the Jewish State. And it didn’t happen to a few people. It happened to thousands of people. And so here we are right, that sudden ferocious return to a Jewish past, that we thought, that we hoped, that we prayed would stay where it belonged in the past. And yet here we are. The calendar of Jewish grief continues to be populated with new dates.

Now for Jews living outside of Israel. Some are in a place of disorientation, others with a perpetual sense of sorrow, others with a clairvoyance like a renewed clarity of purpose, still others with a steely determination, a desire to meet this moment, whatever that entails.

And truthfully for many, it’s all the above. It’s what the Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman, recently called just a a cocktail of emotions. We’ve been thrust into history, but we’re all experiencing it quite differently.

Israelis are donning military uniforms and masks. Their sons and daughters sent in preparation for a ground assault into Gaza. If and when that happens, what should North American Jewish leaders do? How should they, or we, react? How should everyone collectively mobilize? What positions should we collectively take, or individually? How long do you sustain those positions? What if there are differences of opinions over the course of time. What if cleavages begin to emerge? Not just within the American Jewish community, but also between it and the Jewish state?

Let’s take a breath, all right? Because to help ground us, and we certainly could use it, we’re honored to have with us Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartmann Institute. Yehuda is among the most important, in my humble estimation, Jewish thinkers in North America today. He’s written with a profound sense of moral clarity over the last couple of weeks. And he just recently returned from a visit to Israel.

And so we thought, who better, really, to help us unpack this moment than Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer. So, Yehuda, thank you very, very much for joining us today.

Yehuda: Thanks for having me, Chanan.

Chanan: So listen before we dive in, I kinda I wanna rewind the clock just for a little bit. You wake up, you, Yehuda, you wake up in the morning of October 7. Walk us through your reactions, your emotions, your projections, like what crossed your mind? How did you hear about what transpired? What did you do with your time during that day or two?

Yehuda: So, when I woke up that morning, I have a practice that I’m not particularly proud of, but I feel now validated in which is that, you know, some 20 years ago, a close family friend passed away on Shabbat morning. We lived very close to where they lived, and I never, I didn’t hear about it, because it was Shabbat, and I don’t use my phone. And I felt bad about it ever since, because it was the kind of person where I would have walked over on Shabbat. So ever since then, I actually check my phone a couple times on Shabbat, it sounds awful, but I basically check the phone to make sure that nobody who I love has died.

So I checked my phone on Shabbat morning before getting ready to go to shul, and saw what was transpiring, and knew immediately, since we in the diaspora are 7 hours ahead, you know Shabbat morning in Israel, when I’ve talked to many of my Israeli friends, it took them a while to figure out what was going on, and to hear the extent of the Hamas invasion, the level of casualties. 

But by the time I had woken up the casualties were already in the hundreds, we knew already that we were on the verge of something catastrophic, and I actually went to a shul in my neighborhood where I knew that it would be less likely that people would have been on their phones. But I went in, I told the Rabbi, who’s a friend, he said, yeah, I know something’s going on. But I said to him, no, this isn’t, you know, we’re used to, as as Zionists and as pro Israel Jews, there was a terror attack in Israel, there are rockets being fired in. We’re used to that kind of low grade fear about our loved ones. But we’ve also gotten accustomed to kind of filing that away as like the stuff that happens.

But I was like, no, I don’t, I don’t think you know the extent of it. And then that altered the whole Shabbat morning in that particular congregation, and then the rest of the day was this ominous following of the news and and reading what was going on. I think I think a lot of us intuited right away. We are watching something dramatically different than anything that we’ve ever ever experienced. 

And, Chanan, I say that as somebody who’s lived in Israel through Intifadas, who lived in Israel through the assassination of the Prime Minister, which I thought until October 7th, was the signal formative event of my relationship to Israel, the one that would have most altered my sensibilities about the place, and I think by the end of that day it was very clear that October 7th had had moved us past even that story in terms of how violence shapes the depth of our passions and our relationship to Israel. 

Chanan: It was a paradigm-shifting moment. I remember having a very similar reaction. My wife saw me also holding the phone, I don’t typically hold a phone on Shabbat morning, but it was buzzing off the hook. And that’s never a good sign. That is never, ever a good sign. I felt compelled to to check, see what was transpiring.

But then fast forward about a week. It’s Saturday night, October 14th. You find yourself on an El-Al flight to Israel, I assume, it was El-Al, it was like a pre planned trip. It wasn’t part of some large delegation of leaders, you’re constantly shuttling back and forth, right, you lead a bicoastal institution.

But I, you said some, you wrote somewhere, and if I can just quote it, you said some variation of, you and your wife have, like a standard rule in life, that when it comes to Israel, you don’t not go, right, you don’t not go. So what, what do you mean by that? And how did that manifest this moment?

Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, it is true. I had already planned this trip. Because of the nature of my work, I do go back and forth quite a bit. Part of the reason I was planning on going, anyway, was to teach in our Hevruta Gap Year program, which has 35 Americans, 35 Israelis, and kind of a big social experiment and Jewish peoplehood. I was gonna teach a program for rabbinical students in Israel. It was already planned. For what it’s worth, I usually fly United, couldn’t get a United ticket, so I happened to be on El-Al, which turned out to be fortuitous because every other airline canceled their trips. And it was kind of a slam dunk to go. 

Stephanie and I do have that rule. We don’t not go. There are many times when, you know, if you were talking about like a trip somewhere in Europe, and there was an incident or something terrible happening. Say, you know what better not go at this time. And our attitude about, our relationship to Israel is that whatever’s happening in the news, however dangerous it is, we don’t not go. We don’t leave early.

And I say that not to judge. There’s a lot of people who are in Israel who left. There are gap-year students who decided to come back. I truly do not judge people for making that choice. I think it’s a really complicated decision to figure out what’s going to make us safe. And safe is both a physical state. And it’s a psychological state. 

I think we just feel so tethered to the story of Israel and the Jewish people. It’s the place where we feel a deep sense of home and at homeness. And beyond that I feel responsible for a lot of people whose livelihoods are there, whose lives are there, who are family. So it felt like kind of obvious to get on the plane and go. 

Although the whole trip took on different meaning. It wasn’t go to do work. It was go on some weird sense of shlichut, of being dispatched, of kind of a one person solidarity mission. And, in fact, that’s kind of the quality that it took on over the course of the week. I did still teach the Hevruta students. I taught the 6 remaining rabbinical students who hadn’t hadn’t left and come home. But all of those classes and all those experience obviously, were dramatically different than what I would have intended to go for.

Chanan: The notion of shlichut, typically, it says, really, for coming to the diaspora in this, in this case, you felt compelled to to go there. What did you see when you got to the airport, and it had you feel your time if you weren’t teaching as robustly as you had intended.

Yehuda: Well, first of all, this will probably all of this cloud will lift. But we’re still in in the first week of this catastrophe, and it’s, it was nothing less than a catastrophe. The optics of the trip were so dramatically different. I’ve never showed up in Israel to see that the foreign passport section is closed. It’s like, who else who else is coming? Who comes during a war? By now, I assume, it’s been reopened because there are a lot more people who are starting to go on missions and solidarity trips and so forth. But it was closed. There was no traffic on the roads. Many of the street shops were still closed, and there still is a very weird thing going on in the Israeli economy, because a whole bunch of restaurants and businesses are dependent on labor that’s no longer there. 

I mean, most of the non-Haredi, non-Arab men between the ages of 18 and 42 have been called up to military service, and that’s creating this wild distortion in terms of what can be open, literally. So it was just, it felt very quiet, and it took me a like couple of days to realize what it felt like, and what it felt like was, it was like it was like the feeling of a shiva house, which, on one hand, has a certain, sometimes has a certain liveliness. People are there, but it’s all rooted within a kind of sad serenity, which I felt was the characteristic on the street. I don’t just mean inside the shiva houses. I did go to a shiva house, which was absolutely devastating, of a 21 year old soldier, whose in laws I knew, were friends of mine. There was the shiva houses themselves.

But the larger feeling was this sense of being in a collective shiva. Now, part of what’s interesting is, there’s also a tremendous amount of mobilization taking place in Israel, both in terms of soldiers going to the front, and also all of this effort to support not only the war effort, but the 200,000 plus displaced people, and we should even use the term refugees, because that’s a term that’s being used on the Palestinian side. It’s true on the Jewish side, too, there’s an enormous number of refugees from Southern Israel, and now Northern Israel. But even the mobilization stuff didn’t look like the usual busyness. 

It kind of felt like, you know how you can be in a shiva house, and there’s a few people who are really busy because they’re like setting up babka? Like that’s what it was. There was this collective feeling of death and devastation that was just pulling down the whole society, and it took me a while to realize that that’s what I was kind of watching and witnessing throughout an entire country, and I’ve never I’ve never experienced that before.

Chanan: So Israel has taken on the paradigm of being a shiva house en masse, to certain extent. This sense of foreboding or grief about what happened, and foreboding about what will happen, simultaneously. That’s among the distinctions between sitting in an actual shiva house, and I imagine walking through the streets of Jerusalem, which is, everyone knows that this is not the end, right? That there is gonna be more actual shiva houses.

Was it different going to a restaurant or go like, are there restaurants open? Are people eating? What’s happening?

Yehuda: So I will say that by about Wednesday or Thursday of last week, to continue to use the shiva metaphor, it felt like Israel was starting to come out of it, literally, when you end shiva, you go for a walk around the neighborhood, and you start resuming life. But you don’t lose the sense that you’re still in grief. You just have to resume normal life. 

So by Wednesday, Thursday you started to see the coffee shops filling up again, and it would be again. I think it would be a mistake to say, okay, well, we’ve now moved past it. It’s just that people start resuming life. So you know, restaurants did start resuming. I wrote a a kind of a micro essay about a couple, a couple of micro essays on Facebook about this, that I’m happy to share with your with our viewers today.

Chanan: Well, what’s one example? Just give me one example.

Yehuda: You know, I had this like weirdly deep conversation with this server at a restaurant, on Agrippas near Machne Yehudah. All the places I wanted to go to were closed. He was really absent-minded. I couldn’t quite figure out why a 25 year old, seemingly able-bodied, Israeli man was still working there, and I wasn’t gonna ask him like, what was wrong with you that you’re not in the army? There’s a bunch of reasons why people wouldn’t be called up, units that use obsolete technology. In some cases it’s not clear who the army actually needs right now, because there was 150% volunteerism, on top of the reserves that were called up. So there’s clearly too many people. 

And then there’s a whole bunch of people who serve in the army who are in non-combat functions who might not be called back into their units. So there’s a bunch of reasons why he wouldn’t have been there, and we had like a kind of a series of casual encounters until I was leaving, and and right before I left I kind of turned back to him, and I said, how are your people?

And he just, you could see like his physical, kind of like, it’s like he dropped, and he was like, thank you for asking. My people are basically okay. You know, all my friends are called up. And and we’re really nervous about what’s happening in the north. But we’re okay. And then he asked me, and I told him that I have relatives here, but I’m not from there, and he’s like, what are you doing here? I was like, well, I came to visit, and I can’t tell you how many people responded with this, I felt a little guilty about it, actually, this, like, we’re so happy that you’re here. Thank you for coming. 

And I was like, this is the least. This is like nothing. To show up is nothing. I don’t want accolades for having shown up. But actually, I think, in some ways, like you go to a shiva. People genuinely are happy that you came. It’s not like you changed anything, but you showed up, and we know this. Like, you can miss the wedding, but don’t miss the funeral. Don’t miss the shiva.

And I think also more than that, I think Israelis feel lonely, and sometimes you get to help them feel seen. And we had like a deep, two minute exchange. And I said to him, some version of b’sorot tovot, which is the Israeli phrase that people are using, may we hear good news. And he said it back to me, and we smiled, and I almost cried, like I cried all week, and then he was moving on to the next customers. And I don’t know, there was some, it was just a lot of poignancy in all of these little exchanges and interactions with the Israeli people while I was there. 

Chanan: I wonder if that feeling you felt there, perhaps what he felt, was just that sense of peoplehood, right? It wasn’t a transactional moment. It was a moment where you you were intending to comfort. Perhaps, perhaps not, but you felt a sense of comfort in the process.

You were there for a full week, but it really took less than 24 hours after your arrival, at which point I think you opted to write an opinion piece or an essay in the Forward, that appeared to be directed at Jewish leadership in North America, perhaps beyond.

I think it was a challenging essay for you to write, but you felt compelled to write it nonetheless. Tell those who are watching what it is that you articulated, and why you felt so compelled to write it so soon after you got there.

Yehuda: Yeah, it was explicitly directed towards American Jewish leaders in the diaspora, and I say that for two reasons. One, I guess the content was focused on them, but also becaus the many Israelis who I was talking to were not really ready for big debates and referenda on the political choices that were inevitable, and that were coming next, and I think it might have even been interpreted by some of them as like, wait, we’re still literally burying our dead and caring for our people. We’re not ready for this. 

And I was like, it’s not for you. Actually, the conversation has already shifted in America and has become, I hate to use this phrase, but I think it’s actually true, it’s become another battle ground in this war, about how Americans generally are responding, how the world community is responding. And specifically what choices Jewish leaders are going to make right now. 

And what really worried me and continues to worry me is that I think we broke new ground,  unexpected ground, or maybe we retrieved something that was deep. That we had felt was that many of us had felt was lost, which was the intrinsic sense of solidarity between Jews in different parts of the world when other Jews are suffering. 

That’s the baseline, the lowest level of what peoplehood solidarity means when you’re suffering, I grieve with you. When you’re suffering, I suffer too. And a lot of us have watched and felt as though the bonds of peoplehood have been pulled apart for a long time. And so this was like a test, when something as terrible as this happens in Israel, are American Jews going to feel the pain? And we saw that we did.

And yet I was worried that what was about to happen was American Jews were then going to, once we had finished doing whatever symbolic morning we were supposed to do, we were going to retreat back into our ideological positions around Israel, which for many liberal Jews, and I identify myself as part of this camp, is an attempt to parse between, how do I still see myself as supporting Israel, and yet move to what I think are credible liberal values, which in this case the most obvious one would have been effectively opposing Israel’s response, retaliation, whatever term you want to do. 

And it was very important at this point for me to articulate that the moral position would have been Israel’s right to retaliation, and I use the framework of a just war. That just wars, which are predicated on just causes, entitle a country to retaliate, and then, once you’ve established that parameter, then there are a whole bunch of rules, ethical considerations which go back thousands of years, but have been refined from modern military technologies and strategies, of like this is what you’re allowed to do and this is what you’re not allowed to do. 

And I really wanted American Jews, still want to, to thread that needle, of saying, Israel has the urgent right of retaliation, and here is how it’s supposed to do so. And if you want to criticize Israel, it should be on whether it adheres to the ethics of how a war has been conducted as opposed to the legitimacy of this war altogether. 

And honestly, Chanan, I felt, I basically didn’t sleep while I was there, so I had a lot of 3 A.M. hours to write, and that enabled me to be in touch with like editors in North America who were up.

I felt that there was immense amount of moral urgency right now, and I think that that’s I think it’s still true. How we talk about and relate to Israel right now is a is a is a moment of tremendous moral urgency.

Chanan: I was taken by the fact, so soon after the tragic massacres on October 7th and 8th, and then the news that continued to filter out, how soon, how quickly Israelis and her supporters and here in the United States and beyond, was so keen on talking about, yes, we appreciate everyone’s support and well wishes during this moment of tragedy. Will you stand with Israel in the next phase, in the next chapter? 

It would, but it’s like, it’s almost like a Pavlovian response, ta, almost reflecting on it from like a different time when we know sort of we know how this transpires. You know how this story kind of manifests. First there is the awful thing that happens, and then at some point there needs to be a response. And then, at some point, there’s a condemnation of it. And then, at some point, there’s additional pressure. 

The American Jewish community, I found, was just very quick within that first 24, 48 hours, talking about how important it is to sort of sustain that support throughout the duration of Israel’s response. I’m wondering to what extent Israelis felt that sense there from their American Jewish friends and family and whatnot.

Yehuda: I did find that more Israelis than I expected, and it might be a slightly skewed audience, because I tend to speak to Anglos, to people who are former Olim. They were quite attentive to the global response. They were shocked by many aspects of the global response. You know the protests, some of the protests against Israel’s actions took place before Israel retaliated, which meant, they were ready to go. 

In other words, it wasn’t actually about Israel’s actions. We know this. Oftentimes these protests are not about Israel’s actions. They’re a referendum on a much larger attitude about Israel. So they’re very sensitive to it, and they’re particularly sensitive to the images that were coming across of American Jews. 

Now, I want to be really straight about this There were a lot of images coming to Israel that last week of American Jews protesting Israel’s response, and using what I found to be totally inflammatory terminology around Israel perpetrating a genocide in Gaza, all of which is based on information and data provided by Hamas to the foreign press, and which echoes with larger theories that emerge from parts of the American Jewish left that make any Israeli actions condemned to begin with.

Israelis do see that. And one of the things I try to tell a lot of Israelis is, yes, it’s true. There were more Jews standing up in what they consider to be Pro-palestine solidarity right now than we’ve ever seen before. 1,000 people in Washington, you know 500 people in New York. But you must understand the vast majority of American Jews do not hold to those positions, and for a whole variety of reasons are not being covered by the Associated Press. 

There are more modern Orthodox teenagers in the New York City area who are coming together for rallies, they’re reciting psalms, and singing, and standing up for Israel, vastly more than are, you know, getting arrested in the Capitol in Washington. But there’s a whole bunch of reasons why the press likes that story better.

And I told my Israeli friends, please don’t be deceived by it, because it’s gonna give you a misapp misperception of what the nature of American Jewish solidarity is with Israel right now. That to me is the baseline. Helping people understand that the vast majority of American Jews are with Israel, but beyond that it has to actually move towards that kind of middle ground of folks who are supportive of Israel, but want to basically argue that the inherent moral position right now is one of ceasefire. 

And I just don’t think that that if, if the state of Israel decides that it’s in their own security, strategic, military interest to pursue a ceasefire, great. 

I also think there’s room to debate whether a ground invasion versus an aerial invasion are the right tactical moves. All of that feels fair. There’s also plenty of room to criticize. If Israel adheres to a set of military ethics and doesn’t enact them, great, there’s room to criticize. 

But to come out while Israel is figuring out its military strategic response and say that the moral position is to demand a ceasefire actually basically gives a lot of room for Israel’s enemies to to build a lot of ground in that moment, and it puts a lot of weird moral pressure on Israel to not do what is in its basic right and national interest.

Chanan: To your point, within the American Jewish community, there is definitely an overwhelming amount of support for Israel to achieve its military objectives, including the release of some 200 hostages. And you’re right, for the 300 folks on the far left those within the If Not Now crowd, who, you know, besieged the White House, and also you know protested en masse within the rotund of the Capitol, that’s going to elicit headlines. But it’s it’s not the vast majority of American Jews. 

There are also those on on the right, or wherever, who support, and Israel, and want to make sure that it does whatever it needs to do to recreate the sense of deterrence that we thought it had, to create a sense of security that we thought the country once had, and to again to release the hostages. 

They’re also, I imagine there’s some people in the ambivalent middle, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a little bit more of this over the course of time, those who agree that Hamas is a terrorist organization that must be uprooted, full stop, but are concerned about like the vacuum, and that’ll be filled, or fear another round of trauma induced by casualties that will befall Israeli sons and daughters during the ground operation, something that you know, General Petraeus called, it’ll be like Mogadishu on steroids. We’re concerned even about Palestinian innocence being killed in large numbers.

How are you thinking about folks in that mushy middle space? Have you interacted with any of them? Has it, what’s that been like?

Yehuda: Yep. Look, the people who most represent that ambivalence are Israelis, right now, right? Think about the, here’s the the vortex of the problem. Israelis go into this war deeply suspicious about their government. The overwhelming majority of Israelis have been at some point or another over the past 10 months out in the street, protesting the ethics or ineffectiveness of the government, and the perception that the government is essentially producing a tyranny of the minority and trying to produce major judicial reforms. During this time, those same folks were protesting Saturday night and sending their kids to war by Sunday night. It didn’t change their attitudes about their government. 

In fact, it’s worse than that. Many of them feel that the intelligence failures that were so manifest on October 7th, are the fault of their government, and yet they feel it’s their responsibility to suit up and fight for their country. They will, over the next few weeks and months, continue to debate, is the right way, is the right course of action, morally and militarily, to do a ground invasion or to persist with an aerial invasion? It’s pretty clear that the state of Israel hasn’t quite figured that out yet, because we thought the ground invasion was going to start a week and a half ago, and it still hasn’t.

They’re going to debate, as they are now, does a ground invasion endanger the hostages more or not? All of that feels fair, because it’s taking place within a framework of a country that still is participating in the civic act of fighting the war that its military tells them is necessary. 

So if we, as American Jews, can kind of lean into that, then our participating in those debates are a way of kind of mirroring what Israelis are going through. What I think we can’t do, what I’m pushing against, is stand on the sideline and insist against the overwhelming Israeli interest, and against the overwhelming Israeli behavior, that we know better morally how the State is supposed to respond. I think that’s the kind of condescension I’m trying to avoid.

I mean, one of the people who I spent time with last week, who I interviewed for my podcast for identity crisis is a guy named Ephi Shoham, he’s a professor of of medieval Jewish history, who spent the last 10 months being the lead organizer of the protests against judicial reform in in Israel. He runs the Jerusalem protests.

And then he turned his whole organization mobilizing against judicial reform into one of the strongest entities in Israel that’s mobilizing to support families from the South. and meanwhile 3 of his sons were called up to reserve duty. He didn’t stand there and say, because I don’t trust the Israeli Government, I will not allow my sons to fight for its wars. He was able to say, like, I can compartmentalize between what it means to be an angry citizen frustrated with my government, and a responsible citizen helping to fill in the gaps that are not there, and a loyal citizen who sends my sons to war.

I feel like that’s a kind of complexity of identity that Israelis hold in a moment like this, that, I think is a model for us as American Jews to try to be in relationship with, to hear it, and then to emulate it. 

Chanan: What is the American version of that?

Yehuda: I don’t know that I have a full picture of it. I know that that the more we talk about it, the more we can try to approximate it. I think one piece of it is like, if the only people who you’re listening to an Israel are people who already affirm your political biases, I think you have a problem. I think if the only voices you elevate on social media or elsewhere, are minority extreme voices who correlate to your vision for the world, I think you have a problem. Then you’re extracting data from Israel in order to tell a story that you find affirming. 

But if you can kind of lean into all of what you’re seeing and hearing, and then speak gently and tentatively about what it means to be in relationship to that, you know, you go to a Shiva, and people talk at you, and you’re supposed to just listen. You don’t argue with people in that place. I sat with some one who was so, who agreed to see me, and who I love. and who was so angry. So angry, was so was angry in ways that in another world, I would feel might have been a little racist. 

Angry about Palestinians, angry about Israeli policy towards Palestinians that was, in their view, too lenient. And I just kind of listened to it. And I don’t think it’s gonna alter my politics. I still believe in the importance of centering Palestinian humanity, I still ultimately believe that the safety and security of Israelis is intertwined with that of Palestinians. I ultimately believe that Israel is responsible to fight this war in a way that protects as many Palestinian civilians as possible.

But I still was able to hear her anger, and I, we have to absorb. We have to let that absorb. We have to. We have to incorporate that in part of our humanity as well. We have to make that part of the consciousness of what it means to be part of a peoplehood. You can’t simply take your lens, your moral lens, of what you want Israel to be, and insist on it counter to what Israel is and who its people are. We just can’t.

Chanan: Is that something that, I presume you fear will take place without the appropriate preparation by American Jewish leaders? I mean, you did reference how it was challenging to write that piece in the Forward. And I’m wondering, where is the potential disconnect between what you think are American Jewish leadership moral instincts, and will be required of them in the next X amount of months, and you think there’s a borne on date for that, right? Is there at any point a time in which it will require a certain degree of reevaluation?

Yehuda: I read an interesting piece a couple of days ago. I don’t actually know where it was that that described a similar dynamic taking place around 1967, of a groundswell of support for Israel, and then kind of petering out.

I do think that we, as a Jewish community, especially on the liberal end of the Jewish community, tend to have limited patience, and watching the severity of the accusation and the critiques against Israel that emerged right away, might have the effect of withering away members of the Jewish community. When we do see, and we will continue to see, immense death and destruction on the Palestinian side. Nor do I want that to like erode our humanity, that because we are persuaded that something is a just war that it’s easy to look at that and to feel okay with it. 

As you alluded to, there’s also going to just be a lot of Israeli soldiers, heaven forbid, who are actually going to get killed in the next foreseeable, based on the choices that Israel makes in the north and in the South, and it’s gonna be hard to sustain a sense of, we’re with Israel in this difficult struggle in the long run.

I don’t know what to say, I think that that’s why it’s gonna be so difficult. And what I, listen, what I love about the American Jewish community, are some of the things that right-wing Jews tend to make fun of about American Jews, that we, that we’re soft. I think it’s good. I’m proud of an American Jewish community that prioritizes justice and compassion and kindness, that tries to see humanity in all human beings. 

I don’t think I’m not trying to argue that we should suppress that instinct. I just think we have to hold that, together with the demands of solidarity and peoplehood, and the impossible challenge that the state of Israel has as a sovereign state right now. And even though it’s hard, to kind of stay in the middle of that matrix.

Chanan: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You were there during President Biden’s trip, or before, after, at what point?

Yehuda: Yeah, I was there during President Biden’s trip. 

Chanan: And what was the feeling there at the time? I mean, you talked about a certain degree of existential loneliness that Israelis feel, and I’m wondering to what extent, like some of the words, and the actions of American Government and the American Jewish community have played in in in the minds and the psyches of those you’ve spoken to while you’re there, or since. Yehuda: I mean, people have loved the way that the American administration responded. They, I think they rightly understood, like Biden, don’t like Biden, the Israel thing runs really deep for President Biden, has been an important part of his identity as a politician for 50 years, I think in some ways, I feel as an American, like this war, in this existential war in Israel, and I actually feel it’s an existential war, has fallen on the right American President, who understands what the stakes are, and who also has been able, even in spite of the fact that, like democratic administrations, have tried to achieve reconciliation with Iran, this administration has been really clear about recognizing that a good bit of the threat right now is coming from Iran, and has been willing to set aside some of those objectives in order to help prosecute this war. 

And Israelis loved the Biden trip. And I remember, he was on the ground for like 6 hours. It also didn’t have the effect that usual Presidential trips have, of shutting down the country. It didn’t, and that might have helped. 

But I think they felt seen. I think one of the strangest parts of the story that we’re seeing right now around the world is that world leaders are by and large doing what we would want them to do, some exceptions. It’s the populist stuff that isn’t. And that’s what’s tricky to reconcile. 

Chanan: The motif of 9/11, right, the tragedy that Americans in 2001, is often sort of the reflexive model that people, including the President of the United States, referenced, I think, in part, to reinforce the the great tragedy befell America. That’s closest thing that those of us alive have experienced, right? 1941 is is a long time ago. This was the greatest tragedy that had befallen Americans here on American soil, and so that comparison was made, I think, in part to provide a sense of kinship.

But it was also used in part to warn against overreach or don’t make the mistakes that we made militarily here in the United States. How has the 9/11 comparison landed for Israelis, or those you’ve been in touch with?

Yehuda: I think I don’t think 9 11 is a relevant comparison, except to the extent that you want to come up with some analogy of numbers. I mean, consider the problems here. For all of us in the northeast, 9/11, landed different than it did in other parts of the country. Our country is massive.

In Israel, the phrase from the Book of Exodus about the the plague of the firstborns is “ein bayit asher ein bo met,” there’s no house in which there wasn’t a corpse.

And that was the feeling in Israel. There was no household in Israel unaffected by what happened on October 7th. Whether it was, someone who you know was killed, and there was one degree of separation from that. Whether it was someone who you know was taken hostage, or whether it’s your children who you’re putting in line of battle, so that actually, I don’t think 9/11 was enough.

I think, for Israelis, and I would say for me, too, the combination of the proximity of this to everybody, and and the sheer brutality of it, 9/11 was brutal, but it had one mode of killing. As we hear more and more stories that come out of October 7th, the savagery and the brutality kind of surfaced a whole bunch of stuff that people don’t like talking about, like the Hamas charter. 

You know, those who wanna argue. This is about the occupation, and that’s context. Well, okay, fine. I’m happy to have a conversation about context. But let’s also talk about context like the Hamas charter. There’s so much more that that motivates this. And it’s why I gravitated towards things like pogrom language.

You know, and even so, that didn’t feel like enough. In Kishinev, most famous pogrom of our of the last 200 years, Kishinev, which actually had a paradigm shifting effect from much of world Jewry to support Zionism, 49 people died in Kishenev. So to map that onto something like 1,400 people, is like unfathomable. 

So I don’t think 9/11 did enough. I think, for Americans, especially those who want to oppose military invasion. They want to look to 9/11 to say, look, you’re being triggered and traumatized, and you’re going to make terrible military decisions as a result. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on for the Jewish people.

Chanan: Let’s go to some of the the questions of our listeners, and I appreciate everyone listening in, and those who have asked questions, I’m going to share a few, Janice Allen writes, “There has unfortunately been a growing rift between diaspora and Israeli Jews. Is your sense that this current combat will encourage more solidarity for longer than a fleeting moment?”

Yehuda: I mean, yeah, we talked about this a little bit earlier. This is what I’m this is exactly what I’m I’m hopeful about and worried about. I think it was relatively easy, and I say that kind of heartbreakingly in the, in the immediate aftermath of October 7th, to see the kind of solidarity emerge from a vast majority of American Jews. I think there was an awareness that a line had been crossed and something dramatic had happened. 

I think it will be very hard to sustain that solidarity across a prolonged multi-year war that said, this may sound a little perverse, but if, indeed, a northern front of the war opens up, if, indeed, Iran continues to arm Houthi rebels in Yemen to fire missiles across the Red Sea, which the United States keeps intercepting, maybe it will become obvious to more American Jews that the war is not with the Palestinian people.

It’s with a segment of a kind of radical extremism that is present throughout the region that seeks the existential destruction of the state of Israel, and if people warm their heads around that, they’ll start recognizing that to stand with Israel right now is not to support whatever military tactical policy, it’s certainly not to support occupation, but it is to essentially support the Jewish state. 

So that’s where I think the pressure is going to lie. If that doesn’t happen. And Israel has to trudge through a very painful, very costly ground invasion for a long period of time that begins to resemble occupation, think that we are at risk in our community to see further erosion of American Jewish attitudes in relationship to Israel.

Chanan: This next question, how do you suggest a compelling way to explain to left-wing American audience that Hamas should bear some of the responsibility for the plight of Palestinians in Gaza? That was from Howard Lupovitch. But Diana Fau mentioned, and I haven’t seen this in the news, but I’m sure it’s there. “Last night, the Richmond City Council in California passed a a pro-Palestine resolution, accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing. What are your thoughts about this and about other organizations like Black Lives Matter, using terms like genocide, and free Palestine?” I think if I can add a corollary to it. There are a lot of organizations within the American Jewish landscape, including those who are in in coalition with other organizations, who are gonna likely have to reevaluate the nature of the allyship, how that manifests. How would you encourage those organizations to think about this moment?

Yehuda: So a lot of pieces to that question, Chanan. It’s a really hard one. Part of me feels as though one way to think about what’s taking place is that there’s a multi front war. And one of the places where that war is taking place is ideologically, online, and in parts of American politics, and to treat it that way, and to acknowledge that Israel might lose that war. And that will be okay.

Yehuda: Israel can’t lose the war against Hamas, it cannot lose war against Hezbollah, and it can’t lose a war against its worst demons of what it might do in retaliation. Those are wars it cannot lose.

But some of these ideological battles against parts of the left, it might lose online. And that’s okay. What the pro-Hamas team can do online versus what pro-Israel can do online are different. And that might have to be okay. 

But I think there’s a more serious question here which is about alliances and allegiances that align with priorities that the American Jewish community does rightly consider to be important. I do think the fact that, like segments of the racial justice community are saying unfathomably terrible things about the state of Israel, about the Jewish people. I don’t feel that it makes me want to become a racist.

I feel that like, my alliances and allegiances with particular organizations and networks need to be reevaluated. I think that’s okay. I’ve always held to this position. It was put forward by the philosopher Avishai Margalit, which is, we should always be the types of people who are seeking compromise, up until the point where it’s a rotten compromise

And rotten, his best example of a rotten compromise is Neville Chamberlain. You took the idea of compromise too far, that you were ultimately partnering with people who were seeking the world’s destruction.

What that doesn’t mean, however, is that because you’re so fearful of the rotten compromise you wind up, never building alliances or allegiances with people because you’re scared that they’re gonna turn rotten.

So there’s a little bit of clarity in a moment like this. And it’s okay for the JCRC in Boston to recognize, you know what, this partner organization has decided to partner with Jewish Voice for Peace, we’re kicking him out of our network. We’re not shutting the network down. We’re merely saying we’ve reached a place where we think that being in relationship with this group is a rotten compromise.

That’s our means of re-articulating the values that we’re committed to, and and using a moment like this as a moment of clarity. And I think a little bit of what’s taking place right now is the American Jewish community standing up for its own dignity. I think for a long time, it was precisely because we have a lot of ambivalence about Israeli government and Israeli policy, that we weren’t sure how hard to draw the line in terms of our relationship with allies who are also critical of the Israeli government and Israeli policy, but maybe a little bit more than we’d like. 

And now we found the line. Now it became a rotten compromise, and we said, we no longer want to be in relationship with you. There’s 2 things I don’t want to have happen. I don’t want conservatives to now be dunking on liberals. Haha, you fools! All of these things that you committed to for a long time, look how wrong they were! 

I want to tell you, to the Conservatives out there, that it’s going to be a losing strategy, because Liberals will ultimately say, well, I don’t want to hang out with you, either. You’re not going to really come to your team. I think that’s a losing strategy, and I think the other thing I don’t want to do is to give up on our moral commitments, whatever they are, in spite of the fact that some of our fellow actors and fellow travelers who are committed to those moral commitments have demonstrated themselves to not be our friends. 

We’re just going to have to be a little bit more lonely, holding on to our commitments, and drawing the line of which allies we no longer want to have.

Chanan: To that end, Sarah Dobner asked some variation of, should American Jews ally more strongly with the Israeli left?

Your thoughts on, what’s the nature in the current moment?

Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, I mean, basically, yes, I would love. One of the populations of people who have felt most alienated in the past month have been Israelis who identify as part of what you might call the Zionist left, who can’t understand for the life of them why the global left is acting the way it is? Since when does the global left endorse Islamic fundamentalism? Since when does the global left endorse mass rape? 

It’s like completely deranged. And even if you want to argue well, you know, it doesn’t look good, but an oppressed people has the right to resistance, it becomes incoherent instantly the minute that you actually look at what’s actually transpired on October 7th. 

So a lot of those folks really feel lost and betrayed by the global story right now. And I do think that there’s significant opportunity for American Jews, who care deeply about Israel, about Jewish peoplehood, who care a lot about liberal values, who wanna retain their capacity to advocate for human rights, for Israelis and Palestinians, for the end of occupation, to challenge the you know the Israeli Government.

Listen, nobody is angrier right now, in the world, at the Israeli Government, than the majority of Israelis. But there’s a way in which that anger can be expressed through empathy for Israelis as opposed to a way that it actually gets weaponized against Israelis and their interests right now.

I think that that there’s huge opportunity there. It’s gonna require of American Jews to figure out who to follow and maybe to learn some Hebrew.

Chanan: And to learn some Hebrew, I think that’s a great recommendation. Listen, we did hear throughout the summer, right the Israeli military brass making arguments that their readiness is suffering. Nasrallah, I think, said at some point, some variation of you know, Israel is at its weakest point. 

So this notion of frustration with the Israeli government by the Israeli people, it’s an interesting one for us to take into account here on the American Jewish side. 

We have like about a minute or two left. I’m gonna ask one or two more questions. Anonymous said, “Given the heartfelt concern that many individuals, including many Israelis, have for the Palestinians living in Gaza, can such dual concern for Israeli and Gaza citizens, accelerate the path to a Tuesday solution as a key part of a post-Hamas Gaza?”

Yehuda: If Israel can genuinely get to a place where there’s a post-Hamas Gaza. Maybe. I don’t see this particular government having the creativity, the Israeli Government, having the creativity or the will to recognize that maybe now is the is the time to lean in to building a stronger relationship with Palestinian Authority and Palestinians on the West Bank. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of trending away from that. 

You know, this is the problem with the right, right now. We’ve talked a lot about the left, the problem with the Israeli right is that the Israeli right is using this as an opportunity to say, look our war is with the Palestinian people, and therefore entrenching a bunch of bad behaviors, whether it’s settler violence, whether it’s Itamar Ben Gvir issuing gun permits indiscriminately to more and more Israelis, those are all a bunch of patterns of behavior that will will make the situation dramatically worse. 

I would love to see a more inspired government at this moment, say, since our war is not with the Palestinian people. We’re going to now build bridges, even as we fight the war with Hamas, who are our enemies. We’re going to build bridges with those sectors, the Palestinian people that we see as vital for the future of this region and even build up towards political viability. It’s just, it’s not forthcoming.

Chanan: Final question, Yehuda. You’ve written in the past a book called Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past. Curious how, it’s impossible to prognosticate, I’m mindful of that. But I’m curious, now, on day 19, after this horrific massacre, how you think we in the Jewish community, either in the United States and Israel throughout, will sort of embed our recollections or our memory of October 7th from here on out?

Yehuda: Yeah, I talked before about why I don’t think 9/11 is the right template. I think, for Israelis, this is the Yom Kippur War, and it’s not a coincidence that took place 50 years and a day following the Yom Kippur War. My suspicion is that it was timed for October 6th, and then there was something happened. 

Either the fact that they realized it was going to be a holiday the following day, and therefore take advantage of that or the fact that Israel moved its troops on October 6th, away from the southern border and to the West Bank, they said, we’re going to wait a day till that happens. So if Hamas knows that it’s timing itself to the Yom Kippur War, maybe we could recognize that we’re part of the same liturgical history. 

This is a little bit lost on American Jews. There hasn’t yet, I think, been a great English language book, written about the depths of the trauma of the Yom Kippur War in Israeli society, but I know plenty of Israelis for whom the Yom Kippur War is alive and well. It was the day in which they felt most vulnerable, and for this generation of Israeli Jews, October 7th, is the day in which they felt most vulnerable. 

I heard Israelis talking about how they feel fortunate that if this had happened together with a Hezbollah invasion the same day, and an uprising across the West Bank, the State of Israel could have been under foreign control for 2 weeks. 

I mean, the military was truly unprepared, so it evokes a lot of that it evokes some of the questions about what his leadership looked like, and preparedness looked like. So it’s bringing back that story.

The only thing I could say positively or optimistically, is that one of the things that the Yom Kippur War gave pathway to was that within 5 years after the Yom Kippur War, Israel had a peace agreement with the Egyptians. So on one hand, it’s a moment of immense trauma that is embedded in the Israeli Psyche. And fear and risk about what’s lost. 

And, on the other hand, it’s a moment when Israeli society says to itself, where are the ways that we might actually create a different future for ourselves.

And you know, I’m extremely sad, and I’m extremely nervous, about my people in Israel and the future of Israel. I’m extremely fearful that when you have a trauma like this, it also invites the worst demons of your people and your story to do the things that you don’t want the state of Israel to do, or the Jewish people to be responsible for.

And I’m really hopeful that, in ways that we’ve done in the past, we can both hold on to the depths of our trauma in our memory. That’s what we do. And also figure out the ways that those traumas don’t merely command us to hold on to that vulnerability, but actually obligate us to build an alternative world.

Chanan: Thank you, Yehuda. And of course, the American Jewish community is going to have an important important voice in sort of maintaining that.

I appreciate your your time, your wisdom, your expressions of thought about what transpired while you’re in Israel. And I think for those who are on the call, feel free to go to We have a series of essays that we’re producing on a weekly basis. Rabbi David Wolpe, we published one of his essays today. 

This is a time where we have to make sure that we collectively pass the test of Jewish solidarity, as Yehuda wrote about in his piece in the Forward. And Yehuda, I appreciate you helping us show the light on how best to do that. Thank you all for joining us, and everyone be safe.

Yehuda: Thank you.

Maital: Thanks for listening to our show, and special thanks to Chanan Weissman and the SAPIR Institute for hosting this conversation. 

Identity Crisis is produced by M. Louis Gordon, and me, Maital Freidman, with assistance from Sam Balough and Tessa Zitter. This episode was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC, and our music is provided by Socalled. 

For more ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute about what’s unfolding right now, sign up for our newsletter in the shownotes, or visit

We’re always looking for ideas for what we should cover in future episodes, so if you have a topic you’d like to hear about, or if you have comments about this episode, please write to us at [email protected]. See you next week, and thanks for listening. 

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