No. 35: An Israeli Pre-Emptive Strike on Iran?

The following is a transcript of Episode 35 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel Hartman: My name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Today’s Monday, October 25th, 2021. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project. Our theme for today is defending Israel after the attack on Iran.

Let’s take a breath and pause for a moment and adjust and even psychologically assimilate the enormity of the issue on the table.

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

Let’s begin. As Iran approaches the nuclear threshold and the negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 are at a standstill, the language in Israel is changing. And Israeli leaders are increasingly vocal in warning of an approaching Israeli military strike. We’ve been talking about this for 15 years, but I’m telling you my friends, something now is different.

Something is happening. Just the other day, Finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman said that the issue is no longer if, but when Israel will attack and that the when will be sooner than later. The IDF has requested a special allocation and received $1.5 billion to support a strike against Iran. And there are constant reports of training exercises being conducted by the air force.

This military operation will undoubtedly be the most complex in Israel’s history with unprecedented military and political consequences. Let’s talk about them for a moment. On an operational level we don’t know if the attack will be successful and what will be the collateral consequences thereof the attack within Iran and Iranian civilians. Beyond the operation itself in the coming months, Israel may well find itself fighting a multi-front war against Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas and the unthinkable reality in which our towns and cities will be bombarded with tens of thousands of missiles and rockets.

The threats from Iran have been explicit. This military escalation may force also other countries, principally America into a war, which it did not want to wage. On the political front, the attack may lead to a new realignment within Middle Eastern countries with Israel joining the Sunni majority. It may also unite Sunni and Shiite against Israel.

The Arab street would explode into a popular uprising against governments who dare to support the attack. All these questions and issues are critical, an outline, a dramatic shift in the world as we know it. But that’s not what we want to talk about today. We want to put it on the table and it is a context, but that’s not the central focus of our discussion.

We want to talk about the consequences of the attack on the way Israel is viewed and most principally on our relationship with Jews and liberal supporters in the West. While the Israeli army is engaged in preparations we also need to begin to prepare the grounds for talking, and I believe if necessary, how do we defend Israel from major and potentially devastating criticisms and calls for sanctions.

The latest operation in Gaza has taught us that in many circles, Israel’s resorting to military forces deemed to be deeply problematic with Israel carrying the reputation as a country that uses its military power as a first resort, choosing military solutions over political ones. Israel’s rejection of the previous nuclear deal with Iran will be used as precisely a case in point.

An attack on Iran will make the prior discourse around Gaza pale in comparison. Is a preemptive attack against Iranian nuclear facilities beyond Israel’s legitimate realm of options and use of its power? How do we think about it and then frame and talk about such an attack? What are the ethical arguments for the strike for and against it?

Is a preemptive attack against the potential nuclear Iran an act of self-defense? What are the limits of power and when is it essential for a country to use its power? But before we begin, I want to, again, state that it’s important for all of us to put on the table and to recognize that we’re talking about a subject that may involve a dramatic shift in our world, at least Israel’s world, as we know it.

I hope I’m wasting all of your time and that it will turn out that we have been unnecessarily concerned. But we may not be wasting your time. And because of our concern, we feel responsible to talk about it. This podcast is about talking about the unthinkable, which unfortunately may become a reality in the near future.

I recognize that since it is before the event, we can talk about it calmly, but I’m aware of the fact that this calmness is disconcerting. As an Israeli, I’ve been trained to function in the midst of life and death events, but at the same time, we know that we are all deeply scarred because of this training. Nevertheless, it helps us function and get through the day.

Today’s podcast is less about clearly articulated positions and more about the beginning of the necessary process of talking and adjusting to what should be unthinkable, but unfortunately probably is not. Please don’t interpret the calmness of our discussion as callousness about the consequences of an Israeli attack on Israel, Iran, the whole Middle East, and your lives as well. It’s simply about trying to imagine functioning in a new unthinkable reality.

Yossi, it’s great being with you and nice to see you. This is a very unprecedented – unprecedented is a word we often use, but this is really going to be unprecedented. And at the outset I spoke about, defending Israel after the attack at Iran. And in many ways, I’m assuming that the attack, it’s not if, it’s just when, so there’s a heaviness to this conversation. The attack is coming.

I feel it. Let’s start with the first and most obvious question, even though it’s not up to us. But nevertheless, do you believe Israel should attack despite all the uncertain consequences that I outlined beforehand?

Yossi Klein Halevi: You know, Donniel, this has been an obsession of mine for at least 15 years. I started writing about this about 15 years ago, advocating the most hard-line possible on Iran, which is that under no circumstances, can we allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state. Not just do we need to prevent Iran from actually making a bomb.

We can’t allow Iran to be in a position where it can make a bomb. And that, by the way, is, is one of the major differences between the Israeli position and the American position. Do we oppose Iran reaching threshold status or actually making a bomb? So for me, threshold status has been, as we say, in Hebrew, yehareg v’al ya’avor. The ultimate red line. And the consequences of in Israeli attack on Iran now that we’re getting close to it, I have real palpitations in my sleep.

And the consequences are so potentially devastating, first of all, for Israel, but also for the region, for the world, that it seems to me, there can only be one justification for an attack. And that is if this is truly an existential moment.

Otherwise, we should not do this. If this is just an issue of one more policy, matter of security. Absolutely not. But I’m convinced as much as I was from the beginning of this debate, that this is a “never again” moment for Israel. And I’m with you, Donniel, in the need to be very careful about bringing out the ultimate weapon which is the Holocaust.

I’m very wary of Holocaust analogies. But for me, this is a “never again” moment. And that’s been true for Israeli policymakers since Yitzhak Rabin. I think this is really important for the case that we need to make. This is not Netanyahu’s case.

It’s true that Netanyahu has become totally identified with this issue. But the Israeli leader who put the existential Iranian threat on the table was actually Rabin. And he did it in 1993. And I remember reading an interview with him right after the Oslo peace agreements were signed and he said, look, the Palestinians are not an existential threat to Israel.

My goal, Rabin was saying, my goal is to neutralize what he defined as the inner circle of threat around Israel: Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinians. He said the inner circle is not an existential threat. The real existential threat to Israel will be Iran. I want to make peace, I want to neutralize the inner circle in order to concentrate on the outer circle. And it was Rabin who bought the Air Force’s first long-distance bomber planes which were known in the 1990s in the air force as Israel’s Tehran fleet. And this is all going back to Rabin. And so there’s been a consistently in Israel since the early nineties defining a nuclear Iran as an existential threat.

And this is now the moment.

Donniel Hartman: Yossi, we’re very different, not in our values and very often not where we end up, but in the path that we take. Iran didn’t bother me for a long time. I also supported the 2015 deal. In general, where negotiations are possible I’ll always prefer them. Not simply because I trust them more. Because I know that once the shooting starts, you don’t control it.

The idea that things are going to be this surgical and tidy thing, or the Six-Day War. We haven’t had another Six-Day War. We can’t even deal with Hamas in Gaza in a simple way. We can’t.

So this notion of everything being surgical and the army going in – it’s just doesn’t work that way.

Yossi Klein Halevi: And this will definitely not be that.

Donniel Hartman: Oh, I could see in the background, I remember what was it? Carter’s helicopters came to take the hostages out of Tehran and they didn’t know about the sand storms. Like we all know that with all of our bravado and language about Israel – you and I – we were in the army. Something’s going to hit the fan and it invariably does. And so it’s not simple. And so with all the dangers, I always prefer another option with all of its hesitations. More than that, Yossi, I feel that Israel has to learn how to live with existential threats. I grew up in an Israel where existential threats were part of what we lived with all the time.

Way before Iran. Syria, Egypt, never Jordan. We had existential threats since the moment I made Aliyah. So I feel that Israel, welcome to the world. You want to live without existential threats?

Well, the complexity of Israel is that we have to live with existential threats.  Get used to it. I remember Netanyahu would speak about Iran bombing and Israelis would still go out to cafes. You know, we go to cafes in the midst of existential threats. That said I’m also beginning to feel that this is different.

Yossi Klein Halevi: Why?

Donniel Hartman: I don’t know. There’s an existential threat that if I’m wrong, we’re gone. There’s no room for error here. There are dangers, existential dangers, that they’re on a spectrum. So it is an existential danger, but just like the ‘73 war, there’s an existential threat of tanks and until they come and reach –  they can’t pass this point. There are so many places for you to marshal your forces to regroup. This is one where we’re getting it wrong, that’s it. And maybe as I begin to think about this, and we’re going to now get into how do we talk about this and what are the moral consequences? What happens when there is no room for error? No room. This is zero room. To not take seriously what Iranian leadership has been saying for decades and to give them a weapon to implement or for them to be able to sneak it into Hezbollah or whoever. There’s no room for error here.

And so with all my trepidation and my suspicion, and I want to tell you, Yossi, I also have a gut feeling and I don’t want to be prophetic. I don’t know what’s going to happen. And I don’t know if Israel has the – I wish we didn’t have to do it alone. I really do, but I can’t put this on somebody else. That we can’t do.

I really wish that we didn’t have to do this because there are other people who have the capacity to do it in a far more significant manner with repercussions, which would be much less significant for the whole Middle East. But at this point, I find myself coming to you because what am I supposed to do?

And I know that when we’re going to act, we’re going to be unleashing things that I can’t control. But at the end of the day, if we are wrong about a nuclear Iran, it’s over. And so I think part of the whole moral conversation changes around that conversation. And it is an unbelievably heavyweight. You and I, we could talk about it, but at the end of the day, we’re not the ones who make the decision.

But that’s where I find myself today. Coming around to where you’ve been for a very long time,

Yossi Klein Halevi: I so much appreciate the weightiness of your comments. And it challenges me as someone who’s been advocating a hard-line all these years to come up with deeper reasons. And listening to you two things occurred to me. The first is that we will recover from a preemptive strike that goes wrong.

Even if it goes disastrously wrong. That will not end the state of Israel. But, as you put it, if we’re wrong, about the seriousness of the Iranian regime and a nuclear weapon really does become existential, there’s no recovering from that. And so when we weigh those choices, everything that we know about existential threats points us in one direction.

And that’s why I think there’s been unanimity from every Israeli government since Rabin. And I keep coming back to that Donniel because I think it’s one of our strongest arguments and we don’t make it.

We don’t explain ourselves to world Jewry and to the world. This has been a consistent Israeli policy for 25 years.

Donniel Hartman: But it wasn’t exactly because some of Israelis, including leaders in the military and security establishment, were against Israel attacking Iran many years ago. It’s only after 2015 that there is a general consensus that Iran has been using the deal to amass and bypass to go on with their long-term plan.

And we stole all these documents and we actually read them as distinct from everybody else and take them very seriously that Iran never really gave up the nuclear option. But it wasn’t always the case. I think what’s changed it now, and I think part of the narrative and the discourse, is that there is another option, but right now that option has failed.

Now it is going to hurt us by the way, some people are going to say, well that’s because Trump pulled back on the deal and so Iran did. How do you bypass some of that? And remember this is what’s most frustrating as we talk about this today. And I want to begin to shift to: how do we begin to prepare as a people?

I want to use very straight language. How do we defend this? Facts. We don’t have facts. It could be that the facts are that maybe the old deal would have worked even though it had a timeline to it, which, who knows? Is it the fact that Iran was already at the threshold? Was it because of the Trump pullback?

How do we begin to defend this process?

Yossi Klein Halevi: Okay. So first of all, I think we need to not be arguing with the past. I was a vehement opponent, as you know of the 2015 agreement. I’m not interested in revisiting that argument. I’m not interested in arguing whether Trump and Netanyahu were right or wrong in pulling out of the deal.

Those questions are irrelevant. Now it’s only one relevant question. Does Israel have a choice? Now, honestly, I think that if you polled the security establishment, you would find a not insignificant number of high-ranking people who would say that it’s better to live with a nuclear Iran than to risk this attack.

There are those voices. My sense is that they are the minority, but a not-insignificant minority. And so that’s an argument that we have to respect and we have to contend with. My response is that, first of all, you talk about living with existential threats as an ongoing reality.

The truth is that yes when you made Aliyah in the early seventies we still had one more existential threat that we were facing, which was Yom Kippur 1973. And even that is debatable, whether it was really an existential threat or not, but certainly not since then, have we lived with existential threat.

That’s almost 50 years. And frankly, I’m not willing to return to that state of vulnerability – physical and psychological vulnerability. One of the great successes of Israel, and we’ve talked about this Donniel on previous podcasts is that we managed to transform existential threat into, let’s call it, mere vulnerability.

Israel is vulnerable, but we’re not victims. We’re not potential victims. It’s not the 1930s. I’m not willing to go back there. And one of the reasons why I so much opposed Netanyahu’s language on defining the Iranian nuclear threat as a 1930s threat is because it takes away our agency.

[We are able to preempt that threat. And so it isn’t the 1930s.

Donniel Hartman: Let’s talk about agency for a second. If we were a superpower, it would be easy. And this is part of the complexity of this whole issue. Superpowers: United States, Russia. They regularly use their military power to engage in preemptive strikes. That’s what they do. And these preemptive engagements are to protect their interests.

Sometimes they couch it in moral terms, weapons of mass destruction. They’re my interests, my critical interests, but they see ordering the world as their business. And as a result, what qualifies as a just war for a superpower is very different than what qualifies as a just war for the rest of us.

We’re not in the world reorganizing business. We’re not, and maybe it’s just morally duplicitous. It could be. Maybe it’s also a recognition of the moral limitations of our power which superpowers have less of the limitations of. Let’s delve in. The definition of a just war is a war of self-defense.

How far can you stretch the language of pre-emptiveness and still call it a war of self-defense because this is going to be the frontline? Because what are people going to say? They’re going to look at us and say, there goes Israel again. And let’s say, hopefully, this was successful.

Let’s give the best-case scenario. Best case scenario is we wipe out and give Israel, I don’t know, three, four years before they rebuild their weapons. I don’t know. A number of years until they can rebuild again because no amount of bombs could remove the knowledge base that a country has.

So let’s say we delay it. While that’s a great success. All the pilots come back, medals, etc. At the same time, Hezbollah and others will start attacking with missiles. It’s going to get messy. All of the above. But with all of that, let’s say that’s the best-case scenario. The best-case scenario is a multi-front war as a result of a successful operation.

And hopefully, our Sunni allies will come with us. But around that, there’s going to be real questions. We’ll have killed Iranians. There’ll be numerous casualties. This is going to be a very difficult place for quite a while. We don’t even have a clue.

And that’s the best-case scenario. In order to justify that you have to have a strong claim of the moral legitimacy of using this power because it is preemptive and the consequences aren’t clear. So how do we go about articulating the legitimacy of this preemptive attack?

Yossi Klein Halevi: So Donniel, there are two basic strategic arguments against a nuclear Iran. And each of those arguments leads us to a potentially different moral conclusion. The first is that Iran may be serious about using the bomb against us. They really may take their apocalyptic religious scenarios seriously.

And that’s the ultimate strategic argument, but there’s a second strategic argument, which puts us, I’d say, in a more moral gray area. And that is that a nuclear Iran may not be an existential threat in the sense that they will use the bomb, but the very fact that they have the bomb means that we’re no longer the regional power anymore.

And it means that anytime that we face threats from our neighbors, rocket attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah we’re going to have to think 20 times before responding because there is the shadow of a nuclear threat. In other words, a nuclear Iran will strip Israel of its status as the regional. And that will have very serious consequences on our ability to defend ourselves, but that might not be existential.

Donniel Hartman: So, Yossi, I want to disagree with you here for a moment and then give you a chance to come back to have the last word. I think the distinction you’re making is actually going to be a foundation for great danger for Israel. See, losing our status as the regional power, you don’t get to bomb Iran to preserve your regional power.

Yossi Klein Halevi: This is what I’m saying, Donniel.

Donniel Hartman: So we’re actually agreeing!

Yossi Klein Halevi: Yes, yes. I’m saying –

Donniel Hartman: Oh, I thought we found a disagreement. I was celebrating.

Yossi Klein Halevi: These are two very different arguments, but these are the two main arguments that you hear when you speak to Israeli strategic planners.

Donniel Hartman: I hear you. I got you. So like here, if I would speak to our audience, I would say, we are potentially going to be facing many fronts, including a front of profound criticism and discussion. And we’re going to have to come back and deal with this –  to push, what does this mean? And how do we respond?

I think one of my most important pieces of advice to our, and this is for myself and for others, is first self-defense cannot begin after somebody shoots at you. To limit it to that alone is to create an impossible reality for any country to survive. You can’t. And the Six-Day War, by the way, was the classic example of a moral preemptive war.

Donniel Hartman: How many things does a person have to do, have to say, in preparing for something, in developing the missiles, in declaring their interest, in using them that you’re allowed to take somebody’s word seriously. So the idea that preemptiveness is a legitimate expression of self-defense I think is really, really important.

And I think we have to spend some time talking about that. To always wait for them, as if you’re in a Western, the person has to draw first –  that’s suicide. We can’t live that way. But at the same time, we have to understand that there are groups of people who we have to shut out.

For those people for whom any power that its real uses is by definition illegitimate, who have an already scripted trope. “Israel is the war criminal.” But in many ways, we’re going to have to learn how to insulate ourselves. And we’re going to have to find within our community and within the American community those people who understand, That if the danger is not this second, it is not illegitimate. That I may have to bomb Iran in order to preserve my status.

We are reaching a moment that if we’re wrong, the whole story is over. And that will require, some preemptive attack where the end goal is to give maybe a number of years for a diplomatic process. Because at the end of the day we can’t deal with Iran the way we deal with Hamas.

Okay. Build your missiles. When it gets too bad, we’re going to fire at you and hopefully have some balance. It’s just not going to work. We’re going to have to stop this. And at the end, the purpose of the bombing is to enable some other process to emerge. But that language, if I can’t make a mistake here and therefore this level of preemptive is an essential part of self-defense. I think these are critical things to add to the conversation. Before we turn to Elana, Yossi, is there anything you want to add?

Yossi Klein Halevi: Yeah, I think that what you’re saying Donniel is the foundation for Israel’s preemptive doctrine. And this doctrine begins in June ‘67, the Six-Day War. It continues through the bombing of the Iraq nuclear reactor in 1981 and then continues further to the bombing of the Syrian reactor in 2007.

And this is really in some ways the ultimate expression of the doctrine.

Donniel Hartman: As you’re saying it, the reality is, is that Israel is already engaged in a preemptive attack against Iran. We see it in the newspapers all the time. I know it’s only foreign sources are the ones we have to count on. Because what we’re doing in Syria there – I’m feeling here the weight of sovereignty.

Sovereignty is this tremendous gift, but we have someone who says openly, I want you off the face of the earth. The weight of that is terrible. But at the end of the day, I don’t think we have the ability to just say, okay, it’s terrifying. I’ll think about it tomorrow.

It’s something that’s going to require of us some serious action. Let’s take a short break. And when we return, Elana will join us.


Elana, it’s great to be with you. Here it is. We’re talking about Iran and we’re trying to think about the moral challenges, the conceptual value challenges. How do we fortify our community? And in that sense, I’d love to hear sources, that you have to deepen our thinking knowing fully well that it’s not like we’re turning to the portion of the week to justify this or that policy.

We’re not talking about justifying a policy, we’re talking about trying to understand it more deeply. Come on in.

Elana Stein Hain: Yeah. It’s interesting. As the two of you were talking, I was thinking about, you know, Moshe, Halbertal’s most recent book that was just translated into English, called The Birth of Doubt. And what he’s talking about is there is the role of doubt in the rabbinic legal imagination. Safek.

And he points out in his introduction before we get to any primary sources, but he points out in his introduction that the rabbis don’t deal with doubt in only one way. What generally determines what to do when you’re uncertain is what’s at stake if you’re wrong. And I really heard that in the way that you were talking both in the sense that both of you were saying, we’d be taking a gamble by attacking Iran, but if we’re wrong and we don’t attack them and they get to the threshold, and this is really existential for us, this is do or die.

The sources that I want to bring to bear today are just the question of what it means to go to war.

So want to start with something that I think is a really important ethical stance. And I think it’s really hard sometimes to remember that this is an ethical stance. And there are many versions of it in rabbinic literature. I’m using the one that comes from what’s called Midrash Zuta and it’s on Ecclesiastes, Kohelet Section 7.

And maybe we’ll try to post it with the show notes. Resh Lakish said “all who are merciful upon those who are cruel, eventually become cruel towards those who are merciful.” So right out of the gate, we are concerned about what happens when people lose their sense of boundaries. They lose their sense of being able to characterize who is acting cruel and who is acting mercifully.

And this saying continues to try to figure out, well, where do we learn this from that people who are merciful to those who are cruel, eventually become cruel to those who are merciful. We learn it from King Saul, from King Shaul. And it’s about to describe two different scenes.

One scene, on the one hand, this Midrash, this passage says, the Bible says that Saul and the people had pity on King Agog who was the king of the Amalekites. They were supposed to destroy all the Amalekites and they decided to keep the leader alive, meaning they were willing to kill everybody else. But where did they become really merciful? When it came to the king. Literally the lead butcher. That’s the guy you leave alive? They’re willing to kill everybody else, but where do they become merciful? Actually to the lead butcher?

Right? So the one hand saw is all-merciful to the lead butcher here, but then you have another scenario in his life where Saul kills a full city of priests called the city of Nov. That in the city of Nov in Samuel I chapter 15, he’s not able to find any mercy for an entire city of priests.

Literally, priests are the definition of those who are merciful. So this aphorism, I think, is very relevant here just to start. The idea that it is actually okay to say that there are people who are cruel. There are people who are making themselves out to be the villain. And when someone is making themselves out to be the villain, you dare not treat them with mercy because it literally skews your entire view of what the world is about.

And I know that we’re not into good and evil and we’re all into where people come from and why our stories are what they are. And so am I. But when you’re threatening to wipe another country off the map, you’ve become achzari. You have become cruel and that needs to be responded to, but it’s not just that you’re going to lose your sense of what’s what. What I like about this version in the rabbinic canon is that there’s another line, which is, “and the rabbis say, anyone who is merciful to those who are cruel, they themselves, those who are merciful will be struck down by the attribute of justice.” In other words, if you’re unwilling to do justice, you’re going to get yourself into trouble.

And this is why soul dies in a war with the Philistines later because he was unwilling to mete out justice. And when you’re unwilling to mete out justice you’re dragged into it one way or another. So that’s the first thing that I think that we need to actually, it’s sad and it’s unfortunate, but we need to be comfortable.

I know that American rhetoric in the mid 20th century, it’s like, there’s good and there’s evil, there’s the Soviets and then there’s us. And we don’t want something like that. We don’t want a totalizing of good and evil, but where there’s actual achzariut, where there’s actual cruelty. It needs to be responded to. That’s real.

But I would have a very big problem. And I do have a very big problem when that idea of meeting cruelty with a sense of justice erases our understanding that war is bad. War is bad. It is by definition, bad. It is bad for everyone. It is bad for those who engage in it. It is bad for those who suffer from it. It is bad.

And so I want to put on the table, can we internalize the idea that you have to do justice against those who come up as cruel, but on the other hand, there’s another principle that we must remember and be willing to talk about at the same time. And I see this not like the two of you. You have been in war and I have no idea how I would feel if I was there, but Deuteronomy 23:10, there’s this gorgeous little verse.

“When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on guard against anything untoward” Against anything bad. What do you mean when you go out to war against your enemies? You’re about to be involved in the worst thing and Nahmanides writes, he says, why do we have this verse here? When you go out to war against your enemies, you should be on guard against anything bad, because he says the fairest of people, the kindest, the best, the most upright person by nature comes to be possessive, cruelty and fury when the army advances against the enemy. So scripture warns in those moments, you have to be careful and keep yourself from every evil. Now, how do you internalize both of these at the same time even as it feels like they undercut each other?

And I want to say the only way that you can wage war as a moral actor is not only the justification for the war but the ability to speak during the war before the war, after the war about the very real tolls, the very real cost of war of what it does to the psyche and what it does to real human beings who die as a result on both sides.

So I want to just start with that. And I think that in the American Jewish community, we have a very, very hard time talking about both of these it’s like one or the other. It’s not just the American Jewish community, it’s America in a liberal fashion. It’s one or the other. And think that’s deeply problematic ethically. I think it’s deeply problematic.

Donniel Hartman: You know, Elana, first off thank you. I really appreciate it. And I feel that one of the difficulties we’re going to face when we attack Iran is that we haven’t made sufficiently, as I argued in other podcasts, the case of the problematics of power. And, I think in particular in Judea and Samaria and Palestinians, it’s so easy. I think here, if I have any doubts it’s the unbelievable doubts that accompany potential failure. And no one here is interested in my military analysis of success and failure or Yossi’s. It’s so way beyond our pay grade. It’s not even funny.

In this case and I think this has to be part of the storyline, was there anybody we could have talked to? I don’t think so. Was there anything else that we could have done? I really don’t think so. But I think that what you’re saying is really important that unless we embrace both, we’re not going to be able to make a claim for the legitimacy of the moral use of power. We have to embrace both. And in this case say, as you said at the beginning, I do have doubts, but I want to know what the potential consequences are. And here, when can I not afford to make a mistake? Yes, Elana.

Elana Stein Hain: I just think that what we’re pointing out is that these are two separate parts of the conversation. Meaning one piece of the conversation is: let us explain why we have to do this. We have to do this because this is do or die. And that’s what it is. And then there’s another part of the conversation that recognizes that there has to be a double ethical lense here. The ethical lense that requires that cruelty is responded to with exacting justice and the ethical lense that attunes us to the toll that enacting that justice with inevitable take on life and the human psyche.

And how do you do both of those at once? I find that the conversation often focuses only on the first. And I think the second is bringing the moral conversation into the hardest times. As a religious person, I’m praying when you have that strike, God should defend and take care of Israel and defend all innocents.

There’s something in between the “we have to do this and we hope that God protects us.” There’s something about what’s the impact of war and how honest are we about “Yeah, that’s a hard part of sovereignty.” And I wouldn’t, have it any other way.

What’s your other choice? Would you rather not be sovereign and be kicked around by history so other people don’t have to think about what they’re doing to you? Just so that you don’t have to think about what you have to do to other people? Right. So let’s talk about it.

Donniel Hartman: Thank you. Yossi, before I let you have the last word, there’s something surreal about today’s conversation. If we think about it for a moment, we’re talking about the potential dramatic transformation of the Middle East and life as we know it, huge dangers and we’re sitting and talking about it in advance.

And, the reason why we’re talking about it is that we have to start preparing for multiple fronts. We have to get used to it. I wish that this podcast will go down as the biggest waste of time of any program at the Hartman Institute ever. That everybody who listened to it said “Oh, you talked. You spoke. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Great. I’ll be the first one to give you a hug and to say thank you. Yes, that was an absolute waste of time. But part of our agenda here is we’ve got to start talking now because just as the army has so many – potentially our life is going to change. And it also makes me aware of how bizarre some of our existence here is in Israel. I’m going to go home and I’m going to have supper.

I’m staying a little late at the Institute today, so they ordered for me sushi. What sushi do you want? They asked me right before I was talking about the consequences of this. There’s something, Yossi, we’re crazy. There’s something absolutely insane.

I think the only advantage I have over you is that you been living with this insanity, Yossi for 15 years. So that explains a lot about you. Yossi I’m just coming to it now. You and I, and Ilana, we sat and we talked about how we did this and that really? How do you have sushi?

How do you plan for tomorrow? The weight of this is very, very awesome. And the weight of coming to terms potentially with a moment where you really can’t get it wrong is sitting very heavy. Yossi, last words, please.

Yossi Klein Halevi: Well, you know, Donniel. I’ve been in conversations about Iran for so long now. And yet there was something qualitatively different about today’s conversation for me. And, as we’re approaching the point of no return, I feel this urgent need for a new kind of Jewish conversation, a conversation that’s rooted in sobriety and in Jewish values.

And I just want to thank the two of you for helping model that conversation.

Donniel Hartman: Thank you, Yossi. Thank you, Elana. I wish I had something else that I could talk about, but, at this moment, I love being able to be with you.

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Louis Gordon. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at

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